Thursday, December 17, 2009

Copehagen: Group therapy

Copenhagen police tackle 4,000-strong climate protest

On a day when NGOs were given limited access to the Copenhagen summit, protesters marched on the Bella centre to reclaim the climate debate back to the people most affected

Or so says the headline from the guardian to a video feature on the Copenhagen protests. But what the hell does that mean, "reclaiming the climate debate?" Is there any point at all to these protests? Do we want these people "reclaiming the debate?"

I heard a radio report on BBC the other day and the protesters were talking about what they were doing as if it were an activists convention--oh, it was so nice to reconnect with activists from around the world. It's all so heartwarming, blah blah blah. Street protest as a form of therapy? Is that what this is?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

10 years from Seattle . . .

I think that ten years from now, the thing that's going to be written about Seattle, is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner, but that the WTO in 1999 was the first of a global citizens movement for a democratic global economy (This is What Democracy Looks Like). Ten years ago tomorrow, diverse activist groups appeared in Seattle to protest perceived globalization/corporatization exemplified by the World Trade Organization. (Wiki) Some more anniversary stuff from KPLU in Seattle, Real Change, and maybe the Teabaggers. Previously: One year after.

This via twoleftfeet at metafilter . . .

It's interesting. Ten Years On, this is not what democracy looks like. Thank goodness. For one thing that's just impossibly corny. And, more seriously, it's a seriously skewed vision of what democracy should be. The protesters were, essentially protesting on behalf of rule by a young, self-righteous minority. The messiness of actual democracy holds little interest for folks who are so in love with the romantic gesture.

On the other hand, this is probably a great time (when economic activity has slowed somewhat and there isn't so much money immediately at stake) to revisit the economic issues surrounding globalization. Not the issues so often flogged by the kids on the street, but some of the basic structural issues of bringing dozens of heterogenous nations under one market.

The last ten years have seen some remarkable strides taken by significant portions of the world population, but there are some significant transition problems in the global economy. But there have been problems as well: the further de-industrialization of America; the export of high-paying service and technical jobs to lower-wage markets, etc.

Americans sometimes view this situation as their being displaced by sadly exploited workers from overseas . . . but as many American workers should be aware by now, the only thing worse than being an exploited worker is being an un-exploited worker. The "exploited" workers of China and Malaysia, while not enjoying a western lifestyle, are exercising what they perceive to be a much better option than the alternative (life in a village) . . . and even if their conditions were ameliorated, labor-costs would still be quite low compared to the US. The problem isn't the exploitation, it's the radical difference in development between the US and other nations.

Globalization theory assumes that by opening up markets, allowing people to purchase what they want at what price they can negotiate and letting manufacturers move to the places they can best compete, the global economy as a whole will optimize over time, with each participant assuming the role best suited to it, as determined by geographic factors, character of the people, the regulatory climate, what have you. Over time this would result in an evening out of the overall economic landscape: ideally there would not be such a huge disparity between rich & poor nations in a globalized economy.

This process takes time, though, and meanwhile we have "race to the bottom" situations developing across the globe--in areas like waste disposal, worker rights, regulation, taxation and more, developing countries are competing to be the most lax. But living standards are beginning to improve in some of the largest developing nations, and hopefully new forms of domestic political pressure will eventually condition the drive for cheap. But what to do meanwhile?

And even success may have its dangers: an optimizing world economy may be very bad news for the country that has been reaping the benefits of the sub-optimal economy for so long: the United States. As economic conditions do begin to even out, the US is not going to be such an exceptional country anymore. It may be a bigger adjustment for us than we anticipate. In fact the belligerence of the Bush administration may be just a foretaste of America's response to fades back into the pack economically.

It would be great to see globalization being discussed 10 years on, rather watching a bunch of kids use it as the occasion for tiresome street theater. I am skeptical that we have it in us to actually talk about an issue that activists groups have made as divisive as possible*, but who knows?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Race and the tea-baggers

David Brooks

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I go running several times a week. My favorite route, because it’s so flat, is from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and back. I was there last Saturday and found myself plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government “tea party” protesters.They were carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, “End the Fed” placards and signs condemning big government, Barack Obama, socialist health care and various elite institutions.Then, as I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.
I read this in the New York Times the other day, and as I often am with David Brooks I was both somewhat in agreement and dismayed by the oversimplification.

But race is an issue that everyone oversimplifies quite a bit, it seems. Some of what Brooks is saying is true: there is a populist/educated divide in America. A lot of other things than race play into it--education, obviously, but also the de-industrialization of the country, insane pay for folks whose contributions are questionable, the panoply of social changes we've seen since the 1960s, etc., etc. In fact, I come from a place where this conflict was obvious every day of the week--my family was working class, a lot of my relatives did poorly in school and worked manual labor positions. But my father was a very intelligent man and a voracious autodidact. The contrast and conflict between the values and expectations of my father and those of many of the people around us was one of the central experiences of my childhood.

