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  • More Egg on Pinker’s Face: E. O. Wilson’s “The Origins of Creativity”

    Posted on March 12th, 2018 Helian No comments

    If you’re expecting a philosophical epiphany, E. O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity isn’t for you. His theme is that science and the humanities can form a grandiose union leading to a “third enlightenment” if only scholars in the humanities would come up to speed with advances in the sciences via “thorough application of five disciplines – paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.”  Good luck with that.  We can smile and nod as the old man rambles on about his latest grand, intellectual scheme, though.  He isn’t great because of such brainstorms.  He’s great because he combines courage and common sense with an ability to identify questions that are really worth asking.  That’s what you’ll discover if you read his books, and that’s why they’re well worth reading.  You might even say he’s succeeded in realizing his own dream to some extent, because reading Wilson is like reading a good novel.  You constantly run across anecdotes about interesting people, tips about unfamiliar authors who had important things to say, and thought provoking comments about the human condition.  For example, in “The Origins of Creativity” you’ll find a portrayal of the status games played by Harvard professors, his take on why he thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, his reasons for asserting that, when it comes to the important questions facing humanity, “the grail to be sought is the nature of consciousness, and how it originated,” and some interesting autobiographical comments to boot.

    Those who love to explore the little ironies of history will also find some interesting nuggets in Wilson’s latest. The history I’m referring to is, of course, that of the Blank Slate.  For those who haven’t heard of it, it was probably the greatest perversion of science of all time.  For more than half a century, a rigid orthodoxy was imposed on the behavioral sciences according to which there is no such thing as human nature, that at birth our minds are “blank slates,” and that all human behavior is learned.  This dogma, transparently ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child, has always been attractive to those whose tastes run to utopian schemes that require human behavior to be a great deal more “malleable” than it actually is.  Communism, fashionable during the heyday of the Blank Slate, is a case in point.

    Where does Wilson fit in?  Well, in 1975, he published Sociobiology, in a couple of chapters of which he suggested that there may actually be such a thing as human nature, and it may actually be important.  In doing so he became the first important member of the academic tribe to break ranks with the prevailing orthodoxy.  By that time, however, the Blank Slate had already long been brilliantly debunked and rendered a laughing stock among intelligent lay people by an outsider; a man named Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey wrote a series of books on the subject beginning with African Genesis in 1961.  He had been seconded by other authors, such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  Eventually, the behavioral “scientists” were forced to throw in the towel and jettison the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  However, it was much to humiliating for them to admit the truth – that they had all been exposed as charlatans by Ardrey, a man who had spent much of his life as a “mere playwright.”  Instead, they anointed Wilson, a member of their own tribe, as the great hero who had demolished the Blank Slate.  This grotesque imposture was enshrined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which now passes as the official “history” of the affair.

    Where does the irony come in?  Well, Pinker needed some plausible reason to ignore Ardrey.  The deed was done crudely enough.  He simply declared that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” based on the authority of a comment to that effect in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In the process, he didn’t mention exactly what it was that Ardrey was supposed to have been “totally and utterly wrong” about.  After all, to all appearances the man had been “totally and utterly” vindicated.  As it happens, Dawkins never took issue with the main theme of all of Ardrey’s books; that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important and essential to understanding the human condition.  He merely asserted in a single paragraph of the book that Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been wrong in endorsing group selection, the notion that natural selection can operate at the level of the group as well as of the individual or gene.  In other words, Pinker’s whole, shabby rationale for dismissing Ardrey was based on his support for group selection, an issue that was entirely peripheral to the overall theme of all Ardrey’s work.  Now for the irony – in his last three books, including his latest, Wilson has come out unabashedly and whole heartedly in favor of (you guessed it) group selection!

    In The Origins of Creativity Wilson seems to be doing his very best to rub salt in the wound.  In his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey had elaborated on the theory, also set forth in all his previous books, that the transition from ape to man had been catalyzed by increased dependence on hunting and meat eating.  The Blank Slaters long insisted that early man had never been guilty of such “aggressive” behavior, and that if he had touched meat at all, it must have been acquired by scavenging.  They furiously attacked Ardrey for daring to suggest that he had hunted.  If you watch the PBS documentary on the recent discovery of the remains of Homo naledi, you’ll see that the ancient diehards among them have never given up this dogma.  They insist that Homo naledi was a vegetarian even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one had even contended that he wasn’t, going so far as to actually call out the “unperson” Ardrey by name.  The realization that they were still so bitter after all these years brought a smile to my face.  What really set them off was Ardrey’s support for a theory first proposed by Raymond Dart that hunting had actually begun very early, in the pre-human species Australopithecus africanus. Well, if they were still mad at Ardrey, they’ll be livid when they read what Wilson has to say on the subject in his latest, such as,

    By a widespread consensus, the scenario drawn by scientists thus far begins with the shift by one of the African australopiths away from a vegetarian diet to one rich in cooked meat.  The event was not a casual change as in choosing from a menu, nor was it a mere re-wiring of the palate.  Rather the change was a full hereditary makeover in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.

    and

    This theoretical reconstruction has gained traction from fossil remains and the lifestyles of contemporary hunter-gatherers.  Meat from larger prey was shared, as it is by wolves, African wild dogs, and lions.  Given, in addition, the relatively high degree of intelligence possessed by large, ground-dwelling primates in general, the stage was then set in prehuman evolution for an unprecedented degree of cooperation and division of labor.

