An interview with Dan Dennett on his work and life

March 19, 2021 • 9:00 am

From the philosophy section of Institute of Art and Ideas, we have a new 30-minute interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. It’s basically about “the arc of his life”, and has some interesting revelations. I’ll just touch on a few points, but you should listen to it yourself.

  • Dan’s father was a spy who worked for the OSS, but Dan didn’t learn that until his dad died.
  • Dan says that most of his good ideas came from his Ph.D. thesis and postdoc, and since then he’s been largely “turning the crank” on (i.e., working out the consequences of) his early ideas.
  • Those good ideas involved “the intentional stance”, how learning takes place, and views about consciousness and the evolution of the brain. He doesn’t talk much about consciousness, though, and doesn’t mention free will once during the interview, much to my relief.
  • In new work, Dan says he and a colleague are extending the intentional-stance view down to the level of the cell, visualizing development as the consequences of “what the cell wants.” This isn’t like panpsychism, for Dan isn’t dumb enough to think that cells really have desires, but he’s looking at it as Dawkins looked at the metaphor of the “selfish gene”, gaining insight by imagining how genes would behave if they were selfish even though he realizes (and has repeatedly emphasized in the light of misinterpreters) that genes don’t have desires.
  • In my hearing of this interview, Dan doesn’t admit that he ever had a wrong idea. But he does say he’s worked to prevent misuses of his ideas.
  • Dan decries the truth-denial aspect of postmodernism as “intellectual vandalism,” but also ponders the question of whether some ideas or truths are too dangerous to impart to the world. I’ll leave you listen to that bit yourselves.
  • There’s a lot about religion at the end, with Dan arguing that it’s time for the world to “grow up and leave religion behind”. And he thinks many faiths are in fact doing this, stripping out the false claims and injurious morality and leaving the ceremonial bits—bits that he has no quarrel with.

Click on the screenshot to go to the interview.

McWhorter and Loury on the math gap

March 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Here’s a 15-minute segment of the latest Glenn Show, featuring Glenn Loury and John McWhorter. (To see the rest requires a Patreon donation). In it, both men take up the issue of the black/white race gap in academic achievement, and both seem to attribute it to the culture of African-Americans. That, of course, is anathema to antiracists like Ibram Kendi, who seems to has a feud going on with McWhorter.

McWhorter refers to Ibram Kendi’s dictum, one that I just read in his How to be an Antiracist book, that black students should be ranked on their “desire to know” rather than what they do know. McWhorter’s characterization of Kendi is correct, as Kendi says that there are “different ways of ranking” appropriate to each race, and that black students should be ranked not by achievement, which is a white criterion, but by things like their spunk and their desire to know. And yet despite that, Kendi also says that the idea of a black culture is an illusion, and that all races are equal in every respect, including culture, though there are some local differences. This is one of the contradictions I found in Kendi’s book. (I recommend that everyone read it, as we all need to know about the bibles of the anti-racist movement. You will learn some stuff, and it’s not all bad, but it’s truly Manichean in its worldview.)

Loury gets particularly exercised at the low performance of black students in mathematics (he’s an economist), and at people who say that math is not a Black Thing. At times Loury looks like he’s going to blow out an artery, almost yelling that the response of people like Kendi is to “denounce the entire corpus that your people are not mastering by saying that it’s somehow alien to, or in fact repressive to the essence of your people.”

McWhorter chimes in, adding that the notion that each ethnic group should be judged by a different set of academic standards is a view that is often raised, but “has never gotten any purchase”.  Loury and McWhorter both suspect that the achievement gap is caused by a subtle cultural factor connected with “what it is to be raised black”. And that view is absolutely opposed to the ideas of Kendi, who doesn’t think that black “culture” operates any differently from white culture. Kendi, I believe, would attribute the math gap to racist policies of the present put in place by the academic power structure.

Loury winds up extolling the universality and beauty of math, using as one example we should admire the fact that “there is no largest prime number.” The universality of mathematical instruction, he implies, means that there is no reason not to teach any group differently from any other, nor hold different groups to different standards.

I hope that Loury doesn’t have high blood pressure, as he’s going to get an aneurism if he keeps getting this exercised. Both men, as usual, are great speakers, uttering long disquisitions without a hitch. Their conversations are a thing to behold.

Ask me anything

February 14, 2021 • 9:00 am

I’m still doing writing that requires braining (for another assignment to be divulged), and although I have a science post scheduled for later today I thought I’d do a reddit-like “AMA”.

Readers are welcome to ask all sorts of questions, with the proviso that the questions not be really personal ones. Exceptions: my life in science, food, travels, perhaps some philosophy, or things of that ilk. I can’t guarantee to answer every question (assuming there are some), but I’ll have a look from time to time and satisfy people’s curiosity.

Oh, and please, nothing rude or uncivil (as always!).

FFRF interview with Anthony Grayling

January 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here’s a new 25-minute interview of philosopher Anthony Grayling by Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Anthony and Dan cover a surprisingly large area of ground in this short time (there’s the famous Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” commercial in the middle, which is still great), and rather than summarize what Anthony says, I’ll just write down the questions he fields:

What is your background? Why did you take up the study of philosophy? I did not know that Anthony grew up in what was then Rhodesia. His entrée into philosophy—and his explanation for why he never believed in God— are worth hearing.

