Ridley and Pinker: SysAdmining Options and More

After finally getting accustomed with David Buller’s writing style, it’s hard to go back to Ridley and Pinker. Imagine reading Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, and then… something not quite so good but more accessible.

Anyway, from today’s reading (Chapter 3, “The Last Wall to Fall,” from Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” and Chapter 2, “A Plethora of Instincts,” from Ridley’s “Nature via Nurture”) I started picking out bits and pieces to use in a final topic.

In response to a similar thought of mine on another post, Phil Jones of Synaesmedia asked

Erm, how many generations of controlled breeding were you thinking of, exactly?

While such an A-Z Ruleset would not necessarily be bad, the readings seem to present more boring options…


Topic: SysAdmin
“The megalomania of the genes does not mean that benevolence and cooperation cannot evolve, any more than the law of gravity proves that flight cannot evolve. It means only that benevolence, like flight, is a special state of affairs in need of an explanation, not something that just happens.” (Pinker 53)
“Worse still, if our minds were truly malleable they would be easily manipulated by our rivals, who could mold or condition us into serving their needs rather than our own. A malleable mind would quickly be selected out.” (Pinker 54-55)
“Margaret Mead’s description of peace-loving New Guideans and sexually nonchalant Samoans were based on perfunctory research and turned out to be almost perversely wrong. As the anthropologist Derek Freemen later documented, Samoans may beat or kill their daughters if they are not virgins on their wedding night, a young man who cannot woo a virgin may rape one to extort her into eloping, and the family of a cuckolded husband may attack and kill the adulterer.” (Pinker 56)
“Counting societies instead of bodies leads t equally grim figures. In 1978 the anthropologist Carol Ember calcuated that 90 ercent of hunter-gatherer societies are known to engage in warfare, and 64 percent wag war at least once every two years.” (Pinker 57)
“I doubt even then I could make [a woman] love a donkey [with oxytocin]. but I might stand a fair chance of making her feel attracted to the first man she sees up making… Blindly, automatically, and untaught, we bond with whoever is standing nearest when the oxytocin receptors in the medial amygdala get tingled.’ (Ridley 47-48) (SysAdmin applications?)
“An instinct is designed to be triggered by an external object or event… [Benson Ginsberg] was soon able to breed a new strain [of mice] that had the coat color but not the aggression streak: proof enough that aggression was somewhere in the genes. His colleague Paul Scott also developed aggressive strains of mice; but, bizarrely, Ginsburg’s most aggressive strain was Scott’s most pacific.” (Ridley 49-50)
“All attempts to design society by reference to one narrow conception of human nature, whether on paper or in the streets, end in producing something much worse.” (Ridley 67) (also good on the limitation of modernism)

Topic: Timeline
“But beginning int he 1950s with the cognitive revolution [it became] possible to make sense of mental processes and even to study them in the lab.” (Pinker 31)
“William’s Principles of Psychology, must of which was first published as a series of articles in the 1880s, contained a manifesto for nativism — the idea that the mind cannot learn unless it has the rudiments of innate knowledge.” (Ridley 39 (see also talk of East-West pole common ground below)
“In the 1920s the very empiricist ideas that James ha attacked, embodied in the notion of the blank slate, swept back not just into psychology (with John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner) but in anthropology (Franz Boas), psychiatry (Freud), and sociology (Durkehim). Nativism was almost totally eclipsed until 1958, when [East Poler] Noam Chomsky once again pinned its charter to the door of science…. Chomsky argued that it was impossible for a child to learn the rules of language from examples the child must have innate rules to which the vocabulary of the language was fitted.” (Pinker 40)
“In the early 1980s … scientists suddenly realized that vospressin and oxytocin had a job to do inside the brain as well as being secreted from the pituitary gland in the bloodstream. So they tried injecting oxytocin and vasopressin into the brains of rats to see what the effect would be. Bizarrely, a male rat injected with intracerebral oxytocin immediately begins yawning and simultaneously gets an erection… On the other hand, without oxytocin, mice cannot form social memories, so perhaps they simply keep forgetting what their spouses look like” (Ridley 42-46)
“… scientists use viruses to turn up the volumes of genes in one part of the brain of a rodent. Even 10 years ago such an experiment was unimaginable.” (Ridley 44)
Sometime before the year 1900 a retired schoolteacher in Granby, Massachusetts, by the name of Abbie, took up the “mouse fancying” hobby…. She also noticed that some strains got cancer more often than others; this hint was picked up by Yale Universities and became the basis of early studies of cancer.” (Ridley 50)
“Such a modular view of the mind was first enunciated by the philosopher Jerry Fodor in the early 1980s and later developed by the anthropologist John Tooby and the psychologist Leda Cosmides in the 1990s (Ridley 63)
“Noam Chomsky in the 1950s… argued that the universal features o f human language, invariant throughout the world, plus the logical impossibility of a child deducing the rules of a language as quickly as it does merely from the scanty examples available to it, must imply that there was something innate about language.” (Ridley 63-64)