There's a lot that goes into the frustration that these folks feel, but to say that race doesn't play a role is absolutely wrong.

Populism itself has a pretty ugly history when it comes to race (the modern Ku Klux Klan was part of a populist rising in the early part of the twentieth century). While, yes, the current generation of populist rabble aren't Ku Klux Klanners, and do have far more comfort with blacks than their grandparents may have had, the fact that Obama is black is without question one of the things that makes the country seem "not theirs anymore."

Every single one of their issues either a) is delusional or b) was also true under Bush. Can it be a coincidence that the real engine beneath the populist rising is immigration, and if you scratch the surface there you find that the fear is not just that immigrant will pull their wages down or displace them, but pure xenophobia.

And that xenophobia, even when it is completely in its "fear of sophisticates" (and it isn't for most of these people) mode is only a small step away from "fear of anyone not white and Middle American."

These people are not too stupid to know the difference between, say, Al Qaida and Iraq. The problem is they want theri conflicts to be ethnic issues. Ethnic conflict is easy to resolve: kill the other. And that, in short, is what is behind all the threatening posturing at these demos.

Appreciation of rap and ability to mingle with blacks notwithstanding, these folks are intense xenophobes, and where that xeno starts is a fluid line. And it certainly begins before we get to an articulate black man leading the country.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Soccer: the American Exception

The New York Times doesn't have much of a sports section. When I was living in Jersey, I always took tow papers: one for the sports and the New York Times for everything else.

But though the section lacks comprehensiveness, what is in there is generally OK, particularly for sports you don't follow avidly (for me everything but baseball).

William Rhoden's article on the American loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup title game was therefore rather surprising in its seeming laziness and ignorance. Here's the opener:

Another loss on a major stage: Brazil 3, United States 2.

This is the epitaph in the wake of a heartbreaking loss in Sunday’s Confederations Cup championship game.

Too harsh? Perhaps, considering the United States was facing a great Brazilian team. On the other hand, there must come a point in the discussion of soccer in the United States when the training wheels must be removed. Either this is youth soccer, in which the goal is to let everyone play, or this is the big time, in which second or third place is no longer acceptable.

There was so much momentum heading into Sunday’s game, so much enthusiasm after the United States’ stunning victory over Spain on Wednesday.

"Either this is youth soccer, in which the goal is to let everyone play, or this is the big time, in which second or third place is no longer acceptable?" This is a professional sports writer? Nothing matters but the win?: Then please stop filling inches with tiresome descriptions and analysis--resign even. Anyone can print the results if that's all that matters.

Championship or ignomity is the attitude of someone who ONLY understands the result. An attitude born of ignorance. And if Rhoden is ignorant of soccer, he ought to stop writing about it.

Mind you, I don't follow soccer: I've played quite a bit; I can watch a game and tell what's going on and who is playing well; but I don't know who the current stars are or the state of the game in general.

And no doubt about it, being unable to hold down a 2-0 lead agains Brazil is a disappointment. But those guys are very very good. And Spain, whom the US did beat, is very very good. And the US? Well up until last week you couldn't have gotten most soccer fans around the world to say more than we were "respectable." As in: a team not to be taken lightly, but to be mindfully and handily beaten.

Now, fans around the world are thinking again. That represents success. A big one.
Still, instead of talking about a great triumph, we’re back to talking about what United States soccer needs to break through at home.

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the sport faces two major challenges in the United States. The first is how to continue to attract great athletes. . .

American soccer’s struggle to attract great talent is baffling because there are so many young people looking for something to do. The United States is one of the most powerful nations, one with phenomenal human resources.

The sprawling soccer federations reflect the nation: some have a lot, some have very little. The leadership must find the will — and a way — to redistribute resources. This is crucial for the long-term goal of having a great national team, year in and year out.

The more difficult challenge is to cultivate a broader consumer appetite for soccer in the United States. Debates continue about changing the nature of the sport to fit the American mind-set.

Please, no.

The fate of soccer in the United States is no more in the hands of the current national team than it was in the hands of the great US women's teams of the past (big wins: no change in the niche status of soccer) or the fate of hockey was in the hands of the 1980 gold medal team (big wins: hockey remains a second tier sport).

The fate of soccer in the US is simply not the story of a soccer match, unless you are ignorant and unappreciative of the sport as played on the field. The story of last week is: the US team has a lot more potential than it's been given credit for; but it still has a long way to go before it'll be able to win during crunch time in the world cup.

Mr. Rhoden, if you'd like to write yet another "fate of soccer" article in place of writing about the actual game of soccer as played on the field, please keep those last words of your article ready for your assignment editor, words that will reflect the desires the paper's readership: "Please, no."

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Back to Dutton

Denis Dutton's new book, The Art Instinct, is an interesting read from my standpoint. Dutton is pretty well-read, and he loves literature and art, so his book doesn't display the pure ignorance some efforts in this direction have suffered under (EO Wilson's, for instance).

