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March 06, 2004

Wallace on the Papuans

While reading Alfred Russel Wallace's classic book The Malay Archipelago, I was interested to see the following passage:

"The moral characteristics of the Papuan appear to me to distinguish him as distinctly from the Malay as do his form and features... Of the intellect of this race it is very difficult to judge, but I am inclined to rate it somewhat higher than that of the Malays, notwithstanding the fact that the Papuans have never yet made any advance towards civilization. It must be remembered, however, that for centuries the Malays have been influenced by Hindoo, Chinese and Arabic immigration... The Papuan has much more vital energy, which would certainly greatly assist his intellectual development. Papuan slaves show no inferiority of intellect compared with Malays, but rather the contrary; and in the Mollucas they are often promoted to places of considerable trust..."

(Dover edition, p. 449-50; 1st edition 1869.)

By 'Malays' Wallace means not just the inhabitants of what is now Malaysia, but all those of similar race and language throughout the region (in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, etc.), whereas by 'Papuans' he means the Melanesians, including the inhabitants of New Guinea.

It is interesting to compare Wallace's assessment with the comments of Jared Diamond, who considered the New Guinea tribesmen of his acquaintance to be as intelligent as Europeans. Diamond concluded from this that there is no innate difference in intelligence between different 'races', whereas his hereditarian critics have concluded that he must be mistaken about the New Guinea tribesmen.

Wallace's comments suggest a third possibility: namely, that there are intellectual differences between different 'races', but that the 'Papuans' happen to be among the more intelligent.

I am expressing no opinion on which view is correct.

Posted by David B at 07:55 AM | | TrackBack

March 05, 2004

Divine brain-waves?

A small band of pioneers is exploring the neurology of religious experience:

What is interesting is that several of the patients suffered from temporal-lobe epilepsy. An association between this kind of epilepsy and religiosity is well-documented, notably in a classic series of neurological papers written by Norman Geschwind in the 1960s and 1970s. Dr Blanke argues that all the lobes of the brain play a part in something as complex as religious experience, but that the temporo-parietal junction is a prime node of that network.

Posted by razib at 07:46 PM | | TrackBack

Enemies of research

Godless' post from earlier this week, Enemies of Science, highlighted the battering from the cultural commanding heights of the the political Left that science is taking. This assault takes the broad-view, and aims at the foundations of science, its methods and aims, and often slides into attempts to knock the scientific tradition from its pedestal in the modern world ("deprivilege" it).

Reason as Our Guide, a piece from two scientists associated with The President's Council on Bioethics, shows the strategy from the Right (both secular Straussian and religious Christian), undermine specific research projects and paradigms. While the Left seems to be aiming for intellectual decapitation, the Right takes the more cautious tack of amputating avenues of inquiry and suffocating nasent fields, slowly rendering the body of science functionally irrelevant.

Of course, there are those on the Left & Right who disagree with this general trend.

Here is Ron Bailey going on one of his periodic Kass-attacks (via Virginia Postrel).

Posted by razib at 06:47 PM | | TrackBack

Alien invasions

The recent evidence (if that link doesn't work, try this) that the virulence of the West Nile virus is due to hybridization of mosquitos is very interesting. The specter of "alien species" brings to mind the decimation of island ecosystems by rats, cats and snakes, or the spread of the zebra muscle in the Great Lakes or the threat of the Africanized Honey Bee.

You can look to Reason for a contrarian take on "alien invaders." One thing is certain though, the transplantation of many life forms across continents have altered ecosystems and "natural" history irreversibly.

If a day comes that a super-plague eliminates humanity, there would still be:

...to give a few "sexy" examples, and neglecting the much more common export of plants.
Posted by razib at 03:10 PM | | TrackBack

Dem bones

Fossil Human Teeth Fan Diversity Debate. The fine print states: "a handful of nearly six-million-year-old teeth is adding fuel to a longstanding debate among scholars of human evolution." Public interest in human evolution is directly proportional to its relationship to our own particular species, so 6 million year old teeth tend to be more of scholarly interest than a 40,000 year old find....

Update: Carl Zimmer has much more. By the way Carl, your last book was phat.

Posted by razib at 02:43 AM | | TrackBack


Steve has been talking talking about polygamy recently. A few quick notes:

1) I titled this entry "polygyny," because Steve means men with multiple wives, not women with multiple husbands (polyandry). The latter practice is very rare, and tends to occur in resource deficient circumstances (eg; Tibet).

2) In the United States, polygamy would really mean polygyny. This is an issue that would probably ally feminists with cultural conservatives, because a cursory study of openly polygamous cultures (today, that basically means very isolated tribal peoples, some African groups and Muslims) would show that they aren't paragons of gender equity.

3) Monogamy has costs as well. In monogamous societies high status men are precious because the chance to "hook up" with them is limited to very few women, though it is usually more than one because of adultery and serial monogamy. In any case, the high caste Hindu practice of dowry is the result of enforced monogamy of desirable males. Where men of high status can have multiple wives, bride-price is more common, women are a more precious resource in this case. Excess males are obviously discardable.

4) To Steve's point about the battle-readiness of monogamous vs. polygamous societies, I think the my posts about "conscripts vs. professionals" (see here and here) might be relevant.

It is true that polygamy has been common in many ancient societies, but the Classical Greeks and Republican Romans were traditionally both monogamous. Historians like Victor Davis Hanson would argue that these citizen soldiers, many married stake-holders, were better fighters than the mercenaries of the Orient (of course, the later Roman army became professionalized) [1]. So if you want citizen soldiers, stake-holders, I think a monogamous society is what one should aim for. If you want a professional caste, I think polygamy would do OK, since many of the professionals might kill themselves off before the time they retired and settled. Note that during the High Pagan Empire, Roman rankers could not marry until retirement, so they formed quasi-official bonds that they solemnized after discharge. But, because so many died before their tour was complete, their possessions reverted back to the state (the army).

The current United States military is professional, but family life is preserved. Of course, one wonders at the stability of military families during the long term overseas deployments of large numbers of males in a society where legal & social constraints on adultery are relaxed....

I know one thing, if a bunch of rich fuckers monopolized all the play, I'd want to kill them-or at least kill someone! As for Steve's contention that men are hard-wired to think we'll be at the top of the pack, well, we are the sons of history's genetic winners, by definition (or as a friend in 8th grade would always say, "I'm super-sperm! One in a billion!").

1. My more nerdy readers might recall though that Lord Frey "could field an army out of his breeches".

Posted by razib at 12:55 AM | | TrackBack

March 04, 2004

The gentle jihadist (II)....

A few weeks ago I posted The gentle jihadist & other tales. Below is an article from The Economist on Tariq Ramadan, the "gentle jihadist," mentioned earlier. As long as he sounds like a Muslim form of a Christian Democrat, I'm not too alarmed, an Islamic raiment on a basically Western body of thinking. Rather, I am skeptical of too much concession to the principle that the law of man must be made to appear to accord with the law of god(s). What I fear is Islam in Western dress...,

The provoker
Mar 4th 2004 | GENEVA
From The Economist print edition

Tariq Ramadan both inspires and infuriates

HE WROTE his doctoral thesis on Nietzsche, and in early life he was a good footballer. He enjoys adulation among young French Muslims, whether students or slum-dwellers. But many of his fellow francophone philosophers regard him as too outrageous to speak to.

