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February 05, 2005
Polyculturalism - part II
Over at Foreign Dispatches the issue of a broad multicultural education came up, this time in the context of Chinese history. I have discussed the importance of cross-cultural learning before, for example in my post Why a polycultural education?, but I feel like I should elaborate and be more precise.
I discern several primary factors that might influence the construction of a "canon" which the educated castes might share.
Firstly, a common canon generates a universal lexicon. That is, one of the most difficult issues you have when discussing a topic with someone who you are not familiar with, who perhaps you have some foundational ideological disagreemants with, is ironing out semantic confusions. A trivial example is the way we use the term "group selection" on this weblog. A common canon solidifies a semantic and conceptual core that people can draw upon with relatively good expectations that allusions, metaphors and other such verbal flourishes will have their appropriate impact. Imagine for example that two individuals are discussing the possibility of enlightened despotism. If one individual brings up Marcus Aurelius as an exemplar while the other mentions the Duke of Zhou, with foreknowledge of these figures one can gather what the relevance is. But, it is quite likely that someone who casually brings up the Duke of Zhou and someone who cites the example of Marcus Aurelius do not share the same body of knowledge, though both these figures are placeholders for the same general concept in the minds of the respective individuals. This lexical point has an important implication, the content of the canon is not particularly important in and of itself, rather, it simply serves as a lexical buoy which lubricates conversation. The canon conceived in this fashion is less important for its comment on the human condition that its utility in furthering social interaction.
In contrast, there are those who point to the canon as essential for shaping the character of a ruling/administrative class. This was part of the rationale behind the "classical" education that was once in the vogue for the European nobility or the Chinese examination system. The canon imparted moral truths, held great insights for the human condition and set the standards for manners and fashion. One important assumption that undergirds this mindset is that the canon has a strong causal influence on the character of a given society. The Analects are very particular on the issue of filial piety, both The Odyssey and The Ramayana fetishize female fidelity, while the texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition are riddled with parables that seem obviously applicable to daily life. If the relevance of the canon to day-to-day life is transparent and clear in this manner it is also obvious that the choice of the canon matters. If you espouse this view than the relative short shrift on matters of the afterlife that The Analects gives has shaped the Chinese lack of great elaboration on this issue, while the God of the Jews as depicted by their texts has left a great stamp upon his people.
A third point about the canon is that it gives us a window into another culture and allows us to consider differences and commonalities, in fact, this justifies the term polycultural. In this interpretation an appreciation of The Ramayana not only opens up our minds, it gives us a new, perhaps richer, perspective on our own central texts. I believe that the traditional conception of multiculturalism can naively, and most plainly, be thought of as implementing these ends.
But, I simply don't think that modern day multiculturalism is being enacted in this manner. Instead of central texts of non-Western cultures, what is often emphasized is marginalia, the cultural periphery. As illustrative, my personal impression is that a Comparative Literature graduate in the United States might be more able to elaborate upon the plight of lesbians in Kerala in the 1950s than the broad implications of The Ramayana. Similarly, he might be able to relate the details of the tumult in the lives of farmers during the Cultural Revolution but turn up blank on the mention of Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Rather than drinking from the deep well of other cultures I believe that the modern day multiculturalist curriculum draws upon superficial works that are easily digestable primarily because they share contemporary concerns and lexicon. Instead of widening horizons there seems to be a reiteration of Central Truths conceived through a narrow prism, confirmatory slices of disparate cultures that reenforce preconceptions.
But there is also another trend, which I think is aimed at the heart of my first point, different ethnic and ideological groups are coalescing around different canons, contingent upon their sociocultural peculiarities. In other words, homosexuals read homosexual writers (of all colors, and ostensibly, cultures), blacks read black authors, radical feminists read radical feminists, Christians read Christian authors (in Christian colleges of course!), and the like. Instead of a common "classical" (whatever that might be) lexicon, each subculture is reshaping its own mental universe with their own self-perceived reflections.
Finally, on the issue of whether a canon is important in shaping a culture, I am skeptical. This should be no surprise, as I have been incredulous about the long-term impact of simple ideas encapsulated in texts before. Instead of Sita shaping how Indian women should behave, I suspect that the norms that were typical (or at least idealized) of Indian women shaped who Sita became in The Ramayana. The lack of theological discussion in The Analects is in my opinion a reflection, not the determinent, of Chinese atheologia. One could say that the Bible has been a seminal influence on Western culture, that its motifs and models have dictated who we are as a people. I am skeptical because the Bible has been used to a) justify slavery b) justify abolition, a) justify the submission of women b) justify equality of women, a) justify monarchy b) justify rule by elected tribunes of the people, and so on. It seems a trivial assertion to say that individuals imbue texts with meanings relevant to their age, after all, humans create texts, texts do not create humans. On a concrete and deep level one can see this in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, as German scholars in the 19th century through hermeneutical techniques began to suspect that there were wide-scale interjections through the text to retrofit the life of Jesus to fulfill the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible (eg; Jesus was born in Bethlehem of the line of David, etc.). The authors who inserted these passages likely thought that were simply adding mistaken omissions, in other words, the reshaping of the text to fit expectations was achieved with an almost naive sincerity.1 I suspect that if China becomes a mostly Christian nation The Analects will either be discarded and considered a curiosity, or reinterpreted in a Christian light just as Plato and Aristotle were often thought of as righteous pagans who had the misfortune of living before the First Coming of the Messiah. Chinese Christians might perceive theological nuance and maxims that presaged Chinese monotheism in the wisdom of Confucius just as Aquinas leveraged the impersonal First Cause of Aristotle to the service of the Christian Trinity.
