Saturday, December 17, 2005

Remote and Poked, Anthropology's Dream Tribe

At the NYTimes

Anthropologists and other researchers have long searched the globe for people isolated from the modern world. The Ariaal, a nomadic community of about 10,000 people in northern Kenya, have been seized on by researchers since the 1970's, after one - an anthropologist, Elliot Fratkin - stumbled upon them and began publishing his accounts of their lives in academic journals.

Other researchers have done studies on everything from their cultural practices to their testosterone levels. National Geographic focused on the Ariaal in 1999, in an article on vanishing cultures.

But over the years, more and more Ariaal - like the Masai and the Turkana in Kenya and the Tuaregs and Bedouins elsewhere in Africa - are settling down. Many have migrated closer to Marsabit, the nearest town, which has cellphone reception and even sporadic Internet access.

The scientists continue to arrive in Ariaal country, with their notebooks, tents and bizarre queries, but now they document a semi-isolated people straddling modern life and more traditional ways.

"The era of finding isolated tribal groups is probably over," said Dr. Fratkin, a professor at Smith College who has lived with the Ariaal for long stretches and is regarded by some of them as a member of the tribe.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Gould vs. the evolutionary psychologists

The late great Stephen Jay Gould opposed socio-biology, now called evolutionary psychology, since E. O. Wilson's book Sociobiology: The New Sythesis was published in 1975.

Some of the
more fanciful and speculative claims of the sociobiologists are used to justify racial and gender inequality
and so many on the Left challenged sociobiology. Ever since, sociobiologists/evolutionary psychologists, at least American ones, have routinely claimed that even scientific critiques of sociobiology are merely political and therefore should be completely discounted. Over the years they've consistently tried to stigmatize the work of Gould because of his left-of-center political views.

Steven Pinker carries on this tradition in an email exchange I had with him over the Lawrence Summers brouhaha.

From: Steven Pinker []
Sent: Wednesday, February 23, 2005 4:30 PM
Cc: 'Katha Pollitt'; 'Maxine Margolis';; 'Lindsay Beyerstein';;;
Subject: RE: Summers said innate difference was the PRIMARY cause

Dear Ms. McClernan,

[exising non-Gould content]

The criticisms of Stephen Jay Gould have been extensively addressed in my writings and others, and I believe they stem more from his political ideology than from the empirical literature.

Steve Pinker
Johnstone Professor of Psychology

My response, leaving out the non-Gould content:

From: Nancy G. McClernan []
Sent: Wednesday, February 23, 2005 5:55 PM
To: ''
Cc: 'Katha Pollitt'; 'Maxine Margolis'; ''; 'Lindsay Beyerstein'; ''; ''; ''; 'Naomi McClernan'; ''
Subject: RE: Summers said innate difference was the PRIMARY cause

Dear Professor Pinker,

I’ve read criticisms of your work and the work of other evolutionary psychologists by Stephen Jay Gould, and I don’t see how they stem from his political ideology. Would you care to give examples? Or are you claiming that any arguments he made against your work should be discounted because of his political views?

If so, that certainly confirms what I’ve observed – that proponents of evolutionary psychology often dismiss criticism by claiming that the critics are motivated by politics, not science.

Pinker's respone

From: Steven Pinker []
Sent: Monday, February 28, 2005 11:10 PM
Cc: 'Katha Pollitt'; 'Maxine Margolis';; 'Lindsay Beyerstein';;;; 'Naomi McClernan'
Subject: psychology of gender differences

Dear Ms. McClernan,

Gould made it clear in his 1975 “Against Sociobiology” manifesto in the New York Review of Books, and in the opening and final chapters of his book The Mismeasure of Man, that he saw his arguments as being in the service of progressive political causes. His coauthor Richard Lewontin was even more explicit, declaring in his 1984 book with Kamin and Rose that he has “a commitment to the prospect of a more socially just—a socialist—society” and that he sees his “critical science as an integral part of the struggle to create that society” (p. ix).

As you note, this alone is not sufficient to discount their arguments (Nancy's emphasis here). Many responses to the arguments of Gould and Lewontin have been formulated. My own can be found in

and in chapters 6 and 7 of my book The Blank Slate. Others who have dissected Gould’s critique of evolutionary psychology include Dan Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and John Tooby and Leda Cosmides in

Gould’s attack on behavioral genetics in The Mismeasure of Man has been rebutted, in my view, in the following reviews:

Pert, Candace. (1982). Review of S. J. Gould's "The mismeasure of man". Science 82.