How can we be moral without a god? Here Anthony espouses the humanistic philosophy and ethics that so many of us are familiar with. I’m not sure this bit will persuade those who require a god to be moral without one, but it’s nice to hear it expounded by someone who not only believes in humanistic ethics, but also has thought about this for decades.

How do we make it through hard times without a god? I didn’t know this, but Anthony’s sister was murdered just after she was married. How did he cope with it? And how, in general, do we deal with any tragedy without the consolation of religion? Anthony’s answer involves compensating: doing something good to mend the world, which at the same time may mend you as well. I have found this useful, and did my most ardent volunteer work during the darkest times of my life. It really helps; it’s hard to think about your troubles when you’re helping people who are as bad off or worse off.

How does one find meaning in life without God? We had a long discussion about this five years ago on this website.  Anthony gives a good answer, one that involves both buttressing your relationships (“good relationships are at the very heart of good lives”) and either immersing ourselves in our rich human culture or helping others to do so. I found this one of the best parts of the interview.

The one bit that I found somewhat wonky in Anthony’s musings was his idea that the universe is justified by its having produced a species—us—that has created on balance more good than bad. (But what about all those other species that are the results of evolution as well?). He concludes that it’s our duty to add good to the world “for the sake of the universe.” This resembles religious Jews doing mitzvahs (deeds commanded by G*d) in the world to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

What can philosophy teach us about dealing with the pandemic? Here Grayling evokes Stoicism, which seems to be popular these days (Massimo Pigliucci is another advocate) and almost sounds like a form of Western Zen Buddhism; but here I’m out of my depth. Grayling also calls out the British government for its stupidity in dealing with the pandemic.

Why are we in this predicament?I refer to the pandemic here, and Grayling’s answer leads to his next topic:

Why is there so much science denialism throughout the world? Again, another good answer.

What is Grayling’s next book? He’s got one coming out this spring, and it’s relevant to the question just above. His book The History of Philosophy also comes out February 2, and I’m going to read that one for sure.

Voilà: the interview:


Obama on The Daily Show

December 16, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Here’s a 32-minute interview that Barack Obama gave to Trevor Noah on yesterday’s “The Daily Show”.  I’m not a big fan of Noah as a comedian, but he asks Obama some pretty good questions. The main subject, of course, is Obama’s new book (volume 1) and its contents. As I’ve commented before, one reason several reviewers liked the book is because it portrays (as Obama notes here), what it’s like for a more-or-less average Joe to become President. This may be humblebrag, but the part of the book I read, excerpted in the New Woker, does give the sense of what it would feel for one of us—with the chops and experience, of course—to deal with the quotidian duties of the Chief Executive.

Noah asks Obama whether America should fear the loss of our position as the “world’s leader”, and what it was like to deal with terrorism (the apparent subject here is Osama bin Laden, but his name isn’t spoken).

The part that led me to this interview was an article which describes how Obama, responding to Noah, addresses claims that the ex-President misspoke when he said that the “Defund the police” slogan of the Left may have help squelch the hoped-for “blue wave” last month. Obama’s claim came in this video segment below, and one can make a good case that arguments to reduce or even eliminate the cops could indeed turn off centrist Democrats or centrists proper.

Noah calls 2020 a “year of racial reckoning,” and at 18:13 Obama says he’s been misunderstood when people say he was against the race-related protests because he criticized the slogan “defund the police”: that he was indeed a fan of the racial protests of the summer. As he says, his source of optimism about the future of race relations was “the activism that we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter”.

Then, exactly 21 minutes into the interview, Obama is asked about that criticism of “defund the police.” I quote him:

“I was making a very particular point around that, if we want to translate the very legitimate belief that how we do policing needs to change and that if there is, for example, a homeless guy ranting and railing in the middle of the street, sending a mental health worker, rather than an armed untrained police officer to deal with that person might be a better outcome for all of us and make us safer, right?

[JAC note: you need to send a cop AND a mental health worker; that’s what’s done in this form of collaborative policing.]

“That, if we describe that to not just white folks, but let’s say Michelle’s mom, that makes sense to them. But if we say ‘defund the police,’ not just white folks, but Michelle’s mom might say, ‘If I’m getting robbed, who am I going to call and is somebody going to show up?’

” The issue here becomes ‘how are we translating and using language?’— not to make people more comfortable. . . The issue to me is not making them comfortable; it is ‘Can we be precise with our language enough that people who might be persuaded around that particular issue to make a particular change to get a particular result that we want—what’s the best way for us to describe that?'”

I think he’s right, and he has nothing to apologize for. It’s pragmatism, Jake. I can’t prove it, but I think the kind of extremism that prompted the Left’s “Defund the police” slogan (and in many cases defunding actually meant “abolishing”) did reduce the vote for non-Presidential Democratic candidates.

Finally, Obama talks about the “built-in advantages of the Republican party,” even though he says they’re definitely the “minority party.” He finishes off by asserting that he doesn’t miss the big stage and is simply satisfied with the job he did as President. There’s a moment in which he good-naturedly puts down Noah, and then finishes by describing what he’d consider his true legacy.

