Saturday, November 29, 2014

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology has many problems because they want mechanistic explanations cheaply. The worst of evolutionary psychology occurs when they explain a more complex social behavior as fully represented by the cheap mechanistic trick. Cheap tricks, or simple mechanistic maneuvers, are useful in evolutionary terms for changing and controlling behavior. Often, as long as the behavior is created a good portion of the time, then whatever mechanism gets applied will be adequate, from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary psychology program can give us many accounts for animal behaviors, though certainly with some social and situational processes there may be a complexity that gets covered over, or that becomes inexplicable when we get to real life animal behaviors.

When we get to human behaviors, some of these stories, that are underwritten by some kind of mechanical process, can be useful in describing behaviors. Certain mechanisms probably have shaped social institutions and they are still structuring behavior to some extent. There is a complex dialectical process, either within institutional development across a society or in the development of individuals as they are shaped by any institutional/social matrix. Mechanisms that encouraged behaviors at earlier times have been in constant relationship with those social dialectical processes, that is, they constantly and continuously create some kind of effect.

One example is the sugar explanation. The idea is that we have pleasurable sensations from eating sugar, and that this arises because sugar is high in calories and would have benefited individuals who ate more of it. Mechanistically, we can probably (eventually) tell some story about the baseline structures of taste receptors and brain functions that make that story true. Human tastes can be complicated by social factors (e.g., conditioning), but there is good reason to believe that such a mechanistical tale will make some sense, in a similar way that sex is so pleasing because of the needs of reproduction. The problem arises, however, as we explain our institutional sugar use (the products created, the refining of it, the marketing of it, etc.). And also as we try to explain any individual's intake of sugar. An individual sits within an environmental setup (say cheap sugar from the gas station), and also has been created by a long developmental process, thus the structure of their brain/mind at the time that they choose to intake sugar. A repeated process of sugar intake or sugar refusal by the individual we can read as the “trait” of sugar intake. The problem is that what that “sugar trait” is at any time can be made far different given a different institutional setup, as well as a different developmental process. This may mean that the individual, the self, we are seeing within one social system and one developmental history may be a completely different self or identity than the one made under largely differing conditions. Both individuals may have similar mechanistic processes in response to sugar on the tongue, but the behaviors, the thoughts, the choices being made can be radically different between the same set of genes (general body structure) within those two different worlds. Thus there is a distance between the mechanistic process and the trait of a given individual.  

We can see some of this by telling the same story about the “cocaine trait.” Most of us today have a far different cocaine trait than we do sugar trait. Though different, we can probably say that both sugar and cocaine have some strong pleasure-inducing sensation, I assume. The institutional structures (product availability, general norms around use) and developmental programs mean that the pleasure-inducing sensations of these two substances lead to two different “traits” in most of us. Though I doubt we will go that far, it is possible to imagine a society that would try to make most people's sugar trait be similar to most people's cocaine trait today. Part of doing that may be through demonizing sugar, like we do with cocaine, but it may be by strong prohibition like factors of denying supply.

Evolutionary psychology gets in trouble by overstating the necessity and indelible nature of our institutions and our brain/minds as regards choice making, hence our traits. They often ignore the historical social dynamics that lead to any matrix of institutions and character development, that thus produce the brain/mind as it engages with a present environmental condition, say a woman “desiring” a tall man. The mechanistic story, that they buy rather cheaply, that is, without actually understanding or stating the mechanistic process, gets confused for more complex behavioral programs. Yes, often times those more complex behaviors have been guided and shaped by the simpler mechanistic origins, but evolutionary psychology often presents the complex behavioral phenomena as we should be presenting the indelible, underlying mechanistic force. Some of this also has to do with the age we are living in, which is one that often proclaims certain social factors (say capitalism, gender and family structures) as unchangeable social givens. If we take certain institutions and developmental structures as given, then the simpler mechanistic forces can look one and the same as the latter complex behavioral activity.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Against Virtue Ethics

We are machines. As reflective machines we want to be well-honed, highly skilled and knowledgeable. We want to live in strong families and strong societies, ones that help us build things and explore more things, and that help us have more pleasures, probably both base and more refined.

There is no reason to call the capacities we arrive at virtuous. The definition and connotation of the word simply means it needs to be abandoned. We understand the well-honed nature of the machines we can be. What it means to be skillful or not skillful. What it means for a machine to be able to perform an activity to a greater or lesser extent. Why we would take machine-like activity and describe its functioning, and then tack on the idea that a certain threshold performance of the machine is virtuous, just seems flat out unnecessary.

