Posted on March 11th, 2013 2 comments
Yes, it’s true, there are a lot of leftover Blank Slaters around. They live on in the hermetically sealed halls of academia as sort of a light echo of the Marxist supernova. Still, I count myself lucky to have witnessed the smashing of the absurd orthodoxy they once imposed on the behavioral sciences. Few people pay any attention to them anymore outside of their own echo chambers. That makes it all the more refreshing to see shoots of new life sprouting in the once desiccated wasteland of cultural anthropology.
Consider, for example, the work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, currently a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia. As a young graduate student in 1995, Henrich landed in Peru and began studying the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live by hunting and small-scale farming. In the process, he turned up some very interesting data on the importance of culture in human affairs. As noted in an article entitled, We Aren’t the World, that appeared recently in the Pacific Standard,
While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.
The particular game that Henrich used was the Ultimatum Game (click on the hyperlink for a description), and as the data accumulated, it revealed some rather profound behavioral differences between the Machiguenga and the average North American or European. Again quoting from the Pacific Standard article,
To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
Obviously, “the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring” was not the most parsimonious explanation for this “anomaly.” It was, of course, culture. As Henrich and his collaborators continued their research,
…they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains.
As they say, read the whole thing. I find stories like this tremendously encouraging. Why? In none of Henrich’s papers that I have looked at to date is there any suggestion that anyone who disagrees with him is either a racist or a fascist. In none of them do I detect that he has an ideological ax to grind. In none of them do I detect an implicit rejection of anything smacking of evolutionary psychology. Quite the contrary! In a conversation with an interviewer from Edge.org, for example, Henrich explicitly embraces human nature, suggesting that its evolution was driven by culture. For example, from the interview,
Another area that we’ve worked on is social status. Early work on human status just took humans to have a kind of status that stems from non-human status. Chimps, other primates, have dominant status. The assumption for a long time was that status in humans was just a kind of human version of this dominant status, but if you apply this gene-culture co-evolutionary thinking, the idea that culture is one of the major selection pressures in human evolution, you come up with this idea that there might be a second kind of status. We call this status prestige.
A commitment to something like anti-nepotism norms is something that runs against our evolutionary inclinations and our inclinations to help kin and to invest in long-term close relationships, but it’s crucial for making a large-scale society run. Corruption, things like hiring your brother-in-law and feathering the nest of your close friends and relatives is what really tears down and makes complex societies not work very well. In this sense, the norms of modern societies that make modern societies run now are at odds with at least some of our evolved instincts.
I love that reference to “evolved instincts.” Back in the day the Blank Slaters used to dismiss anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with humans as a troglodyte. “Instincts” were for insects. Humans might (but almost certainly did not) have ”predispositions.” Politicians and debaters are familiar with the gambit. It’s basically a form of intellectual one-upmanship. Of course, neither then or now was anyone ever confused by the use of the term “instinct.” Everyone knew perfectly well in the heyday of the Blank Slate what those who used it were talking about, just as they do now in the context of Henrich’s interview. The pecksniffery associated with its use was more or less equivalent to a physicist striking intellectual poses because someone he disagreed with used the term “work” or “power” in a matter different from their definitions in scientific textbooks.
In short, the work published by Henrich et. al. does not appear to conform to some ideological party line in the interest of some future utopia. It’s intent does not appear to be the enabling of pious poses by the authors as “saviors” of indigenous people. One actually suspects they have written it because it is what they have observed and believe to be the truth!
This sort of work is not only very refreshing, but very necessary. Science advances by way of hypotheses, or what some have called “just so stories.” Truth is approached by the relentless criticism and testing of these ”just so stories.” The havoc wrought in the field of cultural anthropology and many of the other behavioral sciences by the zealots of failed secular religions destroyed their credibility, greatly impairing their usefulness as a source of criticism and testing for the hypotheses of evolutionary psychology, which have been proliferating in such abundance of late. Work like this may eventually restore some semblance of balance. It’s high time. There is no form of knowledge more important to our species than self-knowledge. It is not hyperbole to say that our survival may depend on it.
Posted on March 4th, 2013 1 comment
A few days ago E. O. Wilson published a bit in The New York Times entitled The Riddle of the Human Species. Wilson, of course, is a fine writer and a great thinker who’s books include, among others, the seminal Sociobiology. He has been referred to as the “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” or was, at least, until he challenged some academic orthodoxies in his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth. Among the most egregious of these was his defense of group selection, a subject with a fascinating history which I have often discussed in this blog. Basically, the group selection hypothesis is that natural selection of certain traits occurred because it favored the survival of groups, even though those traits were either neutral or detrimental to the survival of individuals. This drew a chorus of boos from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, who have more or less staked their reputations on the assertion that group selection never happened or, if it did, it wasn’t important. There’s really nothing new in Wilson’s latest bit. He basically reiterates the themes of his latest book, including group selection. This again drew the predictable catcalls from the Dawkins/Pinker camp. One of them was penned by Jerry Coyne, proprieter of the blog, Why Evolution is True. I certainly agree with his take on evolution, but I found some of the arguments in his response to Wilson’s latest risable.
So it’s sad to see him, at the end of his career, repeatedly flogging a discredited theory (“group selection”: evolution via the differential propagation and extinction of groups rather than genes or individuals) as the most important process of evolutionary change in humans and other social species. Let me back up: group selection is not “discredited,” exactly; rather, it’s not thought to be an important force in evolution. There’s very little evidence that any trait (in fact, I can’t think of one, including cooperation) has evolved via the differential proliferation of groups.
Here Coyne does a complete 180 in a single paragraph, making the bombastic claim that group selection is discredited and then doing a quick rowback to the more prosaic, “Well, maybe not quite.” There may be very little evidence that any trait evolved via group selection, as Coyne suggests, but there’s very little evidence that those that might have evolved via group selection didn’t, either. Coyne continues,
I’ve covered this issue many times (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), so I won’t go over the arguments again. Wilson’s “theory” that group selection is more important than kin selection in the evolution of social behavior (published in Nature with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita) was criticized strongly by 156 scientists—including virtually every luminary in social evolution—in five letters to the editor, and sentiment about the importance of group selection has, if anything, decreased since Wilson’s been pushing it.
