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…although human brains are remarkably complex, the movement of crowds can be modeled with surprisingly simple rules.

Humans are clever, but this hardly makes us immune to fundamental principles of nature. Almost every line drawn in the sand between humans and non-humans-tool use, language, deliberate planning for the future, sense of self-has dissolved with further examination of the animal world, or the realization that basic mechanisms of interaction trump cognition. We are different, but not as different as we’d like to believe.

from this blog post.


Geller is correct that human cognition adds a complicating dimension in applying signaling theory to human behavior, but cognitive capacity does not nullify the predictions of signaling models. Evolutionary models (e.g., ESS models, optimal foraging theory, life history theory) offer predictions about phenotypic strategies that often ignore the underlying mechanisms, including cognition, physiology, and even genetics, that produce these strategies, as long as these proximate mechanisms do not significantly constrain optimal outcomes. These models allow us to determine the selective pressures that favor successful strategies. While human cognition may enable humans to devise uniquely sophisticated signaling strategies, there is no reason to believe that human signals are somehow outside the reach of selection pressures.

This lets me recall about the approximation of Newtonian physics’ model (but useful in daily life), and some economists’ argument to reject Limits to Growth’s model because there is no supply and demand modelled explicitly.

All policies make sense based on their underlying assumptions; otherwise no one would be tempted to formulate them or carry them out. Yet, they often have unforeseen consequences that lead to very different outcomes than the ones imagined. Worse, unlike the characters in folk tales who end up realizing their mistake, the unforeseen consequences of policies are typically diffuse and indirect, therefore difficult to trace to their causes. In this fashion, we become lost in a maze of unforeseen consequences.

from this blog post.

The value of System Dynamics is exactly to surface the underlying assumptions, thus minimizes the unforeseen consequences.

I feel that what we are arguing about is similar to how passengers of a slowing down, malfunctioning car argue about which way and what speed they should drive on, but when they look under the bonnet they find that they lost the engine.

Unfortunately today no political or financial leader dares to look under the bonnet, or even if they looked they do not dare to speak about what they found, because they only care about re-elections, or short term effects.

So they try to push the car with all their might and tricks but it cannot be restarted again.

We are continually arguing about how to resuscitate an economic model that has run its course and became dysfunctional for multiple reason, and all those reasons are reinforcing each other making any superficial adjustment impossible.

Both stimulus packages and austerity is based on the belief that we only need temporary adjustments until growth will restart again as if we were in a cyclical process. But this is not a crisis or depression but a system failure as some distinguished experts stated it before on this very forum.

All the bubbles based on the the unnecessary, vastly beyond necessity consumption fuelled by vastly over the capabilities credit, in a closed finite system where constant growth is impossible, producing mostly goods we simply do not need and which are mostly harmful are bursting now one after the other, the seams of our present social and political system (regardless of country or culture) which was created to serve the disproportional profit hoarding and distribution is coming apart.

There are no simple solutions, there is no overnight fix. Our present way of life is falling apart, what we need to concentrate on is how to shorten, and “sweeten” the transitional period, and what we build after.

In this respect austerity is better as at least by not running ahead blindly we are not causing even more problems, and deeper crisis according to the saying “if you do not know where you are going, it is better to sit and do nothing”.

Before we plan or move any further we have to study this global, integral and totally interdependent network we evolved into, and then build new social, political and economical strtuctures based on factual and objective knowledge which is mostly already available around us.

The new world will be based on necessities and available resources instead of false hopes and fabrications, and since we are all interconnected within the same system everything we do will be based on mutuality and true equality which in turn is based on the consideration and acknowledgment of everybody’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

from Zsolt comment in this commentary.

…One of the most successful treatments in the addictions field is based on this simple principle of supporting people to hear themselves voicing their own concerns. Called Motivational Interviewing, it backed by an impressive evidence base. How can this approach be applied with issues like climate change?

