It’s all about the encephalization, really. Millions of years ago our hominid ancestors stumbled onto a novel adaptive strategy: be smart, adaptable, and capable of learning rather than purely instinct-driven. Make tools; use fire; invent language.
This strategy required much, much more of our nervous systems. Because intelligence was in fact a winning strategy, we were selected for growing more complex brains capable of doing more information processing. But increasing the logic density of brains is hard; there probably isn’t a path to it through the design space that is rapidly exploitable by small point mutations. So selective pressure made our brains larger, instead.
The fossil record shows that the hominid line encephalized at a breakneck speed compared to the usual leisurely pace of evolutionary change. This had huge consequences; much of human biology is a series of hacks and kluges to support that encephalization, often in stupidly suboptimal ways.
The one that’s relevant here starts from the limited width of the birth canal. Limited, that is, by the pelvic girdle surrounding it. A skull that’s too large won’t fit through. Therefore, the genetic lines that survived were those in which babies are born with small skulls but the ability to grow them much larger by maturity. (And even so, the size of a baby’s skull pushes that limit pretty hard; this is why birth is so much more difficult and dangerous for human females than it is for other primates).
That design (be born with a small skull and upgrade it outside the womb) implied a long juvenile period between birth and physical maturity. In fact the human brain doesn’t completely finish configuring and rewiring itself until around age 25. And the long juvenile period probably also explains the exceptionally long human lifespan; whatever had to be altered in the development clock to defer stabilization into the final adult configuration probably also delayed the inset of senescence. (Direct evidence for this theory is the rare disease “progeria”).
And the dominoes kept falling. The long juvenile period implied offspring that would be incapable of fending for themselves for an unprecedently long time – on the order of decades rather than the few months to a year typical for other mammals. Consequently the selective value of extended cooperation between the parents went way, way up relative to even our nearest animal kin.
Romantic love works as an an evolved mechanism for keeping mated pairs cooperating long enough to raise multiple children. Here again, selection favors those who love more because they get to launch more offspring. We are, in fact, made to fall in love – and it would only be surprising if the mechanism for establishing it were not simple, robust, and easily triggered.
Eric S. Raymond, “Love is the simplest thing”, Armed and Dangerous, 2015-01-15.
June 14, 2016
June 10, 2016
Scott Alexander takes a quick look at a recent discovery in medication for depression:
A few weeks ago, Nature published a bombshell study showing that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were actually caused by a metabolite, 2S,6S;2R,6R-hydroxynorketamine (don’t worry about the name; within ten years it’ll be called JOYVIVA™®© and you’ll catch yourself humming advertising jingles about it in the shower). Unlike ketamine, which is addictive and produces scary dissociative experiences, the metabolite is pretty safe. This is a big deal clinically, because it makes it easier and safer to prescribe to depressed people.
It’s also a big deal scientifically. Ketamine is a strong NMDA receptor antagonist; the metabolite is an AMPA agonist – they have different mechanisms of action. Knowing the real story behind why ketamine works will hopefully speed efforts to understand the nature of depression.
But I’m also interested in it from another angle. For the last ten years, everyone has been excited about ketamine. In a field that gets mocked for not having any really useful clinical discoveries in the last thirty years, ketamine was proof that progress was possible. It was the Exciting New Thing that everybody wanted to do research about.
Given the whole replication crisis thing, I wondered. You’ve got a community of people who think that NMDA antagonism and dissociation are somehow related to depression. If the latest study is true, all that was false. This is good; science is supposed to be self-correcting. But what about before it self-corrected? Did researchers virtuously say “I know the paradigm says NMDA is essential to depression, and nobody’s come up with a better idea yet, but there are some troubling inconsistencies in that picture”? Or did they tinker with their studies until they got the results they expected, then triumphantly declare that they had confirmed the dominant paradigm was right about everything all along?
May 26, 2016
Don’t get too smug, fellow Canuckistanis, as I suspect the numbers might be just as bad if Canadians were surveyed in this way:
You might have heard that Americans overwhelmingly favor mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. That’s true, according to a new study: 84 percent of respondents said they support the labels.
But a nearly identical percentage — 80 percent—in the same survey said they’d also like to see labels on food containing DNA.
The study, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal last week, also found that 33 percent of respondents thought that non-GM tomatoes “did not contain genes” and 32 percent thought that “vegetables did not have DNA.” So there’s that.
University of Florida food economist Brandon R. McFadden and his co-author Jayson L. Lusk surveyed 1,000 American consumers and discovered [PDF] that “consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food.” In fact, the authors say, “the findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as motivation for public policy surrounding GM food.”
My summary for laymen: When it comes to genetically modified food, people don’t know much, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they sure as heck aren’t letting that stop them from having strong opinions.
