“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The McLaughlin Rorschach


I really like watching The McLaughlin Group Friday nights on PBS because I'm always curious about how the two sides are going to incorporate the week's events into their partisan narratives. But every once in a while I sit and think about how much political philosophies resemble literary theories.
To wit, you can apply psychoanalytic theories to any literary text. In fact, you can apply any number of psychoanalytic theories in any number of ways to any literary text. Think of the famous phallic symbol. The critic predicts it'll be there and then he scours the pages until he finds it. He then comes away convinced that he's somehow tested and proven his theory. But if you look at the infinite range of items in literature that have been called phallic symbols the so-called test looks pretty pathetic: cars, buildings, shoes, hairstyles.
To appreciate this, imagine I hold up an entire deck of cards and tell you to pick one. You pull out the three of hearts and show it to me. I say, "I knew you were going to pick that card," and to prove it, I pull another three of hearts out of my shoe, suggesting I placed it there so as to be able to prove I'd predicted which card you'd picked. It's magic! Except in reality I have all fifty-two cards stashed somewhere on my person, in my pockets, in each shoe, under my shirt, etc. So no matter what you'd picked I was prepared to "prove" I'd predicted it before hand. Now, literary critics probably aren't aware they're playing a trick like this, adjusting their predictions and perceptions to make their theories fit the texts; in fact, they're very likely tricking themselves more than anyone else.

Watching the various panel members on McLaughlin--Monica Crowley is by far my favorite for obvious reasons--it's clear they're playing pretty much the same game. For the conservatives, the Deepwater Horizon shows the dangers of regulation, as big businesses capture the regulatory bodies and form "cozy" relationships with them. For liberals, the oil spill shows the dangers of deregulation, as businesses are allowed to cut corners and endanger everyone.
Political philosophy is not science. There is more involved in it than simply arriving at the truth--itself never a simple endeavor, especially when thousands of people are involved. But there seems to me to be an astonishing flippancy in politics when it comes to epistemology. People get initiated into this or that tradition, and from that point on their views are decided. It's not only like literary theories; it's also a lot like religions. Now you can make the argument that religion is an entirely personal matter--but politics affects everyone. Why isn't there a greater push to inject epistemic rigor into policy discussions? Why are we content to allow the postmodern state of affairs in which every view is taken to be as worthy as another?
Social sciences are notoriously complex, and there's a limit to their practical implementation. But to go from that to throwing up your hands and saying anything goes--or its functional equivalent, throwing up your hands and hoping the free market fixes everything--is to embrace a false dichotomy. We still have to use the evidence we have. We still should be trying to get more. We can't let our politics be determined as randomly as our preferences for fast food or hair styles.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Group Selection: Feasible or Fashionable--or Both?


I seem to have happened upon a hot-button issue when I posted a review of Sober and Wilson’s 1998 book Unto Others. Many of the objections to the authors’ arguments for group selection that have been pointed out to me (hat tip caynazzo) can be summarized thus: it’s true that group selection cannot be ruled out either logically or empirically, and it must even take place under certain circumscribed conditions; however, the phenomena the theory might be applied to have already been, or probably will be better illuminated by the rival and more robustly supported theory of inclusive fitness, whereby individuals favor others who are likely to carry the most genes in common with them.

Setting aside the possibility that inclusive fitness theory has been more fruitful simply because group selection was ruled out as a matter of orthodoxy for many years, Sober and Wilson explain in their book that these aren’t really rival theories:

“Social interactions among genetic relatives correspond to the nonrandom formation of groups. The significance of relatedness for the evolution of altruism is that it increases genetic variation among groups, thereby increasing the importance of group selection” (77).

They go on to quote W.D. Hamilton: “it obviously makes no difference if altruists settle with altruists because they are related… or because they recognize fellow altruists as such, or settle together because of some pleiotropic effect of the gene on habitat preference” (77). (For the uninitiated, pleiotropy is when a trait that isn't directly selected for comes as a package deal with a trait that is, usually because both are products of the same genes.)

And they conclude that Hamilton “left no doubt that the difference between inclusive fitness theory and group selection theory is a matter of perspective, not process” (77).

The idea is that groups must vary genetically if they are to serve as a unit of selection. The corollary is that there is some genetic similarity within each of the groups that contrasts with the differences between groups. What accounts for the similarity within groups isn’t important to the process of differential reproduction between groups. The group to which I belong can be made up of family members or people who share a set of important traits with me but who aren’t related. Either way the stage is set for group selection.

Still, how powerful and how important selection at the group level is has yet to be determined. And I’m just dipping into the issue here. (Sober and Wilson’s book is 12 years old, and I spent more time on Saul Bellow’s Collected Stories this summer than on evolutionary biology.) I will argue though that there are few reliable markers of kinship that even a species as cognitively sophisticated as humans can use to apportion altruistic favors. True, we have language to describe and label all sorts of relationships, but those labels are frequently applied to nonkin. At least in humans, group (tribal) membership seems a much more salient signal for deciding who deserves unselfish treatment.