Charming, provocative and litigious, Tariq Ramadan is unique among Europe's Muslim activists. Compared with many rivals, the Swiss theologian's reading of Islam is more devout, and also more insistent on the need for Muslims to integrate in the West. A grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood's founder, he combines orthodoxy with enthusiasm for such causes as the green movement and opposition to global capitalism.

In recent months, he has been at the centre of two controversies. One followed an internet article in which he scolded six fellow intellectuals, five of them Jewish, for promoting ethnically-based values over universal ones. He chided them for condoning Israeli policy and the war on Iraq—and also for blaming anti-Jewish violence on Muslims. In the code of the Paris intelligentsia, this was a deadly punch: one victim, Bernard-Henri Lévy, called the cyber-attack a “nauseating” case of anti-Semitism. Mr Ramadan is equally indignant in self-defence. He has spent years warning francophone Muslims against anti-Jewish prejudice, he insists.

Another storm followed his call, in a debate with France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, for a “moratorium” on the stoning of adulterers. As Mr Sarkozy argued, this suggested that stoning could resume after a decent interval. Mr Ramadan insists that he wants a total, open-ended cessation of traditional punishments, corporal or capital—but the case for this should be made in Islam's terms. “These penalties are in the texts, and if you tell people to remove them, they won't listen. But ask them whether such penalties, as now enforced, promote equality and freedom, Islam's ideals, and they agree we must develop our understanding of the texts.”

His latest book* offers a similar mix of orthodox and radical ideas, mingling social activism, religious tolerance and feminism with close adherence to Muslim tradition. What will Anglo-Saxons make of that? He may soon spend over half his time in America, where Notre Dame University in Indiana has offered him a job. His reception there promises to be a lively one.

Posted by razib at 07:18 PM | | TrackBack

Chappelle's Show

This Slate piece on Chappelle's Show is hilarious, trying to high-brow analyze pretty straight-forward sketch comedy.

I don't watch the show often enough, but my favorite one so far is when Dave & John Mayer expose whites, blacks and Latinos to musical stimuli to document how they react. The schtick is pretty predictable, whites go crazy for guitar music, blacks get down to hard-core drum beats while Latinos like weird ass instruments with "Spanish jibberish." But the funniest part was when Dave & John were stopped by some cops, at which point John starts playing some Guns & Roses (or some other "power ballad" group) to soothe the piggish beast, and his black partner starts grooving. Dave is like, "Man, how do you know this stuff?" The black cop, still grooving along, looks at Dave and replies, "I grew up in the suburbs, I can't help it."

Posted by razib at 02:19 PM | | TrackBack

Ernst Mayr on Race

Ernst Mayr, "perhaps the greatest evolutionary scientist of the twentieth century", might be called the Linnaeus of the Modern Synthesis {neo-Darwinism}, his Systematics and the Origin of Species set forth the biological species concept still in use today, with large utility for explaining speciation.
Recently, while thumbing through some archived issues of the AAAS' Daedalus I found this amazing essay of his {Winter 2002. Vol. 131, pg. 89}, which I've published below, in which he suffers no fools from the "race does not exist" camp {all emphasis and what-not mine}:

