Have Humans Evolved to be Inaccurate Decision Makers?

Wed, 19 Oct 2016 06:56:25 -0400

Tags: academic, philosophical


Many years back, when I had just moved to Montreal (a great city to meet some of the most fascinating minds in the world, a topic for another blog post), I met Dr. Costopoulos from the Department of Anthropology at McGill University. He mentioned some work he and his students have been doing simulating animal decision making using ice core data.

The premise is simple, particularly coming from a machine learning, optimization and genetic algorithms background: in an environment punctuated by slow, progressive changes followed by cataclistic changes in the opposite direction, individuals that track the enviromment better will overfit (and die). More inaccurate individuals will be the ones surviving long term.

I finally tracked the paper published behind this research: Xue JZ, Costopoulos A, Guichard F (2011) Choosing Fitness-Enhancing Innovations Can Be Detrimental under Fluctuating Environments. PLoS ONE 6(11): e26770. While it explicitly states their assumptions are too simplistic for human populations, the theoretical ground is sound: the best decision makers among human populations should have been wiped out during the rapid deglaciation periods (think woolly mammoth), some of them as recent as 20,000 years ago. This of course has many interesting implications, some I will discuss next.

Boy, That Escalated Quickly

Now, this poses many interesting points to consider:

  • Variety of view points in life. As I age, it is wondrous the diversity of life choices I see among people my age. Even more so if we think in a larger scale. Still, most people feel other people's choices are odd and suboptimal. You live in such a hot place? Such a cold place? Such a desolate place? Such a crowded place? You work there? You spend what amount of time commuting? In meetings? Alone? I couldn't get myself to do it! That diversity of appreciations about life is what make us resilient as a species and spread over the whole planet. And most people feel they are choosing the better option (while thinking that many others are clearly wrong).

  • Inaccurate forecasters. People who survive bubbles and cataclistics resets are actually less accurate than their peers. However, they are usually heralded as visionaries and foretellers. It might actually not be the case, they were just bad decision makers, a fact that saved them.

  • Superior human/computer hybrid decision making. Following a theme from a previous post, if humans have evolved to be inferior decision makers, maybe a hybrid computer / human solution will fare better. Based on the fact that catastrophic resets are a fact of life for us humans on a giant rock orbiting a nuclear fusion reaction, if this approach becomes more and more popular a big chunk of us may go extinct at some moment, but hey, not all humans will get on board with that concept anyway.


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