Stone Soup At Work

I was talking with one of my mentors recently about how things work at large corporations. He was telling me that when there’s a successful project at a big company there’s a lot of people looking for credit:

It’s NOT the person who had the idea who gets the credit
It’s NOT the person who executes the idea who gets the credit
It’s the person who’s best at taking credit for the idea who gets the credit

This reminded me of the old folk story of stone soup:

Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making “stone soup”, which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, the stone (being inedible) is removed from the pot, and a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all. Although the travelers have thus tricked the villagers into sharing their food with them, they have successfully transformed it into a tasty and nutritious meal which they share with the donors.

Maybe I’m being a little bit cynical here. The story of stone soup is really one about how collaboration can get people to do more than they initially thought. But it still pisses me off when the guy with the stone claims to be the genius behind the soup.

“Our Genes Ourselves” OR Are Humans Monogamous?

Having a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old, it’s easy to ask the question “Why did you do that?” If I had super brilliant kids, they might respond, “My genes made me do it.”

There are a lot of things that we think we control or decisions we think we make that are really rooted in evolution. Take for instance this quote from Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works which could be titled “Oh Cheesecake, Why Do I Love Thee So … Even As You Pad My Belly With Fat?”:

We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.

Cheesecake itself is not good for us, but each of the elements of cheesecake would have been strongly beneficial to our ancestors. Now that we’ve settled that one, what other questions can evolution help us with? How about this one, “Are Humans Monogamous?”

Robert Sapolsky, in his Great Courses Series, Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, uses biology to answer this question. Sapolsky divides species into 2 types: tournament species (polygamous) and pair bonded (monogamous). In a tournament species, males spread their genes by mating with any females around. Once they pass along their genes, they abandon their mate and look for someone new. Pair bonded males bond for life and are very paternal.

There are clear traits that call out how each species has evolved. In a tournament species, males are built for fighting. They are much larger than females, have huge canine teeth and much larger skulls (but not brains) than females. They often have weapons like giant antlers. Females, not looking for a fight, look very different from the males. In pair bonded species males and females look much more similar.

So what are humans? Based on the physical markers, males and females are relatively equal in appearance. Males have large canines but not huge. And men are bigger than women but not terribly so. So the biological answer is that humans aren’t polygamous or monogamous. The official classification for homo sapiens is “tragically confused.”