About five years ago, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, and I spent a day with Professor Stephen Rollnick, co-developer of the Motivational Interviewing (MI) approach, to explore this question. Professor Rollnick’s advice was ‘move from information giving to information exchange’. In medical consultations, MI involves a shift away from lecturing people about the risks of health-damaging habits, to instead being more interested in hearing how they see the risks and what concerns they might have about these. The stance is of being a ‘motivational listener’ who makes space for people to make their own argument for change.

from this blog post.

Here is the transcript of the original conversation.

Certain definitions of good and value. (i) What is good for the species is whatever promotes the survival of its members until offspring have been born and, possibly, cared for. Good features are said to have survival value. Among them are susceptibilities to reinforcement by many of the things we say taste good, feel good, and so on. (ii) The behavior of person is good if it is effective under prevailing contingencies of reinforcement. We value such behaviour and, indeed, reinforce it by saying “Good!” Behavior towards others is good if it is good for the others in these senses. (iii) What is good for the culture is whatever promotes its ultimate survival, such as holding a group together or transmitting its practices. These are not, of course, traditional definitions; they do not recognize a world of value distinct from a world of fact and, for other reasons to be noted shortly, they are challenged.

… Many issues which arise in morals and ethics can be resolved by specifiying the level of selection. What is good for the individual or culture may have bad consequences for the species, as when sexual reinforcement leads to overpopulation or the reinforcing amenities of civilization to the exhaustion of resources; what is good for the species or culture may be bad for the individual, as when practices designed to control procreation or preserve resources restrict individual freedom; and so on. There is nothing inconsistent or contradictory about these uses of “good” or “bad”, or about other value judgements, so long as the level of selection is specified.

… species, people and cultures all perish when they cannot cope with rapid change, and our species now appears to be threatened. Must we wait for selection to solve the problems of overpopulation, exhaustion of resources, pollution of the environment, and a nuclear holocaust, or can we take explicit steps to make our future more secure? In the latter case, must we not in some sense transcend selection?

We could be said to intervene in the process of selection when as geneticists we change the characteristics of a species or create new species, or when as governors, employers, or teachers we change the behavior of persons, or when we design new cultural practices; but in none of these ways do we escape from selection by consequences. In the first place, we can work only through variation and selection. At level i we can change genes and chromosomes or contingencies of survival, as in selected breeding. At level ii we can introduce new form of behavior — for example, by showing or telling people what to do with respect to relevant contingencies — or construct and maintain new selective contingencies. At level iii we can introduce new cultural practices or, rarely, arrange special contingencies of survival — for example, to preserve a traditional practice. But having done these things, we must wait for selection to occur… In the second place, we must consider the possibility that our behavior in intervening is itself a product of selection…

from this paper by Skinner.

Also his opinions on why we are not acting to save the world and what is wrong with daily life in the Western world. And also a commentary on the former paper after twenty years.

It is probably true that learning from others either by teaching or imitation is usually cheaper than learning on your own. It is like cheating on a test: you do as well as the person you copy from but avoid all that tedious studying. However, evolutionary models show that if this is the only benefit of social learning, there will be no increase in the ability of the population to adapt. This surprising result emerges from the coevolutionary processes that affect the kinds of behaviors that are available to imitate and the psychology that controls learning and imitation. These evolutionary models of social learning rest on two assumptions. First, the propensities to learn and to imitate are part of an evolved psychology shaped by natural selection. This means that the balance between learning and imitating will be governed by the relative fitness of the two modes of behavior-the average fitness of the population is irrelevant. When few individuals imitate, imitators will acquire the locally adaptive behavior with the same probability as individual learners. Because they do not pay the cost of learning, imitators have higher fitness, and the propensity to imitate spreads. As the number of imitators increases, some imitate individuals who imitated other individuals, who imitated other individuals, and so on until the chain is rooted in someone who extracted the information from the environment. As the fraction of imitators in the population increases, these chains extend further.

