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August 20, 2004

The golden mean on the adaptive landscape

A passing sentence in David Salsburg's The Lady Tasting Tea made me wonder about the adaptive landscape in the context of culture. Stella Cunliffe, past president of the Royal Statistical Society stated that the "delight in elegance, often at the expense of practicality, appears to me...to be a rather male attribute" during her annual address in 1975. My first thought was "why thank you very much!" Over the years I have had to listen to educators and social crusaders lament the dearth of women in the sciences, and a common sentiment is that for theoretical science to be more "relevant" to young women it has to be repackaged as something more "practical" and "useful." My first objection is that theoretical science is quite practical, with its applications seamlessly embedded into every aspect of our life, while its uses are as numerous as the stars (to state it rather unscientifically). But the real problem illustrates itself when you read about a "computer programming class" designed for women which emphasizes the stitching together of prewritten modules as opposed to writing low level code from scratch and building your own objects. In this way, the girls could see very quickly the use and execution of their little app without all the drudgery of having to optimize every little loop or document every shitty-ass work-around. The problem is not that the theoretical sciences are not "practical" or "useful" enough, it is that often they are dull 99.9% of the time as you patiently master technique after technique and hope that one day you will be able to tackle real substantive topics.

Technique is paramount, the joy of extracting substance from the world itself or seeing your application being used is something that comes after a long slog through esoteric minutiae. My personal experience is that many women don't have the patience, or the playfullness, for this sort of thing. Frankly, most men do not have this sort of playfullness. Of course, everything has its context, as most males would find the specifics of stitching rather dull (as would most women, though a smaller proportion). Many less cognitively gifted males who find mathematics and science dull thrive when it comes to the technique of souping up their car or the proper way in which to stand in the batting box so as to maximize one's batting average.

But I digress. My real point, in the context of an adaptive landscape, is that this fascination with elegance, theory and the abstract isn't always negative. Richard Nisbett's Geography of Thought (see my review) asserts that the Greek (and later Western) fascination with abstraction, paradox and theoretical proof was the key toward seeding the bed for the rise of science. In contrast, Nisbett notes that the Chinese intellectual tradition has been more pragmatic and grounded in empirically informed "common sense." While ancient Greece produced metaphysical philosophers like Zeno (a Stoic who brought us his famous paradox), China saw the rise to prominence of a succession of pragmatic politically oriented sages. The "logicians," a Chinese school that did focus on language and thought in a more "Western" fashion had relatively low status, and though the writings of Polybius display cogent observations about the Roman system of government, they are ultimately retrospective rather than prescriptive.

What did this variance yield? In the long run, the 2000 year record of Chinese history shows the recapitulation of a basic dynastic pattern and social system, with periods of equilibrium increasing in length. It is, all in all a pretty good record for a social system that crystallized over 2000 years ago. Contrast this with the "Western" pattern: the Greeks of the Hellenistic period were very different from the Greeks of the 19th century. Though there is some continuity, the transformative influence of Christianity, the fluctuation in Greek political arrangements, remade the Hellenes. What did the Greek period of cultural brilliance do for them in the long run aside from assuring individual Greeks enduring fame and renown? And yet, as I noted, many would assert that the scientific tradition was seeded by the first era of science that began with the pre-Socratics. The better question would be to ask how much the West benefited from the Greek project.

This moves us to a thesis exposited by Jared Diamond (and David Landes, and others): that the multiplicity of Western polities allowed for a profusion of ideas and competing forms and fashions that was more innovative than the unitary Chinese model. Victor Davis Hanson and his ilk would assert that the ancient Greek culture was sui generis, a special creation that gifted to the West, broadly speaking, its own unique genius. Diamond & co. would assert that the geographic fragmentation of the European subcontinent allowed for the rise of this cultural sui generis.

So what does this have to do with the adaptive landscape? I think that individual European cultures and polities can be thought of us as isolated subpopulations that can shift to new fitness peaks because of their own particular local landscapes. In contrast, the Chinese polity was fixed on one particular peak, rather than being scattered in a fashion where random walk innovation, or specific selection pressures, could be brought to bear to explore the full landscape. In the short term, the European situation could be seen as suboptimal, and various subcultures could be perceived to be dysfunctional, fixating peculiar theories of government or religion that would be highly maladaptive if brought under full scrutiny of a common unifiedl system. In contrast, the Chinese system might seem more locally optimal, as the central government channels its resources into pragmatic and utilitarian 'productive' ventures. But, in the long run, it was the European cultural complex that settled upon a stratospheric peak because of the peculiarities of its historical pathway.

