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Evolutionary Psychology

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From my new column in Taki’s Magazine:

In “Art Over Biology,” literary critic Adam Kirsch questions in The New Republic how the arts can be explained in terms of survival of the fittest:  

In his early story “Tonio Kröger,” Thomas Mann created a parable of one of the central modern beliefs, which is that the artist is unfit for life.…Love and marriage and parenthood are barred to Tonio, because he has an artist’s soul…. 

You may not have been aware that, on average, artists are relatively lacking in sexual opportunities. But just ask artists and they’ll tell you — maybe over a drink up at their place while they are showing you their etchings — all about the sacrifices they make for their art. “The artist’s decision to produce spiritual offspring rather than physical ones is thus allied to the monk’s celibacy …” asserts Kirsch, who evidently hasn’t met many artists (or monks).

Read the whole thing there.

Speaking of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, here’s L.A. singer-songwriter Tonio K’s 1978 single Life in the Foodchain.

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Have you ever noticed how the musical Fiddler of the Roof has the same basic set-up as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: man has five unmarried daughters without doweries? Fiddler is Pride, with Elizabeth’s father Mr. Bennett turned into the main character, Tevye.

Over the last decade, Pride and Prejudice has become the most cited literary work for illustrating evolutionary psychology. It seems to me that Fiddler could serve a similar role, perhaps an even broader one extending beyond the rather narrow limits set by evolutionary psychology. Having recently watched a high school production of Fiddler, I was surprised by how so much of the plot and dialogue revolves around the kind of human sciences questions that interest me. Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century uses Sholem Aleichem’s source material Tevye stories as a central metaphor, and I suspect that many other theories could find something colorful and well-known in Fiddler to use as examples.

I mentioned this recently, and an anthropologist friend replied:

Some thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Fiddler on the Roof:

On the one hand, comparing the two shows how traditional Eurasian societies are broadly similar in some respects, compared to societies in Africa or New Guinea, say. Having lots of daughters in Africa or New Guinea isn’t really a problem: you might be worried about not having sons around to protect the family, and carry on the patrilineage, but marrying off daughters is hardly a problem. In polygynous settings, women are in short supply, and daughters are often welcome as a source of bridewealth. By contrast. in Eurasia, where polygyny is not very frequent, finding a “single man in possession of a good fortune” for a daughter (let alone five daughters) is a real problem. (The alternatives – having them marry a man with no prospects, or become a rich man’s mistress or a prostitute, are pretty unsatisfactory). Some Eurasian societies – classical Greece and Rome, India, and China – dealt with the problem ruthlessly by killing baby girls. But this is (officially) not allowed for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

On the other hand, the big difference between P&P and FotR (apart from social class) is that marriage in the latter case was arranged. Arguably this is one area where Christianity made a difference (ref below). The guys who adapted Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories as a musical and movie were Americans, and probably shaded things somewhat in a pro-marriage-choice direction, compared to the original. They even make Mr. Tradition unbend just a little at the end about his third daughter’s intermarriage (in the movie at least; I haven’t seen the stage musical). In the original stories, she’s socially dead, never seen again.

One note about love marriages versus arranged: societies with love marriages have a greater frequency and importance of dances (ref below). This shows up in both cases: Austen’s young ladies are constantly looking forward to the next ball, which is a major arena for mate choice. And Tevye (at least in the movie) shows a shocking progressive streak by actually dancing with his wife. The lines of guys dancing with guys, women with women, that you see in the earlier part of the movie, before Tevye mixes it up, is what you generally get in societies with arranged marriages. Something for all you h-bd-ers to think about as you try and figure out which folk-dancing class to take.


Unilineal Descent Organization and Deep Christianization: A Cross-Cultural Comparison Andrey V. Korotayev Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 37, No. 1, 133-157 (2003)

Courtship Patterns Associated with Freedom of Choice of Spouse
Paul C. Rosenblatt and Paul C. Cozby Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Nov., 1972), pp. 689-695

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Physicists are not particularly well known for never forgetting a face, while some politicians are. Physicists tend to have higher IQs than politicians, but politicians have probably been evolving longer. So, is facial recognition just the general factor of intelligence in action once again, or is there a specifically evolved cognitive mechanism for it?