This is the classic “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” argument, or, in more polite parlance, the argument from authority. Coyne knows that it is just as flimsy as the claim that group selection is a “discredited theory,” but this time he takes a bit longer to do a 180, writing near the very end of his bit,
His theories have not gained traction in the scientific community. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, for, in the end, scientific truth is decided by experiment and observation, not by the numbers of people initially on each side of an issue.
If that’s the case, why bring up the “156 scientists” argument to begin with? If memory serves, there were very few “experts” in the behavioral sciences who didn’t at least pay lip service to the Blank Slate orthodoxy until a very few decades ago. Did that make it right? Coyne next takes Wilson to task for his “inaccurate” use of the term “eusociality”:
“Eusociality” as defined by Wilson and every other evolutionist is the condition in which a species has a reproductive and social division of labor: eusocial species have “castes” that do different tasks, with a special reproductive caste (“queens”) that do all the progeny producing, and “worker castes” that are genetically sterile and do the tending of the colony. Such species include Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees, though not all species are eusocial), termites, naked mole rats, and some other insects.
But humans don’t have reproductive castes, nor genetically determined worker castes. Wilson is going against biological terminology, lumping humans with ants as “eusocial,” so he can apply his own theories of “altruism” in social insects (i.e., workers “unselfishly” help their mothers produce offspring while refraining themselves from reproducing), to humans.
Here, one can but smile and wonder if Coyne is actually serious. Is he really unaware that, while he may not have actually coined the term “eusociality,” Wilson supplied the first scientific definition for it? Is he no longer allowed to use a term that he essentially invented as he sees fit? The presence of “castes” is by no means universally accepted as a requirement for eusociality in any case.
As it happens, Wilson is co-author with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita of a paper presenting a mathematical theory of group selection entitled, The Evolution of Eusociality. Alluding to this, Coyne writes,
The mathematical “proof” given by Nowak et al. does not show that group selection is a better explanation than kin selection for social behavior in insects, for their “proof” does not vary the level of kinship, as it must if it could allow that conclusion.
This begs the question of whether alternative mathematical “proofs” of kin selection are any better. To this, as one who has spent a good part of his career as a computational physicist, I can only laugh. Consider the case of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), built to demonstrate inertial confinement fusion. The finest three-dimensional full physics codes, amply benchmarked with the results of previous experiments on earlier giant laser facilities such as Nova at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and OMEGA at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, confidently predicted that the NIF would succeed in achieving its ignition goal. It did not. It is currently short of that goal by more than an order of magnitude. Trust me, the mathematical models that are supposed to “prove” group selection or kin selection are hopelessly crude by comparison. They can all be taken with a grain of salt. Coyne continues,
The second egregious and false claim in this paragraph (a paragraph that’s the highlight of the piece) is that “multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists” because of the Nowak et al. paper. That’s simply not true. The form of multilevel selection adumbrated in that paper is, to my knowledge, embraced by exactly four people: the three authors of the paper and David Sloan Wilson.
Here, I can but suggest that Coyne try Google, using the search term “group selection.” It would seem based on a cursory search that there are rather more embracers of group selection than he imagined. Coyne concludes,
Why does Wilson keep writing article and article, and book after book, promoting group selection? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is that his seeming monomaniacal concentration on a weakly-supported form of evolution can serve only to erode his reputation… Wilson’s reputation is secure. It’s sad to see it tarnished by ill-founded arguments for an unsubstantiated evolutionary process.
What, exactly, is this supposed to be? A thinly veiled threat? If not, how else is one to construe it? Is Coyne suggesting that Wilson either repeat orthodoxies about group selection that he clearly believes to be false, or, alternatively, shut up and surrender his freedom of speech because he’s worried about his precious reputation? It brings to mind my own furious denunciation of Aristotle in my 9th grade biology class for promoting wrong theories of cosmology. My teacher, Mr. Haag, who was much wiser than I deserved, observed, “Well, at least he thought.” I’ve thought a great deal about that reply since the 9th grade. To this day I have no idea whether group selection was really important or not, and don’t believe that anyone else has adequate evidence to decide the question one way or the other, either. However, regardless, I will always honor and admire E. O. Wilson. At least he thought.
Posted on February 24th, 2013 3 comments
In his latest book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last warns us of the dire consequences of shrinking populations. He’s got it backwards. It’s the best thing that could happen to us.
Before proceeding with my own take on this issue, I would like to assure the reader that I am not a rabid environmentalist or a liberal of the sort who considers people with children morally suspect. I have children and have encouraged my own children to have as many children as possible themselves. It seems to me that the fact that those among us who are supposedly the most intelligent are also the most infertile is a convincing proof of the stupidity of our species.
Why did I decide to have children? In the end, it’s a subjective whim, just like every other “purpose of life” one might imagine. However, as such I think it’s justifiable enough. The explanation lies in the way in which I perceive my “self.” As I see it, “we” are not our conscious minds, although that is what most of us perceive as “we.” Our conscious minds are evanescent manifestations of the physical bodies whose development is guided by our genes. They pop into the world for a moment and are then annihilated in death. They exist for that brief moment for one reason only – because they happened to promote our genetic survival. Is it not more reasonable to speak of “we” as that about us which has existed for billions of years and is potentially immortal, namely, our genes, than to assign that term to an ancillary manifestation of those genes that exists for a vanishingly small instant of time by comparison? We have a choice. We can choose that this “we” continue to survive, or we can choose other goals, and allow this “we” to be snuffed out, so that the physical bodies that bear our “we” become the last link in an unbroken chain stretching back over billions of years. There is no objective reason why we should prefer one choice or the other. The choice is purely subjective. The rest of the universe cares not a bit whether our genes survive or not. I, however, care. If countless links in a chain have each created new links in turn and passed on the life they carried over the eons, only to come to a link possessed of qualities that cause it to fail to continue the chain, it seems reasonable to consider that link dysfunctional, or, in the most real sense imaginable, a failure. I personally would not find the realization comforting that I am a sick and dysfunctional biological unit, a failure at carrying out that one essential function that a process of natural selection has cultivated for an almost inconceivable length of time. Therefore, I have children. As far as I am concerned, they, and not wealth, or property, or fame, are the only reasonable metric of success in the life of any individual. The very desire for wealth, property or fame only exist because at some point in our evolutionary history they have promoted our survival and procreation. As ends in themselves, divorced from the reason they came into existence in the first place, they lead only to death.