    Here, Wilson almost seems to be channeling Ardrey.  But wait, there’s more.  This one is for the real historical connoisseurs out there.  As noted above, in the bit from The Selfish Gene Pinker used for his clumsy attempt to airbrush Ardrey out of history, Dawkins condemned two others for the sin of supporting group selection as well; Konrad Lorenz and Austrian ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  I suspect Lorenz was a bit too close to Ardrey for comfort, as the two were often condemned by the Blank Slaters in the same breath, but, sure enough, Eibl-Eibesfeldt makes a couple of cameo appearances in Wilson’s latest book!  For example, in chapter 12,

    During his classic field research in the 1960s, the German anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt demonstrated in minute detail that people in all societies, from primitive and preliterate to modern and urbanized, use the same wide range of paralinguistic signals.  These entail mostly facial expressions, denoting variously fear, pleasure, surprise, horror, and disgust.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt lived with his subjects and further, to avoid self-conscious behavior, filmed them in their daily lives with a right-angle lens, by which the subject is made to think that the camera is pointed elsewhere.  His general conclusion was that paralinguistic signals are hereditary traits shared by the whole of humanity.

    Brilliant, but according to Pinker this, too, must be “totally and utterly wrong,” since Eibl-Eibesfeldt is mentioned in the very same sentence in Dawkins’ book that he used to redact Ardrey from history!  At least it’s nice to see this bit of vindication for at least one of Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” trio.  I suspect Wilson is perfectly well aware of the dubious nature of Pinker’s “history,” but I doubt if he will ever have anything to say about Lorenz, not to mention Ardrey.  He has too much interest in preserving his own legacy for that.  I can’t really blame a man his age for wanting to go down in history as the heroic knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He actually tries to push the envelope a bit in his latest with comments like,

    At first thought, this concept of kin selection, extended beyond nepotism to cooperation and altruism within an entire group, appears to have considerable merit.  I said so when I first synthesized the discipline of sociobiology in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet it is deeply flawed.

    During Ardrey’s day, the scientific discipline most often associated in the lay vernacular with resistance to the Blank Slate was ethology.  A few years after Wilson published his book with that title in 1975, it became sociobiology.  Now evolutionary psychology has displaced both of them.  I’m not sure what Wilson means by “sociobiology” here, but I’ve never seen anything he published prior to 1975 that comes close to being a forthright defense of the existence and importance of human nature.  Ardrey and others had published pretty much everything of real significance he had to say on the subject more than a decade earlier.

    Be that as it may, I have no reservations about recommending “The Origins of Creativity” to my readers.  True, I’m a bit skeptical about his latest project for a grand unification of science and the humanities, and the book is really little more than a pamphlet.  For all that, reading him is like having a pleasant conversation with someone who is very wise about the ways of the world, knows about the questions that are important for us to ask, and can tell you a lot of things that are worth knowing.

  • Of Ants and Men: More PBS Adventures in Rearranging Blank Slate History

    Posted on November 26th, 2015 Helian 5 comments

    The history of the rise and fall of the Blank Slate is fascinating, and not only as an example of the pathological derailment of whole branches of science in favor of ideological dogmas.  The continuing foibles of the “men of science” as they attempt to “readjust” that history are nearly as interesting in their own right.  Their efforts at post-debacle damage control are a superb example of an aspect of human nature at work – tribalism.  There is much at stake for the scientific “tribe,” not least of which is the myth of the self-correcting nature of science itself.  What might be called the latest episode in the sometimes shameless, sometimes hilarious bowdlerization of history just appeared in the form of another PBS special; E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  You can watch it online by clicking on the link.

    Before examining the latest twists in this continuously evolving plot, it would be useful to recap what has happened to date.  There is copious source material documenting not only the rise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy to hegemony in the behavioral sciences, but also the events that led to its collapse, not to mention the scientific apologetics that followed its demise.  In its modern form, the Blank Slate manifested itself as a sweeping denial that innate behavioral traits, or “human nature,” had anything to do with human behavior beyond such basic functions as breathing and the elimination of waste.  It was insisted that virtually everything about our behavior was learned, and a reflection of “culture.”  By the early 1950’s its control of the behavioral sciences was such that any scientist who dared to publish anything in direct opposition to it was literally risking his career.  Many scientists have written of the prevailing atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and through the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s there was little in the way of “self-correction” emanating from within the scientific professions themselves.

    The “correction,” when it came, was supplied by an outsider – a playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey who had taken an interest in anthropology.  Beginning with African Genesis in 1961, he published a series of four highly popular books that documented the copious evidence for the existence of human nature, and alerted a wondering public to the absurd extent to which its denial had been pursued in the sciences.  It wasn’t a hard sell, as that absurdity was obvious enough to any reasonably intelligent child.  Following Ardrey’s lead, a few scientists began to break ranks, particularly in Europe where the Blank Slate had never achieved a level of control comparable to that prevailing in the United States.  They included the likes of Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression, first published in German in 1963), Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969), and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, 1971, with Lionel Tiger).  The Blank Slate reaction to these works, not to mention the copious coverage of Ardrey and the rest that began appearing in the popular media, was furious.  Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants directed mainly at Ardrey and Lorenz, with novelist William Golding thrown in for good measure, is an outstanding piece of historical source material documenting that reaction.  Edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, it typifies the usual Blank Slate MO – attacks on straw men combined with accusations of racism and fascism.  That, of course, remains the MO of the “progressive” Left to this day.

