Thursday, 13 November 2014

Tim Tyler: Manipulation


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about manipulation. More specifically it's about the role of manipulation in producing cooperative behaviour.

Manipulation involves a biological entity skilfully influencing another biological entity - for its own ends.

Manipulation can be deceptive or honest. A manipulator may be forceful or subtle. They can target their victim's body, their perceptions or their environment. Manipulators may use rewards or punishments to help to elicit the behaviour they desire. Or they might use weapons, drugs or misdirection.

Manipulation one of the types of biological interaction which is capable of producing cooperative behaviour. A classic example of manipulation producing cooperation involves cuckoo foster parents. Through their own feeding behaviour, the hosts take a reproductive hit on behalf of a non relative with no hope of it being repaid. They do this because they are being manipulated. The cuckoo chick fools them into mistakenly believing that it is one of their own offspring.

Although, in this example, kin recognition is involved, manipulation is a different idea from kin selection. It need not involve relatedness. The example of a cuckoo chick shows that it can take place between individuals of different species. The creatures involved need not have much in common. Manipulation is also a different idea from reciprocity: with manipulation, the victim need not benefit - and quite often they don't benefit.

The definition of manipulation I gave mentioned that it took place between "biological entities". That's a intended as a broad category that can include anything from individual genes to entire governmental departments.

Manipulation is common. Parents frequently manipulate their offspring - for example by punishing them. In turn, offspring manipulate their parents - for example by crying when they want attention. Sellers try and manipulate buyers into thinking their products have high value. Buyers try to manipulate sellers into thinking they are short of funds but might still go for the right deal. Manipulation is also a common mechanism which produces cooperative behaviour. It helps to keep workers in eusocial colonies in line. It helps avoid genes on chromosomes defecting against each other by bypassing meiosis. However, despite manipulation being widespread, it is much less well known as a source of cooperation than kin selection or reciprocity.

Manipulation is common in symbiotic relationships. Some parasites manipulate their hosts into contact with other hosts - since parasites require contact between hosts to facilitate their own reproduction. To give three examples: Toxoplasmosis makes rodents more likely to interact with cats; the rabies parasite promotes contact with other prospective hosts and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are more likely to bite humans.

Humans also manipulate other humans for their own benefit - and for the benefit of friends and relatives. Some biologists have called some sorts of manipulative behaviour among humans "Machiavellian" - after the writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who appeared to endorse political strategies involving cunning and duplicity.

Unfortunately, manipulation is poorly-understood as a mechanism capable of producing cooperation. Martin Nowak fails to mention manipulation on his list of mechanisms favouring cooperation in his book SuperCooperators. Karl Sigmund doesn't mention manipulation in The Calculus of Selfishness either. Gintis and Bowles don't treat the topic in A Cooperative Species. Manipulation was slow to be understood historically as a mechanism responsible for producing cooperative behaviour and still today remains an under-appreciated force.

In cultural evolution, memes induce pro-social behaviours in humans by manipulating them. It seems likely that they do this partly because human friendship promotes the contact between their hosts that they need to spread. Memes use promises, threats, sex, desire, misinformation - and numerous other tricks to manipulate humans into being nice to other humans. Memes may be engineered to do this (e.g. by prospective human recipients) - or they may evolve via natural selection to behave in this way.

Manipulation is implicated in the evolution of eusociality. A queen will often manipulate their offspring to make them better serve her. This manipulation typically results in colony-level cooperation. Manipulation also is the basis of the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality. Originally developed to explain cooperation between termites, the symbiont hypothesis holds that host eusociality arose, in part, because it facilitated the transfer of symbiotic microbes down the generations. Each symbiotic microbe must regularly find new hosts. They do this by finding their way into young termites - where they rapidly multiply and adapt - successfully repelling subsequent invaders. This requires contact between hosts, which the symbionts facilitate by manipulating their hosts.

Memes are well known for doing something similar. They colonise the minds of children, and once established there are hard to displace. From the perspective of memes, children's minds represent especially valuable real estate to control. An early beach head in a host can avoid direct combat with a fully-developed immune system; there are fewer existing inhabitants to compete with for resources; a young mind offers the most time for adaptation to the host's environment - and there's a lifetime's opportunities ahead to spread to others. Memes get into children's heads partly by manipulating the behaviour of adult instructors.


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