Treating evolutionary psychology as a sledgehammer

Via Lindsay Beyerstein, Chris at Mixing Memory has a piece responding to another by Will Wilkinson.  Wilkinson’s piece for Cato tries to examine what evolutionary psychology tells us about politics and economics. 

As one who is tired of the endless stream of just-so evolutionary psychology stories that pop up in popular discussions, I was pleased by Chris’ rejoinder.  But judge for your self.

“There is something about evolutionary psychology (EP) that makes it very attractive to non-psychologists (and to undergraduate psych majors — you should see them rushing to register for EP courses). I’ve never been entirely sure what it is about EP that makes non-experts find it so fascinating, and more often than not, swallow it’s claims without hesitation. Perhaps it’s the simplicity and intuitiveness of many of the explanations. Cheating is bad, and harmful, therefore it is adaptive for us to have evolved a mechanism for detecting it. That’s pretty simple and intuitive, right? Of course, this is one of the many reasons that most psychologists don’t seem to find EP very attractive. The explanations generally rely on little more than intuition bolstered by sketchy, usually non-experimentally derived data. A careful review of the EP literature would give a scientist little confidence in its claims. However, there are plenty of non-psychologists who are happy to read some trade books on EP, and treat it as gospel. Doing so leads them to come up with all sorts of nonsensical arguments about human behavior.” 

A Response to Rushdie

Speaking of free speech in a time of war, Shakira Hussein responds to Salman Rushdie’s take on the proposed anti-religous hate speech law in OpenDemocracy.

Racial hatred is increasingly being recoded in religious terms, and frankly I don’t think it is our ‘ideas’ that are at issue much of the time. Committed atheists are subjected to Islamophobia along with devout believers on the basis of their Arabic names or ‘middle-eastern appearance’.

Nor is religious identity simply about our ‘ideas’ in any abstract sense. It’s about the community to which we belong, our families, the significance of certain days, places, or events. People may associate us with a particular religion not only because of our beliefs, but also because of our names, style of dress, physical appearance, even our diet – signifiers as shallow as any racial marker. My young pink and white daughter is already highly aware of the anti-Islamic prejudice that confronts her, prejudice which has nothing to do with who she is or what she thinks. I want my daughter to be legally protected against religious hate, as I am protected against racial hate.

Moshe Dayan on Vietnam and the Implications for Iraq

Also in the Boston Review, Martin van Creveld revisits Moshe Dayan’s observations on the Vietnam War, and asks what lessons it offers for Iraq.

Today comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are fashionable. Some people emphasize the differences between the two, claiming that the former was essentially a conventional war. I disagree. Based on Dayan’s account, I would argue that the similarities are more important than the differences.

First, according to Dayan, the most significant operational problem the American forces were facing in Vietnam was lack of intelligence—the inability to distinguish the enemy from either the physical surroundings or the civilian population. . .In its absence, most of the blows they delivered—including no fewer than six million tons of bombs—missed their targets. Their only effect was to disperse the enemy into the civilian population. Worst of all, lack of accurate intelligence meant that the Americans kept hitting noncombatants by mistake. They thus drove huge segments of the population straight into the arms of the Viet Cong; nothing is more conducive to hatred than the sight of relatives and friends being killed.

. . .

The third of Dayan’s observations, and the most relevant to a comparison with the current war in Iraq, is that the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate position of beating down the weak. As Dayan wrote, ‘Any comparison between the two armies was astonishing. On the one hand there was the American army, complete with helicopters, an air force, armor, electronic communications, artillery, and mind-boggling riches; to say nothing of ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and equipment of all kinds. On the other there were the [North Vietnamese troops], who had been walking on foot for four months, carrying some artillery rounds on their backs and using a tin spoon to eat a little ground rice from a tin plate.’

Eqbal Ahmad used to call describe the last lesson as “the defeat by human beings of the collective presumptions of technology”, which I always found poetic.  I’m not convinced of every point of the analogy, especially the last one, but it’s worth considering.

A review of Huntington’s Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity

In the new Boston Review, a review of Samuel Huntington’s latest, er, musings.

The end of the Cold War left the United States without a common enemy. Its elites have become liberal multicultural cosmopolitans. ‘Overall,’ Samuel Huntington tells us, ‘American elites are not only less nationalistic but are also more liberal than the American public.’ Indeed, only 22 percent of the American public self-identifies as liberal, whereas a whopping 91 percent of leaders of public-interest groups are liberals. True, Huntington’s statistics also show that only 14 percent of American business elites and nine percent of the military elites are liberals, but let’s not split hairs: if you add them all up, “elites” are liberal.

And there is an even more urgent cause for alarm, a more pressing challenge to America’s national identity: the current ‘Hispanic’ invasion.

. . .

This is because Mexican immigration is different from any other: it is more persistent, more regionally concentrated, less committed to education and more attached to its native culture and values. The net effect of these factors is disturbing: ‘In the late twentieth century, developments occurred that, if continued, could change America into a cultural bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages.’