    The Blank Slaters could intimidate the scientific community, but not so the public at large.  Thanks to Ardrey and the rest, by the mid-70s the behavioral sciences were in danger of becoming a laughing stock.  Finally, in 1975, E. O. Wilson broke ranks and published Sociobiology, a book that was later to gain a notoriety in the manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate out of all proportion to its real significance.  Of the 27 chapters, 25 dealt with animal behavior.  Only the first and last chapters focused on human behavior.  Nothing in those two chapters, nor in Wilson’s On Human Nature, published in 1978, could reasonably be described as other than an afterthought to the works of Ardrey and others that had appeared much earlier as far as human nature is concerned.  Its real novelty wasn’t its content, but the fact that it was the first popular science book asserting the existence and importance of human nature by a scientist in the United States that reached a significant audience.  This fact was well known to Wilson, not to mention his many Blank Slate detractors.  In their diatribe Against Sociobiology, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1975 they wrote, “From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

    As we know in retrospect, the Blank Slaters were facing a long, losing battle against recognition of the obvious.  By the end of the 1990s, even the editors at PBS began scurrying off the sinking ship.  Finally, in the scientific shambles left in the aftermath of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, Steven Pinker published his The Blank Slate.  It was the first major attempt at historical revisionism by a scientist, and it contained most of the fairytales about the affair that are now widely accepted as fact.  I had begun reading the works of Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest in the early 70s, and had followed the subsequent unraveling of the Blank Slate with interest.  When I began reading The Blank Slate, I assumed I would find a vindication of the seminal role they had played in the 1960s in bringing about its demise.  I was stunned to find that, instead, as far as Pinker was concerned, the 60s never happened!  Ardrey was mentioned only a single time, and then only with the assertion that “the sociobiologists themselves” had declared him and Lorenz “totally and utterly” wrong!  The “sociobiologist” given as the source for this amazing assertion was none other than Richard Dawkins!  Other than the fact that Dawkins was never a “sociobiologist,” and especially not in 1972 when he published The Selfish Gene, the book from which the “totally and utterly wrong” quote was lifted, he actually praised Ardrey in other parts of the book.  He never claimed that Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong” because they defended the importance of innate human nature, in Ardrey’s case the overriding theme of all his work.  Rather, Dawkins limited that claim to their support of group selection, a fact that Pinker never gets around to mentioning in The Blank Slate.  Dropping Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest down the memory hole, Pinker went on to assert that none other than Wilson had been the real knight in shining armor who had brought down the Blank Slate.  As readers who have followed this blog for a while are aware, the kicker came in 2012, in the form of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth.  In the crowning (and amusing) irony of this whole shabby affair, Wilson outed himself as more “totally and utterly wrong” than Ardrey and Lorenz by a long shot.  He wholeheartedly embraced – group selection!

    Which finally brings me to the latest episode in the readjustment of Blank Slate history.  It turned up recently in the form of a PBS special entitled, E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  It’s a testament to the fact that Pinker’s deification of Wilson has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  The only problem is that now it appears he is in danger of being tossed on the garbage heap of history himself.  You see, the editors at the impeccably politically correct PBS picked up on the fact that, at least according to Wilson, group selection is responsible for the innate wellsprings of selflessness, love of others, at least in the ingroup, altruism, and all the other endearing characteristics that make the hearts of the stalwart leftists who call the tune at PBS go pitter-pat.  Pinker, on the other hand, for reasons that should be obvious by now, must continue to reject group selection, lest his freely concocted “history” become a laughing stock.  To see how all this plays out circa 2015, let’s take a closer look at the video itself.

    Before I begin, I wish to assure the reader that I have the highest respect for Wilson himself.  He is a great scientist, and his publication of Sociobiology was an act of courage regardless of its subsequent exploitation by historical revisionists.  As we shall see, he has condoned the portrayal of himself as the “knight in shining armor” invented by Pinker, but that is a forgivable lapse by an aging scientist who is no doubt flattered by the “legacy” manufactured for him.

    With that, on to the video.  It doesn’t take long for us to run into the first artifact of the Wilson legend.  At the 3:45 minute mark, none other than Pinker himself appears, informing us that Wilson, “changed the intellectual landscape by challenging the taboo against discussing human nature.”  He did no such thing.  Ardrey had very effectively “challenged the taboo” in 1961 with his publication of African Genesis, and many others had challenged it in the subsequent years before publication of Sociobiology.  Pinker’s statement isn’t even accurate in terms of U.S. scientists, as several of them in peripheral fields such as political science, had insisted on the existence and importance of human nature long before 1975, and others, like Tiger and Fox, although foreign born, had worked at U.S. universities.  At the 4:10 mark Gregory Carr chimes in with the remarkable assertion that,

     If someone develops a theory about human nature or biodiversity, and in common living rooms across the world, it seems like common sense, but in fact, a generation ago, we didn’t understand it, it tells you that that person, in this case Ed Wilson, has changed the way all of us view the world.

    One can but shake one’s head at such egregious nonsense.  In the first place, Wilson didn’t “develop a theory about human nature.”  He simply repeated hypotheses that Darwin himself and many others since him had developed.  There is nothing of any significance about human nature in any of his books that cannot also be found in the works of Ardrey.  People “in common living rooms” a generation ago understood and accepted the concept of human nature perfectly well.  The only ones who were still delusional about it at the time were the so-called “experts” in the behavioral sciences.  Many of them were also just as aware as Wilson of the absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, but were too intimidated to challenge them.

    My readers should be familiar by now with such attempts to inflate Wilson’s historical role, and the reasons for them.  The tribe of behavioral scientists has never been able to bear the thought that their “science” was not “self-correcting,” and they would probably still be peddling the Blank Slate dogmas to this day if it weren’t for the “mere playwright,” Ardrey.  All their attempts at historical obfuscation won’t alter that fact, and source material is there in abundance to prove it to anyone who has the patience to search it out and look at it.  We first get an inkling of the real novelty in this particular PBS offering at around minute 53:15, when Wilson, referring to eusociality in ant colonies, remarks,

    This capacity of an insect colony to act like a single super-organism became very important to me when I began to reconsider evolutionary theory later in my career.  It made me wonder if natural selection could operate not only on individuals and their genes, but on the colony as a whole.  That idea would create quite a stir when I published it, but that was much later.

