Tag Archives: deep history

Picture the Past

Over at Catholicgauze, I note this story on La Cartoteca about “HistoGrafica – Picture the Past.” HistoGrafica allows viewrs to look at photos of a place through time — kind of like a PhotoSynth of the Ages.

For one of the more depressing contrasts, compare the Omaha’s Kountze Park in 1898 with the ghetto firing range that it’s become.

For the deeper past, the genetic map of Europe is discussed in more detail by Razib at gnxp, who also notes that Henry Harpending points to similar work 20 years ago.

Not Just Physiology

My good friend Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz sent me (by mail!) a copy of “When We Were Nicer” by Steven Mithen, which originally appeared in the 24 January 2008 edition of London Review of Books (pages 24-25). Mithen uses the article to review On Deep History and the Brain, by Daniel Lord Smail. As this is a review of a review of a book that I have not read, I apologize if some ambiguity pops up here.

I won’t go into the whole article, but it appears that Mithen & Smail are trying to import the Behaviorist Revolution into Anthropology, a 95 years after it began and about 75 years after it fell out of style. Mithen and Smail reject the plain meaning of written documentation, great ideas, and the power of human culture. As Mithen writes in his first paragraph:

Are you enjoying your morning coffee as you read this? Or your evening glass of wine? Did you enjoy watching the match last night? Have you read any good books lately? Oh and by the way, how is your sex life? According to Daniel Lord Smail activities like these are the true drivers of history. Forget great men with great ideas; them march of progress or the ‘sees of change’: the essense of historical processes is the manipulation f human chemistry by the substances we consume, and the activites we engage in willingly or which are imposed on us against our will.

Along the way, Mithen and Smail also attack “the crude evolutionary psychology that has become popular in recent years: that of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steven Pinker and their acoyltes, who argue that we are still biologically fixed Stone Age minds constituted by mental models evolved to solve problems of Pleistocene environments.”

Their concerns are echoes of those of John B. Watson and the other behaviorists. The Behaviorist Revolution was kicked off by Watson’s manifesto, “Psychology as the Behaviorst Sees It,” but was rapidly expanded in other works. The Behaviorists rejected the idea of “mental state,” reducing psychology to applied psychology: the body responded to certain stimulus with certain responses, while attempting to satisfy basic drives. They rejected introspection, the idea that someone’s self reports were a valid means of psychological inquiry. They rejected the study into innate behaiors, believing that (at least among mammals) all behaviors — including language — were learned through patterns of stimuli and responses.

In psychology, there are very few behaviorists. The reduction of psychology to physiology rapidly ran into the problem that even mice thought more than the behaviorists predicted. The best of the behaviorist ideas were repackaged by B.F. Skinner as behavioralism (called by Skinner radical behaviorism). While behavioralism has been further refined into cognitive models of psychology (such as the OODA loop), even behavioralism provides us enough ammunition to shoot down physiological reductionism.

Take the idea that, say, the motive for suicide bombing is sex, rather than the “great idea” of God’s Holy Word. At first glance, the physiological case is appealing. The Muslim suicide bomber believes that paradise will be filled with virgins, and so gladly enters it. But if the reason is physiology, why don’t all Muslim men detonate themselves? Why are there female suicide bombers? Watson and the behaviorists had no answer for this sort of question, which is why they quickly fell from grace. Behavioralists like Skinner, by contrast, would grant that we observe ourselves, we criticize ourselves, and we grow from this. Even more, cognitivists like John Boyd would argue that our physiological drives from our orientation, along with our prior learning, and that this orientation itself interacts with conscious decision, where our knowledge of great ideas matters even more.

But the physiologists are left with sex, random acts of violence, and an inability to make meaningful predictions.

Ironically, the physiologists fail not only be acknowledging the complexity of conscious thought: they also don’t acknowledge the complexity of unconscious thought! The criticism of Tooby & Cosmides echoes Watson’s criticism of those who studied instincts in the human race: instincts elevate a species above physiology, by creating the ability to rapidly see patterns and engage in behavior with no obvious pay-off. The otter with his dam, the bird with her nest, the man with his art create things not out of physiological drive but because they want to, without even knowing why.

There’s a lot to be said about the role of biology in culture. But rejecting everything but physiology is as foolish as rejecting physiology itself.

What if evolution works 15,000 times faster than we imagined?

It was only eighteen months ago that I wrote a post titled “The implication of evolution after the dawn of agriculture.” At the time, I was startled by the idea that there may have been evolutionary change within the human population in the last four centuries. Also at the time I was highly impressed by Evolutionary Psychology evolutionary functional analysis, and the concept of the Era of Evolutionary Adaption.

bionotes5_md
Not this quick. But quicker

Since that time I have learned more about how biology informs the social sciences. It appears that evolution is faster than I thought, and Evolutionary Psychology is weaker than I assumed.


Go fast

Up until recently, the theoretical maximum speed for one gene to replace all other variations was one every 300 generations. It now appears the rate among humans is 2 every year. If this result holds up, this has important implications.

Two dynamics appear to be driving the acceleration of natural selection among humans: larger population size (more mutations are given a chance to rise up) and the even quicker evolution of culture (preventing the establishment of an equilibrium optimal genetic state).

Evolutionary Psychology is wrong because there is no species-wide “Era of Evolutionary Adaption.” Indeed, one wonders if the term “Era of Evolutionary Adaption” even makes sense. If it does, are EEAs of populations that had possessed agriculture for a very long time (say, the peoples of the fertile crescent, and Chinese and Indians of the great river valleys) far more agrarian than the EEAs of traditionally hunter-gatherer societies?

Further, as both cultural complexity and breeding population (both in numbers in and genetic diversity) vary historically, might one say that the Era of Evolutionary Adaption of Australian Aborigines is tens of thousands of years deeper in time than that of Indus River Valley dwellers?

Both the population of man and the culture of man have been growing at faster and faster rates. The implication of this is clear.

The 19th century saw more natural selection in our species than any other century, ever.
The 20th century saw more natural selection in our species than any other century, ever.
The 21st century will see more natural selection in oru species than any other century, ever.

And that’s not counting genetic engineering.

(Thanks to Sean, DMH, Fulwider, Doug, and others for not letting me get past this discovery without thinking it through.)