A new interview with Steve Pinker

January 9, 2020 • 9:20 am

I’ve often been a defender of Steve Pinker, and it’s because I agree with most of what he says and because I think he’s been unfairly maligned—perhaps the most unfairly maligned public intellectual in the U.S.. But today I’m going to praise and criticize his views, largely praising his views on identity politics but criticizing his views on free will. Both are laid out in an absorbing new interview by Pelle Axelsson on the site IntellectInterviews. (I’m pretty sure Steve would hate the title below!). Click on the screenshot to read it.

There’s a lot of material in this interview: stuff about the evolution of language, the effects of social media, climate change and denialiam, Pinker’s own reading habits, and, as I said, identity politics and free will. I’ll deal only with the last two.

Identity politics (“IP”). I think this is Steve’s most explicit critique of identity politics to date. Here’s what he says:

What are your thoughts on identity politics?

– It’s a regrettable development. Even though it is essential to combat racism, homophobia and sexism, we ought to do so under the principle of fairness, rights and equity. That means each individual should be treated according to his or her merits and not according to the color of their skin, their chromosomes or their sexual orientation. This is different from identity politics, as it is commonly understood, namely that there is a perpetual zero-sum contest for power among racial and sexual cartels. On that view, the source of injustice is not that people have been treated with bigotry or unfairness, but that one group has monopolized power at the expense of others. To rectify that we have to upend the hierarchy and wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women.

– This vision of social change is hard to justify. Modern societies aren’t divided into monolithic armies of a single sex or skin color, and it’s people who suffer or prosper, not categories. Yes, group-based bigotry and exploitation exist, but at the same time there are poor white males who are horribly disadvantaged, women of color born into privilege, and every other combination. To shame or disempower an entire category of people violates the principle of fairness and can have repercussions, such as the election of President You-Know-Who. So identity politics, with its notion of group-based power reassignment, is not the appropriate response to the undeniable existence of racism, sexism and homophobia; the principle of equal rights is.

– Another regrettable form of identity politics is the notion that we should evaluate ideas based on the demographic traits of who advocates them — that an idea should be sidelined if it comes from a white male and taken seriously if it comes from a person with some other combination of gender and skin color. I appreciate where this concern comes from. I’ve often seen brilliant women ignored, interrupted, talked over and mansplained, and have heard of many more. This and other injustices must be called out and eliminated. But that’s different from considering the ideas themselves based on who talks about them. The existence of anthropogenic climate change, for example, is true regardless of who discovered it. It’s insulting to women and people of color to evaluate their opinions based on their census traits, as if they all thought alike, or their arguments could not stand on their merits.

I pretty much agree with this (and the claim that identity politics played a role in Trump’s election), although the source of IP is a combination of bigotry and power.  After all, if whites didn’t have power in this country, there wouldn’t have been slavery or Jim Crow laws, for it was whites who made those laws and had the power, via politic and police, to enforce them.

I also agree that our goal is to give everyone equal rights, though I’m not sure whether Steve thinks that attaining that goal requires some form of time-limited race- or gender-based affirmative action. (I myself favor a limited form of affirmative action, but one that takes not just race and gender into account, but things like poverty, general background, degree of “privilege” in one’s upbringing, age, and so on.)  I agree more strongly with the notion that the validity of an idea depends not on its source but its content, which means that the views and prescriptions of “minoritized” people, who should have a voice and to whom we should listen, aren’t automatically correct—even on issues of oppression. Nor are the views of straight people, white people, men, or older people to be dismissed on grounds of sex, sexua preference, race, or age.

Free will. In the first sentence of his response below, Steve clearly takes the position of a determinist, but then tries to identify what free will can mean, opposing it—to my mind, somewhat misleadingly—with autonomic reflexes, and confusing freedom with predictability:

How do you view free will?
– Like most scientists and modern philosphers [sic], I don’t think that every time we make a decision a miracle happens. It’s all brain physiology. But “free will” does refer to a distinct neurobiological phenomenon. When people refer to “free will,” they are singling out a neurophysiological process that is distinct from the one that gives rise to reflexive or impulsive responses. The brain contains complex circuitry, mostly concentrated in prefrontal cortex, which takes in information from many sources, including memory, current goals, understanding of the social situation and internal models of what would happen in hypothetical futures. These include anticipations of reward and punishment, praise and blame, respect and shame. Also, the output of those circuits is not completely predictable; it can be deflected by chaotic or random elements in the brain. The decision process that we call “free will” is not completely predictable, and it is unfathomably complex, but that does not mean that it takes place outside of information processing by neural networks.

If it’s all brain physiology, then it’s all naturalism and materialism, and therefore decisions obey the laws of physics and we couldn’t have decided otherwise. In other words, “a miracle happens” is a somewhat obscure way of characterizing “libertarian free will”. In other words, I think the first sentence is an admission that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise when we make a decision or commit an act. That’s an important admission because it’s a deterministic view of behavior, which, to me at least, has enormous consequences in how we reward and punish others, and in how we view other people.

In the next question, below, he says that there are factors that could have made us behave otherwise in a situation, but I think that he’s wrong in general (see below).