Jensen, A. R. (1982). The debunking of scientific fossils and straw persons: Review of The Mismeasure of Man. Contemporary Education Review, 1, 121-135.

Davis, B. D. (1983). Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press. Public Interest, 73, 41-59.

(non-Gould content here)


Steven Pinker

My response:

From: Nancy G. McClernan []
Sent: Tuesday, March 01, 2005 6:46 PM
To: ''
Cc: 'Katha Pollitt'; 'Maxine Margolis'; ''; 'Lindsay Beyerstein'; ''; ''; ''; 'Naomi McClernan'; ''
Subject: RE: psychology of gender differences

Dear Professor Pinker,

I certainly agree with you that Gould’s statement “Against Sociobiology” is not sufficient to discount Gould’s scientific arguments. So I wonder why you quoted it as a response to my questioning your belief that Gould’s criticisms of your work “stem more from his political ideology than from the empirical literature.”

You next provide several links, the first of which is your response to Gould’s essays “Darwinian Fundamentalism” and “The Pleasures of Pluralism.” Your response is also available on the NY Review of Books: and unlike the link you provided, the NY Review of Books article, “Evolutionary Psychology: An Exchange,” includes both Gould’s reply to your response, and a letter in support of Gould’s arguments in “Darwinian Fundamentalism” from Kalow and Kalant of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Toronto.

I’ve read the initial Gould articles and the responses in the NY Review of Books. The main topic of discussion is about approaches to Darwinian theory – strict adaptation vs. pluralism. In Gould’s words:

“…the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selection’s ubiquity.”

I haven’t yet found anything that could be called political ideology in either the initial Gould essays, your response, his reply or the Kalow and Kalant response. Would you direct me to what you consider relevant political passages?

One thing that struck me in “Evolutionary Psychology: An Exchange” was Gould’s remarks:

--- Gould excerpt --

“Pinker then follows his false opening charge with a three-part argument overturned by its own illogic and verbal inconsistency. The first third denies that evolutionary psychologists rely exclusively on adaptation. The second third (as I shall document below) shows how Pinker's restrictive focus upon adaptationist thinking leads him to misunderstand the concept of spandrels. The closing third then extols the power and range of adaptationist explanation, but gives the game away by equating this limited mode with "evolutionary reasoning" in general.

But the first and third parts contradict each other. Which claim does Pinker want to make: that pluralism reigns in evolutionary psychology (and I characterized the field unfairly), or that adaptationism reigns as a synonym for "evolutionary reasoning" (and my warnings are sterile)? He can't have them both. (My true position, of course, holds that adaptationism rules wrongly and too restrictively.)”

-- end Gould excerpt --

It struck me of course because of our recent exchange on the charge made by (Louis) Menand, and echoed by me, that you want to have things both ways. Your response suggests that you missed my point. You said:

“Your suggestion that I cannot appeal both to innate and environmental factors in discussing the gender gap implies that nature and nurture are mutually exclusive; that if the explanation of a phenomenon invokes nature, it cannot also invoke nurture. I believe that most phenomena require an interaction between the two. If this is “having it both ways,” then yes, I want to have it both ways. “

Does anybody think that nature and nurture are mutually exclusive? As Gould said in his review of Not in Our Genes by Lewontin, Rose and Kamin:

“The straw man set up in response to biological determinism is the caricature of cultural determinism, the tabula rasa in its pure form. Although biological determinists often like to intimate, for rhetorical effect, that their opponents hold such a view, no serious student of human behavior denies the potent influence of evolved biology upon our cultural lives. Our struggle is to figure out how biology affects us, not whether it does.”

The issue I raised isn’t about nature vs. nurture – it’s about how biology affects us, not whether it does. Summers, as we know, didn’t have a problem with identifying which was more important, nature or nurture, in explaining women’s poorer careers in math and science. He said it was innate, biological differences between men and women – and that discrimination and socialization were lesser factors.

I noted that girls have increased their test scores relative to boys, in a time frame that would seem to exclude evolutionary affect. I speculated that you might then try to explain the test score improvements through nurture. I thought it was obvious why this was an example of having things both ways, but maybe not, so I’ll be more explicit – if the test scores changed in a faster-than-evolutionary time frame, why would you assume that it was nurture ameliorating the effects of nature, rather than the other way around – that the errors of nurture were fading away to allow nature to be revealed? Why is it nature when girls are failing, but nurture when they succeed? That’s what I mean by having it both ways.

