[Paleopsych] ScienceWeek Editorials
checker at panix.com
Thu Jan 19 23:36:54 UTC 2006
[Something here to please everyone and to upset everyone, too. The editorial on
evolutionary psychology echoes the familiar charges of circularity, and its
likening to pscyhoanalysis is trenchant, devastating, even. As I got to
thinking about the analogy, though, I realized that, unlike evolutionary
psychology, psychoanalysis has no support from the empirical data.
[And the essays attacking "racism" are entirely of the variety, "these results
have not convinced me." I should like to see the AntiRacists produce
data-driven studies that give *positive* support FOR innate equality in average
cognitive abilities across the various subgroupings of man.
[The piece on Creationism is just namecalling and the one on Larry Summers is
Frankenstein, Faraday, and The Nation Magazine - 12/29/05
The New Anthropology, Happy Darkies, and the National Review -
Evolutionary Psychology: Science or Pseudoscience? - 12/3/05
Brain Size and the National Review - 10/30/05
Creationism vs. Sanity - 1/23/05
Harvard, Women, and Science - 1/19/05
December 29, 2005
Frankenstein, Faraday, and The Nation Magazine
First, John Derbyshire of the rightist National Review magazine called
us "leftist-fascist" for criticizing his ideas about biological
justifications for social inequality.
Then Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic magazine called us "liberal
snobs" for the way we criticized Derbyshire.
Now maybe we'll soon be called a few names by the leftist The Nation
On the cover of the January 9/16, 2006 issue of The Nation, you will
find a pretty blonde model, appropriately sad-looking, with her blonde
head morphed into a Medusa-like entanglement of electronic and
electrical cables and connectors, all of it as come-on bait for the
lead article entitled "Brave Neuro World".
Inside the magazine article, you find boxed marquee anxiety-producing
blurbs: "Neurotechnologies threaten to violate the freedom to have our
own personalities and control our inner lives."
Or another: "Neuroenhancement could make it not merely difficult but
biologically impossible for the poor to compete with the wealthy."
Hot dog, guys, we have a winner here, scare the hell out of 'em on the
newsstand and we'll sell more copies!
The gist of the article is that current research in neuroscience,
particularly research involving magnetic resonance imaging techniques,
coupled with development of neuroactive pharmaceuticals, may be
dangerous because it may allow control of the brain, or alterations of
mood and personality, and of course if any good at all may come of
that, the rich may deprive the poor of such benefits.
In other words, knowledge can be dangerous.
One can imagine a Pleistocene conversation:
"Hey, this here thing about us making fire could be dangerous."
"So far it's only an idea. So far we have no way to do it and we have
to wait for lightning."
"Sure, but it's real enough and the idea for making it is here."
"But it cooks meat, the meat tastes better, and I think it's safer to
"But the fire burns. Maybe it'll burn our hands. Maybe it'll burn the
"So we'll be careful."
"Maybe that's not good enough. Maybe we need to prevent it being used.
Or at least think about regulating it."
"But we're not using it yet. It's not here yet."
"I say we need to think about regulating it before it gets here."
In general, that's the problem with this modern neurological luddism
(or with any sort of proactive neo-luddism): The technology for
controlling the brain is not here yet, not even close, and if the
technology is not yet present, the only way to "regulate" it is to
Do we really want that sort of intellectual tyranny in our society?
Rightists rant about preventing research on stems cells and cloning
because of possible dangers to the social order, and now Leftists give
us a rant about preventing research in neuroscience because of
possible dangers to the "free" exercise of personality and mood.
Are they serious or merely selling magazines? No matter which, the
public receives twisted information about science and is ill-served.
The fundamental idea behind this sort of magazine pop-science
journalism is to use the verbal qualifiers "could", "might",
"possible", and the like to conjure a scenario that shivers the guts
of readers, because you learned in journalism classes that if you
shiver their guts they're more likely to buy the magazine.
Of course, people don't really need to read the article to be
misinformed, all they need to do is pass the magazine on the newsstand
and they get the message: They remember the picture of that blonde
model with the crazy Medusa-head of electrical wires and cables and
the cover headline "BRAVE NEURO WORLD".
So goes twisting science against the interests of the public.
