Ad Nausica

Apr 15

Hunting and Gathering Evidence about Paleo


You might be interested to pick up the book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How we Live by Marlene Zuk. If that’s a bit much for you, perhaps you can find the April 2013 issue of the Nutrition Action health letter put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. (The April issue was not yet in their archives as of this writing but I expect will be there by June 2013.)

Marlene Zuk gives a great interview in this issue of Nutrition Action on the topic of the Paleo diet. For those not in the know, the Paleo diet essentially tries to mimic what our ancestors ate based on the premise that it was the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and subsequent changes in diet that causes many modern health issues like diabetes, cancer, MS, and obesity.

Read More

Mar 25

(Coigitica) Beating the Competition - Part IV: Driving Innovation

This is my fourth post in this series looking at the misuse of competitive pressure as a driver of innovation. I am not suggesting competition never drives innovation, but that it is only weakly related, often produces counter-productive results, and really describes a market dynamic that comes from decisions, not a driver of them.

In Part I of this series I looked at the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how the incentives (rewards and punishments) affect the effectiveness of competition. Part II looked at comparative advantage. Part III looked at various analyses of government support for innovation and productivity in Canada. Canada has dropped relative to other countries. Some organizations suggest greater competitive pressure despite their own data showing symptoms of the very same counter-productive competitive outcomes we saw in Part I.

Parts I and II focused on principles, Part III on analysis. Part IV is about action. I want to apply the prior discussions towards policies. Appropriate policies help facilitate and reward activities that support more a more productive innovation process and/or avoid or punish processes that lead to unproductive outcomes. To do so, I think it is first necessary to re-frame innovation.

I’ll start by presenting what appears to be a more common view of competition-driven innovation. The story goes something like this:

  1. Companies attempt to take customers from competitors while trying to keep competitors from taking their own customers. If they do not, they will perform worse as a business or fail to improve by acquiring opportunities.
  2. In order to accomplish #1, companies must make their products more efficiently or attractive, with some combination of (a) reduced costs and (b) improved quality.
  3. In order to accomplish #2(a), companies must improve their business processes such as manufacturing, distribution, or overhead. To accomplish #2(b), companies must design a better product. Both of these are considered innovations, the first being about productivity and the second about functionality and/or quality, and both improve standard of living.
  4. In order to accomplish #3, companies must invest in such innovations.

Based on this competitive version of innovation, increased competition drives increased efficiency, innovation, and productivity as a form of “survival of the fittest”. Appropriate policies would seem to be those that increase competitive pressure, provide incentives for companies developing new capabilities (aka, R&D), and assist in connecting companies with researchers who can provide them with new products and efficient capabilities to beat competitors. Improvements in supply chains, manufacturing, distribution, and overhead methods would also be beneficial, although such technological improvements tend to help all competitors equally. Still, if one company were to take advantage of these improvements then others would have to follow to simply to maintain their position within this competition.

If you have read the previous parts of this series, you should begin to see the problem with the above reasoning. Increased competition, innovation, and output does not necessarily translate into the ultimate goal of improved useful productivity and standard of living. Part I explicitly examined this faulty thinking. The Naval squadrons described in that post all increased their metrics in these areas yet ended up in much worse flight readiness. Part III showed that the metrics for Canada’s own productivity and competitiveness show a similar pattern. We are among the most competitive and labour intensive regions of the world and yet our productivity is below the global median.

The fundamental problem of this approach is the very logical falsehood I started with in Part I: affirming the consequence. Just because competition can improve standard of living does not mean that all competition does increase standard of living, nor does it mean that the only thing competition creates is improved standard of living.

Competition & InnovationAs with the Naval Air base, many bad outcomes are possible. Competitive pressure also provides incentive for all sorts of counter-productive activities (in terms of standard of living) including, but not limited to, branding, misleading advertising, bribery, fraud, self-interested legislative lobbying, industrial espionage, attacking the competition, unwarranted litigation, protectionism, monopolistic behaviour, and predatory pricing. Essentially, anything that makes a company look better and their competitors look worse become relevant activities. Even illegal activities become relevant if their associated risks are lower than the benefits they generate. Yet none of these activities improve standard of living.

