Where did Love come from?

Where did Love come from? Why does this even matter? I’ll deal with these issues together, and start off by way of analogy. In order to understand heart attacks, the first thing we do is use all the medicine we have sitting on the shelf and observe the outcomes. In order to prevent a heart attack, we have to learn everything about it: where does it come from, what makes it happen, and what will make it stay away. The same is true for those things that we wish to have, like Love. We must use what we have, learn as much as we can about where it came from, and why it has hung around for so many generations.

First, a note for those who may think Love has been around as long as the Rocky Mountains. It hasn’t. Love is entirely human, as we are using it here. There are other animals that form lifelong attachments, called ‘pair-bonding’ by ethologists, which means that similar behavior has appeared in other species. However, we are only interested in people. It’s likely that ancient humans, like our simian cousins, normally lived in tribes controlled by an alpha male. Love didn’t exist a million years ago, and it may not have existed even a hundred thousand years ago. At some point in time it came to be; Love was created, by man. Since there is nothing in our species that says we have to pair-bond, why is Love around at all? It’s around because one of our early ancestors successfully tried to pair-bond. The odds were against living happily ever after were never good, as they are even today. Then again, living happily ever after didn’t take as long since most humans barely lived to middle-age.

Imagine the following crazy and possibly romantic scenario. You are in a band of hunter-gatherers living on the fringe of the African veldt. You’ve been born with the pair-bond urge, and your body has matured to the point where your hormones are screaming in your ears. You’re ready. Here comes the romantic part. You’re still part of your birth tribe because you’re not old enough to threaten the alpha male or are too much of a drag on your mother. You’re gathering some berries away from the group far enough so that you can hear them in the distance, but not so far that the tigers can take you by surprise. Suddenly you come across another young human, not of your tribe, and of the opposite sex. Bang! go your hormones, and Thump! goes your heart. You have just had the very first ‘Love at first sight’ experience. He sees she, she sees he, and off they go to start their own tribe.

The implications are tremendous. Because these two have committed to each other, they now have a very different relationship than any of the other competing clans. They present a more stable home for their children. They understand each other better than anyone else, and can tend to each other’s needs more efficiently, saving time and making their time together more pleasing. Finally, they are able to start thinking about other things rather than taking care of their hormones; things like housing, higher education for the kids, and civic planning.

How important was this event, this ‘Love at first sight?’ It was big enough such that those humans who practiced it had a big advantage over other humans. And even today it is big enough that almost all of our cultures revere and promote the idea of life pair-bonding in some way. It’s big enough so that most of our entertainment is focused on the same event – that one special moment when two souls meet and overcome obstacles to begin a new life together.


Why Dinosaurs Matter

I’m reading a great book about dinosaurs, and had no intention of sharing this secret passion of mine with you. For that I must apologize. It’s not that I didn’t think you’d be interested in dinosaurs. After all, they are generally extremely cool. They’re mostly big – okay – huge, and, for most people are the kind of thing that make you stop and stare. They’re probably the source of many deep myths – dragons, giants, that sort of thing. The reason I wasn’t going to bring it up was because I was reading this book for pure pleasure. Then I realized two things.

First, this is a darn good book. Buy it. Read it. Thanks. [1]

Second, the study of dinosaurs is something that should be on the syllabus for every behavioral scientist. That’s right, every person who is serious about studying behavior should learn about the dinosaur. Now, why is that?

Yes, again, they are cool; the source of great myths; they’re big, scary, and touch something primal within us. But these aren’t good reasons to study them. The real reason we need to study them is they were incredibly successful life forms. They lived a very long time on this planet, almost 300 million years, and counting. They survived a wide variety of environments, from cold to hot, from dry to wet. They existed on a wide variety of scales, from very small, to extremely large. Whatever it was they were doing, worked. And if we want to be successful, then we should know their secrets.

Wait just a minute, you say. What do you mean, if we want to be successful? Aren’t we successful already? Don’t I have a good job? Doesn’t my family have a big house? Isn’t my country the best in the world? Doesn’t my species have a lock on using up planetary resources until they’re gone?

One narrow way to define success is making money. But money represents a type of behavior; a behavior that allows us to trade with each other using a proxy. That proxy is a piece of paper that says “I’m worth one dollar.” We all agree to this, and pieces of paper go traveling about while goods and services travel in the opposite direction. If your success is collecting more pieces of paper than everyone else, so be it.