One of the more intriguing epistemological questions of recent decades has been over the prevalence of a g or General Factor of intelligence versus specific “mental modules.”

The dominance of the “blank slate” theory of social conditioning was undermined beginning in 1958 by linguist Noam Chomsky’s observation that children seemed to be particularly good at learning and speaking their native tongue, better than the existing behaviorist / Pavlovian worldview would suggest, which implied that humans have what Steven Pinker called in 1994 a “language instinct.”

Although Chomsky remained agnostic over whether natural selection could account for this instinct, a school of evolutionary psychology grew up late in the century, exemplified by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides’s 1992 book, that hypothesized the existence of multitudinous inherited mental modules for skills besides language.

Psychometricians, such as Arthur Jensen and Chris Brand (in 1998 books both entitled The g Factor) suggested that the very old (Spearman 1904) concept of a general factor of intelligence could account for quite a bit of the hypothesized mental modules. This seems particularly likely for mental demands that people only recently encountered, such as understanding quantum mechanics. It seems implausible that humans evolved a specific mental module for, say the Physics BC Advanced Placement test. Instead, people seem to rely for that upon the general factor plus some specific factors such as three-dimensional imagination.

Therefore, evolutionary psychologists have tended to focus their hypothesizing on cognitive skills that would have been useful in navigating the social life of a low tech tribe, such as learning a language or recognizing faces.

From an MIT press release adapted in Science Daily:

Recognizing faces is an important social skill, but not all of us are equally good at it. Some people are unable to recognize even their closest friends (a condition called prosopagnosia), while others have a near-photographic memory for large numbers of faces. Now a twin study by collaborators at MIT and in Beijing shows that face recognition is heritable, and that it is inherited separately from general intelligence or IQ.

This finding plays into a long-standing debate on the nature of mind and intelligence. The prevailing generalist theory, upon which the concept of IQ is based, holds that if people are smart in one area they tend to be smart in other areas, so if you are good in math you are also more likely to be good at literature and history. IQ is strongly influenced by heredity, suggesting the existence of “generalist genes” for cognition.

Yet some cognitive abilities seem distinct from overall IQ, as happens when a person who is brilliant with numbers or music is tone-deaf socially or linguistically. Also, many specialized cognitive skills, including recognizing faces, appear to be localized to specialized brain regions. Such evidence supports a modularity hypothesis, in which the mind is like a Swiss Army knife — a general-purpose tool with special-purpose devices.

“Our study provides the first evidence supporting the modularity hypothesis from a genetic perspective,” said lead author Jia Liu, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Beijing Normal University in China of the study published in the Jan. 7 issue of Current Biology. “That is, some cognitive abilities, like face recognition, are shaped by specialist genes rather than generalist genes.”

“Our finding may help explain why we see such disparities of cognitive abilities within the same person in certain heritable disorders,” added co-author Nancy Kanwisher of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, where Liu studied before moving to Beijing. In dyslexia, for example, a person with normal IQ has deficits in reading, while in Williams Syndrome, people have low IQ but excellent language skills.

For the study, Liu and his colleagues recruited 102 pairs of identical twins and 71 pairs of fraternal twins aged 7 to 19 from Beijing schools. Because identical twins have 100 percent of their genes in common while fraternal twins have just 50 percent, traits that are strongly hereditary are more similar between identical twins than between fraternal twins. (Identical twins still show variability because of the influence of environmental factors.)

Participants were shown black-and-white images of 20 different faces on a computer screen for one second per image. They were then shown 10 of the original faces mixed with 20 new faces and asked which ones they had seen before. The scores were more closely matched between identical twins than fraternal twins, and Liu attributed 39 percent of the variance between individuals to genetic effects. Further tests confirmed that these differences were specific to face recognition, and did not reflect differences in sharpness of vision, general object recognition abilities, memory or other cognitive processes.

In an independent sample of 321 students, the researchers found that face recognition ability was not correlated with IQ, indicating that the genes that affect face recognition ability are distinct from those that affect IQ. Liu and Kanwisher are now investigating whether other cognitive abilities, such as language processing, understanding numbers, or navigation, are also heritable and independent from general intelligence and other cognitive abilities.