The Biology of Race and the Concept of Equality. Ernst Mayr

There are words in our language that seem to lead inevitably to controversy. This is surely true for the words "equality" and "race." And yet among well informed people, there is little disagreement as to what these words should mean, in part because various advances in biological science have produced a better understanding of the human condition.
Let me begin with race. There is a widespread feeling that the word "race" indicates something undesirable and that it should be left out of all discussions. This leads to such statements as "there are no human races."
Those who subscribe to this opinion are obviously ignorant of modern biology. Races are not something specifically human; races occur in a large percentage of species of animals. You can read in every textbook on evolution that geographic races of animals, when isolated from other races of their species, may in due time become new species. The terms 11 subspecies" and "geographic race" are used interchangeably in this taxonomic literature.
This at once raises a question: are there races in the human species? After all, the characteristics of most animal races are strictly genetic, while human races have been marked by nongenetic, cultural attributes that have very much affected their overt characteristics. Performance in human activities is influenced not only by the genotype but also by culturally acquired attitudes. What would be ideal, therefore, would be to partition the phenotype of every human individual into genetic and cultural components.
Alas, so far we have not yet found any reliable technique to do this. What we can do is acknowledge that any recorded differences between human races are probably composed of cultural as well as genetic elements. Indeed, the cause of many important group differences may turn out to be entirely cultural, without any genetic component at all.
Still, if I introduce you to an Eskimo and a Kalahari Bushman I won't have much trouble convincing you that they belong to different races.
In a recent textbook of taxonomy, I defined a "geographic race" or subspecies as "an aggregate of phenotypically similar populations of a species inhabiting a geographic subdivision of the range of that species and differing taxonomically from other populations of that species." A subspecies is a geographic race that is sufficiently different taxonomically to be worthy of a separate name. What is characteristic of a geographic race is, first, that it is restricted to a geographic subdivision of the range of a species, and second, that in spite of certain diagnostic differences, it is part of a larger species.
No matter what the cause of the racial difference might be, the fact that species of organisms may have geographic races has been demonstrated so frequently that it can no longer be denied. And the geographic races of the human races established before the voyages of European discovery and subsequent rise of a global economy - agree in most characteristics with the geographic races of animals. Recognizing races is only recognizing a biological fact.
Still, the biological fact by itself does not foreclose giving various answers to the question, What is race? In particular, adherence to different political and moral philosophies, as we shall see, permits rather different answers. But I believe it is useful at the outset to bracket the cultural factors and explore some of the implications of a strictly biological approach.
The evolutionary literature explains why there are geographic races. Every local population of a species has its own gene pool with its own mutations and errors of sampling. And every population is subject to selection by the local environment. There is now a large literature on the environmental factors that may influence the geographic variation of a species. For example, populations of warm-blooded vertebrates (mammals and birds) in the colder part of their geographical range tend to larger size (Bergmann's rule). Darwin wondered whether these climatic factors were sufficient to account for the differences between geographic races in the human species. He finally concluded that sexual selection, the preference of women for certain types of men, might be another factor leading to differences between geographic races.
This kind of biological analysis is necessary but not sufficient. By itself, biology cannot explain the vehemence of the modern controversy over race. Historically, the word "race" has had very different meanings for different people holding different political philosophies. Furthermore, in the last two hundred years there has been a change in the dominant philosophy of race.
In the eighteenth century, when America's Constitution was written, all our concepts were dominated by the thinking of the physical sciences. Classes of entities were conceived in terms of Platonic essentialism. Each class (eidos) corresponded to a definite type that was constant and invariant. Variation never entered into discussions because it was considered to be "accidental" and hence irrelevant. A different race was considered a different type. A white European was a different type from a black African. This went so far that certain authors considered the human races to be different species.
It was the great, and far too little appreciated, achievement of Charles Darwin to have replaced this typological approach by what we now call population thinking. In this new thinking, the biological uniqueness of every individual is recognized, and the inhabitants of a certain geographic region are considered a biopopulation. In such a biopopulation, no two individuals are the same, and this is true even for the six billion humans now on Earth. And, most important, each biopopulation is highly variable, and its individuals greatly differ from each other, thanks to the unique genetic combinations that result from this variability.
Let me illustrate the implications of individual differences by analyzing the outcome of the 2001 Boston marathon. Kenyans are a population famous for producing long-distance runners. Three Kenyans had entered the race, and it was predicted that they would end the race as numbers one, two, and three. However, to everybody's great surprise, the winner was a Korean, and, even more surprisingly, number two was an Ecuadorian from a population that had never been credited with long-distance running abilities. It was a clear refutation of a typological - or essentialist - approach to thinking about race.
In a Darwinian population, there is great variation around a mean value. This variation has reality, while the mean value is simply an abstraction. One must treat each individual on the basis of his or her own unique abilities, and not on the basis of the group's mean value.
At the same time, nothing could be more meaningless than to evaluate races in terms of their putative "superiority." Superiority where, when, and under what circumstances? During the period of the development of the human races, each one became adapted to the condition of its geographic location. Put a Bushman and an Eskimo in the Kalahari Desert and the Bushman is very much superior; put a Bushman and an Eskimo on the Greenland ice and the Eskimo is by far superior. The Australian Aborigines were very successful in colonizing Australia around sixty thousand years ago and developed local races with their own culture. Yet they could not defend themselves against European invaders.
What happened to the human population in this case of European colonization is comparable to what happened to the biota of New Zealand - a case that Darwin studied. When British animals and plants were introduced into New Zealand, many native species were not able to cope with this new competition and became extinct. In both cases, the success of the European populations of plants, animals, and colonists may have been simply due to a constellation of favorable geographic factors. There is no evidence at all that it was due to some intrinsic genetic "superiority."
When dealing with human races we must think of them as the inhabitants of the geographic region in which they had originated. Presumably each human race consists of individuals who, on average and in certain ways, are demonstrably superior to the average individual of another race. Eskimos, for instance, are superior in their adaptedness to cold. In the last four or five Olympics there were always six to eight contenders of African descent among the ten finalists in the sprinting races, surely not an accidental percentage.
These considerations should teach us how we should think about human races. A human race consists of the descendants of a once-isolated geographical population primarily adapted for the environmental conditions of their original home country. But, as is illustrated by the success of Europeans and Africans and Asians in all parts of the world, any race is capable of living anywhere. Most importantly, a race is always highly variable: any human race will include a wide variety of extraordinary individuals who excel in very different human abilities.
When comparing one race with another, we do find genes that are on the whole specific for certain populations. Many individuals of Native American descent have the Diego blood group factors, and people of Jewish descent have a propensity for Tay-Sachs disease. Some of these characteristics are virtually diagnostic, but most are merely quantitative, like the description of the human races in older anthropology textbooks describing skin color, hair, eye color, body size, etc. An ensemble of such characteristics usually permits classifying an individual in the relevant race. All these characteristics are nevertheless highly variable, and it is virtually impossible to classify every individual definitively, especially in those areas where one geographic race merges into another (as is true, for example, for the human population of modern-day America).
Curiously, when people make derogatory statements about members of other races, they often do not refer to biological traits at all, but rather to putative character traits: members of a certain racial group are said to be lazy, dishonest, unreliable, thievish, arrogant, etc. There is no scientific evidence of a genetic basis for any such negative traits. There is also no scientific evidence known to me that the genetic differences we do discover among the human races have any influence at all on personality. Most of the mentioned undesirable personality traits, if they are at all correlated with specific human populations, are obviously cultural and therefore open to change through appropriate forms of education.
It is generally unwise to assume that every apparent difference in traits between populations of human beings has a biological cause. In a recent aptitude test administered in California, students of Asian descent did conspicuously better than students of African descent. Researchers evaluating these results subsequently discovered that in the year preceding the test, the AsianAmerican students had spent a daily average of three hours on homework, while the African-American students had done virtually no homework at all. The test results by themselves cannot tell us what percentage of the superior performance by the Asian-American students was due to their genetic endowment and what percentage to the cultural trait of being better prepared for the test thanks to spending, on the whole, far more time on homework than the African-American students did.
One can conclude from these observations that although there are certain genetic differences between races, there is no genetic evidence whatsoever to justify the uncomplimentary evaluation that members of one race have sometimes made of members of other races. There simply is no biological basis for racism.
Indeed, what is far more important than the differences between human races is the enormous variation within each racial group. We must always keep in mind that no two human beings even so-called identical twins - are in fact genetically identical. When encountering a lying member of another race, nothing would be more illogical - and unjust - than to conclude that all members of that race are liars. Likewise, if one encountered a particularly warmhearted member of a different race, it would be equally foolish to conclude that all members of that race are equally warmhearted. To avoid such mistakes, it is useful to apply the population thinking pioneered by Darwin.
It also helps to adopt the motto "They are like us." This was my motto more than seventy years ago when I became one of the first outsiders to visit a native village in the interior of New Guinea. Invariably, they are like us. Whenever I lived with one of these relatively isolated populations of human beings for any length of time, it did not take me long to discover the differences in the personalities of the individuals with whom I had to deal. The rule that no individuals are the same was as true for the Stone Age natives of New Guinea as it is for a group of my Harvard colleagues. A lot of our human difficulties are due to people forgetting the simple rule that no two people are the same.
So what, if anything, does biology, and specifically the biological understanding of race, have to teach us about the concept of equality?
In the first place, the biological facts may help to remind us just how new the political concept of equality really is. When we look at social species of animals, we discover that there is always a rank order. There may be an alpha-male or an alpha-female, and all other individuals of the group fall somewhere below them in the rank order.
A similar rank-ordering has long marked many human societies as well. During the years I lived in a small village of Papuans in the mountains of New Guinea, the local chief had three wives, other high-ranking members of the village had one, and a number of "inferior" tribesmen had no wives at all. Nineteenth-century British society distinguished clearly between aristocrats, gentlemen, and common workingmen. As George Eliot describes in the novel Middlemarch, there was even a rank order within each of these major classes.
As a historian of science, I am inclined to believe that the scientific revolution of the eighteenth century helped to promote new ways of thinking about equality. From the perspective of Newtonian essentialism, all samples of a chemical element are identical and, as modern physics assumes, so are nuclear particles. Equality of this sort is a universal phenomenon. Perhaps it was only a small step from Newtonian essentialism to the moral proposition that all human beings are essentially equal, and therefore should have equal rights.
As is true of the word "race," "equality" has come to mean different things to different people. I take it for granted that every good American accepts the principle of civil equality. This means equal opportunity, equality before the law, and equality in social interactions. To have elaborated this principle is one of the glorious achievements of the American Revolution.
Still, the principle cannot in many contexts be applied concretely, for the kinds of biological reasons I have already discussed. No two human individuals are genetically the same. Paradoxically, it is precisely because the human population is genetically and culturally so diverse that we need a principle of civil equality. Anybody should be able to enjoy the benefits of our liberal society in spite of differences of religion, race, or socioeconomic status. Regardless of whether the difference in performance between individuals, or two groups, has biological or purely cultural causes, it is our moral obligation to see to it that each individual and group has an equal opportunity. The great British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane asked what we can do to provide equal opportunities to all members of our society, regardless of any differences in ability. He said we simply have to provide more opportunities, we must diversify our educational curricula, and we must offer new incentives.
These reflections on the biology of race and the concept of equality suggest the following conclusions:
* Every single human being is biologically unique and differs in major characteristics even from close relatives.
* Geographical groups of humans, what biologists call races, tend to differ from each other in mean differences and sometimes even in specific single genes. But when it comes to the capacities that are required for the optimal functioning of our society, I am sure that the performance of any individual in any racial group can be matched by that of some individual in another racial group. This is what a population analysis reveals.
* In small groups of primitive human beings, just as in all groups created by social animals, there is a rank order, with certain individuals being dominant.
* In the large human societies that developed after the origin of agriculture and the rise of cities, new systems of ranking became established, of which the European feudal societies of the fourteenth to the eighteenth century were typical.
* Democracy, including the principle of civil equality, emerged during the Enlightenment and became fully established through the American Revolution and incorporated in the Constitution of the new American republic.
* When Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that " all men are created equal," he failed to distinguish between the civil equality of individual human beings and their biological uniqueness. Even though all of us are in principle equal before the law and ought to enjoy an equality of opportunity, we may be very different in our preferences and aptitudes. And if this is ignored, it may well lead to discord.
* It is our obligation to overcome the seeming conflict between a strict upholding of civil equality and the vast biological and cultural differences among individual human beings and groups of individuals. The introduction of new educational measures and even legislation to overcome existing inequalities will be successful only if based on a full understanding of the underlying biological and cultural factors.

