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I am told this relationship style (polygynous with multiple households) is common in Latin America, and I do know several males there who have engaged in it. These males are middle-class - doctors and the like. Polygyny also occurs in other Western cultures, although more covertly, in the form of the prestigious man and his "bit on the side" (who is usually non-reproductive, monogamous and hoping to oust the current alpha female - in the absence of contraception this would probably end up with multiple households). So I'm inclined to think it happens whenever there are massive power inequalities both between males (such that a woman is better off with a fraction of the resources of a wealthy man than with all the resources of a poor man) - and between males and females (such that wealthy men are better off "collecting" multiple poor women than marrying one wealthy one).

I would define curiosity as a tendency to explore one's environment without immediate material incentives, and to learn through this exploration. By this definition I doubt that any species entirely lacks curiosity - but perhaps we are using different definitions?

Examples. A cellular slime mold population will explore a maze, learning the most efficient route. Ant nests continually send out explorers to new areas, learning the locations of resources. Bacterial populations increase their mutation rate in new environments, exploring the space of possible forms and learning through adaptation to these new environments.

I wasn't intending to suggest that curiosity is worthless. On the contrary, I think it's crucial for the long-term success of any population. My point was merely that the optimal level of curiosity for a rational individual isn't obvious, so we should be cautious about promoting it unconditionally on a rationality blog.

For example, I am pretty sure I would be far more successful - even in terms of social contribution and status - if I didn't spend so many hours clicking through random Wikipedia pages and designing small experiments to test obscure personal ideas. Maybe other LW readers are over-curious information junkies like me? How do we know?

I think you are probably right that people who make a great contribution to humanity tend to be unusually curious. But that doesn't mean that being unusually curious is rational for individuals.

Most people are highly unlikely to make a great contribution even if they really wanted to, and most people have other priorities anyway.

Kevin Laland and others recently ran a tournament to study how different learning strategies fared in evolution (Science 328: 208-213). They found that under a very broad range of conditions winning strategies tended to a) copy others rather than innovate and b) learn little, exploit a lot. This suggests that contestants generally overestimated the instrumental value of curiosity.

After several years as a post-doc I am facing a similar choice.

If I understand correctly you have no research experience so far. I'd strongly suggest completing a doctorate because:

  • you can use that time to network and establish a publication record
  • most advisors will allow you as much freedom as you can handle, particularly if you can obtain a scholarship so you are not sucking their grant money. Choose your advisor carefully.
  • you may well get financial support that allows you to work full time on your research for at least 4 years with minimal accountability
  • if you want, you can practice teaching and grant applications to taste how onerous they would really be
  • once you have a doctorate and some publications, it probably won't be hard to persuade a professor to offer you an honorary (unpaid) position which gives you an institutional affiliation, library access, and maybe even a desk. Then you can go ahead with freelancing, without most of the disadvantages you cite.

You may also be able to continue as a post-doc with almost the same freedom. I have done this for 5 years. It cannot last forever, though, and the longer you go on, the more people will expect you to devote yourself to grant applications, teaching and management. That is why I'm quitting.

It's always puzzled me that evolutionary psychologists only seem interested in relating human social behavior to that of other apes, and therefore can only see the alternatives cited of monogamy or polygyny.

Looking more broadly at animal social systems, there are many other taxa that typically form strong pair bonds, with biparental care, complex social networks outside the pair, jealous mate-guarding males, occasional threesomes where the alpha shows varying degrees of tolerance for the beta, and numerous secret affairs by both sexes. It's called social monogamy, and it's associated across species with evolution of extraordinarily large brains, creative problem solving, tool use, and language-like behaviors. Many people think this happens because the social monogamy situation creates intense social selection, which becomes a runaway process until countered by natural selection.

The animals that do this are mostly birds, though, and I guess psychologists are not interested in them. It's hard enough to get acceptance for comparing humans to apes; comparing humans to sparrows isn't going to win you any friends.

It seems plausible that people vary in risk aversion (which seems to underlie your model) and that could be a reason for different strategies. But is there any evidence that this variance is discontinuous, or even bimodal? And is there evidence that the traits you mention are correlated with resource abundance?

If you're right, we would expect to see more monogamy, planning and philosophy in poor societies, families and areas than in rich ones. That should be easy to get stats on, but I would guess that the relationship would be the opposite from a traditional biological perspective. People in poor environments expect shorter lives, and therefore it is adaptive to take more risks. Of course, if the data supports you, that just makes your idea even more interesting!

Note that cultural evolution in Europe & Asia is traditionally explained by the increase in resource availability that came with division of labor made possible by immigration into environments where tropical diseases couldn't thrive, allowing large cities to be built (see Jared Diamond).

As a post-doc biologist who works in a CS school and with a bunch of mathematicians and physicists - I partly agree. I do think the CS culture has an excellent combination of practical skills and rigorous training in abstraction. However, in my experience, many CS graduates are weak on empiricism; they can build fantastic systems, but they don't understand (or care) what data mean; they are lazy about analysis and hypothesis testing. Half my current batch of honors students didn't know what a hypothesis was. I'd encourage budding rationalists to take both some empirical science and some CS subjects and major in whatever they like most.

Here is one proposal:

Their idea seems to be to combine a social networking site with facilities for coordinating action and a karma system. If it can be designed in such a way that signals are honest, karma is fair and the system becomes widely-used, I imagine it could be highly effective. On the other hand, Facebook and co. give free karma that's instantly visible to all your associates, so I fear it will be very difficult for the new site to invade the market.

I am curious about how you see Bruce.

It seems to me that avoiding fear is one of the major motivators of humans and animals. Winning is scary because it creates the expectation that you will continue to win - and therefore the fear you won't. And that fear is justified.

In this highly-connected and competitive world, it's virtually impossible to be the best in any endeavor. Therefore, winning just delays and worsens your ultimate failure. Since you are ultimately going to lose anyway, you would often be better off learning how to be content with losing rather than striving to win at all. In this sense, Bruce is your true friend.

Of course, this only applies when you are playing competitive games. When your definition of winning is something like growing a beautiful garden or stopping children dying of diarrhoea, Bruce is your enemy.

Personally, I feel I get along better with the inconsistent parts of myself when I acknowledge that they have reasons for existing. So I don't hang up on Bruce... I ask him why he wants to lose in each case, and sometimes I decide that he is right. But this may just be a feature of my own psychology.

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