Twenty years ago, newsstand magazines pulled the same trick about
genetically modified food products with covers blaring alarm about
"Frankenstein Foods". The idea is the same: scare the hell out of the
public and you sell more magazines. It may be good business, but it's
not good for the public, and coming from the Left, the corner of
supposed public interest, it's a travesty.
Is the problem structural? Modern higher education is partitioned into
science versus non-science, and after completing their higher
education, maybe too many of the voices of the media are non-science
people whose views of science and technology are close to Mary
Shelley's view of Doctor Frankenstein in her novel Frankenstein, first
published in 1818.
Frankenstein, you remember, was fond of electricity and used
electricity to create and energize his monster. It's an irony that
while the 19th century public was busy shivering over Frankenstein,
another fellow with an interest in electricity, a blacksmith's son
named Michael Faraday, was busy providing the understanding of
electricity necessary for the future provision of electric lights,
telephones, tram-cars, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines,
and so on that essentially liberated people everywhere.
Maybe journalists on the Right and Left need to spend less time
reading Burke and Marx and more time cracking a few books on the
history of science and technology.
Maybe the free-lance author of The Nation article was pushed by the
editors to slant the article in a specific direction. We don't know.
We fault both the author of the article and the editors of The Nation
for presenting this twisted rant to the public when they had the
chance to offer the public a reasonable account of current research in
neuroscience and how such research might impact society.
As it stands, The Nation has done a disservice to the public whose
interest it purports to maintain.
December 13, 2005
The New Anthropology, Happy Darkies, and the National Review
You might think that these days racism in the American establishment
is muted, coded, or expressed with a quiet smile or raised eyebrow at
handsome cocktail parties. You might also think that the sons and
daughters of the establishment, who move in and out of academies like
Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, might have by this time learned enough
biology, sociology, and anthropology to understand a few things.
Unfortunately, if this is what you think, your thoughts are denied by
Writing in the December 19, 2005 issue of the rightist National Review
magazine, the "Special Anniversary" Issue (50 years), Senior Editor
Richard Brookhiser (Yale University, 1977) ruminates about the
novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), calls Waugh an "anthropologist",
and says that Waugh taught him, or confirmed in him, a belief in
And pray, what's that? Who are they? So Brookhiser enlightens us:
"Happy darkies are most of the world: people with skins generally
darker than mine, who live in Africa, most of Asia, and much of the
Americas. Sometimes they start at Calais. These days they certainly
inhabit every restaurant kitchen in New York. It seems paradoxical to
call them happy. They are poor, numerous, and pregnant; if they work,
it is to little purpose; their religions span a simple spectrum from
witchcraft to wrath, and their societies alternate between tyranny and
chaos; they beat their wives, scarify their daughters, and
occasionally eat their enemies; they have never read (if they can
read) a book that was not holy, or heard a piece of music unrelated to
So there it is. If you want to know the state of higher education in
America today, what the sons and daughters of privilege have learned
in the elite academies, what rightists want to hear in their
magazines, this is it: the anthropology of Happy Darkies.
Oh, these poor twits of advantage, these pale gnomes who pass their
lives nursing on the rot of disdain!
Brookhiser writes with a hint that he wants to improve the lot of the
Happy Darkies. Does he? He writes of possibilities of "mobility", but
what he proposes is not clear. An extended mission to save the
heathen? We do think his idea that the "multicultural left" wants to
maintain the status quo is sophistic nonsense.
In sum, we find the Waugh-Brookhiser view of the world disgusting. But
we're thankful that at least this "new anthropology" is now public.
Really, the National Review has done us all a great service by at last
nailing its creed to the post.
December 3, 2005
Evolutionary Psychology: Science or Pseudoscience?
The field of evolutionary psychology is now decades old and some
people believe it's here to stay. We don't think so. In fact, we think
the general method constitutes a pseudoscience.
A typical "proof" paradigm in evolutionary psychology might be as
follows (constructed by us for this text):
Because hoarding food would have increased chances for survival in
lean times, our Pleistocene ancestors should have developed by natural
selection an adaptive tendency to hoard food. Since the modern era is
too close to the Pleistocene for any substantial biological evolution
to have occurred, modern behavior should have strong Pleistocene
adaptive components. One assumption is that universality of a behavior
constitutes evidence of a biologically evolved adaptation. A current
survey of 10,000 households in 50 states shows that on average, when
economically possible, people tend to store excess food in quantity in
kitchen cupboards. The hypothesis of evolution of this adaptive
behavior by natural selection is thus considered to be confirmed.
