Saturday, March 30, 2019

Playtime Politics: The Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture: Lecture Text

    Playtime Politics: The Growing Mismatch 
     Between Biology and Culture

Presented By:
By Ronald F. White, PhD
Mount St. Joseph University
Cincinnati, Ohio

I. Introduction

All human behavior is subject to both biological and cultural evolution.  Timelessly universal, inter-cultural behavior has a biological component. However, at least some human behavior is highly variable and relative to specific times (historical relativism) and specific cultures (cultural relativism).

At all times and in all cultures, human children (and adults) exhibit what we call “play behavior.” Evolutionary psychologists explore the proximate and ultimate causation of timelessly universal childhood play behavior.

Proximate explanations for human play behavior address “how” children play and “how” our modular brain facilitates it. Ultimate explanations answer “why” human children play; and how children “ought” to play. Childhood play is also shaped not only by the descriptive “facts” (how and why children play); but also prescriptive values: how and why children ought to play. Prescriptive relativists argue that values are transmitted within and between groups via teaching and learning; and/or monitored and enforced via morality and/or legality. Worldwide, playtime activity is regulated on the basis of cultural values often embedded in religious tradition, which is monitored and enforced by both authoritarian and democratic political regimes. Historical analysis suggests that, over time, childhood play has become increasingly regulated by legality, as evidenced by a worldwide explosion of regime-specific laws that regulate how, where, when, and with whom children ought to play. 

In democratic regimes, childhood play is most often legally regulated in terms of risk-taking. Therefore, the primary question facing legal authorities and parents has become: “At what point does permissive parenting become child abuse?” And "How safe is safe?

This presentation will explore the evolutionary psychology childhood play. It will focus on the legal regulation of childhood playgrounds; especially: ladders, swings, slides, monkey bars, teeter-totters, tunnels and merry-go-rounds.

Well, Ron… can you explain how a 67 year old social and political philosopher got interested in playground technology? Thanks for asking. The primary impetus for my recent interest in playground technology was the birth of my granddaughter, Eliana. My wife and I began taking her to various playgrounds, where we began to notice which kinds of technologies she enjoyed at various ages, and her gradual tendency to overcome, what she perceived as bodily risks. Now, she is five years old and tells us which park to take her to and which technologies she likes to play on.    

II. What is Human Inquiry?

Before we begin, let’s establish exactly what it is that we are all doing here today at Clemson University.
Evolutionary epistemologists would say that we are engaged in a process that Charles Sanders Peirce called, “Human Inquiry.” Or to put it simply, we are “asking questions and posing answers.” The products of inquiry are belief and doubt. There are two broad forms of inquiry: descriptive inquiry (pursuit of what’s true and false) and prescriptive inquiry (pursuit of what’s good and bad).  Theories are collective beliefs that answer one or both of these two broad questions.

Both descriptive and prescriptive theories serve three social functions: explanation, prediction, and control of phenomena. Therefore, over the short-run and the long-run, theories are judged to provide better or worse explanations, predictions, and control. My discussion will focus on the biological and cultural explanations of childhood playground technologies.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that Peter Gray and other playtime scholars have been proponents of evolutionarily-based explanations for child’s play. This essay will build upon Gray’s playtime scholarship by incorporating the principles of evolutionary epistemology AND the Mismatch Theory recently developed by my friend Mark van Vugt.

III. What is an Evolutionary Explanation?

Darwinian Evolutionary Theory provides scientific explanations for complex adaptive systems, including both biological systems and cultural systems. Darwin identified three mechanisms:
(reproduction of sub-systemic genes/ideas)

(degree of differences between sub-systemic genes/ideas)                                                           

(determination of which sub-systemic variations (genes/ideas) survive or become extinct within various environments).

Consequently, both biological and cultural systems can be explained in terms of the following Darwinian criteria:

                                  Systemic Stability                                   (no change over time)

    Systemic Evolution:   
(increased complexity or progress toward survival)

                               Systemic Devolution:                               
(decreased complexity or regression toward extinction)

In sum, both genes and ideas evolve within two kinds of environments: biological environments and cultural environments. Change within biological and cultural environments can be explained in terms the Darwinian mechanisms of replication, variation, and selection. Thus, there are two kinds of evolutionary explanations: biological explanations and cultural explanations.   

Biological explanations explain changes in biological environments, including the human brain, in terms of the survival and/or extinction of genes.  Human psychological phenomena (feelings, thoughts, and behaviors) are produced by the human brain, which is the product of 3.5 million years of evolution. Therefore, the human brain and the psychological phenomena that it generates, have evolved very slowly; so slowly that it still closely resembles the brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. 