Am I concerned if others don’t agree with me? Far from it! And that brings us back to the main point of this post. I do not agree with Jonathan Last that a constantly increasing population, or even a stable one at current levels, is at all desirable. As far as I am concerned, it is a wonderful stroke of luck that in modern societies the conscious minds of so many other humans have become dysfunctional, resulting in their genetic death. I am interested in keeping other genes around only to the extent that they promote the survival of my own. That is also the only reason that I would prefer one level of population on the planet to one that is larger or smaller. That, of course, is a very personal reason, but it seems to me that it is a conclusion that must follow for anyone else to the extent that they prefer survival to the alternative.
Survival, then, is my sine qua non. Given that this planet is, for practical purposes, the only one we can depend on to support our survival, I consider it foolhardy to prefer a population that is potentially unsustainable, or that will diminish everyone’s chances of long term survival. I am hardly a fanatical environmentalist. I would just prefer that we refrain from rocking the boat. I have read Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, and am well aware of how frequently the environmentalists have been crying “wolf” lo now these many years. However, like Lomborg, I agree that there is still reason for concern. Pollution and environmental degradation are real problems, as is the rapid exploitation of limited sources of cheap energy and other raw materials. Obviously, Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions that we would run out of everything in short order were far off the mark. However, eventually, they will run out, and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the date as long as possible. Let us consider the reasons Jonathan Last believes all these risks are worth taking. In all honesty, assuming we are agreed that survival is a worthwhile goal, they seem trivial to me.
To begin, while paying lip service to the old chestnut that a correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, Last suggests exactly that. On page 7 of the hardcover version of his book he writes, “Declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse.” To see whether this suggestion holds water, let’s look at one of Lasts own examples of “declining populations.” On p. 36 he writes, “World population also declined steeply between 1340 and 1400, shrinking from 443 million to 374 million. This was not a period of environmental and social harmony; it was the reign of the Black Death. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether declining populations were the cause of the Black Death, or the Black Death was the cause of declining populations. To anyone who has read a little history, it is abundantly clear that, while disease, war, and economic collapse may cause depopulation, the instances where the reverse was clearly the case are few and far between. In a similar vein, referring to the Roman Empire, Last writes on p. 35, “Then, between A.D. 200 and 600, population shrank from 257 million to 208 million, because of falling fertility. We commonly refer to that period as the descent into the Dark Ages.” Where is the evidence that the population fell because of “falling fertility”? Last cites none. On the other hand, there is abundant source material from the period to demonstrate that, as in the case of the Black Death, declining populations were a result, and not a cause. In Procopius‘ history of the Great Italian War in the 6th century, for example, he notes that Italy has become depopulated. The great historian was actually there, and witnessed the cause first hand. It was not “declining fertility,” but starvation resulting from the destruction of food sources by marauding armies.
However, this allusion to “Very Bad Things” is really just a red herring. Reading a little further in Last’s book, it doesn’t take us long to discover the real burrs under his saddle. Most of them may be found by glancing through the 50 pages between chapters 5 and 7 of his book. They include, 1) The difficulty of caring for the elderly. 2) The decrease in inventiveness and entrepreneurship (because of an over proportion of elderly) 3) A decline in military strength, accompanied by an unwillingness to accept casualties, and 4) Lower economic growth. The idea that anyone could seriously suggest that any of these transient phenomena could justify playing risky games with the ability of our planet to sustain life for millennia into the future boggles the mind. The population of the planet cannot keep increasing indefinitely in any case. At some point, it must stabilize, and these consequences will follow regardless. The only question is, how many people will be affected.
Consider Japan, a country Last considers an almost hopeless demographic basket case. Its population was only 42 million as recently as 1900. At the time it won wars against both China and Russia, which had much greater populations of 415 million and 132 million, respectively at the time. Will it really be an unmitigated disaster if its population declines to that level again? It may well be that Japan’s elderly will have to make do with less during the next century or two. I hereby make the bold prediction that, in spite of that, they will not all starve to death or be left without health care to die in the streets. Demographically, Japan is the most fortunate of nations, not the least favored. At least to date, she does not enjoy the “great advantage” of mass immigration by culturally alien populations, an “advantage” that is likely to wreak havoc in the United States and Europe.
As for military strength, I doubt that we will need to fear enslavement by some foreign power as long as we maintain a strong and reliable nuclear arsenal, and, with a smaller population, the need to project our power overseas, for example to protect sources of oil and other resources, will decline because our needs will be smaller. As for inventiveness, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, it would be better to promote them by restraining the cancerous growth of modern tax-devouring welfare states than by artificially stimulating population growth. Again, all of Last’s “Very Bad Things” are also inevitable things. What he is proposing will not enable us to avoid them. It will merely postpone them for a relatively short time, as which point they will be even more difficult to manage because of depleted resources and a degraded environment than they are now. It seems a very meager excuse for risking the future of the planet.
In a word, I favor a double standard. Unrestricted population growth of my own family and those closely related to me genetically balanced by an overall decline in the population overall. There is nothing incongruous about this. It is the inherent nature of our species to apply one standard to our ingroup, and an entirely different one to outgroups. We all do the same, regardless of whether we are prepared to admit it or not. I leave you, dear reader, in the hope that you will not become confused by the distinction between the two.
Posted on February 10th, 2013 No comments
Procopius was one of the greatest of the Roman historians (or slightly post-Roman if you insist that the Empire “fell” in 476 A.D.). He wrote during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. As he was the personal secretary of the brilliant general Belisarius, his works are full of first hand accounts of the great man’s many victories against the Persians, Vandals, and Goths. These include many fascinating and touching anecdotes, such as finding a young boy, obviously from a wealthy family because he was wearing a gold chain, abandoned by his mother on the side of the road just as the invading Persian armies were approaching; of a Hun in Belisarius’ little army of mercenary barbarians who became depressed, perhaps because he was so far from home, and one day rode out alone among the enemy Goths, killing many of them before being cut down himself; of Belisarius’ men’s consternation at his laughter when, besieged in Rome, the vast host of Goths outside sent massive seige towers against them that overtopped the walls. Belisarius merely let them come on until they were within range, drew back his bow, and shot down one of the oxen pulling the towers. After his men had finished off the rest, they realized why Belisarius had been laughing.
