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Source: Pew

In the culture of science you occasionally run into the sort of person who believes as an apodictic fact that if one is religious one can not by their fact of belief be a good scientist. You encounter this sort of person at all levels of science, and they exhibit a range of variation in terms of the volume of their belief about beliefs of others. I don’t want to exaggerate how much it permeates the culture of science, or at least what I know of it. But, it is a tacit and real thread that runs through the world-views of some individuals. It’s a definite cultural subtext, and one which I don’t encounter often because I’m a rather vanilla atheist. A friend who is now a tenure track faculty in evolutionary biology who happens to be a Christian once told me that his religion came up nearly every day during graduate school! (some of it was hostile, but mostly it was curiosity and incomprehension)

This is on my mind because a very prominent person on genomics Twitter stated yesterday that Francis Collins by the very fact of his evangelical Christianity should not hold the scientific position of authority that he holds (the individual in question was wondering if they could sign a petition to remove him!). The logic was very straightforward: science by its nature conflicts with religion, and those who engage in the sort of cognitive processes which result in religion will be suboptimal in terms of scientific reasoning. As I indicated above the people who promote this viewpoint treat it as a deterministic scientific law. And, importantly there is little reference to cognitive science or survey data to support their propositions. Ten seconds on Google will yield the figure you see above. A substantial proportion of American scientists aver a religious affiliation.

Programming_Perl_4th_Ed_cover Mind you, there are patterns. The data when examined in a more granular fashion suggests that academic scientists are more secular than those in industry, as are the more eminent ones. But it doesn’t take much time to think of great scientists who avowed some sort of religious affiliation. In evolutionary biology R. A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky affiliated as Christians. The mid-20th century evolutionary biologist David Lack was an Anglican convert. In Reconciling Science and Religion the historian of science Peter J. Bowler outlines a movement in early 20th century Britain to accommodate and assimilate the findings of evolutionary biology to that of mainstream Christianity, so it is entirely unsurprising that Anglicans such as Fisher and Lack were active researchers within evolutionary science.

Outside of evolutionary biology there are two examples which stand out in my mind. Larry Wall, the originator of the Perl language which has had a long history in bioinformatics is an evangelical Protestant Christian. And Donald Knuth, the author of the magisterial series The Art of Computer Programming is a Lutheran.

51-C0feX3uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ My point in reviewing this data, which should be widely known, is to bring some empiricism to this discussion. What do the data say? Not one’s prejudices and intuitions. One response on Twitter was that empiricism precludes faith. That’s the theory about empiricism. The reality is that there are many great empirical scientists who have a religious faith. Any scientist worth their salt who wishes to air hypotheses about the incompatibility of religion and science on an individual level needs to engage with these facts.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a correlation in the aggregate between secularism and science. But this issue is complex, emerging at the intersection of cognitive science, sociology, and history. These subtleties can’t be waved away airily with a reference to facts that everyone knows which happens to reflect one’s own personal prejudices. That reminds me of things besides science.

Finally, this truth that in the aggregate scientists are a diverse lot even if there tends to be particular patterns of social concentration is a general one. E.g., most scientists are more liberal than not. But a substantial minority are not, with a fraction of those being rather closeted about this. The average scientist, in particular in the academy, is a secular liberal. But the minority are not trivial. We’re in your lab meetings, at your conferences, collecting data for you, and on your committees, reviewing your grant applications.* Because of the nature of the academy outside of religious colleges there is often silence from this minority lest they be pigeon-holed as out of step with the social culture of science. That’s human nature. And scientists can’t escape that, whether they are in the majority, or the minority. For all the talk of logic and empiricism, scientists are all too human in their basic wiring.

* Much of what I say applies to natural science. From the survey data in the academy non-liberals-to-Leftists are almost entirely absent in sociology and a lesser extent in areas of psychology.

• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Science, Sociology 
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Credit: Plp

Update: To be explicit, I’m not claiming that the correlation is causal. Rather, I’m pointing out that the explosion in porn use does not seem to have led to a concomitant explosion in sex crimes, which would have been the prediction by social conservatives and radical feminists if they could have known of the extent of penetration of pornography into culture and private lives over the next 20 years in 1990.