Generally speaking, language is so central to human thought that the ten question vocabulary test in the annual General Social Survey can be used as a rough proxy for IQ, so I don’t think “language processing” is likely to pan out as heritable and terribly independent from general intelligence. There are presumably, however, specific language-related skills (such as, say, noticing when you are being insulted) that are less correlated with IQ than general language processing.

Even though vocabulary correlates closely with g, the Chomskyan idea of a language instinct seems fairly reasonable, since the vast majority of human beings who are not suffering an obvious organic problem (such as deafness or severe retardation) learn to speak a native tongue well enough to pass the famous Turing Test that has proven so difficult for artificial intelligence technologists.

In contrast, many other skills are much more widely distributed, such as singing on key.

Researchers at the Beijing Normal University and Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences contributed to this research: Qi Zhu, Yiying Song, Siyuan Hu, Xiaobai Li, Moqian Tian, Zonglei Zhen and Qi Dong.

In addition to providing new insight into the structure of the mind, this work could shed light on the underlying causes of developmental disorders like autism and dyslexia. “The heritability of these cognitively specific diseases suggests that some genes have specific cognitive effects, but it’s a big mystery how genes produce cognitively specific effects,” said Kanwisher.

Here’s the abstract:

Heritability of the Specific Cognitive Ability of Face Perception

What makes one person socially insightful but mathematically challenged, and another musically gifted yet devoid of a sense of direction? Individual differences in general cognitive ability are thought to be mediated by “generalist genes” that affect many cognitive abilities similarly without specific genetic influences on particular cognitive abilities [1]. In contrast, we present here evidence for cognitive “specialist genes”: monozygotic twins are more similar than dizygotic twins in the specific cognitive ability of face perception. Each of three measures of face-specific processing was heritable, i.e., more correlated in monozygotic than dizygotic twins: face-specific recognition ability, the face-inversion effect [2], and the composite-face effect [3]. Crucially, this effect is due to the heritability of face processing in particular, not to a more general aspect of cognition such as IQ or global attention. Thus, individual differences in at least one specific mental talent are independently heritable. This finding raises the question of what other specific cognitive abilities are independently heritable and may elucidate the mechanisms by which heritable disorders like dyslexia and autism can have highly uneven cognitive profiles in which some mental processes can be selectively impaired while others remain unaffected or even selectively enhanced.

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Like all of us, Newsweek’s Sharon Begley isn’t getting any younger. And she’s not getting any happier either about that tenet of evolutionary psychology that asserts, in her scoffing words in the current issue of Newsweek:

Men attracted to young, curvaceous babes were fitter because such women were the most fertile; mating with dumpy, barren hags is not a good way to grow a big family tree.

So, she spends 4300 words renewing her long-running attack on Evolutionary Psychology in:

Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?
The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves.

… Evo psych took its first big hit in 2005, when NIU’s Buller exposed flaw after fatal flaw in key studies underlying its claims, as he laid out in his book Adapting Minds.

I don’t think it’s too unfair to claim that Begley enunciated her most personal objection to evolutionary psychology in her 2005 review of David J. Buller’s book in the Wall Street Journal:

Besides, if you scrutinize the data, you find that 50-ish men prefer 40-something women, not 25-year-olds, undermining a core claim of evo psych.

So that’s why 45 year old strippers make so much more money than 25 year old strippers!

I give economists a hard time sometimes, but they all know this very useful concept — “all else being equal” — that Begley seems unfamiliar with, even though it’s obviously essential to putting evolutionary psychology’s assertions in proper perspective.

The really funny thing is that Begley has never figured out that David J. Buller’s attack on mainstream Evolutionary Psychology comes from an even more politically incorrect direction than does EP. Buller focused on two weak links in EP:

1. The brain evolved a wide variety of domain-specific modules.

2. The human race evolved a single human nature back during the Stone Age, with only sex differences being the only differences among humans of interest or importance.

And those premises are indeed weak, but their weakness has major implications that Begley would not want to mention in public.

1. Evolutionary psychology has tended to ignore the key insight of the last 105 years of psychometrics: the existence of a g factor, a general intelligence factor. This is not to say that there aren’t domain specific mental modules, just that the g factor glass is not just half empty, it’s also half full, and thus needs to be included in evolutionary psychology, or, indeed, any form of psychology.

