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April 26, 2004

All is vanity...

I notice that I’ve been posting on GNXP for just over a year now. Naturally a lot of the posts have been minor or ephemeral, but in my vanity I think some of them are still worth reading. So for the benefit of new readers here is a guide....

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Warning: some of these posts are very long, so if you want to do more than skim an item it may be worth saving it to file and/or printing it out.

I have not tried to revise or update the posts, but I will make a few comments as I go along. My introductory post on Heroes and Villains gave a general idea of ‘where I’m coming from’.

I followed this with a series of long items on ‘cultural evolution’. Biological versus cultural evolution sets out some reasons for not confusing the two. Cultural evolution by group selection examines the idea that cultural traits evolve through their effect on the survival and prosperity of the societies in which those traits are found - a very dubious idea, in my opinion. Altruism and group selection is not concerned with cultural evolution but with the idea that genetically-based altruism is a product of group selection, as proposed e.g. in Eliot Sober and D. S. Wilson’s book Unto Others. I am sceptical about the importance of this, but for those who like the idea, I draw attention to my ‘chessboard’ model for the aggregation of altruists. In a post on Clarifications (and a bit more) I responded to some comments and possible misunderstandings. In Cultural evolution: the meme is the theme I looked at Dawkins’s idea of ‘natural selection of memes’. (A few months later, in More on memes I commented on Susan Blackmore’s book on the subject.) The culmination of this series of posts came with Is culture useful?. The short answer is, ‘not necessarily’. Anthropologists, sociologists, and evolutionary psychologists all, in different ways, tend to assume that cultural traits must provide some kind of benefit, whether for society as a whole, for interest-groups within it, or for individuals. I argue that there is no good reason for this assumption. By analogy, learning, in general, is a good thing, but there is no guarantee that everything we learn is true or useful.

Since writing these posts, I have read a lot of recent academic work on these issues. I hope to give a survey of this literature some time.

My next major series of posts concerned issues about population. Comments in the media on population often show serious misunderstandings, potentially leading to bad policies, such as encouraging immigration to relieve the burden of an ageing population. Population fallacies, Part 1 dealt with the common misconception that in the ‘old days’ few people lived beyond the age of 50 or so. Actually, life expectancy at birth was low because of high infant mortality, but those who survived childhood lived almost as long as we do. Population fallacies, Part 2 explores what is meant by birth rates and fertility rates, and points out that current estimates of fertility in western countries are distorted by trends in the age of child-bearing. Population fallacies, Part 3 does a similar job on death rates. Afraid of growing old? argues that the ‘burden of the elderly’ is much exaggerated. Since I posted this, there has been further evidence that people are not only living longer but staying healthy for longer, so that the cost to health services is less than has been feared. Finally, The future of the birth rate gives reasons from evolutionary theory for expecting birth rates to rise again after a generation or two of birth control.

With population issues still in mind, I gave a breakdown of English ethnic groups in English population patterns, based on the 2001 UK Census. The most interesting point was the large increase in immigration to the UK from elsewhere in Europe. In More Census gleanings I gave some more data from the Census, this time on the educational and economic achievement of different groups. I drew attention to the puzzle that some minority groups seem to do better in higher education and employment than would be expected from their performance in school. Several people asked me if there was any data on the IQ of different groups in the UK, and I tried to answer this in IQ comments. While researching this, I came across some similar data for the Netherlands, which I described in Dutch treat. In both the UK and the Netherlands, the IQ of immigrant groups has partially converged on that of the native population.