On the insights that the texts might give us on a substantive level on the human condition, I think that is valid, but I also think that in the generality they don't tell us much on a deep level that is variant. Human universals pervade most canonical texts cross-culturally. Love, hatred, loyalty, rank and war are all explored with texture, nuance and depth. On the other hand, there are plenty of superficial shibboleths which mark the canonical texts apart. The relatively naive polytheism of The Ramayana vs. the monotheism of the Bible and the apatheism of The Analects. To be honest, I think that these differences are much ado about nothing, on a substantive level one can find the same truths expressed in all the works, but, I suspect that believers in the authenticity of the texts as religio-historical works of seminal cultural import might disagree. The fact that the many gods of the Ramayana contradict the account of the monotheistic cosmology matters to many people, just as the relative unconcern with the fate of the eternal soul in Chinese religio-philosophy might be confusing and blasphemous to many Indian and Western thinkers. I think this is a case where superficial markers take on transcendent importance as outgroup-ingroup signifiers. What unites humanity is a banal given, what divides us is an exotic search for variation.
In the end, as a self-professed classical and Chinese history buff with some interest in South Asian history, I tend to rank the points above as follows:
What I see in the modern multicultural education is a mismash of various needs, wants and priorities that tends to correlate with a particular ideological orientation, the illiberal identity politics politics of grievance and difference. Because the United States is by origin a Western nation with a Christian majority I personally have little problem with emphasizing a centrality of the works of the Western tradition (note my ranking above). For those who are broadly educated I think it is crucial that there is some familarity with the central texts of other cultures. Though I think that there should obviously be some personal choice, I am suspicious of too much flexibility which begins to intellectually Balkanize students and accentuates differences (or as I would prefer to term them, shibboleths).
Addendum: I use the term "texts" in a broad sense. A transcription of Taiwanese aboriginal oral mythology would serve as a fine grounding for a common lexicon, because I suspect it would encapsulate the same Human Universals.
1 - I am not particularly concerned with issues of Biblical interpretation here, I simply offer this as a possible example where cultural expectations can reshape a text rather quickly. It is not relevant whether the German scholars were correct or not on this count.
Pinker & Peretz on Summers in TNR & Judson in The New York Times
The Science of Difference by Steven Pinker in The New Republic:
Body of Evidence by Martin Peretz:
Different but (Probably) Equal by Olivia Judson:
Related: Much ado about women & Larry Summers
February 04, 2005
The Turning of the Tide
Glenn Reynolds points to Alyssa Ford's essay on the political realignment likely to follow the rise of genetic engineering, but she's about 3 years too late to the party for this is has been discussed quite frequently on this blog. Perhaps, Glenn and Alyssa should come and vist here more often. While those on the Right have labeled their mavericks as EvolCons and I'm not sure that the Left has yet come to the stage of labeling, Ford frames the schism as Biopolitics.
Biopolitics, a term coined by Trinity College professor James Hughes, places pro-technology transhumanists on one pole and people who are suspicious of technology on the other.
Godless hit this topic, as have my other co-bloggers many times, but this is the earliest instance I could find, dated April 11, 2002:
Fearless and Soulless have made excellent points about the cloning debate currently underway in Congress. If you read the article, what's interesting is that Democrats and Republicans are on both sides of the divide. This debate crosses ideological barriers and one cannot easily pigeonhole the positions of those for or against. I believe that this is a prequel to the coming political realignment that will follow the advent of human genetic engineering.
The release of the HapMap data which is already showing diversity between population groups is likely to be the start of the ideological realignment. The acknowledgement of diversity, in all its forms, will be followed by the engineering of enhancement and it is at that point that matters will reach a flashpoint for the Dogmatists will try to wield their political power to put the genie back in the bottle and seek to suppress the legions of soccer moms who want to give their children a leg up in the world.
Many regular commenters here take on the brave fight and try to introduce the topic of Human BioDiversity in their travels in the Blogoshere. We've noted that the topic meets with varying degrees of approval at different blogs so I thought it would be illustrative to look at a political cladogram of the blogosphere that focused on the realignment.
After the realignment I see four subgroupings forming two sides of the new political spectrum. The Progressives will be an alliance of the Libertarian Right, bloggers like Megan McArdle, Rand Simberg, and Glenn Reynolds who value freedom and liberty and would be against state intervention in human procreation and the New Liberals, bloggers like Butterflies & Wheels, Kevin Drum, Mark Kleiman and Matthew Yglesias (unsure of Matt after his performance on the Summers flap) whose aim in politics is to use the state to help individuals and who would likely embrace genetic engineering as a vehicle to remediate many social problems and push for government funding for the disadvantaged.
Opposing the Progressives will be the Dogmatists. This side of the political spectrum will see a heretofore unthought of alliance between the Religious Right and the Race, Gender & Culture Warriors of the Left for whom political identity is impossible without an enemy to battle against. The Religious Right will be comprised of anti-evolutionists who simply couldn't tolerate human intervention in what they see as their god's perogative and these bloggers are represented by The Evangelical Outpost, Tacitus, Hugh Hewitt, Donald Sensing and Ben Domenech. The Leftist contingent will be comprised of bloggers like those at Crooked Timber, Daily Kos and Atrios who share the Marxist perspective of shaping mankind through ambitious social and political efforts and can't abide the notion that substantive differences are the result of evolutionary pressures.