2. Similarly, standard EP has tended to gloss over the fact that The Era of Evolutionary Adaptation has extended up to the present. Indeed, as Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argued recently in The 10,000 Year Explosion, the coming of agriculture likely accelerated the rate of genetic change. But continued Darwinian selection after the dispersal of the human race out of Africa to quite different environments on different continents raises ticklish issues about human biodiversity that can be career killers in modern America. (Just ask James D. Watson!)

Considering how much eminent thinkers such as Watson, Arthur Jensen, and Charles Murray have been abused for their frankness in recent decades, it was perfectly reasonable for the founders of evolutionary psychology to shy away from these issues. After all, their taking on Feminist Orthodoxy at the peak of its power two decades ago was enormously brave.

Nonetheless, the future evolution of evolutionary psychology will depend upon finding solutions for these two shortcomings in its fundamental approach. (While somehow avoiding getting Watsoned.)

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This is a big question raised by Denis Dutton’s book “The Art Instinct,” so I’m going to focus just on one small field where I actually kind of know what I’m talking about: golf course architecture. Specifically, are golf courses naturally attractive to a sizable fraction of the male population around the globe? Since they are hugely expensive to build, their sheer existence testifies to that proposition.

The answer is: time will tell. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the look of golf courses proved universally popular by the end of this century. Golf courses, which originated in Scotland, first became popular in the Anglosphere about a century ago. They have since become wildly popular in East Asia (the LPGA tour is now dominated by South Koreans, and you frequently read about Chinese peasants protesting that corrupt local officials have stolen their land to build golf courses), and almost as popular in Western Europe. The oil sheikdoms have built golf courses in the Persian Gulf.

On the other hand, golf has yet to prove terribly popular in Russia, South Asia, black Africa (north of South Africa), or Latin America. I see that mostly as a matter of time and money, but I could be wrong.

By the way, there are two main styles of golf courses: the original links, which emerged out of crumpled, treeless Scottish sand dunes otherwise useful only for grazing sheep, and the sleeker inland American-style courses with tree-lined fairways and lakes.

My impression is that the original style is a bit of an acquired taste. Generally, golfers don’t come to appreciate the look of golf courses built on sand dunes until they’ve some experience with the game. In contrast, the American-style golf course look is frequently imitated for non-golf purposes, such as corporate campuses and rich men’s estates.

And then there’s the issue, as Dennis Mangan raises in the comments, of changing tastes over time in landscape, from the “beautiful” to the “sublime.” From my golf course architecture article:

The distinction Edmund Burke made in 1757 between the “sublime” and the “beautiful” applies to golf courses. The beautiful is some pleasing place conducive to human habitat — meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick. The sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by you falling off a mountain or into a gorge.

Beautiful landscapes are most suited for building golf courses, since a golf course needs close to 100 acres of land level enough for a golf ball to come to rest upon. But golfers get a thrill out of the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine. One reason that Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula is so legendary is because it combines sublime sea cliffs with beautiful (and thus functional for golf) rolling plains (My father, though, almost walked off the cliff in the middle of the eighth fairway at Pebble Beach and into the wave-carved chasm, which probably would have satisfied Burke’s theoretical rigor.)

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The website for the new book by Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000-Year Explosion, includes “deleted scenes” — chunks of text that were dropped for reasons of space. Some are digressions, such as Henry’s encounter with the charging cape buffalo, while others consist of fairly well-known background info, but are worth reading for the level of insight that you won’t find in other works. Here’s one subsection of a long essay, “Prelude,” on the various traits that evolved at some point since humans broke off from apes. I’ll just highlight the section on how well humans get along with members of their own sex. Personally, I have two fluffy bunnies living in the backyard, two neutered male rabbits who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but we have to keep them separated like the Israelis and Palestinians with a series of fences to keep them from ripping each other to shreds.

Groups of pair bonds – Some primates form durable mating male-female pairs, but the only ape to do so is the gibbon. Other arrangements like harems or troops are more common both among larger primates and among mammals in general.

In a harem there is one reproducing adult of one sex and more than one of the other sex. Gorillas and hamadryas baboons are mostly organized into one-male harems. African Cape Dogs live in one-female harems with a number of males that are related to each other. Troops contain adult reproductive individuals of both sexes, among whom there may be complex competitive games and strategies to achieve access to the other sex. Common baboons live in troops as do chimpanzees. The baboon troop, like troops of most mammals, is predominately a matrilineage, related females, while the males have entered the troop from another troop. Chimpanzee troops, on the other hand, are patrilineages, groups of related males, with females having come from elsewhere. Chimpanzee troops are ordinarily dispersed over a large territory while the more familiar usage of “troop” refers to a group that moves together.