It’s a decent interview, and great to see a President with intelligence, humanity, and no need to bloviate and brag that he’s a “stable genius.” Let’s hope Biden can recapture at least a soupçon of Obama’s panache.

The FFRF exposes Amy Coney Barrett’s religious extremism

October 17, 2020 • 2:00 pm

In this video from the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF’s) “Ask an Atheist” series, co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel, FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response, masticate the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, beginning with a legal analysis of Barrett’s testimony (until 11:30). Seidel, as always, is percipient and eloquent on the hearings.

Then Gaylor interviews Coral Theill (starting at 12:30), who once belonged to the group “People of Praise“, the Christian sect to which Barrett and her family still belong. According to reader Charles Sawicki, who sent me this link, Theill tried to testify at Barrett’s Senate hearings but was refused by Lindsey Graham.  Charles added this:

The ideas espoused by this cult makes the idea that Barrett is a member of SCOTUS much more worrisome. In particular, as a true believer, Barrett is “in submission” to her husband and cult leadership (that is she has to submit to their leadership).

At 34:00, Theill takes questions from both the moderators and the viewers.

Coral Theill’s description of People of Praise is absolutely spine-chilling.  The group is clearly a cult and the women members clearly “handmaids”. Fortunately, Theill has managed to make her awful life with PoP into something good, as she now advocates against abuse and promotes recovery from trauma.

I’d recommend going to the People of Praise website and see what they’re about. That and the Wikipedia article will tell you what we’re in for with Justice Barrett.  Given this information, it’s pretty clear that Barrett wouldn’t be a big fan of evolution. But that’s the least of our worries. Listen to the group’s views on the subjugation of women.

As for what this means for Barrett’s future decisions on the Court, I think you’d have to be in denial to think that she issue decisions that contravene her religious views. As one Jon Meador commented on the YouTube video:

Democrats are criticized for pointing out that Judge Barrett is biased due to her religious beliefs on the grounds that the “no-religious-test clause” bars asking those sorts of questions. The problem is her religious beliefs are the very reason she’s getting the job. Belief in god was not supposed to qualify or disqualify you. Here it’s what qualifies her; it’s the very reason she’s getting the job. Her lack of partiality is the very reason she’s getting the job. When you pick a jury, people with religious beliefs that affect their judgment as excused from service. They can’t serve as a matter of law. Here we have a “juror” picked because she’s a hardcore, right-wing, pro-life Catholic. I hope someone on our side will start filing motions to recuse these religiously-bigoted judges not because we’ll win (because we won’t) but because it’ll raise awareness and make a historical record.

If Barrett truly adheres to the cult’s guidelines, she’d probably be the first Justice to be a member of such a loony sect.

Thanks to Annie Laurie, Andrew, and especially the courageous Ms. Theill for putting this together.

Gregg Caruso on free will, the justice system, prisons, the meaning of life, and the good life

September 1, 2020 • 12:45 pm

The New Philosopher has a long interview, “On Purpose,” with Zan Boag speaking to the philosopher Gregg D. Caruso, Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, and Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network (JWRN) at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

Although I’ve never met Caruso, I consider him a philosophical confrère, as he’s a hard determinist who has no truck with notions of contracausal free will (classical you-could-have-done otherwise free will that’s the basis of Abrahamic religion). Not only that, but he thinks, as do I, that the rejection of conventional free will should absolve us of moral responsibility and therefore lead to big changes in the justice system.

He’s thought a lot harder about this than I have, and has written about the issue in several books, which you can see here. He’s debated free will with Dan Dennett, a compatibilist who thinks that you can have both determinism and free will; and Gregg tells me that he has a book coming out next January called: Just Deserts: Debating Free Willin which he and Dennett “debate our respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and punishment.” I’m looking forward to that one! He’s got yet another one coming out about the implications of “no free will” for criminal justice: Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice. 

Definition of free will: Caruso has a unique way of defining free will, as he says many philosophers “define free will in such a way that it directly follows that we either have it or we don’t.” Instead, he limns the concept by whether or not it gives us moral responsibility, which is, to most people, the essential concomitant of free will. And so he comes up with this:

I’ve long argued that the variety of free will that is of central philosophical and practical importance is the sort required for moral responsibility in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense of moral responsibility is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. Understood this way, free will is a kind of power or ability an agent must possess in order to justify certain kinds of basically deserved judgments, attitudes, or treatments – such as resentment, indignation, moral anger, and retributive punishment – in response to decisions or actions that the agent performed or failed to perform. These reactions would be justified on purely backward-looking grounds, that is what makes them basic, and would not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

I contend that there are several distinct advantages to defining free will in this way. First, it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to. Unlike some other definitions, it does not beg the question or exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for disputing parties to adopt. Second, by defining free will in terms of basic desert moral responsibility, this definition captures the practical importance of the debate. Third, this definition fits with our everyday understanding of these conceptions. There is, for instance, growing evidence that ordinary people not only view free will and moral responsibility as intimately tied together, but that it is precisely the desire to blame, punish, and uphold moral responsibility that motivates belief in free will. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.