I am almost literally one of the last of the generation of young men for whom the quest for pornography was an adventure. One could say that I had the misfortune of my adolescence overlapping almost perfectly with the last few years prior to the ‘pornographic singularity.’ I speak here of the internet, circa 1995 and later. Prior to this era of the ‘pornographic explosion’ one often had to rely upon a lax or absentee father of a friend, from whom the porn was ‘borrowed,’ and then returned with the owner none the wiser. My youngest brother, who is 15 years my junior, would no doubt find my escapades as a 15 year old bizarre in the extreme (though I believe I did not view video pornography until I was 16). In fact, I recall realizing that something radical had occurred when visiting my family and observing my brother, who was 8 at the time, deleting porn spam from his Hotmail account. Porn as nuisance rather than treasure would have amazed my adolescent self.

It seems plausible that the generation after 1995 has witnessed levels of aggregate porn consumption orders of magnitude greater than that before 1995. This is a massive natural social experiment. As with any social experiment you have anecdata-driven ‘moral panic’ pieces in the press which don’t seem to align well with what you see in the world at large. Mo Costandi pointed me today to one such piece about porn ‘re-wiring’ the brains of young boys and making them sexually dysfunctional. Standard stuff. On Twitter I pointed out to Mo semi-seriously that actually crime had declined since widespread pornographic consumption in the mid-1990s. Quite reasonably Mo inquired specifically about sex crimes. Fair enough. As it happens the FBI has records of ‘forcible rapes’ reported to the police in the USA going back to 1960.

Here they are in absolute numbers:

And now standardized by the populations of the decennial Census (and per 1,000,000):

The problem, from what I can see, is that the only young males who talk at length about their porn consumption to professionals and the media are those who have problems with that consumption. In contrast, for most men the consumption of porn isn’t a major issue, it’s just part of their life, or not, depending on the situation, and at most it comes up in a humorous manner. Additionally, my own suspicion is that the perversity of online pornography is driven by the fact that perverts are disproportionately represented among the small minority of men who pay for porn in this day and age.

On a more scientific note, some of the fears of porn destroying the male ability and inclination to have sex with women* could be alleviated if people were more aware of the concept of an alief. One can illustrate the relationship of an alief to sex rather easily. Imagine that you, a heterosexual male (if you aren’t a heterosexual male, just put yourself in that individual’s position), meet a very attractive woman at a party, and kiss her and touch her breasts. You are likely rather aroused and excited at this point. You then reach down and feel a penis. Now you are probably quite turned off. Can you appreciate that you were excited literally the moment before? Would you wish to repeat the experience of initial pleasure, and then shock?

The key takeaway is that a major part of the pleasure of an experience is the broader contextual framework in which the pleasure is occurring. Kissing a woman is preferable for a heterosexual man not just because a woman has smooth skin, and attractive facial features, but because the target of their affections is a woman. If that woman turns out to be a very feminine “ladyboy,” then all the pleasure disappears, even if in an objective and reductionist sense nothing has changed about the previous experiences (if you want a deeper exploration of this topic, I recommend Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like).

Obviously sex is a somewhat mechanical operation for many males. Ergo, the ease with which males can relieve themselves with masturbation. But you can’t just transpose the mechanics of consuming pornography to the mechanics of sex with a real woman. Porn exists to facilitate masturbation, but so does your hand. Ultimately a woman is preferable to your hand because a woman is a woman, and your hand is just your hand.**

In other words, the modern male, porn-consuming though he might be, still generally prefers sex with real live women. We’re born that way.

* From what I can tell pornography has more mainstream acceptance in the gay male community. And yet to my knowledge gay males are no less interested in sex than straight males.

** I’m stripping away the reality that sex within a relationship is more than arousal and climax, but an essential part of the relationship being more than just a friendship.