Cultural explanations explain changes in cultural environments in terms of the survival and/or extinction of ideas (memes, beliefs, artifacts, and/or technologies). Ideas evolve within and between the brains of individuals and/or groups of individuals. This can be a very rapid and revolutionary process, in comparison to painstakingly slow biological evolution.

Hence, scientific theories also evolve based on replication, variation, and selection over time. Darwinian Evolutionary Theory has evolved significantly since the 1860s, most notably with the advent of genetic theory as a proximate explanation for biological variation. And, of course, since 1900 genetic theory (itself) has evolved significantly. Similarly, theories of childhood play have evolved since the early 1900s. We all hope those theories evolve even more after this conference.

Mark van Vugt and others argue that there has been a growing mismatch between our slowly-evolving biology (genes) and our rapidly-evolving culture (ideas). Henceforth, I’ll refer to this as Biocultural Mismatch Theory.

Biocultural Mismatch Theory is rooted in human history. Today the vast majority of anthropologists agree that the human species survived for about 3.5 million years as hunter-gatherers. We know that they lived in small groups of less than 150 relatives and friends and that they migrated in search of food via hunting and gathering. When they ran out of food, they simply moved onto greener pastures (so to speak). Cultural evolution over that time period was very slow if not negligible.

With the advent of the Agricultural Revolution (a mere 12,000 years ago) humans settled down in specific geographical locations and replaced hunting with animal husbandry and gathering with horticulture, both of which rapidly evolved based on cultural evolution. Henceforth, cultural evolution became a more salient variable in the survival and/or extinction of human populations. Today, the most important historical questions involve distinguishing between biologically-based and culturally-based human behaviors; and the resulting biocultural mismatches.

Some biocultural mismatches are obviously devolutionary. The best example is today’s mismatch between our enduring natural instinct to consume sugar and fat AND our culture’s rapidly evolving sciences of husbandry and horticulture, and the rapidly evolving technological innovations that accompany those sciences. Let’s not forget the role that leaders and followers play in cultural evolution, especially political leaders.  Government subsidies, for example, insure low sugar and meat prices and higher levels of consumption. In the United States, as a result, of this biocultural mismatch, we are now in the midst of an epidemic of obesity.     

Evolutionary scholars disagree over whether all of today’s mismatched feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are devolutionary; OR whether at least some of our modern feelings, thoughts, and behavior have progressed; and whether it’s more important for the human species to survive or thrive. Would you rather spend the day hunting and gathering food, or spend 2 hours eating steak, potatoes, and salad at an expensive restaurant? Are your preferences today shaped more by the desire to survive or thrive?      
In sum, over time, mismatches often develop between our slowly evolving biology and our rapidly evolving cultures. But, as noted, not all biocultural mismatches are necessarily, devolutionary. Today not many Americans want to return to the savanna and live our lives as Hunters and Gatherers. But then again, we do not want the quality and duration of our lives to be negatively impacted by obesity.  

IV. What is an Evolutionary Explanation for Childhood Playground Behavior?

Evolutionary explanations for playground behavior invoke both proximate and ultimate theories.

Proximate Playground Theories answer questions of: how, when, and where children play at various times and places. Today, we can all go to a playground and observe how our children and other children play, and the preferences that they exhibit and express. Social scientists, study play much more rigorously.
Today, the social sciences (psychology, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and economics) generate the most salient scientifically-grounded proximate theories of childhood play, especially. Proximate Theories also reveal to playground scholars which kinds of playground behavior are timelessly-universal and which kinds are relative to time and place and vary between individuals, communities, and/or cultures.  

Ultimate Playground Theories answer questions of why, those timelessly universal feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, are timelessly universal. Ultimate theories invoke biological theories, in order to identify the long-term purpose of timelessly universal behavior.    
Evolutionary psychologists employ Darwinian evolutionary theory to ultimately explain why children play at any given time or place. Play behavior that appears to be timelessly universal is ultimately explicable in terms of biological evolution. Play that appears to be relative to individual children, or groups of children, playing at various times in various places is proximately explicable via cultural evolution. The fact that biological evolution is a very slow evolutionary process and cultural evolution can be very fast and revolutionary leads, inevitably, to biocultural mismatches. 

Social scientists question/answer (explain) how, when, and where young children play at various times and places. Evolutionary psychologists question/answer (explain) why at least some play behavior is timelessly universal and how biocultural mismatches affect childhood play today, how those mismatches effect long-term survival of the species, and how to preserve and/or restore at least some of those biologically programmed behaviors.