I’m not sure about the absolute distinctness of a reflexive instinct from a “reasoned” one. Insofar as determinism is concerned, they’re both determined and not controllable by “will”. The former may not involve the brain at all, but it’s all neurons and the laws of physics—as is a “decision” based on taking into account the workings of an evolved and adapted brain. Yes, the latter are far more complex, but both reflexes and decisions obey the laws of physics, i.e., you could not have behaved other that how you did.  In terms of what most people think of as “free will,” which is “I could have decided otherwise” free will, predictability is irrelevant. I suppose Steve is offering a form of compatibilism here: if your brain works through its hardware and software and comes up with a decision, that is “free will”, while if you jerk your leg when your knee is tapped, that is not free will. That’s Dan Dennett’s view of free will: a decision that passes through a brain’s processing, if that brain is sufficiently complex, is what he calls a decision made by free will.

But “reflexive” vs. “processed output” behaviors are relevant for things like praise, blame or punishment. If you kick someone because you’re mad at them, that’s a different matter from kicking them because they happen to walk by when a doctor is testing your reflexes. As I’ve always said, in cases like these you’re “responsible” in both situations because you are the actor who did the kicking, but what society does about it is—and should be—very different. Likewise with crime and punishment. There are reasons to sequester lawbreakers and miscreants, namely to deter others, to reform people who habitually do bad things, and to keep bad people from further injuring society. That view of crime and punishment doesn’t contain anything about whether someone committed a crime of their own “free will”, because even in the case of a premeditated murder the criminal had no “choice”. In fact, there is no way to construe “free will” in a way that will always be useful in a court of law. What we need to figure out are what are the deterministic factors that caused a problematic act, and then the best way to mitigate them.

And what about intermediate situations? If you jump out of the way of a speeding car, is that reflex or Pinker’s “free will”? There is brain processing involved, but also reflex and hormones.

Dragging “predictability” into the issue doesn’t add anything as far as I can see. Find out if someone did an harmful act, and then you can determine how to proceed in the best interests of both society and the malefactor. In many cases, treatment rather than punishment should be prescribed, or even a change in the law, as with the increasing legalization of marijuana.

Now, about predictability. Here’s the next exchange:

If we knew every bit of information existing in the brain, we could still not predict the next choice?

– Theoretically, maybe. Perhaps some Laplacian demon that knew the entire connectome of the brain, and the position and velocity of every ion and every neurotransmitter molecule, could deduce the trillions of neural firings that would take place in the ensuing moments. Though perhaps not — it’s conceivable that there are quantum effects in the brain, or thermal noise or Brownian motion in the molecules in the brain that fall below the threshold of any physically realizable measurement device. In that case, even Laplace’s demon may not be able to predict with certainty wat [sic] we will do.

– At the same time, we all can predict human behavior statistically. Clearly, the fact that society, not to mention everyday social life, functions more or less coherently means that behavior must be in large part predictable, so that our laws, norms, threats and promises can be effective. Otherwise we would be solitary hermits who just happen to share the same space, randomly bumping off each other, rather than families and institutions and societies. That doesn’t require us to predict each other’s behavior down to the last sentence and action.

First of all, predictability has nothing to do with most people’s concept of free will, which involves volition:  you make a decision but could have made another decision. But, as Steve says, a decision is not a “miracle.” And yes, we know enough about people to be able to roughly predict whether or not they’ll do something. But I defy you to predict what I’ll have for dinner on Friday! That will be determined on Friday, but this lack of predictability doesn’t mean my decision about victuals is freely made.

Further, the only factor that can make you “decide otherwise” is not volition, but the unpredictability of quantum mechanics. Factors like “thermal noise” or “chaotic or random elements in the brain”, while making decision hard or impossible to predict, are still deterministic, and thus should not be limped with quantum-mechanical factors . But none of these so-called random factors have anything to do with whether or not we have free will unjder most people’s construal of that term. Random factors are not part of volition, be they based on quantum mechanics or Brownian motion.  With the exception of quantum-mechanical indeterminacy, a deterministic view of human choice and behavior is independent of predictability.

h/t: Barry

A profile of George Church on 60 Minutes

December 10, 2019 • 1:00 pm

60 Minutes is the only non-evening-news show I watch on television, but I missed this week’s episode that included a 13-minute segment on Harvard /MIT geneticist George Church. I’ve written about Church before, but only to kvetch about his accommodationism, for he truly has a soft spot for religion, is a big-time accommodationist, and has pronounced that “the overlap between science and faith is vast and fertile.”  I believe I’ve also said that I think his project about “de-extincting” the wooly mammoth is a non-starter, as it won’t really revive that extinct species but merely genetically engineer a modern elephant to look like a wooly mammoth, having, for instance, more hair and longer tusks.

But that said, Church is an interesting guy and a scientific polymath, with all kinds of interests. Fortunately, 60 Minutes has put the segment on Church online, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below (I’d watch it soon before it disappears).  The site also has a transcript in case you’d prefer to read than to watch:

Extra segments include a two-minute extract in which Church discusses the money he took from Jeffrey Epstein (he says he didn’t know much about Epstein, though it’s not clear whether the man had already been convicted when Church took his dough), and a five-minute “overtime” segment in which interviewer Scott Pelley asks Church about the ethics of genetic engineering.

Church mentions a number of projects his 100-person lab (!!) is engaged in, including engineering humans so they’re less susceptible to viral infection (at first I thought that wasn’t viable since viruses mutate so readily, but he wants to alter the human genetic code in such a way that impossible multiple simultaneous mutations in the virus would be required to overcome the immunity). That might be dicey, but other projects, like growing human organs from one’s own cell, or rendering pig organs feasible for transplants by engineering out the pig viruses that prevent that), seem more viable. They’re at least sufficiently attractive that investors have put hundreds of millions of dollars behind these projects.