But here is what Dr. Larry Kuznar, an anthropologist at my alma mater specializing in evolutionary models, said in response to my inquiry about how Sober and Wilson's ideas are faring:

"Wilson and Sober are at the vanguard of reintroducing group selection to biology. In anthropology, Richard Boyd and Peter Richerson are advancing group selection under the guise of "cultural group selection" (see their book, Not be Genes Alone). How is this holding up in the field? Good question. Wilson and Sober are still a minority view in biology, and I think for good reason.

Boyd and Richerson have had more success in anthropology, but mostly through clever argumentation and by attacking individual selectionist work. I have not seen good robust tests of their ideas. There is a lot of experimental work, even done in different cultures (see Joseph Henrich), but I think that the experiments are rather contrived. Nonetheless, cultural group selection theories are very fashionable among some anthropologists (certainly not all, probably not the majority), behavioral economists, some political scientists, and some evolutionary psychologists. One hears a lot about altruism these days. It has even emerged as one of the competing explanations for suicide bombing."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I Got Your Facts Right Here

Imagine two people debating, say, immigration reform. One of them says we absolutely must stem the flow of immigrants to get control of the crime wave plaguing the border. The other says there is no crime wave. The frequency of violent crime has remained stable, or in some areas actually gone down, in recent years. They each go their separate ways convinced the other is wrong. But then the second of them recalls where he read about the steady crime rate, finds the article, follows it to a link to FBI crime statistics, and send that link to the first. "You were wrong."

Does the anti-immigration advocate change his mind? Dana Milbank of The Washington Post experienced something very similar to this scenario, and in his case the answer wasn't just no--being presented with the facts actually strengthened his interlocutor's demonstrably wrong position. He discussed this experience today on Talk of the Nation, alongside Brendan Nyhan who recently did reseach at the University of Michigan which came to the same conclusion.

One of the themes they discussed was that certain beliefs are harder to give up than others. It's especially those that are espoused by our "team" that we refuse to reconsider. What's interesting about this tribal dynamic is that it suggests that not only do we not apply the standards of our morality to members of rival tribes, but apparently we also don't afford them the same epistemic status. Their facts aren't as good as our facts.

We're all susceptible to this trap of cognitive dissonance--in fact smart people are even more susceptible because they're better able to pull justifications out of their asses for sticking to their favorite ideas. But I propose as one partial remedy that we champion not any ideology or political position, but rather the epistemology that will lead us to one. In science admitting you're wrong is seen as progress, not as defeat (ideally). And so teamishness is avoided (ideally).

Of course, once we arrive at the best approximation of the truth, we still have to work out our values. For instance, we might choose not to punish all immigrants for the crimes of a few as a matter of principle.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

First Impressions: Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior


I remember a period around the time I graduated from college when I was going back and forth between the works of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, trying to locate their most fundamental differences and deciding who had the better empirical and logical support. I often had the feeling that Gould got the better of the argument, but only because Dawkins was making larger claims. At the same time, Gould’s vision never struck me as thoroughly developed, while Dawkins’s was almost hermetically tight.

In 1998, unbeknownst to me, Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson came along with a meta-perspective on both evolutionary paradigms, which they spelled out in Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. The book is a painstaking unpacking of assumptions underlying common arguments regarding the processes of evolution and the nature of human motivation. Though tedious at points, it’s ultimately well worth while because it turns out that many of those assumptions, while not exactly wrong, obscure important details.

Case in point, Dawkins relies on a definition of evolution—change in gene frequencies—that is blind to the processes that account for those changes. Specifically, by only attending to the outcomes of genetic competition, researchers inevitably miss the fact that group selection has occurred (yes, group selection!) To illustrate, Sober and Wilson offer an analogy with a case brought against the University of California at Berkley in the 1970’s. The percentage of women applicants who were accepted there was less than that of men. But when the University did a department-by-department inquiry they found that there was no discrimination. How is this possible? It turned out that women were disproportionately applying to more selective departments. The outcome is an example of what’s called Simpson’s paradox:

"To see how this can happen, imagine that 90 women and 10 men apply to a department with a 30 percent acceptance rate. This department does not discriminate and therefore accepts 27 women and 3 men. Another department, with a 60 percent acceptance rate, receives applications from 10 women and 90 men. This department doesn’t discriminate either and therefore accepts 6 women and 54 men. Considering both departments together, 100 men and 100 women applied, but only 33 women were accepted compared with 57 men" (25).

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a trait that was maladaptive in an individual group (like a department) could emerge in a larger population by this same process. (Well, maybe not so easy to imagine, but possible.)