As a scientist, we want definitions that are closer to being constants of nature. Biology requires us to think in terms of survival. You are successful if you live, that’s number one. Number two? You have to reproduce.

So the Great Game of Life begins. This is not weekend American football. It is not spying. In this game your genes get a chance to be passed on yet again. Money means little here, for the billionaire without offspring loses to the penniless mother. She has passed on her genes, the billionaire can only pass on his wealth. This is the greatest game of them all. If you can survive long enough to reproduce, you have won the smallest of battles in the Great Game of Life. If your family lives for several generations, they have won their own small battle. For your species to survive multiple generations is the smallest of battles at that scale. And if a particular life form, like dinosaurs, can exist for a million years, then they have only won a single battle in the Great Game.

What, a million years is only a single battle? How can this be? Here we must invoke some numbers, for this is a matter of scale. Life, in any form, has left tracks of its humble beginnings in Australian rocks roughly 3 billion years old. This becomes our base, our standard. Anything alive today has to compare itself to all life. If you’ve been alive 3 billion years, then you can claim to be the king of all life. Unfortunately for you, there’s a good chance a random rock is going to come along and dethrone you. It’s happened at least 5 times as far as we can tell.

As people – well, H sapiens anyway – we’ve been around about 150 thousand years. In percentage terms, that’s only about one half percent of one percent of all life, 0.00005. If we want to claim our primate heritage as being successful, then we can point to roughly 60 million years of success, as long as success includes hanging about in trees and running about like squirrels. In this case we have a good 2% of the entirety of life to cling to, or 0.02. All said, us primates have a shot at winning the Great Game. Or do we? After all, we’ve really only been the dominant species for about 10 thousand years. That’s such a small percentage of the Great Game I’m not even going bother writing out all the zeros.

The dinosaurs go back about 200 million years, and were easily dominant about 100 million. Let’s see, 100 million into 3 billion, that gets us … 3 percent, or 0.03. And that 3 percent is when they were dominant – not just existing, like us primates.

Which brings us back to why we should study dinosaurs. We want to win the Great Game.

What? You say you’re not interested in winning? You don’t even care about the Great Game? You don’t care if your species lives or dies in the next century? The next millennium? Tomorrow? Then there’s a good chance you’re not interested in behavior in the first place. You probably have your own version of success, most likely collecting those pieces of paper, and will hone your own behaviors so as to maximize that success. If you don’t care, then nothing can change your mind.

If you do care, if you are concerned with the fate of our species, our planet, then we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to learn as much as possible in order to succeed. The best way to succeed is to embrace the study of behavior in all its forms. For behavior is everything that all life does. It’s not only a smile or a handshake, but how we set up our government or blow up our cities. It’s how we adapt as a species over great spans of time, where a century counts as seconds, and millennia are as minutes.

To study behavior, we must look upon its atoms. For instance, a smile is one of the smallest units we have, an instant in time starting with hot neurons touching many facial muscles. We smile, and just as quickly, it’s gone. As scientists, we must be able to take that single smile and use it to understand the Great Game.

This is easier to visualize in the physical world, because we can see how the smallest of objects is connected to great events. Consider the snowflake, a unique combination of water, cold and convection that lasts only as long as the distance between its birthing cloud and the cold hard Earth below. Combine that snowflake with a googol of its brethren and you have a glacier, a glacier that challenges Time. As a glacier, that snowflake carves canyons, moves mountains, and crushes continents. Yes, crushing continents, for if it ever melts away, that continent will spring out of the ocean like a bobbing duck.

To understand that glacier, we must also understand that snowflake. To understand all life, and to have a chance at winning the Great Game, we must understand the smile. We must be able to connect that smile to whatever made the dinosaur so successful. This is why paleontology matters. Paleontologists have barely begun to scratch the surface, and look at what they have learned. We need to find out more if we are to have a chance at winning the Great Game.

One of the things they have already taught us is that dinosaurs are not extinct, they have survived in the form of birds. What does this mean for competing in the Great Game? It means that we should also be listening carefully to those who also study birds, and by extension, those who study all life. The ornithologist, the ecologist, and the biologist are all important players in this competition. They can help us connect the dots between that smile, and what it will take for us to survive a million years.