Dutton is not a philistine, as Gould said most scientists were.

However, he is also no scientist.

As I read his book, I am struck by how badly conceived some of the science is. For instance in his passages about adaptionism, he SAYS it is silly to equate adaptiveness with human value:

By insisting that "some of the activities we consider most profound are non-adaptive by-products," Pinker is trying to steer clear of any hint of hyper-adaptionism: "it is wrong to invent functions for activities that lack [adaptive] design merely because we want to ennoble them with the imprimatur of biological adaptiveness.
This from a sympathetic source of whom he ought to be heedful. In fact I wonder if this bit wasn't added after Pinker or some other kind soul pointed out the pervasive tendency of the book to seek to do just what Pinker warns against . . .

But this analysis [that female orgasm is a side effect, not an adaptation] implies, in my opinion, a paltry, limited view of sexual pleasure. . . . Only an impoverished view of erotic sex could grant adaptiveness exclusively to male orgasm and suggest that everything else that happens in sex, from flirting to foreplay to affectionate aftermath, is only an incidental accompaniment, an extraneous by-product . . .
Just to be clear--as far as I know, this matter is still subject to dispute, and I certainly have no dog in the fight: we just don't know which elements of our sexuality and sexual practices are adaptive in the biological sense.

And as someone judging the importance of different aspects of human activity, and as a sexual being myself, I don't care what may or may not be adaptive, and neither should Dutton. But he sure seems to care.

Adaptiveness does not confer human importance as Dutton implies above. Adaptiveness tells a story about how something came about NOT what good it may or may not be for us. The etiology of female orgasm may be as a side effect of neural channels whose presence was selected for in males but present in females only out of structural necessity. But this doesn't change the fact that, in later practice, female orgasm can be quite important, even centrally important, in a society where women have power and choices. That doesn't alter the etiology of female orgasm, however.

The reason that Dutton so flagrantly defies Pinker's sound advice here is that the possibility that something like female orgasm may be a "side-effect" suggests the possibility that the arts may be, and that the proper frame of reference for talking about the importance of things like the arts and female orgasm may not be the Pleistocene--the semi-mythical ur-environment which serves to radically simplify evolutionary psychological speculation.

If, say, female orgasm or art are important for a whole load of reasons having to do with biology, yes, but also social structure, cultural tradition, the changing role of women, etc. etc. then Dutton can't use his origin stories to cut off and limit discussion of the nature art and female orgasm.

So he plays a rather interesting rhetorical game of three card monte--certainly sex and art are FAR too rich and important elements of human experience to be mere side effects, certainly they are adaptations. And because they are adaptations, I can use my origin stories to privilege a particular way of looking at these things (art as, first and foremost, palate reaction; sex as we know it as, first and foremost, procreational).

The second of these rhetorical moves is less important than the first--it is only an example, and I doubt if Dutton really cares about legitimizing certain kinds of sex, but he certainly has an interest in legitimizing pre-modernist standards in art.

Which is fine, as far as I am concerned--it is a viable position to take. But trying to short-circuit the discussion through a pseudo-scientific origin story of how art came about is not just fine. Particularly when Dutton seems so little concerned with and/or incapable of upholding the argumentative standards of the science he is attempting to employ.

Art, however it came about--and nothing in Dutton's book persuades me that we know--is now a huge part of how we deal with each other, identify each other and group ourselves in society. Whether or not art is "primarily social," the social aspect of art is a significant part of the role it plays, and cannot be ignored, even if it does make life simpler for critics.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Carroll on Gould

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows where my sympathies lie in the "Science Wars." I don't hate Richard Dawkins, but I find a few of his hobby horses to be annoying and/or dangerously misleading. And I pretty much despise the whole sociobiological project to colonize the social sciences and the humanities, be it by means of memes or by means of consillance, the whole project is something I admit is theoretically possible--like it is possible that human development was crucially influence by alien intervention--but almost always silly in practice. Why? Because the starting off point is always taking as granted a whole bunch of far from settled science on human development.

Recently, I've been commenting on a (fairly good) review of Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct over at Cognition and Culture and I've gotten into something of a dust up over (red flag!) Stephen Gould with Joseph Carroll, who has been a leading figure in the Literary Darwinism movement along with the biologist David Sloan Wilson and the Englsih PhD Jonathan Gottschall.

My own take is pretty much what it was--what is good in Dutton's book could have been written without the constant reference to our Pleistocene ancestors, and what requires them is highly doubtful.

Gould's name got dragged into this because Dutton rather dully and unneccessarily attacks him in his book. Gould the horrible, oppressive monster gets a lot of play in certain circles. Everyone else has opinions, Gould issues fiats from an undisclosed location to end free speech and scientific inquiry as we know it. Lucky for us dozens upon dozens of heroes are willing to stand up to this threat, disagree with Gould and tiresomely crow about how daring they are. Sometimes I wonder if Gould has anything to do with the Worldwide Jewish Conspiracy.