May 13, 2016
April 28, 2016
I’m on the road in Thailand, speaking at a U.N. conference on sustainable A development in the Third World. Earlier today I listened to a presentation on the effects of sex education for women. The presentation mentioned some cultural value conflicts about sex education, but it occurred to me that it didn’t touch the biggest one. To wit: worldwide, the teachers want the kids to learn abstinence, but what the kids [want] to learn is technique.
Eric S. Raymond, “That’s Why They Call It ‘Sex Education'”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-05-20.
April 26, 2016
If you’re a woman who wants to land a man, there’s this notion that you should be able to go around looking like Ernest Borgnine: If you’re “beautiful on the inside,” that’s all that should count. Right. And I should have a flying car and a mansion in Bel Air with servants and a moat.
Welcome to Uglytopia — the world reimagined as a place where it’s the content of a woman’s character, not her pushup bra, that puts her on the cover of Maxim. It just doesn’t seem fair to us that some people come into life with certain advantages — whether it’s a movie star chin or a multimillion-dollar shipbuilding inheritance. Maybe we need affirmative action for ugly people; make George Clooney rotate in some homely women between all his gorgeous girlfriends. While we wish things were different, we’d best accept the ugly reality: No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind.
It turns out that the real beauty myth is the damaging one Wolf and other feminists are perpetuating — the absurd notion that it serves women to thumb their noses at standards of beauty. Of course, looks aren’t all that matter (as I’m lectured by female readers of my newspaper column when I point out that male lust seems to have a weight limit). But looks matter a great deal. The more attractive the woman is, the wider her pool of romantic partners and range of opportunities in her work and day-to-day life. We all know this, and numerous studies confirm it — it’s just heresy to say so.
Amy Alkon, “The Truth About Beauty”, Psychology Today, 2010-11-01.
April 20, 2016
I want to actually go into basic, object-level Nice Guy territory and say there is something very wrong here.
Barry is possibly the most feminist man who has ever existed, palpably exudes respect for women, and this is well-known in every circle feminists frequent. He is reduced to apophatic complaints about how sad he is that he doesn’t think he’ll ever have a real romantic relationship.
Henry has four domestic violence charges against him by his four ex-wives and is cheating on his current wife with one of those ex-wives. And as soon as he gets out of the psychiatric hospital where he was committed for violent behavior against women and maybe serves the jail sentence he has pending for said behavior, he is going to find another girlfriend approximately instantaneously.
And this seems unfair. I don’t know how to put the basic insight behind niceguyhood any clearer than that. There are a lot of statistics backing up the point, but the statistics only corroborate the obvious intuitive insight that this seems unfair.
And suppose, in the depths of your Forever Alone misery, you make the mistake of asking why things are so unfair.
Well, then Jezebel says you are “a lonely dickwad who believes in a perverse social/sexual contract that promises access to women’s bodies”. XOJane says you are “an adult baby” who will “go into a school or a gym or another space heavily populated by women and open fire”. Feminspire just says you are “an arrogant, egotistical, selfish douche bag”.
And the manosphere says: “Excellent question, we’ve actually been wondering that ourselves, why don’t you come over here and sit down with us and hear some of our convincing-sounding answers, which, incidentally, will also help solve your personal problems?”
And feminists still insist the only reason anyone ever joins the manosphere is “distress of the privileged”!
I do not think men should be entitled to sex, I do not think women should be “blamed” for men not having sex, I do not think anyone owes sex to anyone else, I do not think women are idiots who don’t know what’s good for them, I do not think anybody has the right to take it into their own hands to “correct” this unsettling trend singlehandedly.
But when you deny everything and abuse anyone who brings it up, you cede this issue to people who sometimes do think all of these things. And then you have no right to be surprised when all the most frequently offered answers are super toxic.
There is a very simple reply to the question which is better than anything feminists are now doing. It is the answer I gave to my patient Dan: “Yeah, things are unfair. I can’t do anything about it, but I’m sorry for your pain. Here is a list of resources that might be able to help you.”
Scott Alexander, “Radicalizing the Romanceless”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-08-31.
April 19, 2016
Published on 18 Apr 2016
The traumata of warfare were certainly nothing new when World War 1 broke out. But the extreme and prolonged exposure to machine gun fire, artillery bombardments and trench warfare led to a new kind of psychological disorder: Shell Shock. Soldiers who were perfectly fine on the outside, were incapable of fighting or living a normal life anymore.
March 19, 2016
A current New York Times news story, What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie, entertainingly chronicles the discovery that low-fat diets are bad for people. More specifically, that the substitution of carbohydrates like bread and pasta and potatoes for meat that we’ve all had urged on us since the early 1980s is probably the cause of the modern epidemic of obesity and the sharp rise in diabetes incidence.