This of course winds up with a view of free will as will that is free from determinism: contracausal free will, which, despite Dan Dennett’s compatibilism, is really the kind of free will that most people “want.” Because Caruso, like me, sees no way that we can have the kind of agency that gives us true moral responsibility, he rejects the idea of moral responsibility.

As an aside, Caruso claims that, in his book with Dennett, Dan reveals himself as someone who also rejects moral responsibility. Now since I once argued with Dan about that very point for three hours in a car, with Dan asserting that we do have moral responsibility, with me disputing it, I’ll be curious how Greg can discern this:

As to how my view compares to Dan Dennett’s, I’ll just add one final point. While Dennett’s compatibilism appears to be fundamentally at odds with my free will scepticism, when you actually drill down into what Dan means by free will, you’ll find that he too rejects what I’m calling basic desert moral responsibility. For that reason, I think he’s more of a free will sceptic than he admits – although he would resist that characterisation.

Crime and punishment.  Caruso is even more of a penal reformer than I. While we agree that punishment can and should be levied even without moral responsibility, I see the punishment as basically consequentialist, and useful for not only reforming bad guys and keeping them away from others until they’ve reformed, I also think punishment is necessary as a deterrent.(We both reject retributive punishment out of hand, as it’s based on punishing someone because he made the wrong choice.) Caruso, though he doesn’t discuss deterrence in this interview, rejects it because he thinks it has philosophical and moral problems.  However, I’m not sure what you do to deter people from, say, cheating on their income taxes or running red lights, and I’ll be curious to see how Gregg deals with this in his new book on retribution. You can’t just let people drive their cars without regulation and without the threat of some punishment!

At any rate, Caruso has what he calls a “public health” view of punishment, which seems quite progressive—though I still worry about the absence of a deterrent aim:

. . . . If we reject retributivism, either because we come to doubt or deny the existence of free will or for other reasons, we need an ethically defensible and practically workable alternative. In Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice, I develop and defend what I believe is the most promising, humane, and justified alternative: the public health-quarantine model. The core idea of the model is that the right to harm in self-defence and defence of others justifies incapacitating the criminally dangerous with the minimum harm required for adequate protection. Yet the model does not justify the sort of criminal punishment whose legitimacy is most dubious, such as death or confinement in the most common kinds of prisons in our society. In fact, the model is completely non-punitive and requires special attention to the wellbeing and dignity of criminals that would change much of current policy. Perhaps most importantly, the model also develops a public health approach that prioritises prevention and social justice and aims at identifying and taking action on the social determinants of health and criminal behaviour.

. . . Analogously, on this model the use of incapacitation should be limited to only those cases where offenders are a serious threat to public safety and no less restrictive measures were available. In fact, for certain minor crimes perhaps only some degree of monitoring could be defended. Secondly, the incapacitation account that results from this analogy demands a degree of concern for the rehabilitation and wellbeing of the criminal that would alter much of current practice. Just as fairness recommends that we seek to cure the diseased we quarantine, so fairness would counsel that we attempt to rehabilitate the criminals we detain. Rehabilitation and reintegration would therefore replace punishment as the focus of the criminal justice system. Lastly, if a criminal cannot be rehabilitated and our safety requires his indefinite confinement, this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses.

This model would have the effect of eliminating the grossly inhumane types of punishment imposed by countries like the U.S. and India, replacing it with one along the lines of Norway, which has a much lower rate of incarceration as well as a much lower rate of recidivism than the U.S. (see my earlier post on this). The other day I watched this video about the country’s most secure prison, the ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado where, as the show below notes, “America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most”. I was absolutely horrified at the treatment of the prisoners, who are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and have one hour of solitary exercise. Note that the “punishment” goes to prisoners who may not be especially dangerous to guards or other prisoners, but they are being punished retributively.

And here’s a Supermax cell. Note the barred door behind the main door. It’s 7 feet wide and 12 feet long.

There’s a lot more, but I’ll add just that Caruso lards his discussion with a lot of social justice talk, but not of the woke kind: he says that hand-in-hand with punishment reform must go an attempt to prevent crime by eliminating “racism, sexism, poverty, and systematic disadvantage as serious threats to public safety.” This of course is useful and necessary, but it won’t of course eliminate crime completely.

I strongly agree with Caruso that penal reform is a huge priority for the U.S., and that taking the no-free-will “public health” approach—which basically sees criminals as individuals with an infectious disease that needs to be cured humanely—is essential in spurring such reform. But I’ve said that many times before.

The meaning of life and the good life. Caruso goes on to speak about the meaning of life, and what he considers a good life (he has a fascinating digression on one of his hobbies that gives his life meaning), and once again we agree on this:

[Interviewer] In philosophy, and for many people throughout history, a common quest has been the search for the meaning of life, or perhaps just for meaning in life. Is there a meaning of life? And how can one find meaning in life – a purpose to our lives?

[Caruso]: The search for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. There is no singular, universal, all-encompassing meaning to it all. There is, however, meaning in life. We create meaning through our roles as players in the game of life.