Problems: Do we know enough about Pleistocene behavior to say that a
survey of current behavior confirms anything about any Pleistocene
evolutionary scheme? Are the conclusions here already implicit in the
premises? Is universality of a behavior pattern evidence of biological
evolutionary adaptation? Is this science or rhetoric?
Aside from questions about "confirmation", how is this game played?
Apparently, the first thing is to do a small pilot survey of maybe 100
households. If one obtains results that contradict the hypothesis, one
either puts the hypothesis in a drawer for "future study" and moves on
to another proposed evolved Pleistocene adaptive behavior, or one
looks for "faults" in the details of the survey sample or data
gathering and repeats the study. The probability is high that
eventually some behavioral survey will be made that "confirms" some
Pleistocene evolutionary adaptation scheme. A much larger study is
then designed and hopefully funded, and the general outcome is that
advocates of the theoretical approach of evolutionary psychology will
tend to publish research papers supporting their formulated
hypotheses, and tend not to publish research papers that contradict
biological determinism of particular behavior patterns.
The larger the survey that's published, the more likely, because of
time and expense, that it will not be repeated or redesigned by
others. Certainly at least not for a few years, often not for a decade
or more. Meanwhile, the large study is touted in college courses and
in the media as "evidence" for biological determinism of such things
as human mating behavior, marriage relations, altruism, parenting,
homicidal tendencies, gender-based social inequalities, and so on.
Another approach, even more egregious, is to first do a pilot survey,
get a small-sample determination of universality of some current
behavior, call it an evolutionary "adaptation", concoct a Pleistocene
story that explains why the behavior would evolve by natural
selection, then do a larger sample study to "confirm" the evolutionary
As expected, at a number of campuses in the US, platoons of
evolutionary psychology doctoral students are busy constructing
evolutionary adaptation stories of human behavior as a prelude to
designing their pilot thesis surveys. Or maybe in some cases some
pilot thesis survey to identify the presence of a universal behavior
pattern comes first and the evolutionary adaptation story follows.
A usual commentary is to emphasize the heuristic value of the general
scientific approach, i.e., the approach at least produces new
research. But is that enough? During the 50-year period 1920-1970, a
similar research paradigm produced thousands of studies "derived" from
psychoanalytic theory in psychology, the number of such studies
dwindling to a trickle only after psychoanalytic theory went out of
fashion. Yes, such heuristic approaches do produce new research and
keep people busy and on salary. The question is, after the fashion
passes and the sand is sifted, are we left with any substantive and
enduring new knowledge?
Various proponents of evolutionary psychology talk of hypotheses
"derived" from Darwinian theory. But there are really no derivations
in any rigorous sense, merely speculations suggested by what are often
simplistic Darwinian ideas.
The scientific problem here is that our ability to concoct a
speculation about the behavior of Pleistocene humans that can be
argued as consistent with biological determinism is not evidence of
either Pleistocene behavior or biological determinism, but evidence
only of our imaginative abilities to concoct such speculations, and
studies of current human behaviors that are supposedly extensions of
Pleistocene behavior add no substance to the mix of speculation, since
the idea that any current behavior is an extension of Pleistocene
behavior is also a speculation. In sum, evolutionary psychology is not
even a "soft" science, it's a pseudoscience that endures as a fashion.
The main offering of evolutionary psychology consists merely of
arguments that are plausibly consistent with elementary Darwinism
coupled with simplistic speculations about Pleistocene adaptations.
It's not enough. And the bleat that human behavior is complex provides
no remedy for a pseudoscience of human psychology.
The idea that the social sciences can potentially benefit from more
attention to human biology is valuable and should definitely be
encouraged, especially in the training of social scientists. Whether
or not some or all aspects of human behavior are the result of
evolution by natural selection (as opposed to cultural consequences or
some combination of the two sources of variables) is still an open
question not yet handled adequately by any rigorous scientific
approach. Certainly, applications of any current "results" of
evolutionary psychology to public policy-making are at present not
justified and potentially dangerous to society.