• Category: Science • Tags: Pornography, Social Science, Sociology 
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Greta Scacchi, cousin-lover

There has been some discussion in the comments why the posts on inbreeding are getting so much attention. I think this is a milder form of the same sort of curiosity about why young males have a fascination with pornography: we are obsessed with sex. This is not an arbitrary fascination, nor is it a loss of innocence which may have been avoided. Sex is our raison d’etre as sexual organisms. Evolutionary psychology gets a bad reputation for positing adaptive explanations for everything under the sun, from dancing to migraines. But, if there is anything which is the target of adaptive constraint and selective pressures, it is the suite of traits which relate to sex and mating in a direction fashion. It is sometimes stated that sex is about power, but the bigger reality is that power is about sex.

But reducing human behavior purely to one explanatory framework is too reductive even for me. An individualist framework where singular males and females operate as evolutionary versions of rational H. economicus, always optimizing fitness through subterfuge and inducement, leaves something to be desired in characterizing the true rich tapestry of human behavior. And this tapestry is not arbitrary; rather, its general shape and topography is anchored by particular innate parameters.

For example, the story of Tristan and Iseult seems clearly to be rooted in a common human archetype, an evoked aspect of human complex societies where cultural necessities can work at cross-purposes with individual biological dispositions. Humans evolved as a species in relatively small-scale groups. Though I am skeptical of the idea that pre-Neolithic societies were atomized down to the level of only small bands, I do think that the rise of agriculture resulted in the emergence of new cultural forms and complexities. Hunter-gatherers clearly have their own taboos and social constrictions, but civilizations have transformed this segment of the cultural toolkit into massive and baroque scaffolds which constrict our impulses. For thousands of years it seems likely that young women such as Deirdre have been “given” to older men of power such as Conchobar. There is benefit in this arrangement for all. Men of power can breed with nubile young women, transforming their status into reproductive value. And, as Chinese history and the life of Anne Boleyn tells us there is much gain for these women and the families of these women who subordinate natural impulse to rational calculation. Yet still, impulses do quite often break free and negate rational calculation (see: Catherine Howard).

I have stated before that the customs and traditions which many Westerners perceive to be “conservative,” a fixation on female honor, elaborated patriarchal lineages, complex familial and social hierarchy, etc., are in fact innovations of the age of agriculture. They were cultural inventions designed to manage and control humanity in an organized fashion, as a scattering of souls congealed into vast rivers of people. The past few centuries, and in particular the past few decades, have seen a collapse of much of the old institutional order. But hunter-gatherers did not live by impulse alone, as is clear in the results of the communes of the 1960s and 1970s. Love is never free, there are always consequences, both biological and psychological. Not only did hunter-gatherers have their own cultural mores, but we do not live in the world of hunter-gatherers. It may be that particular norms and customs at tension with our evolved intuitions are still necessary to bind us together as societies, where the many may cooperate to facilitate the flourishing of all.

Where does incest come into all of this? As I have noted earlier the Westermarck effect illustrates that extremely close first order incestuous relationships (father-daughter, sister-brother) are not favored in a deep evolutionary sense. And yet such incest can be favored and propagated by culture! The incest between near relations among ancient Egypt’s elite is well known, but apparently the practice also spread to the peasantry via emulation. I am willing to bet that sex with your brother or sister is not as satisfying as sex with someone with whom you are not related (though I would appreciate no anecdata in this domain!), but clearly cultural forces can even favor this arrangement.

The major issue comes to relations between relatives at some remove. I do not think there is nearly a strong case for aversion to relations with first cousins beyond what might be covered by the Westermarck effect due to extended family cohabitation. And unlike first order incestuous relationships the biological abnormalities of the offspring of first cousins are sharply mitigated. They are at worst comparable to the risks which older parents may be foisting upon their children by conceiving them later.

But, I think that cousin marriage as a norm should still be discouraged, just as polygamy as a norm should be discouraged. From the perspective of an elite male polygamy is arguably the more natural arrangement! But man does not live on an island. While individual instances of cousin marriage and polygamy can allow for flourishing, as a whole societies where these practices are normative and ubiquitous suck. When I say they suck, I mean that they suck from the Western liberal perspective where a level of egalitarian individual access to self-actualization and flourishing is prized.