The second assumption is that the environment varies in time or space. This means that as chains of imitation get longer, there is a greater chance that the learner who roots the chain learned in a different environment than the current environment, either because the environment has changed since then or because someone along the chain migrated from a different environment. The upshot is that on average imitators will be less likely to acquire the locally adaptive behavior than learners. The propensity to imitate will continue to increase until this reduction in fitness exactly balances the benefit of avoiding the costs of learning. At evolutionary equilibrium, the population has the same average fitness as a population without any imitation. There will be no increase in the ability to adapt to varying environments, and cumulative cultural adaptation will not occur.

Then, if the environment is not too variable, an adaptive psychology will evolve in which most people ignore environmental cues and adopt behaviors that are common in the sample of the population they observe. They modify these behaviors rarely, or only at the margin, and as a result local adaptations evolve gradually often over many generations.

Many examples indicate that people often do not understand how adaptive practices work or why they are effective. For example, in the New World, the traditional use of chili peppers in meat recipes likely protected people from food-borne pathogens. This use of chili peppers is particularly interesting because they are inherently unpalatable. Peppers contain capsaicin, a chemical defense evolved in the genus Capsicum to prevent mammals (especially rodents) from eating their fruits. Nonhuman primates and human infants find peppers aversive because capsaicin stimulates pain receptors in the mouth. Efforts to inculcate a taste for chilies in rats using reinforcement procedures have failed. However, human food preferences are heavily infuenced by the preferences of those around us, so we overcome our innate aversion and actually learn to enjoy chilies. Psychological research indicates that people do not get accustomed to the chemical burning sensation. Instead, observational learning leads people to reinterpret their pain as pleasure or excitement. So, New World peoples learned to appropriately use and enjoy chili peppers without understanding their antimicrobial properties, and to do this they had to overcome an instinctive aversion that we share with other mammals.

Fijian food taboos provide another example of this process. Many marine species in the Fijian diet contain toxins, which are particularly dangerous for pregnant women and perhaps nursing infants. Food taboos targeting these species during pregnancy and lactation prohibit women from eating these species and reduce the incidence of fish poisoning during this period. Although women in these communities all share the same food taboos, they offer quite different causal explanations for them, and little information is exchanged among women save for the taboos themselves. The taboos are learned and are not related to pregnancy sickness aversions. Analyses of the transmission pathways for these taboos indicate the adaptive pattern is sustained by selective learning from prestigious women.

Culture and Maladaptation
…this same propensity will cause individuals to acquire any common behavior as long as it is not clearly contradicted by their own inferences. This means that if there are cognitive or social processes that make maladaptive ideas common, and these ideas are not patently false or harmful, people will adopt these ideas as well. Moreover, it is clear that several such processes exist. Here are a couple of examples…

Weak Cognitive Biases Can Favor the Spread of Maladaptive Beliefs or Practices over Generations. Laboratory diffusion chain studies clearly document that biases that have undetectable effects on individual decisions can have very strong effects when iterated over “generations” in the laboratory. The same effect may lead to the spread of false beliefs in natural populations. For example, Boyer argues that a number of cognitive biases explain the spread of supernatural beliefs and account for the widespread occurrence of folktales about ghosts and zombies.

Adaptive Social Learning Biases Can Lead to Maladaptive Outcomes. A model’s attributes provide indirect evidence about whether it is useful to imitate her. If she is successful, then by imitating her you can increase your chances of acquiring traits that gave rise to her success. If she is more similar to you than alternative models, her behavior may work better in your situation. If her behavior is more common than alternatives, then it is likely to be adaptive because learning increases the frequency of adaptive behaviors. An evolved cultural learning psychology that incorporates such biases increases the chance of acquiring beneficial beliefs and behaviors. However, these same biases can sometimes lead to the spread of maladaptive beliefs and practices. For example, the tendency to imitate the prestigious, or those making credibilityenhancing displays of commitment, can lead to a “runaway” process analogous to sexual selection, and this may explain the cultural evolution of maladaptive cultural systems in which people risk life and limb to summit icy peaks or achieve spiritual perfection in celibate seclusion.

from this paper.

This may explain why globalization is still dominated by American culture currently, although US is declining and clearly unsustainable. And many cultures just imitate the superficial culture traits of US (e.g. cars, technology), not really learn the institutions design that are keys to US success (and failure).