Some of the other stories Procopius recounts were picked up by hearsay, or from books, and many are little more than glorified fairy tales. Like the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, though, they often provide some insight into human nature. One of them is the story of the pearl, apparently well known among the Persians of the time. As the story goes, an oyster on the Persian coast produced a fabulous pearl, which it like to display between its open valves. A shark fell in love with the beautiful gem, and could only leave off looking at it when, at long intervals, it was forced by hunger to search for food. A fisherman saw what was going on, and reported the whole matter to the Persian king, Perozes. According to Procopius,
Now when Perozes heard his account, they say that a great longing for the pearl came over him, and he urged on this fisherman with many flatteries and hopes of reward. Unable to resist the importunities of the monarch, he is said to have addressed Perozes as follows: “My master, precious to a man is money, more precious is his life, but most prized of all are his children; and being naturally constrained by his love for them a man might perhaps dare anything. Now I intend to make trial of the monster, and hope to make thee master of the pearl. And if I succeed in this struggle, it is plain that henceforthf shall be ranked among those who are counted blessed. For it is not unlikely that thou, as King of Kings, wilt reward me with all good things; and for me it will be sufficient, even if it so fall out that I gain no reward, to have shewn myself a benefactor of my master. But if it must needs be that I become the prey of this monster, they task indeed it will be, O King, to requite my children for their father’s death. Thus even after my death I shall still be a wage-earner among those closest to me, and thou wilt win greater fame for thy goodness, – for in helping my children though wilt confer a boon upon me.
Predictably, the shark caught up with the poor fisherman, but not before he was able to throw the pearl to his companions on shore. If there’s any truth to the story, his children did very well. The Persian kings apparently took such matters very seriously. One of them, Isdigerdes, was named the guardian of the child of the Roman emperor Arcadius just before the latter’s death. The King of Kings took immediate charge of the child, and threatened immediate invasion and death to anyone who presumed to harm him or usurp his place.
Another interesting story turns up in the same book (Book I, History of the Wars) a few pages later. It seemed that certain persons had impugned the loyalty of the Armenian client king Arsaces to his Persian overlord Pacurius. The latter invited Arsaces to his capital, where he was made a prisoner. However, he was in a quandry as to whether the Armenian was really guilty or not, and solicited advice from his wisemen, the Magi. Again, letting Procopius pick up the tale,
Now the Magi deemed it by no means just to condemn men who denied their guilt and had not been explicitly found guilty, but they suggested to him an artifice by whicdh Arsaces himself might be compelled to become openly his own accuser. They bade him cover the floor of the royal tent with earth, one half from the land of Persia, and the other half from Armenia. This the king did as directed. Then the Magi, after putting the whole tent under a spell by means of some magic rites, bade the king take his walk there in company with Arsaces, reproaching him meanwhile with having violated the sworn agreement. They said, further, that they too must be present at the conversation, for in this way there would be witnesses of all that was said. Accordingly Pacurius straightway summoned Arsaces, and beganf to walk to and fro with him in the tent in the presence of the Magi; he enquired of the man why he had disregarded his sworn promises, and was setting about to harass the Persians and Armenians once more with grievous troubles. Now as long as the conversation too place on the ground which was covered with the earth from the land of Persia, Arsaces continued to make denial, and, pledging himself with the fearful oaths, insisted that he was a faithful subject of Pacurius. But when, in the midst of his speaking, he came to the center of the tent where they stepped upon Armenian earth, then, compelled by some unknown power, he suddenly changed the tone of his words to one of defiance, and from then on ceased not to threaten Pacurius and the Persians, announcing that he would have vengeance upon them for this insolence as soon as he should become his own master. These words of youthful folly he continued to utter as they walked all the way, until turning back, he came again to the earth from the Persian land. Thereupon, as if chanting a recantation, he was once more a suppliant, offering pitiable explanations to Pacurius. But when he came again to the Armenian earth, he returned to his threats.
As I mentioned in my last post, Razib Khan at Discover’s Gene Expression blog just wrote,
…cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.
I am not so pessimistic. I think they might yet recover if they read more ancient fairy tales, and stopped inventing new ones of their own.
Posted on February 8th, 2013 No comments
Razib Khan, who writes Discover Magazine’s Gene Expression blog, has been a bit testy lately about some unusually vile ad hominem attacks being directed at Jared Diamond by some of the usual suspects among the pathologically pious faction of cultural anthropologists and miscellaneous self-appointed saviors of indigenous peoples. It seems that Diamond, author of such bestsellers as Guns, Germs, and Steel, and by all accounts safely on the left of the ideological spectrum, has been unmasked as a closet colonialist, imperialist, admirer of Cecil Rhodes, and pawn of evil global corporations. Razib’s response to all this:
I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated.
I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology.
and, more poetically,
Many cultural anthropologists believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.
I wouldn’t go quite that far, and, in fact, the people at Survival International who were responsible for giving Razib the final nudge over the top don’t actually claim to be cultural anthropologists, but I must admit it’s a nice turn of phrase. You can read the rest of what he had to say here and here. While I, too, have taken a rather dim view of Diamond’s books, I can only heartily agree with Razib when he says,
Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies.
And with that lengthy preamble, let me finally get to the point of this post. It has to do with something else Razib wrote in the articles linked above, namely,
As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter.
To this, a commenter replied,
There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.
I side with Razib on this one. Appeasement has never worked against self-righteous ideological zealots of any stripe. To this, an insightful reader who’s been following my blog for a while might reply, “But how can you favor responding to morally based attacks with morally based attacks? You don’t believe in morality!” Of course, that’s not quite accurate. I do believe in morality as the expression of subjective emotions whose existence ultimately depends on evolved behavioral traits. I don’t believe in transcendental morality, e.g., the existence of Good and Evil as objects, or things in themselves. For that reason I see the morally loaded attacks on Diamond that Khan objects to for what they really are; a self-righteous and self-interested display of moral emotions that have become disconnected from the “purpose” those emotions evolved to serve; the propagation and survival of the genes of the phenotypes from which the attacks are emanating. Or, to put it in the vernacular, they are absurd. They are being mounted by people who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of something that doesn’t exist; objective Good. They are not mounted because they are really likely to save anyone, but because they give pleasure to those who pose as saviors.
