Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Evolutionary psychology :Goodbye cruel US - prof claims EP's future is Asia

Recently, someone from Europe (who says he is "very sceptical of intelligent design theory") drew my attention to a "horrible" article he found in the Google cache.*

In it, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, an assistant prof at the University of New Mexico, outlines plans for "The Asian Future of Evolutionary Psychology." in Evolutionary Psychology 2006.4: 107-119 From Miller we learn the reasons why evolutionary psychology (the attempt to derive human behavior from the factors that either (1) helped human ancestors survive or (2) were accidental traits that may or may not have helped them survive) is not thriving in North American and Europe. (You know, the infidelity gene, the violence gene, the God module, the altruism spot, and other such assured results of modern science.).

Briefly, Miller senses that evolutionary psychology is not nearly as popular as it ought to be in the West, but not to worry, Asia is overtaking the West. He paper suggests ways to market it to the East.

Here are some excerpts from his analysis:
Altogether, if we exclude the likely anti-Darwinian cultures of Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, the current and emerging Asian powers include a total of 2.9 billion people – half the world’s population, and about four times as many people as in the U.S. and E.U. combined. These Asians already have high literacy rates, high average IQs, fast-growing economies, and a relative freedom from memetic infection by the Abrahamic religions. Psychology is already becoming hugely more popular at Asian universities (Zhang and Xu, 2006). That is the current state of play, as of 2006.

Noting that if current trends continue, there will be six to eight times as many Asian behavioural scientists as EuroAmerican ones, he explains that the children of newly affluent Asians will

... grow up materially spoiled but emotionally neglected. They will take prosperity for granted. They will rebel against conspicuous consumption, seek alternative paths to status, and adopt the ancien-régime norms of conspicuous leisure and self-actualization. They will start college in economics or genetics, but then they will fall in love, take drugs, read Chuck Palahniuk novels, have existential crises, and end up majoring in psychology. (So it goes.) Their moneyobsessed parents will be appalled at first, but gradually realize there’s a certain cachet in being able to brag about a kid with a Ph.D. The second and third generation of Asian middle-class youth – not the first generation – will drive the Asian dominance in behavioral sciences by mid-century.

Well that's some prospect, all right.

Miller believes that Euro-America is doomed to become a scientific backwater by 2050 (page 8), so even if evolutionary psychology could hop off the breathless pages of the pop science press, it would be wasted on the lands of its birth. He suggests just forgetting Euro-America, noting,
the U.S. is morphing into a fascist-fundamentalist plutocracy that will never seriously support Darwinian research.

Europe is so-so in his view, but the real future is Asia. If his colleagues work "hard, fast, and smart":
We could gain the first-mover advantage in shaping their intellectual outlook for decades to come. We nurture the emotional bonds of collaboration and mentorship. They appreciate our attention and respect. No one else from the Western behavioral sciences is bothering with poor old Asia. Evolutionary psychology becomes the dominant paradigm in all the key psychology departments ... Evolutionary psychology is still misunderstood, mocked, rejected, and reviled in the U.S. and Europe. But we don’t care. We’re playing the science version of the board-game Risk: whoever wins Asia probably wins the game.

He lists the factors that he thinks will help, including such claims as
Buddhist-influenced cultures understand adaptive self-deception; they view human cognitions, emotions, and preferences as self-interested illusory constructs that may serve biological goals, but that do not reflect objective reality

in contrast to sex-negative European monotheism, many Asian cultures are more sex-positive, more urbane, and more sophisticated (consider the Kama Sutra, Tantric Buddhism, Hindu temple carvings, Thai sex tourism, geisha culture, etc.)

Indeed, Miller, imagining himself and his colleagues as intelligent aliens, enthuses,
The U.S. is anti-intellectual and deeply religious, frenzied by consumerist self-indulgence and belligerent nationalism, veers between puritanical hypocrisy and pornographic narcissism, and has no serious national media or science journalism. China, by contrast, has a five-thousand-year tradition of intellectual progress, values education and ideas, is strongly secular, and will soon be the world’s most populous, prosperous, and progressive country. I would land my flying saucer in Zhejiang Province, not New Mexico.

Well, Geoffrey, don't let anyone deter you.

It's significant that the subtext of Miller's paper is that, despite strenuous promotion in the science media, evolutionary psychology has - at least to judge from his account - failed to catch on in the lands of its birth.