Anyhow, Gould's name arose, and immediately became the focus of dispute.

Hmm, let's see, theorists like Maynard Smith, E.O. Wilson, Conway Morris, and David Hull are won't to sling "bullshit." And critics who cite their opinion of Gould are likely to be "hotheads." My irony bone tingles.Panksepp and Panksepp are good and serious critics of orthodox or "narrow-school" evolutionary psychology. Other critics who fall into that category would include Kim Sterelny, Richerson and Boyd, David Sloan Wilson, Steven Mithen, Paul Griffiths, and Nicholas Wade. All of these commentators, like the critics of Gould previously mentioned, are different from Gould in that they are not intellectual charlatans. They are honest, straightforward thinkers. They aim to make sense, not to create confusion.
The Panksepps are honest, straightforward thinkers who cite Gould with approval and repeat many of his criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology. 

The confusion that many in the field of Evolutionary Psychology felt was, as far as I can see, mere denial. They just did not want to hear that they were often merely speculating, that the background knowledge that would make their endeavors useful didn't exist yet. That they were, as far as science goes, wasting their time.

[There follows in Carroll a long hostile gloss of two New York Review of Books pieces Gould wrote attacking Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology, but I don't really see the point of the gloss or what precisely is being advanced by Carroll through it.]

The two ideas for which Gould has generated the most publicity are “punctuated equilibrium” and “spandrels.”

Gould’s one other big idea is that of “spandrels” or non-adaptive structures. “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” is probably Gould’s best-known essay. . . .

The elements in these two ideas that are substantive and valid were integral parts of Darwinism before Gould formulated them, associated them spuriously with anti-adaptationist intimations, and popularized them with catchy phrases. Gould’s own distinctive contribution to these two concepts, insofar as they have consisted of ideas that were substantive and that were not already part of the Darwinian synthesis, have proven to be either compatible with mainstream adaptationist thinking, relatively unimportant, or simply wrong. . . . 

Gould's complaint was not generally about what pan-adaptionists were willing to concede was true, but rather what their practice reflected. His argument was that though EP may have said that spandrels and genetic drift and other change agents were possibilities, the possibility that they seemed to heavily favor in nearly all cases was adaptation.

In making spandrels into a biological metaphor, Gould blends two legitimate Darwinian concepts, but he spuriously represents this blended concept as an alternative or supplement to the idea of adaptation through natural selection. One of these legitimate Darwinian concepts is pleiotropy or multiple genic effects: what Darwin calls correlated growth. The other legitimate Darwinian concept is the idea that previously existing structures can be altered through natural selection to fulfill adaptive functions. Darwin offers as an example the swim bladder that in the course of evolution is transformed into a lung (2003, chap. 6, p. 214). The tetrapod body plan also caught Darwin’s attention (pp. 219-220) and has remained a favorite example among evolutionists. The forelimbs evolve from fins to legs, and from legs sometimes to wings and sometimes to flippers. Another favorite example, discovered after Darwin’s time, is that of the reptilian jaw bones that have been transformed into the mammalian ossicles--the bones of the inner ear. (See Young, 1992, pp. 185-186; Moore, 1993, pp. 176-177, 412-414.) For adaptations that use either previous adaptive structures or previous structures of no adaptive value, Gould and Vrba (1982) have invented the term “exaptation.” This term is a variant of a term that was previously current—“preadaptation”--and the concept is itself a commonplace in standard Darwinian theory. . . . 