If you have a spare hour or so, have a read. Even if you reject Caruso’s hard determinism, there’s a lot to think about in the interview.

h/t: Tom

Steve Stewart-Williams on the value of evolutionary psychology

August 26, 2020 • 10:15 am

When I give talks about why Americans reject evolution so frequently, I refer to Steve Stewart-Williams’s excellent book from 2010: Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything you Though You Knew.  It goes through reason after reason why evolution not only undermines our ideas, but why that undermining makes people resistant to evolutionary biology and its conclusions. It explained to me, for instance, why 27% of American Catholics are creationists, embracing Biblical literalism despite the fact that the Church itself explicitly accepts evolution. Those people, like many, just can’t get past the naturalistic and non-human-centric implications of evolution. The book is like a bucket of cold water tossed on the idea that evolution doesn’t conflict with religion.

Steve has a newer book, published in 2018 (click on screenshot below to go to Amazon site). I haven’t yet read it, though it’s coming to me through my library, but it’s apparently a discussion of the evolution of culture (“evolution” that’s both genetic and cultural), as well as a discussion of the merits of and problems with evolutionary psychology.

 Stewart-Williams is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and I’ve written about some of his work here, describing why he thinks that the difference between human males and females in levels of aggression has a substantial evolutionary basis.  But, as the interview below shows, in which he speaks with Pablo Malo at the site La Nueva Ilustración Evolucionista (“The New Evolutionary Enlightenment”), Stewart-Williams doesn’t accept whole hog all the claims of evolutionary psychology, and is sometimes quite critical of them. In other words, Stewart-Williams’s attitude towards the discipline is similar to mine. Read the interview by clicking on the screenshot below. There’s an English translation so you don’t have to use Google translate except for the introduction (or if you speak Spanish):

Stewart-Williams’s take on evolutionary psychology also differs from that of biologists on the “progressive” left who reject evolutionary psychology as a whole, dismissing it as a farrago of “just-so stories” and untested (and untestable) hypotheses. You can see this attitude, for instance, in people like blogger P. Z. Myers, who should know better, and his minions. Yes, the discipline has its “soft underbelly,” as I’ve described, but it’s also led to informative insights, and simply cannot be swept away with unwarranted ridicule. Dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a whole (see another dismisser below) comes not from a scientific attitude, but an ideological one: if human behavior evolved over millions of years, just like human bodies and physiology (one can’t deny the latter), then perhaps we are partly slaves to biological determinism, and, worse, behavioral differences between men and women might be in part the result of evolution.

I think the evidence for evolved differences is pretty solid, but blank-slaters, who happen to populate the progressive Left, deny this determinism because they mistakenly think that evolved differences somehow imply moral differences. As Steve Pinker showed in his book The Blank Slate, and I’ve said many times, the idea that evolution tells us what is right and wrong is a fallacy—the “naturalistic fallacy”.

But I digress. I’ll just say once more that the blatant dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a discipline is not only unwarranted, but ignorant and ideologically based. To think that human bodies are the product of evolution but human minds are not can only be the product of some overweening and blinkered ideology.

On to the interview. It’s in both Spanish and English.. I’ll highlight the main points in bold, and any quotes from Steve will be indented:

Some of evolutionary psychology is weak and “silly”, and can comprise “just-so stories”. 

A third reason I decided to write Ape was that I wanted to present a somewhat circumspect view of evolutionary psychology – one that met the critics halfway on a number of issues. This includes the common criticism that evolutionary psychologists too often overextend the adaptationist mode of explanation, seeing adaptations in all sorts of psychological and behavioral tendencies that probably aren’t adaptations at all. My response to this criticism is: Guilty as charged. Evolutionary psychologists have sometimes put forward some pretty silly adaptationist hypotheses, and we need to be a bit more careful about that
But a lot of it is sound, though not “proven”—but of course no science is “proven”. We just accrue more or less confidence in hypotheses as we do more tests. So the declarations of people like philosopher Subrena Smith, who declared that doing evolutionary psychology was “impossible”, are badly mistaken. (I discussed Smith’s paper here, and Steve Pinker’s ideas about it here.) 

Evolutionary psychology certainly isn’t perfect, but I have to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with [Smith’s] critique. The idea that that EP is impossible – not just difficult, but impossible – strikes me as so extreme that I’m a little surprised so many people took it so seriously. It also strikes me as awfully convenient that, of all the sciences, the one we can rule out a priori, on purely logical grounds, just happens to be one that many people dislike and object to for explicitly political reasons.

Smith’s argument is basically a sophisticated reboot of the old retort that “behaviour doesn’t fossilize.” She claims that there’s ultimately no way to show that the psychological tendencies underpinning people’s behaviour today evolved in prehistoric times to perform the same functions that they currently perform, and thus that evolutionary psychology is impossible in principle.

Is she right? Well, one reason to doubt that evolutionary psychology is impossible is that… people are already doing evolutionary psychology: They’re gathering evidence bearing on evolutionarily informed hypotheses, and this evidence nudges up or down our confidence that these hypotheses are accurate. Sure, no one has provided evidence that proves any hypothesis in evolutionary psychology with the certainty of a mathematical proof. But that’s true of every claim in science. Scientists can only ever nudge our confidence up or down. Perhaps this is harder in EP than in some fields (although the replication crisis in psychology and elsewhere suggests that it’s not as easy as we thought in any field). But saying that it’s harder is very different than saying that it’s impossible.