Liberal elitists like Bill Clinton may ask you to believe that the United States cannot break apart into two cultures, that it is and always was a nation of immigrants, a mosaic of cultures. It is no such thing.”

The Sidney Morgenbesser Memorial Fund

Given the care, comfort and creative discomfort that he gave students (this one included), this seems a fitting tribute to Sidney Morgenbesser.

The Sidney Morgenbesser Memorial Fund

In cooperation with the Columbia College Office of Development, the Philosophy Department is establishing a Fund in Sidney’s honor to support scholarship students at Columbia College or, if possible, a faculty position at Columbia.

The amount required permanently to endow a scholarship fund is $50,000; additional scholarships could be funded at the same amount. Faculty positions require much more substantial amounts.

At the end of a five year period, the Department, the Development office, and Sidney’s friends and family will determine whether the Fund can best be used to support student scholarships or a faculty position.

Columbia College Office of Development
475 Riverside Drive
Suite 917
New York, NY, 10115

A Michelin Guide to New York Hotels and Restaurants

Michelin (the restuarant guide, not the tires) is coming to New York.Michelin

“NEW YORK restaurants, already on constant lookout for the critics, both professional and amateur, now have to contend with another group of reviewers: Michelin inspectors.

For the last five months these gastronomic undercover agents have been working on the Michelin Guide to New York City, the company’s first hotel and restaurant ratings outside Europe. Michelin’s green sightseeing guides have covered the United States since 1968.

This evening at Gotham Hall in Midtown, Édouard Michelin, the chairman of the French tire company that bears his name, is expected to announce plans for the 2006 New York guide. The book, to go on sale Nov. 15, will rate 500 restaurants in the five boroughs and 50 Manhattan hotels.”

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate revisited

Heavens_gate_picIt’s the 25th anniversary of Michael Cimino’s Heaven Gate, the film that bankrupted United Artists (which was saved by the Bond film For Your Eyes Only).  A piece in The Guardian suggests that it still evokes controversy.

[W]hen the film was first released in New York, he became a nationwide object of scorn. Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times set the tone: “Heaven’s Gate fails so completely,” he wrote, “that you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.” Stung by the reviews, Cimino withdrew his film from circulation. He re-edited it, shortening it by 70 minutes, but it still did lousy business.

Can the elections also deliver peace in Afghanistan

Following up on yesterday’s post on Ba’athist insurgents negotiating on ending the fighting, via Norman Geras comes this story of a Taleban commander (well, now former commander) trying to get remnants of the Taleban to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty. 

“[Abdul Salam, aka Mullah Rockety] is [now] a supporter of President Hamid Karzai and is tempting diehard Taliban fighters to accept an amnesty offer and reconcile themselves to Afghanistan’s first directly elected leader.

‘The Taliban has lost its morale,’ he said, speaking by satellite phone from the heartlands of Zabul province, a Taliban redoubt.

‘But you have to go and find the Taliban and call to them and ask them directly. If they believe they will be secure and safe they will come down from the mountains.’

After the Taliban’s three-year struggle against a superior US force, there is growing optimism among the Americans and Afghan government that the end is close.”

Genocide Archive

Nicholas Kristof has perhaps done more than any other single individual in the Western media (through his op-ed forum at the NY Times) to bring attention to what is happening in Darfur. Today he continues that crusade with four photos and another call for action.


During past genocides against Armenians, Jews and Cambodians, it was possible to claim that we didn’t fully know what was going on. This time, President Bush, Congress and the European Parliament have already declared genocide to be under way. And we have photos.

This time, we have no excuse. 

Bigger brains aren’t always better

“Nearly 3 million years ago, our ancestors had brains about as big as modern chimps. Since then the brain that would become human grew steadily, tripling in size. But this extra cranium capacity may not have resulted in smarter hominids.

As far as tool-making is concerned, there is little evidence of improvement over much of the period that the brain was growing.

“Archaeology has found that brain size grew gradually, but cleverness took steps,” said William Calvin, a neurobiologist from the University of Washington.

The most dramatic of these steps is referred to by some as the Mind’s Big Bang. It occurred between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. This burst of creativity resulted in bone tools, including sewing needles and throwing sticks. There was also a flourishing of portable art, such as necklaces and pendants, as well as cave paintings.

“There was nothing like this before,” Calvin said here Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It is hard to explain the Mind’s Big Bang with a jump in skull size, seeing as Homo sapiens with modern-sized brains had already been around for 100,000 years or more before the tool and art revolution occurred.

“The big brain was perhaps necessary for the creative explosion at 70,000 years ago, but it sure wasn’t sufficient by itself,” Calvin said.

So what was a larger brain good for? What was the evolutionary advantage that propelled our family tree to make more room between the ears?


The brain
An interactive road map to the mind

Calvin postulates that a big brain may have made our ancestors better hunters by improving their throwing accuracy. Or perhaps it allowed for the development of a rudimentary language of three-word sentences.