Those insisting on individuals or genes as the only units of selection can still say that once the context is taken into account one or another trait is more adaptive than another and that is the one which will evolve, an argument Sober and Wilson refer to as the averaging fallacy. But this argument does nothing to illuminate the process scientists are trying to understand—it rather obscures an important element of it. Sober and Wilson convincingly argue that instead of choosing sides over which unit ought to garner the most attention, we should be able to adjust our focus depending on the question we’re trying to answer. They go on to make a case for the evolution of altruism resulting from group selection.

It seems more arguments are poked with holes in Unto Others than are presented as well sealed. The effect is an opening up of the playing field, an epistemic position the authors call pluralism, not to be confused with the other type of pluralism they argue for in the realm of evolutionary processes. On the whole, this leveling is immensely important—and must’ve been even more so in 98. But since so much of the book is given over to a dismantling of undeservedly prominent arguments and assumptions, I was a little frustrated coming away. I wish there had been more examples of what theories derived from a multi-level selection paradigm would look like. Maybe I’ll find them in some of Wilson’s later books.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Eric Harris: Antisocial Aggressor or Narcissistic Avenger?

Coincident with my writing a paper defending Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s story “The Dead” from charges of narcissism leveled by Lacanian critics, my then girlfriend was preparing a presentation on the Columbine shooter Eric Harris which had her trying to determine whether he would have better fit the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic or for Antisocial Personality Disorder. Everything about Harris screamed narcissist, but there was a deal-breaker for the diagnosis: people who hold themselves in astronomical esteem seem unlikely candidates for suicide, and Harris turned his gun on himself in culmination of his murder spree.


Clinical diagnoses are mere descriptive categorizations which don’t in any way explain behavior; at best, they may pave the way for explanations by delineating the phenomenon to be explained. Yet the nature of Harris’s thinking about himself has important implications for our understanding of other types of violence. Was he incapable of empathizing with others, unable to see and unwilling to treat them as feeling, sovereign beings, in keeping with an antisocial diagnosis? Or did he instead believe himself to be so superior to his peers that they simply didn’t merit sympathy or recognition, suggesting narcissism? His infamous journals suggest pretty unequivocally that the latter was the case. But again we must ask if a real narcissist would kill himself?

This seeming paradox was brought to my attention again this week as I was reading 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior (about which I will very likely be writing more here). Myth #33 is that “Low Self-Esteem Is a Major Cause of Psychological Problems” (162). The authors make use of the common misconception that the two boys responsible for the shootings were meek and shy and got constantly picked on until their anger boiled over into violence. (It turns out the boiling-over metaphor is wrong too, as explained under Myth #30: “It’s Better to Express Anger to Others than to Hold It in.”) The boys were indeed teased and taunted, but the experience didn’t seem to lower their view of themselves. “Instead,” the authors write, “Harris and Klebold’s high self-esteem may have led them to perceive the taunts of their classmates as threats to their inflated sense of self-worth, motivating them to seek revenge” (165).

Narcissists, they explain, “believe themselves deserving of special privileges” or entitlements. “When confronted with a challenge to their perceived worth, or what clinical psychologists term a ‘narcissistic injury,’ they’re liable to lash out at others” (165). We usually think of school shootings as random acts of violence, but maybe the Columbine massacre wasn’t exactly random. It may rather have been a natural response to perceived offenses—just one that went atrociously beyond the realm of what anyone would consider fair. If what Harris did on that day in April of 1999 was not an act of aggression but one of revenge, it may be useful to consider it in terms of costly punishment, a special instance of costly signaling.

The strength of a costly signal is commensurate with that cost, so Harris’s willingness both to kill and to die might have been his way of insisting that the offense he was punishing was deathly serious. What the authors of 50 Great Myths argue is that the perceived crime consisted of his classmates not properly recognizing and deferring to his superiority. Instead of contradicting the idea that Harris held himself in great esteem then, his readiness to die for the sake of his message demonstrates just how superior he thought he was—in his mind the punishment was justified by the offense, and how seriously he took the slights of his classmates can be seen as an index of how superior to them he thought he was. The greater the difference in relative worth between Harris and his schoolmates, the greater the injustice.

Perceived relative status plays a role in all punishments. Among two people of equal status, such factors as any uncertainty regarding guilt, mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense, and concern for making the punishment equal to the crime will enter into any consideration of just deserts. But the degree to which these factors are ignored can be used as an index for the size of the power differential between the two individuals—or at least to the perceived power differential. Someone who feels infinitely superior will be willing to dish out infinite punishment. Absent a truly horrendous crime, revenge is a narcissistic undertaking.

Also read Sympathizing with Psychos: Why We Want to See Alex Escape His Fate as a Clockwork Orange.

And: The Mental Illness Zodiac: Why the DSM V Won't Be Anything But More Pseudoscience