Lots of people think David Brooks’s evolutionary psychology romance (The Social Animal) flopped. That surprised me. Who knows, it may signal a wholesome change in the wind: Not every stale idea or exhibition of poor taste can be rescued by throwing the word “evolution” about or invoking “neuroscience.” Consider “Mean Street: What David Brooks Got Wrong and Montaigne Got Right” by Evan Newmark (The Wall Street JournalMarch 11, 2011): …sorry, but I won’t be reading the entire book. The magazine piece was enough for me. It just didn’t ring true – and for good reason. It isn’t. To make his case, Brooks invents “Harold” and “Erica”, two imaginary 21st century overachievers, and tells how their lives and fates are determined Read More ›
Here, courtesy Thomas Lewis: Answer on NeuroscienceIs there a standard for distinguishing one type of love from another? As one of the authors of “A General Theory of Love,” I’ll take a stab at it. From the perspective of neuroscience, there are 3 basic forces that attract and bind people to one another. Each one is related to activity in certain brain networks. The 3 are: 1. Sexual desire. 2. Romantic infatuation 3. Attachment. We are informed, with respect to attachment, that it is a process of physiologic attunement and affection and affiliation. The basic and most fundamental form of attachment is that between mammalian parent and offspring, and other forms are elaborations of this basic mammalian caretaking and nurturing Read More ›
Why do I think psychology prof Christopher F. Chabris agrees with PZ (Darwin foulmouth) Myers and me in not liking Brook’s thesis in The Social Animal (“The Mind Readers,” The Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2011): In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble. He describes in some detail, for example, clever experiments by Dutch psychologists who found that consumers make better purchasing decisions if they mull the relevant information unconsciously while their minds are occupied with other tasks—as opposed to making a quick decision or consciously analyzing the options and then deciding. But he doesn’t tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Read More ›
The Zed and I agree about David Brooks’ revolting Social Animal theories, to judge from his Salon review: I made it almost a third of the way through the arid wasteland of David Brooks’ didactic novel, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” before I succumbed. I had begun reading it determined to be dispassionate and analytic and fair, but I couldn’t bear it for long: I learned to loathe Harold and Erica, the two upscale avatars of upper-middle-class values that Brooks marches through life in the story. And then I began to resent the omniscient narrator who narrates this exercise in unthinking consumption and privilege that is, supposedly, the ideal of happiness; it’s like watching Read More ›
First Things first thunkit? No, but is among the first to catch on. I see where, at their “First Thoughts,” blog, Joe Carter has picked up on Raymond Tallis’ outing of “Darwinitis”of the mind, in New Statesman. Tallis’s punctures into the balloons of neuro-this and neuro-that and “evolutionary psychology” resulted in interesting comments. It also got picked up at Arts and Letters Daily, billed as
Brain-science enthusiasts promise a more peaceful and prosperous world. Great, right? Maybe not. Raymond Tallis punctures neuromania…
If you want to see the type of thing Tallis is skewering:
As Globe & Mail medical reporter Carolyn Abraham tells it (February 25, 2011):
Since James Van Gundia Neel proposed it almost 50 years ago, the thrifty-gene hypothesis has reigned as the dominant explanation for soaring rates of obesity and diabetes among many aboriginal groups. Native communities where diabetes didn’t exist in the first half of the 20th century had, by the end of it, the world’s highest prevalence, with Arizona’s Pima Indians in first place, followed by the Nauru islanders of Micronesia and the Oji-Cree at Sandy Lake.Dr. Neel, an influential geneticist at the University of Michigan, felt that genes were partly to blame. He speculated that genetic traits among the world’s prehistoric hunter-gatherers enabled them to store calories during times of feast in order to survive in times of famine.
But with “the blessings of civilization,” he wrote, these thrifty genes had become hazardous baggage in a sedentary world of all feast and no famine, predisposing carriers to obesity and the diseases it brings.
His idea spread like an epidemic, embraced by everyone from public-health officials and policy-makers to the media and many aboriginal people themselves. Although never billed as more than a hypothesis, it came to be seen as fact – “a scientific axiom,” Dr. Hegele says, “dogma almost.”
But now, with obesity and diabetes shaping up to be a global pandemic, the theory appears to be dying – raising the prospect that prejudice more than proof gave it such a long life.
