Archive for December, 2009

Darwin hijacked?

December 30, 2009

The latest issue of the  London Review of Books has a rambling piece by Steven Shapin about the ‘global festivities’ around Darwin Year.

Though much of the article is blandly unobjectionable, there’s a good deal of nitpicking, axe grinding and misrepresentation. Even where his targets are deserving, Shapin lets them off the hook with breezy, half-hearted argumentation.

Sample: if, as evolutionary psychology claims, our cognitive architecture is made up of special-purpose modules locally adapted for hunting and gathering in the Pleistocene, why are there postmodernists? If you’re neither witty nor Jerry Fodor, you can’t get away with this stuff.

But, for reasons I’ll outline below, the article deserves attention.

Shapin asks why past anniversaries of Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Einstein didn’t attract similar hoopla. None of them was afforded so many reverential publications and events, not to mention a feature film starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly (though, to be fair, Gauss got a banknote).

The reason, he surmises, is that ‘science is discovery and not invention’: while nobody would have written King Lear if Shakespeare hadn’t, someone besides Darwin would surely have uncovered natural selection.

If, then, ‘the individual doesn’t matter in the course of science’, why the special fuss over Darwin?

Well, says Shapin, it’s not the true, historical figure being celebrated, but a heroic image deployed for a personality cult. And behind official Darwin-ism lies a narrow interpretation of evolutionary biology, trying to pass itself off as the one true gospel.

So-called adaptationism (popularly associated with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker) attributes changes in allele frequencies largely to positive selection of adaptive traits (rather than emphasizing random drift or spandrels). It also provides the foundation for  evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, disciplines which have been controversial, to say the least.

Now this politicized, tendentious stream of thought has hijacked Darwin Year, staging a coup for control of the academy by ‘laying claim’ to the ‘founding father.’

It’s a nice story, and has its convincing aspects.

But it’s a bit overblown, unless I’ve entirely misunderstood the prior theoretical positions of both Jennifer Connelly and the Cultural Studies department at Melbourne Uni. In short, it’s a just-so story, the kind ‘adaptationists’ are often accused of peddling: a neat explanation of the facts that leaves no room for accident or contingency.

For example, though it may suit a contemporary historian of science (Shapin is a professor at Harvard) to emphasize intra-disciplinary battles for power (‘a struggle among scientists for Darwin’s soul’), the truth is that this year’s Darwin fuss has occurred largely outside academia, in popular media and publishing.

How to account for this broad public appeal?

Shapin doesn’t mention it, but surely one contributing factor is that  unlike, say, classical mechanics, calculus, special relativity or almost every epochal scientific discovery – Darwin’s theory was initially given non-mathematical expression, and is still intuitively accessible to a broad audience through a simple, natural-language triplet: reproduction-mutation-selection.

It also seems clear that Darwin Year was lent contemporary relevance by religious hostility to evolution, and a corresponding desire to ‘promote public education about science’ as ‘our most reliable knowledge system’.  Yet this, Shapin argues, is ‘not quite what it seems’, for ‘ignorance of evolution is not an indication of hostility to science’ tout court.

Unfortunately his claim is left unsupported by any evidence. It scarcely seems credible: among people who believe that Darwin led to Hitler (or that anthropogenic climate change is a priori impossible, and the IPCC is in the pay of communists), you suspect that Occam’s razor is more-or-less an occult concept.

At any rate, Shapin suggests, Darwin’s conscription as an atheist figurehead is flawed, because science and religion are distinct issues.

Look:  ‘A survey published in Nature in 1997 found that 40 per cent of American scientists professed belief in an immortal soul and a prayer-answering God, a figure basically unchanged since 1916.’

This is misleading: in 1998 the same researchers, using improved sampling techniques, found that, among members of the National Academy of Sciences, belief in a personal god had fallen from 28 per cent in 1916 to 7 per cent in 1998; disbelief had risen from 53 per cent to 73 per cent. The same survey found belief in human immortality had fallen from 35 per cent to 8 per cent over the same period; disbelief climbed from 25 per cent to 77 per cent.

Ultimately, the only way Shapin can admit that the ‘centre of gravity of Darwin Year has been a celebration of secularism’ is to see atheism itself as a plot by the Dawkins/Dennett/Pinker/Wilson cabal, ‘an occasion for extending versions of scientific materialism and rationalism to ever new cultural domains’.