And in some cases, it isn’t even particularly hard. Consider hunger. Strictly speaking, we can never say with 100% certainty that this psychological capacity evolved in our prehistoric ancestors, or that it had the same function back then as it does today (i.e., motivating us to seek and consume food). But it seems reasonable to think that it did. Indeed, it seems unreasonable to think otherwise – unreasonable, in other words, to think that our ancestors did not experience hunger or that the primary function of hunger back then was unrelated to eating. And if you accept that, I think you also have to accept that there’s no in-principle reason to reject any and all evolutionary psychological hypotheses, even if others are more difficult to evaluate. For a more detailed response to Smith’s paper, see Ed Hagen’s excellent post on the topic.

Few evolutionary psychologists now accept two views they’re often accused of: “Massive modularity” (the brain comprises various semi-independent modules that code for different behaviors), and the “Environment of evolutionary adaptedness”: the idea that our behaviors all show adaptations to the life of our ancestors on the African savannas. The latter, at least, would be foolish given the evidence that humans have undergone palpable evolutionary change in the last 10,000 years. Stewart-Williams prefers that evolutionary psychologists just analyze human behaviors using well-established evolutionary principles like kin selection, parental investment, reciprocal altruism, and the like.

Refutations of the “Cinderella Effect”: the demonstration that parents are more brutal toward their stepchildren than their biological children, are weak. (These were mostly raised by Hans Temrin.) According to Stewart-Williams, the data come down pretty much in support of the Cinderalla Effect. If further studies buttress those data, it would be good evidence for an evolutionary-psychology explanation based on relatedness and parental investment. It makes sense that you’d treat your biological children better than those unrelated to you, and you might even abuse the latter if it favors the prospects of the former. (Remember, lions that invade a pride immediately kill all the cubs from the mothers, and then inseminate the mothers, yielding cubs that are related rather than “step-cubs”.)

The idea of memes hasn’t been that productive in understanding human cultural evolution, but there are a few suggestive examples of memes evolving simply because they have self-propagating characteristics. One of these examples involves witch hunts, and was published last year by Hofhuis and Boudry. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a pretty severe critic of “memetics.”

The Himba people of Namibia have a 48% rate of non-paternity; that is, half the children in a family aren’t fathered by the “father.” Isn’t that a refutation of evolutionary theory? Stewart-Williams explains why we’d sometimes expect these anomalies.

Disparities in representation of males vs. females in different areas don’t always demonstrate sexism and bigotry, as many assume. They could just be differences in preference, and perhaps some of these are the result of evolved behaviors. I’ve made this point many times before, but it still goes over the head of many “progressives”, who fail to realize that there is, for many cases of unequal representation, a competing hypothesis to the idea of “structural discrimination.”

Here’s what Steve says about that in response to a question:

What are you working on now? What mystery would you like to unravel next?

I’m working on two main projects at the moment. One is a theoretical paper with Lewis Halsey, looking at the causes of gender disparities in STEM. As everyone knows, men outnumber women in certain areas of STEM, including mathematics, computer science, and physics. As everyone also knows, the most common explanations for the gender gaps are discrimination and socialization. We argue, in contrast, that although discrimination and socialization are part of the story, they’re not the whole story. We make two main claims in our paper. The first is that factors other than discrimination contribute to gender gaps in STEM; these include, in particular, average sex differences in interests and life priorities. The second is that these average differences aren’t due entirely to socialization. Socialization plays an important role, but the differences are also partly inherited.

People sometimes assume that if you admit a role for biological factors in shaping STEM gender gaps, you must think nothing should be done about those gaps. But that’s not our view. We are wary of overly coercive fixes, such as offering people monetary or other incentives to make career choices they wouldn’t otherwise make, and affirmative-action policies that, in effect, discriminate against men and lead people (including the benefactors of such policies) to secretly wonder whether they really earned their success. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. We should let young people know about all the science careers on offer, and make clear that these are options that women as well as men should consider. We should make sure we highlight the scientific achievements of both sexes, rather than focusing unduly on men. We should encourage people to accept and support women (and men) who make gender-atypical choices. We should put policies in place that reduce the possibility of bias against either sex, including gender-blind evaluation of job applications, research grants, and the like. And we should do what we can to make science careers compatible with the demands of motherhood (and fatherhood).

Having done all that, though, we should respect the choices that people make about their own lives and careers, even if this doesn’t result in perfect gender parity. In other words, we should aim for equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome. People are ultimately going to be happier if they pursue the careers that most interest them.

There’s a lot more to the interview than this, so if you want a level-headed take on evolutionary psychology, I’d recommend that you have a look at the interview, and perhaps read Steve’s latest book.
Steve Stewart-Williams



An interview with Noam Chomsky and why he signed the Harper’s letter

August 13, 2020 • 9:30 am

I’ve been remiss in following—or even learning about—Noam Chomsky. I’m not much into linguistics, and, truth be told, I couldn’t even recount his big contributions there beyond the concept of Universal Grammar, or how well they’ve stood up over time. I have read several of his political pieces, so I’m aware of his severe criticism of the American government and its actions overseas, and not just under Trump. But in the past few years I haven’t read a word he’s written.

