Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Altruism files: How birds explain it all

Here is an article on altruism in birds that offers such convoluted explanations of the willingness of some birds to feed others that they make me wonder why anyone bothers to try to find an explanation for altruism in birds. Maybe, when food is not in short supply, some birds will take to feeding others.
... when helpers are at hand, female fairy-wrens produce eggs with 12 percent less fat, 13 percent less protein, and less carbohydrate, than eggs produced by females that do not have helpers. The hatchlings of those "lite" eggs are smaller than normal chicks, but their initial scrawniness is quickly overcome by the extra food brought by the non-breeding helpers.

The one who benefits is the mother.

Now, the obvious reason for all this bother is to try to find a selfish reason is to explain away altruism in humans as the outcome of the activities of selfish genes, and not of thinking minds. That is, you do not decide anything, your genes decide it and you carry it out.

Superstition is hardly dead. It is alive and well, and has gravitated to the many offspring of the Human Genome Project.

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Recent book reviews: Steve Pinker's Stuff of Thought

Seth Lerer, in "The Edifice of Pinkerism" suggests that not since the 18th century has there been so much argument about the mind. He is, of course, reviewing Harvard cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker's latest, Stuff of Thought.

Wow. Stuff. I knew Pinker was a materialist, but does he mean stuff like ... stuff? The kind of stuff you give to the SallyAnn (puzzles you've done twice and clothes that never fit). Well, almost, according to Lerer. That is, he believes in "a theory of mind that holds that certain concepts or ways of thinking are hardwired into our brains at birth."

Well, hard wiring is the stuff that the electrician sneaks into a nearby dumpster after fixing the lighting system. So he must mean ... stuff.

But I still don't get it. Everything these guys talk about is simply "an idea in the minds of men." It becomes physical only when they act, and then mainly in the outcome. Before that, what is it, exactly? Not stuff.

Lerer comments:
Then again, there is a fair amount of sheer attention getting in the book, especially the long chapter on "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." Mr. Pinker comes off as a comedian manqué, channeling George Carlin to make witty observations on why we can and cannot say things publicly. There's nothing more uncomfortable to a young student than a middle-aged college professor working at being cool, and there are times throughout this book when I just cringed at the Groucho Marxisms or the list of verbs for sexual activity. That this list in particular ends with the Yiddish "shtup" can only be explained by Mr. Pinker's belief that there is something inherently funny in the sonic concatenations of the shtetl.

Mr. Pinker, of course, is more than just a borscht-belt John Locke. He is the cognitive philosopher of our generation, and his work on language and mind has implications for anybody interested in human expression and experience.

Yes, but WHAT implications? Should I just start ignoring Pinker?

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