Ph.D. Octopus

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Hedge Funds, Holodecks, and the Science of Altruism

with 3 comments

by David

Leaf-cutter Ants Carrying Leaves Back to the Nest

I just read a great article in last week’s New Yorker, “Kin and Kind: A Fight About the Genetics of Altruism,” by Jonah Lehrer. Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay-wall, so you should try to find a paper copy somewhere. As a humanities major, I can’t really do it justice, but it’s all about how various species, from vampire bats to the above pictured leaf-cutter ants, engage in different degrees of altruism, from the Darwinian phenomenon known as “inclusive fitness,” where animals look after not only their own offspring but also their nephews and nieces, to the “eusociality” of ants and other insects, “in which individuals live together in vast cooperative societies.” Human beings, of course, also live in complex cooperative societies, regardless of what Republicans might tell you about rugged individualism. The article is also about the academics attempting understand the biology behind benevolence, the “genetics of altruism,” and includes interesting discussion on the difference between mathematicians and biologists, who have been working together to understand these phenomena.

Dr. Corina Tarnita, math whiz/altruist

What interested me the most, however, was an apparent throw-away paragraph (that was clearly not a throw-away paragraph) about one of the scholars involved. Corina Tarnita, a math prodigy who grew up in rural Romania, had excelled at Harvard as an undergraduate, but was becoming bored in a doctoral program there until she discovered a textbook on “the mathematics of evolution.” Unlike her previous research on abstract algebraic geometry, this seemed more concrete, and got her excited. She emailed the author of the textbook, Austrian biologist Martin Nowak, also at Harvard, to see if she could work with him on this. But her life remained at a crossroads:

At the time she emailed Nowak,Tarnita had a dilemma. She’d recently received a job offer from a large hedge fund, for a lucrative position as a quantitative analyst. She was tempted by the money. “I like fancy clothes and fast cars,” she says. “I told myself that if Martin didn’t email me back then maybe I would leave Harvard.” Fortunately, Nowak responded and soon invited Tarnita to join his working group.

The word “fortunately” in the final sentence reflects a bit of editorializing on the part of the piece’s author, Jonah Lehrer, but it’s an opinion I’m sympathetic to. I think it would have been rather disappointing had Tarnita given up a potentially path-breaking career in the academy for the rewards of Wall Street.

I’m reminded of a guy I knew at Harvard: he majored in astrophysics, did incredible work, but had a photo of a Ferrari (or some other fancy car) on his desk. Went to Wall Street. A shame. I’m also reminded of the scene in the excellent and underrated recent movie Margin Callwhere we’re told that Peter Sullivan, the investment banker played by Zachary Quinto (Spock from the recent Star Trek remake) was in fact a “rocket scientist” with a Ph.D. in engineering from MIT before he went to Wall Street. Asked why he made the career change, Sullivan responds: “It’s all just numbers really, just changing what you are adding up, and to speak freely, the money here is considerably more attractive.” We later learn that another of the key players for the bank was also a former engineer who used to bring bridges before the Wall Street riches brought him over to the dark side. The symbolism is strong: bridges bring us together, financial derivatives divide us.

Zachary Quinto as Rocket Scientist turned Risk Manager

The movie is inspired by the real events of the recent economic crash, and we’ve heard its critique before. Paul Krugman and others have said the we need to “make banking boring,” both more regulated and less remunerative, so that the smartest college graduates in math and science stick to well, math and science, and working on engineering and technology, and computers, and medicine and space exploration and all sorts of other cool stuff. Even Thomas Friedman, hardly a radical critic of capitalism, noted that “if one result of the downsizing of Wall Street is that more of America’s best and brightest math and physics students decide to go into science and real engineering rather than financial engineering, the country will be a whole lot better off.”

And here’s where the leaf-cutter ants come in again. Because, while I don’t think investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other high-level employees of the financial sector are necessarily immoral (unlike Crimson editor Dylan Matthews, who does) I do think their professions, as practiced now, are frequently harmful, and part of a broadly harmful industry. A few years ago, it seemed that what they were doing was helping rich people get richer and getting rich themselves in the process. That was bad enough. More recently, they seemed to be helping rich people get richer, getting rich in the process, and wrecking the global economy and screwing over the rest of us. That’s not good. We need to be a bit more like ants: working together for a better society, not just to get richer as individuals. We need more altruism, and investment banking just won’t cut those leaves.