Once we venture beyond the blogosphere there will of course be broader polical movements, as Ford points out in her essay, that will make the blogosphere realignment be just a minor curiousity.
The times, they are a changing, and I expect that the HapMap data will be the start of many people's awakening to the new reality, the new prospects and new hopes that await us, that is if we can survive the political battles that will result as the science is turned into engineering. Look to the soccer moms for they will portend the future.
Addendum from Razib: There is a lot here to comment on. First, I would point to this piece by liberal science blogger Chris Mooney. Note how Chris is skeptical of attacks on GMed food (full disclosure, I'm a fan of tinkering with God's handiwork). My post "Hard Seculars" vs. "Cultural Creatives" comments on what I believe is a real fracture within the Left that is not talked about nearly as much as the techno-libertarian vs. religious social conservative fault line on the Right. Peter Kreeft in First Things offered the radical & traditionalist as well as the liberal & conservative dyads. Though politically liberals & radicals and conservatives & traditionalists are the straightfoward coupling, on an interpersonal level liberals & conservatives and radicals & traditionalists might be more intelligible in terms of their ultimate aims. The anti-capitalist rhetoric you see occasionally at Chronicles Magazine (the paleoconservative movement magazine) as well as pro-free trade opinions of conventional liberals like Brad de Long are symptons of this phenomena. Finally, the tone of magazines like Ad Busters to me is more redolent of Far Right screeds and paeans in favor of the Ancien Regime than the optimistic liberalism that is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment (a project of "Dead White Men" as some at Ad Busters would no doubt observe).
Ernst Mayer dies at 100
When a friend of mine mentioned running into Ernst Mayr at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology I was shocked that he was still alive, I'd assumed Mayer had to have been dead. Unfortunately, that time is now.
Update: Those who haven't should check out this post, Ernst Mayr on Race. Additionally, let me add that I greatly admire Mayr's contribution to the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis though I thought he went a little far is decrying the power of reductionism in biology, yet from what I gather in Natural Selection and Social Theory Mayr was the most important factor in securing Robert Triver's early career as a grad student at Harvard.
Birds not so 'bird-brained' after all
Researchers at Duke University have proposed changes to the naming of bird neurosystems arguing that numerous studies demonstrate that various regions of avian brains are sophisticated processing regions that correspond in function to ones found in mammalian brains. These processing regions include areas that allow "sensory processing, motor control and sensorimotor learning just as the mammalian neocortex."
The scientists add that molecular studies reveal the avian and mammalian brain regions are comparable in their genetic and biochemical machinery.
From the paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience:
On the basis of this new understanding of avian brain organization and its evolutionary relationships, we estimate that, as in mammals, the adult avian pallium comprises about 75% of the telencephalic volume.... This realization of a relatively large and well developed avian pallium that processes information in a similar manner to mammalian sensory and motor cortices sets the stage for a re-evaluation of the cognitive abilities of birds.... For example, pigeons can memorize up to 725 different visual patterns, learn to categorize objects as 'human-made' versus 'natural', discriminate cubistic and impressionistic styles of painting, communicate using visual symbols, rank patterns using transitive inferential logic and occasionally 'lie'.... Scrub-jays show episodic memory -- the ability to recall events that take place at a specific time or place, which was once thought to be unique to humans. This same species modifies its food-storing strategy according to the possibility of future stealing by other birds and, therefore, exhibits a behavior that would qualify as theory-of-mind.
These illustrations [taken from the press release] compare the traditional view of the primitive avian brain as a subregion of the human brain (in purple) with the new view that the avian brain has subregions proportional to those in humans (blue, purple and green). Scientists now know that the complexities of avian brain regions allow sensory processing, motor control and sensorimotor learning as in the mammalian neocortex (in green).
All in all, this new awareness and further understanding of the cognitive abilities of birds should provide us with new ways to think about how we think.
Press release from the National Science Foundation: "Scientists Propose Sweeping Changes to Naming of Bird Neurosystems to Acknowledge Their True Brainpower"
The Nature Reviews Neuroscience article: Download file
February 03, 2005
Dawkins reconsiders Out of Africa?
I've read about ~1/3 of Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, and I highly recommend it. Dawkins manages to master the constraints of prose aimed at the lay audience (neither florid nor excessively spare & dry) along with a substantive survey of a diverse range of topics, from fossil morphology to molecular phylogenetics (at least so far).
