July 26, 2016

QotD: Natural born killers? Not so much…

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the most dangerous errors of our time is the belief that human beings are uniquely violent animals, barely restrained from committing atrocities on each other by the constraints of ethics, religion, and the state.

It may seem odd to some to dispute this, given the apparently ceaseless flow of atrocity reports from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and Los Angeles that we suffer every day. But, in fact, a very little study of animal ethology (and some application of ethological methods to human behavior) suffices to show the unbiased mind that human beings are not especially violent animals.

Desmond Morris, in his fascinating book Manwatching, for example, shows that the instinctive fighting style of human beings seems to be rather carefully optimized to keep us from injuring one another. Films of street scuffles show that “instinctive” fighting consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the head/shoulders/ribcage area.

It is remarkably difficult to seriously injure a human being this way; the preferred target areas are mostly bone, and the instinctive striking style delivers rather little force for given effort. It is enlightening to compare this fumbling behavior to the focussed soft-tissue strike of a martial artist, who (having learned to override instinct) can easily kill with one blow.

It is also a fact, well-known to military planners, that somewhere around 70% of troops in their first combat-fire situation find themselves frozen, unable to trigger lethal weapons at a live enemy. It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group. (Major David Pierson of the U.S. Army wrote an illuminating essay on this topic in the June 1999 Military Review).

Criminal violence is strongly correlated with overcrowding and stress, conditions that any biologist knows can make even a laboratory mouse crazy. To see the contrast clearly, compare an urban riot with post-hurricane or -flood responses in rural areas. Faced with common disaster, it is more typical of humans to pull together than pull apart.

Individual human beings, outside of a tiny minority of sociopaths and psychopaths, are simply not natural killers. Why, then, is the belief in innate human viciousness so pervasive in our culture? And what is this belief costing us?

Eric S. Raymond, “The Myth of Man the Killer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-07-15.

July 12, 2016

QotD: Did our distant ancestors select for intelligence?

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is a special case of one of my favorite Damned Ideas, originally developed by John W. Campbell in the 1960s from some speculations by a forgotten French anthropologist. Campbell proposed that the manhood initiation rituals found in many primitive tribes are a selective machine designed to permit adulthood and reproduction only to those who can demonstrate verbal fluency and the ability to override instinctive fears on verbal command.

Campbell suggests that all living humans are descended from groups of hominids that, having evolved full-human mental capability in some of their members, found the overhead of supporting the dullards too high. So they began selecting for traits correlated with intelligence through initiation rituals timed for just as their offspring were achieving reproductive capacity; losers got driven out, or possibly killed and eaten.

Campbell pointed out that the common elements of tribal initiations are (a) scarring or cicatricing of the skin, opening the way for lethal infections, (b) alteration or mutilation of the genitals, threatening the ability to reproduce, and (c) alteration of the mouth and teeth, threatening the ability to eat. These seem particularly well optimized for inducing maximum instinctive fear in the subject while actually being relatively safe under controlled and relatively hygenic conditions. The core test of initiation is this: can the subject conquer fear and submit to the initiation on the basis of learned (verbal, in preliterate societies) command?

Campbell noticed the first order effect was to shift the mean of the IQ bell curve upwards over generations. The second-order effect, which if he noticed he didn’t talk about, was to start an arms race in initiation rituals; competing bands experimented with different selective filters (not consciously but through random variation). Setting the bar too low or too high would create a bad tradeoff between IQ selectivity and maintaining raw reproductive capacity. So we’re descended from the hominids who found the right tradeoff to push their mean IQ up as rapidly as possible and outcompeted the groups that chose less well.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell or his sources, but this theory explains why initiation rituals for girls are a rare and usually post-literate phenomenon. Male reproductive capacity is cheap; a healthy young man can impregnate several young women a day, and healthy young men are instinct-wired to do exactly that whenever they can get away with it. Female reproductive capacity, on the other hand, is scarce and precious. So it makes sense to select the boys ruthlessly and give the girls a pass. Of course if you push this too far you don’t get enough hunters and fighters, but the right tradeoff pretty clearly is not 1-to-1.

Eric S. Raymond, “Selecting for intelligence”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-11-14.