Another important point of this paper:

…loss of beneficial technologies in small, isolated populations. For instance, the Tasmanian tool kit gradually lost complexity after isolation from mainland Australia at the end of the Holocene. Other Pacific island groups have apparently lost useful technologies, such as canoes, pottery, and the bow and arrow. The best documented example comes from the isolated Polar Inuit of northwest Greenland. Explorers Elisha Kane and Isaac Hayes wintered with the Polar Inuit in 1853 and 1861, respectively, and reported that the Polar Inuit lacked kayaks, leisters, and bows and arrows and that their snow houses did not have the long heat-saving entryways that were seen among other Inuit populations. They could not hunt caribou, could only hunt seals during part of the year, and were unable to harvest arctic char efficiently, although char were plentiful in local streams. Apparently the population was struck by an epidemic in the 1820s that carried away the older, knowledgeable members of the group, and according to custom, their possessions had to be buried with them. The Polar Inuit lived without these tools until about 1862, when they were visited by a group of Inuit who migrated to Greenland from Baffin Island. There is every reason to believe that these tools would have been useful between 1820 and 1862. The Polar Inuit population declined during this period, and the tools were immediately adopted once they were reintroduced. After their introduction, population size increased. It is also telling that the kayaks used by the Polar Inuit around the turn of the century closely resemble the large, beamy kayaks used by Baffin Island Inuit and not the small sleek kayaks of the West Greenland Inuit. Over the next half century the Polar Inuit kayak design converged back to the West Greenland design. If this inference is correct it means that for 40 years (nearly two generations) the Polar Inuit could have benefitted from the lost knowledge. Moreover, they collectively remembered kayaks, leisters, and bows and arrows, but did not know how to make them and could not recreate that knowledge.

Lost knowledge can be hard to re-created again, especially when the knowledge is imitated superficially but not really learned its essence.

Population thinking is the key to building a causal account of cultural evolution. We are largely what our genes and our culture make us. In the same way that evolutionary theory explains why some genes persist and spread, a sensible theory of cultural evolution will have to explain why some beliefs and attitudes spread and persist while others disappear. The processes that cause such cultural change arise in the everyday lives of individuals as people acquire and use cultural information. Some moral values are more appealing and thus more likely to spread from one individual to another. These will tend to persist, while less attractive alternatives tend to disappear. Some skills are easy to learn accurately, while others are more difficult and are likely to be altered as we learn them. Some beliefs make people more likely to be imitated, because the people who hold those beliefs are more likely to survive or more likely to achieve social prominence. Such beliefs will tend to spread, while beliefs that lead to early death or social stigma will disappear. In the short run, a population-level theory of culture has to explain the net effect of such processes on the distribution of beliefs and values in a population during the previous generation. Over the longer run, the theory explains how these processes, repeated generation after generation, account for observed patterns of cultural variation. The heart of this book is an account of how the population-level consequences of imitation and teaching work.

Taking a population approach does not imply that cultural evolution is closely analogous to genetic evolution. For example, population thinking that does not require cultural information takes the form of memes, discrete, faithfully replicating, genelike bits of information. A range of models are consistent with the facts of cultural variation as they are presently understood, including models in which cultural information is not discrete and is never replicated. The same goes for the processes that give rise to cultural change. Natural selection–like processes are sometimes important, but processes that have no analog in genetic evolution also play important roles. Culture is interesting and important because its evolutionary behavior is distinctly different from that of genes. For example, we will argue that the human cultural system arose as an adaptation, because it can evolve fancy adaptations to changing environments rather more swiftly than is possible by genes alone. Culture would never have evolved unless it could do things that genes can’t!

…To ask whether behavior is determined by genes or environment does not make sense. Every bit of the behavior (or physiology or morphology, for that matter) of every single organism living on the face of the earth results from the interaction of genetic information stored in the developing organism and the properties of its environment… genes are like a recipe, but one in which the ingredients, cooking temperature, and so on are set by the environment. Different traits do vary in how sensitive they are to environmental differences. Some traits aren’t much affected by the normal range of environments—humans develop five fingers on each hand in almost all environments—while others are highly sensitive—genetically similar people may end up with very different body sizes depending on nutrition and health during their childhood.