I have long believed that most of the healthy-eating advice we get is stone crazy, and the story does tend to confirm it. One of my reasons for believing this is touched on in the article; what we’re told is good for us doesn’t match what humans “in the wild” (during the 99% of our species history that predated agriculture) ate. The diet our bodies evolved to process doesn’t include things like large amounts of milled grain or other starches. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate wild vegetables (especially tubers) and meat whenever they could get it.
But the evolutionary analysis only tells us what we probably should be eating. It doesn’t explain how the modern diet has come to be as severely messed up as it is — nor why the advice we’ve been getting on healthy eating over the last twenty years has been not merely bad but perversely wrong.
The answer is, I think, implicit in the fact that “health food” has a strong tendency to be bland, fibrous, and nasty — a kind of filboid studge that we have to work at convincing ourselves we like rather than actually liking. Which is, if you think about it, nuts. Human food tropisms represent two million years of selective knowledge about what’s good for our bodies. Eating a lot of what we don’t like is far more likely to be a mistake than eating things we do like, even to excess.
Why do we tend to treat our natural cravings for red meat and fat as sins, then? Notice the similarity between the rhetoric of diet books and religious evangelism and you have your answer. Dietary mortification of the flesh has become a kind of secular asceticism, a way for wealthy white people with guilt feelings about their affluence to demonstrate virtue and expiate their imagined transgressions.
Once you realize that dieting is a religion, the irrationality and mutual contradictions become easier to understand. It’s not about what’s actually good for you, it’s about suffering and self-denial and the state of your soul. People who constantly break and re-adopt diets are experiencing exactly the same cycle of secondary rewards as the sinner who repeatedly backslides and reforms.
This model explains the social fact that the modern flavor of “health”-based dietary piety is most likely to be found in people who don’t have the same psychological needs satisfied by an actual religion. Quick now: who’s more likely to be a vegetarian or profess a horror of “junk food” — a conservative Christian heartlander or a secular politically-correct leftist from the urban coasts?
Eric S. Raymond, “Diet Considered as a Bad Religion”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-07-17.
March 12, 2016
I will have to use virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romancelessness statistics, but these are bad enough. In high school each extra IQ point above average increases chances of male virginity by about 3%. 35% of MIT grad students have never had sex, compared to only 13% of the average high school population. Compared with virgins, men with more sexual experience are likely to drink more alcohol, attend church less, and have a criminal history. A Dr. Beaver (nominative determinism again!) was able to predict number of sexual partners pretty well using a scale with such delightful items as “have you been in a gang”, “have you used a weapon in a fight”, et cetera. An analysis of the psychometric Big Five consistently find that high levels of disagreeableness predict high sexual success in both men and women.
If you’re smart, don’t drink much, stay out of fights, display a friendly personality, and have no criminal history — then you are the population most at risk of being miserable and alone. “At risk” doesn’t mean “for sure”, any more than every single smoker gets lung cancer and every single nonsmoker lives to a ripe old age — but your odds get worse. In other words, everything that “nice guys” complain of is pretty darned accurate. But that shouldn’t be too hard to guess…
Scott Alexander, “Radicalizing the Romanceless”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-08-31.
February 5, 2016
Popular concerns are often weirdly unrelated to actual circumstances. It was only in the 1960s, after the percentage of Americans failing to complete secondary school had been falling for decades and had reached an historic low, that Americans discovered the problem of “high school dropouts.” Political and economic conditions in France steadily improved in the decades leading up to the French Revolution; as Tocqueville explained, expectations rose faster than conditions could improve, so more humane government was accompanied by growing dissatisfaction over “despotism.” A similar process may underlie contemporary hysteria over “intimate partner violence.”
Many have commented on the “irony” that the most pampered women in history are the ones complaining most about oppression. Perhaps we should consider whether this does not represent an irony but a direct causal relation: whether modern woman complains of her lot because — rather than in spite of — its being so favorable.
Writer Jack Donovan has made an ethological argument in favor of such an interpretation. Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are physically not very different from other chimps, but they are now classed as a separate species because of radical differences in their behavior. Bonobo males are not very aggressive. They compete less for status than do male chimps, and they do not compete at all for mates. Sex is promiscuous, and males are not possessive. Homosexual mating is common. All parenting is done by mothers. Female bonds are stronger and more enduring than male bonds. In short, bonobo society is a feminist paradise.
