The myth of the single explanation

I think one of the things that tends to lead us astray when we try to understand complex phenomena like evolution, disease, or the economy, is that we have this idea that they must have a single explanation. For example, recently two papers have been published in high profile journals trying to explain mammal monogamy. Although monogamy is quite common in birds it only occurs in 5% of mammals. Here is Carl Zimmer’s summary.  The study in Science, which surveyed 2545 mammal species, argued that monogamy arises when females are solitary and sparse. Males must then commit to one since dates are so hard to find. The study in PNAS examined 230 primate species, for which monogamy occurs at the higher rate of 27%, and used Bayesian inference to argue that monogamy arises to prevent male infanticide. It’s better to help out at home rather than go around killing other men’s babies. Although both of these arguments are plausible, there need not be a single universal explanation. Each species could have its own set of circumstances that led to monogamy involving these two explanations and others. However, while we should not be biased towards a single explanation, we shouldn’t also throw up our hands like Hayek and argue that no complex phenomenon can be understood. Some phenomena will have simpler explanations than others but since the Kolmogorov complexity is undecidable there is no algorithm that can tell you which is which. We will just have to struggle with each problem as it comes.

One thought on “The myth of the single explanation

  1. Bertrand Russel was described as practicing serial monogamy—I wonder how that fits in. One can imagine also that just as some lizards change sex based on the temperature (i think Trivers studied this) reproductive strategies may undergo bifurcations, so in a sense there is one explanation. (eg like S Kaufmann’s idea that all cell types are really just different stable states of some common wiring type diagram or network). There may also be an analog of Feynman’s idea that ‘there is only one electron in the universe just phase shifted in time’. So its sortuh like karma, with everyone following the same poincare cycle through phase space. (Then the question becomes whethere is only one such tracetory, or an ensemble of them —eg are you flipping one coin, or a possibly infinite number of them—1 random walk or n?)

    the july plos1 has an article by thogerson etc on how females can choose the sex of their offspring (‘winning the genetic lottery). these sociobiological questions are interesting; perhaps a least action principle exists (and there seem to be many—unless they are all the same—in the abstract case).


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