Survival of the fittest is not a very good means towards improvement. You do not make people better swimmers by dumping them into the water and seeing who survives. You do not make a flourishing garden by throwing more seeds to fight for scant resources. The principle of survival of the fittest doesn’t even describe how natural selection works, being only an indirect contributor to facilitating reproductive success and secondary driver to the primary means of selection via filling empty ecological niches.

Re-framing Innovation

Our ultimate goal is to improve standard of living. Innovation and productivity only have value in this context. To re-frame innovation, let us turn the thought process around. This version of the innovation story goes something like the following:

  1. Through heavy networking and collaborative discussions, an innovator sees an opportunity to make an improvement or create a new capability (aka, a productive innovation, filling an empty niche).
  2. Risk analysis shows that the opportunity saves more money than it costs, or generates a market that people would be willing to pay more than it costs. This analysis includes calculation of risks that include technical risks and commercialization risks, including competitors and commitment of those who would benefit from it.
  3. This innovator seeks investment to (a) generate the improvement and (b) demonstrate it to those who would benefit from it.
  4. The improvement is developed and the savings or new profits are recognized, a portion of which go to the investors and creator of the improvement.

Note that in this version of innovation there is no mention of competition. The driver here is efficient value. Of course, the improvement could very well make the beneficiary more competitive. It may give them a competitive advantage. But these are outcomes of the process, not drivers of it. Part III discussed this definition of competitive advantage at length, that of being an result of chasing efficient value rather than chasing the competition.

Ah, but this efficient value version of innovation still has the same problems as the competitive version; if there are opportunities for “bad” behaviour that have net value, they are still sought after. If misleading your customers pays more than it costs, there is net value. Of course this is to be expected. Re-framing innovation as driven by efficient value rather than competitive pressure doesn’t change the cost-benefit analysis; it changes the policies. It re-writes the innovation equation in terms of direct cost-benefit inputs explicitly, and these can be evaluated, rewarded, or penalized based on whether they are aligned with the ultimate goals or not, i.e., in the left or right circle above. When viewed from the competitive perspective, there is no means for evaluating alignment with ultimate goals, only proximate ones of competition.

Efficient value based policies look different. Instead of focusing on making companies more competitive, they focus on making them more collaborative. They aim to bring ideas from different groups together more often. (Matt Ridley describes this process as ideas having sex.) Rather than making the Naval Air squadrons (Part I) waste effort fighting each other for top spot, they create incentives to help each other improve. All individuals gain net value and all effort goes towards the ultimate goal. Rather than pressure all companies to get better at making both bows and arrows (Part II), they help companies maximize their comparative advantage and acquire multiplicative effects of such improvements.

There are many policies that work in this direction. Here are some such examples:

This focus on building a strong collaborative model is particularly key to Canadian success as it is strongly dominated by SMEs. The Conference Board of Canada’s 2008 report, Canadian SMEs and Globalization: Success Factors and Challenges, notes that 97% of goods-producing establishments and 98% of service-producing establishments in Canada have fewer than 100 employees. It also provides a list of factors affecting SME exports, derived from surveys:

It further goes on to conclude that “Larger companies have more resources than smaller companies and can therefore spread the [management of foreign opportunities] burden over more individuals”, and that Canadian research suggests that “owners of SME export firms in Canada are more than twice as likely to indicate a desire to grow their firms as owners of non-exporting enterprises”. Distribution of risk and manageability appear to be key limiting factors. With respect to innovative ventures, a collaborative innovation model addresses both of these factors by creating larger pseudo-organizations that spread both risk and manageability across partnering businesses.

It is for these reasons that I firmly believe the proximate goal of improvements to innovation policy should focus on collaborative means and let competitive pressure fall where it may. What is needed is more hand-holding, not less. To mix metaphors, innovation comes from a diverse meme pool of ideas combined with fertile conditions to grow from seeds. Providing better support while weeding out the bad actors and letting the memetically poor ideas fail despite the support are all means to improve the innovation picture. This means teaching, helping, funding, and leading are means towards flourishing by aligning proximate and ultimate goals. Throwing the seeds to the wind to fight for survival via increased competitive pressure just results in poor growth, weeds, and parasites.