I am also a strong moral anti-realist, meaning there is no such things as morality (and hence ethics in many configurations). The language of morality or ethics is not the best descriptive language in the end, and I argue that it will not help us achieve the best societies and worlds, mainly because of its descriptive muddling. We want to build robust selves and a robust social world, probably because it will lead to even more robust selves and burgeoning worlds.

It is not a “moral good” to the world that the evolutionary machines that are Homo sapiens arrive at highly functioning selves and highly functioning societies. Our best description of those societies and selves is not helped one iota from describing that society as moral, or those individuals' lives as virtuous. Arriving at our best understanding about what we are requires the best description about what we are. In the end, using clear language that does not cause endless philosophical (or descriptive) debates, whether “morality,” “intentionality,” or “consciousness,” is going to give us the best descriptions. As we arrive at our best understanding, mostly through science and some conceptual refinement, such descriptions should encompass most of the stupidities that so much ink and terabytes have been spilled. Though, like trying to map every phylogenetic turn of the entire history of life's tree, such mapping of why there was so much argument over semantics and social descriptions may be an unnecessary enterprise, even if the historical philosophers demand there is some hidden virtue in just that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Stephen Hawking's Theory of Everything (TV)

Unnecessary and impossible probability calculating.

Hawking, in an effort to dramatize and to express the “dangers of technologies,” says that intelligence may not be completely beneficial to survival, and gives the idea of a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of a nuclear war that devastates life. He then ups the ante, tells us to imagine humans over 100,000 years, and says we are now looking at the very scary odds of 1 in 10 that humans will experience a nuclear war.

Nuclear war is bad, we should try to avoid it.

The capacity to make a nuclear weapon should become easier, and we should develop ways to make even deadlier weapons. But trying to create probability of human use of such weapons seems a rather futile process. I think this may edge into something I complain about Joshua Greene (Moral Tribes, recommended). We can boil the position down to something like we have natures and a social world that is immutable. 

I have faith that in 300 years (say maximally) that we will greatly overhaul inter-nation relationships. Any body of people who have the hardware to create an arsenal of nuclear weapons (though this will get cheaper), will fully accept that inter-nation hostility, and particularly hostility to the point of war or nuclear war, will be unthinkable. On a global scale we will put social safeguards against nuclear war, as well as safeguards of say the arise of a Nazi-Germany like state (or I guess an United States during the 1940's).

The threat that madmen may release a few nuclear weapons may be more real for longer, but this would not constitute nuclear war. Furthermore, detection capacities (probably including invasive monitoring tools) should also continue to expand, which negate the lone crazies to some extent.

To do what I complain about, it seems like there is a much lower possibility of nuclear war within the next decade than the possibility of nuclear war during the decade of the 60's. Though some (fools) think we are entering a new cold war, there is not good reason to think nuclear war will be that serious of a threat going forward, unless something dramatic changes.


Such a complaint probably sums up what I think of the show. Overly dramatic, cool graphics, low narrative sound so that you have to pump up their theatrical music, some good general information.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A more positive account of genetic sexuality structures

(Identity Series: see Defining Sexuality, Intelligence, Blank Slate)

Though by no means an actual positive account. This is simply because most human behavior, especially social relationships and what is happening within the brain/body of an individual during a social encounter, is far beyond our descriptive reach.

I have read a little on these issues and this is the only specified genetically based positive account of sexuality that I recall noticing, albeit for mice. The analysis I read of this study was suggesting a possible route for genetic sexuality structures in humans. This is the general idea, see section 6.4.1.3 here. I originally read this elsewhere, but it was an analysis of this paper. The whole chapter that is linked is a good rundown of pheromones. We can take or leave the study given that what we care about is the possibility of what a mechanistic picture looks like. The main idea is that a gene in male mice was controlling some social behavioral responses, especially as coupled with the female releasing a certain pheromone. The claim is that male mice that lacked the gene were more likely to engage in same sex behavior, partially because their male-male aggressive response was no longer as strong. And similarly, female mice would be more likely to engage in same-sex behavior if the same gene was turned off.

Physical lesions of the VNO impair lordosis behavior in female mice (Keller et al. 2006), suggesting that pheromones sensed by the vomeronasal system also play an important role in female sexual behavior (Keller et al. 2009). However, once again, the behavioral deficits of TRPC2 knockout mice appear to differ from the effects of physical lesions of the VNO. Dulac reported that TRPC2 knockout female mice showed significantly higher levels of malelike sexual behavior, including ultrasonic vocalization and mounting of other females (Wysocki and Lepri, 1991Kimchi et al. 2007). This would suggest that sex-specific behavioral patterns of male and female mice are at least partly dependent on ongoing sensory input rather than being developmentally determined. But, other groups have not reported such effects, and both male and female mice with physical VNO lesions are capable of discriminating sexual identity of urine odors (Keller et al. 2009). The differences that have been reported between the behavioral effects of physical VNO lesions and knockout of the TRPC2 gene might arise due to developmental effects of the knockout, or due to the presence of VSNs that do not use the TRPC2 transduction pathway (Kelliher et al. 2006).