Other projects include genetic engineering to reverse the aging process (it seems to work in mice, and he’s trying now in dogs), and a dating app in which your genome is compared to your partner’s to see if your kids could get any genetic diseases (this is a more sophisticated method of what genetic counselors already do, like telling two carriers of Tay-Sachs disease that there’s a 25% chance that a child could have the syndrome).

It’s an absorbing interview, though perhaps a bit shallow for those of us who already knew some genetics. But it’s still amazing to see the breadth of his interests and research.  He’s also “neuroatypical” and has narcolepsy, so you can see him fall asleep in class.

But all that genetic engineering talk has angered some people, like this one:

But we have to remember that “eugenics” include both negative eugenics (fixing broken genomes, preventing the production of offspring with genetic diseases, curing genetic diseases by injecting DNA) and positive eugenics, which is the engineering of humans with more positive traits, like higher IQs and so on. The former is far less problematic than the latter, which is seen as “playing God”,  but you can’t just dismiss all genetic engineering as undesirable “eugenics” and “wrong”.  Further, Church has an ethicist on his staff and has thought carefully about the ethics of what he’s doing, so he’s not some kind of Hitler.

Let’s face it: genetic engineering of humans is inevitable, starting with eliminating or curing genetic diseases, and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as people think carefully about what they’re doing and so long as the dangers of tinkering with our genome are known and accepted.


A NYT interview with Bill Maher

September 30, 2019 • 12:30 pm

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a long interview with Bill Maher (click on screenshot below)—complete with footnotes, something I haven’t seen in the NYT.

I’ve always been a big fan of Maher: there are in fact few things he’s said on his show that I don’t agree with. I suppose it’s because both he and I criticize both the Right and the Left, and Maher, one among many, has suffered for doing that. The Left wants to be immune from criticism by others who profess to be Left, but Maher is not only a Leftist, but an incisive social critic.  And now I learn that he’s a huge Beatles fan as well. What’s not to like? And so, to celebrate International Blasphemy Day, treat yourself to a read. I’ll put a few excerpts below.

By the way, in the interview Maher defines political correctness as “the elevation of sensitivity over truth.”


On criticizing both sides:

Most late-night hosts don’t criticize both the right and the left as much as you do. Why do you think that is? It’s hard to answer that question without sounding self-serving. I will say this: Our studio audience is not representative of liberals across the country. Your paper and The Atlantic had long articles in the last year saying that 80 percent of Americans think this politically correct BS has gone too far. But the people on Twitter are the people who control the media a lot. They’re the millennials who probably grew up with helicopter parents who afforded them a sense of entitlement. They are certainly more fragile than previous generations. Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Crying rooms. Microaggressions. That crowd feels like anything that upsets their tender sensibilities is completely out of line.

Isn’t it important to distinguish between the fundamental arguments being made in favor of those sensibilities and the people being loudest on social media about them? Yes. The most important thing that the Democrats can do to win the next election is to broom this element out of their party and stand up to the Twitter mob and the ultrawoke. And I don’t like the term “woke,” because it implies I am asleep. I was woke before some of these people were born. I grew up in a household with two liberal parents who were

But we do see color, and no one is arguing that people shouldn’t be judged by their character. So what problem is being caused by the shift you just described? If someone walks in the room, after a minute, I should not be thinking about color. And I am not. That’s how I have always been. I have actual black friends. I don’t think they want me to be always thinking: Black person. Black person. I’m talking to a black person. Look, I tried to drive a stake through political correctness in the ’90s. I obviously failed dismally. It’s worse than ever.

On “Islamophobia”:

Well, so my next question is related to the 9/11 controversy. You’ve always been critical of all religions, but is there something distinct about your criticism of Islam? Fairly or not, you’ve been called an Islamophobe a few times over the years. It’s ridiculous to label criticism of a religion as a phobia of a religion. I’m going to criticize any person or group that violates liberal principles, and so should you. Almost all religions, by their nature, are intolerant and supremacist. At any time in history one religion will be the most fundamentalist. At this moment I think it’s pretty evident that religion is Islam. Of course, intolerance exists everywhere, but the places where, let’s say, human rights workers have their work cut out for them the most are probably traditional Islamic societies. To conflate thinking that with Islamophobia is a facile and unconvincing trick.

On the death of “impure” comedy:

It has this lovingly detailed evocation of a very particular time in the comedy world, back when the boom was starting to happen in the late ’70s, and how that was a real moment of change for comedians and their work. Have you seen any similar sea changes since? I’m probably not the best one to ask, because it has been a long time since I was in the comedy clubs. I do hear a lot of complaints that comedians are frustrated that they can’t freely try out new bits. When I was coming up, the great thing about the comedy clubs was that they were laboratories for our experimentation. That was the deal. They didn’t pay us, and we didn’t have to be good — and weren’t — but that’s how we honed our craft. Now people are afraid, and comedy does not function well in that atmosphere of fear. We want to be saying whatever, especially if it’s funny, and it hurts us that the audience won’t trust us. Do you really think I’m on the side of the bad people? Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy and Jerry Seinfeld a few years ago all were talking about the fact that they don’t work campuses anymore. Jerry Seinfeld is too out there? His act is so clean it whitens teeth. Comedy is about saying those true things that everyone else isn’t saying. That’s where the fun is.

On today’s college students:

And you don’t see any idealism in the identity politics of younger people? I don’t know how that’s connected to idealism. What I’m complaining about is fragility. What I’m complaining about is people who were overindulged as children and somehow believe that they should not have to endure even the slightest measure of discomfort.