Couple of observations - I think, like Mayr says, that it can't be doubted that there is a necessary biological definition of 'race'. In other words it's not just a "social construct", though there is a social definition of 'race' too, based on ideas of ethnic/political affiliation and caste/social assignment. There is also a Platonic/essentialist biological understanding of race which is wrong, and different than the population understanding {which the AAA refused to mention or clarify because it is scientifically corrupt. Period.}. Genetic differences resulting from relative periods of geographic isolation between populations within a species is neither an Illusion or a Myth {much less a "dangerous" one}. As the greatest systemist of the modern era Mayr realizes that the science of speciation can't proceed without an understanding of the sub-species concept. If this natural phenomenon is recognized in the beasts of the field, it takes Creationist dissonance to not apply these zoological understandings in the same manner to the human animal. Arguments are made to square this circle by asserting that humans are just too young a species to have formed fuzzy geographic identities, but they are incorrect.

Secondly, Mayr makes many references to intellectual, athletic, personality trait differences, etc. Though for the most part he expresses environmental sensibilities about these differences {"It is generally unwise to assume that every apparent difference in traits between populations of human beings has a biological cause."}, the sub-text of their prominent inclusion is that we should expect to find sub-species differences in humans just as we do in all other animals, and prepare ourselves intellectually for how they should be reconciled in the framework of liberal democracy. For instance the context and the state of the science makes it doubtful that Mayr is speaking of individual differences when he says "Even though all of us are in principle equal before the law and ought to enjoy an equality of opportunity, we may be very different in our preferences and aptitudes. And if this is ignored, it may well lead to discord" - in other words we dismiss the question and possibility of racial IQ differences at our own cost.
Interestingly Mayr accepts that it is more reasonable to conclude that African running advantages have a biological component {NB - the Skeptic Magazine issue on Jon Entine had a Mayr interview} but not other well-known differences[1]. Mayr doesn't go as far as geneticist James F. Crow who writes a similarly themed essay in the same issue of Daedalus titled Unequal By Nature: A Geneticist's Perspective on Human Differences {PDF version}. After speaking about individual differences Crow moves on to race and group differences:

Just as there are great differences among individuals, there are average differences, usually much smaller, between groups. Italians and Swedes differ in hair color. Sometimes the differences are more conspicuous, such as the contrasting skin color and hair shape of Africans and Europeans. But, for the most part, group differences are small and largely overshadowed by individual differences. . . .
The evidence indicating that some diseases disproportionately afflict specific ethnic and racial groups does not ordinarily provoke controversy. Far more contentious is the evidence that some skills and behavioral properties are differentially distributed among different racial groups. There is strong evidence that such racial differences are partly genetic, but the evidence is more indirect and has not been convincing to everyone.

Mayr and Crow are not on the scientific margins with these opinions, as I've stressed before, whether its on sociobiology or psychometrics or racial differences GNXP has consistently been on the side of scientific consensus. Yet from public and media stand-points the soothing, "humanitarian" messages of Stephen J. Gould[2], whether its that human genetic equality is a "contingent fact of history", that concepts like 'race' and 'intelligence' are mere illusions foisted on the public by the powerful to maintain their supremacy over the exploited classes, or that science and religion are compatible ideas that have nothing to do with eachother, are consistently thought to be the reliable, true scientific positions while the mainstream opinions/research topics are effectively denigrated as "fringe" ideas - the pseudo-scientific. The truth of the matter though is that from psychometrics to evolution Gould's ideas were marginal and often shockingly dishonest and out of touch with the peer community. Hopefully the era of radicalism really is ending as it seems to be, and the academic establishment, the media establishment, and the public at large can begin to embrace scientism in general and unsanitized Darwinism in particular.

[1]Mayr evades controversy perhaps far too easily. For instance he says: "There is also no scientific evidence known to me that the genetic differences we do discover among the human races have any influence at all on personality.", yet racial personality differences observed in infancy, which are stable across development, have been established for 30+ years. Similarly he attributes the academic success gap as plausibly due to different times spent on homework, even though the homework gap is contradicted by the data. It may be 'unwise' to attribute differences to biological causes, but it is even more unwise to have environmental opinions about those differences that are built on discredited assumptions and ignorance of data. One might then look at the differences and say "surely not an accidental percentage".

[2]Who also described Mayr as "the world's greatest living evolutionary biologist". Ironically perhaps then Mayr was qualified enough to correctly recognize Gould as one who "conspicuously misrepresent[ed]" the state of evolutionary theory.

Posted by Jason Malloy at 06:14 AM | | TrackBack

March 03, 2004

Skinner begone!

Ikram compares my religious experience with that of woman who became a traditional Muslim and moved to Pakistan from America. To my mind Ikram's Skinnerian thesis is undercut by this excerpt from Matt Ridley's Nature via Nurture (page 79):

Take religious fundamentalist. In a recent study Bouchard measured how fundamentalist individuals are by giving them questionnaires about their beliefs. The correlation between the resulting scores for identical twins reared apart is 62 percent; for fraternal twins reared apart it is just 2 percent. Bouchard repeats the excercise with a different questionnaire designed to elicit a broader measure of religiosity and still gets a strong result: 58 percent versus 27 percent....

By the way, the woman contrasted with me (the American turned devout Muslim) mentioned "...loud, crazy, wonderful hijabis...." Weird.

Posted by razib at 06:54 PM | | TrackBack

Yehudi verboten!

Via Zack's weblog (via Brian): Jews barred in Saudi tourist drive. How many ways can you say repulsive? People should start sending pig-shit packages to Saudi embassies around the world.

Posted by razib at 03:46 PM | | TrackBack

Sanctified by the Blood

Aziz links to this post on LGF that graphically depicts how some Lebanese Shia cut & bloody their own children during Aashurah.

My first reaction was of course that that's grotesque and barbarous. On the other hand...the majority of the world's Christians believe that they consume the literal blood and body of Christ! Blood sacrifice seems to be an ancient human tradition, Muslims still sacrifice animals during holidays, Jews will recommence once the Temple is rebuilt and some Hindus still practice human sacrifice. Children kill animals in cruel ways, while I remember reading about the reversion to animal sacrifice by German peasants in one village in the 1700s when they were lacking a Lutheran pastor for a generation.