More competitive pressure is not the answer.

Mar 20

(Coigitica) Beating the Competition - Part III: The Descent of Efficient Value

In Part I of this series I looked at the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how the incentives (rewards and punishments) affect the effectiveness of competition at driving innovation. If competitive goals are not aligned with ultimate goals, competition will actually decrease efficiency towards the ultimate goal of innovation and long-term improvement and only serve to increase efficiency towards the proximate competitive goals such as relative market share and quarterly profits. Or, competitive pressure may increase risk in an area for innovation and hence keep companies from making the investment. A change of incentives can turn competitors into collaborators and benefit everyone while better achieving the ultimate goal.

In Part II I looked at the economic principle of comparative advantage and how everyone can benefit most by knowing when to compete and when to collaborate, complete with multiplicative productivity effects when done right.

The point of these discussions is to “unsimplify” the concepts of competition and competitive advantage in order to address how to improve innovation and productivity. Often these concepts are simply assumed to all work in unison to solve economic roadblocks or inefficiencies. For instance, The Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity (ICP) is a non-profit organization created in 2001 by Ontario’s Task Force on Competitiveness, Productivity, and Economic Progress. Their aspiration is “to have a significant influence in increasing Ontario’s competitiveness, productivity and capacity for innovation”. Sounds good, but what do you suppose it means by competitiveness? Well, their immediate next statement is, “We believe this will help ensure continued success in the creation of good jobs, increased prosperity, and a higher quality of life for all Ontarians.”

It’s important to note the difference between winning jobs via competition and creating jobs via innovation and new markets. The former is a zero sum game; winning jobs takes them away from somebody else. Creating jobs is a net increase in total jobs. It could be due to net wealth increase such as by comparative advantage in Part II (win-win) or could decrease efficiency such as more sabotaging and protection jobs as in the Naval Air squadrons of Part I (lose-lose). For the sake of argument, the ICP mandate sounds good, but do they live up to it?

The ICP’s white paper Beyond the Recovery: Report Card on Canada states (p. 28), “we have built one of the most globally competitive jurisdictions here” and “we are out performing [sic] international peers through more labour effort”, yet “we trail the median of our international peers in productivity”. Does this perhaps sound at all like the symptoms of the competing Naval Air squadrons whose story I described in Part I? Recall that under the competitive model that they maximized their reward by working incredibly hard, unfortunately at stealing parts, sabotaging each other, and protecting themselves, all while flight readiness — what was the ultimate goal — plummeted. Could it be that Canadian companies are working against each other too much and failing to work together enough to improve the ultimate goals of “good jobs, increased prosperity, and higher quality of life”? The data seems to support that hypothesis.

Unfortunately the ICP doesn’t seem to see it that way. Their recommendations lean heavily toward more competitive pressure:

It goes on. But the message is clear. Full steam ahead on competitive pressure. Work harder, not smarter. Innovate to improve competitive advantage and win the competition with other regions. Shouldn’t the goal of innovation to be to improve prosperity? I’ll given them points for mentioning “specialized support” through international trade which is another way of saying comparative advantage. It’s important to note that nowhere in this report is any evidence presented that suggest that increasing competitive pressure will, in any way, increase innovation and productivity, either in principle or in Canada specifically. It is merely assumed to be true.

Review of Innovation

Industry Canada is a little bit better in this respect. Take a look at the Consultation Paper for their Review of Federal Support to Research and Development. It too talks about competitiveness and refers to innovation as a competitive strategy. But its assumptions about competitiveness are more subtle, and there does appear to be a disjointed, yet present, train of thought linking the proximate goal back to the ultimate goal (p. 15), which, when organized, looks something like this:

  1. The government’s ultimate objective is to increase living standards.
  2. Business R&D, innovation, and productivity can assist to achieve the ultimate objective of increased living standards.
  3. The proximate goal of federal support of R&D is to improve business R&D, innovation, and productivity.
  4. The proximate goal of the review is to evaluate the effectiveness of the federal support towards achieving the expected outcomes of improved business R&D, innovation, and productivity.