…lumping culture with other environmental influences leads people to ignore the novel evolutionary processes that are created by culture. Selection shapes individual learning mechanisms so that interaction with the environment produces adaptive behavior. For example, many plants contain toxic substances. Selection makes these chemicals taste bitter to herbivores so that they learn not to consume the toxic plant species. Culture adds something quite new and different to this scenario. Like other animals, humans normally use bitter taste as a signal that a plant is inedible. However, some bitter plant compounds (like salicylic acid in willow bark) have medicinal value, so we also learn from others that we can override the aversive bitter taste of certain plants when we have the need to cure an ailment. The genes making the plant taste bitter don’t change at all, but the behavior of a whole population can change anyway as the belief in the bitter plant’s medicinal value spreads. We take our medicine in spite of its bitter taste, not because our sensory physiology has evolved to make it less bitter, but because the idea that it has therapeutic value has spread through the population. In the distant past, some inquisitive and observant healer discovered the curative properties of a bitter plant. Then a number of processes that we describe in this book might cause this belief to increase in frequency, despite its horrible taste. You can’t understand this process by asking how individuals interact with their environment. Instead, you have to understand how a population of individuals interact with their environments and each other over time.

Thus, culture is neither nature nor nurture, but some of both. It combines inheritance and learning in a way that cannot be parsed into genes or environment.

…Under the right conditions, selection can favor a psychology that causes most people most of the time to adopt behaviors “just” because the people around them are using those behaviors. The last 800,000 years or so have seen especially large, rapid fluctuations in world climate; the world average temperature sometimes changed more than 10 degrees Celsius in a century, leading to massive shifts in ecosystem structure. A group of hominids living in a habitat something like contemporary Madrid could find themselves in a habitat like Scandinavia one hundred years later. You might think that such rapid and extreme environmental changes would put a premium on individual learning over imitation. Odd as it may seem, in many kinds of variable environments, the best strategy is to rely mostly on imitation, not your own individual learning. Some individuals may discover ways to cope with the new situation, and if the not-so-smart and not-so-lucky can imitate them, then the lucky or clever of the next generation can add other tricks. In this way the ability to imitate can generate the cumulative cultural evolution of new adaptations at blinding speed compared with organic evolution. A population of purely individual learners would be stuck with what little they can learn by themselves; they can’t bootstrap[highlight by me] a whole new adaptation based on cumulatively improving cultural traditions. This design for human behavior depends on people adopting beliefs and technologies largely because other people in their group share those beliefs or use these technologies. When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius.

Thinking about the population properties of culture helps us understand the psychology of social learning. For example, we will see that selection can favor a psychology that causes people to conform to the majority behavior even though this mechanism sometimes prevents populations from adapting to a change in the environment. Evolution also favors a psychology that makes people more prone to imitate prestigious individuals and individuals who are like themselves even though this habit can easily result in maladaptive fads. These psychological mechanisms in turn give rise to important patterns of behavior, like the symbolic marking of social groups that would not evolve unless their culture had certain population-level consequences.

However, not all of the processes shaping culture do arise from our innate psychology—culture itself is subject to natural selection. Much as a child resembles her parents, people resemble those from whom they have acquired ideas, values, and skills. Culturally acquired ideas, values, and skills affect what happens to people during their lives—whether they are successful, how many children they have, and how long they live. These events in turn affect whether their behavior will be culturally transmitted to the next generation. If successful people are more likely to be imitated, then those traits that lead to becoming successful will be favored. Even more obviously, if living people are more likely to be imitated than the dead, then ideas, values, and skills that promote survival will tend to spread. Consequently, a culture of honor arises, at least in part, because in lawless societies, men who are not aggressive in protecting their herds and their families tend to fall victim to tough, ruthless predators. If these advantages to a culture of honor have disappeared in the modern South, the higher death rate of those who cling to the custom will eventually extinguish it.