These discussions of IQ issues made me more attentive to comments, on GNXP and elsewhere, about IQ comparisons between different countries, deriving directly or indirectly from Lynn and Vanhanen’s book IQ and the Wealth of Nations. Many of these comments seemed to assume that differences in IQ between nations had a genetic basis. In my post IQ comparisons I pointed out the dangers of this assumption. Even if heritability of IQ within populations is high, this is consistent with quite large differences between populations for environmental reasons, and the Flynn Effect (the long term increase in IQ in all developed countries) shows that such differences do occur. In Once more into the breach I followed this up by calculating the correlation between national IQs and an indicator of environmental quality (infant mortality rates). I showed that the correlation was strikingly high, and discussed possible explanations for this. Contrary to some assertions, a significant correlation does indicate a causal connection, but it does not tell you the nature or even the direction of causality. However, we know from the Flynn Effect that differences in economic development can cause differences in IQ levels, whereas we do not know (with any confidence) that differences in IQ cause differences in economic development. I am still quite proud of this post, as it involved more real work than any other, and produced a striking result. (If any competent academic wants to work the idea up properly and publish it, feel free to do so, but a footnote acknowledgement would be nice!) I followed up the point about the Flynn Effect with In like Flynn, which drew together information from various sources suggesting that the cumulative increase in mean IQ in the UK and USA since 1900 was over 25 points, and possibly as much as 30 points. This implies that the IQ of white Americans and Britons in 1900 was below that of some black African countries today. Some people didn’t like this conclusion, but not liking a conclusion does not invalidate it. I returned to some methodological aspects of the problem more recently in Loose ends.

I mentioned early in these discussions of IQ that I had not then read Lynn and Vanhanen’s book, as it was not easily available. A reader alerted me to a library copy, and after trekking off to the library I discussed the book in IQ and the Wealth of Nations I pointed out that Lynn and Vanhanen are in fact quite non-committal on the extent to which IQ differences between nations are genetically determined, and they accept that at least one environmental factor (nutrition) has important effects.

I turned to another aspect of IQ issues in a series of posts about social mobility. Intelligence and social mobility described some recent British studies confirming the link between individual cognitive ability and social mobility (upwards or downwards). A reader drew my attention to another study, which I discussed in Intelligence and education . As I mentioned in the first of these posts, the evidence suggests that rates of social mobility are rather similar in most developed countries, and do not seem to have changed much in the last century. This may conflict with the claim (e.g. by Herrnstein and Murray) that there is an increasing concentration of wealth and ability in a ‘cognitive elite’. I discussed this in A new cognitive elite?

This year I turned with relief from IQ issues to something I find much more interesting: the mind-body problem. In Changing the subject I argued that there was a contradiction in the scientific world-view: on the one hand, it is assumed that the properties of the mind, including such subjective sensations as pleasure and pain, have evolved by natural selection, which implies that they influence physical survival and reproduction. But at the same time is is widely supposed by ‘scientific’ thinkers that subjective sensations have no causal efficacy. In No pain, no gain I developed the argument that subjective pleasures and pains are adaptations produced by natural selection, and therefore must have causal efficacy. In The World Riddle I considered whether there was any escape from this contradiction (none that I can see!) These posts proved highly controversial, which some excellent comments on both sides of the case.

Apart from these clusters of related posts, at intervals over the past year I have posted on several topics related to sex and sexual selection. Sex ratio fallacies dealt with the idea that families ‘trying for a boy’ could increase the ratio of males born. Are men doomed? challenged various pop-science claims that ‘maleness’ was in decline. Adam’s Curse critiqued the arguments on these lines in Bryan Sykes’s book of that title, and I showed in particular that his ‘prediction’ that male fertility would decline to zero within 5000 generations was fundamentally unsound. The Handicap Principle gave a fairly enthusiastic account of the Zahavis’ book of that title. Honest signals gave further references to recent work on sexual selection and signalling theory. Animal signals reviewed a book by John Maynard Smith and David Harper. They make a useful distinction between ‘handicaps’ - signals that are reliable because they are costly to produce - and ‘indices’ - signals that are inherently difficult to fake. Still on the theme of sexual selection, I recently posted two items related to Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind. Wodabout the Wodaabe? examined Miller’s account of the Wodaabe tribe of North Africa and found it wanting, and The Mating Mind looked at Miller’s book more generally.

Finally, from time to time I have posted items that don’t fit into any particular theme but may still be worth a look. Celts and Anglo-Saxons analyses the historical evidence for the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England.

The Shifting Balance describes some recent work on Sewall Wright’s evolutionary theories. Cuckoldry and correlation explores the implications of allegedly high levels of 'misascribed paternity'. Family Connections pursues the Galtonian theme of talent running in families. Scots Wha Hae discusses the curiously neglected question of why the Scots speak English.

Well, that’s all I think is worth mentioning. I will revise and update the list every month or so, assuming that I have anything worth adding.

Posted by David B at 03:31 AM