But, I am drawn to something that Dawkins admits rather early on in the book, he favors Alan Templeton's Out of Africa again and again hypothesis. In short, Dawkins is arguing against the dominant model of total replacement that is generally promoted by popularizers who focus on human genetic history. This is important, not because Dawkins is a geneticist or paleontologist, he has no training in these fields (he is an ethologist), rather, with the passing of Stephen Jay Gould he is the premier popularizer of evolutionary ideas and so can shift the public discourse in a fashion that might allow for the emergence of new ideas and an eventual switch in paradigms.1
The model that Dawkins seems to mildly favor gives an important role to Africa as the source of several outmigrations. Nevertheless, it infers from multiple locii that total replacement of non-African hominid genome did not occur, that is, there was a level of interbreeding between African and non-African populations. With persistent suggestions that neutral markers might not be so neutral and the new evidence (and don't forget this) which points to ancient "non-African" alleles in modern populations there might be a coming shake up in the world of paleoanthropology. Dawkins' own interests do not seem to lay specifically in the realm of humanity, instead his promotion of Templeton's hypothesis against popular conventional wisdom seems to be tied to a concern that relying on only a few locii as markers of ancestry might be leading people down the wrong path (the locii usually are on the nonrecombinant Y chromosome and the mtDNA, which chronicle the unbroken male and female lineage). The "gene's eye view" which Dawkins popularized would caution one against this, organisms are vehicles for a collections of genes, and the history of the various polymorphisms of those genes might not present a seamless historical narrative, in other words, one might not always be able to generalize from the NRY and mtDNA to the rest of the genome. This is clear in the case of polymorphic gene complexes like the HLA, which persist across species because of balancing or long term frequency dependent selection. Dawkins notes that if you carefully selected your locii individuals could find themselves more "closely related" to a chimpanzee than near blood relations. One problem, as Dawkins notes repeatedly, is that we confound our common sense conceptions of ancestry with the inheritance and transmission of genes. An individual human has one ancestral tree, various alleles over innumerable locii have specific trees which are not going to be perfectly concordant.
Addendum: In the comments Steve wondered about the contemporary relevance of these paleoanthropological theories...well, I just recalled an important one, it makes the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) less cut & dry in the context of modern humans. Since about 1990 the "evolutionary psychology" movement promoted by John Toobey and Leda Cosmides has basically assumed Out of Africa as the paleoanthropological backdrop for the EEA, and certainly the developmnent of Human Universals makes sense if you assume that one discrete human population developed its primary tendencies in a particular locale and subsequently radiated in a massive range expansion. A modified Out of Africa model with some localized interbreeding with non-African homonid populations does not refute the empirical reality of the Human Universals, rather, it makes more plausible to some the possible persistance of region specific Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (ESS). I am not one who believes that "there wasn't enough time" for local ESSs to develop after an Out of Africa movement as recent as ~50,000 years ago, but, certainly the possibility of ancient non-African genetic material opens the door for the perpetuation of specialized local adaptations even for those who assert that ~1 million years would be needed for the variegation that some hypothesize.
1 - I make no claim that Dawkins will directly impact the scientific research in this area in any fashion, rather, his input might be able to reduce the latency between a paradigm shift within the discipline and the spread of such ideas to the general public. Additionally, there might be an indirect effect in that the public readiness for certain ideas, as opposed to others, does seem to influence how scientists present their theories (ie; I find it interesting that both multi-regionalists and Out-of-Africa theorists will imply that the other group's model has racist undertones).
February 02, 2005
The children of Universal Grammar
Nick Wade just wrote an article titled, A New Language Arises, and Scientists Watch It Evolve, in The New York Times. Wade normally does the bioscience beat from what I recall, so it is no surprise he spins this into a Nature vs. Nurture story:
Over the past few years I have read several books that touch on the language & biology issue. This thorough review of the evolutionary origins of language mentions the famous ban by the French Academy on mooting this topic. It is no surprise that humans are verbose about their verbosity I suppose.
I would actually be curious if there are any linguists who believe that language emerges just out of our general intelligence capacity mediated by culture. I know that Wade glosses over the genuine texture in this field (lingua-cognitive science?). There are many flavors of "innate" conceptions of language capacity/aptitude, and even disagreemants among "Universal Grammarians." Last year I posted an exchange between Chomsky et. al. and Pinker et. al. over the issue of how UG emerged. While Pinker takes a adaptationist viewpoint, not surprising given his thorough Darwinian outlook, Chomsky's "recursion only" spandrelian thesis seems parsimonious to the point of deux ex machina (my cards on the table, I tend to favor adaptation as a null hyopthesis for complex phenotypes which I suspect are metabolically expensive with fitness implications which might swing both ways across a wide arc).
These debates are fresh in my mind because recently I read The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon. PLOS summarizes Deacon's views:
Believe it or not, this is a rather transparent and plain spoken rendering of Deacon's sometimes opaque jargonese. The short of it is that Deacon advances a view of innateness which rejects UG. The chapter where Deacon takes on Chomsky & co. and UG he offers his counter-proposal, that UG is an artifact of the reality that language coevolved with the human brain , the ones we see being babbled around us tend to reflect the learning biases of children (the Baldwin Effect looms large in Deacon's narrative). That is, languages were shaped and "adapted" to the architecture of the human mind.
How is this different from UG? Frankly sometimes I wonder. Deacon basically forwards the proposition that languages were selected and constrained, some would say "canalized," toward certain universal structures (which UG theorists posited emerge out of UG), but these structures are only byproducts of cognitive biases and limitations of the human symbolic mind. UG is really just a reification of tendencies of language that emerge out of pecularities of our symbolic mind. On the level of axons, dendrites and synapses, I don't see that there would be a great difference between many of Pinker's views and Deacon's hypothesis when it comes to UG, but I might be wrong. On the other hand, Deacon promotes both neural connectionism and attempts to diffuse points in favor of mental modularity in the context of language, which seems to me a pretty straight on attack on Pinker's model (Deacon's book was published in 1997, so he makes copious references to The Language Instinct). In The Blank Slate Pinker attempts to throttle neural connectionism (which I suspect many of his readers were confused by as connectionist vs. non-connectionist debates were not that salient to them) and implicitly promotes massive modularity.
