Liz: All right, ready?

Both: Rock, paper, scissors.

Liz: Oh nooo.

Ben: Rock beats scissors. Well, I'm Ben Klemens.

Liz: I'm Liz Landau.

Ben: And this is

Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.

[theme music]

Ben: Here we are. We're back in DC back from Harper's Ferry.

Liz: Oh my gosh, I miss Harper's Ferry so much. The brushing waters, the birds, the deer.

Ben: Yeah, there were a lot of interesting rocks, there, in Harper's Ferry.

Liz: But you know, there was one bad thing that happened on our trip.

Ben: Yeah.

Liz: So I was walking on the Appalachian Trail. And I had all of my data stored on a USB stick because I wanted to work outside on my laptop.

Ben: Oh, man, I see where this is going.

Liz: Well, let me tell you about it.

Liz: [singing] I left my data in Harper's Ferry [Ben: Harper's Ferry]
It was the smallest USB stick that I could carry. [Ben: Harper's Ferry]
I guess you'd say this was a fail, `cause I left my USB stick on the Appalachian Trail in [Both]
Harper's Ferry.

Ben: Wait, you didn't lose your interview with Kevin Zollman, did you?

Liz: Fortunately not.

Ben: Oh, that's good.

Liz: Yeah. So Kevin, is a game theorist at Carnegie Mellon University featured on one of our previous episodes about parenting.

Ben: What else did you all talk about?

Liz: So Kevin is working on something really interesting, involving game theory in the animal kingdom.

Kevin: How is it that animals have the preferences for mates that they do, what are the evolutionary factors that might determine what they find attractive versus unattractive, and also what's going on? Is it communication? Is it signaling? Or is it something else, you know, entirely?

Ben: Ah, so evolutionary game theory, yeah?

Liz: Yeah. So Kevin is applying game theory to the problem of mate choice in the animal kingdom. And you'll remember that, in our previous episode, we spoke about peacocks, and how male peacocks have these huge, beautifully colored tails to signal that they are high quality mate. And it's costly for an animal to carry all that extra weight, but worth it in order to attract females in this evolutionary theory. But Kevin brings a different perspective. He made me aware that some peacocks and other animals that are flaunting their high cost appendages, they might be lying.

Kevin: So the idea would be if you think of the tail are saying, I'm a high quality mate, then dishonesty would be a low quality mate, growing the big tail saying I'm a high quality mate. And so our equilibrium would predict that the good peacocks, the good mates would always grow the big tail. The bad ones would sometimes grow the big tail, and sometimes would not. And then on the other side, the pea hen would never mate with a male who didn't have a big tail, because she knows he's low quality for sure. But when she sees the big tail, she might just flip a coin sometimes decide to mate with him, but sometimes not. So it might be actually that there's a version of the kind of rock paper scissors equilibrium that exists there where sometimes the peacock is honest, and sometimes he lies. And sometimes the pea hen pays attention to him, and sometimes she doesn't.

Liz: So Ben, what do you think we mean by high quality mate?

Ben: Right, good bird semen.


Liz: Aww yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking about semen quality. But semen quality isn't the only measure of a good mate in the animal kingdom. This is actually a very hot topic in biology. It could also mean an animal that has a good immune system, an animal that is going to have a lot of resources to provide for their offspring.

Ben: You know, what was interesting to me about his commentary was that birds don't have to—okay, yeah, I'm not sure how birds flip coins.

Liz: Wait, you've never heard of flipping the bird.

Ben: [attempts laughter, fails] Okay, yeah. So birds also have—that they can play a mixed strategy, because you know, there's sort of this like, belief that the animals are programmed. You know, you put on the TV ads, there's one brand of dog food. And there's the other brand of dog food and dogs are just programmed, their deepest, deepest instinct says that they can only eat one type of dog food, right? But no, no, there, it's not so deterministic that they can actually kind of do different things depending on situation, right?

Liz: Yeah. It's also amazing to think about birds, as liars.

Ben: Haha, yeah, you can't you can't trust birds. Yeah, they're they're not Shakira's hips. Yeah. Okay. There's Emanuel Kant's categorical imperative.

Liz: Wait, hold up. I caaan't remember what that is.


Ben: So this is sort of like the reductionist version of Kant, that if there's something that you do, such that if everybody did it, that would be like, impossible, then that thing is, is deemed to be immoral. So you know, it reduces to your mother telling you like, what if everybody did this, what would happen? But we can see even with the birds, and in a million other examples, like it doesn't have to be that way. And—

Liz: wait, wait, wait, wait, hold the frickin phone? Are you saying that the freedom to choose your dog food, or your soap, or the very foundations of American capitalism, are immoral?

Ben: No, no, I wouldn't go that far. Go ahead, be a capitalist. But the difference is that, yeah, it's possible for different people to do different things and have sort of basically different rôles in society. How about, let's move away from Kant to Richard Dawkins?

Liz: Oh, he invented the cat meme.

Ben: Kind of, kinda, yeah. So he wrote a book entitled _The Selfish Gene_. And one chapter was about—so you know, the point of a gene is that each gene by itself is kind of—kind of doesn't do anything, but in combination with other little like, tiny portions of genetic information, they combined to form sort of coherent concepts, right. So the idea, he came up with this word, meme, to indicate these tiny particles of sort of social construct. And if you put together a couple of these, then you wind up, like, let's say you have one concept that is, I don't know, a photo of somebody from Arrested Development. And then another is a photo of—is a phrase, a catchphrase, right? You could put those together, and you've taken these two little bits of, you know, mental concepts, and created something bigger. So yeah, okay, fine. He invented the meme. There you go, Liz.

