Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Dumb radio ads provide smart insight into the diverse nature of human societies

Posted 15 Feb 2013 / 0

2013-02-15-0150pxDo everyday people have any sense of their place in the world? Human beings live in incredibly complex societies undergirded by convoluted economies and overwhelmingly diverse cultures. Do we have a sense of how these societies came to be, or how they function and persist? For evolutionists, these are pretty vexing scientific questions: most researchers avoid trying to explain modern humans. But what sense of our existence do everyday people have? Is there a collective intuition about what makes us successful? Sometimes insight into what those outside the scientific community understand about human evolution can come from some pretty strange places…

I must confess that one of my media vices is sports radio, particularly when I am following a favored team and the real-life soap-opera-for-dudes that unfolds over the course of a sports season. This year I have taken an interest in the Brooklyn Nets, who are enjoying their inaugural season here in my home borough. Listening to Nets broadcasts on the radio, I have had plenty of occasion to listen to listen to some pretty ridiculous advertisements. Normally my approach to this kind of cultural deadweight is to ignore it, but this advertisement was beyond ignoring:

Now if you only take this advertisement at face value, I hope you find it normatively repugnant. It suggests that is it okay to not make valuable contributions to society because someone else will do it. It mocks the kind of patriotism — implicitly defined as work that helps all — that might lead to important scientific breakthroughs in health and environmental sustainability. And it valorizes the hedonistic wallowing in endless television watching (as a “dedicated TV lover”), a great metaphor for being socially disengaged. Please, abhor this advertisement for these face-value atrocities.

But then step back for a second, and recognize what this advertisement has to say. Sure, it is a perfect example of what has now become an overused social trope: cynical, ironic celebration of self-involved behavior. But there’s more to it than just that: this advertisement presents a vision of how our societies are run, and it is a fascinating vision.

Our society as viewed by Roku advertising executives contains at least two kinds of people: inventors and consumers. The inventors work hard to make things that benefit other people and solve social problems. The consumers sit back and enjoy the fruits of this inventive work, contributing as little as they can. The inventors are talented, whereas the consumers are not all that talented (but at least they know it).

From an evolutionary perspective, such a society — if it was in fact composed of such distinctive behavioral types — would be pretty hard to explain. How could it be that such different phenotypes could be balanced in the same population, especially if one makes massive contributions to the good of the whole population and the other does not? One would expect one or the other phenotype to disappear. Either the inventors would be rewarded for their contributions and therefore eventually outcompete the consumers, or the consumers would successfully freeload on the efforts of the inventors and thereby drive them extinct (potentially followed by the extinction of the consumers if we accept the implication that they are generally inept). But for both types to exist seems hard to explain from an evolutionary perspective.

Scientists interested in social dynamics called this sort of behavioral diversity “social heterosis”, and it is common amongst social organisms. While one might expect that there is an ‘ideal’ behavioral profile for social organisms, often there is not: instead, we see that animal societies are composed of a mix of different individuals, each dealing with the challenges of social life with a different suite of behaviors. In no other social animal is this diversity more apparent than humans: we maintain incredible diversity in our capacity to perform different socially-relevant tasks. In fact, it often appears that we are quite specialized in what we can and cannot do well. What evolutionary mechanisms maintain this diversity?

This is a question that needs to be looked at more carefully, but I have a reasonable hypothesis: humans are behaviorally diverse because behaviorally diverse human societies are more successful. I know, I know, this verges on being a purely circular argument. But it is only ‘almost circular’ because I am saying that what works for societies as a whole impacts what works for individuals. To put it plainly, I think that group selection causes human societies to be diverse. Groups that contain a greater diversity of people are more likely to survive and reproduce than those that are less diverse, because modern economies require a great diversity of talents, abilities, and even motivations.

Which brings us back to our Roku-watching drones. I understand why this commercial wants to make its audience identify with a vision of most people as incapable and under-motivated: this is, after all, how you motivate folks to get excited about sitting on the couch for hours watching re-runs. But I think this commercial vision misinterprets the nature of human social diversity: in order for ‘big breakthroughs’ to happen in society, we also need a fair number of people who go to work everyday and do the things that keep society running. Maybe they come home exhausted and watch reruns. Maybe they follow their favorite sports team as an after-work diversion. Hey, maybe sometimes they even pursue their own curiosity. But our society needs all members to make a contribution, and you don’t have to “transplant a dolphin’s heart” in order to make society function; all those dolphin-heart-transplanting ‘geniuses’ need the everyday people just as much as we need those ‘geniuses’.

A Major Post, Behavior, Cooperation, Economic sustainability, Ethics, Gene-Culture Coevolution, Group Selection, Human Evolution, Political Science, Public Policy, Radio & Podcasts, Social Diversity

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