By now the reader is inclined to think ‘so what?’, and to judge Shapin more than a little paranoid.

His one extended description of the ‘adaptationist’ position could only charitably be described as a strawman. In the same passage he appears profoundly ignorant (of course he is not) of theoretical innovations in the behavioural sciences since the 1980s, areas likes niche construction and gene-culture coevolution.

So why did his publisher allow him to indulge at such length?

In soliciting his essay (and since it was also the venue for Fodor’s 2007 claim that ‘natural selection can no longer be taken for granted’), it appears that the LRB is trying to revive the famous Dawkins-Gould debate.

Then, leftist scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin suggested that certain theorists’ emphasis on adaptive optima and positively selected traits appeared to justify social inequality as somehow natural or ‘genetically determined’. In polemics with Dawkins and others, both sides mostly contended over arcana like phyletic gradualism and the target of selection.

The LRB seems nonetheless to have marked Dawkins as some kind of reactionary, and latterly deemed progressive (and worthy of publication) any old hatchet job on him or his acolytes. To claim that Darwin believed in natural selection itself is now, apparently, grounds for attack.

Unfortunately, decades later, Gould is no longer around, and the political valences of the contending parties are not quite so clear.

In seeing everywhere the malign influence of so-called adaptationists  their manipulations explaining every aspect of the Darwin Year festivities  their opponents seem to have forgotten Gould’s great lesson.

History is contingent: sometimes it just turns out that way.



December 29, 2009

This pool-safety ad is running on Australian TV.

My inevitable Sex and the City post

December 24, 2009

I don’t know much about the Sex and the City series, or the film, so feel free to get your opinions elsewhere. But, watching the newly-released trailer for Sex and the City 2, I was struck again by one of the brand’s notable features: its portrayal of theme-park New York. It’s an old claim, from Robert Fitch to The Suburbanization of New York, that urban renewal and real-estate shonkery has altered Manhattan’s physical and social makeup. Small-scale craft, manufacturing and retail were replaced with upmarket boutiques and art galleries, ethnic neighbourhoods supplanted by bond-trading yuppies, and exciting public spaces were cleansed to make things safe for tourists.

Films, meanwhile, have been portraying disneyfied simulacra of London, Paris and Chicago for at least the last decade (and of Los Angleles for ever). They’re beautiful tourist postcards, culturally rich, and just the sort of place you’d pay to visit. Sex and the City seems the first, or at least the most explicit, to re-imagine New York as this sort of place. Of course many films, not least Manhattan, have presented audiences with seductive, loving shots of the city’s tourist landmarks. But Woody Allen, urban chauvinist that he is, sought to portray NYC as an actual city, with actual public spaces, physical proximity, ethnic heterogeneity etc. Theme-park New York, on the other hand, shares only visual references with the real city, which it turns into a glamorous backdrop for upscale consumption. 

Of course, Carrie’s world is self-conscious of its fairytale elements, and that’s part of the brand’s appeal. But that still doesn’t explain why anyone should actually want to make a fairytale about an ethnically homogeneous, crassly stylised New York. It merely admits that they did.

Dawkins as ethologist

December 22, 2009

If you happened to catch Andrew Denton’s interview with Richard Dawkins, shown last night on ABC1, here’s a nice antidote: a long, chapter-length piece by Dawkins himself describing his career and early life. Despite naming W.D. Hamilton his “intellectual hero”, and briefly mentioning the importance of “new theoretical ideas” from John Maynard Smith and Robert Trivers, as well as George C. Williams, Dawkins doesn’t attend much to the intellectual context in evolutionary biology, from which his “gene-centred” popularisations developed. Instead most of the detail is about his research in ethology in the sixties and seventies.

That’s okay: Dawkins has given most of these scholars their due elsewhere, and if you’re like me his account of the original ethological work will correct an imbalance in your knowledge.

Frontmen and fanboys

December 17, 2009

When Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone describes “Obama’s Big Sellout“, it’s hard to decide whether he’s deeply stupid or just cynical. On the one hand, he may actually believe that “Barack Obama ran for president as a man of the people, standing up to Wall Street”, and has subsequently “allowed his presidency to be hijacked by sniveling low-rent shitheads” (that is, his “gang of Wall Street advisers”). Of course, he’d need to have disregarded all the evidence, available throughout 2007-08, that Obama was a typical, mainstream Democrat candidate, whose content-free platitudes announced little more than a Wall-Street-friendly and Silicon-Valley-coddling social liberalism of the Clinton/Rubin mould.