Why you should always be suspicious when you hear … what? Here’s what: When you hear any medical thesis whatever that is based on what “prehistoric hunter-gatherers” supposedly did.
You need to monitor three simple devices to track the growth of diabetes: Read More ›
Yes, the abandonment was recounted in “E.O. Wilson’s Theory of Altruism Shakes Up Understanding of Evolution” by Pamela Weintraub. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s 1975 Sociobiology was thought to give evolutionary psychology some respectability. Wilson, who learned his trade studying social insects, promoted the idea of kin selection – that people are genetically programmed (“bred into their bones”) to behave in socially constructive ways in order to help the genes they share with others get passed on. For example, a woman looks after her sister’s children to help the genes she shares with her sister get passed on. And she looks after her new neighbour from Rangoon’s children to help … hey, … wait a minute. So the scientific world Read More ›
Here I commented on the reality of human crowds, as I have experienced them: Largely passive waves, moving along, but intelligently anxious to hurt no one. The harmlessly mentally ill are simply tolerated. Occasional boors (and couples who insist on airing private business in public) suffer social reproach. Given the multicultural diversity of the setting with which I am familiar, I suspect that this is the normal approach of humans under some territorial stress, but not under any other kind of stress. The Toronto (Canada), subway crowd is not a lynch mob or a riot, just tens of thousands of people heading in the same geographical direction all at once, but all to different eventual destinations.
In response, here, commenter Zephyr adverts to the work of a serious researcher of crowds, work that certainly illuminates my own decades-long experience (in an admittedly peaceful part of the world). Some perceptions of crowds may be coloured by too much emphasis on the behaviour of lynch mobs. Anyone on the Toronto subway last Friday night was using it only to get somewhere else. Comparisons to herds are perverse. We’re not a herd. Everyone has an individual destination, but when crammed together, we must act as a passive crowd.
Given the low human population of Stone Age man, I am sure that the “evolutionary psychology” explanation of the individual selective genetic advantage enjoyed by enormous, compacted passive crowds will be “interesting.”
I imagine though to a religious person, and Christians especially, these line of questioning could be seem rather threatening, and maybe that’s the real reason for such animosity to EP from Ms O’Leary.
Whaa?? Read More ›
Last Friday night, I was crammed tight into the Toronto subway along with thousands of other warm bodies moving slowly north. The train slowed to inchworm pace and we received a message: Personal injury at track level. You know as well as I do what that means. Everyone did. Thousands of us were dumped out against a chill north wind at the city’s central intersection (Yonge & Bloor), milling around, waiting for shuttle buses that rarely came. A great opportunity for violence, right? You know, competition, selfish genes, survival of the fittest … Nah. There was none. A few crazy people were yelling at themselves and a splitting couple was yelling at each other. People passively cleared whatever space was Read More ›
(targeting customers of the more familiar bodice-ripper and cherry-chomp brands)
Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophyA core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment. But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways. The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.
Yes. There is a name for that: fascism
Fascism, at heart, is a belief that surrendering to an emotion engendered by an idea can bring about an earthly utopia. In politics, the idea is usually appears as a messianic leader, but in current psychology, anyone with some neuroscience training can generate these visions using machines, drugs, or narratives that get published as research on human subjects.
And it is always very difficult, at best, to explain to people that, on Earth, utopia is the trade name for hell.
Anyway, Brooks unintentionally outlines the problem better than any detractor could by retailing this loathsome love story: Read More ›
(crossfiled to Shut up, you losers, and just pay) About the latest “origin of religion” book, Damon Linker writes, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life by Jesse Bering W.W. Norton & Company, 252 pp., $26.95 Who will save science from the scientists? I often ponder that question when I peruse the writings of evolutionary psychologists—and did so once again as I read Jesse Bering’s new book, which is at once marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating. [ … ] The first thing to be said about this account is that it is an example of evolutionary psychology at its very worst: shifting abruptly between experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation Read More ›
Like, this got past somebody: I’ve been reading and talking to anthropologists about the demonic-males theory for years, and I’ve turned from a believer to a skeptic. Here are some reasons why:Wrangham and other chimpanzee researchers often present the rate of “intercommunity killing” in terms of annual deaths per 100,000 population. Mitani, for example, estimates the mortality rate from coalitionary attacks in Kibale to be as high as “2,790 per 100,000 individuals per year.” But the researchers witnessed only 18 coalitionary killings. All told, since Jane Goodall began observing chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park in 1960, researchers have directly observed 31 intergroup killings, of which 17 were infants. I obtained these figures by adding numbers from a 2006 paper Read More ›
In, “Document Sheds Light on Investigation at Harvard (Chronicle Review, August 19, 2010),” Tom Bartlett reports that Harvard has told evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser to explain issues around a few of his journal articles:
The experiment tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. Researchers played a series of three tones (in a pattern like A-B-A) over a sound system. After establishing the pattern, they would vary it (for instance, A-B-B) and see whether the monkeys were aware of the change. If a monkey looked at the speaker, this was taken as an indication that a difference was noticed.