Obviously we’ll always need banks and bankers (though I’m not quite sure about hedge funds and private equity firms). And not every career can be purely altruistic. Medicine is noble work, but even in my wife’s Columbia med school class, some fine physicians are going to make their money performing boob jobs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And my chosen profession, academe, is not exactly like reading to blind people. In some ways, it feels more like showing silent films to blind people (though I operate under the Hippocratic Oath principle “first do no harm”). But even in terms of efficiency (something financiers should understand), I think it’s a poor use of our human resources to have the smartest scientists and mathematicians moving from college to Wall Street without passing go but still collecting large bonuses.

Of course, bonuses are down now, and bankers are complaining. The limited regulations are working. I recently spoke to a hedge fund employee, who claimed to hate his job, but also Dodd-Frank (he called it “Frank-Dodd”), because it was bad for business. But we need more regulation. Every time an MIT or CalTech or other top-school grad in math or science goes to the financial sector, Albert Einstein rolls over in his grave. Selfishly, I scream “where they fuck are my flying cars?” (though I scream this in my head). I’m a Star Trek fan, and I’m still waiting for transporter beams, warp drives, and replicators. And those Holodecks aren’t going to invent themselves.

Seriously though, I do think the world would be a better place if instead of seeking their fortune on Wall Street, math and science whizzes went off “to seek out new life and new civilization”; instead of becoming bankers like so many of their brethren, they would “boldly go where no one has gone before,” rather than see the financial world as “the final frontier.” Indeed, if they did this, if people of average intelligence took their jobs, the financial system would become more stable, bigger problems would be solved, more diseases cured, and more cool shit would be invented and discovered.

Also, all these finance types would become much more interesting. You see, because while I agree with Krugman that banking needs to be more boring, I don’t think that bankers could be any more boring. These people bore themselves when talking about their work (I’ve actually witnessed this). Have you ever had a conversation about commodity trading? It’s a better cure for insomnia than Ambien. How great is it that instead of talking about how much money she’s making, Corina Tarnita can now talk about whether kindess is an evolutionary trait? I think she made the more interesting choice, and the more altruistic one.

Speaking of choices and altruism, this brings me to my final plug, again, for the good radicals and progressives of Occupy Wall Street and those for Obama 2012. This is not just because I think the drone-like monotony of the financial sector makes an ant colony look colourful and lively by comparison. We’re not ants, but we are all in this together. Like my friend and fellow US intellectual historian Andrew Hartman, I’ve become convinced that we’re in the midst of another culture war, not just about gay rights and women’s rights and immigrants and minorities, and religion and secularism, though it is about all those things too. I’m talking about the radical, heartless individualism of the GOP versus the moderate mix of individualism and communitarianism of the Democratic Party. Support for government programs is just an expression of communitarianism: looking out for one another.

I wrote about this a couple days ago on Facebook, but my thinking was somewhat different then. Speaking “looking out for one another,” I wrote that “left to our own devices human beings don’t do that enough for society to work.” But maybe it’s more complicated, or more simple than that. Maybe government, some form of government, is natural, or genetic, a Darwinian trait that provides an evolutionary advantage (of course, you know how the GOP feels about Darwin). Or maybe it’s just that the welfare state developed (evolved?) out literary and historical theories of altruism, you know, like those in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The whole “I am my brother’s keeper” concept and everything, or all the anti-wealth and pro-poverty stuff attributed to Jesus, whose altruistic teachings are more deadly to the GOP than anything Darwin ever wrote.

It’s not entirely clear where altruism comes from, but one thing is very clear: the American election in 2012.  The GOP is that crazy and cruel, and Obama and the Dems represent, broadly speaking, not just what is good about America, but what is good about modern society and civilization, which is a collective enterprise that allows individuals to excel. It’s a stark and uncomplicated choice. I hope America gets it right.

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 6, 2012 at 08:21

3 Responses

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  1. […] light of my recent post extolling the altruistic virtue of scientific pursuit and advancement, I want to call attention to […]

  2. […] not sure I know what it means to be good, or whether the answer is in Plato or the Bible or in our DNA, but I’m pretty it’s not the Glaukon-Goldman-Sachs […]

  3. […] The science of altruism, and how bankers aren’t as good as ants. […]


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