I’m sure I’m overly Pollyanna-ish about all this, and obviously not everyone is arguing these issues in good faith, but isn’t the root of what you’re identifying just people’s attempt to figure out how to get through life with more dignity and less pain? But there are negative repercussions. People get disappeared. When I was a young person the conservatives were the ones who — I don’t know what you’d call it.

Drew hard lines about what was or wasn’t culturally acceptable? Thank you, yes. Now it’s reversed, and I feel like that’s backwards. Young people should be the free ones pushing the boundaries and not the ones inhibiting us. “Well, I’m not a woman, so I could not possibly know that experience.” “I’m not a person of color, so I can’t speak about that.” Professors are afraid to speak, because what they say, even if it’s science, might go against the politically correct notion. This is pernicious. I’m sorry, but I have to lay that at the doorstep of the far left and the younger generation. It’s not the worst thing in the world to hear something you find somewhat offensive. You can turn the channel. Look at something else. Go to a puppet show; you’ll never be offended.

And on The Beatles:

Let me ask you a nonpolitics, noncomedy question. I know that you’re a big Beatles fan. In one of your books you said you could probably do a better job interviewing them than anybody has yet. I definitely could.

So if you could snap your fingers and have Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr on your show, what would you ask them? I would love to present my theory as to why the Beatles really broke up. Which is that John Lennon could not keep up in the battle for A-sides. Imagine writing a song as great as “Revolution” and it loses out to “Hey Jude.” That’s, I think, why John Lennon didn’t want to continue going with the Beatles. I don’t think he liked losing. Paul McCartney would never admit that, by the way.

Well, I like both of those songs, but don’t think either is great—not in the way that “A Day in the Life” or “Eleanor Rigby” are great (the former is mostly Lennon; the latter mostly McCartney). But we’ll never hear the answer to Maher’s speculations, as Lennon is dead and Macca partly blames Yoko (see video below, and listen to the other clips of Howard Stern interviewing McCartney).

If you’re one of the many who don’t like Maher, by all means tell us why below. (Or, if you like him, join the chorus.)

In a Channel 4 interview, Richard Dawkins describes his new book

August 30, 2019 • 9:15 am

Although I heard rumors that Richard Dawkins was publishing a new book, I wasn’t aware that it was already finished and scheduled for publication. But Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide is will be out October 8. I haven’t seen it, but it’s apparently intended for young people. And I’ve put below a 45-minute video interview about the book on Channel 4; the interviewer is Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

The Beeb’s description of the interview:

Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s most famous atheists. An evolutionary biology at Oxford and best-selling author of The God Delusion – his new book ‘Outgrowing God – A Beginner’s Guide’ aims to inform young people about religion and atheism. He talks to Krishnan about why he wrote it, his passion for scientific truth and whether he thinks there’s life outside of Earth.

Guru-Murthy is described in Wikipedia as having “gained notoriety for causing awkward moments in interviews with celebrities by asking increasingly probing questions, most notably Quentin Tarantino and Robert Downey Jr..” I haven’t heard any of his interviews, but this one is tolerable but marred by the interviewer’s repeated claim that Richard’s criticism of Islam is unfair. (I don’t know if Guru-Murthy is religious, but he’s certainly soft on religion in general and Islam in particular.)

Even at the outset Guru-Murthy appears to have an agenda, as he introduces Richard as “perhaps famous as the world’s biggest atheist.” Well, maybe that’s why he’s famous, but Richard has written only one book about atheism—though I guess The God Delusion is his most famous book. Well, Richard is famous as well as a popularizer and writer about science.

But up until about 23 minutes, when he gets onto Islam, Guru-Murthy asks some pretty good questions, and draws out Richard’s views. If I have a beef about the questions, it’s that they tell us a lot about Richard’s views on religion (although you probably know much of this), but give us very little insight into the new book. And Guru-Murtha doesn’t appear to have done a lot of background research.

A few notes:

16:00: Guru-Murthy asks Richard if people can really live morally without fear of divine sanction, and I was sad to hear that Richard tentatively agree, for the morality of atheistic countries like Sweden and Denmark show that you don’t need God to be moral. (The interviewer does suggest the old canard that even secular countries inherit their morality from older Christianity, but I think that’s bunk.)  Richard does add, however, that the idea that religion is necessary for morality is a “patronizing reason” to be good. (Note that the police strike Richard mentions, as described by Steve Pinker, occurred not in Toronto but in Montreal.)

18:30:  Would the world be better if we jettisoned all our superstitions, including religion, and moved, as Richard wants, towards evidence-based thinking? Richard’s answer is good, bringing up secular ethics and noting that even the winnowing of the “good” from the “bad” parts of the Bible presupposes a non-goddy ethics—the Euthyphro argument. Richard also points out that morality has changed hugely over time (viz., The Better Angels of Our Nature), belying the idea that morality comes from religious doctrine (which of course changes, at best, very slowly).

At 23:15, Guru-Murtha starts trying to stick the knife in, telling Richard that “You annoy people”, and asking him if he’s peevish and lacks humor. Then you can see what really pisses off the interviewer: Richard’s insistence that Islam is the most dangerous and harmful of the world’s religions. Responding to the accusation that he hates Islam more than other faiths, Richard replies that he hates Islam’s tenets and religiously-motived acts—like killing apostates and suicide bombings—that draw from the wells of Islam but are vanishingly rare in, say, Christianity. The interviewer goes on, boring into the following infamous tweet of Richard’s:

Perhaps an unwise tweet, but Richard explains it (as he does in the tweet below), and keeps his cool despite Krishna-Murthy’s attempt to rattle him by asking him if he’s an “Islamophobe.”