But, one point Deacon makes forcefully, and which I think is likely on the right track, is that UG has tended to encourage "hopeful monsterism" among many theorists who utilize it as a given in other fields. Robin Dunbar in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language and Richard Klein in The Dawn of Human Culture both appeal to hopeful monsters, alluding to what seems to be a saltational "rewiring" of the human mind that led to the "Great Leap Forward." Steven Mithen in Prehistory of the Mind tiptoes up toward hopeful monsterism as well, contending that the Great Leap Forward occurred because the human brain made a jump to transdomain cognitive fluidity, in particular, through the use of analogy. This is all great, but the problem is that the answer to the question seems rather like pointing to the aether or concocting phlogistan, it is something of a serendipitous blackbox which we must wonder over, but not consider overmuch how the miracle is actually constructed, as we know it must have been. Now, I must admit, there are researchers who are exploring the possibility that Mithen is on to something with his thesis of transdomain cognitive fluidity, and I think that is the right direction to go, but Deacon's book is a dense read that is worth it just so that one can expiate the sins of devouring more readable tracts which end with the conclusion of a hopeful monster at the end of the tunnel. There is something vanilla plausible in Deacon's gradualist non-modular thesis of language evolution which makes one more suspicious of modularist saltational sexiness.
So, back to the article I pointed to above, I think Pinker is probably thinking of people like Deacon when he contends that the enormous leaps and bounds in linguistic evolution that the Bedouin seem to illustrate, as well as the recent Nicaraguan story, strengthens the hands of those who would want to minimize the importance of long term cultural evolution and selection in shaping the character of a language. But who knows? Because cognitive scientists are often not mathematically precise, a "get out of jail card" always exists via careful and weasily clarification of exactly the extent of cultural evolution needed, or in other contexts what exactly is meant by innate.
In the interview with William Hamilton below he dismisses the importance of math in his work. Frankly, I think that that is probably self-effacing bullshit. Terms like "modularity" leave a great deal of wiggle room (what is massive modularity as opposed to !massive modularity?), while the neo-saltationists have a tendency to present their hypotheses in a way that leaves a great deal of slack for audience interpretation so that they aren't tagged with the "explain everything with nothing" label. I wouldn't mind if cognitive scientists just made up some numbers for how much of language capacity is modular and how much is general intelligence, some percentages would give a rough sense of proportion to calibrate terms like "massive" and "moderate" and "not modular" (from what I can see, no hardcore massive modularist is a pure modularist, while I doubt even the most hardcore neural plasticist would deny some modularity). Theorists like Dunbar and Klein should also wander into the genetics departments and egg them on to look for more selective sweeps, since the "rewiring" mutation must have been felicitous indeed and been a great fitness boost to those who had it.
In any case, I talk, but I don't know why. I guess I'm somewhere between moderate and massive modularist, not quite a pure adaptationist, but sure as hell not a spandrelist, while I think people should go poking around the synapses more before spending all this time philosophizing about "deep structure" in grammar. I'll leave it to you to figure out what I really mean.
Antidote to Anti-Racist Math
I'm sure that we've all neared our fill of Anti-Racist Math (See related posts here and here) bilge but there is more to say about the larger intellectual forces that enable follies like Anti-Racist Math. During the whole Larry Summers flap co-blogger Theresa encouraged me to broach the subject of Gender Free Math, and while I have been mulling over that topic I've also purposely been putting it off while replenishing the fortitude I'd need to dive back into what would likely be the manifesto of a Gender Free Math Movement, Sandra Harding's The Science Question in Feminism.
Harding's work is a prime example of postmodernist social constructivism and while it draws from the wellspring of a relativist perspective it surely isn't alone. In fact, recent incidents like Ward Churchill's salute to the "combat teams" of 9/11 mass murderers for ridding the world of the "little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers" and the Dover School Board's introduction of Intelligent Design have at their root the transition of opinion into fact. We can witness this arc in the rise of Holocaust Denial. New Criterion explored this topic recently:
Instead of being instantly dismissed as pernicious nonsense, denying the Holocaust is increasingly accorded the status of a "different perspective," a "dissenting point of view," "another opinion"--just like Ward Churchill's comments about the victims of 9/11.
Now I'll grant you that it is a stretch to equate postmodernist thought to Holocasut Denial but the corruption and intellectual bankruptcy of the former enables the latter to incubate and rise. This aversion to facts and the process of scientific inquiry leads to all sorts of Rube Goldberg contortions to maintain ideological purity.
In this context, it is important to understand that denying the Holocaust is only one of many efforts to undermine the authority of historical truth. The phenomenon of Afrocentricism (which, incidentally, often indulges in a bit of Holocaust denial as a sideline) belongs here, as do many varieties of academic literary "theory" that now reign in the academy: deconstruction, extreme examples of "reader-response" theory, new historicism, etc. For all of them, facts are fluid and historical truth is a species of fiction: what actually happened in the past, or what a given text actually means, are for them ridiculous questions. Nor are these attitudes confined to the cloistered purlieus of the academy: in watered-down versions they have become standard-issue liberal sentiment: Rather than risk having to make an unpleasant judgment about the facts, deny that there are any such things as facts.