I believe these are all manifestations of the nautral "vitalism module" that Steve Pinker speaks of in The Blank Slate. To those who hold a naturalistic origin for religion, this is not a peculiar conclusion, and the recapitulation of specific practices in various guises universally in the world's cultures is not surprising. But, if like most humans, you hold that religion, usually one religion, is True from On High, the emergence of practices from the psychological substrate must be either A) justified as orthodox practice or B) denied as a perversion. In such a fashion, you can have Catholic missionaries in Africa telling local people to end their animal sacrifices and encouraging them to consume human blood & flesh in a new religious rite, the former is "perversion," the latter is "sanctified" from On High.

P.S. My characterization of Catholic Christian rites as something verging on cannibalism might seem peculiar. But, both ancient pagan Romans and early modern Ching dynasty Chinese (circa 1650-1900) saw it this way. Without cultural preconditioning as to its normality, two peoples seperated by more than a millennia and the Eurasian supercontinent, had the same reaction to the practice, which strikes me as confirmation that it is rather weird if one is not inured to its banality.

Addendum: I don't believe in racial memory, but, I do think it is interesting to reflect that the Shia of Lebanon sit smack-dab in the middle of the ancient Child Burning Mecca of the Near East.

Posted by razib at 02:29 PM | | TrackBack

Reflection of the market?

E-mail from a friend:

Yep the first A-list hollywood movie to demonize stem cell research.

Plot Summary for Godsend.

Here is the film's site (note the spooky horror film lighting) and the IMDB profiile. I know that cures for terminal degenerative diseases are not as "sexy" as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' satanic golem-child, I'm just hoping that the public doesn't go away from films like this with their main impressions of cutting edge biological research.

Posted by razib at 01:55 PM | | TrackBack

Sociological questions

Does anyone know sociological literature that addresses in detail how social networks manifest themselves in various societies?

For instance:
1) Do average number of "close" friends differ in various societies (in addition to the mean, what is the standard deviation, various modes, etc.).
2) Do the network patterns differ qualitatively (are pater familias more likely to be at the nodal points between various clusters in Confucian cultures?).
3) Comparisons of these tendencies with gender & social segregation and stratification within a given society.

Clarification is appreciated.

Posted by razib at 12:52 PM | | TrackBack

March 02, 2004

Eurasian expedition

Those who read Journey of Man might find EurAsia '98 interesting-a somewhat "ghetto" (dating from 1998) website that documents the data collection activities of the research that went into Spencer Wells' book.

Posted by razib at 11:53 PM | | TrackBack

March 01, 2004

They ride the unicorns of the universe

Isaac Newton was born and died a virgin. Gottfried Leibniz never married, and one biography indicated he had little interest in women, so perhaps he too was a virgin life long. Virgins gave us Calculus and Christ. How strange....

Posted by razib at 06:22 PM | | TrackBack

Why she loves you

UCL study establishes common biological ground for maternal and romantic love in humans. Here is a link to the abstract. This makes sense, after all, the term baby is used in both romantic and maternal contexts. Years ago a friend of mine asked me to explain "love," and my lack of elaboration or response was proof that only the miracle of God could clarify this issue. Wish I had those brain scans handy at the time.

What I would be really curious about is what the results would have been if they expanded their pool of subjects to psychologically "atypical" individuals.

Posted by razib at 04:18 PM | | TrackBack

All of a piece

I was rather rude in the comment threads of this Matthew Yglesias' post dissing Samuel Huntington's The CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND THE REMAKING OF WORLD ORDER. Thank god that GNXP readers tend to back up their jack-ass assertions with some links or references.

But in any case, the criticisms of Huntington are familiar it seems, as he threw up Platonic ideals of discrete and disparate civilizations that were not particularly difficult to quibble with on the microscale level. I won't deny that there were many times when I read Huntington's book that I thought to myself, "but that's just wrong!" But if I didn't want to have that experience I really should have decided to read a book by a political scientist who uses the Shan people of Myanmar as "model organisms" and details their social and historical background to a level of obscure minutiae that I would just have to trust on faith.

Huntington's problem lay in the fact that there are multiple axes of evaluation or multiple sets that many nations belong to. South Asian Muslims share much with West Asian Muslims and South Asian Hindus. Mexican and Peruvian culture is a synthesis between indigenous and Iberian antecedants. Thailand is Fujianese overseas Chinese "Confucian" culture superimposed (ergo, Bangkok's economic dynamism) on a substrate of Theravada Buddhist Thai society, which itself is an exoganous cloak of Indian high religion & philosophy over a core of animist southeast Asian tribesman.

The value of these typologies must be evaluated by the information that they provide, and the predictive value that they have. Problems arise when outsiders make evaluations about a culture from afar and miss obvious nuances. To give a particular example, Argentina is a nation that is about 40% Italian (by origin), with large Jewish, Syrian and north European minorities who influence the texture of its Spanish speaking identity. And yet many North Americans just slot it into the "non-Mexican Latin American" category, as if its heavily European orientation in comparison to Bolivia or Nicaragua is inconsequential.

Typologies matter, and are not things of little importance. Turkey's Westernized elite seems to think that marketing and wishfull thinking will make Europe accept them as European. The glitz and glamor of European Turkey makes it qualitatively different from Jordan or Kuwait, nations that are most definately of the Near Orient, yet still I suspect most Europeans would assert that Turkey is of the Dar-al-Islam. There are functional differences between Turkish culture and society and European Christian/post-Christian culture that a Latin alphabet and a French fidelity toward Church-State separation can not obscure.

Related note: Godless and I have been having a short exchange on comparative religion and the idea that people of different faiths might approach religious issues in a qualitatively different fashion. This works back into the typological issues above.

I think that wariness of cultural typologies because of ignorance or the fear of ignorance has lead many people to state weird things about religion. Over at Shanti's site I used to run into people of various religions generalizing about each other. One of the most common assertions was "all religions are basically the same," which to me was a statement not worth saying since it didn't add much to the conversation. Yet this sort of tendency crops up when people assert that "we all worship the God of Abraham" as they try to play up Judeo-Christian-Islamic unity (for political reasons). There are similarities and differences , but the fear of typologies, the fear of errors, seems to push people back toward these default catchall generalizations which serve only as salves for political discomfort.

The easiest typology, that is almost self-evident, is that the Abrahamic religions are qualitatively different from the Indian and Chinese faiths. I think this is a trivially boring assertion, but I've had to assert this on message boards as if it's news. The interesting thing though is that people who have just babbled about "how all religions are the same" will often agree that there is "something different" about the religions of Abraham. They just needed to be prodded into admitting what they already knew!

Posted by razib at 02:56 AM | | TrackBack

February 29, 2004

What the world thinks of G-O-D

Abiola points me to this BBC program about belief in God worldwide. There you can find the full survey (PDF).

Some interesting findings (for me anyway):

Country/% Belief in God/% Religion is a crutch for the "weak minded"/% My God is the only true God


Notice something strange? Hindus are different!

(84% of South Koreans think that religion is a crutch for the "weak minded," though 25% converted to a belief in God at some point in their life!)

Posted by razib at 08:39 PM | | TrackBack

Admin notice (bandwidth, etc.)

Please read if you have an posting privs on GNXP....

Update: I have added a small snip of code that so that now you should see only entries made since you last visited under "Recently Commented Entries." Of course, you need to allow cookies-and if you don't like this feature, I suggest you just block cookies from this site....

