Geoffrey Miller

Psychology Professor @ University of New Mexico
Working (15+ years of experience)

Bio

Participation
4

Evolutionary psychology professor, author of 'The Mating Mind', 'Spent', 'Mate', & 'Virtue Signaling'. B.A. Columbia; Ph.D. Stanford. My research has focused on human cognition, machine learning, mate choice, intelligence, genetics, emotions, mental health, and moral virtues.  Interested in long termism, X risk,  longevity, pronatalism, population ethics, AGI, China, crypto.

How others can help me

Looking to collaborate on (1) empirical psychology research related to EA issues, especially attitudes towards long-termism, X risks and GCRs, sentience, (2) insights for AI alignment & AI safety from evolutionary psychology, evolutionary game theory, and evolutionary reinforcement learning, (3)  mate choice, relationships, families , pronatalism, and population ethics as cause areas.

How I can help others

I have 30+ years experience in behavioral sciences research, have mentored 10+ PhD students and dozens of undergrad research assistants. I'm also experienced with popular science outreach, book publishing, public speaking, social media, market research, and consulting.

Comments
295

Tim -- Looks fun, thank you for sharing. We need more inspiring fiction, art, music, videos, etc to promote EA insights & values.

Noah - 'intuition' does seem pretty vague.

I would expect evo-debunking arguments to be most relevant to 'moral intuitions' that are relatively universal across humans and cultures and historical epochs -- and there are many such intuitions studied by moral psychologists, evolutionary anthropologists, evo psych people, etc.

Whereas, 'moral intuitions' that are more culture-limited or idiosyncratic probably aren't as open to evo-debunking -- although they might be subject to other kinds of debunking (e.g. cultural/historical analysis of where the cultural 'intuition' originated; psychological analysis of how an individual's traumatic experiences shaped their moral judgments, etc.)

JWS - thanks for this comment; it helps me get a little closer to understanding the anti-EDA position.

You mentioned 'you could deploy this argument against all human intuitive faculties'. Well, maybe. But I would draw a pretty strong distinction between evolutionary epistemology (including reasons why our perceptions and cognitions are under selection to be roughly accurate in some biologically relevant ways) versus evolutionary ethics (which can't really run the same kind of veridicality argument for why our moral intuitions should be accurate reflections of some external moral truth). 

Long story short, if an animal has the cognition 'this cliff is steep and I would die if I fell off it', there are pretty good reasons why evolution would nudge such cognitions to be accurate. But if an animal has the moral intuition 'my mate deserves punishment if she has sex with another male', there are pretty good reasons why evolution would favor that intuition, without that intuition carrying any truth-value beyond 'this intuition tends to promote paternity certainty and protects reproductive success'. 

Peter - yep, that's also my impression so far, that philosophers seem compelled to reject evo debunking arguments because EDAs would render much of moral philosophy's game (trying to systematize & reconcile moral intuitions) both incoherent and irrelevant. So they seem to be scrambling for ad hoc reasons to reject EDAs by any means necessary... and end up promoting spurious arguments.

But, I could be wrong, and there might be some more compelling, principled, and less reactive critiques of EDAs out there.

That all makes sense. It seems like most evolutionary debunkings would allow normative ethics to tilt more in a utilitarian direction, since our standard anti-utilitarian intuitions wouldn't carry as much rational weight.

Vaughn - thanks for your reply. 

This is a very puzzling position. If the causal story about our moral intuitions identified plausible selection pressures that favored accurate, inclusive mental models of all other sentient beings as being morally worthy of consideration, then we'd have pretty good reasons to trust that our intuitions are roughly consistent with sentientist utilitarianism.

Whereas if the causal story identified selection pressures (such as kin selection) that favored over-weighting the well-being of our own kids relative to all other kids, then we'd have pretty good reasons not to trust the universalizability or impartiality of those intuitions, since they'd be designed to enact selfish-gene strategies. 

The details of the causal story seem to matter hugely -- just as they do in evolutionary epistemology (where we have very good reasons to expect that our mental models of nearby 3-D shapes in the external world are pretty accurate, whereas we don't have very good reasons to expect that our mental models of nation-scale economies are pretty accurate.)