    Which brings us to the most amusing plot twist in this whole, sorry farce; PBS’ wholehearted embrace of group selection.  Recall that Pinker’s whole rationalization for ignoring Ardrey was based on some good things Ardrey had to say about group selection in his third book, The Social Contract.  The subject hardly ever came up in his interviews, and was certainly not the central theme of all his books, which, as noted above, was the existence and significance of human nature.  Having used group selection to declare Ardrey an unperson, Pinker then elevated Wilson to the role of the “revolutionary” who was the “real destroyer” of the Blank Slate in his place.  Wilson, in turn, in what must have seemed to Pinker a supreme act of ingratitude, embraced group selection more decisively than Ardrey ever thought of doing, making it a central and indispensable pillar of his theory regarding the evolution of eusociality.  Here’s how the theme plays out in the video.

    Wilson at 1:09:50

    Humans don’t have to be taught to cooperate.  We do it instinctively.  Evolution has hardwired us for cooperation.  That’s the key to eusociality.

    Wilson at 1:13:40

    Thinking on this remarkable fact (the evolution of eusociality) has made me reconsider in recent years the theory of natural selection and how it works in complex social animals.

    Pinker at 1:18:50

    Starting in the 1960s, a number of biologists realized that if you think rigorously about what natural selection does, it operates on replicators. Natural selection, Darwin’s theory, is the theory of what happens when you have an entity that can make a copy of itself, and so it’s very clear that the obvious target of selection in Darwin’s theory is the gene. That became close to a consensus among evolutionary biologists, but I think it’s fair to say that Ed Wilson was always ambivalent about that turn in evolutionary theory.

    1:19:35 Wilson:

    I never doubted that natural selection works on individual genes or that kin selection is a reality, but I could never accept that that is the whole story. Our group instincts, and those of other eusocial species, go far beyond the urge to protect our immediate kin. After a lifetime studying ant societies, it seemed to me that the group must also have an important role in evolution, whether or not its members are related to each other.

    1:20:15 Jonathan Haidt:

    So there’ve been a few revolutions in evolutionary thinking. One of them happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it was really captured in Dawkins famous book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ where if you just take the gene’s eye view, you have the simplest elements, and then you sort of build up from there, and that works great for most animals, but Ed was studying ants, and of course you can make the gene’s eye view work for ants, but when you’re studying ants, you don’t see the ant as the individual, you don’t see the ant as the organism, you see the colony or the hive as the entity that really matters.

    At 1:20:55 Wilson finally spells it out:

    Once you see a social insect colony as a superorganism, the idea that selection must work on the group as well as on the individual follows very naturally. This realization transformed my perspective on humanity, too. So I proposed an idea that goes all the way back to Darwin. It’s called group selection.

    1:22:20 Haidt:

    Ed was able to see group selection in action. It’s just so clear in the ants, the bees, the wasps, the termites and the humans.” Wilson: “The fact of group selection gives rise to what I call multilevel evolution, in which natural selection is operating both at the level of the individual and the level of the group… And that got Ed into one of the biggest debates of his career, over multilevel selection, or group selection.

    1:23:20 Pinker:

    Ed Wilson did not give up the idea that selection acted on groups, while most of his fellow biologists did. Then several decades later, revived that notion in a full-throated manifesto, which I think it would be an understatement to say that he did not convince his fellow biologists.

    At this point, a picture of Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, appears on the screen, shortly followed by stills of a scowling Richard Dawkins.  Then we see an image of the cover of his The Selfish Gene.  The film describes Dawkins furious attack on Wilson for daring to promote group selection.

    1:24:10 Wilson:

    The brouhaha over group selection has brought me into conflict with defenders of the old faith, like Richard Dawkins and many others who believe that ultimately the only thing that counts in the evolution of complex behavior, is the gene, the selfish gene. They believe the gene’s eye view of social evolution can explain all of our groupish behavior. I do not.

    And finally, at 1:25, after Wilson notes Pinker is one of his opponents, Pinker reappears to deny the existence of group selection:

    Most people would say that, if there’s a burning building, and your child is in one room and another child is in another room, then you are entitled to rescue your child first, right?  There is  a special bond between, say, parents and children.  This is exactly what an evolutionary biologist would predict because any gene that would make you favor your child will have a copy of itself sitting in the body of that child.  By rescuing your child the gene for rescuing children, so to speak, will be helping a copy of itself, and so those genes would proliferate in the population.  Not just the extreme case of saving your child from a burning building but for being generous and loyal to your siblings, your very close cousins.  The basis of tribalism, kinship, family feelings, have a perfectly sensible sensible evolutionary basis.  (i.e., kin selection)

    At this point one can imagine Pinker gazing sadly at the tattered remains of his whole, manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate lying about like a collapsed house of cards, faced with the bitter realization that he had created a monster.  Wilson’s group selection schtick was just too good for PBS to pass up.  I seriously doubt whether any of their editors really understand the subject well enough to come up with a reasoned opinion about it one way or the other.  However, how can you turn your nose up at group selection if, as Wilson claims, it is responsible for altruism and all the other “good” aspects of our nature, whereas the types of selection favored by Pinker, not to mention Dawkins, are responsible for selfishness and all the other “bad” parts of our nature?