When considering social arrangements I believe it is critical to focus less on individual first principles, and look to a more holistic set of metrics which value the organic community, from which individuals often derive such explicit and implicit psychic gratification. I suspect that one can argue that the cognitive toolkit we have today is very well equipped for life in small bands. Perhaps the closest analog to this are the cliques and circle of friends which young people develop. There is no need for institutional formality or a detailed set of prescriptions of behavior. Natural disposition and impulse can operate nearly perfectly on this scale. But we do not live merely in our own small social bubbles, we are embedded in a larger society. And for that there may need to be a cultivation of traits, tendencies, and dispositions, which are at cross-purposes which our selfish natures.

To have a real discussion about what the proper balance between our moral intuitions and the necessary social engineering of a complex post-industrial society is we need to reinsert communal values into the discussion. Not just what are the aims of you as an individual maximizing your own happiness. Not just what rights and responsibilities you as an individual have. But what is the vision for the society as a whole, and what are its goals, and what equilibrium would perpetuate the greatest good for the greatest number.

Image credit: Georges Biard

• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Evolutionary Psychology, Sociology 
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I saw this link posted on twitter, IQ and Human Intelligence:

An interesting finding from genetic research, which Mackintosh mentions, only in passing, as posing a problem in the estimation of the heritability of g, is that there is greater assortative mating for g than for any other behavioral trait; that is, spouse correlations are only ∼.1 for personality and only ∼.2 for height or weight, but the correlation for assortative mating for g is ∼.4. In addition to indicating that people are able to make judgments about g in real life, this finding suggests that assortative mating may contribute to the substantial additive genetic variance for g, because positive assortative mating for a character can increase its additive genetic variance.

I’ve seen these sort of results before. The review is from 1999. In general I always wonder if quantitative values for personality are not to be trusted because of issues with the measurement of personality types. But this is clearly not an issue with height or weight. And in the case of height the overwhelming causal explanation for variation in the West is genetic variation. Overall I’m rather surprised by the rather low correlations for some of these traits, such as height and intelligence. I wonder if beauty, perhaps measured by an index of facial symmetry, might exhibit higher correlation values?

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

In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is marked by a chronic ambiguity in language. There is little consensus about the meanings of terms such as nature, nurture, gene, and environment. Keller suggests that contemporary genetics can provide a more appropriate, precise, and useful vocabulary, one that might help put an end to the confusion surrounding the nature-nurture controversy.

Fox Keller may have a novel and fresh take on the whole issue, but let’s not pretend this is a new line of exploration. The fundamental incoherence of the public perception of “nature vs. nurture” is a literal cottage industry, and has been for a long time. Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture for example has this description from Publisher’s Weekly:

“Nature versus nurture” sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people’s qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don’t have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley, author of the bestseller Genome, says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that “genes are designed to take their cue from nurture.” Genes are not unchanging little bits of DNA: their expression varies throughout a person’s life, often in response to environmental stimuli. Babies are born with genes hard-wired for sight, but if they are also born with cataracts, the genes turn themselves off and the child will never acquire the ability to see properly. On the other hand, stuttering used to be ascribed solely to environmental factors. Then stuttering was found to be clearly linked to the Y chromosome, and evidence for genetic miswiring of areas in the brain that manage language was uncovered. But environment still plays a role: not everyone with the genetic disposition will grow up to be a stutterer. Ridley’s survey of what is known about nature-nurture interactions is encyclopedic and conveyed with insight and style. This is not an easy read, but fans of his earlier book and readers looking for a challenging read will find this an engrossing study of what makes us who we are.

As for Lewontin’s essay it reminds me somewhat of ‘concern trolling’. He points to serious confusions and potential intractabilities in how the forces of natural selection operate upon individuals and species, but at the end it is clear that he is mostly just exultant about the problem of ‘missing heritability’ because it keeps at bay a genomic resurrection of concerns which were at the heart of his activism in the ‘sociobiology wars’ of the 1970s.

And I don’t know how to view stuff like this:

Beginning with her consciousness of the role of gender in influencing the construction of scientific ideas, she has, over the last twenty-five years, considered how language, models, and metaphors have had a determinative role in the construction of scientific explanation in biology.