Such selective processes can often favor quite different behaviors from those favored by selection on genes. For example, beliefs and values that lead to prestige and economic success in modern societies may also reduce fertility. Such beliefs spread because the prestigious are more likely to be imitated, even though this lowers genetic fitness…

Natural selection acting on culture is an ultimate cause of human behavior, just like natural selection acting on genes. Consider an example we will return to repeatedly. Much cultural variation exists at the group level. Different human groups have different norms and values, and the cultural transmission of these traits can cause such differences to persist for long periods of time. Now, the norms and values that predominate in a group plausibly affect the probability that the group is successful, whether it survives, and whether it expands. For the purposes of illustration, suppose that groups having norms that promote group solidarity are more likely to survive than groups lacking this sentiment. This creates a selective process that leads to the spread of solidarity. Of course, this process may be opposed by an evolved innate psychology that biases what we learn from others, making us more prone to imitate and invent selfish or nepotistic beliefs rather than ones favoring group solidarity, like patriotism. The long-run evolutionary outcome would then depend on the balance of the processes favoring and disfavoring patriotism. Again for the sake of illustration, let us suppose that net effect of these opposing processes causes patriotic beliefs to predominate. In this case, the population behaves patriotically because such behavior promotes group survival, in exactly the same way that the sickle-cell gene is common in malarial areas because it promotes individual survival. Human culture participates in ultimate causation.

…genetic elements of our evolved psychology shape culture—how could it be otherwise? But at the same time, natural selection acting on cultural variation shaped the environments in which our psychology evolved (and is evolving). The coevolutionary dynamic makes genes as susceptible to cultural influence as vice versa. We will argue that the phenomenon of group selection on cultural variation described above could have produced institutions encouraging more cooperation with distantly related people than would be favored by our original evolved psychology. These cooperators would have discriminated against individuals who carried genes that made them too belligerent to conform to the new cooperative norms. Then the cultural rules could expand cooperation a bit further, generating selection for still more-docile genes. Eventually, innate elements of human social psychology became tolerably well adapted to promote living in tribes, not just families.

from this excerpt.

Debt forgiveness here really involves a whole-scale transformation about how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Honoring our debt to nature means that we recognize our pursuit of happiness depends upon our physical sustenance. This will require comprehensive education, re-grounding in natural experience, and recommitment to simple living to pay down the massive debt of ignorant living to which we have grown accustomed.

It will call for an evolution of ideas of the good life that move from physical manufacturing, use, and exploitation of the material world, to one where the material world provides only the bare support needed to explore, expand, and develop our increasingly non-material opportunities and aspirations. I personally find this a heartening and exciting direction, but many are likely to view it as a step down. This will be one of the most important global conversations in the next century.


One of the greatest barriers to enacting alternatives is getting over the false idea that debt is some kind of either natural phenomenon or moral law. Debt is not natural; it is created by humans and can be erased by humans. There is nothing moral about a nation running up its children’s national credit card to the tune of 15 trillion dollars (with another 100 trillion+ in federal entitlements) and expecting the next generation to pay it. Nor is it morally reasonable to expect individual people, who have worked hard and followed the economic rules, to suffer with life-long debt servitude for mid-game changes in the rules and shifts in the global context.

In point of fact, our current “sea” of international debt is merely a very large man-made lake, damned up by ignorance, greed, and exploitation. The only healthy way to manage current debt is to drain this lake completely through debt forgiveness. It is time to take down the dam and let democratic prosperity flow. True, people will not get their individual material dreams and hopes of unlimited riches fulfilled, but they will take important steps toward preventing a war of humanity against itself, and they will be able to engage new opportunities and definitions of the good life involving working together creatively to build a better, more just world.

Instead of the old dream where we impose static past fantasies on a dynamic future, we can embrace a new dream where we create, explore, express, unfold, and reinvent who we are and what we can be through shared, interactive achievement and improvement. The old economic system based on scarcity and false security is thus converted toward new ends—freedom, health, quality of life, creativity, autonomy, and mutuality.