Durable male-female pairs usually live away from other pairs, and when they do join larger groups, they are members of a flock, not involved or minimally involved in social interactions with others of the flock. Almost all the social interaction is between members of the pair. Animals in harems or troops, on the other hand, spend most of their time in same-sex interactions. Ordinarily these would be some variant of social competition for food among females and competition for females among males.

Humans, remarkably, have the ability to maintain durable pair bonds with reproductive exclusivity while living in larger social groups in which most of the day to day social interaction is with members of the same sex (Rodseth et al., 1991). Gibbons almost certainly could not do it: males are intolerant of the presence of other males and females of other females. Something special and now occurred in human evolution the led to our peculiar capacity to maintain pair bonds embedded in larger social groups.

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Nicholas Wade has lunch with Sociobiology author Edward O. Wilson and hears about the 79-year-old’s upcoming first novel:

Over lunch he describes his novel in progress, currently titled “Anthill.” Its contents have occasioned certain differences of emphasis between himself and his publisher, even though it was his editor at Norton, Robert Weil, who suggested he write it. Dr. Wilson would like ants to play a large role in the novel, given all the useful lessons that can be drawn from their behavior. The publisher sees a larger role for people and a smaller, at most ant-sized, role for ants. The novel is rotating through draft after draft as this tension is worked out.

Dr. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for literature, but that is no shield against a publisher’s quest for perfection. “They said, ‘You can do better than that, Ed,’ ” he recalled. “I wrote another draft. They said, ‘This is great, Ed, but we need more emotion, ambivalence.’ ” In the next draft, he plans to have the human characters stand alone, without the ants if necessary.

C’mon, Norton, there are a million novels about people already. What are the chances that a 79-year-old first time novelist’s novel about people is going to be terribly special? In contrast, how many novels are there about ants? And how many have been written by the world’s leading authority on ants?

Save the ants!

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Kate Melville writes:

A new book, The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor, examines the mechanism and function of humor, identifying the reason humor is common to all human societies, its fundamental role in the evolution of homo sapiens and its continuing importance in the cognitive development of children.

“The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively it explains that humor occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter,” explained author Alastair Clarke, a British science writer.

Clarke’s investigation focuses on the basics of the humorous response, in contrast to previous theories that only ever applied to a small proportion of all instances of humor, many of them stipulating necessary content or social conditions either in the humor itself or around the individual experiencing it.

Clarke argues that it is not the content of the stimulus that makes us laugh, but the patterns underlying it that provide the potential for sources of humor. He identifies the importance of pattern recognition in human evolution and places humor squarely in that context. “An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings.

It’s funny, but speaking of pattern recognition, that reminded me that I wrote back in 1999:

The subject of humor is a notorious black hole for serious theorizing. Nonetheless, I’d like to plow ahead and discuss ethnic humor, even though I am almost incapable of remembering specific jokes except the most embarrassingly awful stinkers.

Clearly, there are a lot of different kinds of humor — Steve Pinker does a fine job of discussing in “How The Mind Works” the kind of humor (often pun-based) that changes the frame of reference…

Most ethnic humor, however, is a subset of the “observational” humor that is currently dominant in the entertainment marketplace among Americans with 3 digit IQ’s: e.g., the kind of Harvard Lampoon-derived gag-writing behind The Simpsons, Letterman’s Top 10 lists and many sit-coms like Seinfeld.

I would suggest a very simple evolutionary model for accounting for the appeal of this kind of pattern recognition humor. Noticing similarities and differences is one of the fundamental methods of gaining knowledge about the world. As the motto of the college in Animal House puts it, “Knowledge Is Good,” or to be less moralistic, knowledge is useful because it allows us to make more accurate predictions about reality, which allows us to make better decisions. Down through prehistory, people who made better decisions propagated their genes more than people who made lousier decisions.