February 5, 2016

QotD: Chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans

Filed under: Health, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

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.

January 11, 2016

Pre-agrarian life

Filed under: Health, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Cedar Sanderson guest posts at According to Hoyt:

I’m currently studying the history of the world, prior to 1500. In the first chapter of the book we were assigned to read, the point is made that humans have been around for a very long time, it took a long time to develop agriculture, but there weren’t many of them pre-agriculture. The crux of the matter is the ability to grow more food than you could hunt, or gather, in a small group. Large groups, which would build societies and cities, simply could not exist on a subsistence diet.

One of my classmates, in a discussion forum, stated that humans were desperate for nutrients and one of the main ways to get food was to graze which made me do a head-desk, and then start thinking. We take abundant food for granted. The child (in college, but still, a child) who seems to think that humans grazed on grass in pre-history has no doubt never missed a meal in their life unless it was by choice. The world we live in offers enough variety, enough abundance, that people can be ‘vegan’ and still survive, although thriving and being healthy are different matters.

The book tells me that women didn’t have as many children before agriculture, and that’s why population was lower. I snort and mutter something impolite under my breath. In reality hunter-gatherers have more in common with herds of animals, and again, it’s about the food. They were reliant on what was growing right there, right then. They had no way of producing a surplus nor of storing same. If they overhunted an area they were forced to move or die. If the tribe’s population grew too large, they starved or succumbed to disease, just like a deer herd or the snowshoe hare population collapses every few years to build slowly back up, limited by the supply of available food.

Humans lived that way for a very long time. Women having less babies? Probably, only it wasn’t through some kind of arcane desire to keep the population down. It was through the lack of food – nursing a child in the modern era is not terribly effective birth control, but in the time of subsistence the woman’s body simply couldn’t handle the dual load of nursing and pregnancy. I became pregnant with two of my children while nursing full time, I can speak to the enormous drain it is even on a well-fed body.

Because it’s fat. I have fat, on me, and in my diet. Fat is something you just don’t see prior to agriculture, and there’s a reason so many cultures revere the plump woman (just look at all the Venus statues from around the world). A fat woman could have babies and she could survive nursing and this meant the family could go on. And while we’re on the makin’ babies topic, here’s something: my history book laments the rise of the patriarchy alongside the rise of civilization after agriculture, constraining women and making them be under the thumb of the male. Well, that’s not patriarchy, that’s food. Men could hunt, and bring in the meat that was desperately needed for survival. Women gathered, but the men were the hunters.

Why didn’t the women hunt? Well, babies. Pregnant, nursing, malnourished…. The women were managing all they could, and the men were taking care of them. Women were better able to survive (yes, I am counting death in childbirth) in that harsh world than men were. Men were a valuable commodity in a time when hunting and protection of the tribe-family against others who wanted the same food they needed to live menaced the women and children. Female infanticide was practiced long before recorded history, evidence shows. Men were more valuable to the hunter-gatherers and it wasn’t even questioned it seems. But my history book complains that it was the rise of civilization post-agriculture that was to blame for the oppression of women and the gender inequality. Prior to ‘society’ it claims men and women were equal.

January 9, 2016

QotD: Humans and apes

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On what separates us from the apes:

    Michael Tomasello, one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzee cognition, [said] “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.”

On what doesn’t separate us from the apes:

    Acheulean tools [a style used by hominids 1.8 million years ago] are nearly identical everywhere, from Africa to Europe to Asia, for more than a million years. There’s hardly any variation, which suggests that the knowledge of how to make these tools may not have been passed on culturally. Rather, the knowledge of how to make these tools may have become innate, just as the “knowledge” of how to build a dam is innate in beavers.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

December 22, 2015

QotD: Communes

Filed under: History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The anthropologist Richard Sosis examined the history of two hundred communes founded in the United States in the nineteenth century. Which kind of commune survived longest? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6% of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39% of religious communes. He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

December 21, 2015

QotD: Witches

Filed under: Africa, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It turns out that witchcraft beliefs arise in surprisingly similar forms in many parts of the world, which suggests either that there really are witches or (more likely) that there’s something about human minds that often generates this cultural institution. The Azande believed that witches were just as likely to be men as women, and the fear of being called a witch made the Azande careful not to make their neighbors angry or envious. That was my first hint that groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

August 24, 2015

Comparative Advantage

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

What is comparative advantage? And why is it important to trade? This video guides us through a specific example surrounding Tasmania — an island off the coast of Australia that experienced the miracle of growth in reverse. Through this example we show what can happen when a civilization is deprived of trade, and show why trade is essential to economic growth.