OK, got an email from my webhost.

mt.cgi is hogging CPU resources again. I've talked to you about this before. The problem is that we have so many entries, and any "rebuild" is a big chore. I changed some configuration settings so that the process would bleed out longer, but, I have also removed "category" and "monthly" archives. I figured that google & the local search function would suffice to reference or own entries. The old archives still exist, they just won't be rebuilt often. I might rebuild them every month or so myself for our own reference.

If this doesn't work well enough, I will look into doing some hacks myself. I could find a host that is more amenable, but I'd rather not waste another day moving the site again. The worst case realistic scenario is that we have to move the site to PHP-NUKE or something (PHP has a smaller footprint that CGI). This would make searching the archives harder for search engines though....

Anyway, I'll keep in touch about this issue.

Posted by razib at 06:01 PM | | TrackBack

Decoupling Atheism from Intellectual Progress
It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

...Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.

Who wrote the above?

Was it written by a young undergraduate who is proud of his newly-found atheism? An internet "freethinker" who lets his readers know that He is Smart because of his clever refutation of Christianity? A Southern Baptist who hates his parents?

The above two objections were written by St. Thomas Aquinas, and in fact come very close to the beginning of his Summa Theologica. The good doctor is, of course, setting up two classical objections to the existence of God as a proposition against which he can argue in the spirit of the medieval disputatio. The disputatio itself was the chief tool of investigation in the medieval university and came out of the belief that truth emerged through debate.

When reading the web-sites of overly enthusiastic atheists, though, one usually reads one of these two objections laid out with breathless triumphalism as the young teenager writes, "Ha ha! I have successfully disproven the existence of God because I am so smart. In two thousand years no one has ever thought of this objection, or if they did, they were suppressed by The Church."1 Oddly enough, though, here we see such an objection to the existence of God being raised by a good son of the Church. Funny that.

Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong has made it his life's purpose to preach to all who will listen that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead. His friend Carl Sagan, who should have known better, explains to us that perhaps if one lived in a cosmos as small as that believed in by pre-modern people, then you might be able to believe in a God looking down on and overseeing human affairs. But of course now, goes the thinking, that we know how vast the universe is and how insignificant we are in comparison to the rest of it, it is obvious that there is not a God who cares about what goes on in a tiny little speck of the cosmos that is, in comparison to the big picture, infinitessimally small.

Strangely, though, in the early 500's, Boethius wrote that

As you have heard from the demonstrations of the astronomers, in comparison to the vastness of the heavens, it is agreed that the whole extent of the earth has the value of a mere point; that is to say, were the earth to be compared to the vastness of the heavenly sphere, it would be judged to have no volume at all. Further...only about one-fourth of this so miniscule spot in the universe is the portion inhabited by animate creatures known to us...So--do all of you who are hemmed in and bounded by this infinitesimal point as it were on a point make calculations about publicizing your reputations...that your glory may be abundant and monumental when it is compressed within such miniscule and circumscribed limits?

This is not an obscure work either. The selection comes from 7.3-7 in The Consolation of Philosophy, which was one of the most copied, read, and translated texts of the Middle Ages. What can it mean that medieval clerics knew of the vast size of the universe and yet believed in a personal God?

What about the origin of the universe itself? In the late thirteenth century, cutting edge (Aristotelian) physics demostrated that the universe was without beginning or end. Of course, the Bible stated that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning. This caused no small amount of consternation to the Christian faithful, and Boethius of Dacia (not the previously mentioned Boethius) came under a great deal of suspicion for allegedly teaching that there was a "dual truth," i.e., the truth of things shown by scientific investigation, and the truth shown in the revelation of the holy scriptures. As it happens, he did not exactly believe in a double truth, but it is easy to understand how his On the Eternity of the World could be misunderstood as such.

The burning question of the day was how to reconcile the truths apparent from the natural world with those revealed in scripture. No satisfactory conclusion was ever reached, and the problem was, when discussed, discussed in rather hypothetical terms ("If it is given that the world is eternal, then..." and the like). Indeed, it is rather peculiar that, in an age in which the science of the time seemed to demonstrate the eternity of the world, people believed that it nevertheless had a creator, while in our age, in which a much more advanced science shows that the universe had a beginning, fewer people (proportionally to population of course) believe in a creator. Why is this the case?

I submit that unbelief has very little to do with scientific/intellectual progress and a great deal to do with fashion. The traditional arguments against a good God's existence did not suddenly become stronger with the Enlightenment; such arguments did, though, become more fashionable. "Reason" did not suddenly come into existence in the late eighteenth century (Will Durant to the contrary), and any medieval student whose undergraduate education began with the Posterior Analytics would take a great deal of offense if he were told such.

When Charles Darwin and his successors pinpointed the best possible model for the origin and formation of life, the intelligentsia had already by and large given up on the Christian faith. Those who already disbelieved used evolution as proof that there was no creator; some of those who still believed decided that God made the world and the evidence be damned--they would believe what was in the Bible; and still others came to the conclusion that an almighty God could very well use the means of evolution to bring life about.

Why, though, am I bringing all of this up? To make a bold new argument for the truth of the Christian faith? No.2 Rather, my point is that I often see it confidently asserted that a decline in religious faith is a necessary component of religious progress and that the march of this progress will eventually lead to a godless world. I think that, in light of the fact that unbelief is usually more a product of fashion than anything else, we ought not to look forward to a world in which the "God problem" seen in different parts of the world suddenly resolves itself. Indeed, the religious revival underway in a certain monotheistic religion and the fact that folks with a scientific and engineering background are often drawn to the most fundamentalist interpretation of this religion would both seem to indicate that we are in for a religious world for a long time to come.

1This is something of a strawman, but not by much.

2Though it would be most interesting indeed to see some theologians who actually do physics, cosmology, or Organic Chemistry examine the implications of what is now known and work from such to theological conclusions.

Posted by schizmatic at 01:22 PM | | TrackBack

Daniel Boorstin, R.I.P.

Daniel J. Boorstin died yesterday, at 89. His book The Discoverers is a great history of science. It is first of a trilogy, the other books being The Creators and The Seekers.

Some obituaries from Google News.

Posted by Thrasymachus at 08:19 AM | | TrackBack

The World Riddle

Warning: long.

In my post No Pain, no Gain I gave reasons for accepting the proposition:

“Some subjective sensations, such as pleasures and pains, are adaptive traits of organisms.”

The main reason is that pleasures are generally associated with biologically beneficial, and pains with harmful, circumstances, in such a way as to suggest that the association has evolved by natural selection. There are various apparent exceptions, but on closer examination most of these actually support the evolutionary explanation.

Prima facie this implies that these subjective sensations influence the behaviour of organisms, since otherwise they could not be selected. This also fits with our common-sense intuition that the intrinsic pleasantness and unpleasantness of sensations causes us to seek out or avoid them. If putting your fingers in boiling water produced the sensations of orgasm, there would be a lot of people with boiled fingers.

The idea that pleasure and pain have an adaptive function is not an eccentric invention of my own. It is probably what most biologists would take for granted (so long as they are not trying to be philosophers): for example, “Just as an itch can motivate defensive scratching, pain is an adaptation that can lead to escape and avoidance” (R. Nesse and G. C. Williams, Evolution and Healing, p. 35), or “Ordinarily, pain is a very useful adaptive mechanism - a gift, not a curse” (V. Ramachandran, The Emerging Mind, p. 18).