The explicit statement of the above goals and linkages is important in defining the measurements of outcomes, the most important of which is the ultimate goal. As we know from the Naval Air Base example in Part I, it may be possible, for example, for business R&D, innovation, and productivity to all increase as a result of federal support of R&D, and have the ultimate result be the reduction in living standards. The fact that R&D and innovation can increase productivity and living standards does not mean that all R&D and innovation does increase productivity or living standards. That would be the same subtle logical fallacy of affirming the consequent that I inserted at the beginning of Part I.

The Consultation Paper does hint at the potential for such a conflict in defining the rational for public support of business R&D on page 5, stating it “has been justified on the basis that the benefits of such activities often extend beyond individual firms, generating positive outcomes for the entire economy” (emphasis added). At least they recognize it that such activities are not always beneficial to the economy. That even leaves room to consider that some might be downright counter-productive.

Competitive Advantage vs Efficient Value

The ICP aren’t the only ones who seem to be stuck in the competition mindset. Thomas Powell looked at the philosophy behind competitive advantage and found “there appears to be no falsifiable, unfalsified theory of competitive advantage, nor any competitive advantage propositions defensible without resort to ideology, dogmatism or faith” [Powell, T., Competitive Advantage: Logical and Philosophical Considerations, Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 22, 875-888].

Gerald Flint investigated the definition of competitive advantage in his 2000 article “What is the Meaning of Competitive Advantage”, published in the journal Advances in Competitiveness Research. Flint noted that the competitive advantage terminology “…might possibly garner the prize for the most overworked and least understood catch-phrase” in the field of strategic management, and that “The extension of that phrase into “sustainable competitive advantage’ is currently an elaboration of ambiguity”.

Flint’s article points out numerous conflicting uses of the term and highlights that “in spite of the vast acceptance of this phrase, there are few attempts to clearly state what competitive advantage actually is”. Most cited references in Flint’s article address how to achieve it or components that affect it without ever defining what it is or demonstrating that it is a valuable driver for business, economic, or social improvement. Similar comments can be made for the related terms of competitiveness, competitive pressure, and competitive strategy.

Flint’s summary of the literature suggests that, in the context of the most common uses of the term, competitive advantage is related to the superior perception or performance of one organization over that of competing organizations. One potential exception he notes comes from Michael Porter, currently of the Harvard-based Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness and whose work and methodology are used in the ICP report. In Porter’s book Competitive Advantage (1985), he describes competitive advantage as coming from “the value that firms create for their customers that exceeds the cost of producing that value”, and that “The key concern for a business is to capture that value which is greater than its cost.”

This latter usage is critically different from the other ones. The more common usages address competitive advantage in terms of external factors, that of outperforming other organizations. Porter’s usage here addresses internal factors of increasing value for customers and that this is the key concern for business. That this “value exceeding cost” goal (hereafter referred to as efficient value) can increase competitive advantage is noted by Porter, but he does not describe competitive advantage as the goal or driving force. In fact, assuming it as the driving force can directly contradict the key concern of providing efficient value. This contradiction yet again comes from the fallacy of affirming the consequent. The fact that efficient value can produce competitive advantage, whatever it means, does not mean that all things that produce competitive advantage also produce efficient value. In this sense, Porter’s definition of competitive advantage may be identical to that of the others in terms of outperforming competitors, but what is critically different is that competitive advantage is neither the key concern nor driver of business improvements or innovation; efficient value is.

Consider again the case of the Naval Air Base. When competitiveness was the proximate goal, the flight readiness became worse and so the value generation to the customer, the CO, was negative and so was the cost of the reward to the top squadron. Between squadrons there was no value in collaborating or helping the other squadrons. It was all cost with no benefit. After the reward change, the value to CO in increased flight readiness for each squadron exceeded the cost of the rewards, hence creating efficient value. Squadrons helped each other with excess parts because the negligible cost of an excess part when not needed was less than the value to them of the returned exchange of parts when they needed them, also making use of efficient value. Hence all squadrons simultaneously produced better value to their customer and subsequently, using Porter’s definition, they increased their competitive advantage. Note, though, that they aren’t competing against anyone, neither each other nor other squadrons or bases. That competitive advantage is an outcome of the process, not the driver of it. It exists in principle only, describing that they are doing better than they were before (competing against their past selves) and if some other organization proposed maintaining the flight readiness, these squadrons would be more competitive now with that hypothetical organization regardless of how good it hypothetically would be. But no such competition exists. Competitive advantage is merely an output relative performance metric.