In spite of that, they are potentially very effective, are demonstrably very destructive, and are certainly not to be defeated by calm, scientific refutation. One must fight fire with fire, or accept defeat. Call it doublethink if you will. Essentially, I am advocating the use of a weapon whose existence is based on the premise that there is such a thing as objective Good, when there quite clearly is not. However, we are a moral species, and these battles are carried out in the realm of moral emotions, not reason. Jonathan Haidt even goes so far as to suggest that our rational minds themselves only exist to serve as advocates for those emotions. This is not a question of moral “shoulds,” but of mere practicality. Those who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of the Good in itself are not to be dissuaded by calm logic. Let history judge. How often were the fanatical zealots of such spiritual religions as Christianity and Islam, or such secular religions as Communism and Nazism, persuaded they were wrong by patient, reasoned argument? All of them were extremely effective at exploiting moral emotions as a weapon. One can either pick up that weapon and fight back, or sit back and await the pleasure of one’s enemies.
Posted on January 11th, 2013 No comments
Morality evolved! One can quibble about the precise meaning of those two words, but the sentence remains true regardless. Absent genetically programmed and heritable physical characteristics of the human brain, morality as commonly understood would not exist. It follows that good and evil have no existence other than as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.
So much is obvious. It will become increasingly obvious as long as researchers remain free to study that incredibly complex biological computer, the brain, and the genetic processes that bring it into existence. So much is, however, also inconvenient. It is our nature to derive a great deal of pleasure from self-righteousness and virtuous indignation. However, if good and evil do not exist as independent objects, the rational bases for self-righteousness and virtuous indignation, or, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the rational tail that wags the emotional dog, disappear. They remain interesting and worthy of study as emotional phenomena. However, the notion that they actually have some genuine rational justification becomes absurd.
Similarly, if there are no good and evil objects, the bases for the claims of hosts of philosophers, theologians, and assorted experts on morality of every stripe that they understand those objects better than the rest of us evaporate as well. As a result, as has so often happened with such inconvenient truths in the past, this one faces and will continue to face bitter opposition from those who, for the reasons alluded to above, prefer an alternate version of reality. Like the Blank Slaters of old who denied human nature because it relegated all their fine utopias to the scrap heap, they can be relied on to resist and obfuscate our efforts to gain understanding of the physical, emotional and genetic bases of morality. They realize perfectly well that such understanding renders them superfluous. Recently, their efforts to stem the tide of increasing knowledge have met with a distinct lack of success, even in academia. One must hope they will remain similarly ineffectual in the future, or at least one must hope so to the extent that one believes that an accurate understanding of ourselves will have some bearing on our future survival.
That belief has not always found ready acceptance, even among very intelligent people. For example, a great number of thinkers who doubted the truths of established religion themselves have objected to passing the word on to the “rabble,” fearing that, lacking a reason to be “good,” they would certainly embrace “evil.” Similarly, in our own day, many shrink from rejecting a transcendent Good-in-itself because they fear it will promote amorality and moral relativism. In fact, accepting the truth about morality will not result in amorality or moral relativism because it is not our nature to be amoral or morally relativistic. We are no more likely to change our moral nature than we are to sprout fins and take to the water, or return to walking on all fours, in response to learning the truth about what that moral nature really is, and how it came into being.
That is not to imply that such self-understanding will be useless. For example, it may occur to us to shape a morality that is simple, in harmony with our nature, and that promotes our happiness and discourages us from harming each other as effectively as possible. It may also occur to us to limit morality to spheres in which it can reasonably be expected to promote useful ends. Given the fact that morality is fundamentally an emotional rather than a rational phenomenon, it is unlikely those spheres to which our frail reason might better be applied, such as national politics, international relations, and other aspects of our current reality that didn’t exist when morality evolved, will be included. This remains true even though attempts to apply reason to such spheres without taking the moral nature, not to mention the other behavioral characteristics of our species into account are bound to fail. For example, the creation of laws that injure the average individual’s sense of justice will likely be useless, regardless of how reasonable they might seem to be on other grounds.
Having accepted the origins of morality, let us not shrink from accepting its reality as well. In particular, we should not pretend that it is invariably our nature to be ”nice,” and that all “non-niceness” derives exclusively from culture and environment. Just as it is our nature to belong to and seek acceptance by our ingroup, it is also our nature to hate and despise outgroups. It is not possible to suppress or stifle that aspect of our nature. We will always seek and find an outgroup. Consider the behavior of the very liberals and progressives who occasionally suggest chimerical schemes such as expanding our ingroup to include all mankind. Nothing could exceed the spite and fury of their denunciations of those who disagree with them, such as gun rights advocates, Christian fundamentalists, opponents of gay marriage, etc. The outgroup have ye always with you. Our goal should be to stop ignoring this truth, in spite of the fact that all human history is a testament to it, and in spite of the further fact that it is such an obvious explanation for so much about us that otherwise seems incomprehensible, and seek ways of dealing with it so as to minimize the mayhem it has so frequently caused in the past.
Posted on December 3rd, 2012 No comments
According to the frontispiece of his The Evolution of Man, published in 1924, Grafton Elliot Smith held the titles of M.A., M.D., Litt. D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., and Professor of Anatomy at the University of London. If titles and academic honors are any guide, he must have been a very intelligent man. He was well aware of the limitations of human intelligence, and wary of the influence of the emotions on judgments of fact. For example, in the book referred to above, from which all the following quotes are taken as well, he wrote,
The range of true judgment is in fact extremely limited in the vast majority of human beings. Emotions and the unconscious influence of the environment in which an individual has grown up play an enormous part in all his decisions, even though he may give a rational explanation of the motives for many of his actions without realizing that they were inspired by causes utterly alien to those which he has given – and given without any intention of dishonesty – in explanation of them. It is the exception rather than the rule for men to accept new theories on evidence that appeals to reason alone. The emotional factor usually expresses itself in an egotistical form. The ‘will to believe’ can often be induced by persuading a man that he discovered the new theory of his own initiative.