All life matters, whether it still breaths or not. There is something to learn from every species, and for our species to stand by as many disappear is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s like being in school and intentionally throwing away the answer pages in the back of your textbook. Each species has something to teach us, each species contains an answer to an unasked question. Competing in the Great Game means that our species is always being put to the test, and when taking an open book test, it’s always helpful to have a handy answer guide. And Mother Nature always gives open book tests – it’s up to us to learn how to use it.

This is why studying the dinosaur matters. They have much to teach us, whether it is through 100 million year old fossils, or by teaching them to do simple math. The Great Game is being played, and I would like to see us succeed.

Do you think we will succeed?


[1] The book is called “My beloved Brontosaurus” by Brian Switek.

Read more about it here: http://books.scientificamerican.com/fsg/books/my-beloved-brontosaurus/

and see his website here: http://brianswitek.com/


Saudi Social Tension

In my line of work, I often play a game. The game consists of remembering where I last saw something, like a screw, or a piece of pipe, or a bit of plastic. This screw sits somewhere in our factory, surrounded by thousands of other things. My people need this screw to solve an immediate problem, and I’ve seen it somewhere. Perhaps I last came across it while putting the pipe away. Perhaps I noticed it because I cleaned up that shelf. It may have been yesterday, or it may have been 5 years ago. But I know it’s there – and now I have to find it.

Many times, being a behavioral scientist also means having to play this game. Connecting disparate pieces of information together in order to gain insights into a given culture is one of those things. Recently I played this game with the Saudi culture.

It started with this intriguing article, a Saudi editor sentenced to 7 years and 600 lashes. [1] Ouch. Whatever for? He dared set up a website inviting comments on religion. Reading between the lines, it appears he’s one of those people who believes in educating women and allowing them to drive.

One of the hardest things to do as a behavioral scientist is to leave my preconceptions at the door. Wait, let me rephrase that. Preconceptions should be kept in a lockbox in the closet of the attic. No preconceptions or judgements should be allowed in our scientific realm, no matter how different they are from ours, and no matter how repulsive they may seem at first. If the Saudi courts want to flail this man for heresy, I will not judge. I observe.

I observe the judge tossed out the death sentence based on inadequate proof of apostasy. Seems our editor managed to convince the judge that he was pious enough, to the apparent regret of the mullah who brought the charges against him.

A few months ago my eye was caught by one of those flashy yahoo pictures – a bright car being towed on the streets of London. The bright Lamborghini was stopped for not having a front plate, towed for being uninsured. And the driver was a young princeling out of Qatar. Though not a Saud, he did inspire this article.

A quick search and viola! we have a list of other interesting Saudi related items. Maids in the USA being abused by their Saudi employers. And another Saudi who decided he’d rather keep millions on a jet deal, instead of paying a commission. [2,3]

Here’s where the job of a behavioral scientist gets fun. We have here a set of disparities. On one hand the Saudi culture publicly promotes an austere and severe attitude towards a belief system, their religion. Their religion, like many others, has certain rules about the treatment of those less fortunate, or cheating others out of their share of a reward. So how can they publicly castigate one member while privately allowing profligate behavior on the part of others? Is this unique among cultures? Absolutely not. In fact, we should admit that this is a common feature!

What may not be common is the range of this disparity. On one hand a young man asks questions about his culture’s faith, and faces death. On the other hand, some flaunt their wealth, oppress the less fortunate, and squander millions, yet go untouched. This is what we observe, and this is what we can conclude; great stress exists.

The range of disparities allows us to measure the effective social stress going on inside this culture. We must assume, being astute observers, that only the smallest fraction of such public interest stories reach our ears. Therefore we can also assume that there are extreme examples we never see. We can also assume that because there are extremes, that there are many more minor incidents that our culture would consider odd, but they have come to consider normal. For instance, would you raise your eyebrows at seeing religious police? Would you be concerned if they approached you about your clothing? In Springfield, Illinois, yes. In Mecca, no.

Saudi culture is under great stress. This we can conclude. We are not alone in this conclusion. [4,5] Is that stress growing, or diminishing? And what will its impact be upon us? Only time will tell.

