Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, November 02, 2014

How to Make a Living with Alcohol

I despise sociobiology as much as the next guy, but sometimes I can't resist its tawdry embrace.

You can think about reproductive strategies the same way you might think about civilizations' niches.  That is, the way an organism "makes a living" in the competition to reproduce its genes is comparable to the way a society "makes a living" in the global competition to survive.  In particular, let's consider the problem of attracting a mate.  And let's focus on a social animal like humans.  Let's imagine that for some reason, a certain set of attributes is rewarded.  Confidence, charisma, cheerfulness.  A "winning personality."  This could become favored for a lot of different reasons that we don't need to get into, although I'll mention that confidence is in a sense the sine qua non of human attractiveness, because people (or at least men) who lack confidence are unlikely to reproduce no matter their other attributes.  You have to put your hat in the ring.  And of course this is highly circular.  If confidence helps, then women should want their sons to be confident.  And a good way to achieve that is to have sex with a confident man.  So even a small initial benefit can become a hugely important trait through a sort of runaway process.

Now let's analogize these personality traits to food production throughout history.  So we can ask the question, how does a civilization "make a living" in the sense of feeding itself?  Let's contrast two environments.  In tropical or dry maritime climates (like southern California), you have a long growing season and freezes are rare or nonexistent.  So you "care" about the weather all year round.  A hard freeze would devastate agriculture in California and Florida, not to mention places like Hawaii or Brazil.

But then there are environments like Sweden (or really, much of northern Europe), where the growing season is short but, during that short growing season, there are moderate temperatures and an intense amount of sunlight.  You can grow grains (particularly barley and oats, but also wheat, and in places like Minnesota you can grow corn too).  You can also grow annual vegetables and fruits (like berries).  But you can only grow things like citrus in greenhouses (as Iceland does).  Let's ignore greenhouses.

Now here's the thing about these areas toward the poles.  There's a sense in which they don't care how cold it gets in the winter.  Let's say there's an abnormally cold January in Denmark, with temperatures 30° colder than usual.  That's going to be very unpleasant, but it shouldn't have a big negative impact on agriculture (assuming the weather is back to normal by planting season).  On the other hand, a January that is 30° colder than usual will be devastating to Florida's agriculture, I would imagine.

So there's a sense in which these more polar civilizations "make their living" by trading away winter weather for especially good summer weather.  They suffer near-total darkness and very low temperatures during the winter, but during the summer they have superabundant sunlight.  They concentrate their good growing conditions on a few months and then make hay while the sun shines.

Now back to genetics.  Some people "make a living" by maintaining a constantly high level of confidence, charisma, out-going-ness, and so on.  But this strategy isn't available to everyone.  And in particular, it is a poor strategy in a winner-take-all, "market for superstars" kind of environment.  Let's somewhat artificially quantify this personality trait on a scale of 0-100 (artificial because it is actually multidimensional), and call it "charisma" (though it is meant to encompass not just charisma but a whole host of personality traits).  In a winner-take-all environment, if you score an 80 and your friend scores a 90, then he's going to be the one impregnating your wife, and your genes are kaput.

So at that point, it's time to think like a Swede.  You want to give up charisma at irrelevant times (just as Swedes give up sunlight/warmth during the winter, when it is irrelevant) and ramp up your charisma at relevant times.  If you drop your modal charisma to 60, and then you're able to push it up to 95 at crucial moments, maybe you can compete.

But how does your brain know what the crucial moments are?  When are you supposed to flip the switch and go from 60 to 95?  Well, a good environmental cue would be alcohol.  People drink alcohol in social settings where there are likely to be women present, and quite often those women are looking for mates.  Also, if you are drinking, the women are probably drinking, and so their judgment is impaired.  Their ability to distinguish permanent charisma from temporary charisma is at a minimum.

And so maybe this is how a certain reaction to alcohol evolved.  Alcohol brings a rush of happiness and confidence (perhaps over-confidence, but for evolutionary purposes over- is better than under-).  You're sort of dour and withdrawn until you get a few beers into you, and then you're garrulous and full steam ahead.  (Again, maybe to the point of obnoxiousness, but better to err in that direction.)

As I said, I generally despise sociobiology, but I find this account compelling, even though it is a just-so story.  One thing you could say about a good society is that it might shield women from being fooled in this way, either by allowing easy divorce and implementing a thorough child-support system, or by protecting women at the front end with screening mechanisms (for instance, pushing people to select mates outside of alcohol-fueled environments).  But these things are probably good ideas whether or not the sociobiological story I've told is correct.

2 Comments:

Blogger Sarang said...

Assuming most of what you say arguendo, there are two responses that come to mind. (1) Perhaps alcohol-fueled events are socially adaptive because in a deterministic winner-take-all society the losers have no incentive to play by the rules. Randomness in outcomes improves social cohesion and this might have helped bibulous societies outperform sober ones. (2) Your last paragraph elides sociobiological "want" (which is involuntary and operates mostly at the level of the gene) and volitional "want." Nudging people towards adaptive decisions (e.g., mate choice) does not seem to me a sensible thing to require or expect of a good society, in the abstract. To the extent that your particular example has force, it is for non-sociobiological reasons.

10:48 AM  
Blogger James said...

I'm anticipating a scenario in which women think they are marrying/sleeping with a permanently charismatic man, only to discover (too late) that he was only temporarily charismatic. At that stage the recourse is child support and (in the case of marriage) easy divorce. This isn't for genetic reasons, it is sort of like the rule that allows you to unwind a used car purchase within a certain number of days.

10:39 PM  

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