You never directly claimed in this ongoing correspondence that the answer to the improving test-score question is nurture, although if that isn’t your solution, I’d love to know what it is. But I think that Louis Menand’s review made a convincing case that you do try to have it both ways, based on your statements in The Blank Slate, as in this excerpt:

-- Menand excerpt --

“Pinker doesn't care much for art, though. When he does care for something—cognitive science, for example—he is all in favor of training people to do it, even though, as he admits, many of the methods and assumptions of modern science are counter-intuitive. The fact that innate mathematical ability is still in the Stone Age distresses him; he has fewer problems with Stone Age sex drives. He objects to using education "to instill desirable attitudes toward the environment, gender, sexuality, and ethnic diversity"; but he insists that "the obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education." He thinks that we should be teaching economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics, even if we have to stop teaching literature and the classics. It's O.K. to rewire people's "natural" sense of a just price or the movement of a subatomic particle, in other words, but it's a waste of time to tinker with their untutored notions of gender difference.

Having it both ways is an irritating feature of "The Blank Slate." Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, "The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that 'we know the conditions that breed violence,' we barely have a clue," and then, a few pages later, "It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers." Well, that should give us one clue. He sums the matter up: "With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution." This is just another way of saying that it is in human nature to socialize and to be socialized, which is, pragmatically, exactly the view of the "intellectuals."”
-- end Menand excerpt --

Pinker never responded after that.

I mentioned my interest in Marvin Harris and Pinker had responded:

I look forward to your biography of Marvin Harris, a man whose writings I very much enjoyed.

And I couldn't help responding:

It was through the work of Marvin Harris that I first heard objections to evolutionary psychology. And in his last book, “Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times” he said:

-- Harris excerpt --

The grand achievement of Boas and his followers was their rejection of the Darwinian-Specerian principles as a means of explaining the evolution of sociocultural differences and similarities…. While the Boasians accomplished little by way of their own explanatory theories of culture, they nonetheless made their mark forever in establishing the ontological nature of human cultures as a quantitatively and qualitatively novel emergent feature of human social life. They saw more clearly than any before them that the separation of social learning from close genetic control constituted an event that was as momentous as the appearance of life out of matter. Thenceforth and to this day, every attempt to construe cultural selection as a form of natural selection is a step backwards. All attempts to use differential reproductive success – that is, Darwinian fitness – as the central explanatory feature of cultural anthropology are doomed to failure.”
-- end Harris excerpt --

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Poi - Ma Wai E

I became interested in the Maori thanks to reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel - see the PBS GGS website here.

I found this incredible video of a performance of a poi song, Poi - Ma Wai E by Ngati Rangiwewehi at a festival in 1996.

I'm trying to find out who arranged the song, what the lyrics are and what the translation is.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

NYTimes - pro-evolutionary psychology?

The NYTimes gave a one-shot column to Simon Baron-Cohen, another evolutionary psychologist.

Says Baron-Cohen:

“In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one's own….”

“…What of Mr. Summers's other claim, that such sex differences are innate? We know that culture plays a role in the divergence of the sexes, but so does biology. For example, on the first day of life, male and female newborns pay attention to different things. On average, at 24 hours old, more male infants will look at a mechanical mobile suspended above them, whereas more female infants will look at a human face.”

But what you'll probably NEVER read in the Times is that these claims were debunked by Elizabeth Spelke in her now-classic debate with Steven Pinker:

Over the last months, we've heard three arguments that men have greater cognitive aptitude for science. The first argument is that from birth, boys are interested in objects and mechanics, and girls are interested in people and emotions. The predisposition to figure out the mechanics of the world sets boys on a path that makes them more likely to become scientists or mathematicians. The second argument assumes, as Galileo told us, that science is conducted in the language of mathematics. On the second claim, males are intrinsically better at mathematical reasoning, including spatial reasoning. The third argument is that men show greater variability than women, and as a result there are more men at the extreme upper end of the ability distribution from which scientists and mathematicians are drawn. Let me take these claims one by one.