In pursuing this progress in jubilee, we go a long way to clearing out our past entrapments, inequities, and animosities. We also wisely devote our shrinking material resources toward developing a widely shared and exchanged, mostly non-material, experiential and social currency that multiplies in abundance and increases in value the more it is shared.

from this financial commentary.

Also one quote for thought:

Global youth are much interconnected and cooperative.

I ask you to imagine that you are walking across some park that you know quite well, and in this park there is a shallow ornamental pond. Let’s assume that you know that it’s shallow, because on summer days you see teen-agers playing in it, and it’s only waist-deep.

But today, it’s not summer, and nobody is playing in it. But there is something going on, some splashing around in the pond. So you look closely, and you see it’s a small child, a toddler, who has fallen into the pond and is apparently in danger of drowning, because it is too deep for a toddler to stand.

So your first thought is: Well, who’s looking after this child? Where are the parents or the babysitter? There must be somebody. But you look around and, to your dismay, there is nobody. In fact, there is nobody around at all except you and the toddler.

So your next thought presumably is: Well, this child appears to be drowning. Maybe I should jump into the pond and pull the child out, which I know I can do quite safely, at no risk to my life. Oh, but I did just put on my best pair of shoes, and maybe a nice pair of trousers, or whatever it might be, and they’re going to get ruined if I rush into the muddy pond, and I wouldn’t really have time to take them off.

So is that a reason why maybe I don’t have to save the child? Is it going to be okay if, because I don’t want to ruin my shoes or my trousers, I just say, “Well, it’s not my child. I didn’t push the child into the pond. I’m in no way responsible for this child being in a dangerous situation, so I could just be on my way?”

Well, I saw some heads shaking already, and I’m glad to see that. Because most audiences when I do ask that question say, “No, of course that would be totally wrong. It would be horrible to think that somehow your shoes or trousers outweigh a great danger to a child’s life. You forget about that, forget about them, just jump in and pull out the child. Of course I think that is the right answer, and I hope that is what we would all do.

But the way that this relates to global poverty, of course, is that there are children in many developing countries in danger of dying right now. There are things that we could do to help them for something like the cost of an expensive pair of shoes or shoes and your trousers as well. And yet most people are not doing it. So if you are going to condemn the person who fails to save the child because he doesn’t want to incur the expense of replacing the clothes, then don’t you yourself have to at least donate the cost of a pair of expensive shoes and clothes to those organizations that are helping the global poor?

from this interview.

Recall this recent tragedy.

The interview also suggests possible reasons of different reactions:

We have developed compassion and a readiness to help those in distress close to us, at least if we identify them in some way as part of our group, as one of us. So I think we probably would feel that that child in front of us is someone that we ought to rescue, and that we would rescue.

Whereas if you talk about something far away, we never evolved to help people far away that we can’t see. It’s obvious why we didn’t evolve to help them, because until a couple of hundred years ago, at the earliest, maybe even more recently, there was effectively nothing we could do to help them. We couldn’t know what their suffering was. And if we did, we couldn’t assist them in any way in time before they were going to die or whatever else was going to happen to them. So we haven’t evolved with capacities to think about those who are distant.

We also haven’t evolved with capacities to respond to more abstract problems, like the idea that there are—I think UNICEF’s current figure is a little over eight million children dying every year from avoidable poverty-related causes. So a figure like eight million is an abstraction; we can’t quite picture it, and it’s very different from the one child in front of us.

So I think there is that psychological difference. But it’s not really a moral difference. We wouldn’t really think of this as meaning that the child’s life is less valuable if we can’t see them, or they’re far away.

When poor families have six or eight children, many or most of them are virtually condemned to a lifetime of poverty. Too often, parents lack the wherewithal to provide decent nutrition, health care and education to most of them. Illiteracy and ill health end up being passed from generation to generation. Governments in poor countries are unable to keep up, their budgets overmatched by the need for new schools, roads and other infrastructure.

from this commentary.

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