Subject: Oversimplifications in HtN
From: "Eric S. Raymond" <>
Date: Mon, 30 Aug 1999 15:51:47 -0400

Ian Lance Taylor <>:
> However, Eric, in the past, you have oversimplified.  Your
> ``Homesteading the Noosphere'' paper has several generalizations and
> over-simplifications.  I'll just mention a couple.

Oh, good.  I wish you'd been involved in the paper's public review phase.
I love feedback like this!

I will argue that I am (necessarily) simplifying, but not
*over*-simplifying.  I offer a precise definition: a model is
oversimplified when it is unable to predictively capture features
of the behavior under discussion.
> ``Human beings have an innate drive to compete for social status; it's
> wired in by our evolutionary history.''
> Arguably true, but a drastic simplification.  Human beings have many
> innate drives at that level: for food, sex, love, children, shelter,
> etc.  Moreover, human consciousness permits us to override our innate
> drives, for better or for worse.  Hence there are hermits, masochists,
> drug addicts, etc.

Sure.  But I never claimed that the drive to play status games was a 
*universal* explanation of the behavior of human beings, or even of
the behavior of hackers.  You can't oversimplify my argument and then
use that to claim I'm oversimplifying! :-) :-)

Your other criticisms have similar flaws.  Not that I'm dismissing
them, mind you -- they're intelligent and intelligently put.  But to
make your general case that I'm over-simplifying human behavior, you
have to deal with my models in full generality, not just by focusing
on one feature that you object to.

> ``For examined in this way, it is quite clear that the society of
> open-source hackers is in fact a gift culture. Within it, there is no
> serious shortage of the `survival necessities' -- disk space, network
> bandwidth, computing power. Software is freely shared. This abundance
> creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive
> success is reputation among one's peers.''
> Again, arguably true, but I believe this is of marginal relevance for
> many people.  I've given away plenty of software, but insofar as I
> care about competitve success, it sure doesn't have anything to do
> with what other hackers think of me.  It has a lot more to do with
> what my family and friends think of me, and very few of them are
> hackers or have more than a vague understanding of the meaning of free
> software, or for that matter of software in general.

Did you miss the point about reputation incentives unconsciously shaping
behavior, even when they are not part of the player's conscious agenda?
The fact is, you use and obey conventions that are designed to maintain 
the reputation game -- I've seen you do it.  You're *in* that game.
You play by its rules.

The fact that you don't consciously experience the reputation-game 
incentive is interesting, but not surprising to me.  I don't normally
experience it consciously myself.  Nevertheless, I play the game because
that's what I've *learned to do* in order to function in the culture.

The real clincher here is that the customs we observe have features for
which there doesn't seem to be a sufficient explanation other than the
reputation game.  To falsify my model, you'd have to at least propose
an alternative that explains the three taboos described in the paper.

Or you'd have to deny those taboos have force, and then explain why
so many people clearly think they do.

Good luck.  If you can do either, I'll add a section to the paper (and
credit you :-)).

> Somewhat related to this, you sometimes use the term ``hacker tribe.''
> I don't know if such a thing actually exists in any meaningful sense;
> if it does, I certainly don't consider myself to be a part of it.

OK, let me explain what I mean by that.

There are two kinds of communities of interest.  Actually, there's
a spectrum with two ends.

One end is basically unconscious.  People in it recognize each other
on a pair-wise basis or in small groups.  They share values and
experiences, but have little or no consciousness of themselves as a
specialist group or subculture and no particular sense of group

The other end is conscious.  People in a conscious community share a
narrative -- they have in common not just a set of values and
experiences but a story about those values that justifies and explains
them.  They have a consequent sense of group identification and loyalty.

People who ski are an unconscious community.  Science fiction fans are
a not-very-conscious community.  The subset of SF fans that goes to SF
conventions is *very* conscious; it has its own songs, communications
media, and historical narrative.