In addition to generating technological and public progress, science
has always been a source of public confusions. From one academic
enclave or another, gas-filled balloons are sent out to be caught by
the media, who in turn do a wonderful job of confusing the public.
It's unfortunate that currently in the social sciences evolutionary
psychology is a prime source of confusions about the links between
biological evolution and human behavior.
Evolutionary psychology has been vigorously criticized by others over
the years, and the ideas above are nothing new. What prompted this
editorial were some queries from readers concerning the origins of
human behavior, and a desire to clarify our views.
October 30, 2005
Brain Size and the National Review
When politics makes an incursion into science, a common result is
distortion and a misinformed and ill-served public. Of course, some
people don't care much about the public. In the November 7, 2005 issue
of the National Review magazine, a frequent repository of right-wing
propaganda, an article touts two papers that recently appeared in a
scientific journal (Science September 9, 2005 309:1717,1720). The
major point of the National Review article is that the two scientific
papers present evidence that different human groups may have different
gene frequencies influencing brain development, one consequence of
which is that "our cherished national dream of a well-mixed and
harmonious meritocracy with all groups equally represented in all
niches, at all levels, may be unattainable." The title of the National
Review article is "The Spectre of Difference". The interest of a
self-proclaimed arch-conservative magazine like the National Review in
this idea needs no explication.
The two scientific papers concern two genes, one called
"microcephalin", and the other gene called ASPM (abnormal spindle-like
microcephaly associated). Both genes may contribute to the regulation
of brain size, since mutations of either gene cause pathological
microcephaly. Both papers are from the research group of Bruce T.
Lahn, a human geneticist at the University of Chicago. The first paper
purports to present evidence that a genetic variant of microcephalin
in modern humans that arose 37,000 years ago increased in frequency
too rapidly to be compatible with neutral genetic drift, and thus must
have spread under strong positive natural selection, which in turn
suggests the ongoing evolutionary plasticity of the human brain. The
second paper, concerns the gene ASPM , and here also the authors
interpret their analysis as suggesting that the human brain is still
undergoing rapid adaptive evolution.
All of which is politically neutral, except that the authors also
present arguments that the frequencies of these two genes are
undergoing adaptive evolution that varies with different geographical
populations. In plain words, the data are presented as suggesting that
the brain size of different ethnic groups and races (and dependent
cultural outputs of such brains) are evolving (and have evolved) at
measurably different rates.
Unequivocal in the two scientific papers is the idea that brain size
is related to culture
Such is the gist of what the National Review picks up for its readers,
the article proposing that "results like these out of the human
sciences should prompt us to begin some hard thinking about our
society, and about what we can reasonably expect social policies to
But maybe before we get to hard thinking about social policies we need
some hard thinking about evidence and conclusions.
Let's consider the two scientific papers.
In the first paper, the demonstration of evolutionary selection is
inferential and not definitive. The authors state, "Our data on
haplotype 49 are consistent with these signatures of selection."
Yes, consistent only: no anthropological conclusions are justified,
and the so-called "signatures" of selection are provisional.
In the first paper, the anthropological statements are essentially
speculations, to wit: "Such population differentiation may reflect a
Eurasian origin of haplogroup D, local adaptation, and/or demographic
factors such as a bottleneck associated with human migration 50,000 to
100,000 years ago."
Again, speculation: "may reflect". In translation: "We think this work
may be related to demographic anthropology, but we don't know."
In the second paper, concerning the proposed adaptive evolution of the
gene ASPM, the authors conclude: "Although the age of haplogroup D and
its geographic distribution across Eurasia roughly coincide with two
important events in the cultural evolution of Eurasia -- namely, the
emergence and spread of domestication from the Middle East ~10,000
years ago and the rapid increase in population associated with the
development of cities and written language 5000 to 6000 years ago
around the Middle East -- the significance of this correlation is not
Exactly so. The coincidence is rough, the significance unclear, and
the authors nowhere discuss the important fact that within and across
present human populations, studies of brains without pathology show no
evidence of correlation of brain size with brain function or cultural
"achievement". Certainly, if the authors are working on genes
apparently associated with brain size, and the authors are also
interested in relating their work to current anthropology, one would
expect some discussion of their problem, to wit: If greater human
brain size is still undergoing evolutionary selection, how come we
have no strong correlations between brain size and important
functional attributes of the human nervous system? If the brain is
still evolving in size, what are the conceivable selection pressures,
given no apparent correlation between non-pathological brain size and
function? We're unhappy that the authors were not urged by the
referees to make some statements about these questions.