Chomsky is now 91, and when I saw him at a meeting in Puebla, Mexico a few years back, he was frail and needed help walking. But that’s to be expected at his age, and, according to the interview with Anand Giridharadas in The Ink (click on screenshot below), Chomsky is as sharp as ever. According to Wikipedia, he’s now a part-time professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona at Tucson, though of course he spent most of his career at MIT.

Chomsky’s interview reveals that he favors Biden, but especially because, as he says, Biden has been pushed leftward by Bernie Sanders—the candidate Chomsky really likes (even though he sees Sanders as a faux socialist). When asked if he thought that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could ever become President of the U.S. (Ceiling Cat forbid), Chomsky didn’t answer but praised the leftward movement towards progressivism in some segments of the Democratic Party:

Well, if you’d asked me 10 years ago whether someone like Bernie Sanders could be the most popular political figure in the country, I would’ve said you’re out of your mind. But it in fact happened in 2016 and it’s continued to create a significant movement. There are real possibilities. I think if you take a look at the United States in the 1920s, and you asked, Could there ever be a labor movement?, you would’ve sounded crazy. How could there be? It had been crushed.

But it changed. Human life is not predictable. Depends on choices and will, which are unpredictable. So right now, for example, we’re in the process of formation of a Progressive International. It’s based on the Sanders movement in the United States and Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 movement in Europe, which is a transnational European movement seeking to preserve and strengthen what makes sense in the European Union and to overcome its very serious flaws.

. . .Well, actually, the Sanders movement was remarkably successful. And it’s something that has broken with over 100 years of American political history. To bring a candidate to near nomination without any support from the media, from big donors, from the corporate sector. Nothing like that’s happened before. Could it do more? I think so.

Not to make a big fuss about it, but I’ve been mildly critical of Sanders’ presenting himself as a socialist. He’s not a socialist in my opinion. He’s a New Deal Democrat. A mild social democrat. His policies would not have surprised Eisenhower very much. It’s a sign of the shift to the right, of both parties, during the neoliberal period, that his positions are considered revolutionary.

He says it’s also reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement:

Take the United States. Maybe the greatest social movement to develop in American history, the Black Lives Matter-inspired movement. It’s all over the place. Has the kind of public support that no activist movement ever had. Martin Luther King, at the peak of his popularity, had never reached two-thirds public support for what he was doing. That reflects something.

But I wanted to concentrate on Chomsky’s discussion of the Harper’s Letter decrying “cancel culture” (though it doesn’t use that term), a letter Chomsky signed. When asked about his sense of the letter in view of the controversy it generated, he has a remarkably sensible take, one that the Woke opponents of the letter might be well to ponder:

Well, there’s two different things. There’s the letter and there’s the discussion. The letter is anodyne. It’s a simple statement that it’s worth being careful to preserve freedom of speech. The main attack on freedom of speech was not discussed there. It’s the mainstream establishment, which for years has been engaged in massive cancel culture.

But now segments of the left are picking up part of the same pathology. It’s harmful; they shouldn’t be doing it; it’s wrong in principle. It’s suicidal. It’s a gift to the far right. So here’s a quiet statement saying, “Look, we should be careful about these things and not undertake this.” Should’ve been the end. Then comes the reaction, which is extremely interesting. It proves that the problem was much deeper than was assumed. The reaction is pretty hysterical, mostly totally irrational. Sensible people, personal friends of mine, are writing articles attacking the statement because of the people who signed it. Just think what that means for a second. I’m sure you, like any other person who’s well-known, are deluged with requests to sign statements on human rights issues, civil liberties issues, and so on.

Do you take account of who the signers are going to be? You can’t. You can’t know who the signers are going to be. If this position of the critics were adopted, there would never be a statement. Nobody in his right mind would sign a statement if the content of the statement is going to be judged by who might sign it tomorrow.

This criticism is much to the pleasure of the right wing, which hates these statements. So it’s another massive service to the right wing. Just as breaking up a meeting of somebody you don’t like is a service to the right wing. You want to play their game? Do it straight. Don’t pretend you’re on the left.

I think by “mainstream cancel culture” he’s referring to the slanting of the news about America by the government and mainstream media, but I can’t be sure. (Readers may want to weigh in.) Nevertheless, his take on Leftist cancel culture is on the money, as is his take on having to be ideologically compatible with everyone who signs a letter that you’ve signed as well.  And surely he’s right—as we know from right-wing sources like Fox News—that the Right makes hay of divisions in the left, particularly those, like the kerfuffle over the Harper’s letter, that look inconsequential and petty.

h/t: Ken

A profile of Glenn Loury

July 12, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Brown University, is well known to us as an African-American intellectual who, though a centrist with liberal tendencies (he might contest that position), dares to question the received wisdom of critical race theory. In this he’s sympatico with Columbia’s John McWhorter, and the pair often do discussions on’s “The Glenn Show.

Two days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a profile of Loury, and though it’s probably paywalled for most of you (click screenshot to see), judicious inquiry will yield a copy. It details his personal/political history from a young liberal on Chicago’s South Side to a college-age conservative who voted for Reagan, and then to his embrace of Christianity and return toward the Left by reading people like Murray, Herrsntein and Dinesh D’Souza.  I didn’t know Loury was religious (and I’m not that keen on it, since it implies a willingness to embrace delusions), but on issues other than Jesus he seems pretty hardheaded, and brave enough to challenge the “cancel culture.”