[1] Saudi activist receives 7-year sentence, 600 lashes for insulting Islam, By Ed Payne and Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN, updated 8:59 PM EDT, Wed July 31, 2013. Link: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/31/world/meast/saudi-blogger-sentenced

[2] Saudi prince defects: ‘Brutality, oppression as govt scared of Arab revolts’ from RT. Published time: August 12, 2013 11:37, Edited time: August 13, 2013 08:00. Link: http://rt.com/news/saudi-arabia-opposition-prince-374/

[3] Maid in Saudi Arabia, from AlMonitor. By: Madawi Al-Rasheed for Al-Monitor Posted on July 17. Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/humantrafficking-saudiarabia-al-rasheed.html

[4] Further information on the tensions within Saudi Arabia written by Dr. Rasheed: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/authors/madawi-al-rasheed

[5] Saudi prince loses $10m court battle over Gaddafi jet sale, from the Guardian. By Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent, Wednesday 31 July 2013 08.59 EDT. Link: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/jul/31/saudi-prince-court-gaddafi-jet

Economombo 3

The last Economombo article reflected on the inadequacies of economists. Certainly, they have gotten quite enough wrong. However, the last statements about how business seemed to be taking a turn for the worse have, in fact, turned out otherwise. Our business has gotten better, and the general outlook has turned positive.

It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong, and I’m not that big. Taking disparate data and forging a prediction from it is fairly ambiguous at best, and flat out random at worst. I won’t be happy until all our economist friends publish all their predictions in historical format, and line them up with what actually happened. That is, if they can agree on what actually happened.

Which brings us to the heart of today’s article. Counting. Simply counting. Sounds easy enough, because it’s something you’ve been doing before you can remember. How many fingers? How many toes? There’s a good chance you’ve been counting since kindergarten, and for you math whizzes out there, you may have been counting since you were three. Maybe four.

Here’s two examples of things that look like numbers, but really don’t count anything. The first is the stock market indicators, like the Dow Industrial Average (DIA), or the S&P index. Both are mentioned by news sources throughout the day. Both are something that you might pay attention to occassionally, especially if you have money in the market. But these aren’t numbers – they don’t count anything.

Back in the mists of time, the market indicators started as a simple count of what the stocks were trading. You took their price, added all the stocks that you were interested, and there was your number. Today there are thirty stocks in the DIA. But they don’t simply get added together. As time went by, some of the stocks split. Some companies dropped out of the average, others were put in their place. Not all the values were the same. So what the DIA managers do is multiply every stock by some special number, a ‘weight.’ This weight adjusts the overall numbers so that they supposedly reflect the economy, and don’t change so much every time the DIA basket of stocks is adjusted.

The fundamental fact is that the DIA is a made up number! It doesn’t count anything! You can’t compare the DIA to anything else in the universe and have it make sense! Go ahead and try.

The second example is that of unemployment. An economist may have countered our first example by saying that the DIA is not an accepted economic measure. A much harder number for them to argue against is unemployment. Many many economists use unemployment in their predictions, in fact trying to predict it as well on a regular basis.

The problem with unemployment is that it’s an interpreted number. Interpreted, you say? Yes, interpreted. There is no direct number called unemployment. The way the experts get to a final number, say this month’s 7.6%, is by contacting so many households every month. They ask these households a number of questions. Central to these questions is this; are there household members looking for work, that don’t have a job? If the answer is yes, then they are unemployed!

The bad news is that, just perhaps, that person no longer looks for work because they haven’t worked in a year. Or, perhaps, that person is looking for work, but still also works two other jobs. In any case, there are a number of other factors that have to be taken into account to count someone as unemployed. But wait, there’s more!

We’ve counted people who are unemployed, but what about those that are employed. Turns out that you can use the same households to figure that out, in combination with all the numbers reported by employers throughout the country. Every month, employers get survey questions that they have to fill out. All these numbers, then, are mashed together, or interpreted, so that we come out with a certain number of people who are employed.

Again, like before, there’s some bad news. The number reported by employers can be a bit old. There may be people who are employed by the company that are also working another job. It could be that the employer is slightly under-reporting their numbers so that the government doesn’t come looking too closely. And it may be that things have changed since the employer reported the numbers to when someone at a government desk gets around to reading their survey.