No one could have written a better post mortem for Smith’s career. When it came to questions that really mattered about the evolution of man, he had a positive penchant for getting it wrong. Regarding the issue of whether erect posture or a large brain came first in the transition from ape to man, he noted in passing,
The case for the erect attitude was ably put by Dr. Munro (Neil Gordon Munro, better known for his studies of the Japanese Ainu, ed.) in 1893. He argued that the liberation of the hands and the cultivation of their skill lay at the root of Man’s mental supremacy.
Smith would have done well to listen to Munro, not to mention Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, both of whom proposed similar, “bipedalism before large brain” theories. However, he would have none of it, writing,
It was not the adoption of the erect attitude that made Man from an Ape, but the gradual perfecting of the brain and the slow upbuilding of the mental structure, of which erectness of carriage is one of the incidental manifestations.
Noting that the above quote was included in the substance of an address to the British Association delivered in the autumn of 1912, he rejoiced in a latter chapter that his conjecture had been followed almost immediately by a “dramatic confirmation”:
Within the month after its delivery a dramatic confirmation was provided of the argument that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way. For the late Mr. Charles Dawson (in association with Dr. – now Sir Arthur – Smith Woodward) brought to light in Sussex the remains of a hirtherto unknown type of Primate with a brain that, so far as size is concerned, came within the range of human variation, being more than 200 c.cm. larger than that of the more ancient and primitive member of the Human Family (Pithecanthropus), in association with a jaw so like that of a Chimpanzee that many of the leading palaeontologists believed it to be actually the remains of that Ape.
This, of course, was the famous Piltdown Man, probably the most damaging scientific forgery of all times, proved in 1953 to be a composite of a medieval human skull and the jaw of an orangutan. It was probably fabricated by Dawson himself, who had a knack for making similar “sensational” finds, and whose antiquarian collection was found to include at least 38 specimens that were “clear fakes” after his death. Ironically, its discovery induced just such a “will to believe” in Smith as he had warned his readers about earlier in the book. He rationalized the “genuineness” of Piltdown Man with arguments that were formidably “scientific” and astoundingly intricate. For example,
When the skull is restored in this way (according to an intricate reconstruction process described earlier, ed.) its conformation is quite distinctive, and differs profoundly from all other human skulls, recent or fossil. The parietal bone exhibits a peculiar depression between the diverging temporal lines, and the lower margin of the bone, below the depression, is everted. This creates a peculiarity in the form of the cranium that is found in the Gorilla and Chimpanzee. But the simian resemblances are revealed most strikingly in a transverse section of the reconstructed Piltdown Skull, when compared with corresponding sections of those of a Chimpanzee, a Gorilla, and a modern European. It will then be realized how much more nearly the Piltdown skull approaches the simian type. The general form of the cranium in transverse section is greatly expanded like that of an Ape. This applies particularly to the contour of the parietal bones. But the construction of the temporal bone is even more strikingly Ape-like in character.
…and so on. One can but feel a painful and vicarious sense of shame for the worthy professor, who had so thoroughly succeeded in hoodwinking himself. Unfortunately, his weighty testimony hoodwinked many others as well, eventually including even Sir Arthur Keith, who had immediately smelled a rat and publicly cast doubt on the discovery, only to later accept the forgery as real against his better judgment with the help of Smith’s “coaching.”
Piltdown Man wasn’t the only sensational discovery of the day. Raymond Dart had also discovered the first specimen of Australopithecus Africanus in the same year as Smith’s book was published. Dart had immediately noticed evidence of the creature’s upright posture, but Smith would have none of it:
But there is no evidence to suggest that its posture differed from that of the Chimpanzee. The peculiarity in the position of the foramen magnum – which Professor Dart assumed to afford further corroboration of its human affinity – is merely an infantile trait that is found equally in other young Anthropoids.
Poor old Dart. He was always being “debunked” for being right. He was similarly “set straight” by his peers for suggesting that early man engaged in anything so unsavory and politically incorrect as hunting live game. Next it was the turn of Neanderthal Man. To add insult to the injury of his recent extinction, Smith’s unflattering description spawned a myriad museum displays of a stooped, bestial creature, seemingly unattractive as a sex partner except to the most desperate:
His short, thick-set, and coarsely built body was carried in a half-stooping slouch upon short, powerful, and half-flexed legs of peculiarly ungraceful form. His thick neck sloped forward from the broad shoulders to support the massive flattened head, which protruded forward, so as to form an unbroken curve of neck and back, in place of the alternation of curves which is one of the graces of the truly erect Homo sapiens.
In a word, Professor Smith left us with a wealth of disinformation that it took decades of careful research to correct. His example should teach us humility. His book and a few others like it should be required reading for nascent Ph.D.’s. Many of them will find little time for such ephemera later on in their struggles to stay up to speed with all the latest in the collection of learned journals that pertain to their specialty. Still, they might find it amusing and even informative to occasionally step back from the information maelstrom, dust off some of the old books and journals in forgotten stacks, and recall the foibles as well as the triumphs of their compatriots gone before. In ambling through the old source material, they’re likely to find that the history they find on the Internet isn’t always served straight up. As is regrettably the case with Prof. Smith, it often happens that some of the more egregious warts and blemishes have been charitably removed. They are likely to find the unexpurgated versions more helpful, especially if they happen to specialize in fields that are long on unfalsifiable theories and short on repeatable experiments.
Posted on October 15th, 2012 No comments
I’ve mentioned subjects that the human brain perceives as objects before. Examples include Good, Evil, and Rights; entities that cannot possibly exist as other than subjective impressions or intuitions in the minds of individuals, and yet are still perceived as things-in-themselves that have an independent existence of their own. Edward Fitzgerald put it much more elegantly in his Rubaiyat, that font of wisdom thinly disguised as the translation of the work of a medieval Islamic poet:
The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
Yet, in spite of the fact that no one has yet devised an experiment capable of “seeing” these entities at any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, or measuring their temperature, or detecting their presence via gravitational anomalies, or otherwise demonstrating their independent existence outside of the brains of individuals, we stubbornly insist that they are real. It’s not hard to understand why Mother Nature has arranged things that way. Conceived as mere subjective individual whims, categories such as good and evil lose their normative power. The basis for applying them to others disappears, and they become useless for regulating behavior within or between groups. Perceived in that way, they would never helped us survive. As a consequence, they would never have evolved in the first place.