Finally, at 26:53 Krisnan asks Richard whether he’s clouded his scientific message with his atheism and anti-theism. (I get the same question, implying that I should just talk about evolution and stop banging on about religion, though I rarely mix the two subjects in a single talk.)

Richard’s response: “I’m not a politician; I’m a scientist, and I care about what is true. . . I’m not trying to be popular.” And that’s a good response. The new book (shown at bottom), is apparently a message for young people to care about what’s true—the claims that have good reasons supporting them.

Anyway, Richard looks in good nick and is as eloquent as ever despite his stroke. If you’ve read The God Delusion and already know a lot about Richard’s views about religion vs. science, you might skip to 23 minutes in when the fireworks (well, small ones) begin.

The video:

The new book (click on screenshot to get to the site for Amazon US):

h/t: Karin

My talk with Andrew Seidel about his book on America’s secular origins

July 23, 2019 • 9:15 am

As I wrote a while back, in June I had a 45-minute public discussion with Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and its Director of Strategic Response. The topic was Andrew’s new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American. It took place at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Hemant Mehta (“the Friendly Atheist”) was the moderator.

As always, I can’t bear to listen to myself talk, so I didn’t go through this. But I recall that Andrew was very eloquent and enlightening (as interlocutor, my role was just to ask questions, so the floor was his).  I think you’ll learn a lot about Andrew’s twin theses: the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation, nor was it founded on Christian principles. (Also, as you probably already know the founders weren’t very religious. In fact, some of them were quite randy and, by evangelical Christian lights, immoral!)

I did listen near the end just so I can tell you that the audience questions begin about 48½ minutes in. And I can assure you that you will enjoy Andrew’s conversational style and will learn a lot, including what a liberal constitutional lawyer thinks of today’s Supreme Court, and where the law is heading.

A visit with Titania McGrath (Andrew Doyle)

June 23, 2019 • 2:00 pm

Most of us have enjoyed the spoofs of “woke” culture by Titania McGrath, who has not only 289,000 followers on Twitter, but a book, Woke: A Guide to Social Justice.

Here Peter Whittle interviews the person who created and is channeled through Titania, comedian Andrew Doyle, who writes for Spiked and previously wrote for “Jonathan Pie.”

Doyle analyzes the ideology behind the Titania phenomenon (noting that many people still think she’s a real person), and discusses some of her classic gems, like “If you only have sex with people you find attractive, you must ask yourself why you’re such a superficial bigot.”

An interview with E. O. Wilson: He’s still on about group selection

May 11, 2019 • 12:15 pm

Matthew sent me a link to this interview with the renowned biologist E. O. Wilson published in The Chronicle Review (part of the Chronicle of Higher Education). It’s generally okay but has some reportorial errors and, sadly, documents Wilson’s continued insistence that human altruism evolved by selection among groups (“group selection”).  The article appears to have come from The Wall Street Journal; click on the screenshot to read it.

The interviewer, Charlie Tyson, a grad student at Harvard, should have not made the errors below, especially because he’s right there at Wilson’s school. Granted, these errors aren’t important, but bespeak a lack of journalistic care.

Errors of fact

The claim that Wilson’s lab and office were right down the hall from those of his adversarial colleagues Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin, and the claim that during the “sociobiology wars,” a protestor dumped a pitcher of ice water on Wilson’s head.

Here’s what Tyson wrote:

Not since Alfred Kinsey has an entomologist’s career been so marked by controversy. Wilson became a public figure in 1975 with Sociobiology (Harvard University Press), which argued that social behavior, in humans as in other species, has a biological foundation. Some critics — most notably Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, both just down the hall in Harvard’s biology department — saw the book as providing scientific cover for racism and sexism. In a well-known incident at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a demonstrator dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head, shouting, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

No, their offices were not down the hall from each other, nor even on the same floor. Wilson’s office and labs were on the fourth floor of the MCZ labs, while Lewontin’s was on the first floor (for a year after he arrived at Harvard) and then on the third floor. Gould was located in another building: the Museum of Comparative Zoology proper, with his office on the ground floor. This would have been easy for Tyson to ascertain.

More important, it seem untrue that a pitcher of ice water was dumped on Wilson’s head at that meeting. That’s a biological urban legend that has been repeated many times. But it’s apparently wrong. The New Atlantis reports the truth: it was a cup of water, and was not dumped on his head:

 Most memorably, protesters rushed the stage at a February 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science just as Wilson was about to begin a talk. They chanted “racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” and threw a cup of water at him (later embellished in legend into a full pitcher of ice water).

The cup-of-water version is the way I’ve heard it from those who were there, and David Hull concurs (though not Ulrike Segerstrale). Wilson could have clarified this, but I guess Tyson didn’t ask him.

But on to the science. In the interview, Wilson maintains, as he has before, that group selection is the explanation for the evolution of altruism in humans. In his most recent set of books, he’s also maintained that nearly all traits that ‘make us human’, including creativity, music, and so on, also came via group selection.  Further, he’s maintained that eusociality in social insects (the division of the colony into non-reproducing but cooperating castes, with a reproductive queen) also had nothing to do with kin selection, but was also the product of differential reproduction and extinction of groups.