Despite the confusions and ambiguities introduced through the architectural metaphor, none of the implications in the idea of spandrels is in any way contrary to standard adaptationist thinking. What Gould and Lewontin have attempted to do, though, is to use the metaphor to suggest, without quite saying it, that major features of complex functional structures have been produced independently of adaptive processes. Put this baldly, the claim is simply and obviously false, but unless it is put this way, the claim has no actual content that is not already part and parcel of standard Darwinian thinking. Since the time of his youthful foray into saltation, Gould himself has usually been careful, whenever he implies or suggests this false idea, also to say that he recognizes that complex functional designs result from adaptation, or that adaptation through natural selection is an “important” feature of the evolutionary process. The false and obfuscatory implications in the more radical understanding of “spandrels” are nonetheless its raison d’ĂȘtre, its chief purpose and function. It subserves the larger Gouldian program of minimizing in whatever way he can the general significance of adaptation through natural selection. 
In order to achieve their aim of minimizing the significance of adaptation through natural selection without clearly and decisively cutting themselves off from mainstream Darwinism, Gould and Lewontin are driven to the necessity of perpetual equivocation, and the equivocation is rendered all the more impenetrable by being commingled with a pseudo-concept produced by breaking a single, valid concept into two parts and representing these parts as antithetical. The single, valid concept is that of “selection,” and the two parts are “selective force” and “constraints.” We shall begin with the equivocation and then consider the pseudo-concept. Once again spuriously invoking Darwin as an antecedent for their own anti-adaptationism, Gould and Lewontin repudiate the idea that Darwin was himself “a radical selectionist at heart who invoked other mechanisms only in retreat, and only as a result of his age’s own lamented ignorance about the mechanisms of heredity” (1979, p. 589). “This view,” they declare, “is false.” But then they also declare, in the very next sentence, that “Darwin regarded selection as the most important of evolutionary mechanisms. As do we.” As do we. Strange, then, that the whole thrust of their essay should be toward the conclusion that “constraints restrict possible paths and modes of change so strongly that the constraints themselves become much the most interesting aspect of evolution” (p. 594). Or as they explain in the head note to the essay, “the constraints themselves become more interesting in delimiting pathways of change than the selective force that may mediate change when it occurs” (p. 581). Selection is the most important mechanism, but despite its importance, it is still not very interesting, somehow, not nearly so interesting as other things that are not so important.
The idea of a selective force operating independently of constraints--the idea of selection operating in a vacuum, independently of all actually existing conditions--is something like the idea of one hand clapping. When the idea of selection is placed in antithesis to the idea of constraints, it ceases altogether to be an intelligible idea. It becomes a pseudo-concept, a rhetorical term that is devoid of any conceptual content other than the confusion caused by the faulty way in which it is formulated. One might suppose that this feature of the concept--its lack of any content other than the confusion generated by the way it is formulated--would help to explain why it is so uninteresting, but it could hardly also explain why it is still “important.” Gould and Lewontin have here drifted into a very strange region of “thought,” a region much more familiar within the confines of postmodern literary theory than within those of evolutionary biology. Like Derrida or Foucault, Gould and Lewontin bring to bear sophisticated analytic and rhetorical skills, but these skills are oriented not to the production of clear and distinct ideas but to exactly the opposite, to the construction of pseudo-concepts that obstruct clear thinking.. . . . 

In his eagerness to minimize the significance of adaptation through natural selection, Gould is, in wish and emphasis, anti-Darwinian. But since, within the range of scientifically reputable evolutionary theory, there is no actual alternative to Darwinism--no alternative, that is, to adaptation through natural selection as an explanation for complex functional structure--Gould can never say fully what he wants to say. His plight recalls that of “Atticus” in Alexander Pope’s “An Epistle from Mr. Pope to Dr. Arbuthnot.” In Pope’s depiction, Atticus (Addison) wished to satisfy envy and spite without making himself vulnerable through open attack. He thus developed a proto-Gouldian rhetorical technique that enabled him to “Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, / And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer; / Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike, / Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike” (1969, ll. 201-204). . . . 

Among Darwin’s contemporaries, the one figure who most resembles Gould in his use of sophistical equivocation is the paleontologist Richard Owen (1804-92), who wished, on the one hand, to affirm that animal forms are determined by “archetypes” that are not related to one another by lineage and, on the other, to represent himself as having originated proto-Darwinian evolutionary ideas. Darwin responds to Owen’s equivocations in the historical sketch appended to the third edition of the Origin, and he there comes closer there to a snort of satirical contempt than he ever comes in responding to any other writer, even to Lamarck. “It is consolatory to me that others find Professor Owen’s controversial writings as difficult to understand and to reconcile with each other, as I do” (2003, p. 84). Darwin himself operates in good faith, and his overriding assumption is that others do also, even when he fundamentally disagrees with them. In his Autobiography, he remarks, AI have almost always been treated honestly by my reviewers, passing over those without scientific knowledge as not worthy of notice” (1958, p. 125). Coming from a man who had received so many violently hostile reviews, this remark reflects a presumption of good faith so ingenuous in its benignity as to fall little short of the sublime. But Owen is so flagrantly and unmistakably not operating in good faith that even Darwin’s simplicity of good will is finally roused to an awareness of Owen’s deviousness and duplicity. One can only speculate how Darwin would have responded to Gould. He might well have wondered whether Gould is, as Maynard Smith characterizes him, merely confused, or, as Dawkins characterizes him, downright dishonest. To my own eye, it seems evident that Gould is not himself confused, though it is his purpose that his readers should be.
I quote this at length because the text itself really puzzles me. Somehow Carroll has seen around a corner of the Spandrels argument that Maynard Smith, who thought the piece a solid addition to the conference he was hosting, did not see? 

What the hell is the Owen comparison about? (I can't find anything to really nail YOU on, but you remind me quite a bit of Joseph Stalin . . .)

While Gould may have been guilty of exaggerating the innovativeness of some of his thinking, he certainly never made this claim for spandrels. the innovation of the spandrels argument was the illustration--and he and Lewontin say so--and the purpose was to re-emphasize non-adaptive change in the face of a then recent heavy emphasis on it--also this is all in the text itself. Perhaps having actually read the spandrels paper may have alleviated Carroll of some of this seeming confusion.