There are other interesting examples of the same phenomenon. “Value” is one of them. Survivalists and goldbugs favor a monetary system backed by precious metals because it seems to them they have real value, although there is no measurable quality of gold that would make it possible to distinguish its value from that of a common rock. Of course, there’s method in their madness. One could certainly devise a metric to distinguish the scarcity of gold from that of paper. No doubt statisticians could establish a correlation between scarcity and perceived value. Although he never actually spoke of a “labor theory of value,” Karl Marx did derive a “law of value” based on the work of earlier economists. I will leave the hair splitting over the precise manner in which Marx perceived value to the Marxist scholars. However, his many followers based their notion of “surplus value” on his work. They perceived of it as a real thing that the exploiting capitalists stole from the proletariat.
“Science” is another example. In reality it is merely a systematic approach to discovering truth which is usually haphazardly applied by scientists and often doesn’t work in practice. However, it, too, has been transmogrified into an object. One speaks of doing things “for science.” To imply that something is “scientific” is to imply that it is necessarily true, as in “scientific Marxism-Leninism.” Eugenics was scientific in its day, as was the luminiferous ether. “Men of Science” are supposed to “think right” compared to other mere mortals, who should not presume to intrude in their specialized domains. Often these “Men of Science” are, in reality, the prisoners of some fashionable ideology which causes them to imagine things that are palpable nonsense to most people. The Blank Slate dogma is a good example. In my own specialty, computational physics, “Men of Science” often make a cottage industry out of some arcane mathematical approach, and continue to tweak and fiddle with it, milking it for an endless series of papers in prestigious academic journals long after advances in computer power have rendered it completely obsolete. No matter that what they are doing is quite useless; it is, after all, “Science.”
No doubt there are other similar examples, but I will not attempt to catalog them all here. The point is that our brains are designed so that we perceive certain subjective intuitions as objects. Presumably, that trait evolved because it promoted our survival. Unfortunately, it evolved at times that were radically different than the present. It might not be quite as effective at promoting our survival today. The Nazis and the Communists were both completely convinced that they represented the Good, as did the suicide bombers of 911. Those whose tastes run to saving the world based on alternative versions of the Good might do well to keep their example in mind.
Posted on September 19th, 2012 1 comment
I must admit that I felt a certain malicious glee on reading E. O. Wilson’s defense of group selection in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. After all, Richard Dawkins dismissed the life work of men like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in his The Selfish Gene because, in his words, they were “totally and utterly wrong” in defending group selection. I happen to admire all three of them because they were the most influential and effective defenders of the existence of such a thing as human nature during the heyday of the Blank Slate. It was good to see Dawkins hoisted on his own petard. However, my glee has been dampened somewhat of late by what I see as an increasing tendency of some evolutionary biologists, and particularly those who have come out most strongly in favor of group selection, to adulterate their science with a strong dose of ideology. Apparently, they have learned little from the aberration of the Blank Slate, or at least not enough to avoid repeating it.
Consider, for example a paper that recently turned up on the website of the Social Evolution Forum with the somewhat incongruous title, “Joseph Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. Cultural Evolution. The Evolution Institute,” by Peter Turchin, professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics. A good part of it was a review of The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, which, Turchin informs us, he was about two-thirds of his way through. He notes that “Stiglitz is sympathetic to Leftist ideas. Actually, he is way out on the Left end of the political spectrum.” This doesn’t seem to raise any red flags at all, as far as Turchin is concerned. One wonders, “How can this be?” Haven’t we just been through all this? Were not the Blank Slaters who derailed the behavioral sciences for several decades also “way out on the Left end of the political spectrum?” Did they not villify anyone who disagreed with their puerile notions about human nature as arch-conservatives, John Birchers, and fascists? Did they not have powerful motives for making the “scientific facts” come out right so that they didn’t stand in the way of the drastic political and social changes they planned for us “for our own good?” There is no reason that anyone on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum can’t do good science, but it goes without saying that, when one has strong ideological motivations for having the answers come out one way or the other, that bias must be taken into account and carefully controlled for. That is particularly true when the answers always just happen to agree nicely with one’s ideological preconceptions.
None of this seems to occur to Turchin, who points out that Stiglitz “inveighs against the ‘Right’ on numerous occasions throughout the book.” Apparently, we are to believe this is somehow remarkable and heroic, for he continues, “This is unusual for an economist, especially such an accomplished one who is (or, at least, has been) part of the ruling elite. Most economists know very well which side of their bread is buttered. It is curious how economic theories that yield answers pleasing to the powerful and wealthy tend to be part of the mainstream, while those yielding uncomfortable answers are relegated to the fringe…” To this one can only say, “Surely you’re joking, Professor Turchin!” Did not Paul Krugman, hardly noted as a conservative wingnut, just win the Nobel Prize in economics? Has there been a sudden revelation that the economics professors at our great universities have issued a pronunciamiento in favor of the Republican ticket, with the exception of an insignificant “fringe.” Where is the hard data demonstrating that “most economists” favor the rich elites? Have all the leading economics journals suddenly gone hard over in favor of supply side economics while I wasn’t looking?
Citing a theme of bête noire of the left Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Turchin continues,
It is interesting to note that when the wealthy ‘defect,’ they actually not only make the overall situation worse, but it is actually a suboptimal outcome for them, too. At least that is the message of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Among other things, Wilkinson and Pickett make a striking observation that the expectation of life among the wealthier segment of Americans is less than the median for many European societies that are much more egalitarian – and spend much less per capita on health.
“Much more egalitarian”? Evidently the authors never lived in Europe. I lived in Germany, and if they think that the society there is much more “egalitarian” than the United States just because the top 1% take home a smaller percentage of the national income, they’re dreaming. The country is far more stratified according to social rank and power than the US, and the same families tend to control positions of power in government and industry year after year. The presence of minorities in positions of political and economic influence is virtually imperceptible. Think the situation is different in France, another nation that beats the US in terms of income equality? Just ask any black in Paris whether they think their chances would be better there than here. Other than that, where is the data on countries where the rich “defect”? Has such a thing ever actually happened in the sense described in Rand’s novel? What evidence is there that the health of the top earners in the US, whether better or worse than their European peers, has anything to do with “egalitarianism”?