The final interpretation is this. Take the number of people in the household survey and figure out a percentage, and a range of accuracy. That’s statistics. Then take all the people who are working, compare the survey number to what employers report, and make an adjustment. Then take the first percentage and adjust it so that its denomenator matches the numbers of total employed. THEN adjust the whole thing based on any seasonal or other cycles there may be in the time series. That is what I call an interpreted number.

Again, there is no simple item that we can point to and say that this number, unemployment, is counting accurately. It’s impossible because unemployment is an interpreted number. What can we do to improve the situation?

We can count. We can count something that really exists. Something that exists, and doesn’t vary whether or not someone decides to keep looking for work, and doesn’t vary if someone works a ½ job, or 3 jobs. We call this number participation. It counts the actual number of people who work. And if you combine this number with the number of people who can work, everyone between the ages of 18 and 65, for example, you get a very stable number that we call the participation rate.

So, remember, when you hear the stock market report, or hear an unemployment number, don’t fret. It’s meaningless. Take a look at the participation rate instead. [1] And draw your own conclusions.

[1] This link should take you to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. They do a great job of collecting and reporting all the numbers. Now, if they could only tame those economents. http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS11300000

A letter to M

Dear M,

I heard about you from your mom. She writes beautifully about you and your life. You’re a very lucky 5 year old to have such a caring mom. Too many kids have moms that don’t care. In case you didn’t know, her writing is on the computer at gendermom.wordpress.com/

Your mom wrote that sometimes you feel sad.  Sad because your mind is a girl mind, but your body is a boy body.  I want to tell you a few things that might help you feel better.

You are special, very special. Your mom is very special, too. These things should make you happy.

Did you know nature makes everything different? Everything! Clouds, mountains, and rivers, all different. Flowers, blades of grass, even every snowflake, all different. And people – all of them – every single person is different from every other. Nature can’t make anything the same way twice, not even twins!

So everything and everyone is a kind of experiment. What’s an experiment? An experiment is when we mix up ingredients to see what happens. I’m an experiment. Your mom is an experiment. And you are an experiment.

Most of the time the experiments are boring. They can be boring because nothing is special. Sometimes experiments go well and everything is good. Sometimes an experiment goes wrong, and the kids and their parents become sad. Sometimes when I’m sad, I think about other kids who weren’t as lucky as me. Then, sometimes, something special happens. Nature mixes things up in a new way. That’s what happened to you.

What makes you special? You’re special because you are two things at once. Most people can only be one thing, a girl or a boy. You are both, and will be able to understand both worlds better than someone who only stays one thing.

You should feel sorry for the ordinaries, because they are locked in one world forever. They are in girl world and will never know what it’s like to live in boy world.

One important thing you can do when you’re special is to become a teacher. The best teachers are those who live in different world, like you. Then they can teach the rest of us in one world what it’s like in the other world. People who fly in space can teach those of us who live on the ground how much fun it is. People who swim in the deep ocean can teach those of us on land about wonderful sea creatures. And school teachers who know what it’s like to be a kid, but also know lots of interesting things, teach kids about the exciting world.

You are special because you can become a great teacher. Your mom is special too, because she is also a great teacher. She is teaching you!

You always have to be a teacher because there are many people who won’t understand you, but they may want to learn about you. You have to teach them. You have to help them. You have to have patience.

If someone is mean to you it’s probably because they don’t understand. When people don’t know something it can make them afraid. When people get afraid they may get mean. Don’t let it upset you. You will know they are mean because they are afraid. Now you can try and help them.

When you are teaching people about yourself, you’ll also be teaching them something about themselves. This might surprise them, but it won’t surprise you.

As a teacher, perhaps you’ll also get people to ask hard questions about other things. For instance, is it possible that there are experiments like you, but in dogs, or cats, or mice? Why should it only be people? Maybe you’ll be the kind of teacher who finds the answer.

So, Dear M, please count your blessings. You have a mother who adores you, you have a healthy body and strong mind, and you have many hidden friends, like me.

You also have another blessing. Did you know there have been many others like you for all history? We don’t know a lot about them because it wasn’t polite to talk about such things. And many people were scared to talk in the open. Today we’re not as scared.

One very famous person who got to be a girl and a boy was named Tiresias. Tiresias learned a lot and taught all of us. Please count all your blessings, don’t count the things you don’t have. Always remember, only you can decide what you will become. You have been given a great gift, please use it to help your friends.

With love, your future friend,