The method has been used in experiments on primates and human infants. Mr. Hauser has long worked on studies that seemed to show that primates, like rhesus monkeys or cotton-top tamarins, can recognize patterns as well as human infants do. Such pattern recognition is thought to be a component of language acquisition.
Researchers watched videotapes of the experiments and “coded” the results, meaning that they wrote down how the monkeys reacted. As was common practice, two researchers independently coded the results so that their findings could later be compared to eliminate errors or bias.
According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant’s codes, he found that the monkeys didn’t seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust.
But Mr. Hauser’s coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.
Well, the long and short of it is that no one in Hauser’s own lab could replicate his results.
The research that was the catalyst for the inquiry ended up being tabled, but only after additional problems were found with the data. In a statement to Harvard officials in 2007, the research assistant who instigated what became a revolt among junior members of the lab, outlined his larger concerns: “The most disconcerting part of the whole experience to me was the feeling that Marc was using his position of authority to force us to accept sloppy (at best) science.”
Hauser was found to be solely responsible for the discrepancies, and as of the date of the Chronicle Review article, was on leave.
The whole story is testimony to the sheer need some have to prove that apes and monkeys are just fuzzy people or we are just naked apes. Life, whatever it is, is not that simple.
Caroline Crocker, of American Institute for Science and Technology Education (AITSE), writes me to comment,
Scientific Integrity and Dr. Hauser
Can being disorganized lead to scientific fame?
Harvard University scientist Marc Hauser became famous for his work in cognitive evolution. As a psychologist who investigates the neurological basis for morality and works with primates and people, you would think he would know better than to, at the least, keep inadequate records or, much worse, fabricate data. But, Dr. Hauser is on “academic leave” after a Harvard University faculty committee found him “solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct”.
The history of the problems is long, starting in 1995, but the Harvard investigation was only initiated in 2007. Perhaps enough students had complained or maybe the comments from peers were becoming too embarrassing. Now Michael Ruse’s concern is that the field of evolutionary biology itself will suffer from bad publicity.
But surely this should not be the main concern! Dr. Ruse makes the point that Dr. Hauser may have been under pressure to attract grant money, graduate students, and postdoctoral students–and this is mostly accomplished through publication. The pressure may have been exacerbated by the fact that Dr. Hauser holds a prestigious position at a leading university. In other words, Dr. Hauser may have succumbed to political, financial or even ideological temptation to forgo scientific integrity–thereby publishing at least three unsubstantiated scientific papers, possibly misleading numerous other scientists, and wasting countless tax dollars.
What is the answer? Raising the profile of scientific integrity in our nation. We need, as Kate Shaw said, to “encourage responsible science, experimental replication, and an even more thorough review process.”
Many will know Crocker as the scientist who got the boot from George Mason University for questioning the Prophet Darwin. I understand she will be posting here after she finalizes her book.
That said, here’s The Edge on Marc Hauser:
Along with Irv Devore, he teaches the Evolution of Human Behavior class, a Core Course at Harvard with 500 undergraduate students. The interdisciplinary course, “Science B29” (nickname: “The Sex Course”), has been running for 30 years, was started by Devore and Robert Trivers, and is the second most popular course on campus, behind “Econ 10”. Section teachers over the years comprise a who’s who of leading thinkers and include people such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, and Sarah B. Hrdy. In 1997-98, he sponsored a trial run of “Edge University” in which the students in Science B29 received Edge mailing as part of required reading in the course. Read More ›