Topic: Universal Man
“The common kinds of [grammatical] heads and complements can be ordered in 128 logically possible ways, but 95 percent of the world’s languages use of two: either the English ordering [as in, “from the bottle”] or its mirror image the Japanese origin [as in, “the bottle from”].” (Pinker 37-38)
“The moral, then is that familiar categories of behavior — marriage customs, food taboos, folk superstitions, and so on — certainly do vary across cultures and have to be learned, but the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.” (Pinker 39)
“Behavioral geneticists estimate only half of the variation in most psychological traits within a given environment correlate with the genes.” (Pinker 48)

Topic: Particular Man
“Identical twins think and feel in such similar ways that they sometimes suspect they are linked by telepathy. When separated at birth and reunited as adults, they say they feel they have known each other all their lives. Testing confirms that identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike (though far from identical) in just about any trait one can measure… Many of these conclusions came from massive studies in Scandinavian countries where governments keep huge databases on their citizens, and they employ the best-validated measuring instruments known to psychology… “Virtual twins” are the mirror image of identical twins raised apart: they are unrelated siblings, one or both adopted, who are raised together from infancy. Though they are the same age and are growing up int he same family, the psychology Nancy Segal found that their IQ scores are barely correlated.” (Pinker 47)
“Most boys reassigned as girls declare themselves boys at adolescence. And a recent study of people born with ambiguous genitalia found that hose who escaped the surgeon’s knife had fewer psychological problems than those who had been operated on in childhood.” (Ridley 58)
“[Jennifer Connellan] gave 102 24-hour-old babies two things to look at: her own face, or a physical mechanical mobile of approximately the same size and shape as a face. The baby boys slightly preferred to look at the mobile; the baby girls preferred the face.” (Ridley 59-60)
“If Asperger’s people are good systemizers and bad empathizers, with extremely-male brains, the thought arises that there are probably people who are good empathizers and poor systemizers, with extreme female brains.” (Ridley 62)

Topic: Modularity
“Descartes was thus wrong when he said that “the mind is entirely indivisible”… (Pinker 42)
“Besides, even a language module is hardly likely to be isolated from other functions. It needs fine discrimination of hearing; finer control of movement in the tongue,, lips, and chest; greater memory, and so on… Almost nothing is known about the mechanisms that are not modular.” (Ridley 66) (also a good point on the limitation of knowledge)

Topic: Horizontal thinking
“[Evolutionary Psychology] can give the phenomena of culture their due without segregating them into a parallel universe.” (Pinker 31)

Topic: Brain Anatomy
“The brain does have supervisory systems in the prefrontal lobs and anterior cingulate cortext… but those systems are gadgets with specific quirks and limitations; they are not implementations of the rational free agent traditionally identified with the soul or the self.” (Pinker 43)
“[When] surgeons cut the corpus callosum joining the cerebral hemispheres, they literally cut the self in two, and each hemisphere can exercise free will without the other one’s advice or consent. Even more disconcertingly, the left hemisphere constatnly weaves a coherent but false account of the behavior chosen without its knowledge by the right.” (Pinker 43) (Lovecraftian!)
“… differences in the amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes are not only genetically influenced, but are significantly correlated with differences in intelligence [but] becoming stronger in math or motor coordination or visual discrimination does not bulk up the brain the way becoming stronger at weightlifting bulks up the muscles… And convicted murderers and other violent, antisocial people are likely to have smaller and less active prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs decision making and inhibits impulses..” (Pinker 44-45)

Topic: Definitions
“Here are five ideas from the cognitive revolution.. : the mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback … the mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don’t do anything … an infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind… universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variation across culture… the mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts.” (Pinker 31-39) (this talk of complex adaptive systems also mentions sub-modules again)
“The computational theory of mind … explains how processes can be intelligent [because if] a sequence of transformations of information stored in a hunk of matter … mirrors a sequence of deductions that obey the laws of logic, probability, or cause and effect in the world, they will generate correct predictions about the world.” (Pink 32-33)
“Fans located [Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky], which originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the East Pole [and] locate … connectionists, including Rumelhart, McClelland, Jeffrey Elman, and Elizabeth Bates, who build relatively simply computer models and train the living daylights out of them … which originated at the Universality of California, San Diego, at the West Pole … But here is why the East Pole – West Pole debate is different from the ones that preoccupied philosophers for millennia: neither side believes in the Blank Slate… Cognitive scientists at the East Pole suspect that the content-based modules are differeniated largely by genes; those at the West Pole suspect they begin as small innate biases in attention adn then coagulate out of statistical patterns in the sensory input” (Pinker 35,40)
Behavior … comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals.” (Pinker 40)
“Or, as Ginsburg said, the road from the “encoded genotype the mouse inherits to the “effective genotype it expresses passes through the process of social development.” (Ridley 50),compare to:

“The operational adaption consists of the anatomical structures, physiological processes, and psychologicla processes that develop because of interactions with the environment… the innate adaptions is the information encoded int he genes that mediates the development of the operational adaption.” (Buller 78)

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