The first claim, as Steve said, is gaining new currency from the work of Simon Baron-Cohen. It's an old idea, presented with some new language. Baron-Cohen says that males are innately predisposed to learn about objects and mechanical relationships, and this sets them on a path to becoming what he calls "systematizers." Females, on the other hand, are innately predisposed to learn about people and their emotions, and this puts them on a path to becoming "empathizers." Since systematizing is at the heart of math and science, boys are more apt to develop the knowledge and skills that lead to math and science.

To anyone as old as I am who has been following the literature on sex differences, this may seem like a surprising claim. The classic reference on the nature and development of sex differences is a book by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin that came out in the 1970s. They reviewed evidence for all sorts of sex differences, across large numbers of studies, but they also concluded that certain ideas about differences between the genders were myths. At the top of their list of myths was the idea that males are primarily interested in objects and females are primarily interested in people. They reviewed an enormous literature, in which babies were presented with objects and people to see if they were more interested in one than the other. They concluded that there were no sex differences in these interests.

Nevertheless, this conclusion was made in the early 70s. At that time, we didn't know much about babies' understanding of objects and people, or how their understanding grows. Since Baron-Cohen's claims concern differential predispositions to learn about different kinds of things, you could argue that the claims hadn't been tested in Maccoby and Jacklin's time. What does research now show?

Let me take you on a whirlwind tour of 30 years of research in one powerpoint slide. From birth, babies perceive objects. They know where one object ends and the next one begins. They can't see objects as well as we can, but as they grow their object perception becomes richer and more differentiated.

Babies also start with rudimentary abilities to represent that an object continues to exist when it's out of view, and they hold onto those representations longer, and over more complicated kinds of changes, as they grow. Babies make basic inferences about object motion: inferences like, the force with which an object is hit determines the speed with which it moves. These inferences undergo regular developmental changes over the infancy period.

In each of these cases, there is systematic developmental change, and there's variability. Because of this variability, we can compare the abilities of male infants to females. Do we see sex differences? The research gives a clear answer to this question: We don't.

Male and female infants are equally interested in objects. Male and female infants make the same inferences about object motion, at the same time in development. They learn the same things about object mechanics at the same time.

Across large numbers of studies, occasionally a study will favor one sex over the other. For example, girls learn that the force with which something is hit influences the distance it moves a month earlier than boys do. But these differences are small and scattered. For the most part, we see high convergence across the sexes. Common paths of learning continue through the preschool years, as kids start manipulating objects to see if they can get a rectangular block into a circular hole. If you look at the rates at which boys and girls figure these things out, you don't find any differences. We see equal developmental paths.

I think this research supports an important conclusion. In discussions of sex differences, we need to ask what's common across the two sexes. One thing that's common is infants don't divide up the labor of understanding the world, with males focusing on mechanics and females focusing on emotions. Male and female infants are both interested in objects and in people, and they learn about both. The conclusions that Maccoby and Jacklin drew in the early 1970s are well supported by research since that time.

Friday, May 13, 2005

refuting sociobiology part 3

The Helena Cronin political agenda: divide men and women into separate spheres.
Phase one: separate work tracks for men and for women:,3604,239317,00.html

Phase two: separate math tracks for boys and girls:,3604,1436052,00.html

refuting sociobiology - Part 2

Harvard psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke refutes the claims of male math/science superiority with hard data:

the problem with "Darwinian logic" and evolutionary psychology

This debate between Elizabeth Spelke and Steven Pinker illustrates the problems with the reliance of evolutionary psychologists on the notion that males and females evolved on separate tracks. Towards the end of the debate, Pinker implies that traditional restrictions on women's opportunities are not the result of bias but rather underlying cognitive differences. To Pinker's way of thinking, there wouldn't be bias against women if there wasn't a good reason for it:

"PINKER: Regarding bias: as I mentioned at the outset, I don't doubt that bias exists. But the idea that the bias started out from some arbitrary coin flip at the dawn of time and that gender differences have been perpetuated ever since by the existence of that bias is extremely unlikely."

Cultural materialists don't claim that bias is the result of an arbitrary coin flip, of course, but rather a series of compelling circumstances that led to patriarchy - which has an in-built bias against female aspirations.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Monday, March 14, 2005

up & running is up and running. Check back frequently for improvements and additions to this site.

Some other sites to check out in the meantime:

Cultural materialism overview

A guide for students by Jon Marcoux

James Lett on Cultural Materialism