Readers of this blog will of course recognize this phenomena playing out with the "Race is a Social Construct" proponents despite compelling evidence to the contrary and the machinations following the passing of NCLB, with its Soviet styled multi-year plans, and their gaming of the system, as Kimberly Swygert details. Of course the resulting reality that results from these mindsets is as isolated from objective standards as the Soviet politburo and bureacracy were from the economic fundamentals affecting the Soviet Union. The statistics can be gamed but that doesn't change the reality of what is transpiring.
This slow accretion of opinion into truth is was is giving rise to Intelligent Design and it's Indian counterpart, Vedic Science. I'd encourage a full reading of Meera Nanda's essay on Intellectual Treason in the New Humanist.
All told, preservation of cultural meanings took priority over validity. Objectively false cosmology of the ‘other’ was not to be challenged because it gave meaning to people’s lives. Any demand for self–correction of local knowledges was routinely decried as a rationalist ‘witch–hunt’. The alternative to universalism was that of ‘critical traditionalism’ or ‘borderland epistemologies’. Cultures should be encouraged to create an eclectic mix of different and even contradictory ways of knowing. One need not reject modern science altogether, but rather selectively absorb it into the Indian gestalt: Contradictions were not to be questioned and removed, but rather celebrated as expressions of difference.
One only need look to the aspirations of the proponents of Intelligent Design and Anti-Racist Math to see that they share common cause with their counterparts in India. The root problem, as they see it, is methodological naturalism and the common solution is to give rise to alternative ways of knowing, not the truth, but visions of how they would like to see the world. With Anti-Racist Math proponents the primacy of mission is to imbue math instruction with their fetishization of multiculturalism and with Intelligent Design the science is to be modified so as to support what its advocates see as an eventual body of knowledge being developed upon a foundation of untestable hypotheses, yet these groups are untroubled with the conflict their intellectual constructs and physically implemented policies encounter upon meeting a reality that doesn't subscribe to social constructivism. Nanda continues:
Like the postmodernist supporters of ethno–sciences, they do not deny that modern science has discovered some truths about nature. But they declare them to be lower–level truths, because they merely deal with dead matter, shorn of consciousness. Notwithstanding all pious declarations of the ‘death’ of the Newtonian world view of matter obeying mechanical laws, the fact is that any number of rigorous, double–blind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind–stuff in nature: matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is. But in the Vedic science discourse, the overwhelming evidence for adequacy of matter to explain the higher functions of mind and life are set aside as a result of ‘knowledge filtration’ by western–trained scientists. Take the example of the emerging theory of ‘Vedic creationism’ (which updates the spiritual evolutionary theories of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda). Its chief architects, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, claim that Darwinian evolutionary biologists and mainstream biologists, being products of the western ontological assumptions, have been systematically ignoring and hiding evidence that supports the theory of ‘devolution of species’ from the Brahman through the mechanism of karma and rebirth. All knowledge, they claim, parroting social constructivism, is a product of interests and biases. On this account, Vedic creationism, explicitly grounded in Vedic cosmology is as plausible and defensible as Darwinism, grounded on the naturalistic and capitalist assumptions of the western scientists.
Sounds familiar doesn't it? It is with these types of efforts to bend science to conform to social constructivist visions (hallucinations?) of reality that lead to claims like:
An Indian man, who claims to have survived only on liquids and sunlight for eight years, has been invited by NASA to show them how he does it.
Sadly, these claims are given credence by NASA, which unfortunately it seems has been infected by the same postmodernist virus that encourages the rise of disciplines like Anti-Racist Math and movements like ID. Nanda continues:
Here one finds an incredibly brazen claim for relativism and the culture–boundedness of rationality. Because in Hinduism there are no distinctions between the spirit and matter, one can understand laws that regulate matter by studying the laws of the spirit. And the laws of spirit can be understood by turning inward, through yoga and meditation leading to mystical experiences. Supporters of this mysticism–as–science argue that all science gains its coherence from within its own culturally sanctioned assumptions; modern science puts an artificial limit on knowledge as only that knowledge which can be accessible to senses. Within Hinduism however, it is as rational and scientific to take the non–sensory ‘seeing’ — that is mystical and other meditative practices — as empirical evidence of the spiritual and natural realm. This purported scientificity of the spiritual realm, in turn, paves the way for declaring occult New Age practices like astrology, vastu, and quantum healing and even yagnas as scientific within the Vedic–Hindu universe. This defence of parity (i.e. equal rationality) of the Vedic method of non–sensory, mystical knowing is fundamentally a social constructivist argument: it assumes that all sciences are valid for a given community that shares a fundamental metaphysics.
The equal validity of all viewpoints and the intellectual tolerance for entertaining the ramblings of the Churchills of the world enable the Holocaust deniers to give voice to their visions without being immediately denounced, and give legitimacy to notions like Anti-Racist Math and help explain why movements like Intelligent Design have the resiliency, and adaptability, that they do. These ideas are hard to kill because they, like all parasites, have grafted onto a healthy host, the Enlightenment, and by their very presence they weaken that which has allowed them to flourish. Our tolerance for the open debate of ideas has been subverted by the equivalence of opinion and fact
But all hope is not lost for there are still voices of the remnant that can stand tall and battle those who claim to speak for them. In my readings on Gender Free Math, which this post, despite my initial intentions didn't address fully (the perils of writing on the fly), I came across a young mathematician's essay, she being a student at University of Waterloo, Canada's equivalent to M.I.T., and it's quite clear that she too is part of the remnant:
"It must be hard being a woman in the male-dominated field of math. You must have encountered a lot of opposition." Well, they're right. I have encountered a lot of opposition. And it's all been from women.