    And what of Ardrey, whose good words about group selection no longer seem quite as “totally and utterly wrong” as Pinker suggested when he swept him under the historical rug?  Have the editors at PBS ever even heard of him?  We know very well that they have, and that they are also perfectly well aware of his historical significance, because they went to the trouble of devoting a significant amount of time to him in another recent special covering the discovery of Homo naledi.  It took the form of a bitter denunciation of Ardrey for supporting the “Killer Ape Theory,” a term invented by the Blank Slaters of yore to ridicule the notion that pre-human apes hunted and killed during the evolutionary transition from ape to man.  This revealing lapse demonstrated the continuing strength of the obsession with the “unperson” Ardrey, the man who was “totally and utterly wrong.”  That obsession continues, not only among ancient, unrepentant Blank Slaters, but among behavioral scientists in general who happen to be old enough to know the truth about what happened in the 15 years before Wilson published Sociobiology, in spite of Pinker’s earnest attempt to turn that era into an historical “Blank Slate.”

    Dragging in Ardrey was revealing because, in the first place, it was irrelevant in the context of a special about Homo naledi.  As far as I know, no one has published any theories about the hunting behavior of that species one way or the other.  It was revealing in the second place because of the absurdity of bringing up the “Killer Ape Theory” at all.  That straw man was invented back in the 60s, when it was universally believed, even by Ardrey himself, that chimpanzees were, as Ashley Montagu put it, “non-aggressive vegetarians.”  That notion, however, was demolished by Jane Goodall, who observed chimpanzees both hunting and killing, not to mention their capacity for extremely aggressive behavior.  Today, few people like to mention the vicious, ad hominem attacks she was subjected to at the time for publishing those discoveries, although those attacks, too, are amply documented for anyone who cares to look for them.  In the ensuing years, even the impeccably PC Scientific American has admitted the reality of hunting behavior in early man.  In other words, the “Killer Ape Theory” debate has long been over, and Ardrey, who spelled out his ideas on the subject in his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, won it hands down.

    Why does all this matter?  It seems to me the integrity of historical truth is worth defending in its own right.  Beyond that, there is much to learn from the Blank Slate affair and its aftermath regarding the integrity of science itself.  It is not invariably self-correcting.  It can become derailed, and occasionally outsiders must play an indispensable role in putting it back on the tracks.  Ideology can trump reason and common sense, and it did in the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century.  Science is not infallible.  In spite of that, it is still the best way of ferreting out the truth our species has managed to come up with so far.  We can’t just turn our back on it, because, at least in my opinion, all of the alternatives are even worse.  As we do science, however, it would behoove us to maintain a skeptical attitude and watch for signs of ideology leaking through the cracks.

    I note in passing that excellent readings of all of Ardrey’s books are now available at Audible.com.

  • E. O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence:” Doubling Down on Group Selection

    Posted on December 31st, 2014 Helian 3 comments

    It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson.  Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend.  If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past.  However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome.   He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news.  At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.

    In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post.  In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection.  It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up.  He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models.  In his words,

    Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet.  No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured.  All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.

    Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:

    The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.

    Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection.  The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.

    When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.”  In his words,

    In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention.  Intention implies design, and design implies a designer.  Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer.  This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories.  Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose.  Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth.  Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

    Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books.  He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:

    There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied.  It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.

    I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable.  Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf.  After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.

    As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate.  He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism.  In his words,

    Religious warriors are not an anomaly.  It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist.  The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.  Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.

    and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,

    The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality.  People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular.  From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes.  It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.

    Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”

    Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths.  They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity.  They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death.  Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There.  They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.

    In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp.  This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.

    There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms.  I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.

  • Robert Trivers and Rutgers: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

    Posted on February 24th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Robert Trivers is a giant in the field of evolutionary biology.  The brilliance of his work has not faded over time, and has been in a field that is highly relevant to us all.  He has greatly enhanced our ability to understand ourselves.  It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of his work.  I just started reading a copy of novelist Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and was amazed to find artifacts of Trivers’ famous parental investment theory in the opening chapters!  If he were Japanese, the man would probably be declared one of the country’s living national treasures.  Not here, though.  Here it seems his reward is coming in the form of a constant stream of abuse from the Rutgers administration.

    I posted a bit about Trivers last year.  He had accused one of his graduate students of fraud in a scientific paper.  One of his colleagues who supported the alleged fraudster claimed that Trivers “frightened him in his office.”  For that he was banned from campus.  Now we learn he has aroused the ire of the Rutgers bureaucrats yet again.  Apparently Trivers objected to teaching a course on “Human Aggression,” claiming that he lacked expertise in the subject.  According to Kelly Heyboer of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, when forced to teach it anyway, “Trivers told students he would do his best to learn the subject with the students and teach the class with the help of a guest lecturer.”  For this, he was suspended.  According to Trivers, top university officials refused to even meet with him to discuss the subject.

    Can anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 50 years possibly fail to understand why someone like Trivers would object to teaching a class on “Human Aggression” in the context of evolutionary biology?  It has been the subject of furious ideological battles ever since Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz’ publication of On Aggression.  Forcing a scientist of Trivers’ stature to teach a course on the subject amounts to setting him up as a target for the zealots on both sides of the ideological barricades.  It is hard to explain such an act by Rutgers as other than either a malicious provocation or stupidity.

    I admire Trivers for fighting back.  As a professor with tenure nearing the end of his career, at least he’s in a position where he can fight back.  If you’ve ever seen the curriculum vitae of a young, tenure track assistant professor at a major university, you know the competition they face is fierce.  Without a gazillion publications, citations, invited talks, outside activities, prestigious awards, etc., they don’t even stand a chance.  For them, resistance to these bullies would be suicidal.  Trivers isn’t such an easy mark.