In English, when we speak of a particular occupational or interest
group as being "professional", one of the things we mean is that it
has become a conscious community with shared history and norms.
Bricklayers and auto mechanics are not conscious communities. Doctors
are a very conscious community.  (The development of a conscious 
narrative in occupational groups is usually both cause and consequence
of a rise in influence and status.)

I'm sure you see where this is going.  I refer to hackers as a "tribe"
because we do in fact have a shared narrative and a shared set of
norms.  You yourself personally exhibit both in your behavior; you are
part of the tribe.  I have mail from you contributing to the Jargon
File ;-).

If it's merely the term "tribe" you object to, I'd cheerfully accept 
a better proposal.  I probably use "hacker culture" more often myself.

> Many non-human animals are not territorial.
> Wolves in particular happen to hunt in packs, and what territoriality
> they have is based on the pack, not the individual.

Theese are details.  No ethologist would limit himself to animal models
based on characteristics *all* animals share.  There aren't any.

> You later use a dog as an example of animal territoriality, but dogs
> are a heavily domesticated species.  Some dogs are indeed guard dogs,
> which have been bred to protect human property boundaries.  Others are
> not, and do not.

You're missing a subtle point here.  Teleologically, we breed dogs "to
protect human property boundaries".  But in biological truth we can't
do that -- human property being mediated the way it is, we'd have to
breed them for intelligence and verbal capacity before we could even
try.  You've never seen a dog depend a stock portfolio....

So instead, what we actually breed for in guard dogs is a *stronger
territorial response*...

You're a bright guy.  I'm sure you'll see the punch line here :-).

> Since many non-human animals are not territorial, considering wolves,
> or other more clearly territorial animals such as shrimp, is not
> obviously relevant.  Since you are making an argument based on
> evolution, you should consider animals closely related to us, such as
> chimpanzees.  My understanding is that chimpanzees appear to be
> territorial at the level of a band composed to 50 to 100 individuals,
> but I don't know of any evidence for territoriality within a band.  I
> don't think there is much evidence for territoriality in gorillas.
> This suggests that individual private property in the sense we mean
> today does not follow strongly from our evolutionary history.

This is the best point in your whole post.  Really we probably ought
to study territorial behavior in bonobos for the closest nonhuman
cladistic match to humans.  And they have "band" territoriality.

However, there are models for individual territoriality in the higher
non-humans primates (orangutans are the best-known example).  But the
real clincher is that human beings themselves display both band *and
individual* territoriality.  Among many lines of evidence for this,
consider studies of preverbal behavior in infants.

The primates are not a conservative stock.  Unlike (say) the felidae,
they have displayed rather wide variations in morphology and behavior 
over relatively short stretches of evolutionary time.  Furthermore
primates display exceptional behavior plasticity within species

Modulations between band-based and individual territoriality should not
come as any surprise at all.

> In general, I think you have a tendency to use the style of arguments
> described as ``evolutionary psychology'' or ``sociobiology.''  These
> arguments, while interesting and useful, tend to drastically simplify
> the range of human behaviour and motivations.

Guilty as charged.  Animal ethology and evolutionary biology are my
main frame of theoretical reference.  Using them does simplify things.
Whether it *over*-simplifies them is another question altogether.

Personally, the more I study animal social models, the more I think 
human beings flatter themselves by overestimating the complexity and
novelty of their own social behavior.

Nor, by the way, do I consider that a cynical statement.  The kingdom of
life is a big and wonderful place.  We separate ourselves from it too much.
		<a href="Eric">">Eric S. Raymond</a>

Yes, the president should resign.  He has lied to the American people, time
and time again, and betrayed their trust.  Since he has admitted guilt,
there is no reason to put the American people through an impeachment.  He
will serve absolutely no purpose in finishing out his term, the only
possible solution is for the president to save some dignity and resign.
	-- 12th Congressional District hopeful Bill Clinton, during Watergate