Luca -- thank you for this. I totally agree. We native English-speakers are often quite unaware, and unwittingly exclusionary and alienating, when we fall into these ways of speaking.

This can happen even across different English-speaking countries! I grew up in the US, but have also lived in the UK and Australia, and there can be significant failures of communication even across these academic cultures, based on different dialects being spoken too quickly, with too many culture-specific references.

I notice that many EAs adopt a sort of in-group 'EA dialect' that involves very fast speaking rate, staccato pace (fast-pause-fast-pause), and slightly over-annunciated consonants, as some sort of IQ-signal. 

It sounds like the way that the hyper-intelligent Mentats from 'Dune' might speak, if they've had a bit too much Juice of Sapho.

That EA dialect is pretty hard to understand for non-native speakers, I imagine. I teach a class on Psychology of EA, which includes many undergrads who don't have English as their first language, and they even find it hard to follow  YouTube videos of many talks at EA events.

If we want EA to be a global movement that's accessible (at least) to the 1.5-ish billion people who speak English as a second language, and not just to the 400 million-ish people who speak it as their first language, we need to be more aware of the issues you raise.

Hi Jeff -- thanks for these numbers; you probably know the EA community better than I do, and have been actively engaged as an 'EA parent' longer than I have.

I acknowledge that a significant proportion of EAs have kids (e.g. at least 5/10 top 10 well-known EAs, 8/32 top wiki EA-associated people, 8/50 top EA Forum karma people). But, worldwide, it looks like about 70-80% of mature adults have kids at some point, so EAs might be on the lower end of having kids, and/or skew younger.

But, when I referred to the EA culture as seeming 'relatively childless', I was thinking more in terms of the culture, norms, and perspectives that shape EA values and messaging -- not the relative lack of kids appearing on EA podcasts or at EA events. 

I don't expect parents in EA to talk about their kids a lot -- which becomes very tedious to non-parents. Rather, I'm concerned that having kids in EA might be seen as a decision that requires some special ethical justification or career rationale or impact assessment, rather than as a normal thing that human creatures do after they sexually mature, find mates, and settle down.

Sorry if my tone came across as tendentious; it seems like we probably agree about most of this!

Sjlver --thanks very much for these comments. 

Regarding parental worries about financial security -- I agree that this is heavily dependent on where one lives. In countries with stronger social safety nets, parental leave, affordable housing, and socialized medicine (like Germany and the UK, to some degree), parents need not stress as much. In the US, parents worry a LOT about loss of jobs, which means loss of affordable health insurance; many jobs are less flexible in terms of hours, sick leave, and vacation time; and some cities are absurdly unaffordable for parents who need at least a 3 or 4-bedroom place. Another huge factor is whether public schools are good enough and safe enough for one's kids to actually go there -- or whether one needs to spend the extra for private schools.

On the other hand, I agree with your point about kids not costing quite as much at a day-to-day level as one might think. In many cities there are thriving second-hand markets for kids' clothing, toys, equipment, strollers, etc -- we've bought almost nothing new.  It's easy for parents to get caught up in brand-conscious runaway consumerism --but hopefully EAs have the wit and perspective to avoid such nonsense! :)

Jacques -- these are really tough questions. Deciding whether to have kids is one thing in a relatively technologically & economically stable society (e.g. 12th century Europe). It seems incredibly uncertain in 2023, given expected accelerations in certain technologies (e.g. AI), and short time horizons for influencing their development.

I will say this though: probably in every generation since the Industrial Revolution, young potential parents have faced what seemed to be historically unprecedented rates of acceleration in technology and social disruption, that required their urgent attention. When I had my first kid in the mid-90s, it seemed like the Internet would change everything, China would overtake the West very soon, EU integration would change the whole economic fabric of Europe, etc -- and that all sort of happened, but it didn't really change family life all that much. I'm glad I didn't wait to see how it would all play out, and that I didn't devote every waking hour to trying to nudge Internet development in more human-aligned directions. 

In other words, the near-term future might be radically different from now, but that's been true for a couple hundred years, and parents and kids carry on doing their thing regardless.

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