Liz: Well, that's cool. All right. But let's get back to evolution and Game Theory.


Ben: The Selfish Gene, it wasn't just about genes. There was a lot about the evolution of altruism. Your cynical capitalists would say, you know, either you're going for self and you're trying to expand your own position, or, you know, you're getting a—this is a phrase they use, right, you're getting selected out of the gene pool.

Liz: Gene pool

Ben: the gene pool. But maybe that's not the case, you have this sort of stereotype of the gazelles out on the savanna, and one of them falls back when the lion comes chasing after the herd. And that's someone that gets eaten, right. And so, Kant would say, if everybody wants to fall back when the lions come after the herd, then you know, they'll all get selected out, blah, blah.

Liz: funny you should mention, though, because one of my favorite comedians Hannah Gadsby said in one of her Netflix specials, that she relates to this idea that there was an autism gazelle in primordial times that had a heightened awareness heightened sense of being on alert, heightened sensitivity. And that was actually adaptive for the entire group, because that gazelle would warn the others when a threat was coming, while the other ones were frolicking, that gazelle was always ready to run.

Ben: That's actually a really great example. Yeah, if there are different animals playing different strategies, if you have one gazelle that is, in this case, literally sacrificing themselves, then the group as a whole might actually progress. So if it—go ahead, say that is inbuilt into their genes. If the genes say that with 10% likelihood, you're going to sacrifice yourself to the group, then that can be evolutionarily stable, right? And so we have other examples among humans and—you know, there's some speculation, I don't know if this could ever be proven, but there's some speculation that things like being on the spectrum fit this mold, right? So you've got some people who just think differently from everybody else, right? So the group as a whole advances, because our genes wind up doing different things.


Liz: Fun fact: one of the leading autism researchers who looks at the connection between autism and highly skilled people in math, science engineering, is a cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen. Use that at your next trivia night.

Ben: Sounds great.

Liz: You know, Ben, this also reminds me of a big debate that's happening right now about CRISPR/Cas9, the technology that would actually possibly allow for the editing of embryos. And you know, there are some parents out there who would choose to edit out things that they would consider anomalous. But which form actually, the wonderful neurodiversity or general diversity of our population today, and can really be a beautiful thing, they don't have to be seen as pathological.

Ben: And this discussion of evolutionary mixed strategies. Yeah, it raises this question, like, if we had this homogeneous world where everybody were beautiful and perfect, and sort of this stereotypical way. Like, is that really advantageous to us, as you know, as an entire species? You know, there's sort of this cynical belief that, you know, it's all just about, like, gathering resources and reproducing, right. And once a woman is, is past childbearing age, well, that's it, she's useless. And that's this this far too cynical, right? And we have grandmothers—

Liz: Oh, that reminds me of an article I just published in Smithsonian magazine online.


Ben: Yep. I led right into it. It was a great article.

Liz: Oh, thank you, Ben. So in my story, I delved into this idea that grandmotherhood that is, a woman who can no longer biologically reproduce herself, is very useful in rearing the next generation. And again, if you define evolutionary success as the passing on of genes, then grandmothers, while not actively having more babies, can, they can help out their own daughters with the daughter's kids, so that the daughters can actually even have more children, or not be so stressed out.

Ben: So what's, what's the scientific consensus on on this?


Liz: Well, I went down a menopausal rabbit hole on this one. There is so much controversy and different lines of reasoning here. Some say that menopause has been in the human species for at least a million years, which would, in some sense, favor the explanation that I just described. However, there are critics who say that we really don't have concrete evidence of ancient women going through menopause, living past menopause, acting in these grandmotherly ways that we know today. And of course, it has been so long that it is a little bit difficult to say. One anthropologist, Lynette Sievert, pointed out to me that it might actually be more about the fact that human women are born with all of the eggs that they'll ever have. And that really sets the stage for a long lifespan in which those eggs will either turn into children or release estrogen or do other functions for women in their earlier years. And then when they run out of eggs and go through menopause, they then do have that capacity to be grandmothers.

Ben: Yeah, so grandmothers, they're great.

Liz: Call yours today.

Ben: Yes. So okay, so one last group that like the cynics get angry about, right? _The Gays_, right. So if you wanted to have this reductionist viewpoint that it's—

Liz: You mean the LGBTQ community?


Ben: Yes. Yeah. Sorry, that was sarcastic. That was emulation of these people who say, "Well, you know that this whole concept is reproduction and if we're going to be Kantian about this, if the entire world population were gay, well there wouldn't be reproduction, and those species would die out, therefore, you know, we'll apply the Kantian principle being gay is immoral". Which is, you see where this is going from the discussion to this point, that that that line of reasoning doesn't hold out, because we want a diversity of types. And if you have people who, you know—you know, if we wanted to characterize people as having a rôle in society, their rôle's not necessarily having babies and raising their own personal babies. And that's it. And then those people are contributors.

Liz: Yeah, I think we've come a long way from the idea that a person must have their own biological children in order to be considered successful. I'm really glad that I live in an age where I can be 36 and not have children and live a full meaningful life that also contributes to the greater community. Even just 50 years ago, I'd probably be considered an old maid.

Ben: So the big lesson from from today's discussion is, uh, those parents who look down on people who don't have kids, because you know, they didn't have kids: according to the basic principles of evolutionary game theory, those people are jerks.

Liz: Yeah.

Ben: So tune in next time on

Both: Pod, paper, scissors.