It's quite clear that this mathematician isn't buying into the identity politics which suffuses so much of modern thought. She clearly takes pride in her intellectual achievement and divorces herself from the concept of knowing math from a distinct female perspective The challenge for her, and for us all, is to recapture the commanding heights of intellectual discourse and once again establish the primacy of truth over opinion and to relegate postmodernism to the dustbin of history as we have with its ideological sibling, Marxism.
February 01, 2005
Sex Conscription - The Gentler, German Social Model
A 25-year-old waitress who turned down a job providing "sexual services'' at a brothel in Berlin faces possible cuts to her unemployment benefit under laws introduced this year.
Hamilton & the Neo-Darwinists
1996 interview with William D. Hamilton (fair warning, the picture rather makes him seem to be an ogre). Also, here is a page that lists prominent sociobiological & evolutionary thinkers, great place to start assembling a reading list.
January 31, 2005
The Chicago Tribune reports on the surplus of males in China.
Anyone paying attention would notice something odd about the elementary schools here. What the government and parents are awakening to--belatedly--is the danger inherent in what they see.
The New York Times reports on the bureacratic measures being undertaken to mitigate the crisis:
In response, the government has introduced a test program under which about 300,000 rural elderly people are receiving annual pensions of $180, a good amount in the countryside, if they had only one child or if they had daughters.
Related from Razib: My post on this topic from the summer.
Update: Here is a page which reviews sociobiological theories of sex ratio. This graph illustrates the ratio of males & females as a function of socioeconomic status. Note that in some cultures, like India, the spread of son preference seems to be facilitated by economic prosperity and the concomitant emulation of elite values.
Mongolia's reverse gender gap
I have appended an article below on Mongolia's reverse gender gap in higher education...but, here is one thing to note:
This of course follows the trend that I have observed cross-culturally, though the ratio of males to females in any given discipline tends to shift from nation to nation, the rank order seems to hold as a constant, the modal male frequency is in the sciences, in particular, the engineering sciences.
Related: Much ado about women & Larry Summers.
Ulan Bator, Mongolia
Dondog Natsag, a father of three daughters and three sons, is a
Mr. Dondog expresses the sentiments of many Mongolian parents. The
"It's just the opposite of much of Asia. Arab and Asian students in
Women also perform better than men at places like National University
"Boys are lazy" seems to be the typical explanation among parents and
Reversal of Fortune
Until the early 1990s, under the Soviet-style economic system, 60
Education often serves as that resource, she says. In her own family,
Of the 76 parliamentary seats in Mongolia, only 5 are occupied by
Nevertheless, many women entering Mongolia's higher-education system
Pedantic note on Iraq
You can keep track of the blow-by-blow of the Iraq election on every other blog on the net it seems. The only thing I would like to add is this: the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds are Sunni, so instead of "low Sunni turnout" it should be "low Arab Sunni turnout." No doubt most news junkies and bloggers simply assume that most readers are intelligent enough to do this "search & replace" implicitly. Don't count on it! Iraq is complicated enough, no need to drop qualifiers.
Addendum: Let me first offer the caveat that I am a casual, at best, follower of foreign affairs, so I am sure that many (most?) readers of this weblog know more about the details of what is going on in Iraq than I. Nevertheless, a few observations....
I am worried that Americans are projecting their own conceptions of ethnicity, nationality and religious confession on to Iraq. I am not one who believes that ethnicity, nationality and religious confession do not have cross-cultural and cross-temporal universal meaning. But, I do believe that their explicit modern universality is a reflection of the fact that the outward institutions of the West have been extrapolated to the rest of humanity which does not share the historical and cultural background which makes them relevant in the same way.
Let me elaborate. Take the question of ethnicity. We know that ~75% of Iraqis are Arabs, ~20% of Iraqis are Kurds, with the balance made up of groups like the Turkomans, Assyrians and so on. The exact numbers are not really relevant, my point is that explicit circumscribing of ethnic identities in this fashion is most easily applicable to European nations circa 1900, after the period of nationalism and state-formation which resulted in a relative uniformity of, for example, "Italianness" and "Germanness," which had not prior to that point existed.
Consider the "Arabs." Up until the overthrow of the dictatorship Iraq had been under the sway of Baathism, Arab nationalism, for several decades. The backstory is that Baathism is very much an effort to unite Arab peoples under a 19th century European conception of nationality. The original Baathist intellectuals were often French educated, and, they were often members of religious minorities. The premier Baathist thinker, Michael Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. Arab nationalism was obviously a way that Aflaq could emphasize his commonality with the majority of Arabs who were Muslim without discarding his Christian religious faith. It should perhaps be no surprise that Syrian Baathism is buttressed by the Alawite religious minority and has a reputation of religious tolerance toward Christians (Alawites celebrate some Christian festivals, like Christmas). Similarly, Iraqi Baathism was promulgated by the minority Sunni community. During the Iran-Iraq War Baathism was a way to rally Shia Arabs against their co-religionists in Iran (though there was a bizarre religious element in that the Baathist regime attempted to portray the Iranians as Zoroastrian fire worshippers).