As Mario Beauregard and I detail in The Spiritual Brain, there are very good reasons for that. The general uselessness and irrelevance of Darwinian fairy tales is the main one. Granted, if people believe in a Darwinian fairy tale of caves long ago, it may influence them, for good or ill. But the same may be said of stories like The Ugly Duckling or The Lord of the Rings, whose authors never claimed that they were writing science.

All that said, I am puzzled about how to respond to my European correspondent. "Very sceptical" of the intelligent design of the universe, is he? Well, then, the sort of "horrible" enterprise he drew to my attention IS the alternative. He'd better either get used to it or rethink his opposition to ID.

But wait a minute - aren't the evolutionary psychologists being urged to pack themselves off to points East? Perhaps his best plan would be to see them off at the airport, cheering wildly.

EP, don't phone home.

(*Also here as a .pdf, also the citation on his site.)

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Pop science watch: Is the altruism spot edging out the God spot in pop science?

A Washington Post article reports
"You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable

There you have it! Morality explained. Indeed, a whack of materialists chimed in with comments like:
Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.

Here's a less hyped report of the original study, including the comment:
"Although understanding the function of this brain region may not necessarily identify what drives people like Mother Theresa, it may give clues to the origins of important social behaviors like altruism," said study investigator Scott A. Huettel, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center.

But would it even do that? A skeptical lawyer friend comments:
I don't think this is as persuasive as the author thinks. Different cultures have different taste preferences for food, for example -- some cultures love tastes that others find disgusting. Thus a person who has learned to like a particular taste will have the pleasure center activated when it tastes the flavor it has learned to experience as pleasant. But if the person has learned to hate a taste, that person's pleasure center will not light up on tasting that food.

So too with the altruistic behavior -- the person was taught that the behavior was good, and so feels pleasure when doing the behavior.

Thus I think what we are really seeing is a reflection of learned behavior, not "hardwired" altruism.

I note also that the study says the test subjects were "volunteers." In other words, the scientists chose altruistic people -- people willing to volunteer to help them -- as their universe of test subjects.

I should think the main question is whether altruism is really, in any sense, "hardwired" anywhere. "Hardwired" is outdated reductionist computerspeak, long overdue to be retired. It immediately raises an issue: "Hardwired" means part of the physical structure of the brain, like wiring in a computer. Somehow, that sounds unlikely. In fact, it sounds exactly like all those stupid, useless quests for the God gene, God circuit, God module in the brain, or whatever.

In my experience, young children have generous impulses, but the impulses are inconsistent and not necessarily keyed to a strong moral sense. The habit of generous behaviour within moral limits must indeed be learned. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. Like all good habits, it usually becomes a source of pleasure in time. No doubt the researchers are picking up a small part of that outcome. Of course, as anyone who persists in well-doing knows, altruism is certainly not always a pleasure. Some people are thankless, feckless, frustrating, or undeserving. Even the most experienced generous person can develop compassion fatigue. Persisting through the unpleasantness is the beginning of good character.

Kim in Vienna kindly noted some of my other comments on this subject. Here's a thought from nonmaterialist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor:
The brain is a material substance. It has location, dimensions, weight, temperature, and energy. It also has parts; it has a superior surface, a medial boundary, a left side and a right side. As such, it can interact with other things that have similar properties- things that have matter and parts and energy. A region of the brain can cause action potentials, or movements of the arm. Oxygen molecules, barbiturate molecules, electrons, or a hammer can, in turn, affect the brain.
Altruism, in contrast, has no matter or energy. It has no ‘location’, no weight, no dimension, no temperature. It has no properties of matter. Altruism entails things like purpose and judgment, which aren’t material. Altruism has no parts, in the sense that there is a ‘left-side’ of altruism and a ‘right side’ of altruism. There are, of course, left sided and right sided parts of the brain, which may be associated with acts of altruism, but there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ to altruism itself. Of course, objects (like human brains or bodies) that have location, weight, etc. can mediate or carry out altruistic acts, but the altruism itself doesn’t have a location. Altruism isn’t spatial. ‘My altruism is three inches from the edge of the table’ is a nonsensical statement.

