Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 23, 2011

The evolutionary necessity of lying

Filed under: Evolutionary Psychology,Sociobiology — Razib Khan @ 9:11 am

John Horgan has a long review of Robert Trivers’ long overdue book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. I really don’t care how well Trivers analyzed the topic, this is such a rich and important issue that I can’t help but think he must have hit some important mines of insight. I haven’t read The Folly of Fools, but I can recommend Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers. It’s not just a compilation of papers, there are biographical chapters which flesh out the context behind a particular idea at a given time. Trivers also shows up prominently in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate and Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species.

July 21, 2011

The end of evolutionary psychology

A new paper in PLoS Biology is rather like the last person to leave turning the light off. Evolutionary psychology as we understood it in the 1980s and 1990s is over. Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology:

None of the aforementioned scientific developments render evolutionary psychology unfeasible; they merely require that EP should change its daily practice. The key concepts of EP have led to a series of widely held assumptions (e.g., that human behaviour is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that cognition is domain-specific, that there is a universal human nature), which with the benefit of hindsight we now know to be questionable. A modern EP would embrace a broader, more open, and multi-disciplinary theoretical framework, drawing on, rather than being isolated from, the full repertoire of knowledge and tools available in adjacent disciplines. Such a field would embrace the challenge of exploring empirically, for instance, to what extent human cognition is domain-general or domain specific, under what circumstances human behaviour is adaptive, how best to explain variation in human behaviour and cognition. The evidence from adjacent disciplines suggests that, if EP can reconsider its basic tenets, it will flourish as a scientific discipline.


June 17, 2011

Muslim over-reliance on logic

Filed under: Culture,Sociobiology — Razib Khan @ 1:28 pm

I’ve been mulling over omar’s comment below:

And about women, he made the argument that all this equality business is a sideshow and even a net negative. We dont have to buy this silly notion that “we are wasting the talents of 50% of the population”. Once we sort out our technology issues, we will show that having men run the show is actually a superior way of doing things. It worked for Rome, it worked for the British Empire, it will work for us too. It is the “equal rights” crowd who will fall on their face..and their women will beg to be allowed to be women once again, instead of being sex slaves and wage slaves in an unnatural world….

A few minor points first. Traditionally women had a great deal of power in Rome, something that was probably due to the influence of the Etruscans, and moderately scandalous to the Greeks. For example, men and women dined together rather than separately, as was the norm in Greek high culture. And though women generally did not taken the reigns of power themselves explicitly, excepting Irene, they were often very powerful influences and often the de facto powers. In the early 3rd century women were to a great extent the “powers behind the throne” of the Severan dynasty. In the early 5th century two women, Pulcheria and Eudocia, were of greater political importance than the Emperors of the West and East who nominally ruled. And most classically educated people are well aware of the power of women such as Livia Drusilla, Agripinna, and Theodora. Of course that means most people are unaware of the power of these women! Including omar’s ignorant but over-educated friend. As for the British, that Western European nation famously has had multiple queens, Mary I, Elizabeth I, Anne, and Victoria. The two latter were during a period when the monarchy was transitioning to constitutionality, but their power, especially Anne’s, was far greater than symbolic as it is today.

But on to the major point.

When it comes to relations between the sexes Muslims, despite their common evolution-phobia, appeal to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I do not believe all their appeals are without merit. I believe that on average men and women have differing dispositions, and there are just baked-into-the-cake biological differences between the two sexes. I believe that as a rule men will dominate in positions of power, above and beyond their numbers, and often alas, their competence. I suspect this is a matter of personality which is partially hard-wired. But, there are also various reasons I believe that on average men who are taller than the median will continue to hold executive positions. That does not mean that I think it is “wrong” or “against” nature for a man who is below the median in height to hold positions of power!

The Islamic error is to turn quantitative and statistical distributions into hard & fast qualitative rules. The one does not follow from the other. An inversion might be proponents of the “blank slate” who deny that there are differences because those differences are not hard & fast qualitative categories.

Pre-modern peoples understood this to a great extent. All of the ancient post-Neolithic polities were patriarchal, but as a matter of course powerful women were consulted, and on occasion ruled in their own name. There is plenty of men found this objectionable, and peculiar, but at the end of the day it reoccurred over and over. Why? Even in these patriarchal circumstances, where the die was loaded toward men through custom & tradition, there were cases when sexual identity was less important than power, and the will to rule. Even Muslims understood this. Women played a critical role in the power struggles of the early Islamic era, and even Islamic clerics from a period when male-rule was more explicitly endorsed and enshrined in Islamic law were willing to compromise. The most number matrilineal people in the world are Muslims, and as a condition of their conversion the ulema accept this peoples’ customs of having queens, even though that was not normative in the Dar-ul-Islam.

I believe that empirical realities of biology, economics, history, etc., should inform how we order the world around us to optimize “human flourishing.” Islamic culture, like Chinese, Indian, and West, has formulated a response to the world around us, rooted in its own tradition. But modern Islamic “reformists” often live in a world of delusion, where they simply select aspects of nature which appeal to their intuition, and push those aspects to their logical conclusion. Such a methodology may be workable for Newtonian mechanics, but the joints of biology are not carved in such a cut & dried fashion.

Addendum: Also, Muslim “conservatives” often use economic history in a bizarre way. In the pre-moden world women as a matter of survival had to contribute to the labor production of a society. This includes in the Islamic world. Only elite women, in many cultures, were sequestered from economic activity, because that was a luxury which elite men could afford. In the post-Malthusian world this sort of enforced economic participation of women is not so necessary, at least for survival, but “cultural conservatives” of all stripes are simply misrepresenting the nature of the past. If you truly want to go back to the “good old days,” then 90% of the population should go be subsistence farmers.

June 8, 2011

A mismeasured Mismeasurement of Man

I would say The Mismeasurement of Man is one of the most commonly cited books on this weblog over the years (in the comments). It comes close to being “proof-text” in many arguments online, because of the authority and eminence of the author in the public mind, Stephen Jay Gould. I am in general not particularly a fan of Gould’s work or thought, with many of my sentiments matching the attitudes of Paul Krugman in this 1996 essay:

….Like most American intellectuals, I first learned about this subject [evolutionary biology] from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. But I eventually came to realize that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right. Serious evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith or William Hamilton, like serious economists, think largely in terms of mathematical models. Indeed, the introduction to Maynard Smith’s classic tract Evolutionary Genetics flatly declares, “If you can’t stand algebra, stay away from evolutionary biology.” There is a core set of crucial ideas in his subject that, because they involve the interaction of several different factors, can only be clearly understood by someone willing ...

May 10, 2011

Nature vs. nurture, again, and again, and again….

Filed under: Evolution,Sociobiology,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 11:58 pm

In The New York Review of Books Richard Lewontin has a long review up of Evelyn Fox Keller‘s last work, The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. Here’s the blurb from Duke University Press:

In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is ...

February 3, 2011

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

Link to review: Mother Nature: a complicated and morally ambivalent tale

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

Link to review: Mother Nature: a complicated and morally ambivalent tale

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