What, you might ask, does all this have to do with evolutionary biology? According to Turchin, one of Stiglitz major “shortcomings” is that he “is apparently unaware of the great progress that cultural evolution and cultural multilevel selection theory made in the last decade or so.” One wonders what, exactly, he is referring to when he speaks of “cultural” multilevel selection theory. One of the authors he cites in support of this contention, David Sloan Wilson, is certainly well known for his work on multilevel selection. However, his most cited work is on genetic, and not cultural evolution. Regardless, Turchin’s point is that science is to be used as a tool to support preconceived ideological truisms. That tendency to assume that “science” would always get the “right answer” contributed heavily to the debacle of the blank slate.
I had a similar experience in the conference the Evolution Institute organized last December in Stanford on Nation-Building and Failed States. One of the participants was Francis Fukuyama, who had recently published a book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he was clearly interested in engaging with evolutionary thinking. Yet he had to resort to appeals to the two tired (and badly wrong) models of human sociality – reciprocal altruism and kin selection.
Here we’ve come back to the point I made at the beginning of this article; the recent marked tendency of group selectionists to adulterate their science with ideology. As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not particularly fond of Dawkins, Pinker, and some of the other major advocates of reciprocal altruism and kin selection. However, when Turchin claims that they are “tired and badly wrong” he is just blowing smoke. The jury is still out, and he has no basis on which to make such a judgment. On what knowledge does he base this assurance that these theories are “badly wrong”? Nowak’s “complex mathematical models”? I was a computational physicist for much of my career, and while Nowak’s models are interesting, the idea that they account for all of the relevant data so thoroughly that they can serve as a basis for the conclusion that inclusive fitness theory is “badly wrong” is laughable.
Turchin is hardly the only one publishing such stuff. I’ve read several others authors recently who argue in favor of group selection without giving any indication that they have even an inkling of the complexity of the subject, and who rain down furious anathemas on the supposedly “debunked” proponents of inclusive fitness, associating them with evil ideological and political tendencies in the process. Their tone is typically one of outraged virtue rather than scientific detachment. Do we really need to go through all this again? Perhaps instead of declaiming about the philosophy of Kropotkin and crying up the moral superiority of their version of “equality,” advocates of group selection would do well to make sure they have the science right first.
Posted on August 24th, 2012 No comments
Steve Davis has recently been championing group selection and lobbing rocks at Richard Dawkins and his fellow gene-centrists over at Science 2.0. He writes with a certain moralistic fervor that ill befits a scientist, but so does Dawkins and a good number of his followers. The problem isn’t that he takes issue with Dawkins and his inclusive fitness orthodoxy. The problem is that he associates evolutionary psychology with that orthodoxy, as if it would evaporate without a kin selection crutch. Not only is that untrue, but it stands the whole history of the science on its head. For example, referring to the book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene by philosopher Mary Midgley in an article entitled “Evolutionary Psychology – As it Should Be,” Davis writes,
Not only does the book have wide implications for debates in evolutionary psychology, it overturns that school of thought completely, as it presents a comprehensive rebuttal of the selfish gene hypothesis on which evolutionary psychology (as we know it) is based.
In a later article entitled “Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics,” he adds,
When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at (anthropologist and anarchist political theorist Peter) Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”)But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought.
As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based. Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.
Of course the issue of group selection in all its various flavors is actually very complex. For anyone interested, I recommend the excellent discussion of group selection that illustrates that complexity in J. van der Dennen’s The Origin of War. However, the real problem with these articles is their association of the entire field of evolutionary psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now. That association is fundamentally false. To demonstrate that fact, one need look no further than the first chapter of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. For example, quoting from the book,
These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.” The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).
Who were Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt? Well, to begin with, they all supported the theory of group selection. They were also the most prominent evolutionary psychologists of their day. I use the term “evolutionary psychology” in the vernacular, that is, a science based on the hypothesis that there is such a thing as human nature. The vernacular term that meant the same thing in the heyday of the above three was “ethology.” Later it became “sociobiology.” The original sociobiologist was, of course, E. O. Wilson. He never fully accepted Dawkins’ gene-centric views, and, of course, recently came out of the closet as a firm believer in group selection. As for The Selfish Gene, it isn’t just about Dawkins theory of gene-centric evolution. It is also a full-fledged attack on the evolutionary psychologists of its day. The above quote is hardly unique, and is followed by many others attacking Lorenz and Ardrey for their support of group selection.
Davis’ misconception that there is some kind of an indissoluble bond between evolutionary psychology and Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution is understandable. EP has come of age during a time when Dawkins opinion represented scientific orthodoxy, and reflects that environment, in a manner no different from any of the other biological sciences. However, the fact that many evolutionary psychologists happened to also accept gene-centric orthodoxy hardly implies that the whole field is dependent on or derived from that point of view.
Davis’ conflation of kin selection and evolutionary psychology is also understandable in view of the extensive scrubbing of the history of the field. According to this “history,” as represented, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, what became EP began with a mythical “big bang” with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. In fact, as far as the reason for that book’s notoriety is concerned, its embrace of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature, it was just an afterthought. There is nothing in it that was not written more than a decade earlier by the likes of Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, most prominently, Robert Ardrey. To fact check this statement, one need only read Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves, published in 1968, and still available on Amazon for about a dollar the last time I looked. I suspect one of the reasons the history of EP has been “revised” is the fact that, when it came to Ardrey’s claim that there is such a thing a human nature, the fundamental theme of all his work, he was right, and the lion’s share of “experts” in the behavioral sciences, at least in the United States, were wrong. Ardrey, you see, was a mere playwright. Hence the “big bang” myth.
The claim that the imaginary link with kin selection that Davis refers to does exist with evolutionary psychology “as we know it,” or in its current incarnation, is also wrong. E. O. Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Martin Nowak are among the most prominent, if not the most prominent, evolutionary psychologists in the field of evolutionary morality as I write this. All three have come down firmly and publicly in favor of group selection.