Slice of Insight: The Elephant in the Brain

book review

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(This isn’t a paid ad; I simply enjoyed the book so much that I wanted to share it.)

I’ve been fascinated by ex-Palantir employee Kevin Simler for sometime now. I believe I stumbled upon his blog, Melting Asphalt, at some period in high school: I was searching for a use with my energy – inexhaustible it appeared at the time. Immediately I was hooked after I read his piece, Stories and Theories, aimed at how both allow us to partition the world in vastly different ways. So it’s no surprise that when The Elephant in the Brain hit shelves, I was prepared to dive in headfirst.

An elephant in the room is an idiom for how there can be an item noteworthy between a group of people let’s say, but it won’t be discussed (i.e. nobody mentioning your uncle’s recent mishaps with alcohol). Specifically, the book addresses how there are some aspects of our personality and decision-making that are indecipherable to us, ergo elephant in the brain. But the book itself analyses a multitude of points that seem quite distinct, but in reality all come together at the end.

One of my favorite parts of the book was when Simler and Hanson highlight the game theory of coastal redwood trees. Essentially, Redwood trees individually spend their resources trying to become as tall as capillary action will let them – around 400 feet for those curious. It’s the great filter for redwood trees. But why aim to be the tallest? Forests are the definition of a competitive environment and even then, sunlight is cardinally scarce in Mother Nature’s resource cornucopia. Therefore:

“[The] redwood is locked in an evolutionary arms race—or in this case, a “height race”—with itself. It grows tall because other redwoods are tall, and if it doesn’t throw most of its effort into growing upward as fast as possible, it will literally wither and die in the shadows of its rivals.”

Humans were able to evolve and abound over other species in large part because we could form coalitions, attracting allies to one’s side, and thus plan for the future. The incentive to do this is because we can aspire to individually earn a larger piece of the pie (or pai); this is the underpinnings for anthropolitics and where it becomes truly complex.Without this aspect, we should expect that the world mimics dog-eat-dog and that the rate of advancement should come to a standstill (assuming it ever began in the first place). The magnificent masterpieces and innovations from the Library of Alexandria in antiquity or more recently, the transistors in your computer’s memory chip could have only been accomplished with intraspecies collaboration. Individually we would have to scrounge for the scarcest of bare necessities, but together we can create reusable rockets and send astronauts to the moon.

Before I give away too much from this fantastic work, I find myself repeatedly thinking of Simler and Hanson’s notion that we seek to fool ourselves and distort signals into noise. The fundamental irony is that we commit sensory overload in order to soak in information from our surroundings but once we have it, our brains erase and etch over it in our memories. To see the prevalence of this idea, one only needs to look at the amount of movies based on the trope of an disloyal memory: Inception, Blade Runner 2049, and the Matrix have this interlaced with their core plots.2 It’s almost as if we have to wrestle the truth from memory’s clenched fingers. Plato said in the Theaetetus that our memories are like wax tablets: they last until the imprinted stamp on the wax wears away. Indeed, the wax wears off rapidly and the writings are translated into what we prefer rather than the truth.3

These ideas are only scratching the surface of what’s inside the book, make sure to check it out if you’re purportedly interested in what could only be described as their sui generis work.

The Elephant in the Brain is available on Amazon.


[1] More on anthropolitics.

[2] Blade Runner 2049 is better than the original IMO (don’t shoot please.)

[3] Theory of Knowledge.