For observations to be funny, however, they can’t just be true, they need to be more vivid and memorable than plain truth. Thus, as a mnemonic device joketellers exaggerate truth to the point of logical absurdity. Laughter, then, would be a form of brain candy that natural selection has devised for us to make us enjoy learning patterns.

Ethnic humor falls into two classes: “Polish jokes” and “stereotype” humor. The former is the (now thankfully fading) American version of a nearly universal phenomenon of telling jokes about stupid people (another universal phenomenon) and giving the role of the idiot to a member of another ethnic group: “Q. How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “A. Three, one to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder.” The latter (“stereotype humor”) is of a more closely observed sort that actually has some bearing in reality to traits that correlate with the group: “Q. How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “A. That’s not funny!”

Polish jokes: There is an obvious evolutionary benefit to having humans reflect upon and laugh at stupid ways to do things. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly (due to kin selection), we often try to claim that idiotic acts are an attribute of some other ethnic group than our own whom we dislike. (I always wondered why, of all the ethnic groups in America, there were all these nasty jokes about one of the most inoffensive of all immigrant groups?)

Stereotype jokes — “Observational humor” also dominates stand-up comedy today, which is now largely concerned with pointing out the differences between the sexes and ethnic groups. … Thus, you can learn more about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. today from watching late-night HBO comedy series like Chris Rock, Tracey [Ullman] Takes On, and Arliss than from reading New York Times editorials.

“Serious” journalists tend to believe that “funny” and “serious” are by definition mutually exclusive, when an evolutionary perspective would suggest that much of what is funny to us is funny because it’s serious.

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In my new column, I report on the tiny but all-star scientific conference I attended on Saturday at UC Irvine on evolution, culture, and human behavior, featuring Leda Cosmides, John Hawks, and Gregory Cochran — and they were just in the audience.

Two distinguished anthropologists, Henry Harpending and John Tooby, squared off, in effect, over the human biodiversity perspective versus the evolutionary psychology perspective, which assumes a relatively uniform human nature, marked mostly by sex differences.

Allow me to wax philosophical:

So who is right? Is the human race uniform or diverse?

Well, they’re both right. It all depends upon what you’re interested in at the moment.

That’s usually how it goes—the things that interest us the most, that get us the most worked up, are those that are on the knife edge, that look different when viewed from different angles.

Let’s consider a similar question that’s remote enough that we can think about it without political biases getting in the way: Is the universe empty or full?

- Outer space is famously empty. You can’t get much emptier than space. By one account, the universe is about 0.00000000000000000000000000001 as dense as water.

- And yet, outer space is also famously full of “billions and billions” of stars, as Johnny Carson used to say when parodying astronomer Carl Sagan. In fact, there are a lot more than billions and billions. In 2003, a team of Australian astronomers estimated that there are 70 sextillion stars in the known universe. That’s 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to conceive of the universe both ways, depending upon what you need to think about at the time. The incredible emptiness of space is terribly important to understand if you are, say, contemplating an interstellar voyage. Nevertheless, to be frank, once you grasp that fact, it gets kind of boring to think about. So, astronomers spend more time thinking about the tiny fraction of space that isn’t empty, those 70 sextillion stars.

Similarly, the Wikipedia article on Human Genetic Variation reports, “nucleotides …”

Well, that’s not a very big number. Granted, 0.001 is not as tiny as 0.00000000000000000000000000001, but it’s rather small.

Yet, Wikipedia goes on to say, “

Well, three million is a pretty big number. (It’s not as big as 70 sextillion, but still …)

So, now we can see why, no matter what Steven Pinker said in 1994 about how boring are differences between individuals, the differences between, say, the African-American 7′-1″ basketball player Shaquille O’Neal and the Lebanese-Colombian 5′-1″ singer Shakira can be pretty interesting.

Of course, probably they would not at all be very different at all compared to space aliens possibly living on a planet going around one of those 70 sextillion stars.

And if those aliens showed up in hostile flying saucers to conquer the human race, no doubt Shaq and Shakira and everybody else would team up to fight them off. Ronald Reagan said exactly this to the United Nations back in 1987:

Address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New York]

But, we’re not facing space aliens. So the differences between humans are interesting—and important.

When it comes to thinking about race,—which is all about who your relatives are—it’s all, well, relative.


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Just as “Steve” is a notoriously common first name among people who write about evolution and genetics, “Wilson” is big in the human sciences.