The social psychologist Robin Dunbar has even suggested that the higher memory capacity in a bigger brain could have helped early hominids identify freeloaders who were not pulling their weight for the community.

But none of these subtle advances, according to Calvin, led to the emergence of behaviorally modern humans.

“If you can’t speak sentences of more than two to three words at a time without them all blending together like a summer drink, you likely cannot think complicated thoughts either,” he said.

Increasing sentence length or doing multistage planning requires an understanding of structure. Moreover, it is structural creativity that led to advances in tools and art.This structure may have developed in early human language and thought through trial and error.

“We invent new levels on the fly,” Calvin said.

A lot of this invention might be nonsensical, but occasionally an innovative adult might have tried out a new word or syntax, and a child heard it and began incorporating it into his or her language.

“Then long-sentence language can spread like a contagious disease, as more kids hear structured sentences and grow up to become super adults,” Calvin explained.

The incorporation of more and more complexity is attributable to a combination of culture and genes.

“Behavior invents, and then little genetic changes come along that improve it,” Calvin said.

He wonders if we might be headed into a second big bang of the mind. With “better-informed education” based on empirical methods, Calvin postulated that we might see a creative flourishing in the coming century, comparable to the advances made in medicine of the past century.”

Do launch the Interactive Roadmap to the Brain for fun and read more here.

On vegan and vegetarian parents

From The Guardian,

“Prof Allen conducted a study of impoverished children in Kenya, and found that adding as little as two spoonfuls of meat a day to their starch-based diets dramatically improved muscle development and mental skills.

. . .

Prof Allen was especially critical of parents who imposed a vegan lifestyle on their children, denying them milk, cheese, eggs and butter, as well as meat. ‘There’s absolutely no question that it’s unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans,’ she said.
. . .

However, the British Dietetic Association said the study looked at impoverished, rural children with a poor background diet low in essential nutrients such as zinc, B12 and iron, and its findings were not applicable to vegan children in the developed world.”

Now assuming this is true, why doesn’t the ethical quandry hold for parents who don’t force their children to exercise, etc.?

Segments of the Iraqi insurgency seem willing to negotiate

This report in Time suggests that there may be even more positive fallout from the Iraqi elections (in addition to the elections themselves).

“The secret meeting is taking place in the bowels of a facility in Baghdad, a cavernous, heavily guarded building in the U.S.-controlled green zone. The Iraqi negotiator, a middle-aged former member of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the senior representative of the self-described nationalist insurgency, sits on one side of the table. He is here to talk to two members of the U.S. military. One of them, an officer, takes notes during the meeting. The other, dressed in civilian clothes, listens as the Iraqi outlines a list of demands the U.S. must satisfy before the insurgents stop fighting. . . The discussion does not go beyond generalities, but both sides know what’s behind the coded language.

The Iraqi’s very presence conveys a message: Members of the insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. ‘We are ready,’ he says before leaving, ‘to work with you.’

In that guarded pledge may lie the first sign that after nearly two years of fighting, parts of the insurgency in Iraq are prepared to talk and move toward putting away their arms–and the U.S. is willing to listen.”

Star in a Jar, again a controversial claim regarding nuclear fusion

The quest for a practically limitless source of energy through fusion continues unabated even though talks between the Japanese and the European on the administrative structure, contracting and location of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project are bogged down. 


“Rusi Taleyarkhan claims to have achieved it [nuclear fusion] using simple sound waves. His breakthrough is based on something called sonoluminescence. It is a process that transforms sound waves into flashes of light, focusing the sound energy into a tiny flickering hot spot inside a bubble.

It has been nicknamed ‘the star in a jar’ by researchers in the field.

The star in a jar effortlessly reaches temperatures of tens of thousands of degrees, which is hotter than the surface of the Sun. It was able to do all this by simply focusing the energy of the sound wave into a tiny hot spot.

. . .

But there was one major criticism of Rusi Taleyarkhan’s work.”

Empire as Cultural Hegemony

How culturally hegemonic was the project of Empire for the British?  A new book tries to answer.

“As everyone knows (everyone, at least, whose knowledge is derived from paperback history books and the BBC), Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an imperial power with an imperialist culture. The British were taught imperial history at schools, they read imperial news in the newspapers, they devoured novels with imperialist themes, and so on. The upper classes were educated to run the Empire; the lower classes, to take pride in it.

There is now an entire academic industry devoted to tracing this all-pervading imperialism through every aspect of 19th-century life: masculinity, tea-drinking, zoo-keeping, you name it. So confident are modern writers in the omnipresence of imperialism that specific references to the Empire are not in fact required: thus one modern art critic has identified an imperialist theme in Constable’s painting Hadleigh Castle on the grounds that the Thames Estuary (shown in the background) ‘represents’ British expansion into the rest of the world.

. . .

Bernard Porter, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle, takes Seeley’s remark as the starting-point for a wide-ranging investigation of what the British really thought about their Empire. And to anyone brought up on the paperback-BBC view, the evidence he has accumulated will be truly startling.”