And having read Derrida and Foucault, I find Carroll's lumping of Gould and Lewontin into the same sentence with them laughable indeed. Lewontin is usually a perfectly clear writer. Gould is fairly clear, though sometimes a bit overwrought, but with a bit of effort he's far from obscure. Unlike your own passage above, I'd say. While grammatically unchallenging, a lot of its argument escapes me, and what I can perceive is just wrong.

The pointless lecture on constraints might be better illustrated by a lengthy citation of works in which Richard Dawkins talks at length about constraints on selection. He acknowledges they exist, but this is not his emphasis. The disagreement between Gould and Dawkins et al is about EMPHASIS not about innovation, or wholly new ways or wholly separate ways to approach evolution. Anyone who has read very much in the literature should know that.

And if Carroll still has problems with the spandrels metaphor, it is explained in a series of letters in response to Orr's review of Pinker in the New York Review.

Collective Responsibility First

All the President's Accomplices
How the country acquiesced to Bush's torture policy.
By Jacob Weisberg
Posted Saturday, May 2, 2009, at 8:18 AM ETT

The use of torture on suspected terrorists after Sept. 11 has already earned a place in American history's hall of shame, alongside the Alien and Sedition Acts, Japanese internment during World War II, and the excesses of the McCarthy era. Even liberal societies seem to experience these authoritarian spasms from time to time. It is the aftermath of such episodes—what happens when a country comes to its senses—that reveals the most about a nation's character. How do we come to terms with having betrayed our ideals?
This Salon piece really gets to what I think we ought to be thinking about right now instead of looking to put CIA interrogators on trial.

We ALL knew it was going on, we all knew they were waterboarding, torturing, kidnapping people, etc. We all knew and only a very few of us made a real issue of it. Too few even raised an objection. Far too few to make it the sort of issue that makes politicians fear for their jobs. Why did WE acquiesce? And why are some of us now so eager to scapegoat our functionaries? The guilt lies all around--convicting those who carried out what we allowed and tacitly encouraged isn't going to help. The people in the dock is US.

When we come to terms with that, only then should we think about what more particular responsibility others hold.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Paul Krugman's Naivete

As a polemicist and as an economist, Paul Krugman is almost always worth reading. However, over the last couple of years I've been surprised at his political naivete--at his inability to anticipate how issues would play out in the public, and his blindness to the power game that always underlies the issues and policy debates.

Now, I am no great master of these, either, or I'd be working in Washington right now, but it surprises me that a guy like Krugman doesn't even have the level of political savvy common among urban newspaper readers.

Yesterday in the New York Times he wrote a piece encouraging the administration to back a full accounting of the torture of prisoners during the Bush administration. So far, so good. I actually agree that this ought to be a priority for the administration. We should know what happened because, clearly, there are a lot of people in the country who'd happily go down that road again. We really need to do something to head that off, and I'm pretty sure the more that comes out the worse Mr. Cheney et al are going to look. The Bush/Cheney administration made a fiasco of practically everything it touched. I have little doubt the interrogations were no different than the war in Iraq--badly done out of sheer incompetence and/or muleheaded ideological reasons.

However, Krugman seems laughable when he tries to dismiss Obama's reasoning for NOT focusing on the past.
Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.
It's laughable to consider the idea that the President would just go off about his business while an extremely high stakes investigation and possible prosecution took place over at Justice or in Congress. This would be time consuming, very time consuming, for the President. Who would then have considerably less time to oversee Geithner, Chu and all the rest. And I want Obama to be overseeing these folks. This would not be a move without costs. Remember how many important things went by the wayside when Clinton got mired in his own prosecution, in spite of the fact that few in his cabinet were directly involved?

Krugman notes that many who are calling for us to pass over the Bush-era abuses and work on the economy and health care were complicit in the abuses when they happened, which is true.

Also true is that we all knew what was going on. Nothing Obama has released so far is news to anyone who has read the papers over the last 8 years. Many who are calling for investigations and prosecutions were also complicit in the Bush abuses.

The failure of that era was general. Our institutions, out journalists, the political opposition, the administration, the majority of voters ALL made the trade of our values for "security." Ben Franklin wrote, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." He could have continued that, ironically, they usually get neither--which is what I think an investigation will find.

While I feel it is important to come to terms with the Bush era and our collective failures during it, I think we should recognize that it will not be done without cost. AND, because the failures were general, we should be exceedingly careful that this does not turn into a partisan bloodletting.

However justified we may feel in punishing some republican officials for what was done in the prior administration, we should realize that there will inevitably be retribution for it, and the cause will probably not be just when that retribution comes. In 18th century, each change of administration was followed inevitably by the impeachment of the major figures under the old regime, regardless of actual guilt. We don't want to set a precedent for a similar practice here in the US.