The snag is that the laws of physics leave no room for the subjective quality of sensations to make any difference to behaviour. The brain seems to be a purely physical system. Electrical impulses pass along nerve fibres, and at the junctions (synapses) between nerve endings in the brain, neurotransmitter chemicals are secreted, which, in sufficient quantities, stimulate the next nerve cell to ‘fire’. Everything seems to proceed in accordance with the laws of classical (non-relativistic, non-quantum) science, such as conservation of energy, momentum, and charge; Maxwell’s field equations, etc. These are all essentially deterministic laws. The state of the system at one time is in principle completely determined by its state at previous times. This leaves no gap in the chain of causation where the subjective quality of sensations can intervene and make a difference.

At this point, some defenders of ‘free will’ are inclined to appeal to quantum indeterminacy to open up such a gap. I don’t like this approach because:

a) it is just plain boring - almost as boring as the frequent misuse of Gödel’s Theorem in this context (but I may have a separate rant about that)

b) the basic units of nerve action - the discharges along the axon or across the synapse - are too large, involving millions of atoms, for quantum indeterminacy to come into play (see also Schrödinger: What is Life?/Mind and Matter, CUP, p. 92); and

c) in any event, what we want for the present purpose is not indeterminacy but a causal influence of a kind not recognised by purely physical laws. If you feel a severe pain, there is nothing ‘indeterminate’ about your desire to remove it.

If we can’t appeal to quantum indeterminacy, is there any alternative theory, consistent with the laws of physics?

A satisfactory alternative theory would have to explain why pain is associated with harmful circumstances, and pleasure with beneficial circumstances, without the subjective quality of pain and pleasure having any effect on behaviour.

I mention, only to dismiss, the logical possibility that we classify sensations as painful just because they are associated with harmful circumstances, and vice versa for pleasure. This would account for the association, but it is clearly not the true explanation. We can and often do classify sensations as pleasant or unpleasant without knowing whether they are harmful or beneficial.

Any satisfactory alternative is likely to be a dual aspect theory. Under such a theory physical systems are conceived of as having both their normal physical properties and the qualities we experience as subjective sensations.

Many philosophers, and some scientists (including Schrödinger), have favoured a dual-aspect theory of some kind. These range from radical panpsychism, which maintains that all physical objects have a ‘mental’ side, to a more limited doctrine of emergent properties, which maintains that ‘mind’ is a rare and special phenomenon produced only by very complex systems, and in particular by brains (perhaps even only human brains).

For the present purpose the important distinction is not between degrees of radicalism among dual aspect theories, but between those theories which ascribe causal efficacy to the ‘subjective’ aspect as such, and those which only admit the efficacy of the physical aspect. A theory of the latter kind maintains that pain or pleasure is an aspect or property of a physical system (a brain-state) such that the physical system itself, operating by purely physical laws, produces the behaviour normally associated with pain and pleasure (e.g. cries of pain; avoidance of painful stimuli; over-indulgence in sweet-tasting foods when available, etc.)

Among the limited number of scientists who express any views on these issues, I think that most would only admit the efficacy of the physical aspect. For example, John Maynard Smith (The Problems of Biology, pp. 79-80) says: “As I sit writing, I decide to go into the kitchen and make a cup of coffee. To me, it seems that my felt desire for coffee is the cause of my going to the kitchen... But to say that my desire for coffee is the cause is not to deny that there are physical structures in the brain that are the cause, or that those structures are present because of my previous experience. The physical events in my brain, and the feelings that I have, are not alternative and mutually exclusive causes of my actions: they are simply different aspects of the same cause. Of course, I assume that you have feelings similar to mine, and I also assume that animals which are reasonably like us have feelings that are like ours.” Although Maynard Smith is not explicit on this point, he presumably sees the ‘physical structures in the brain’ as operating purely in accordance with physical laws. He recognises the existence of subjective feelings (in this case, a desire for coffee) as ‘different aspects’ of events in the brain, but he gives them no work to do. Everything in the physical world would happen in the same way if subjective feelings ceased to exist, while leaving the brain states as they were.

Despite my great respect for JMS, I don’t think this is a satisfactory account. It fails to explain the association between feelings and circumstances. It is not even adequate for the case of ‘desiring coffee’, let alone more serious pleasures and pains. JMS recognises that the desire for coffee feels appropriate to the action of getting up and making a cup, but he does not explain why the subjective feeling ‘desire for coffee’ is associated with the physical brain-states which lead, by purely physical laws, to his getting up and making coffee, rather than, say, making tea, or jumping out of the window.

I cannot recall any modern discussion of the problem, within a ‘dual aspect’ approach, which even recognises the need for such an explanation, let alone provides one. Back in the 19th century, a few thinkers did make some vague gestures in this direction. Herbert Spencer, for example, argued that pleasure is the natural consequence of a healthy and not overloaded nervous system, while pain is the result of disintegration or excessive nervous activity. Ernst Haeckel argued that pain was the subjective aspect of physical repulsion (e.g. of electrical charges) while pleasure was the subjective aspect of physical attraction. While these explanations are crude and naive, they do have the merit of attempting to make a systematic connection between the physical and subjective aspects, and offering some superficially plausible suggestions as to the nature of that connection.

Unfortunately, nothing we currently know about the brain gives any reason for believing that there is such a simple and satisfying connection between the physical and subjective aspects of brain-states. The basic units of nerve action seem to be much the same whether the result is a pleasure or a pain, a taste or a smell, a perception or a mental image. The qualitative aspect of brain states seems to emerge only at the level of many nerve cells interacting in complex ways. It is conceivable that if and when we begin to understand how nerve action gives rise to subjective sensations, we will see that there is a simple and satisfying connection after all, which reconciles a purely physical account of causation with our subjective intuitions. I hope that we will, but I see no reasons for optimism.

In the mean time, I think that the balance of evidence points to the conclusion that the subjective aspects of brain-states do influence behaviour in ways not explicable by purely physical laws. Since the classical physical laws purport to give a complete account of physical events at the macroscopic level (including the behaviour of organisms), the causal efficacy of subjective sensations would actually conflict with the physical laws (though probably only at a small scale level within the brain). I am not happy with this conclusion, and I hope it is wrong.

I take some comfort from the fact that the physical laws are demonstrably incomplete with respect to the emergence of subjective sensations themselves. None of the known laws of physics is capable, even in principle, of explaining, for example, the sensation of colour (Schrödinger, op. cit., pp.165-68). Ultimately, all the laws of physics reduce to equations governing the position of entities in space-time. They can no more lead to conclusions about qualitative sensations than a set of propositions about dogs can lead to conclusions about cats.

It will be evident that I have not resolved the latent contradiction in the scientific world-view which I described in my first post on the subject. The relation between mind and body is one of the toughest problems in all of science and philosophy. Haeckel described it as the Welträtsel - The World Riddle - and I am not quite vain enough to suppose I can solve it. But some modest progress is made if the existence of the problem is recognised.

(Joke for British readers:) All right, I’ll get me coat.

I hope that this post has implicitly responded to many of the comments on the earlier posts. Some responses to more specific points are in the continuation.


In responding to comments, I won’t mention particular individuals, as I prefer to summarise the arguments in my own words, and I don’t want to be accused of misrepresenting people.


I have deliberately avoided using the word ‘consciousness’, because it has been used with so many different meanings, most of them obscure, that it is worse than useless. As a rule of thumb, if someone starts talking about consciousness, expect them to commit a fallacy within about five sentences.