We're also fascinated by the opening sentence of the first paper: "The
most distinct trait of Homo sapiens is the exceptional size and
complexity of the brain (1,2). That's good, but the problem is the two
references are 46 years old and 32 years old, respectively, and we're
trying to imagine why anyone would choose these particular references
for a report of such research. If we're to choose old references, why
not choose von Bonin? But maybe that would be against the approach of
these authors. Consider, for example, the following quotation from von
"The results of our inquiries into the brains of fossil men are
somewhat meager: we cannot deduce any details about their mental life,
whether they believed in God, whether they could speak or not, or how
they felt about the world around them... That the brain increases in
size as we go from the Australopithecinae to modern man -- or to the
Upper Paleolithics, for that matter --is quite obvious and, of course,
gratifying. But the meaning of the increase is again not quite clear
because, as we all know, brain size as such is a very poor indicator
of mental ability. This has been shown best perhaps by Pearson (1925)
some years ago. In his series, very gifted persons, such as Leon
Gambetta, Anatole France, or Franz Joseph Gall, had very small brains,
of about 1100 grams. Other equally gifted persons had very large
brains; thus Byron and Dr. Johnson had brains of about 2000 grams.
And, of course, some very ordinary persons had equally large brains.
So brain size was certainly not very important, and the correlation
between brain size and mental capacity was insignificant. But whether
this argument can be extended to an evolutionary series is again
another matter. For one thing, we know far too little about the bodily
proportions of fossil forms. Obviously, the brain stands in a certain
relation to the rest of the body, and this rest is still largely
hidden from us. Brain size as such is none too meaningful. Moreover,
mere size completely leaves out of account the inner structure of the
brain, which may be different in different forms and which may
determine to a great extent what the brain can do." Gerhardt von
Bonin: THE EVOLUTION OF THE HUMAN BRAIN University of Chicago Press,
So why cite Spuhler (1959) and Jerison (1973) rather than von Bonin
Our final comment is that human brain size, as a phenotype, has
important determinants arising from epigenetics, fetal environment,
and postnatal environment, in addition to the probable involvement of
many gene networks, and at the present level of our ignorance, any
attempt to lock in brain size to the activity of a few genes is most
likely an exaggeration. We would especially emphasize that whatever
genes or gene complexes may have been involved with the marked
increase in brain size apparently associated with our split from the
great ape line, the same genes or gene complexes may not at all be
involved with any apparent changes in brain size during the Holocene.
There is certainly no reason to believe that the human brain has
stopped evolving, and certainly brain size is a biological parameter
that may indeed be changing, but we don't think this work is of much
particular anthropological significance. We would say the work needs
to be done (and supported), but we are not at the point yet of making
important conclusions from such studies.
And finally there is this: Is it total brain size that's important or
the surface area and depth of neocortex? With an increase in total
brain size may come an increase in subcortical structures and not
necessarily a concomitant increase in neocortex at all, given the
existing foldings of neocortex. In plain words: Could evolution be
dumbing down the brain? (What an idea!)
In general, if there are any anthropologists and psychologists
listening, we would urge them not to jump to any conclusions on the
basis of this work alone or on the basis of any work like it. We
certainly need to identify the critical neurobiological variables that
may be associated with individual psychological performance and with
cultural change, but our view is that we're not there yet, not even
As for the National Review, we suggest they do more homework. The
author of the article (John Derbyshire) calls himself "a simple
Following the appearance of this editorial, John Derbyshire, author of
the National Review article, called us "leftist-fascist". Whatever
that means, we assume it's meant to be pejorative. But what is it that
makes us "leftist" or "fascist" or some oxymoronic combine? Is it our
call for more caution in political interpretations of scientific
observations? Who knows?