On the other hand, the accusation of “selling out” suggests Rolling Stone‘s favoured rhetorical ploy: projecting the ethical categories of rock music on to party politics. Every four years the magazine presents its chosen DLC frontman, pitched in a generational battle against some hidebound Republican fogey. Obama, with his BlackBerry and three-point shooting, fit the bill better than Al Gore or John Kerry ever did. So, in the tradition of NME rock journalism, maybe Taibbi is puncturing yesterday’s personality cult, allowing his employer to anoint another Next Big Thing messiah who’ll change Washington.

Here’s a pretty simple heuristic for Rolling Stone, expressed in language it may understand: if some forty-plus guy in a suit approaches you, selling hope and change – don’t buy! Wait, get some policy details, and get them in writing.

Whether he’s over-credulous or intellectually dishonest, it’s tough to empathise with the disillusioned fanboy. Sure, given the character of the US political system, it’s natural that people should long for a strong leader to take on entrenched interests. The good king often outshines his courtiers in intelligence, heroism, and personal magnetism. Sometimes these qualities lead a popular movement to venerate him as a “man of the people”, the Great Helmsman or “the One”. But these are infantile, anti-democratic elements in a political culture. They are also doomed to disappointment. A hierarchical state, with a centralised decision-making authority concentrated in a president or head of state, is inherently prone to anti-democratic measures and idiosyncratic changes of direction. Rather than whining about “sellouts”, better to embrace the wisdom of crowds, a large representative sample of the population, deciding collectively. The people themselves, rather than any putative “man of the people”, are far more likely to “stand up to Wall Street”. Unfortunately, Rolling Stone would probably need to change the design template for its cover.

Swiss minarets and democracy

December 2, 2009

The Swiss population’s decision in a recent referendum to ban the construction of minarets has led predictably to some ill-considered and hysterical criticism of classical (direct, plebiscitary) democracy. Apparently, when decision-making power is removed from the brightest and the best, our elected parliamentary representatives, and bestowed upon the irresponsible and irrational public, this sort of result – racist, intolerant, disdainful of minorities – is bound to happen.

It’s difficult to see why this should logically be so. The concern with simple majority rule – that, coarsely implemented, it can override minority rights that should properly be protected – applies also to the elected assemblies filled worldwide by male lawyers and technocrats. (This is recognised in supermajoritarian rules like the US congressional filibuster.) Direct or indirect decision-making makes no difference in this regard.

The specific objection to participatory democracy, then, seems to rely on the same criticisms made by the hard right of universal adult suffrage. In various forms, each boils down to a claim that people are stupid. 

  • The theory of rational ignorance suggests that, with the payoff to each individual voter (i.e. the probability that her vote will decide the election) effectively zero, and the marginal cost of making an informed choice (e.g. time spent becoming familiar with issues and policies) comparatively high, the inevitable outcome of modern electorates with broad franchises is dumb voters and, hence, bad policies.
  • Straussians, meanwhile, believe that only the higher reaches of nature’s hierarchy can safely contemplate philosophical truths. The latter, broadly proclaimed to “common people”, may endanger social cohesion. To ensure proper functioning, therefore, convenient fibs such as religion or Sarah Palin may be necessary for a mass audience.
  • A broad set of libertarians, Austrian economists and followers of F.A. Hayek suggests that the aggregation of social preferences and other information can be better performed by the market than by voting. Thus Hayek’s belief that the market’s spontaneous order should be placed beyond the reaches of popular sovereignty (i.e. economic matters should not be subject to legislative control by popularly-elected assemblies) finds latter-day support in Bryan Caplan’s claim that voter errors on economic issues exhibit systematic bias (pdf), and Robin Hanson’s proposal to replace elections with betting markets (pdf).

These views can be swiftly dispatched – Strauss’s as counterfactual and absurd; Hayek’s as transparently begging the question; “rational ignorance” on the grounds that there exists a more parsimonious explanation for voter apathy (due to partisan convergence in crucial policy areas, for many people the marginal benefit of even the decisive vote is close to zero). The point, though, is that a belief in popular stupidity or irrationality is, well, popular. 