Comparative Efficient Value

Recall from Part II that Comparative Advantage made best use of even inferior capabilities, and multiplied improvements. This implies that the greatest value for a given cost is in improvements where the organization (business, region, country) has the greatest comparative advantage.

I have worked many years in directing R&D, participated in Business Development efforts, and oversaw processes of evaluating opportunities from both the cost and benefit sides. It has been my experience that this comparative efficient value is the direct driver of innovation and improved productivity.

Let’s look at an example of how such decisions are made to zoom in on the process. Suppose I work for Company A. I recognized that I can improve the efficiency of Company B in they way they produce their product. We propose this to Company B and they agree. We implement the improvement, Company B’s costs go down, we get a little of that savings as payment. Productivity increases because Company B produces the same (or more) output with less cost input. That savings can go into their product price as well, given better products at cheaper prices and hence increasing standard of living of customers as measured by purchasing power.

This is the way business decisions on innovations often, if not usually, happen. Notice that there has not been a mention of competition. The efficient value is beneficial to both companies regardless of whether there is any competition for A or B. Of course, if Company B has competition, this innovation will give them a competitive advantage, but that’s a feature (as in Porter’s description), not the driver of the innovation itself and is entirely unnecessary.

I have been involved in many decisions about innovative technologies. Not once have I heard a decision based on innovating to beat the competition. In such decisions, competition is actually considered a risk. The more competition there is, the riskier the endeavour and hence the less likely it will happen. More competitive pressure often means being more conservative and risk averse biases in technology investments, and hence less innovation.

Still not convinced? Recall the beginning of Part I where I criticized the “survival of the fittest” mentality of increasing competitive pressure as a means to innovation and productivity. A particular objection is that this isn’t even how natural innovation (aka, evolution by natural selection) works. Recall that “there is little evidence that competition has been the driving force in the evolution of species. Rather, they evolve “by expanding into empty ecological niches”. That is, they exploit opportunities where this is no competition. This is the biggest driver of innovation. If I see an opportunity to improve efficiency and it is wide open to me that is far more enticing for my investment effort and money than being forced into investing in improvements to keep ahead of the competition, investments that will cost me doubly if they fail to keep me ahead.

As I’ve reiterated in the Parts I and II, this is not to say competition is a bad thing. It is simply not a very strong driver of innovation and often tends to create more inefficiency than efficiency. In the next post, and final one of this series, I’ll try to re-frame the problem of innovation, productivity, and standard of living, and propose a better way that governments can help.

Jan 15

Sam Harris’s self-fulfilling prophecy: how to be irrational about being rational about gun control

Fighting Crabs by Petr KratochvilShortly following my last criticism of Sam Harris’ article on gun control he posted a follow-up (FAQ on Violence) responding to various criticisms, many that overlap mine. In his prior article he slowly worked his way out on a limb of irrationality. In this one he takes a leap off of it.

I’ll ignore his initial discussion suggesting that other people “simply do not want to think about this topic in any detail”. It seems pretty clear to me that Sam hasn’t. He is back-end rationalizing and doing a very poor job of it.

Thankfully he lists addressed issues in FAQ format making it easier to respond. If you aren’t interested in the long discussion, here is a quick summary of my new criticisms:

Read More

Jan 10

Little known fact: I’m sexier than Ryan Gosling

imageDo you recognize the woman in this photo? I’ll give you a hint: you might have seen her in a magazine ad but not this photo. No, she’s not a model, but could have been one; she’s a very beautiful woman. Her hair is straight in the photo but it is naturally curly and makes some women jealous. She’s also known to have soft skin and great tone.