The complete National Review article is at NR-Derbyshire.
For Derbyshire's responses to our editorial, see D1 and D2.
January 23, 2005
Creationism vs. Sanity
One grows tired of the recurring efforts of inadequately educated
religionists to base the teaching of science in schools on biblical
passages written during a time when civilization and understanding of
the natural world were both primitive.
In a country of nearly 300 million people, there will always be some
people who, because of "religious" conviction, believe the Earth is as
flat as a pancake, a few thousand years old, and resting on the backs
of four giant elephants. Their belief is unfortunate. What is even
more unfortunate is teaching our children that such beliefs, because
they are "religious", deserve respect.
Creationism and its latest effluvium, intelligent design, are not
science, not evidentiary, not even close to science, and do not
deserve respect as material to be taught to children in public
schools. The idea of imposing one's religious views on others via
public education is totally un-American, and the people who promulgate
that idea need to be called that -- un-American.
Religionists who accept the work of their God as revealed by science,
and who understand that creationism is blasphemy, need to come out
into the arena and be heard.
Scientists who devote their lives to science and scientific attitudes
and scientific truths also need to come out into the arena and be
heard with their strongest voices.
Science teachers who find these creationist crusades obnoxious and
potentially damaging to the children they teach also need to come out
into the arena in droves and wage the battle of their intellectual
It is time. We are nearly 150 years after Darwin's Origin of Species,
and it is time for the United States, the foremost scientific
enterprise on the planet, to deal firmly with this issue. People are
free in the US to practice any particular religion. They are not free
to impose that religion on others, and they are certainly not free to
force the teaching of their religious beliefs in the public schools.
We call for an end to stickers on textbooks telling children that
evolution is only a "theory". We call for an end to mandated teaching
of creationism or intelligent design or any other attempt to subvert
the public school teaching of science as it is currently understood by
the scientific community. We call for all scientists, educators, and
thinking Americans to raise their voices in a decisive confrontation
against insidious and un-American anti-scientific dogma.
The US Supreme Court owes the American people a unanimous and
unambiguous rejection of religionist attacks on science education.
January 19, 2005
Harvard, Women, and Science
The recent comments by Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard
University, suggesting that biological differences between the sexes
may be one explanation why fewer women succeed in mathematics and
science careers, is evidence of at best a sophomoric understanding of
the professions of science and mathematics, and at worst possible
evidence of brain damage. Dr. Summers is an economist, not a scientist
and not a mathematician. At the present time, approximately half the
graduating PhDs in chemistry and MDs in medicine are women, and more
than a third in the biological sciences, particularly in molecular
biology. One can assume that any of these new women graduates knows
more science and mathematics than Dr. Summers, and in addition one
suspects that any of these new women graduates knows more about the
problems of women in science and mathematics than Dr. Summers does.
If Dr. Summers is really interested in understanding the present
situation of women in science and mathematics, he ought to have a
serious look at the history of his own university. In general, Harvard
University has never been known as a leader in the intellectual
emancipation of women, and throughout most of its existence, Harvard
was an all-male college that frowned on the idea of women in
intellectual pursuits. In the early years of stellar spectroscopy at
the Harvard Astronomical Observatory, for example, nearly all the data
were catalogued and analyzed by female astronomers, called
"computers", who were trained professional astronomers but forbidden
because of their sex to use the telescopes. Women astronomers at
Harvard were not allowed routine access to the telescopes until the
1950s. It is an irony of the social history of science that the work
of such female astronomers as Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1928) and
Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) came to be of greater significance than
the work of many of the male astronomers who considered these female
astronomers to be no more than menial assistants.
If understanding of women in science is the objective, after an
examination of the history of women at Harvard, we suggest to Dr.
Summers that he start thinking about attitudes rather than biological
differences, attitudes of men in science toward women in science, and
attitudes of university presidents who are supposed to lead forward
rather than backward.
In truth, this problem of attitudes toward women of accomplishment is
so old it feels trite. Plato, after all, that old Greek so clever with
his words, already pointed out in his time that wasting women, wasting
the intellectual capabilities of half the population, was a stupid
strategy for any society.
As always, in science or anywhere else, "old-boy" attitudes are the
attitudes of old boys.
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