E.O. Wilson at Microsoft

I recently read Ridley’s The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, as a follow-on to Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.  Between the two books, E.O. Wilson came to visit Microsoft campus and talk about one of his many works, The Creation : a Meeting of science and Religion.

It turns out that Wilson is cited extensively in “The Red Queen” and is a giant in the area of science where evolutionary theory overlaps with study of human nature.  He’s been teaching at Harvard for 50 years and won several awards for his research.  He’s an unabashed secularist, but far more Baconian that authoritarian, so I was very interested.  It’s all very relevant to Microsoft and Google business, BTW, but that’s a topic for later.

He started by relating his upbringing in the Baptist South.  I immediately pegged him as the didymous (twin) of J. Vernon McGee; he has the same rich drawl and I imagine McGee looks the same.  He talked about how he’s been touring the country with evangelicals, forming a sort of alliance to preserve biodiversity.

Very early, he went to great lengths to differentiate himself from evangelicals.  He doesn’t want anyone to mistake him for a believer, and to make the point he set up a (IMO straw man) definition of “evangelicals” as people who believe that the creator needs to “interfere” periodically, while he is more of an emanationist in the Pythagorean sense.  He sees people who try to rationalize the two as “wimps”, which I think is rather arbitrary and silly (presupposing lack of sentience in the “emanated” takes a leap of faith equal to the converse).

But once he cleared the “we differ on completely stupid and irrelevant metaphysical points” air, he got down to the areas of agreement.  As I’ve blogged before, these are remarkable and huge.  Basically, if evangelicals disagree with him on any of his latter points, they would be hypocrites (and in the past, have been).  Perhaps this is why he’s getting so much cooperation from evangelicals.  His statistics about vanishing biodiversity are alarming.

It was eye-opening for me.  I always assumed that, with the advent of conservationist and “green” movements, we had reversed the tide and that species extinction was a sin of our past ignorance more than a reality of today.  Not so.  I always assumed that technology, liberty, and free flow of information would be sufficient to make sure the right thing is done.  Not so.

Separate but (very) related, I recently saw a stat about human languages since the invention of printing press.  One would assume that the printing press and other communication technologies would have made it possible to preserve human languages for posterity.  Surprisingly, one major effect of better communication technology was to remove a lot of the regionalization of language, which made it possible for people to “compare” and choose languages more easily.  Since the invention of printing press, 50% of languages in use at the time have died off, and language is far more homogeneous now.

This also ties with the story of the Picts and Edward Curtis.  The Picts and Druids were wiped off the face of the earth around 1000 years ago.  It was the fate of many previous races; but happened right around the time that such events became reprehensible and mostly ceased to happen.  It can be considered tragic in the sense that, had they hung on for a few hundred more years, they might be with us today.  But far more tragic to me is the fate of a whole slew of Native American Tribes.  Edward Curtis settled in Seattle just 120 years ago, and made it his life’s work to record the lives of the various Native American tribes around the country who were slowly dying off.  He took photographs and audio recordings, funded by Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan.  Most of the tribes he recorded have gone completely extinct (at least in terms of Y haplotype and MTDNA), and his work is the ONLY recorded history of their existence, customs, and lives.  You can look at this and laud the technology that made it possible to give them a crude approximation of immortality; or you could lament the conditions which made it possible for them to vanish with nary a trace.  But regardless of which attitude you take, you have to admit that they wouldn’t even exist today without the selfless work of a single man: Edward Curtis.

He Bought Houses for the Whole Village

In China, nearly everyone has at least one story about, “someone from village ‘X’ started a business and got really rich, so he bought houses for the whole village.”  I’ve heard several variations, from people in different walks of life, over the past couple of years.  Although the details vary widely, the stories are sometimes true, and follow that same basic pattern.

I began to wonder, why is this such an appealing story for people to tell one another, and do we have similar stories in America?  That is, what kind of “good fortune” story is likely to get quickly passed from mouth to mouth among Americans?

At first blush, the Chinese version of the story is one that would rarely spread in the west.  Since Martin Luther and the end of Catholic “indulgences”, we tend to see big handouts from rich people as attempts to wash away past sins.  That’s not to say that buying people houses is a bad thing; it’s just that westerners are programmed to be suspicious of such gestures.

The other thing that’s different, I think, is that America has historically had a culture of self-reliance; so buying a house is like giving someone a fish.  The saying goes, “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”  Buying a house for someone just makes them dependent on you.

As a contrast, the story of Johnny Appleseed was of a man who spent his life planting trees for villages across the country.  Americans are taught that Benjamin Franklin used his wealth to spread libraries; Carnegie and Rockefeller (both the worlds’ richest men during their times) spent their wealth on libraries and universities.

However, I think it’s a bit too soon to criticize the rapidity of “house buying” stories in China.  The stories of “school buying” in America are a matter of history, while Chinese are doing this today.  Take a look at China Tomorrow, an organization founded by MSFT employees (but open to anyone, including Google employees :-)) that has given nearly 3 million RMB to build and renovate more than 80 schools across Chinese countryside.  This is just one organizations; I’ve seen many examples of individuals and organizations making huge contributions to the education of their home villages.

And in contrast, I note that in America today, Gates foundation (the pooling of resources of the world’s two richest men) gets press for fighting AIDS, but not much press for their work in education.  The story told amongst the general population could be paraphrased as “These guys got really rich, and at least one of them was really hated by the competitors he beat, but they are being nice and helping sick people around the world.”  That is, the storyline is basically that they are buying indulgences.

As William Loughborough calls it, the “catch and release” strategy.  Certainly a lot better than the “catch and keep” strategy, but not necessarily perceived by most people as much more than a net wash.

It remains to be seen if Gates foundation approach to education (do basic research about what works and doesn’t; rather than buy more teachers — in essence, “teach the teachers to teach the teachers to teach”, or something like that) will have as much impact as Franklin, Carnegie or Rockefeller.  But the bigger problem, in my mind, is that Americans don’t even tell the story anymore.  The stories that seem to spread today are about indulgence-by-AIDS-research, or “Ann Nicole got rich by marrying and old guy, and had a baby with her lawyer”.  The most common “good fortune” stories are about some kid from some cornfield who did something ingenious and now has a jet and indoor basketball court.  Or some guy built a biotech company and now has villas on 3 continents.  That is, our word of mouth heroes are people who spend their money on incredibly stupid stuff.  To be fair, China has some of these stories too, but not quite the virulence that they have in America.