If you were thinking maybe she’s modeled hair or skin products you’d be wrong. She could, but that’s not her field. Perhaps the next photo will help. She’s been caught candidly in photographs all dressed up looking very sexy out on the town. She’s known to enjoy a fancy night out with all the classy trimmings: good wine, good food, and good music. No, she’s not a famous socialite from a wealthy family like a Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. (She has actual talents beyond looks and being born into the “right” family.)

imageHere’s another hint: she’s saved many lives. No, she wasn’t on Baywatch even though she looks like she could have been. She saved them while wearing blue scrubs, not a red bathing suit. No, she wasn’t on Scrubs, ER, House, or any other hospital show. She actually saved lives in real life.

Still haven’t guessed? Here’s a big hint: she was romantically pursued by Ryan Gosling. No, it’s not Blake Lively, Rachel McAdams, or Eva Mendes. He pursued her, but she turned him down. However, when asked about it she does mention that she gave him her leather necklace because he was so in love with her.

Read More

Jan 09

Sam Harris riddled with errors on gun control

image Sam Harris recently posted a blog article as part of the post-Newtown gun control debates (The Riddle of the Gun). He essentially mimics many of the NRA arguments, himself being an avid gun owner and user. He does nominally criticize the over-simplicity of some NRA argument against sensible gun control laws but he spends the bulk of his effort attacking the idea of gun laws as necessary or effective. As an avid reader of his I find his reasoning to be sloppy, contradictory, and irrelevant and I hope to show you what is wrong with his thinking.

For those not familiar with Sam Harris, he is a well-known author with a well-rounded background. He’s the son of a Jewish mother, Quaker father, and spent 11 years studying and practicing Hindu and Buddhist meditation in Nepal and throughout Asia and dabbled in Martial Arts. He has degrees in philosophy from Stanford as well as a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and has conducted research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Harris is better known for his books that apply this background in areas such as religion (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) and applied moral reasoning and cognition (The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying).

I highly respect Sam. He lives what he writes and he usually has a well-thought-out debate style. Watch any video of him debating theists and you’ll see what I mean. I have written before about his book, Free Will, (Free Will Hunting) and criticized his debate with security expert Bruce Schneier regarding airport screening and profiling (Err Lines on Security). I was surprised at the sloppiness of his arguments there, though Schneier was sloppier and Harris more convincing. With this additional sloppiness on gun control, and the less then stellar essay in his book Lying, I’m beginning to think Harris is coasting.

Read More

Jan 06


Jan 01

“The Tinkerers”: How corporations kill creativity

Dec 24

The Innovator's Straightjacket - and missing the keys -

Scott Anthony has a good half-article over at Harvard Business Review where he addresses some of the constraints to innovation within companies, comparing some of the policies or decisions that seem wise in some respect to straightjackets; they do constrain the subject from harming themselves but also constrain them from performing good works too.

There are good points in this article but I it suffers from one of the problems I see in many of these types of “removing constraints to innovation” discussions: it only tells half the story. The other half of the conversation is making optimal use of finite resources such as capital, time, and talent. Removing constraints to innovation is good but no company can conceivably try out all possible ideas. Arguably that’s what the greater economy attempts but even that is finite at any given moment.

Within a company, there does need to be some means of evaluating opportunities a priori and supporting those that are estimated to be most probable. This is why I think conversations about freeing constraints to innovation are generally empty of useful content. These types of articles can help to shift attitudes and ways of thinking but don’t do much for providing useful advice.

The issue isn’t constraints versus no constraints; it is bad policy versus good policy. These bad policy constraints need to be replaced by good policies for how to maximize the probability of success, policies like aggregating wisdom of (knowledgeable) crowds instead of singular decision makers or effectively identifying when to abandon a sinking ship rather than suffer the sunk cost fallacy.

This is why I prefer fully discuss breaking down policies and then building back up, like in my four-part series “Beating the Competition" where I address the problem of policies that focus on competitive advantage instead of creating efficient value, or when discussing "The Problem of Innovation" where much value opportunity is missed chasing trendy techno-fashion and, perhaps minimally, suggesting that good leadership can help to fix the bottom-line, bean-counting problem.