Chimpanzee behavior is the opposite of bonobo behavior in almost every respect. Male chimps form hierarchical gangs and compete constantly for status and access to females. They are violent and territorial, forming alliances both to defend their own territory and raid that of other chimpanzee bands. They kill stray males from other bands when the opportunity presents itself. They push females around, and females are expected to display submission to males. Homosexuality is uncommon among them. Chimpanzee social behavior is a feminist’s worst nightmare.
Evolutionary theory would lead us to look for a difference in the living environments of bonobos and chimps to which their radically different behavior could represent adaptations. And the primatologists have found such a difference: chimps must compete with other species, especially gorillas, for food. The bonobos live in a food-rich, gorilla-free environment where the living is easy. It is this lack of competitors which makes violence, hierarchy, competition, and male bonding unnecessary for bonobos.
F. Roger Devlin, “The Question of Female Masochism”, Counter-Currents Publishing, 2014-09-17.
February 2, 2016
The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.
Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.
It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.
So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”
And it worked.
She would be driving to work in the morning, and she’d start worrying she’d left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.
And approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car?
I, on the other hand, thought it was the best fricking story I had ever heard and the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back. If one day I open up my own psychiatric practice, I am half-seriously considering using a picture of a hair dryer as the logo, just to let everyone know where I stand on this issue.
Scott Alexander, “The categories were made for man, not man for categories”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-11-21.
January 21, 2016
What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight, the profusion of gyms and Weight Watchers programs, and let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts. As a result, everyone … keeps gaining weight at exactly the same rate they have been for the past couple decades. Wouldn’t it be nice if increasing obesity was driven at least in part by changes in the intestinal microbiota that we could reverse through careful antibiotic use? Or by trans-fats?
What about poor school performance? From the social angle, we try No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, stronger teachers’ unions, weaker teachers’ unions, more pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, more prayer in school, banning prayer in school, condemning racism, condemning racism even more, et cetera. But the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation, and doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep and continue to be totally ignored despite strong evidence in favor.
Scott Alexander, “Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-10.
January 20, 2016
In the company of medical people who know the history of their craft you can get a good discussion going about the exact date after which medical attention was more likely to help than harm you. Opinions generally settle somewhere between 1910 and 1940.
That’s within living memory. People of the generation before my own had little to hope for from medicine. The more realistic among them knew this. My own father, born 1899, regarded the entire medical profession with fear and mistrust. A hospital, he believed, was a place where poor people went to die. A major theme in the background noise of my childhood was the voice of my mother — a professional nurse — nagging Dad to go see a doctor about some ailment he was suffering. “Why won’t you at least go see him? He won’t HURT you.” Dad knew better. Most things mend by themselves. He lived to be 85, dying at last of pneumonia, which was known to people of that generation as “the old man’s friend.”
It wasn’t all negatives before “the early 1950s, when medicine was turning into a science” (Lewis Thomas). There was nursing; there was surgery; there were a handful of useful drugs.
Nursing — the art of keeping patients clean, comfortable, and cheerful — must have saved far more lives than doctoring in the long dark ages before antibiotics. Florence Nightingale (a significant mathematician, by the way) has to be reckoned one of the great benefactors of humanity.
John Derbyshire, “The Scariest Science”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-11-13.
January 19, 2016
Perhaps more important than piling up more examples to attest the phenomenon is giving a little thought to why female masochism occurs. Like other sex traits, it is an evolutionary adaptation. I am going to go way out on a limb and suggest that early hominid males may not have been quite so delicate as Tom Fleming, who becomes ill at the very thought of a woman being struck. African men are, by all accounts, pretty quick with their fists to this day. Gallantry is an achievement of civilization, not a part of our primitive nature.
Now, females in our “environment of evolutionary adaptation” were dependent on males for mating, protection, and access to resources. These males were bigger and stronger than females and could easily hurt them if angered or displeased. If our female ancestors had been delicate snowflakes unable to endure life with such brutes, we would not be here today. In other words, women adapted to male brutality, including occasional violence, learning how to get through or around it.
Think for a moment, men, how you would learn to behave if you were dependent for survival on an unpredictable and often violent creature larger and stronger than yourself. You would learn not simply to take what you wanted. You would learn to act when his back is turned, to use indirection, deception, manipulation. You would learn to conceal your true thoughts and keep Big Boy confused as to your true intentions. You would, in short, learn to act like a woman.
The battle of the sexes is a contest of force vs. cunning. Yes, civilized men learn to control their aggressive impulses and not beat women up every time they feel irritation with them. In the modern West, men have largely renounced the use of their natural weapon for controlling women, i.e., force. Have women renounced the use of their own weapons against men? Certainly we cannot expect women to shed millennial evolutionary adaptations automatically the instant men learn to behave.
F. Roger Devlin, “The Question of Female Masochism”, Counter-Currents Publishing, 2014-09-17.