Virtually every expert in insect social evolution has objected to Wilson’s view, given in a paper in Nature with Tarnita and Nowak. Apparently the only people who accept Wilson et al.’s view are the three authors of that paper, along with group-selection enthusiasts like David Sloan Wilson. You can see all my posts on this controversy here and here.) I also wrote a critical review of Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth, which laid out his group selection ideas for humans, in the Times Literary Supplement; the review is paywalled, but I have copyright and posted my review here. Finally, you can see links to letters in Nature from the 140-odd evolutionists who objected to Wilson et al.’s view of group selection as the cause of eusociality in insects at this post. (I was one of the signatories.)

Here’s a snippet from Tyson’s interview:

Q. Your new book, Genesis, offers for the general reader an introduction to how complex societies evolve. But for the more specialized reader, it doubles as a manifesto for group-selection theory.

A. I realized we needed to get it straight on where advanced eusocial behavior comes from. I’ve felt, without fail, that it comes from group selection.

I had been a main proponent of kin selection. In fact, I was the guy who met W.D. Hamilton way back, who promoted him and helped him. And I think kin selection does in fact occur.

Having introduced kin selection, Hamilton had, in my view, explained the origin of nepotism. But then he came up with something called “inclusive fitness.” He said: Maybe societies as a whole originate when a lot of individuals together are helping one another, or cooperating, to the degree that they are related to them. If they were all closely related, then there would be a lot of individuals cooperating, and you might have the origin of a society — particularly a society based on altruism. I favored that idea and mentioned it as far back as The Insect Societies (Harvard University Press) in 1971.

Inclusive fitness carried the day. But it just wasn’t working. I saw that there were big flaws in it.

Nope, there are no big flaws in inclusive fitness arguments. And they still carry the day. The idea of group selection creating major features of human evolution, or of evolution in general, is not widely accepted, for it has major flaws. Although Tyson characterizes Wilson’s argument accurately, saying “Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals — but altruistic groups beat selfish groups”, this is deeply flawed. As I wrote about Wilson’s words to that effect in his Chicago discussion with Alan Alda:

Wilson then said he was going to give the audience an equation about how group selection worked, and my heart sank as I imagined him trying to spout math. Fortunately, he said just this: “Within groups, selfish individuals outcompete altruistic ones. But altruistic groups outcompete selfish ones.” The audience applauded loudly, but of course didn’t realize that that is one of the big problems of group selection. Not only is the turnover of individuals within groups faster than the turnover of groups themselves (via splitting and extinction), but once you have a group of all altruists, it’s unstable to the invasion of selfish individuals who gain but do not give. One selfish person in an altruistic group will begin breeding like rabbits compared to the others. It’s thus quite problematic to assert that some many aspects of human behavior and morphology evolved by selection among groups rather than among individuals. If you want to read a comprehensive critique of the problems with group selection, you couldn’t do better than Steve Pinker’s Edge piece, “The false allure of group selection.

Pinker’s essay lays out far better than I could the problems with group selection, including the fact that there’s no evidence for it playing a role in the evolution of a single biological trait (I hold out sexual reproduction as a possible exception). The unfortunate situation is that Wilson is the best known evolutionary biologist alive, and has won two Pulitzer Prizes. When he speaks, people listen, and when he extolls group selection, the layperson believes him. They don’t know the problems with Wilson’s Big Hypothesis.

I’m not sure why Wilson, at the end of his career, has fixed his colors to the leaky vessel H. M. S. Group Selection. I’ve heard some of his colleagues give explanations, but I won’t repeat that gossip. It’s just sad that a man who became famous for having so many good ideas is chaining himself to a very bad one to ensure his legacy. But his legacy was assured a long time ago, and will only be tarnished by his tenacious clinging to group selection.

One other error in the interview, this time made by Wilson himself when discussing the opponents to his view of human sociobiology (now called “evolutionary psychology”):

Sociobiology got a book review on the front page of The New York Times. I think — well, I know — that some very small number of professors at Harvard, in my own department, were upset, because they thought that theories they were working on were the kind that should get recognition.

Wilson is wrong here. He’s referring, of course, to Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin. I knew both of them, for Dick was my advisor and Gould was on my thesis committee, and I never got any inkling that they objected to sociobiology because it dimmed their own professional lights. That’s an uncharitable statement, and not true. Lewontin and Gould fought against sociobiology (along with a lot of other students who then had no lights to dim) because they were ideologically opposed to it: they were pretty much blank-slaters and opposed to biological determinism, thinking that sociobiology would somehow justify a hierarchy of races and sexes and buttress the status quo. I heard Dick and Steve talk about this many times, and also knew Dick very well—certainly well enough to know that the man didn’t have a jealous bone in his body. Steve was more ambitious for public acclaim, but even so I don’t see him going after Wilson because he was jealous.

But what is true is Wilson’s claim that he won the sociobiology debate. In the end, people have accepted sociobiology for many species, and even in humans the discipline of evolutionary psychology is well established, though sometimes prone to exude weak papers.

And the good stuff in the interview. I like how Wilson says people should get into biology:

Q. What are some questions that scientists today should be asking but aren’t asking? What’s causing our blind spots: Funding? Overspecialization? Politics?

A. You’re asking me an impossibly large question. Let me make one suggestion, and maybe that’ll lead to another.

I am unhappy about STEM. That is, I’m unhappy about how it’s presented as the principal portal for careers in science and technology. Young people — in some cases, young enough to be as far back as grammar school — are presented with this intellectual triathlon in order to go into science and technology.

There’s no question that we need all the ablest people that can be recruited to go into science and technology to keep this country strong. But STEM is an unnecessarily forbidding set of stairs.