I would actually be fully supportive of a general amnesty for Bush administration figures who would cooperate fully with a thorough public investigation of the Bush-era security state. This, I think would be a good way to take a good hard look in the mirror without opening up an all-out partisan war.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

More thoughts on The Economist & Sociobiology

I had  a few other thoughts about the recent run of sociobiological (or EP-influenced) articles in The Economist.

One was the prominent role played in them by the University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller.

Miller's main lines of thinking are 1)that the standard measure of intelligence (g) is a manifestation of some broader and more inclusive fitness; and 2) that the brain's growth--and the development of much of what we hold to be "human"--was driven by sexual selection rather than plain old natural selection.

I've taken a half dozen or so rigorous IQ tests in my lifetime, as well as a huge battery of other standardized tests that are built--more modestly--along the same lines, and frankly I have a fair deal of skepticism about how effective they are as a measure of anything. 

Because they are culturally skewed? Maybe, but in a way different than most people who write on this issue seek to claim. Standardized tests require a great deal of planning, concentration and effort to complete to the best of your ability--my own SAT-family scores fluctuated wildly from the disaster of the hung-over PSAT to the glory of the very well prepared GRE. My scores--all prior to the re-curvings of recent years--were hundreds of points apart, even on the same test. I improved a friends score on the GRE by 400 points by training her in basic test-taking method and running her through several timed mock-tests.

So, obviously, a lot more goes into the scores on the test than anything we would usually call intelligence--mental, emotional and physical preparedness; experience with similar tests; motivation . . .

The work of Miller & his colleagues is probably controlled for the wider variations in these factors, so i have no doubt that they may be on the trail of some more inclusive "fitness factor" and will follow future studies with interest. BUT the way this work will be applied by amateurs in the field--and there are LOADS of them, ranging from loutish loudmouths on the internet to editors for the Economist to scientists from related fields who wish to be able to say something about social policy, affirmative action, urban crime, whatever. But few of these amateurs will understand Miller et al's work well enough to see its limitations. And Miller, et al. will be rather reluctant to disabuse the amateurs of their illusions because those limitations tend to make the work rather uninteresting to a broader public (those very interested amateurs included).

In short, few people are interested in intelligence testing or in a more inclusive fitness factor unless it can be used as a tool in contemporary ideological and political discussion.

One place we'll probably soon see Miller's work employed is in combination with the work of Richard Lynn, who has used global IQ test scores to explain global economic disparities. Conveniently, he can draw on exceedingly low IQ scores for sub-Saharan Africans, which are based on tests which are the best we've got but, frankly, utter crap. Why utter crap?--because they are completely uncontrolled for factors like those I list above--familiarity with the test, motivation to do well, the effect of local rules of etiquette on face-to-face questioning, etc.

So, Miller et al.'s inferences--that their IQ scores may be related to more general fitness will be uncritically extended to, essentially, all existing IQ scores, no matter how crappy they may be. We will soon be being told that the economic outcome we have seen over the course of industrial modernization--rich west, rising east, decrepit Africa--is nothing more or less than the verdict of evolution on our species.

And Miller, if he holds true to form for the newly famous handsome young scientist, will smile, say nothing and negotiate a bigger book deal.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Sociobiology again?

Wow, it's been a while . . .

More news on the Economist:

The magazine has recently been on a bit of a sociobiology kick with several recent unsigned articles chawing the collective ear about the biological basis of human behavior. Here's what I've found over the past year or so:

# LEADERS: Evolution
Of music, murder and shopping
It is time to turn to Darwin to explain human behaviour
Dec 18th 2008

Why we are, as we are
As the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On The Origin of Species” approaches, the moment has come to ask how Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers
Dec 18th 2008

# CHRISTMAS SPECIALS: Human evolution
Why music?
Biologists are addressing one of humanity’s strangest attributes, its all-singing, all-dancing cultureDec 18th 2008

# THE WORLD IN: Leaders
Shocking science
Geoffrey Carr expects scientists to provide a year of celebrations and screams
Nov 19th 2008 Web only

Balls and brains
The quality of a man’s sperm depends on how intelligent he is, and vice versa
Dec 4th 2008

# CHRISTMAS SPECIALS: Beauty and success
To those that have, shall be given
The ugly are one of the few groups against whom it is still legal to discriminate. Unfortunately for them, there are good reasons why beauty and success go hand in hand
Dec 19th 2007

And there's more naturally, much of it the work, one would suspect, of the magazine's science editor Geoffrey Carr.

I'm not at all opposed to the theoretical notion that our behavior, our morals our civilization & culture are all ultimately based on biology. I'm just skeptical that biology should be the thing we're focussing on.

The Economist makes a lot of the fact that murder rates, pretty much universally, peak at the time when there is the most competition for mates--teens to twenties--and rapidly fall after that. Interesting, but what does biology bring to it?

