Is civilization becoming more essential for survival?

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A recent TED talk describes experiments where monkeys were trained to give tokens to humans in exchange for food. A physical space was created where, when monkeys entered, they were given fake money and different human "vendors" would sell the monkeys different amounts of food for a token.

The experiments found that most of the monkeys bought food from humans who offered more food as opposed to less food, better food as opposed to worse food, and most monkeys paid attention to "sales". When compared with data collected on human behavior, the data collected on monkey behavior were close enough to the data from human behavior that you couldn't tell which data were from the monkeys and which data were from the humans. The speaker noted that the monkeys never learned to save money ("just like humans, ha ha") and that monkeys learned to steal tokens.

She described two thought experiments. In the first, you have been given $1000, and you can either:

  • Take a risk (50% chance of receiving $1000 more, 50% chance of receiving $0)
  • Play it safe (get $500 more)

    In the second thought experiment, you have been given $2000, and you can either:

    • Take a risk (50% chance of losing $0, 50% chance of losing $1000)
    • Play it safe (lose $500)

      She mentioned that humans are susceptible to two biases in this experiment. First, it is hard to think in absolute terms (Choice 1: $1000 vs $2000, Choice 2: $1500) and easy to think in relative terms (more money vs less money). Second, people have loss aversion. For example, investors will hold onto a losing stock longer in order to avoid selling at a loss. People tend to play it safe in the first thought experiment and take the risk in the second experiment, even though the choices are the same in both experiments.

      After the monkeys were trained to buy food from human experimenters, the experiments started giving the monkeys a choice between safe sales people and risky sales people. They introduced the monkeys to two grape "vendors", both initially offering one grape. When the monkey makes a purchase, the first vendor always adds a bonus grape, and the second vendor will randomly add zero bonus grapes or two bonus grapes. The monkeys generally played it safe and would buy from the vendor who always gave an extra grape, just like humans tend to do.

      They introduced the monkeys to two other vendors, who were both initially offering three grapes. The first vendor would always take away one grape, and the second vendor would sometimes give the three grapes as offered and sometimes take away two grapes. The monkeys gravitated toward the risky vendor, just as people tend to do.

      The speaker pointed out that these biases might possibly be 35 million years old, and it might not be possible to override them. The thesis of the talk is that there may be ways that we can shape our environment to compensate for our weaknesses. She ended the talk referencing the Camus quote "Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is" and saying that only in recognizing our limitations can we really overcome them.

      Tools make humans more than we aretrade makes us more than we are, and medicine makes us more than we are.  External augmentation might remove evolutionary pressure on each human individual or cause other problems, but overall it is humans plus our augmented environment which actually matters in practice.


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