In an economy with a greater number of participants trading goods and services, there are more ways to find a comparative advantage and earn more by creating the most value for others. Let’s dive right in with an example from our new friends, Bob and Ann.

July 18, 2015

Early anthropology

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Scientist, Ian Tattersall describes the early days of anthropological studies:

Before the mid-1900s, human fossils were for the most part studied and pronounced upon by specialists in human anatomy. Based in medical schools, these researchers were exquisitely attuned to variation within Homo sapiens, but were largely unconcerned with the riotous diversity of species out there in the living world. Ignorant of taxonomic norms, they branded newly discovered hominin fossils with new Latin names, much as they gave each of their children a separate name. In this way, throughout the first half of the 20th century the rapidly expanding paleoanthropological literature became littered with formal names — even though many of the freshly unearthed fossils actually belonged to species that had already been described.

I write about this crucible of discovery and folly in my new book, The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack.

The haphazard application of species names to every new hominin fossil was a practice that could not continue indefinitely. And in 1950 the ornithologist Ernst Mayr, one of the fathers of the Evolutionary Synthesis, took it upon himself to lecture the paleoanthropologists on the error of their ways. The Synthesis was an elaboration of evolutionary theory that saw most evolutionary change as the gradual accumulation, via natural selection, of small genetic innovations within ancestor-descendant sequences. So Mayr depicted human evolution as the slow modification of a single lineage culminating in Homo sapiens. Among the fifteen hominin genera then described, Mayr said, there was in reality only one: our own genus, Homo. What’s more, the Homo lineage contained only three species: Homo transvaalensis (an early biped) had given rise to Homo erectus, which in turn had evolved into Homo sapiens. Acutely aware that their nomenclatural proliferation lacked any theoretical justification, the paleoanthropologists capitulated. For half a century thereafter, most of them viewed human evolution as a single-minded progression from primitiveness to sapient perfection driven by natural selection: an idea that fit rather well with the undeniable fact that only one hominin exists in the world today.

From the beginning, though, it was obvious that Mayr’s scheme was a huge oversimplification. As fossil discoveries rapidly continued to accumulate, his single lineage began to bulge at the seams. A new image of hominin evolution began to develop.

February 26, 2015

Humanity’s not-so-distant cousins

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Real Clear Science has an excerpt from Yuval Harari’s recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.

For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm. (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that they were cared for by their relatives.) Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.

According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens. They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, when Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus.

The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story – one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another. And even if a Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable. The two populations remained completely distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed off, their genes died with them. According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago. We are all ‘pure Sapiens’.

A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom in the field. It had firmer archaeological backing, and was more politically correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by claiming significant genetic diversity among modern human populations). But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome were published. Geneticists were able to collect enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison between it and the DNA of contemporary humans. The results stunned the scientific community.

It turned out that 1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant. A second shock came several months later, when DNA extracted from the fossilised finger from Denisova was mapped. The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

November 20, 2014

Chimpanzee sexual behaviour and what it says about humans

Filed under: Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:20

Tia Ghose discusses some recent findings on the sexual aggression of male chimpanzees and (given that humans are closely related to chimps) looks for parallels in human behaviour:

Male chimpanzees that wage a campaign of sustained aggression against females sire more offspring than their less violent counterparts, new research finds.

The results suggest that such nasty behavior from males evolved because it gave the meanest males a reproductive advantage, said study co-author Ian Gilby, a primatologist at Arizona State University in Phoenix.

This chimpanzee behavior could also provide some insight into the roots of sexual aggression in men.

“It is possible that in our early ancestors there may have been an adaptive value to male aggression against females,” Gilby said.