Perhaps Lewontin is using the term ‘determinative’ in a ‘figurative’ fashion for ‘rhetorical’ ‘effect’, but really comes close to the ‘science is just another myth’ line which served for the purposes of obtaining tenure in some Studies somewhere in the 1980s, but generally came to be seen as unserious (especially in the light of the recent revival of Creationism in more sophisticated form as Intelligent Design, which often makes pretty clear recourse to the tools and modes of Critical Theory). Lewontin ends with some allusive scare mongering about scientists playing God:

In May 2010 the consortium originally created by J. Craig Venter to sequence the human genome gave birth to a new organization, Synthetic Genomics, which announced that it had created an organism by implanting a synthetic genome in a bacterial cell whose own original genome had been removed. The cell then proceeded to carry out the functions of a living organism, including reproduction. One may argue that the hardest work, putting together all the rest of the cell from bits and pieces, is still to be done before it can be said that life has been manufactured, but even Victor Frankenstein started with a dead body. We all know what the consequences of that may be.

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution, Sociobiology, Sociology 
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Ruchira Paul has her own reaction to Zadie Smith’s pretentious review of The Social Network. One of the aspects of Smith’s review which Ruchira focuses upon is her concern about the extinction of the “private person.” I have mooted this issue before, but I think it might be worthwhile to resurrect an old hobby-horse of mine: is privacy as we understand it in the “modern age” simply a function of the transient gap between information technology and mass society? In other words, for most of human history we lived in small bands or in modest villages. These were worlds where everyone was in everyone else’s business. There was very little privacy because the information technology was well suited to the scale of such societies. That “technology” being our own innate psychology and verbal capacities. With the rise of stratified cultures elites could withdraw into their own castles, manses and courtyards, veiled away from the unwashed masses. A shift toward urbanization, and greater anonymity made possible by the rise of the mega-city within the last few centuries, has allowed the common citizen to also become more of a stranger to their neighbors. It is far easier to shed “baggage” by simply moving to a place where everyone doesn’t know your name.

Or it was. Today neighbors can dig through the information trail you’ve left in the great data cloud. You can’t lie about your age if you give people your real name, it’s easy to find it on various services. You can’t lie about where you are from, the same services usually track that too. can allow someone to confirm whether you actually graduated from the secondary school you claim to have graduated from. If you have left your Facebook friends list open then they can quickly see what sort of people you associate with. It takes 10 seconds to find out how much your house is worth on Zillow, what taxes you’ve paid on it, how much you’ve purchased it for, and, if you have a lien against you. If you dressed up like a ladybug for Halloween then everyone may know.

The power of the new technologies was brought home to me last weekend. Amos Zeeberg, Discover Magazine‘s web editor, mentioned my comment moderation style on a panel at a conference in New York City. Someone in the audience tweeted what Amos had said about me, and I saw the tweet since she added @razibkhan to her message. Five years ago I may have heard about this, but only later on from one of the other people in the audience, or another panelist. But there would have been a fair amount of latency. Now the information got to me in ~15 minutes. Not only did I see the tweet, but so did everyone else who was a follower of that individual.

The world is turning into a village. But only from your own perspective; in the aggregate there are millions of distinctive villages.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Anthropology, Facebook, Sociology 
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480px-Montagem_BrasíliaOne of the questions of interest in the study of the evolution of culture is whether there is a direction in history in terms of complexity. As I have noted before in the pre-modern era many felt that the direction of history was of decline. That is, the ancients were wise and subtle beyond compare and comprehension. In contrast, in our era of rapid and boisterous technological innovation and economic growth we tend toward a “Whiggish” model, where the future is gleaming with potential and possibility. But we live in a peculiar time. The reality is that for most of history for most people there was very little change from generation to generation. Malthus reigned supreme. Values were timeless, and quality of life was unchanging.