He adds,
Materialist neuroscientists confuse association with causation. This is the unhappy result of scientific materialism, which excludes immaterial causes. Yet many things in the world, including our ideas and even our theories about the world, are not matter or energy. Altruism is obviously something very real; many people’s lives depend on it. We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know, by its properties, what it’s not. It’s not material. It shares no properties in common with matter. It can’t be caused by a piece of the brain.

The materialist project is becoming all the more frenetic as it becomes more obviously undoable. Consider, for example the claim that apes speak.
Upcoming book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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Secularism: Early postmortem results

Dinesh D'Souza notes, about this year's Templeton winner Charles Taylor,
I wish I could read Taylor’s forthcoming book on secularism now, since I am in the process of finishing my new book What’s So Great About Christianity , out from Regnery in October. But Taylor’s A Secular Age is not out until September. This is Taylor’s eagerly-awaited study of how we came to live in a secular age. At one time virtually all of the orbit of life in the West was shaped by religion and specifically Christianity. But now we live in a time and place where our political, economic, scientific and cultural activities are largely removed from the sphere of religion. I want to learn from Taylor what we have gained and what we have lost, and whether it is possible to retrieve some things that have been hastily left behind.

D'Souza is the political scientist who has unsettled a lot of people by pointing out, along with journalist Mustafa Akyol, that the reason that radicalized Islamic extremists make converts among traditional Muslims is not that the traditional Muslims hate Christians but because they despise the spiritual bankruptcy of current Western culture. Thus they can be recruited to jihad.

Akyol, for his part, offers an insightful look into the clash between secularist democrats and Muslim democrats in Turkey. He warns against taking too seriously the legacy media myth that the secularists are pro-democracy and the believers are anti-democracy. It was never nearly that simple in Turkey. For example, he notes,
... the late Ottoman Empire had a very sophisticated intellectual elite. Most of the Ottoman intelligentsia spoke English and French, and they were very well versed in European thought, not to mention the Islamic tradition. Among them were different trends, but to generalize, we can speak of two main camps. One of these was what I call the “modernization within the tradition” camp. Its proponents realized the need for reforms, but were hoping to realize these without abandoning traditional values, and especially the religious ones.

The second trend was what I call the “modernization despite the tradition” folks. Their most radical representative was the secular fundamentalist Abdullah Cevdet, who thought Turks could only save themselves if they abandoned their religion. His distaste with traditional values reached a level of deep self-hatred. As a believer in Social Darwinism, he once argued that Turkish women should be bred with men from the “superior races” of Europe to ensure “biological progress.” He is still remembered with deep disgust among Turkey's conservatives.

In other words, Islamism arose in Turkey not because its Islamic tradition was prone to it. No. It arose because its secular fundamentalists kept on suppressing even the most moderate and progressive expressions of religion.

And the bad news for today is that they are craving do the same thing again.

The current secularist hype in Turkey, which goes hysterical in the face of any sign of religiosity in society, is a very dangerous political force that might, once again, crush Turkish democracy and prevent the cultivation of a truly modern, moderate and yet still devout Muslim identity.

Compared with most ideas for organizing society, secularism was demonstrably weaker at resisting the deconstruction of all values, whether functional or not, because it was simply a negative phenomenon. There was not much behind it to form a resistance. If Turkish Muslims adopt simple secularism, they will not end up spending their Fridays communing with art or nature but shopping (or worse).

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Atheism and intelligent design: Rejecting design key factor in Christopher Hitchens' atheism

Here's the origin of the atheism of God is not great author Christopher Hitchens, according to Peter Hitchens, his Christian brother: At nine years old, he decided that his teacher was wrong, that the world could not be designed:

At the heart of this book are two extraordinary, bold statements. One is a declaration of absolute faith, faith that religion has got it wrong, a mental thunderbolt of unbelief.

Christopher describes how at the age of nine he concluded that his teacher’s claim that the world must be designed was wrong. "I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong."

At the time of this revelation, he knew nothing of the vast, unending argument between those who maintain that the shape of the world is evidence of design, and those who say the same world is evidence of random, undirected natural selection.

It’s my view that he still doesn’t know all that much about this interesting dispute. Yet at the age of nine, he "simply knew" who had won one of the oldest debates in the history of mankind.

Just like he simply "knows" all kinds of things that are demonstrably incorrect, as Peter Hitchens notes in this most interesting article.