Though the findings are in chimpanzees, they lend credence to the notion that male sexual aggression in humans may have some genetic or evolutionary basis, Gilby said.

On the other hand, drawing parallels can be perilous. Humans diverged from chimpanzees at least 7 million years ago, and the human mating system looks very different from chimps’ violent, multi-male, multi-female system. Humans form pair bonds and have varied and complex mating strategies and behaviors. And most men aren’t brutes to their partners.

“We definitely don’t mean to say this excuses or fully explains violence in this way in humans,” Gilby said.

The study’s findings may provide fodder for a long-standing debate in evolutionary biology about whether rape and sexual aggression are evolutionarily advantageous in humans, said William McKibbin, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan–Flint, who was not involved in the study. No studies in humans have ever shown that rape increases reproductive success, he added.

November 15, 2014

Men’s unwillingness to ask for directions … may be an evolutionary advantage

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

I wanted to title this post “Have dick, will travel”, but I decided it wasn’t the most dignified way to introduce this topic:

The reason men refuse to ask for directions when lost isn’t down to pig-headed stubbornness, but rather a hard-wired evolutionary instinct which has developed so they can, err, get more sex — say anthropologists.

Students with clipboards from the University of Utah interviewed dozens of members of the Twe and Tjimba tribes in northwest Namibia. They found that men who did better spatial tasks, unsurprisingly, travelled farther — but also had children with more women.

Anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan said the data supports the hypothesis that men have evolved a greater spatial ability to “benefit reproductively from getting more mates” and “ranging farther is one way they do this.”

Compared with other cognitive differences between the sexes, such as cultural differences in maths skills, the difference in spatial skills is much larger, found the research.

November 7, 2014

Criticizing someone for making an error … while making the same error yourself

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:26

That’s another concept that I’m sure must have an eighteen-syllable descriptor in German but doesn’t have a matching name in English. David Friedman has a great illustration of this in the criticism of a nineteenth century anthropologist by Stephen Jay Gould:

The late Stephen Jay Gould was both an evolutionary biologist and a popular essayist. In the book The Mismeasure of Man he argued that scientists unconsciously manipulate their data to fit their preexisting prejudices. As evidence he cited the work of Samuel George Morton, a 19th century physical anthropologist who assembled a large collection of skulls from many parts of the world and measured their cranial capacity in an attempt to answer questions about racial differences. According to Gould, Morton skewed his data in various ways to fit his racial beliefs.

I have just read an article by a group of modern anthropologists who went over Morton’s data and remeasured many of the skulls that Morton measured — something Gould did not do. The authors concluded that most of Gould’s criticisms were poorly supported or falsified. The errors that Gould reported in Morton’s analysis resulted from errors by Gould, not by Morton. Morton did make some mistakes in his work, but they were in the opposite direction from his biases.


The obvious conclusion, not stated by the authors of the article, is that Gould’s central claim was correct. Scientists sometimes bias their work to fit their preconceptions. As Gould demonstrated by doing so.

October 1, 2014

QotD: Primitive belief systems and “sorcerism”

Filed under: Environment, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Many primitive societies believe that maleficent spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes — cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficent human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.

A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers — but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” — you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.

English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.

Eric S. Raymond, “Heavy weather and bad juju”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-02-03.

February 14, 2014

QotD: Anthropology

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:30

Readers who are all too familiar with popular works on anthropology may be interested to learn that some recent investigations have involved a completely novel approach. The ordinary anthropologist is one who spends six weeks or six months (or even sometimes six years) among, say, the Boreyu tribe at their settlement on the Upper Teedyas River, Darndreeryland. He then returns to civilization with his photographs, tape recorders, and notebooks, eager to write his book about sex life and superstition. For tribes such as the Boreyu, life is made intolerable by all this peering and prying. They often become converts to Presbyterianism in the belief that they will thereupon cease to be of interest to anthropologists; nor in fact has this device been known to fail. But enough primitive people remain for the purposes of science. Books continue to multiply, and when the last tribe has resorted to the singing of hymns in self-defense, there are still the poor of the backstreets. These are perpetually pursued by questionnaire, camera, and phonograph; and the written results are familiar to us all.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Palm Thatch To Packard Or A Formula For Success”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

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