nielsen lab, occupy, and berkeley protests


Some of us from the Nielsen lab have been following the Occupy movement closely. Why?

I guess many of us, if not all, think spending more on education and science is one of the best public investments a country can make for its future. And the resources for such investment can be procured from social sectors who already own and waste large portions of the US and world economy.

The current situation, among many things, leads to a terrible human waste – millions of smart kids who could be great scientists never ever have the opportunity to go to university (and in many countries, not even to school). Meanwhile, we haven’t solved even some simple problems in biology, from evolution to cancer to ageing. Nobody can deny that working out these problems could have huge improvements to human wellbeing, and that we need more science and technology for the benefit of all. In short, redistribution of wealth, a central demand of the Occupy movement, would also contribute to scientific progress.


We’ve thus been taking part in multiple ‘Occupy’ activities, starting the first meeting of Occupy Oakland in mid-October, marches in SF, and the Nov 2 Oakland general strike. This was a great moment – young and old, blue and white collar workers walked and rejoiced together the whole day. Our sign said ‘rEvolutionary Biologists say: Capitalism Reduces Fitness!’

Well, it’s the objective truth. A flyer distributed in the demonstration was pointing out that an African-American boy born in West Oakland has 15 shorter life expectancy than someone born up in the hills. If that’s not reduction in fitness, what is?

Finally, on Wednesday Nov 9, we were at Sproul Plaza to support the Cal students protesting better conditions for education. It was a totally non-violent (even arguably naive) demonstration. It was unbelievable that police could attack this. Amazingly, the students kept calm and did not respond the same way (the police were greatly outnumbered by the students).

I have real doubts about the competence and sincerity of the administrators allowing this police attack.


  1. I would like to thank Mehmet for starting this discussion.

    Personally, I was impressed by the moral strength of the young protesters. I agree with everything they are claiming to and I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to receive a proper free education. Can you imagine a world where all the richest people can have access to high-level education and thus being the only ones who would hold crucial roles in the country economy or politics? I can think of some modern examples of these people, e.g. the nearly-ex Prime Minister of Italy, and how bad they ruled their countries, with the only concern of maintaining and increasing the privileges of their own social class. That’s why it’s so important that education must be maintained public and affordable. I really don’t know how a “public” university like UCB could have increased tuition fee so much (up to 20,000$) in such a short time. Obviously, it’s not entirely UCB’s fault if there are less funding for education and science (“the crisis”) but I believe that we can do a better investment of our resources with a longer-view perspective. One of the protesters’ poster stated that students loans are the next debt bubble. What do you think? It’s not science fiction…

    I was also impressed by how peaceful the demonstration has been (sometimes very “childish”, but, again, they are students in their early 20s). Nevertheless, police reaction was totally overreacted, with young students being brutally beaten and then arrested. You can watch a lot of videos in the web. But what really positively shocked me was the reaction of the students after being beaten up without reason by the police: do you know what they started chanting to the police? “Police is not our enemy”, “This is not a fight against the police” and “We are doing this for your [police] children”. I suppose the Chancellor was not there, otherwise I cannot explain to myself why he wrote “some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.” So what’s non-violent? Maybe his decision to use police to face a scaring mass of unarmed teenagers?

    And if you think that these are the usual hippies from Berkeley who burned their neural cells with all the pot they smoke, you are totally wrong. I saw no yoga sessions, no drum circles, no hugging people nor whatever. Those people are your kids, the future generation, full with anger but also with hope and will to change. Maybe there is some hope for the world to come…

    PS: I read some news comments here and there and some people supported the police action: they wrote that protesters employ police resources and they produce litter so taxes consequently increase. Guess what? Those dirty protesters stopped and cleaned all the ground they were using. Surprised? Me not.

  2. Our blog attracted unexpected attention – excellent! Here are some brief answers:

    – On whether the US can support more science: The US army budget is an annual $670 billion. Billions are spent in professional sports. With such revenues, yes, the US can afford to have ‘millions of scientists’. It only requires the majority to realize that what is in their real, long-term interest.