Though we have very little understanding of the human mechanistic picture when it comes to social behaviors (and hence social emotions, complex desires, etc.), there is good reason to believe that many mechanistic facts, like the above, structure some of our bodily/brain responses. But there is a good reason to believe that there would be multiply tiered, multiply nested structures there. Our social behaviors and bodily response systems have all sorts of factors at play, including more reflective and socially learned behavioral responses. Even for the mices' sexual behaviors and social behaviors, the authors of these papers recognize that such social behaviors in mice are effected by all sorts of things. But they have enough evidence, holding some other factors in place, that the mechanisms they find (say the turning off of certain genes) are leading to changes in behaviors to some degree.

The key here though is the gap between our description of human social behavior and the kind of categorizing we do. Two linguistic notes. One is just that categorization and naming tends to erase differences, to make those differences non-noticeable. This effect is likely multiplied as we delineate broad social behaviors into categories. The second is a reifying factor, especially as reflective human behaviors are concerned. The taking in of an identity category, one that we believe is salient, can shape our behaviors. When that category is about one's self or other selves, such categories will go on to shape and reshape social responses and to influence further thoughts, actions, and social institutions.

Just to lighten the mood, let us similarly dispel the concept of love. If mechanistically something like this happens between two people who are in “love”, say between a female/female couple, and this is what causes attachments and subsequent emotions, it is quite common to hear things to the effect, "but oh well, such a mechanistic picture does not matter, such feelings and emotions are still real.” Well the problem is that despite being emotional beings, we are also reflective beings. And if a scientist comes along and showed that feelings of love between two individuals is only bodily reaction to a chemical that gets attuned between two people, and the scientists proves such by duplicating the chemical and spraying it on the nearest teddy bear, and both individuals instantly love the teddy bear as much as each other, well these individuals are likely to be a little weary of what their bodily responses mean. This is of course an absurd picture, there is good reason to think that our attachments and bodily responses are at least a little more complex. There may be some underhanded confabulation. Something like “she loves her voice,” where the connection only is ephemerally tied in after the fact of the chemical attraction (assuming such a story). In time, however, such things may become tied, such as the partner and the partner's voice become an intellectually inseparable fact in the brain, even if at first such attachment was only some chemical quirk.

With all that said, if love is only this mechanism by cellular and bodily processes, and then taken in more widely within an intellectual sphere, I think many people may respond significantly differently to relationships. We humans are probably wont to say that: “If this idiotic pheromonal response is all coupling amounts to, then why should we respect it as a way to organize our selves, and our relationships, when I can just as easily spread a little pheromone over here on this teddy bear and experience the blissfulness of the emotional response. There are other things we need from relationships, but this bodily response is not what such should be built on.” Now, with that said, given both that our stories are not that simple nor can we begin to understand them, and given the way that all of this seats into our brain/mind/body in a nested mesh, we will probably never be able to fully reproduce the above, given that attachments, emotional responses, and thoughts are intertwined. We also probably do not have the intellectual architecture to make such acknowledgments and arrangements. Though, I will say, that some people have probably been moved by lines like “sugar intake is a blissful experience caused by evolutionary arrangement,” and then have gone on to alter behavior. There will be even more profound changes in the future as we reflect on the accidents of our evolutionary and genetic makeups, and find ways to alter or get around such, whether through medicine, technology, or social attitudes.


Back to mechanism, it does not matter what exactly the mechanistic story is that is configuring at the most baseline level, say the level evolution originally “cared” about. Such a level is going to be vastly bereft of the conceptual imagery that we lay on top of it. And this, quite frankly, is the psychologists' problem, that is, they are helping to reify characteristics that when cognitive scientists or even evolutionary psychologist go fishing for mechanisms or a mechanistic story, they are going to find something that is vastly different than the socially proposed or psychologically proposed definition of a given characteristic. The cognitive scientist along with biologists of various stripes should eventually be able to tell the story, but it is going to come with endless culturally mediated behavioral aspects that get nested onto more fundamental structures. The mechanisms may be active and encouraging some of the complex social behavior in question, but the entire story will not be anywhere close to represented, at least within the more general mechanisms at the inherent genetic level.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Joseph Ledoux at Spacetimemind

Hosts Pete Mandik and Richard Brown have Jospeh Ledoux at Spacetimemind.