Some people claim that ‘having a sensation’ and ‘being conscious of a sensation’ are different mental states. As far as I can judge from my own experience, there is no such distinction. I can attend to a sensation, and, as a language-user, I can refer to a sensation, either in public speech or in my ‘interior monologue’ of imagined speech. Unless this is what people mean by ‘being conscious of a sensation’, I don’t know what they do mean.

Then there is ‘consciousness of self’. Like David Hume, I find the ‘self’ elusive. I have perceptions and other sensations of my body, I can remember some of its previous experiences, and I can use the first-person singular pronoun ‘I’. Analytical philosophers are inclined to put language in the central role, so that the ‘self’ is the complex of linguistic uses associated with the words ‘I’, ‘me’, and so on. Language-using humans have a richer and more complex set of beliefs, concepts, and intentions about themselves than is possible for non-human animals and humans who have not acquired language (such as small children and deaf-mutes in olden times). This is important for many issues, but not for pleasure and pain. Will anyone argue
that, before she acquired language, Helen Keller was unable to feel pain?

Writers also often refer to the unity of consciousness. We normally have many different sensations at the same time (of sight, hearing, smell, mental images,etc.) which are all somehow within the same ‘field of attention’. Usually one mode of sensation is in the focus of attention while others are in the background, but we can switch our attention to any of them in an instant. They are all accessible to our powers of thought and verbal expression.

This is a genuinely interesting, important, and puzzling phenomenon.
Unfortunately, it often leads to the fallacious assumption that any mental
events that are not within the field of attention are ‘unconscious’, or that they do not exist as qualitative sensations (qualia) at all. But this does not logically follow from the evidence: it is like saying that because we have a lot of furniture in our main living room, we have no furniture anywhere else in the house! And the evidence from split-brain phenomena, blindsight, hypnosis, etc, strongly suggests that we can have sensations which are not accessible to the ‘verbal’ part of the brain but which otherwise have the same properties as those that are (see Chapter 8 of David A. Oakley (ed.) Brain & Mind). (There is also the neglected example of dreams. In one sense these are not ‘conscious’, but it would be absurd to say that they do not contain qualia.)

Man and other animals

I deliberately did not say much about non-human animals, because there has
been so much controversy about them (e.g. Donald R. Griffin, The
Question of Animal Awareness
). My arguments are expressed primarily in relation to humans, but by implication extend to other animals who resemble humans closely enough.

Since, with dubious exceptions, animals do not have language, they cannot
tell us what (or whether) they feel. There are however three main arguments
for believing that some non-human animals feel pleaure and pain in much the
same way as humans:

a) they have similar brains, nervous systems, and perceptual apparatus to humans

b) their behaviour in response to the stimuli that humans find pleasant or painful is often similar to that of humans; and

c) if pain and pleasure has an adaptive value, then we would expect it to have such value for many animals other than man.

(The last argument obviously will not be persuasive to those who do not accept that pain and pleasure has an adaptive value.)

I haven’t studied in depth the evidence on non-human capacities for pain, etc., (but have re-read relevant parts of Stephen Walker, Animal Thought, Griffin, op. cit. and Oakley (ed.) op. cit.), so I don’t have strong view on where the line should be drawn between those animals that feel pain and those that don’t. Mammals, yes; birds, yes; other vertebrates, probably (see Walker, p. 224); invertebrates - difficult to tell. With some exceptions, such as cephalopod molluscs, invertebrates have very small brains, and much more rigid, instinctual, behaviour patterns than vertebrates. So it wouldn’t surprise me if, say, an ant has no subjective sensations at all. But there is intriguing evidence that earthworms produce internal opiate secretions (endorphins), which in vertebrates are associated with pain control, so I don’t think we can be dogmatic about it. Fairly clearly organisms without a nervous system - plants, protozoa, bacteria - don’t have sensations, unless some form of panpsychism is true.


In commenting on my list of apparent exceptions to the adaptiveness of pains and pleasures, several people mentioned music (or the arts generally) as a case of pleasure-giving circumstances without obvious biological benefit.

I agree that ‘aesthetic’ pleasure is a genuine evolutionary puzzle - in fact, it is a puzzle regardless of the mind-body issue. Several thinkers (e.g. Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind) have sought an explanation in sexual selection, but I don’t find this convincing. I think it is more likely that aesthetic pleasure is a kind of reward for perceptual problem-solving, and that the human arts are a by-product of this pre-existing adaptation. (I think this is roughly Ramachandran’s theory.)

Does sensation have added value?

This leads me to the most interesting criticisms of my arguments. The main counter-argument (putting it in my own words), runs on the following lines:

A. We know that organisms can be attracted to favourable circumstances (e.g. food) and repelled from unfavourable ones (e.g. predators) without sensations of pleasure or pain. Even bacteria show such reactions, and nobody will suppose that bacteria feel pleasure or pain. Sensations are therefore not neccessary for adaptive reactions. Since they are not necessary, they have no additional adaptive value. Therefore they are not the result of natural selection. (And the rest of my argument collapses.)

A variant or supplement to this runs as follows:

B. The majority of the animal kingdom gets by perfectly well without ‘consciousness’ (or without ‘subjective sensations’, in my terms). ‘Consciousness’ appeared late in the course of evolution, with the higher vertebrates, or perhaps only the higher primates. But if it had the kind of adaptive advantage I claim, it would have been been useful much lower down the evolutionary scale, and we would expect it to be more widespread than it is. Therefore it cannot have this kind of adaptive advantage, etc, etc....

The first thing to say about these arguments is that neither of them directly challenges the premisses of my own argument. They do not deny the correlation, to which I have drawn attention, between pain/pleasure and harmful/beneficial circumstances, nor do they explain it.

I accept that adaptive reactions are possible without subjective sensations.
Even in humans, some reflex reactions protect us from harm without requiring subjective sensations, because they do not involve the brain.

That said, I don’t find either argument (A) or (B) compelling. The obvious non-sequitur in (A) is the sentence ‘Since they [sensations] are not necessary, they have no additional adaptive value’. Just because some adaptive reactions don’t require sensation, it doesn’t follow that this is true of all of them, or that sensation does not fulfil certain needs more effectively. Simply to assert that ‘unconscious’ tropisms can do everything that is done by sensations of pleasure and pain is to prejudge the whole point at issue. I hasten to say that no-one who commented on my posts committed such an explicit fallacy, but I think that if an argument of the kind (A) is spelled out in full, some such premiss is required to make it run.

Argument (B) rests heavily on the factual assertion that most animals don’t feel pleasure and pain, and for reasons given earlier, I dispute this. If the factual assertion is correct, the argument does have some force. As noted earlier, if pain and pleasure have an adaptive value, then we would expect them to have such value for many animals other than man. But even if the assertion is correct, it is not conclusive. It could be that the emergence of subjective sensations requires a large brain, and only the higher vertebrates (and maybe cephalopods) have evolved brains large enough. A notable feature of these large-brained animals is their capacity for learning and flexible behaviour. If argument (B) were sound, one could substitute ‘learning’ for ‘consciousness’ in the argument and conclude that learning has no selective advantage, which presumably no-one will accept. Indeed, it may be that subjective sensations themselves are an important part of the learning process, so that the correlation of large brains with both learning capacity and subjective sensations would then be a natural one.

Finally, I hope it will be agreed that this is not an area for over-confidence or

Posted by David B at 04:48 AM | | TrackBack