That being said, I will reiterate that Scott makes some very good points for the first half of such a discussion on policies and it is worth a read.

Dec 09

The Dyson Dilemma

Chess by Sabine SauermaulFreeman Dyson is somewhat of a legend in theoretical physics. He is less known for his contributions to advancing the field itself as he is for his contributions of explanatory proofs and visionary ideas.

Dyson’s latest musings delve into game theory, an area I have huge interest in, and evolution by natural selection. Any regular reader of my blog will immediately recognize my use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Ultimatum Game in discussions on politics, economics, evolution, and innovation.

Unfortunately, it seems Dyson is less visionary in this field, particularly when applying game theory to evolution. He has posted an opinion piece where he espouses his support of group selection over individual selection as processes underlying natural selection. Unfortunately, he shows he doesn’t really understand the mechanics of natural selection processes and that, perhaps, his grasp of game theory is slipping or incomplete.

I’ve commented on group selection before, albeit in a very dry analogy with project proposals and competing companies. (That article was based on arguments by Steven Pinker and others that provide more exciting and direct, though technical, discussion on the topic.) In quick summary, individual selection describes the prosperity of genes via the benefits to individuals whereas group selection describes the prosperity of genes via the benefits to groups. There are a variety of problems with group selection but the primary objection is that it only works when the genes in question are also beneficial to the individuals within a group and hence the principle of group selection offers no added value and loses the important information of what is really going on (as my project management analogies demonstrated).

Group selection also does not contradict individual selection in those cases it can work, which is why the few proponents of group selection are frustrating when describing it as able to explain the evolution of cooperation where individual selection cannot. It does no such thing.

Dyson is one of those proponents. His most recent support of group selection is made on two particularly bad arguments of reasoning. He notes that the primary argument for the evolution of cooperation comes from optimizing the social transaction in the form of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD), particularly in Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation”, but more notably in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”.

In this game you can cooperate with, or defect against, a repeated opponent. The immediate payoff is high if you defect (turn against them) and your opponent cooperates, is medium if both cooperate, is small if you both defect, and is very small if you cooperate but they defect. (Relative size here means position on a continuum of value and not magnitude, so a “small” payoff could also mean a large negative payoff, i.e., a punishment.) In a one-time game you are best to defect regardless of whether you think your opponent will cooperate or defect since in the former case you get a large rather than medium payoff and in the latter you get a small rather than very small payoff.

For an iteratively repeated game, the optimal strategy changes since your choices now can affect your opponent’s choices in future dealings. As Dyson notes, as I have on Ad Nausica, the most successful strategy for an individual in this situation is typically shown to be some form of the “tit for tat” strategy of being nice at first and then doing whatever your opponent did the last time you met them. (There are other good variations of ‘tit-for-tat’ style strategies that do well.)

Dyson has a problem with the IPD as an explanation for individual cooperation. He has two objections. The first is on group massacre:

Here is my argument to show that group selection is important. Imagine Alice and Bob to be two dodoes on the island of Mauritius before the arrival of human predators. Alice has superior individual fitness and has produced many grandchildren. Bob is individually unfit and unfertile. Then the predators arrive with their guns and massacre the progeny indiscriminately. The fitness of Alice and Bob is reduced to zero because their species made a bad choice long ago, putting on weight and forgetting how to fly. I do not take the Prisoner’s Dilemma seriously as a model of evolution of cooperation, because I consider it likely that groups lacking cooperation are like dodoes, losing the battle for survival collectively rather than individually.

There are several problems with this line of reasoning. For one, he doesn’t propose a workable “group selection” alternative for this example. If the group has never experienced such an invasion, what sort of selective pressure could have allowed them to survive the massacre, whether group or individual? When it comes to the effective extinction of the dinosaurs by a massive asteroid, there isn’t a debate over whether it was individual selection of group selection that resulted in their survival of such a novel massacre; they didn’t survive it. Neither did the dodoes.