My overarching point is that Arab nationalism is to a large extent an artificial construction of the 20th century, forwarded by European trained intellectuals who were often religiously heterodox and could not participate as full members of an Islamic civilization. The identity of Arabs with Islam is obviously very strong. I recall with interest that some Islamic historians term the Ummayyad Caliphal period the "Arab Kingdom." This is because of its secular and ethnically chauvanistic tenor, in constrast with the more cosmopolitan and explicitly Muslim Abbassid dynasty. It is clear which identity won out among Arab Muslims for most of their history.
Add to this the fact that not only do Arabs have a transnational identity as the premier Muslim people that tends to absorb their ethnic identification, but they often identify more saliently at a more local level as members of a clan or tribe. With the decline of the idea of Christendom, as well as the American tendency toward mobility and alienness of the concept of extended families and clans, I think that Americans might be getting the wrong impression of what Iraqi Arabs conceive themselves of as (in other words, "Shia Arab" is a small fragment of their self-identification, in contrast with "American who goes to a Baptist church").
Many of the same points can be made of Kurds. My understanding is that the "Kurdish language" is actually a loose coalition of barely intelligible Indo-Iranian dialects. It might be that "Kurdish" is an exclusionary identity, that is, when you subtract Arab speakers of the lowlands, Turkic speakers of Anatolia & Iran, Armenian speakers and finally Persian speakers who look toward standard Persian as typified by Ferdowsi, you are left with a hodge-podge of Indo-Iranian dialects in a mountainous area that no one wanted to really settle or administer. Add this to the fact that coterminous with the Iraqi region of Kurdistan there are groups like Assyrians, Chaldaeans and Yezidis, who might or might not speak a variety of languages but are defined by their religious heterodoxy, and you have a very confusing situation.
When Americans look to Iraq, I think we should think more of Germany in 1800 or Italy in 1850. Though there were rough rhymes and reasons to the makeup and self-identification of these geographic-cultural regions, the plethora of barely unintelligible dialects, confessional confusions in the case of Germany and the lack of historical statehood meant that nations had to be created from above (political consolidation) as well as from below (cultural hegemony of High German via Luther's Bible as well as Florentine Italian from Dante). I am not sure that in this time and place that the exact dynamics are going to be recapitulated, and to some extent I think Arab nationalism several decades ago, or Kurdish nationalism today, is the outgrowth of a modern, nationalistic self-conscious elite grafted on to a pre-nationalistic population base.
So it's confusing. Especially when you add to the fact that Americans are probably talking to the nationalist elites but have forged a democracy which gives voice to the pre-nationalistic masses.
January 30, 2005
Geoffrey Miller in the The Mating Mind makes much of the fact that the offspring of any two given parents will display variance because they might possess different combinations of alleles on any given locus. Miller explains that this offers sexual selection an opportunity to weed out deleterious alleles from a population, helping to balance the inevitable generation of new mutations.1
With this in mind, I offer this week's "You Sexy Thing" from TV Guide pitting Jessica Simpson against her sister Ashlee:
1 - Reductio ad absurdum if you have two parents who have a lethal recessive on the same locus, the offspring have a 25% chance of expressing the recessive and so decreasing the frequency of the allele in the next generation. Miller imagines that sexual selection might work in a more modest fashion by weighing the die in favor of offspring who receive a greater fraction of "good" alleles.
TangoMan Adds: In comments, Laura adds that plastic surgery introduces a significant variable into the equation. Consider the children that would result from this pairing:
James and Kacie were two strangers brought together by their shared fortune of being selected for "Extreme Makeover." They became the first two candidates on the show to meet and fall in love! Both shared a similar history of painful memories and disparagement for their appearances.
And here is the raw genetic material that will be used to conceive their children.
I've always loved this story:
In the year 1886 the Grand Trunk Railway wanted to build the Victoria Bridge and it would span the mighty St. Lawrence River and connect Montreal to the Kahnawake Reserve.
From another source:
What do you think accounts for this? Is it genetic? Cultural? Either way, it is pretty unusual.
(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon)
There is an article about Islamophobia by Kenan Malik in today's London Sunday Times (News Review section). Malik challenges the idea that there has been a great surge of attacks and discrimination against Muslims in the UK.
This reminds me of something I read about a recent TV film drama called Yasmin (UK, Channel 4 - it has also had a cinema release in some countries). This tells the sory of a young westernised Muslim woman in Yorkshire who becomes increasingly 'Islamised' in reaction to anti-Muslim prejudice, police raids, etc., in the wake of 9/11. In dramatic terms it's rather good, and Archie Punjabi (a girl, despite the name) is excellent as Yasmin. It is written by the (white) English author of The Full Monty , and has predictable liberal sentiments.
But it's dangerous to confuse drama with documentary. How can we know what incidents are 'true'? At one point in the film Yasmin is walking in the street when she sees a woman in Muslim dress (a jiljab, I think, not a burka) attacked by a group of young white boys on bikes who shout obscenities and throw some white powder (probably flour) over her black dress. Then, rather surprisingly in the context of the film, an elderly white working class woman comes up to comfort her and says 'I must apologise - that was disgraceful, dreadful'.
But here's the thing: according to an article about the film, the boys' 'attack' was part of the script - as one would expect - but the elderly woman's response was not. She was just a passer-by who was unaware that a film was being made and thought the attack was genuine. Rather than reshoot the whole scene, the director got the woman's permission to leave her in. So the most undeniably 'genuine' incident in the film was one showing ordinary human decency.