The most salient feature of all childhood playground activity behavior is that it must be fun, or pleasure inducing. If it’s not pleasurable, it’s not play. So how did children during the Pleistocene Era, actually play?
Obviously, hunter-gatherer societies were socially organized much different from contemporary societies. We know that male and female children of different ages were “raised” by older and younger women, who also bore the primary responsibility for gathering food. We also know that at a certain age, male children were trained by adult males for both hunting and warfare. By the way, there was more hunting than warfare. 

Recent anthropological evidence suggest that hunter-gatherer societies were polygamous, and that children were widely regarded as public property. Monogamous relationships were rare if not non-existent.
Hunter-gatherer societies politically organized themselves based on leadership and followership. These were informal meritocracies whereby the best hunters led hunting expeditions, the best warriors led during warfare; and the best gatherers led food gathering. There were no formal, know-it-all leaders. Leadership was contextual.    
So how did children play during the Pleistocene Era? Well, we know that relatively little time, energy, and resources were devoted to raising and/or protecting children. Surveillance by adult females was minimal, therefore, children of different ages (boys and girls) played together with minimal adult supervision. Children learned risk-taking and risk-avoidance primarily by experience.
When hunter-gatherer societies migrated in search of “greener pastures,” they obviously were limited in what they could carry along. They certainly did not carry around manufactured playground equipment.

However, we know that the same kinds of risky bodily motions that today’s children enjoy on playgrounds were willingly replicated by hunter-gatherer children: up/down, back/forth, in/out, around and around. Thus, young children naturally: climbed up/down trees, rocks, and hills; swung back and forth on vines, went in/out of caves and or bodies of water; slid down muddy river banks, and engaged in circular motion, (often holding hands).  
At all times and in all places, children (and adults) naturally engage in play behavior that incorporates risky bodily movements; especially: up/down, back/forth. In/out, and around/around. These pleasurable bodily movements ultimately explain why children today are psychologically attracted to various playground technologies.

Ladders (up/down)
Teeter-Totters (up/down)
Slides (up/down)
Swings (up/down, back/forth)
Monkey Bars (up/down)
Tunnels (in/out)
Merry-Go-Rounds (around/around).

In recent years, historians have noted significant structural changes in the design and structure of playground technologies. Are those recent changes matched or mismatched with those risky bodily motions that have made playgrounds fun for young children?
Evolutionary psychologists explain why children are attracted to risky playground technologies, and why and when adults began to legally regulate risky playground behavior and playground technology.     

V. What Can Be Done?
So now that we know that our culturally-based propensity for risk-averse childhood playground behavior is mismatched with our biologically-based instinct for risk-taking, what can we do, individually and collectively, to address the most devolutionary behavioral mismatches?
The first step is to determine what are the most risky playground technologies? Then we can decide what we can do to minimize those risks without destroying the fun associated with those technologies. These determinations are best conducted under the guidance of Darwinian Cultural Evolution, or simply: trial and error. If we initiate safety features that make playground technologies safer, and if young children are still attracted to these technologies, then that’s “safe enough.” If young children no longer have fun playing on these revised technologies, then they are “too safe.”
The question of whether playgrounds ought to be legally regulated via legal bans, legal mandates and/or political nudges is beyond the scope of this presentation. However, are free to speculate in Section VI-C and VI-D.        

VI. Conclusions, Questions, and Bibliography

VI-A. Conclusions

Here I’ll identify six general conclusions:

C-1:  All human feelings, thoughts, and behavior are shaped by both Biological Evolution and Cultural Evolution. Feelings, thoughts, and behavior that are shaped primarily by biological evolution are timelessly universal. Feelings, thoughts, and behavior that are shaped primarily by cultural evolution are culturally relative to Time (historical relativism) and/or Place (cultural relativism).  
C-2: Some human playground behavior is timelessly universal, especially risky play that involves bodily movement (back-forth, up-down, in-out, and around-around.) Children are also naturally inclined toward self-directed play with both older and younger playmates, and male and female playmates with minimal interference by adults.
C-3: Worldwide, playground technology reflects those natural instincts, including: swing-sets (back-forth), ladders (up-down), slides (up-down), teeter-totters (up-down) monkey bars (up-down), tunnels (in-out) and merry-go-rounds (around-around). 
C-4: Worldwide, at least some natural playground behavior has been misshaped by biocultural mismatches.  
C-5: Today there is a growing mismatch between our children’s instinct to indulge in risky, self-directed playground activity and authoritarian and our culturally based to desire to keep them safe. Thus, today, playground technology and playground behavior is legally regulated (via legal bans, mandates, and nudges) by adult politicians in pursuit of childhood safety.
C-6: There are things that we can do to lessen bodily risk without sacrificing fun. The best way to make this determination is via trial and error.