We already were perfectly well aware of the fact that violence was a young man's game--demographic research has contributed to social policy for quite some time--how does the notion that it may have an evolutionary explanation help policy makers?* I don't think it does.

(*Rather, we should say, the notion that evolutionary biologists can make up a story ex post facto that would seem to explain the phenomenon from an evolutionary perspective.)

And what is the evolutionary explanation for the more remarkable number on their graph--that the murder rate among males is 30 times higher in the US than Great Britain, across all age groups? 

The other big point the article propounds is that even in an egalitarian society, outcomes between different population groups--between men and women or blacks and whites--may not be equal. In other words men and women, or blacks and whites may turn out to be different even when treated fairly. One would suppose that this theoretical proposition is pretty uncontroversial as far as men & women go (many of us have first hand experience of enduring differences between the sexes). Many might say that the subject of enduring intellectual differences between the races is an "unsafe" notion to bandy about, but even staunch enemies of this line of thought--SJ Gould, for instance--acknowledged that this is a theoretical possibility.

(Virtual marginal note: A lot of commentators make a lot of hay out of this attitude regarding "unsafe" thinking and (tiresomely) cry "political correctness" whenever it comes up. But wherever you ultimately fall on the idea of censorship and self-censorship, the anti-political-correctness folks don't some to realize that this conversation isn't just an intellectual game for some people. There is a long legacy of majorities using this sort of discussion to suppress minorities, sometimes with the very gravest consequences. The upside of free and open discussion of even heinous ideas can seem pretty modest when compared to the downside. And certainly the utter lack of consideration of what the stakes are at blogs like gnxp fairly cries out the prolonged intellectual adolescence of those writers.)

But the strong implication of the Economist articles--that we have already arrived at a time when we cannot assume that strong differences in "outcomes" between population groups are evidence of unfairness is patently and obviously false. Just a few years ago, people were making strong arguments on behalf of Larry Summers by pointing out that it was obvious that there women were innately inferior at mathematics to men. Now it appears that that isn't the case--very egalitarian societies show little evidence of an "outcome gap" in math--we only thought we had reached a state of fairness with residual unequal outcomes. Which, frankly, was clear to anyone who looked at the situation without ideological blinders.

The bit about race in the same (Dec. 20th) article is rather bizarrely credulous. We are told that people generally register three things about a person they meet: sex, age and race.
But Dr Cosmides and Dr Tooby [two of the founding figures of the latest push to apply biology to policy] pointed out that before long-distance transport existed, only two of those would have been relevant. People of different ages and sexes would meet; people of different races would not.

The two researchers argue that modern racial discrimination is an overstimulated response to what might be called an “alliance” detector in the human brain. In a world where the largest social unit is the tribe, clan or what-you-will of a few hundred people, your neighbours and your other allies will normally look a lot like you, and act similarly. However, it is known from the study of modern hunter-gatherers, and inferred from archaeological evidence about ancient ones, that neighbouring tribes are often hostile.

Though an individual might reasonably be expected to know many members of his tribe personally, he would probably not know them all. There would thus be a biological advantage in tribal branding, as it were. Potential allies would quickly identify what marked them out from others, and what marked others out from them—and, because those differences would probably be small, the detector would need to be very sensitive.

So, in a world "where the largest social unit is the tribe, clan or what-you-will of a few hundred people" In a world where you spend every living moment associating with pretty much the same 2-300 people, we don't recognize them all? Admittedly, we wouldn't know them all well, but we would be able to recognize them. There would be no need for a super-sensitive "lineage detector."

Our awareness of race--and many of our other traits--has a more complex explanation that people like Cosmides and Tooby are willing to admit. they can't all be traced back to factors in some notional "early human environment." Some have roots that go back beyond early man, and beyond primates even. And many traits have a lot more cultural input than they'd like to admit.

In short, the origins of human behavious are complex and are not the place to turn for stunning insight about what we should be doing now. In fact, biological questioning of the the origins of our behavior seems to a) give us answers we already knew about, either because that's the story biologists wanted to tell us or because we all have an inherent ability to judge ourselves; or b) give us no good answers at all, as biologists radically simplify complex phenomena in order to imply they've got the goods when they don't. They tell us they know the etiology of social phenomenon X, when they don't really appreciate X as a phenomenon at all. How can they tell us how X arose, when they don't even know what X is?

All they really want to do is to say X is a function of my field of specialty, and you really should stop paying attention to X and start paying attention to me.

For most cases of X, X is more interesting than evolutionary psychology. And the study of social phenomena as they manefest themselves to us today is infinitely more likely to provide us with answers and progress than the study of evolutionary biology.

And as economics suffers from a crisis of credibility, it may seem only natural that the Economist would turn to economics' cousin evolution for a boost. But this totalizing system is not much better that the others we suffered through in the last century. One would hope the Economist would in the final instance make a stand for the particular against the sloppy totalizers.