If you want to know a guy who’s liable to show up here fairly often in the future, have a read. I’ll give just two quotes:

Next spring Glenn Loury will teach a new course on freedom of expression to students at Brown University, where he’s a professor of economics. “We’ll read Plato, Socrates, Milton, John Stuart Mill, George Orwell and Allan Bloom, ” he says, stressing that Bloom’s best-known work, “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” is as relevant as it was when published in 1987.

Mr. Loury is thinking about adding “the Paxson letter” to his syllabus, so that his students might critique it. That June 1 missive to “the Brown Community” from Christina H. Paxson, Brown’s president, asserted that “oppression, as well as prejudice, outright bigotry and hate, directly and personally affect the lives of millions of people in this nation every minute and every hour.” It committed the university to “programming, courses, and research opportunities” that promote “equity and justice.”

Mr. Loury scorns the letter as Ms. Paxson’s “company policy” and “the Black Lives Matter view of the world reflected from the Brown University college president’s office.” On June 5, he published a rebuttal in City Journal. [JAC: see my post on this letter here.] Ms. Paxson’s letter was signed “by everybody,” from deans to the general counsel and even the investment manager for Brown’s $4.2 billion endowment, Mr. Loury tells me by Zoom from his home in Providence, R.I. “That made it an official policy,” he says. “I don’t think universities should have official policies about contentious political issues.”

If they do—“if we foreclose debate over contentious issues by declaring that there’s only one way for a decent person at this university to think about them”—“how can we fulfill our mission of teaching our students to think critically?” Scholarly inquiry ought to consist of an exploration of the evidence, the “moral commitments,” the political issues and the historical context. The Paxson letter makes these “hard questions” more perilous to ask.

“I’m 71,” he says. “I have tenure. I have a chair. That doesn’t mean that the McCarthyism can’t get me, but I’m as secure as anybody is ever going to be.” What if he were 32, an untenured assistant professor of English or history? “Dare I even mumble a contrary word once this kind of thing has been put out into the air? Universities shouldn’t be handing down a party-line document.” Few have dared dissent: Of his “500 professorial colleagues here at Brown,” he says, only three responded to his rebuttal by saying “good job.”

Now you just know that more than three of his colleagues thought Loury did a good job. Their failure to support him is just more evidence of the cancel culture whose existence is denied by the Woke.

Two more quotes and then I must feed my waterfowl. First, why he refused to sign the Harper’s letter:

Mr. Loury says he “politely declined” an invitation to sign “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published by Harper’s on Tuesday. Endorsed by some 150 liberal academics and writers, it denounces President Trump as “a real threat to democracy” before criticizing leftist repression.

“I declined for two reasons,” Mr. Loury says. “First, I’m not ‘on the left’ and felt no need to signal solidarity with the left before criticizing cancel culture. And second, I don’t view Trump as the greatest threat to democracy in this country.” The truth, he adds, is “quite the opposite. It has been the refusal of the left to accept the democratic outcome of 2016 which precipitated the intolerance about which [the signatories] were complaining. So I did not sign.”

Well, one can quarrel with the second claim, and indeed I do.  Most of us, I think, have accepted that Trump was elected President (though not by the popular vote) in 2016. But many of us, me included, also think that Trump and his administration pose the greatest threat to democracy in the U.S. right now. If not, what does? (Loury doesn’t say.)

Finally, he outlines his differences from most black activists and intellectuals:

Parsing the politics of black America, he says that the prevailing orthodoxy requires him to support the payment of reparations to descendants of slaves, to assert that “voter suppression” today is comparable to Jim Crow, that the overrepresentation of blacks in prisons is “ipso facto an expression of white supremacy and structural racism,” and that preferential treatment is “entirely appropriate, and indeed imperative, as a matter of racial justice.”

I’m not sure what he means by “the prevailing orthodoxy requires him to support. . . “, because he’s not the kind of guy who supports things because they’re orthodox. And he undercuts that in the next paragraph:

A black person who takes issue with these premises is largely ostracized. Here, an impassioned Mr. Loury delivers a small speech without pausing for breath: “If you don’t think that systemic racism accounts for the high rate of outside-marriage births amongst African-American women, if you don’t think the school-to-prison pipeline cultivates the incarceration of black youngsters, if you have doubts about affirmative action, if you think self-reliance is important, if you think the coherence of the family is an elemental aspect of any social group’s being able to function adequately in the world, if you’re religious, and if you think that blacks’ obeisance to the Democratic Party is unhealthy for their long-term political interests—you’ll be dismissed as being on the right. And that’s where I find myself.”

Well, the interview also says this:

Mr. Loury is a hard man to pigeonhole. He belongs to no party and says he isn’t “partisan in the electoral process,” so “ ‘on the right’ doesn’t quite suit me.” Yet on the issues that he cares about most—race, inequality and social justice in America—he is, he says, “right of center for sure, and considerably right of the center of opinion amongst African-Americans.”

In other words, he’s a maverick. I can’t remember who (someone in Congress?) dismissed people like Loury because they weren’t talking like an African-American is supposed to, but hand the man this: he says what he thinks.