There were exceptions. Theodore of Tarsus was born in the year 602, in Cilicia in southern Turkey, a subject of the Byzantine Emperor Phocas. It is Phocas to whom we can offer thanks for the preservation of the Pantheon of Rome down to the modern age (he sponsored its transformation into a Christian church). In his youth Theodore became a subject of the Sassanid Persians, who ruled Cilicia for a time before it was brought back under Byzantine rule thanks to the efforts of Heraclius. Eventually in adulthood he fled the armies of the Muslim Arabs, who conquered Cilicia, and relocated to Constantinople and then Rome. After Rome Theodore eventually settled in to a position as Archbishop of Canterbury, amongst the newly converted English. Theodore of Tarsus lived life at a “hinge of history,” when much changed in understanding of how the world was ordered (though to be honest there is a great deal of evidence that many Christians viewed Islam and the Arabs as but a momentary interruption until the 8th century). But he was very much an exception. In his longevity, his position as a literate man of power, and the radical shifts in the elite culture of his time. In the year of Theodore’s birth the English were a pagan people, and the Near East was staunchly Christian. At his death the English were a stoutly Christian people, and the Near East was crystallizing into what we now term the Islamic World. Theodore gives us a specific personalized window into the coarse general dynamics through which history flows. History is a dynamic of people, but also operates upon people. A new paper in Nature illustrates the insights we may gain from abstraction and formalization of these dynamics. It is a lens upon history which is more crisply analytic and potentially more robust in inferential power, though of course far less rich in gripping narrative. Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific:

There is disagreement about whether human political evolution has proceeded through a sequence of incremental increases in complexity, or whether larger, non-sequential increases have occurred. The extent to which societies have decreased in complexity is also unclear. These debates have continued largely in the absence of rigorous, quantitative tests. We evaluated six competing models of political evolution in Austronesian-speaking societies using phylogenetic methods. Here we show that in the best-fitting model political complexity rises and falls in a sequence of small steps. This is closely followed by another model in which increases are sequential but decreases can be either sequential or in bigger drops. The results indicate that large, non-sequential jumps in political complexity have not occurred during the evolutionary history of these societies. This suggests that, despite the numerous contingent pathways of human history, there are regularities in cultural evolution that can be detected using computational phylogenetic methods.

800px-Gate_to_Prambanan_complexThe guts of the paper are really in the supplements. The short of it is that the authors used a phylogenetic framework and statistical methods to smoke out which models were the best fit for how patterns of social complexity mapped onto the branches of the Austronesian language family. The Austronesians are a group whose ethnognesis is understood to a great extent, and, who have expanded across a wide variety of ecologies in the recent past. They range from Madagascar to Easter Island, two points between which the distance is shorter traversing Africa and South America, rather than the Indian and Pacific oceans. In terms of complexity you also have singular groups situated upon Polynesian atolls, all the way up to the complex civilizations of the Javanese, whose polities sometimes spanned the whole breadth of the modern Indonesian archipelago.

There are four rough types of societies being analyzed in terms of their category of complexity. You can see them in figure 3, as well as the stylized model of shifts from one level of social complexity to another:


“Acephalous” means that there’s no level of leadership above the local one. So the clan chief presumably does not report to a superior. “Simple chiefdom” means that there’s a level above the clan chief. “Complex chiefdom” has another level above again. And the state means that there’s a subsequent level, or more.

complex2As noted in the abstract they found that a step-wise incremental move up and down the levels of complexity best explained the patterns across Austronesian peoples which we see today. That is, complex ancestral societies may have devolved toward simpler organizational patterns, and simple ancestral societies may have given rise to complex ones. This is the “unilinear” pattern; what goes up does so gradually, and what goes down does so gradually. Interestingly this model shows that history can go in cycles. Empires can rise and fall. Rome and Angkor are not aberrations. But the second most supported model was a “relaxed unilinear” one, whereby societies still accrue complexity in a gradual step-wise fashion, but they may regress catastrophically. In other words, they can potentially go from being of relatively large scale to much smaller scale, atomizing and shattering. I believe that this is probably the more interesting finding. It is not surprising that societies change in complexity in an ordered fashion, but that complex systems are fragile and can lose institutional structures in a cascade would have big theoretical implications.