This is interesting because acceptance of intelligent design caused lifelong world-famous atheist Antony Flew to decide there must be a God.

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Ape watch: Another claim for ape language that doesn't pan out

Well, John Berman's ABC report "Hello, How Are You Doing?: Groundbreaking Research Has Scientists Talking with Apes" certainly sounded groundbreaking. The bonobos and orangutans at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, are said to "talk"*, using a 350 symbol keyboard on which they have been trained since infancy. One ofthem, a 26-year-old orangutan, Kanzi, is the star: He can map a series of English words to symbols on the keyboard. But then, it all fell apart during Berman's "interview" with the ape:

Sound beyond belief? During a visit to the Great Ape Trust, I sat down with Kanzi the Bonobo -- the first Ape I have ever interviewed.
I read Kanzi a series of words, and then without fail, he hit the corresponding lexigram symbol on a touch screen.

I said "Egg."

He pressed "Egg."

I said, "M and M."

He pressed "M and M."

Then Kanzi took control of the conversation and pressed the symbol for "Surprise!"

Needless to say, I was quite surprised, having never actually spoken to an ape before.

But Kanzi was pointing to a box of candy that I was sitting near. That is the surprise that he wanted.

I'll just bet that was the surprise Kanji wanted. And far from all this sounding "beyond belief", I would be really surprised if, having been pestered this way since infancy, Kanji could not have managed at least this much communication. Dogs do it regularly.

I myself taught a cat to recognize and respond to a number of words in 1964. And the cat, like the ape, could be relied on to choose the point at which she felt she should be rewarded for her cooperation and to identify the location of any reward she was being offered. For their prudence in such matters, I commend both the cat and the ape.

But the whole experiment points up the fundamental problem identified by Jonathan Marks in What does it mean to be 98% Chimpanzee?: The ape hasn't anything to say, in particular, that requires a high level of language skill. If he is under your control and you force him to learn some routine for a box of candy, he must comply - whether you are operating a circus act or a lab. But beyond a certain point, it all sounds like cruelty to me.

The people involved mean well - they want to protect apes. Then why couldn't they just let them be apes?

And what a naive thought! - that apes can really help us understand the fundamental riddles of human existence. As if I could make that long-departed cat understand the motivations that caused me to teach her some sit and rollover tricks.

(I was refuting the claim made by some acquaintances that cats cannot be taught to respond to simple words. They can indeed be taught to respond to simple words, if motivated, but they are hard to motivate. The cat's native senses are far better than the human's, and the cat - who, unlike the dog, has no great delight in obedience - is readily distracted by other interests.)

Here are some linguists' thoughts on these perennial talking animals stories and why they don't pan out.

*Apes' vocal cords do not seem to permit speech, so experiment in communicating with primates rely on signals of various types.

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Brain: Do you really need a brain?

Recent research has cast doubt on just how neurons transmit information in the brain, and some wonder just what role the brain as a whole plays in thinking. Here is an interesting case:
In 1970, a New Yorker died at the age of 35. He had left school with no academic achievements, but had worked at manual jobs such as building janitor, and was a popular figure in his neighbourhood. Tenants of the building where he worked described him as passing the days performing his routine chores, such as tending the boiler, and reading the tabloid newspapers. When an autopsy was performed to determine the cause of his premature death he, too, was found to have practically no brain at all.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one, hence the "too" in the last sentence. In "Is Your Brain Really Necessary?", in Ability of Love Journal , Richard Milton goes on to ask,
... if the brain is not a mechanism for classifying and storing experiences and analysing them to enable us to live our lives then what on earth is the brain for? And where is the seat of human intelligence? Where is the mind?

From what I have learned as co-author of The Spiritual Brain, I suspect that the problem lies in treating the brain as a filing cabinet of a certain dimension, when it is in fact an organ that is full of quantum processes that may not have a specific location at all. Asking “where” a thought or memory is might be akin to asking “where” and electron is or “where ” a wave is. The system probably just doesn’t work that way. And we do not actually know how much space/how many neurons are needed, at minimum, for various tasks.

(Note: People who regularly check this space may have noticed that I am sometimes absent for a week or so. Usually, I am writing a long article, or editing or indexing a book. Remember, bloggers are volunteers. I do what I can.)

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

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