Medieval Metallurgy, the Evolution of Decoration, and the Shangri-La Diet

A new BBC series Metalworks! is about the history of British metal working. My theory of human evolution says that decoration — more precisely, our enjoyment of it — evolved because it helped the most skilled craftsmen make a living. Long ago, technology evolved via massive amounts of trial and error, which required subsidy since payoff (discovery with practical value) was so infrequent. It was much easier to discover/learn how to make something that looked better than something that worked better, but the two sorts of discoveries were correlated: trial and error produces both.

The episode on ironwork (The Blacksmith’s Tale) makes explicit how desire for decoration made it easier for the most skilled iron workers to make a living:

[Expert, at 16:50:] “I think decoration entirely depends on the amount of money the patron wanted to spend on that particular object.” [Narrator:] By the end of the 15th Century, wealthy patrons, such as the Church and monarchy, were hand-picking known craftsmen at the top of their game to match a commission’s requirements. When King Edward IV commissioned the Cornish smith John Tresillion to make these Gothic gates at Windsor in 1497, he did so with good reason. . . . [Expert:] “No blacksmith, ordinary blacksmith who was used to making horseshoes, could dream of working to this standard of perfection.”

Quality of decoration is easy to see. It doesn’t matter but it correlates with something that does matter — amount of trial and error (more trial and error, more innovation). We reward decoration to increase innovation.

The Shangri-La Diet derives from a theory of weight control that emphasizes smell-calorie learning. Smell-calorie learning evolved for the same logical reason. Smells don’t actually matter for health. But they are easy to notice and they correlate with things that do matter for health, such as calories. Via smell-calorie learning we learn the correlations. After that the foods that smell best are the ones that contain more calories.

3 Replies to “Medieval Metallurgy, the Evolution of Decoration, and the Shangri-La Diet”

  1. Smells don’t actually matter for health.

    Smells don’t matter for health? It seems to me that detecting rot, rancidity or the presence/absence of certain chemicals might be as useful as calorie detection.

    I also wonder how well caloric density typically correlates with smell.

    Seth: Yes, the analogy breaks down here, I agree. Some smells are unconditionally repulsive. Smell-calorie associations are learned so the smell becomes a very accurate predictor of caloric density.

  2. A number of your themes touched on in this article.

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent $830 million funding obesity studies in fiscal year 2011. Between 2008 and 2011, NIH spent over $3.3 billion on obesity research.

    Spending on obesity research also overshadows many other areas of research funded by NIH, including research on Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and breast cancer, which received $448 million, $437 million and $715 million in 2011, respectively.

    Read more:

  3. Hi Seth,

    Regarding your evolutionary theory of Connoisseurs.

    I’m going a bit out on a limp here because I havn’t read the full article you posted. I did read the section about Connoisseurs, and this post is mostly a comment to previous post about evolutionary theory of Connoisseurs.

    I believe the theory of evolution says that for a trait to prosper, it must be carried by a collection of genes which prosper. And genes prosper (by definition) if the individuals carrying the genes get more babies in each generation.

    Therefore, for the Connoissorship gene to prosper, it must be good for the Connoisseurs themselves. It is irrelevant that its good for producers, as they are not necessarily carrying the gene. And in fact if the only good thing about Connoisseurship is that its good for the producers, then its bad for the Connoisseur-gene, because it means the Connoisseurs have less money/resources for other life-preserving options.

    I think that a theory for Connoisseurs which might fit with the evolutionary theory is that Connoisseur gene might prosper, because people who have access to both good and bad food should develop taste for the good food because it good for the body. But people who do not have access to good food, should accept the bad food and be happy. This is just an example of how the theory should be built. In particular this theory could be used on the Willat Effect.

    I’m a computer scientist, not evolutionary scientist. I read the book Robert Wrights ‘The Moral Animal’ (great book), and a bit of Less Wrong, and found that the right way to look at evolutionary theories is by looking at the proliferation of the genes. So I’m no expert in this, I just could not hold my tongue anymore.

    Seth: You write: “Therefore, for the Connoissorship gene to prosper, it must be good for the Connoisseurs themselves. It is irrelevant that its good for producers, as they are not necessarily carrying the gene.” People who live together tend to have more genes in common than people who live far apart. And people who live together have “shared fate” — they tend to live and die together. The effect of these two correlations is that if you help someone nearby, you are helping your own genes even if the action produces no immediate benefit to you. A large number of evolutionary biologists have been getting this wrong for a long time — making arguments like yours, which ignore correlations. This is now being recognized — e.g., E. O. Wilson.

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