Consider a young person who’s thrilled by seeing a natural system, a remarkable geological formation that stirs the imagination, or a group of animals or plants. This youngster says, Boy, when I get to college, I would like to move on to a career in science, and biology especially. Now, the STEM-oriented teacher — if we are following the STEM ideology as we hear it — says: “I think that’s a good ambition. But remember that biology is based substantially upon chemistry. So, I advise you to start getting a good background in chemistry. Oh, and while you’re at it, you should keep in mind that chemistry is based upon, to a major degree, principles of physics. So consider starting to get a background in physics, too. And, oh, I almost forgot: To get into physics, and a lot of the best parts of chemistry, you’re going to need ‘M,’ mathematics. So I want you to get started on math courses right now.”

Now, I’m going to say something startling. And I’m going to get myself in trouble. But heck, that’s why you’re here.

Q. Yes.

A. And I’m going to say: Nonsense!

The right way to create a young scientist who’s going to be on fire by the time they’re in college is to let them pick something, some subject, that has really excited them. If they dream of space exploration, if they dream of curing a cancer, if they dream of going to distant jungles and discovering new species — whatever their dream is, let them dream.

Indeed: let them dream! And give them the resources to fulfill their dream!

While I don’t think that science is going to claim hegemony over art, literature, and all the humanities, I also like Ed’s discussion about how consideration of animal perception and consciousness might give art and literature a shot in the arm. This is the kind of poetry that I admire in Wilson’s writing. Here’s his discussion how an infusion of science in the creative arts could create A Great Leap Forward:

Let me give an example. A female moth comes out from the pupa. She’s got to mate. She releases a sex-attraction pheromone that’s carried downwind. In some moths, that pheromone can go downwind for kilometers. The males pick up on it and head upwind. In some species they start flying zigzag.

Imagine those puffs and ellipses of odor: spreading and dying away, spreading and dying away. If you could visualize all of that and walk into nature, you would see an entirely different picture. On the ground, the smallest of the creatures finding one another. Prey. Rival males. Females. A constant maelstrom of chemical communication.

Humans don’t have the capacity to understand the chemical communication going on around us that makes up the real world. We are dumb to that, or anosmic.

But the other thing is that we can’t see beyond a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. Other organisms can see ultraviolet, or the infrared on the spectrum. Here is a whole opportunity in the humanities. It would be interesting if you could create the optical world of a spider or a bird, and show the world what would be seen or heard by them. You’d be painting an entirely different landscape. You could have a cottonmouth landscape, or a timber rattlesnake landscape. It would be nice to have a gallery of visual representations with the electromagnetic spectrum shifted over, from the point of view of a butterfly or an ant, translated into our narrow human sphere of perception so that we can see what they feel or see.

The humanities should not tolerate limits on themselves. There are so many exciting things to be done with the arts.

I don’t share Wilson’s optimism here, but I like the approach. Still, I don’t think it will replace anthropocentric art and literature.

Finally, Ed emphasizes the importance of collections in museums and—something I especially mourn—the loss of taxonomists and other specialists on groups of organisms. Take Drosophila, for example: perhaps the most studied group from an evolutionary-genetic point of view. If you’re studying biodiversity and speciation in that group, as I have, it’s crucial to have specialists who can help identify and place new species. Yet I can think of only about two Drosophila taxonomists on the planet. There’s no professional acclaim or recognition for such work, which is a damn shame given its importance. You can’t catalogue biodiversity without such people, and biodiversity is something we really need to understand now.

The New Statesman interviews Dawkins, concentrates on his tweets instead of his books

February 4, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Although this New Statesman piece (click on screenshot) purports to be an interview of Richard Dawkins by George Eaton, it’s not really a series of questions and answers, but rather an indictment of Dawkins’s propensity to issue invidious or misconstrued tweets. (Of the 16 short paragraphs, seven are about his tweets.) In other words, it’s more or less a hit job on the man, but of course we’re used to that.

Now I’m no fan of Dawkins on Twitter. Though I know him and consider him a friend, I’m also one of his numerous friends who have tried to get him to throttle back when his fingers are on the Twitter keyboard.  Too often, as with the “bells vs. muezzin” tweet described in this article, his tweets will rile people up, even when, or so he says, they don’t express what he means. My response is that if you can’t say what you mean without it being grossly misunderstood, stay off Twitter. (Of course, there are many who have it in for Richard, and will find a way to go after him no matter what he says.)

I wrote to Dawkins once with the advice above, and I think that’s the only email I ever sent him that he didn’t answer. It’s not just me, either: as the article points, out people like Dan Dennett have also urged Richard to lay off the tweets—all to no avail. So be it; the man is stubborn.

Read the piece, and I’ll give a few excerpts and remarks below. The occasion of the interview is the issuing of a short book with the transcribed “Four Horsemen” conversation, a book that is almost superfluous in view of the video’s public availability on YouTube. (It does have a foreword by Stephen Fry and very short retrospectives by the three living discussants.) I’ve put excerpts from the article indented below, while my comments are flush left.


The tweets:

In the digital age, reputations made over decades can be lost in minutes. Richard Dawkins first achieved renown as a pioneering evolutionary biologist (through his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene) and, later, as a polemical foe of religion (through 2006’s The God Delusion). Yet he is now increasingly defined by his incendiary tweets, which have been plausibly denounced as Islamophobic.

Plausibly? That’s a knife stuck twixt the ribs! It goes on:

Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist, has since warned that Dawkins’s tweets “could be seriously damaging his long-term legacy”. The theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, another friend, has remarked: “I wish he wouldn’t do it . I told him that.”