This explicitly functionalist interpretation of cultural adaptation can be easily reduced to the individual level. The models that the Chinese intellectual had to emulate were essentially heirs of Confucius, or to a lesser extent the masters of the Daoist or Buddhist religious systems. Confucianism throughout much of its history was at odds with the latter two religio-mystical "other-worldly" movements, and served as a polar counterpoint to them. Men might move between the two realms, but integration of Buddhist ideas into Neoconfucianism did not in its essence alter the ends of the latter philosophy, that is, a pragmatic system of political governance stemming from individual self-cultivation and a stern adherence to filial piety. After the Tang dynasty, religious orders were by and large shut out of the mainstream of Chinese elite discourse, so their esoteric and impractical ideas had little influence (note the decline of 'scientific' Daoism, with its quest for the exiler of immortality).

The dilettante scholar, sometimes unfocused, occassionally driven by an incadescent passion, had a different status during periods of "Western" history. An Aristotle was unusual only in his brilliance for his age. One could say the same for Newton or Gauss. The point is that though these men had non-intellectual interests and sometimes responsibilities, a preoccuptation with cognition and pursuit of what to some might seem like esoterica was perhaps less unusual than it might have been in the Chinese context (more appropriate to a Buddhist monk in an isolated monaste ry or a Daoist hermit in the forest). This is not to say that the passionate drive toward esoterica was always to bear fruit, Newton's advances in mechanics and optics stand alongside a lifelong fixation on alchemy and scriptural textual analysis, and few men are Newtons, so for every one "hit" there might be one thousand misses.

Going back to the adaptive landscape, here you might imagine two cultures, one where there is more latitude for individuals to shift and wander about the "fitness peaks," even toward "maladaptive" valleys. But at some point an individual emerges from the valley and begins to scale a new peak with the aid of a mindbending insight that warps and reshapes the very adaptive landscape itself ("extended phenotype" writ large). Now, remember that for this "success" there might be 1000 "misses," so the society as a whole might be perceived point to be suboptimal in its mobilization of its human capital toward "productive" uses, but when viewed from a different temporal vantage point, the latitude might seem like foresight.

In Human Accomplishment Charles Murray points to the rise of science as being connected to Christianity in part because the transcendant goals and motivations welling up from the faith encouraged thinkers to extreme ends to discover "God's purpose" or "plan." Murray seems to imply that science needed the maladaptive kick-start to get over the hill and initialize its engine. He notes that Christianity might not be so essential contemporaneously because the system (which sits atop a "peak") already exists and generates rational incentives for non-religious individuals. The initialization of science reshaped the whole adaptive landscape, and created modernity itself. This cultural polycentrism, and on the intra-cultural level an acceptance of peculiar fops and dreamers, benefited the West in the long run. It is in its core the type of culture than Karl Popper described in The Open Society, a society where individual freedom is a central value that allows a full expression of various modes of life and profession of viewpoints.

Back to the geeks, it is the fruits of geek play, geek intellectual agony and geek obsession that the "paradigm shifts" described by Kuhn, or the "falsification" of theoretical idols alluded to by Popper, can truly play themselves out. The "male" focus on elegance, technical precision and playfull abstraction might seem without utilitarian benefit in the short run, but historical induction has shown its value in the past 500 years. Modern Western culture has hit upon a balance between work & play, abstraction and application, theoretical purity and pragmatic compromise, and if it ain't broke, who are we to carp about how science isn't "woman friendly." In contrast, I believe that pre-modern China and India, for all their high culture, never achieved real science because they fell at two ends of the spectrum, the Chinese with their focus on the near and obvious, the tried & tested, and the Indians with their heads in the clouds, never bridging the abstract with the material and ameliorating the squalid material conditions of their environs. I fear that in the quest for more "relevant" science, a "pragmatic" Maoist intellectual strain is manifesting itself in the West. If you can't attract women to science, simply do away with science and give something more palatable its name.

Posted by razib at 10:50 PM