For decades, David Sloan Wilson has been fighting against the “selfish gene” orthodoxy in the “levels of selection” debate in evolutionary theory, arguing that “group selection” also frequently occurs. That never struck me as outlandish — after all, if you look at modern Tasmania, for example, one group (Europeans) appears to have been selected for and another group (Tasmanians, who now exist only in a limited number off mixed race individuals) got themselves rather decisively selected against. Same with the late Chatham Islanders who were wiped out by the Maoris.

The English, for instance, cooperated with each other much better than did the American Indians. (Most of your famous Indian chiefs were politicians or religious leaders or both who were exceptions to this rule: they could temporarily overcome the notorious fractiousness of the Indians. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, by way of example, won undying fame by getting 1,500 braves to show up at the same place at the same time.) And that’s a big reason why there are so many more people of English descent in North America than people of American Indian descent. Or to put it in selfish gene terms, that’s why there are so many more English gene variants than American Indian alleles around these days.

William D. Hamilton didn’t seem to object much to group selection, but his famous expositor Richard Dawkins has, perhaps because it raises the R-word.

But now Edward O. Wilson, the grand old man of evolutionary theory, has teamed up with the other Wilson to write an article in the Quarterly Review of Biology summarized in New Scientist propounding multi-level (e.g., group) selection:

EO Wilson & DS Wilson


Current sociobiology is in theoretical disarray, with a diversity of frameworks that are poorly related to each other. Part of the problem is a reluctance to revisit the pivotal events that took place during the 1960s, including the rejection of group selection and the development of alternative theoretical frameworks to explain the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviors. In this article, we take a “back to basics” approach, explaining what group selection is, why its rejection was regarded as so important, and how it has been revived based on a more careful formulation and subsequent research. Multilevel selection theory (including group selection) provides an elegant theoretical foundation for sociobiology in the future, once its turbulent past is appropriately understood.:

They say:

“The old arguments against group selection have all failed. It is theoretically plausible, it happens in reality, and the so-called alternatives actually include the logic of multilevel selection. Had this been known in the 1960s, sociobiology would have taken a very different direction. It is this branch point that must be revisited to put sociobiology back on a firm theoretical foundation. Accepting multilevel selection has profound implications. It means we can no longer regard the individual as a privileged level of the biological hierarchy…”

In that noted science journal, the Huffington Post, Dan Agin offers some rather overheated commentary on the purported liberal political implications:

The selfish-gene mantra of conservative psychologists and columnists is now more or less dead. Will we see the public media focus on this new development? There will be die-hards. There are people who don’t like the idea that society is as important as genes in determining behavior. They don’t like the idea that nature can select societies as well as individuals.

Okay, but the idea that “nature can select societies as well as individuals” isn’t necessarily terribly “progressive.” It was a favorite notion of, among many others, Mr. A. Hitler.

The good news is that conquering land really doesn’t pay these days, so peace has become, from a group-selectionist point of view, more rational than in the past. The bad news is that if we don’t need to team up to go conquer the other group’s land before they conquer ours, then large-scale cooperativeness might be outdated, and the level of most effective selection drops down to smaller groups. For example, Crazy Eddie’s clan is doing very well in Darwinian terms in Brooklyn these days. (Remarkably, in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s classic 1973 sci-fi novel, “Crazy Eddie” is the exact opposite of Crazy Eddie the fraudulent hi-fi huckster — “Crazy Eddie” is a legendary idealist character who counsels the ultra-Malthusian aliens in the book to institute controls on their population for the good of all!)

Somebody should find out what James Q. Wilson thinks of all this.

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One reason I’m posting these previously unavailable old movie reviews is because at the very start of my reviewing career I used up a lot of my best material, including the story of President Coolidge and the Rooster:

Mar. 28, 2001 (UPI) — Ashley Judd’s pleasant new romantic comedy “Someone Like You” may have the most forgettable title in movie history. The invaluable Internet Movie Database ( lists 136 other flicks that begin with “Someone,” “Something,” or “Some.” Feeling like the amnesiac hero of the new thriller “Memento,” I took the movie’s ad with me to the multiplex to help me remember its name (which is borrowed from an obscure Van Morrison song). Yet, I still ended up mumbling, “I want to see ‘Someone Like It Hot to Watch Over Me,’ or, uh, something.”