Obviously this sort of study on one set of societies has limitations. What has Java to tell us of Japan? This is a survey of patterns among Austronesians, and one can’t guarantee that they’ll be generalizable. Despite the ecological variation across these societies, it is notable that they all had a strong maritime bias. Perhaps continental polities are subject to different dynamics. Additionally, there is some limitation in the level of aggregation and institutional complexity which we can see among Austronesians. Even at its height Majapahit lacked the force-projection power of Rome, Imperial China, or even the Arab Caliphates. As a hypothesis I will hazard to guess that using a broader sample the relaxed unilinear model would be supported even more. Imperial Rome and Han China squeezed their populations much more than Majapahit on the economic margin to support enormous central cultural complexes. Once the interlocking systems of deference and rent-seeking snapped the regression could be extreme.

We can see the utility of this sort of model after the fall of the Roman Empire. Some regions, such as Anatolia, Italy, Spain and southern Gaul, regressed only so much (at most down to the level of complex chiefdoms, but usually down to a looser state-level political structure). On the other hand, Britain and much of the interior of the Balkans seem to have regressed much further and lost all touch with the institutional power of Roman civilization. Anglo-Saxon England had dozens of “kings” when it reemerged into the light of history in the late 6th century. These were basically complex chiefdoms, likely successors to simple chiefdoms, not states. This implies that much of Britain had gone from being part of an empire, a higher order of organization and complexity than a typical state, to a region characterized by tribalism. Something similar happened in the Balkans with the removal of Roman troops with the invasion of the Avars in the late 6th century. Once the region comes back into the historical record most of the Latin-speaking populations are gone, replaced by Slavic tribes under the hegemony of Ugric and Turkic elites (and possibly Iranian, there is some supposition that the Croats and Serbs may originally have been Iranian tribes which were later subsumed by their Slavic vassals, just as the Bulgars later were). Multiple levels of structure had been swept away, and institutions such as organized Christian religion had to be reintroduced later.

Luckily for Dark Age Europe reservoirs of civilization persisted from which institutions could begin the recolonization process. Isolated societies such as the Maya or Angkor seem to have dissolved more fully. A civilization which lasts clearly needs a commonwealth of states.

Citation: Currie, Thomas E., Greenhill, Simon J., Gray, Russell D., Hasegawa, Toshikazu, & Mace, Ruth (2010). Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific Nature : 10.1038/nature09461

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Anthropology, Sociology 
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About 20 years ago the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed his eponymous number:

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It lies between 100 and 230, but a commonly used value is 150

Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again

This preliminary research served as one of the major points of discussion in Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. At least the descriptive model of the rough value of the number seems to have embedded itself into the Zeitgeist. To capitalize on his ideas in the web 2.0 world Robin Dunbar has come out with a new book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. I recently heard him discuss on the radio the phenomenon of people with thousands of Facebook “friends.” Of course these aren’t really friends. People use Facebook for different reasons. Many people use Facebook like a business card, or a way to communicate with their fans or followers. In other words, more like twitter. The majority probably use Facebook the way it was intended, to mimic your real life social graph, and perhaps expand it on the margins.

After a few discussions with people who use Facebook and have given some serious thought to how these social technologies can extend our abilities, three assertions were made which I found intriguing. Below I have reformulated and elaborated upon them (that is, I added my own spin):

1) The number fixates upon a modal/median number of relationships. There is a “long tail” of individuals who have many more meaningful relationships, and this is important to overall network structure.

2) Technology can potentially double Dunbar’s number. In other words, instead of having ~150 meaningful reciprocal relationships you can now have ~300. Presumably because social technology extends our capabilities and introduces efficiencies by removing some of the “dead weight” overhang.

3) Dunbar’s number applies to coherent and self-contained groups. A pre-modern tribe or a Hutterite colony. It is not appropriate for the more multivalent and fluid relationships common in the contemporary word. For example, the same individual may be members of dozens of urban “tribes” with 10-30 members (though the coherency of the tribe may be highly subjective).