    – On whether kids really wish to be scientists: What kids want is determined by society, the school system, role models in their community, media, economics. There’s a whole bunch of literature on this, but here’s instead a personal anecdote: A Chinese friend tells me that in the 1980’s, studying physics was among the most popular choices for high-school students. How come? Does that mean the Chinese have the ‘scientist gene’?

    – For those asking whether the 15 year shorter expected lifespan of black West Oakland babies has anything to do with evolutionary fitness – well, yes, this is more a metaphor than strict population genetics analysis, but a well-founded one in that!

    The classical definition of absolute fitness in evolutionary biology, used to model the spread of alleles in a population, is the number of offspring individuals carrying a certain genotype contribute to the next generation [Maynard-Smith 1998 ‘Evolutionary Genetics’]. It thus reflects probabilities of survival and reproduction in a particular environment (note that everything else being equal, reduced chances of survival mean reduced individual fitness).

    What is meant by capitalism reducing fitness, in turn, is social inequality and deprivation weakening the survival ability of *human societies* [e.g. Diamond 2005 ‘Collapse’].

    Meanwhile, human evolution itself provides nice evidence for why survival of societies is not a simple function of reproductive rates. Among life-history characteristics distinguishing humans from chimpanzees, three conspicuous traits are delayed reproduction, menopause, and longevity. These traits were likely advantageous in human evolution, and thus selected for. However, selection for these traits did not necessarily involve a direct increase in the reproductive rates of particular individuals. Instead, they likely involved selection through inclusive fitness (e.g. the increased survival of grandchildren), and the expansion of human abilities for cultural accumulation and transmission [Kaplan et al 2000]. Collaborative behavior and altruism may have been similarly been selected for in human evolution [Hamann et al 2011]. It was these cultural traits, not just increased fertility, which rendered modern humans such successful species, and might even have allowed our ancestors to out-compete their cousins like Neanderthals.

    Coming back: Some populations or social sectors in today’s world show faster growth in numbers than others. But populations in poverty, without education, healthcare, technology development, long-term planning, or organized resource sharing, will eventually pay a cost. They will be less likely to sustain themselves and they will be particularly vulnerable to crises. This is repeatedly seen in historical [Diamond 2005 ‘Collapse’], as well as recent examples, such as the halving of incomes in US Latinos and African-Americans post-2008.

    The social message is clear and if you don’t like it, better say directly, don’t hind behind forced arguments.

    1. mehmet, so the populations that have been selected for longevity should accommodate those less ‘adapted’ to colder climes? Do you then agree with Angela Merkel that Germany’s immigrant community should take advantage of its “cultural accumulation” – its language?

  3. I just came here from another blog which has the following to say about the “rEvolutionary Biologists say: Capitalism Reduces Fitness!” sign:

    A reduction of life expectancy by 15 years is not evidence of reduction of fitness. Fitness is measured in offspring, it is not measured in years lived. African countries, for example, have very high population growth rates, and very low life expectancies. That is fitness. Fitness is not a comfortable long life, but having lots of babies and living long enough to ensure their survival as independent entities.It is strange that evolutionary biologists from a top institution would make such a simple mistake. Perhaps public spending is not the best way to advance science and education?

      1. I’ve already written a reply in the other blog but maybe you missed it.
        Someone wrote in the discussion in the other blog:
        “Meaning has as much to do with context as definition.”
        Indeed, with our sign we meant that current economical system doesn’t provide to all the means of leading a fulfilling life.
        We didn’t want to “misinform” public community with a “social definition” of fitness and I am sorry that many people misunderstood our point. We are well aware of the Darwinian meaning of fitness. It was a figurative way, a pun, to express our opinion.

  4. “Well, it’s the objective truth. A flyer distributed in the demonstration was pointing out that an African-American boy born in West Oakland has 15 shorter life expectancy than someone born up in the hills. If that’s not reduction in fitness, what is?”

    What form of economics is practiced “up in the hills”?

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