This confusion is unfortunate because, judging by the enthusiastic reaction of the preview audience, a lot of women would enjoy it, if they could remember what it’s called. Men, however, will tend to find the film, while short and painless, to be as forgettable as its title.

Abraham Lincoln summed up Ashley Judd’s performance perfectly when he said: That’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing. In return for your box office dollar, the perky Judd definitely delivers one whopping load of acting. She shows off every facial expression imaginable, with the possible exception of seasickness. Her performance is like that of a non-pathological Callista Flockhart.

Best known for being the sister of country singer Wynona Judd, starring in “Double Jeopardy,” and wearing an embarrassingly short dress to the 1998 Oscars, Ashley Judd is soon to turn 33. She seems to be maturing from sex kitten into the kind of actress that appeals far more strongly to women than to men.

That’s a smart career move. You can become a big star in your twenties by driving the opposite sex wild, but you can’t stay one in your thirties without getting your own sex to identify with you.

The weird thing about the unmemorable name “Someone Like You” is that the movie is based on a recent novel with a far more distinctive and explanatory title, “Animal Husbandry.” Judd portrays a New York single woman who is devastated by being dumped by a potential husband (played by Greg Kinnear). So, she turns to sociobiological studies of the mating habits of cattle to develop a better understanding of the human male animal. (This sounds frightfully highbrow, but, trust me, it’s not.)

After reading a science article about how bulls don’t want to mate with the same cow twice, our spunky heroine develops her Old Cow-New Cow theory. This postulates that Kinnear discarded her because she had become his Old Cow and he was driven by biological urges to search for a New Cow. She writes an article outlining her theory, which the movie treats as if it were the most original idea since Darwin. When published, it electrifies the women of America.

In reality, of course, the Old Cow theory is Old News. Biologists call the typical male beast’s desire for variety in mating partners the “Coolidge Effect,” after a legendary visit to a government research farm by President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady. Taken on separate tours, Mrs. Coolidge supposedly asked the chicken coop keeper how many times a day the rooster would perform his amorous duties. Informed that the rooster rose to the occasion dozens of times daily, the First Lady said, “Please tell that to the President.”

When Coolidge arrived, he was duly informed. In reply, he asked whether it was with the same hen each time.

“Oh no, Mr. President, a different one each time.”

Nodding slowly, Coolidge said, “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

Perhaps the producers of “Someone Like You” should have hired Silent Cal to freshen up the jokes in the script. The preview audience let out its biggest laugh when Judd’s best friend Marisa Tomei tells her not to fret over Kinnear’s betrayal because “Time wounds all heels.” That venerable line probably slayed them during the Van Buren Administration.

When this film comes out on video, it might be fun to gather your friends and play a game in which you stop the tape at random places, and then see who can predict the next line. Expect high scores.

Certainly, nobody will fail to guess which man the brunette Judd ends up with. The blondish Kinnear doesn’t stand a chance next to the raffishly dark-haired Hugh Jackman. In Hollywood movies, the leading lady is seldom darker than her man. Notice how even Jennifer Lopez is getting blonder with each movie.

Jackman is an Australian actor best known for playing Wolverine in last summer’s “X-Men.” Here, he is Judd’s lady-killer coworker who buys his condoms by the gross. Jackman puts on an American accent, but wisely lets a little of his highly masculine Australian accent slip through. That ploys works for Mel Gibson, and it works well for Jackman, too.

In the end, Judd rejects her own theory, on the grounds that “quadrupeds aren’t bipeds.” Yet, the sociobiologists may have the last laugh over the plot, since they argue that much of what we call the War Between the Sexes is really a War Within the Sexes. Kinnear’s behavior turns out not to be driven by novelty after all. He merely left Judd and returned to his old girlfriend, played by Ellen Barkin. But that revelation makes Judd dislike him even more, since it shows Kinnear preferred another woman to her.

At the fade out, Judd falls into the manly arms of Jackman, who really has been living out the New Cow lifestyle. Yet, his years of promiscuity make him all the more desirable to her, since snagging his love means she’s triumphed over all the other women he dumped.

“Someone Like You” is rated PG-13 for moderately bad language, sexual themes, and one not very explicit love scene; no nudity or violence.

Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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