When I put these judgements to Dawkins, he conceded: “They’ve probably got a point… I’m trying to be more careful to make sure that my sticks don’t have wrong ends.” He reflected: “The problem with tweets is that they’re too short. What I should have added, which I did in a reply, is that I love the [Islamic] call to prayer, it can be very moving, especially when done by a decent voice. But often ‘Allahu akbar’ is the last thing you hear before you’re blown up. Church bells are never the last thing you hear before you’re murdered.”

A new book:

Six years ago, Dawkins described Islam as the “greatest force for evil today”. Now, he says, nationalism is a better candidate, but he has not ceased his crusade against religion. In the autumn, he will publish a new book, Outgrowing God (“I think of it as atheism for teenagers”) and he hopes to write one for “younger children” too.

Is this not precisely the indoctrination he denounces? “I’m very keen to avoid that, of course,” Dawkins said. “The book will be loaded with, ‘Do you agree? Think about it for yourself.’” He remarked, without irony, that the reference by some non-believers to “atheist children” was “a sin” since “the child is too young to have made up its own mind”.

Eaton’s question sounds fair enough, but remember that when you indoctrinate children with religious belief, you’re indoctrinating them with lies. This book sounds more like a palliative or an inoculation against religion, so I don’t think it’s as bad as, say, The Child’s Book of Jesus. Is it really indoctrination to tell a kid to weigh the evidence for the religious views they hear? Well, I haven’t yet seen the book, so I pass on:

Brexit. Even Dawkins opponents must generally agree with his take:

Dawkins is aggrieved by Brexit (“I’m trying to learn German as a gesture of solidarity”), though he conceded with scientific modesty: “I don’t think I know enough to say much about the actual pros and cons of the European Union.

“What I feel passionately is that [David] Cameron should never have called that referendum. Cameron will be damned by history as one of the worst prime ministers ever for sacrificing the long-term future of the country for the sake of a petty internal squabble.”

He argued that, as with US constitutional amendments, a two-thirds majority should have been required for a binding result. “A simple 50 per cent majority is not good enough on an issue this important.”

Theresa May, he said, had “shown a quasi-religious impulse in her obstinate determination to see Brexit through because that’s what the British people want. It’s almost a kind of theological mantra.”

Dawkins is a long-standing supporter of the Liberal Democrats and has unsuccessfully urged them to rename themselves “the European Party” as a means of detoxifying their brand. “I’m sorry that the Lib Dems are seen as having blotted their copybook by joining the Tories.”

Death. Richard is 77, and it must be a bit galling to have interviewers ask an aging scientist how he feels about death. It’s bad enough to stare it in the face without having people hound you about it. But I like the response:

At the close of our conversation, I asked Dawkins how he viewed the prospect of death. “I find the idea of eternity and infinity frightening… Death is a general anaesthetic.” And what of his posthumous reputation? “I do derive great comfort from the thought that I’ve written quite a number of books and they’re very widely read and I hope that they will go on being read. I depart from Woody Allen’s remark: ‘I don’t want to live on in my works, I want to live on in my apartment.’”

In contrast, I adhere to Woody Allen’s remark!

How he wants to be viewed: This really should have been the centerpiece of the interview, for Dawkins’s books on evolution, as well as The God Delusion, are his enduring legacy. The tweets are the equivalent of evanescent journalism, and won’t be remembered:

Does he worry that some may first encounter him through his tweets? “That is a worry. I’d rather they read my books.”

For everyone that’s angered by one of Richard’s hamhanded tweets, there are a dozen people who have been enlightened by his popular works on evolution and some who have not only been “converted” to accepting evolution, but also deconverted from religion. Yes, people love to hate him using his Tweets as a rationale, but a lot of that is either jealousy or simple hatred of a man who wrote the best-selling book against religion of our age.

I’d recommend The Blind Watchmaker for its combination of great exposition and wonderful prose.

Interview with Jacqueline Bisset

December 28, 2018 • 1:00 pm

My nephew Steven, who shares roughly 25% of my genes, writes for the Lincoln Center’s Film Comment site, and so, touting his wares, I refer you to his interview with actor Jacqueline Bisset in the latest issue (click on the screenshot):

His introduction:

An international star of the first rank whose mantle of honors includes everything from a Golden Globe to the Légion d’honneur, Jacqueline Bisset has distinguished over five decades’ worth of productions with her sophisticated glamour and finely honed craftsmanship, her performances growing in complexity and power with cumulative experience. She’s enjoying a particularly verdant career phase at present: the last two months have seen her play opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in Here and Now, Nick Nolte in Head Full of Honey, and Ron Perlman in Asher, and her era-defining blockbuster Bullitt made a welcome return to theaters 50 years after its release. While in New York for the Tribeca premiere of Here and Now, Ms. Bisset took time to share her recollections of an astonishing galley of collaborators, for most of whom no first name is necessary (Polanski, Truffaut, Huston, Chabrol), and to reflect on the mechanics of screen acting and the intangibles of stardom.

My interview for the San Francisco Review of Books

December 12, 2018 • 12:45 pm

As always, I can’t bear to listen to—or, in this case, read—interviews I’ve given.

This one was given a while back to the editors of the San Francisco Review of Books, and as I talked to them on Skype, it slowly dawned on me that they seemed pretty conservative, and were asking me questions about how well I aligned with conservatism. (It’s easy for a critic of liberal excesses to be seen as a conservative!). I’m not sure this is the case, and I won’t read the interview to find out what happened, but here’s the link (click on screenshot) if you’re interested.