VI-B: Contemporary Issues

CI-1: A what point do playgrounds become so safe, and so-adult-directed that they are no longer fun for children? How safe is safe?
CI-2: What role do legal patents and liability insurance play in generating playground mismatches?
CI-3: Is there a growing mismatch between our children’s natural instinct to play with both older and younger children, and both boys and girls AND our cultural tendency to separate them?
CI-4: Is there a growing mismatch between childhood psychology theories, and our age-based educational system that segregates children of different ages and genders.
CI-5: What is the future of outdoor playgrounds and the technologies that occupy playgrounds?
CI-6: If outdoor (and indoor) play becomes increasingly risk-averse, how will the nature and frequency of sedentary indoor childhood play be affected?
CI-7: Will video games replace outdoor playgrounds? What will be the short-term and long-term consequences of regulating video games that emulate those bodily motions?
CI-8: Will the “mismatch” between our children’s natural instinct for risky play and our increasingly authoritarian, political culture continue to widen? If so, what will be the short-term and long-term consequences?
CI: 9: Will the “mismatch” between our natural instinct for voluntary cooperation and our rapidly expanding culture toward coercive authoritarian politics continue to widen? If so, what will be the long-term and short-term consequences?
CI-10: Can children ever be “safe enough?”
CI-11: How safe is safe?   

VI-C: Suggested Post-Lecture Discussion Questions

Based on your own personal lifetime experiences, answer the following questions:
PLQ-1: Have childhood playgrounds changed significantly? If so, in what ways?
PLQ-2: Have playgrounds become more plentiful or less plentiful? Are they more fun or less fun?
PLQ-2: Has the location of playgrounds changed significantly? Are most playgrounds on public or private property? What are the future implications?
PLQ-3: Have the various playground technologies changed significantly? What technologies have changed the most: tunnels, swings, teeter-totters, monkey bars, merry-go-rounds?
PLQ-4: What are the most recently invented playground technologies? What is the future of zip-lines?   
PLQ-5: Has the age of children that still play on playgrounds changed significantly?
PLQ-6: Has the nature and/or extent of adult supervision of children on playgrounds changed significantly? How has that affected the fun factor?
PLQ-7: How does the psychology of risk-taking explain other playtime technologies such as video games and amusement parks?
PLQ-8: Today, are there other mismatched human behaviors that have been affected by our ongoing intolerance for risk-taking? Which ones are devolutionary, and why?  

X. Bibliography

Giphart, Ronald and Mark van Vugt, Mismatch: How our Stone Age Brain Deceives Us Every Day And What we Can Do About It (Robinson: 2015)

Gray, Peter, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books, 2013.

Gray, Peter. The Decline of Play (2014), accessed on December 30, 2018
Gray, Peter Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, childrearing and social wellbeing

Johnson, and James E. Johnson, Scott G. Eberle, Thomas S. Henricks, David Kuschner, The Handbook of the Study of Play. Volumes 1 and 2. (Rowman & Littlefield: 2015)

Lange, Alexandra. The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2018)

Kroncke, Charles and Ronald F. White, “Bibliography of the Study of Play.” Choice Magazine (Forthcoming)
Narveson, Jan. You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy (Rowman and Littlefield: 2008) 

Peirce, Charles Sanders. “The Fixation of Belief”

Sunstein, Cass R. On Freedom (Princeton University Press: 2019)

Sunstein, Cass R. Why Nudge: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (Yale University Press: 2012)

van Vugt, Mark and Anjana Ahuja, Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership (Harper Business: 2011)

White, Ronald F. “Political Behavior and Biology: Leadership and Followership”(in) Handbook on Biology and Politics ed. Al Somit and Steve Peterson. (Edward Elgar Press: 2017)

White, Ronald F. “Cass R. Sunstein’s Nudge Science: Ethics, Influence, and Public Policy” Politics and the Life Sciences (2018). 

Playtime Politics: The Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture: PowerPoint Lecture

Friday, March 29, 2019

Playtime Politics: The Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture

Playtime Politics: The Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture 

 Presented By: 

 Ronald F. White, PhD

Mount St. Joseph University, Cincinnati, Ohio

Lecture Presented For:

   The 10th Anniversary Conference

on the Value of  Play: Play for Life

James F. Martin Conference Center

Monday April 1, 2019
10:30-11:20 AM

PowerPoint Lecture (Click Here)

Lecture Text (Click Here)