A second problem with this way of thinking is that the grouping of the dodoes in this massacre is an artificial creation. It is just as true that all of the individual dodoes also died, and perhaps some other animals as well who, for some reason, are not included in this “group”. If any individual dodoes survived because of some trait they held, it is because those individuals had that trait. If a single individual in the group was born with genes for being lean and flying, it would have gotten away even if it was part of the group of dodoes on that island.

Both of the above problems stem from the fact that this is an incredibly lousy argument for group selection. Actual attempts at group selection arguments rely on the fact that successfully cooperating groups perform better than groups that fail to cooperate well. These arguments tend to fail because it is also true that individuals within these groups benefit by cooperating, including if that cooperation includes the behaviour of punishing those who don’t cooperate. Group selection only has explanatory power if individual behaviour evolves that is net costly to the genes of individuals but beneficial to the group. Dyson’s argument doesn’t even involve competing groups of the same species so there is no pressure upon which group selection can work.

An additional problem of Dyson’s argument is that it attributes failure of the group of dodoes to bad choices, particularly of “putting on weight and forgetting how to fly”. But this wasn’t a group “choice”, or a “choice” at all. This was a result of individuals who were larger and flew less surviving and reproducing better than those who were leaner and could fly because that was the repeatable, long-term environment where they lived. Natural selection has no predictive power. It can’t foresee that someday an unexpected predator with a gun, or an asteroid, will arrive to wipe them out.

A group of dodoes that managed to survive because they kept lean and flying would not be due to their better “choice”, but because their environment that led to them keeping those traits coincidentally helped them with a future, previously non-experienced predator. The evaluation of the “choice” (really, selective pressure) as “bad” is retrospective. It is also possible that these new predators could show up flying airplanes over the island as an approach to an airport, and all of the lean and flightworthy dodo groups were killed by flying into airplane engines and the fat, flightless ones survived. The whole problem of unpredictability is that it is unpredictable. Genes don’t, and can’t, plan ahead, whether from an individual or group point of view.

Dyson’s second reason for supporting group selection oddly has to do with Guy Fawkes and his gruesome torture as a traitor, ending in Dyson’s summary statement:

Humans are born with genes that reward us with intense pleasure when we punish traitors. Punishing traitors is the group’s way of enforcing cooperation. We evolved cooperation by evolving a congenital delight in punishing sinners. The Prisoner’s Dilemma did not have much to do with it. 

Dyson has made a big assumption here and one that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. He assumes that punishment for going against group rules has nothing to do with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. That simply isn’t true. Anyone familiar with the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma example of Robert Campeau’s takeover of Federated Department Stores should recognize this. The takeaway from this prior article is that there is a better solution to the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma than even the ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy or other individual strategies; it is to change the payoffs such that the dilemma disappears and cooperating is always a better solution.

The change in payoffs includes a punishment for those who defect, and a punishment for those who fail to punish defectors, and punishment for those who defend those who fail to punish, and so on. This is why you aren’t just angry at people who cut in your line, you are angry at people who cut in other people’s lines, and angry at those who let them get away with it, and angry at those who defend those who let them get away with it. If any of these behaviours persist, line-cutting would be more common and you’d suffer as an individual.

The same is true regardless of whether the rule is cognitively agreed by democratic representations or by a naturally selective instinct for acting in such a manner. Of course, free riders will try to cheat those rules, whether societal criminals or genetic free riders without the “socially cooperative” instinct. And thus starts the arms race of free riding schemes against detection and punishment of free riding schemes.

This isn’t a group selection issue. Nowhere in this process is the group selected by a strategy that is a net cost to the individual in it. The evolved instinctive rules of cooperation and punishment of cheaters, and punishment of those who let cheaters cheat, and those who defend those who let cheaters cheat, all benefit the individual. What Dyson and others seem to be confusing here is that this individual-benefiting phenomenon only exists if the environment of individuals is interacting with other individuals, something we might call a “group” but with no hard boundaries on who it includes or excludes. The group here is the environment, not the selection mechanism, something Steven Pinker discussed at length in his essay.

Dyson has no actual argument here for group selection. Dyson simply misunderstands the mechanisms of individual, gene-centric selection and the application of the IPD to these mechanisms.