A subtly different argument sustains the preference for parliamentary election over direct democracy. The latter is held to be uniquely vulnerable to exploitation by populist demagogy. Either people are inherently credulous and suggestible, or they lack the expertise and time to give proper scrutiny to proposed laws and issues under debate. After all, even professional politicians need full-time assistants, paid research staff and departmental bureaucrats. The point may be provisionally conceded. Yet, out of the small proportion of collective decisions that can plausibly be put to a full popular vote, few require technical or domain-specific expertise (as do, for example, public health issues or military affairs): the recent Swiss vote did not. Where mere political judgement is required (over, say, government spending priorities or broad policy direction), their seems little reason to prefer the opinion of professional, career politicians over society as a whole. Indeed, even in parliamentary systems such as Australia’s, laws are not made on the floor of the elected chambers, after submitting to debate and scrutiny. They are concocted by an executive branch (the party leadership, with occasional participation from Cabinet), then shunted through parliament by party discipline or the whip.

Ultimately, then, the chief stricture against direct democracy is the one we began with: mob rule. Popular decisions must be mediated by representatives in an elected assembly, otherwise unmediated enthusiasms will see a majority swamp the rights of minorities. The locus classicus of the view is article 10 of the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, chief author of the US Constitution. Despite the hallowed context, it’s a pretty shoddy argument. Madison’s stated objective is to prevent a majority faction sacrificing “to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” A “republic”, he argues (and by which he means government by an elite of elected representatives), will accomplish this task better than participatory democracy. Furthermore a republic broad in scope (the federal Union) will do better than a small republic. Why? A democracy is by definition small-scale, few in number and narrow in scope, and this enables its capture by a majority with a common interest. On the other hand, a republic involves “the subsitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice”. With both territory and population larger, an overbearing majority is not readily formed. A step removed from popular passions, representative bodies served to “refine and enlarge the public view, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens” able to “best discern the true interest of the country”. Refine, filter of impurities: the “public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.”

There are several problems with this argument, but the most glaring is that Madison allows himself not to argue for parliamentary republicanism against participatory democracy. Instead, he merely argues that large-scale governments uphold minority rights better than small ones; ex hypothesi this must apply to democracy, which is assumed always to involve few people.  The possibilities presented may be visualised in the 2 x 2 matrix below – note the empty element.

                                   TYPE OF GOVERNMENT
    Representative republic Popular democracy
SIZE Large             Federal Union                     ?
Small                       States     Cabals of a few

It is, however, possible for us to imagine a large-scale democracy, in which Madison’s argument does not apply. First, the progress of information technology and cryptography make society-wide electronic plebiscites feasible. Second, the law of large numbers tells us that a sufficiently large random sample is representative of an underlying population. If we select members from a population at random, we should expect to get a more accurate picture of their society than via some other decision procedure – say, elections. And unsurprisingly that is what we see throughout the world. Whatever the indicator used – gender, race, wealth, education – professional politicians as a group are strikingly unrepresentative of the electorates they purport to represent. Choice of candidates based on merit (or oratorical skills, ambition, ideology, party allegiance, backers) uniformly produces assemblies filled with white, middle-aged, male lawyers. If administrators were instead chosen by lot, diversity would follow. This, rather than Madison’s republic, is the best protection against majority “faction”. 

More instructively, agendas, terms of choice and protocols for plebiscites should be set by randomly selected representative councils, rather than based on petitions. Petitions are self-selecting, and a narrow clique of interested people (in the Swiss case, of Islamophobes; in California, tax-revolt suburbanites) can force the broader public to vote on something about which it may have no strong opinion, which can produce perverse outcomes. The repeated failure of opinion polls to predict the Swiss result suggests that this did, in fact, occur. The problem, then, lies not with majority rule, direct democracy, or the putative “mob rule” it allows. Plebiscites are a perfectly responsible form of decision-making, even compared to the alternatives. Voting paradoxes have long been known to afflict most systems. The difficulty of combining majority rule with minority rights is therefore not unique to participatory democracy. Its origin does not lie in popular stupidity or inexperience, the absence of civilised gentleman to filter the unreason of popular passions, or even some necessary institutional inadequacy. As we have seen, the mechanisms to ensure democracy is fair and representative do exist (for more, see here, here and here). The solution to outcomes like the Swiss referendum is therefore the deepening of democracy and popular power, not its attenuation.