    Still, it’s stunning to me that Rutgers can get away with this kind of abuse, and that it passes almost unnoticed, not only in the popular media, but in the science journals and websites as well.  Where are the other greats in the field?  Apparently, they “just don’t want to get involved.”  Trivers may not be the easiest man to get along with, but he deserves better.

  • Another Episode in the Adventures of Group Selection

    Posted on February 6th, 2014 Helian 1 comment

    In this episode, Martin Nowak pokes yet another stick into the inclusive fitness hornet’s nest with his answer to the question of the year over at Edge.org.  The question is, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement,” and Nowak, an evolutionary mathematician at Harvard, doesn’t mince words in throwing down the gauntlet.  His answer:  “Inclusive Fitness.”

    Nowak, it may be recalled, is a proponent of group selection.  That doesn’t sit well with many of his peers, who have staked their reputations on their support for IF, and stand to lose some serious face if Nowak succeeds in debunking it.  The definition of the term “group selection” can be tricky.  Johan van der Dennen has a good section on it (Section 1.2.5) in his online book, The Origin of War.  However one defines it, it has a fascinating history.

    The group selection hypothesis can be traced back to Darwin, and enjoyed a brief vogue when it was popularized by V. C. Wynne-Edwards in his book, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior, published in 1962.  As recounted by Mark Borello in his excellent, Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection, Wynne-Edwards’ theories quickly came under attack, and were largely rejected after the appearance of seminal papers by David Lack (Population Studies of Birds, 1966, and The Natural Regulation of Animal Numbers, 1966) and George Williams (Adaptation and Natural Selection, 1966).  Both took the gene-centric view favored by William Hamilton, who had proposed his theory of kin selection in 1964.  Their ideas were popularized in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which appeared in 1976, and evolved into today’s neo-Darwinian synthesis, which favors inclusive fitness theory.

    As it happened, one very prominent writer who had been impressed by Wynne-Edwards’ ideas was Robert Ardrey, who wrote a series of books in the 60’s and 70’s defending the existence of innate human behavioral traits, or what one might call human nature. He did so in defiance of the Blank Slate orthodoxy of the time, which denied the existence of innate behavior in humans, which prevailed in anthropology, psychology, sociology,  and the rest of the behavioral sciences in the United States at the time.  There is no question that Ardrey was the most effective and influential opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  The Blank Slaters themselves admitted as much, for example, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu that appeared in 1968.

    And this is where the history gets really interesting.  In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins claimed in the first chapter that Ardrey, along with Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz and the famous ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been “totally and utterly wrong” because of their support for group selection.  Enter Steven Pinker, who dismissed Ardrey in his book, The Blank Slate, with a single paragraph because, on Dawkins’ authority, he had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  Now this is certainly absurd, because the theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature, not group selection.  In other words, Pinker actually managed to write a book running to 528 pages in paperback, supposedly all about the Blank Slate, that dismissed the man who was, by the Blank Slater’s own account, their most successful and influential opponent, with a brief mention to the effect that he had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  In looking around at the intellectual landscape in the behavioral sciences as well as the popular media today, anyone with a passing familiarity with Ardrey’s work cannot help but conclude that he was not only not “totally and utterly wrong,” but has been triumphantly vindicated.  The problem isn’t that he was “totally and utterly wrong,” but that didn’t belong to the academic tribe.  In fact, Ardrey came to anthropology late in life after being a very successful playwright.  It would seem that, of all professions, playwrights could be expected to have some passing knowledge of human nature.  No matter, he shamed the scientists, so Pinker dismissed him and ginned up what amounted to a thorough revision of history to “set things straight.”

    One of the ways in which the record was “set straight” was by exaggerating the role of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, published in 1975.  Now, I’m very fond of Wilson’s books, and consider him a great man, but the idea that Sociobiology was the first serious challenge to the Blank Slaters, as claimed by Pinker beginning on page 108 of the paperback version of his book, is patent nonsense.  There is nothing of real relevance to the Blank Slate controversy that appeared in either Sociobiology or On Human Nature, which appeared a few years later, that hadn’t been familiar to Ardrey’s readers more than a decade earlier.

    Fast forward to 2012.  E. O. Wilson, never one to avoid rocking the boat or pass quietly from the scene in the odor of sanctity, tossed a bombshell into the behavioral sciences with the publication of his The Social Conquest of Earth.  I came in the form of Wilson’s wholehearted embrace of (you guessed it) group selection!  This evoked some sour responses from Pinker, whose specious rationalization for his dismissal of Ardrey wouldn’t stand for such practical jokes, not to mention Dawkins, and a host of others.  Wilson had never really completely distanced himself from group selection, and his fulsome endorsement of it in his latest book was based on mathematical models he had worked on in collaboration with none other than Martin Nowak.

    Now we find Nowak, not only doubling down on group selection, but actively seeking to slip a knife between the ribs of the inclusive fitness aficionados!  I must say that I have no strong opinion one way or the other about group selection.  In the language of physics, you might say the problem has a huge number of degrees of freedom that are often addressed crudely, if at all in the mathematical models on both sides.  However, I must admit that I find the controversy and its convoluted history hugely entertaining.  And I do wonder when Pinker is going to publish a revised edition of The Blank Slate, dropping all those nice things he said about Wilson down the memory hole, perhaps replacing them with a brief paragraph to the effect that he was “totally and utterly wrong.”