What are your thoughts? I ordered them in order of my own personal assessment of the plausibility of the assertion, but inverse order of the importance if the assertion is born out. I think #3 is a revolutionary possibility, a qualitative change of kind. In contrast, #2 is more evolutionary, a quantitative change of degree. #1 is correct to some extent, though the idea of “connectors” with which serve as nexus points within a network has been mooted elsewhere.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Facebook, Sociology 
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I’ve been hearing about structural adjustment due to technology and gains to productivity from people since the early 1990s. The sort of dynamic which motivated the original Luddites. But this chart from Calculated Risk makes me lean toward the proposition that the time is nigh. In relation to previous post-World War II recessions the big difference in unemployment seems to be in the area of the long term; these are those whose skills will degrade, and are probably least likely to reenter the labor force at an equivalent position.


• Category: Economics, Science • Tags: Finance, Sociology 
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At Cognitive Daily, Men often treat their friends better than women do:

The researchers say these three studies show that men are more tolerant of their friends’ failings than women. Does this mean that men are more “sociable”? That’s less certain. After all, it could be that women value the friendships more, and so are harsher judges when they perceive a betrayal. Regardless of your interpretation of these results, however, it seems that the stereotype of “men harsh, women friendly” is not always valid. In many cases, it can be said that women are less tolerant than men.

The research focused on college roommates. The only area where males were harsher than females in evaluating their roommates was in hygiene. In any case, there’s other research which I’ve drawn upon to suggest that males are much better are scaling up in terms of social units capable of “collective action” than females.

• Category: Science • Tags: Sociology 
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Red states, blue states, and affordable family formation is a commentary on new article by Steve about his Affordable Family Formation theory. I don’t have much to add, except a note on this:

To get back to the main point, Sailer is making a geographic argument, that Democrats do better in coastal states because families are less likely to live in coastal metropolitan areas, because housing there is so expensive, because of the geography: less nearby land for suburbs. This makes a lot of sense, although it doesn’t really explain why the people without kids want to vote for Democrats and people with kids want to vote for Republicans. I can see that more culturally conservative people are voting Republican, and these people are more likely to marry and have kids at younger ages–but in that sense the key driving variable is the conservatism, not the marriage or the kids.

I think that Steve’s response would be that a family and kids tend to make you more inclined toward social conservatism. Specifically, full-throated principled defenses of lifestyle libertarianism are less attractive to people who aren’t going to be indulging in that in any case because of the constraints of family life.

• Category: Science • Tags: Sociology 
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The New York Times has a story, Where Boys Were Kings, a Shift Toward Baby Girls:

…South Korea is the first of several Asian countries with large sex imbalances at birth to reverse the trend, moving toward greater parity between the sexes. Last year, the ratio was 107.4 boys born for every 100 girls, still above what is considered normal, but down from a peak of 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1990.

Please note that the “normal” sex ratio is usually skewed somewhat toward males, around 105 to 100 (the explanation I received about this is that sperm carrying the Y are faster because they are smaller, I appreciate anyone to falsifying this if they know the “true story”). But I also found it peculiar that the article did not note that another East Asian society has switched from son to daughter preference in the past few decades, Japan. The moral of this story is, I think, that economic and social development are more critical in shaping these trends than laws enacted from on high. Japan developed earlier than South Korea, and the change in societal attitudes on this issue occurred earlier.

• Category: Science • Tags: Sociology 
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PNAS has a paper titled Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities, which notes that a majority of humans now live in cities. I know that historically cities were a population sink (and only a small minority ever did live in cities), but, I have to wonder what evolutionary implications the normativeness of city life will have on our species over the next few hundred years (assuming some sort of collapse or explosion doesn’t make the idea of humanity irrelevant)? I say this because I suspect that the transition from hunter-gatherer to “dense” village living was highly significant (as illustrated by the mass disease die off in the New World when exposed to the Eurasian pathogen pool). Robin Dunbar’s work suggests that our cognitive social intelligence doesn’t scale up much past around 200 individuals. Villages aren’t necessarily that much more populous than this, but cities are.

• Category: Science • Tags: Sociology 
Razib Khan
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