  • Science vs. Ideology in Genetics, in which Richard Dawkins and Professor Ceiling Cat Admonish David Dobbs

    Posted on December 8th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    Cultural determinism is like the Paris fashions.  It defies ridicule.  The idea is so useful that it won’t drown, despite the torrent of contradictory facts it has been submerged under lately.  The cobbling of utopias is great fun, and utopia is ever so much more plausible if only everything can be changed to the heart’s desire by culture and environment.  One of the more flamboyant examples of the phenomenon recently turned up in Aeon Magazine in the form of an article penned by science journalist David Dobbs.

    The title of the article, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, is provocative enough.  The Selfish Gene, of course, was the subject of a book with that title by Richard Dawkins.  Rubbing salt in the wound, Dobbs adds the byline, “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”  All this irritated Dawkins’ friend Jerry Coyne, to the point that he not only read the rather lengthy article, but penned a pair of rebuttals on his Why Evolution is True website.  It wasn’t hard.

    Dobbs’ claim that Dawkins’ selfish gene version of evolution is wrong was based on his embrace of the idea of genetic accommodation.  Coyne (known to his students as Professor Ceiling Cat, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who visits his blog) described the idea in his second rebuttal as follows;

    Today’s discussion is on what Dobbs and some of the heroes of his piece (especially Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard) see as the truly novel and non-Darwinian refutation of the selfish gene idea: the idea of genetic accommodation.  “Genetic accommodation” has other names: it’s also been called “The Baldwin Effect” and “genetic assimilation.”  But all of these names refer to a single mechanism: instead of existing genetic variation being subject to natural selection in an existing or changing environment, the environment itself evokes phenotypic (not genetic) variation, which is then somehow fixed in the species’ genome.

    Dobbs’ version of this idea leads him to some rather startling assertions.  For example, he writes,

    Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another.  We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps.  Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals – what biologists call our phenotype, which is essentially the recognizable thing a genotype builds.  This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult.  The writing varies – but hardly as much as the reading.

    Great shades of Trofim Lysenko!  One can almost see the great Soviet con man in one of his Siberian laboratories, turning out a race of centaurs by astutely tweaking the “reading” of the genes of a zebra.  Where is Dobbs going with this?  Let’s cut to the chase and have a look at his thumbnail sketch of genetic accommodation:

    There lies the quick beating heart of her (Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s) argument: the gene follows. And one of the ways the gene follows is through this process called genetic accommodation. Genetic accommodation is a clunky term for a graceful process. It takes a moment to explain. But bear with me a moment, and you’ll understand how you, dear reader, could evolve into a fast and deadly predator.

    Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.

    First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form — its phenotype — by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.

    For example, suppose you’re a predator. You live with others of your ilk in dense forest. Your kind hunts by stealth: you hide among trees, then jump out and snag your meat. You needn’t be fast, just quick and sneaky.

    You get faster. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did.

    Then a big event — maybe a forest fire, or a plague that kills all your normal prey — forces you into a new environment. This new place is more open, which nixes your jump-and-grab tactic, but it contains plump, juicy animals, the slowest of which you can outrun if you sprint hard. You start running down these critters. As you do, certain genes ramp up expression to build more muscle and fire the muscles more quickly. You get faster. You’re becoming a different animal. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs. By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.

    Then a mutation occurs in one grandkid. This mutation happens to create stronger, faster muscle fibres. This grandchild of yours can naturally and easily run faster than her fastest siblings and cousins. She flies. Her children inherit the gene, and because their speed wows their mating prospects, they mate early and often, and bear lots of kids. Through the generations, this sprinter’s gene thus spreads through the population.

    Now the thing is complete. Your descendants have a new gene that helps secure the adaptive trait you originally developed through gene expression alone. But the new gene didn’t create the new trait. It just made it easier to keep a trait that a change in the environment made valuable. The gene didn’t drive the train; it merely hopped aboard.

    In fact, all this is so banal, and so lacking in any serious departure from anything Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, that Coyne apparently assumed that he’d missed something, and accused Dobbs of Lamarckism.  After all, if he wasn’t at least implying Lamarckism between the lines, there isn’t the shadow of a hook in this scenario on which to hang the claim that such “genetic accommodation” is in any way revolutionary, non-Darwinian, or non-Dawkinsian.  In fact, if you read the passage closely, you’ll see there’s nothing Lamarckian about it at all.  The kids and grandkids don’t get faster and stronger by inheritance or acquired characteristics, but merely by hanging out with their parental role models.  Evidently Dawkins himself noticed, because at this point he chimed in and wrote his own rebuttal, patiently Fisking Dobbs article, and quite reasonably pointing out that there was nothing in all this that contradicted Darwin or himself in any substantial way at all.

    Coyne and Dawkins concluded from all this that Dobbs was merely grandstanding.  As Dawkins put it, his article was,

    …infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.

    True enough, but as scientists often do, Dawkins sees the basic absurdity of the article clearly enough, but fails to see that it is absurd, not because it is bad science, but because it is an ideological morality tale.  Let’s allow Dobbs to explain the moral of the story in his own words:

    The gene does not lead, it follows.

    And ‘evolution is not about single genes’ (West-Eberhard) says.  It’s about genes working together.

    It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome.  It’s a social genome.

    Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

    And so, thanks to the environment, the collective once again triumphs over the “selfish” individual.  If you don’t get the ideological point, dear reader, I’m not going to spell it out for you.  I’ll let the ideologues do that for themselves.  See, for example, Drugged Individualism, in the November 1934 issue of the American Mercury, or The Myth of Individuality (by Theodore Dreiser, no less) in the March issue of the same year.  The hive mind hasn’t changed much in 80 years.

     

  • The Strange Case of Dr. Robert Trivers

    Posted on April 15th, 2013 Helian 9 comments

    Anyone with a passing interest in evolutionary biology has heard of Dr. Robert Trivers.  He is a giant in the field, and the seminal papers he published in the 1970’s on reciprocal altruism, parental investment theory, and gene-level thinking inspired the work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.  Well, I happened to look up a link for a reference to him in another post, and found to my surprise that he has been driven off the campus of Rutgers University!  He has been involved in a controversy lately over his accusation that one of his graduate students committed fraud in a scientific paper.  Apparently he was banned from campus because a colleague who supports the alleged fraudster claimed Trivers had “frightened him in his office.”

    Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of any details of the case, but it does seem a bit rich that a university that tolerated a violent homophobe as basketball coach for three years would ban and humiliate an honored scientist with no history of violent or aggressive behavior because someone claimed he “frightened him.”  Amazingly, there’s almost nothing about this case on the Internet.  Here is Trivers’ side of the story:

    I was involved in a case of academic fraud at Rutgers University concerning a very striking paper published in one of the top science journals of the world (Nature, 2005). I was a co-author on that paper and the head of the project in which the work took place. I was then a co-author of a short book proving that the prior paper was completely fraudulent. Indeed the chance that it was not fraudulent was less than one in ten billion.

     But a colleague who wished to preserve the results (Dr Cronk) took the opposite view. I was creating the illusion of fraud beyond one in a billion but there was actually no fraud at all. When the dust settled, I was ejected from campus, not permitted back to any of it except in the company of an armed police officer for almost five months, deprived of any contact with my two classes, then 90% complete, deprived of my research space for 20 months and found to be in violation of the University’s anti-violence policy (which can lead to suspension without pay) having done nothing more violent than call a man who had slandered and defamed me multiple times, a “punk”.

    If this is true, it is certainly a high-handed abuse of authority by the Rutgers administration.  I would certainly like to hear Rutgers’ version of what happened, but can find nothing on the web.  All this didn’t happen yesterday.  Where are all the scientific heavyweights who have heaped praise on Trivers over the years?  Are their reputations too delicate for them to get involved?  They certainly don’t need to rush to judgment one way or the other, but at the very least they could insist that the public be given some rudimentary information about what’s going on.  I don’t doubt that Trivers rubs many people the wrong way.  He represents the exact opposite of the Blank Slater narrative according to which evolutionary biologists and psychologists are really all closet fascists and racists.  He was close friends with Huey Newton, former Chairman of the Black Panthers, who served as godfather for one of his children, and is a bitter enemy of Israel and supporter of the Palestinians.  However, his take on the reasons behind his punishment has the ring of truth.  In his words,

     As I later learned, my case showed many of the classic features of such cases in academia. Chiefly, there is no upside to fraud—at least not to admitting to it—the university in which the work takes place has no interest in revealing the fraud that occurs within its boundaries, nor does the journal that published the fraud.

    The scientific journal claims to promote and publish the truth, but when presented with strong contrary evidence to work it has already published, it does not act at once to retract the results nor even call attention to their untrustworthiness—in fact, it often does nothing at all. Thus, a paper (Brown et al 2005 [PDF]) may easily survive un-rebutted in the literature for over seven years, accruing 127 citations, in spite of a small book (Trivers et al 2009 [PDF]) proving the fraud far beyond a reasonable doubt, yet to this day Nature refuses to publish even a reference to the book. For an account of Cronk’s early behavior regarding the fraud problem, see Chapter 12 of Trivers et al (The Anatomy of a Fraud [PDF]).

    Since the work was supported by Federal funds (NSF), the rule is that when fraud is alleged concerning such work, the Institution that received the money must investigate and report back to the Federal government—otherwise the Federal government is happy to cut off ALL federally supported research until compliance is achieved. In short, Rutgers had no choice and its 27-month investigation duly confirmed that fraud was committed (RAB report 2012 [PDF]) exactly as alleged in our 2009 book.  Although Rutgers refuses to release the report publicly, I do so here because I am permitted to share copies of the report with whomever I choose. I was co-principal investigator and co-author on the fraud itself and I was co-author on a book proving the fraud. Rutgers’ official investigation merely bore out what our book showed.

    Does Rutgers have a different version?  By all means let’s hear it.  Whether one agrees with his political opinions or not, Dr. Trivers has made mighty contributions to the advance of human knowledge.  If he has really deserved the punishment and humiliation meted out to him by the Rutgers officialdom, the public certainly has a right to know the reasons why.

    UPDATE:  Richard Dawkins has apparently taken notice.  I also found a post by leftover Blank Slater John Horgan about a response from Trivers to one of his rants against evolutionary psychology.  According to Horgan, Trivers called it “shallow,” and accused him of “acting out the old Scientific American‘s long-standing inability to look at human sociobiology objectively.”  This at least demonstrates that Trivers hasn’t lost his originality, and ability to think outside of an ideological box.  Why?  Because in spite of the fact that he stands on the left of the political spectrum himself, it’s apparently clear to him that Scientific American is much better described as a political tract than a science journal.  He also isn’t afraid to offend the Horgan clones who still manage to maintain the ancient orthodoxy that there is no such thing as human nature in some of the more sequestered echo chambers of academia.  Perhaps this explains why it has been necessary for him, so far at least, to fight this battle alone.

    david-belisarius-receiving-alms-1781

  • E. O. Wilson vs. Jerry Coyne: The Group Selection Wars Continue

    Posted on March 4th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    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.

    Coyne writes,

    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.

  • Procopius on Kin Selection and Territoriality

    Posted on February 10th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    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.