Cool stuff on optogenetics and memory. Also the idea of emotional dampening of memories has been in the news a bit lately. As Ledoux explains, it is the idea that we could keep propositional and informational structures of a memory but get rid of some of the emotions that attach to that memory. 

Enjoyable discussion, check it out.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Defining Sexuality

A Strange Island

This thought experiment has similarities to Berger and Luckmann's claims from a Social Construction of Reality in their discussion about sexuality. But to allow for a clearer marker of what exactly genes are structuring for or not structuring for we have to sharpen such an example a little more.

(think of The Village by M. Night Shyamalan)

So, we take an island, or a very large enclosed space for greater control. Perhaps with the help of confederates at first, we create a culture or society. Except in this society it is all one sex, which we will take as all male. This society has also been configured to have zero knowledge about the female sex, either in humans or other species. We have to limit scientific knowledge a little bit on such an account, but we could still have their knowledge be rather robust in many other ways. In general, this culture and social structure looks much like ours, except there is only one sex and only knowledge of one sex (and hence desires, beliefs, intentions all only engage one sex.)

Now, we are going to imagine any set of genes that are born or brought as a baby to be raised on such an island. My intuitions, similar to Berger and Luckmann's claim, is that all humans here would experience sexual urges and engage in sexual activity (not to say there are not ways to do away with sex altogether). Furthermore, I am going to argue that they would have sexual desires, that is, they would have a sexual mental life. And, no matter whether their genes or epigenetic structuring were “heterosexual” or “homosexual,” such sexual urgings would most likely be towards other males. This is where terminological problems erupt, even for most scientific and psychological descriptions as regards our own society. For most uses of the idea of heterosexual or homosexual, the common cultural parlance of sexuality within our cultural sphere is being used, and such a use would not permit a “heterosexual” male to have sexual thoughts, desires and behaviors towards other males for their entire life. When describing genetic considerations, say from evolutionary development, what is taken to inhere in the gene takes a certain social world as given. Assuming certain fixed environmental conditions is a good strategy on one level, it works for evolution's “desires,” but when describing a relationship between genes and behavior, when actually understanding what genes are going to be coding for, it often leads to empty statements.

Terminology aside, there are facets that we can explore about behavior. There are many things that we think as part of our sexuality that are environmentally and culturally contextual. Our culture encourages our desires and thoughts to have certain parameters. Heterosexual males in our society not only like females, generally speaking, but they in general like them even more when they show their femininity in certain, expressive ways, say in socially normative way. Due to our large mental and associational abilities, we create categories and attach unnecessary things in unlockable ways within our brain/minds and within our cultural beliefs.

Back to our male-only island, assuming we are right that all individuals on the island are having sexual relationships, even the most “heterosexual” oriented male on this island will not one day turn to their partner(s) and say something like “I enjoy your rather large breasts, your less hairy body, and your smaller penis, but I get the idea that something is wrong, that perhaps there should not be a penis there at all. I cannot quite conceive of what should be there . . .” These kind of thoughts do not occur. As far as questions of whether there may still be some kind of bifurcation of behaviors and thought, such as the possibility that those we would conceive of as “heterosexual” and “homosexual” end up choosing partners in a relatively different way or with different characteristics, it is questionable what kind of effects would follow. Or it may be that the cultural and environmental situation would essentially eat up what we see as expressed as far as sexually divergent behaviors. There is good reason to think that even if some kind of bifurcation is happening, all individuals in the end are still having sex with another male. Which throws a wrench into how we think about sexuality for the most part.

Following on previous posts on identity, there is a gap between what your self is and what your genes are. There is a great cultural chasm that shapes possible behaviors, which is why I argue we are blank slates. The set of genes that makes up any individual, if they were raised on our island, would be a significantly different individual, different self than what they are or have become within the parameters of our present society. The radical differences in behavior, mean radical differences in “mental” conceptions. They mean radical differences in attitudes and even emotions. It is a different mental process to be having thoughts about having sex with a male than it is to be having thoughts about having sex with a female. Our present culture probably overestimates those differences, perhaps because we over highlight and over-create gender and sex differences. And, as can be seen through simple analysis or through artistic expression, there are of course many similarities to being in any kind of relationship, and thus many mental thoughts about such things may be parallel.

The bottom line however is that behavioral and mental processes are going to be significantly different based on social structures, social institutions, and discourses. On our island we have shadowed out “heterosexual” desires and emotions, but we can go through endless other (actualizable) social thought experiments that would mean a certain given set of genes would become a robust self but not have the behavior, emotional, or characteristic response that we want to claim attaches to our genes in some way. That does not mean that genes are not structuring and limiting and encouraging different behaviors, only that they do not do it inevitably so to create a given characteristic of a given self. Such an understanding thus makes our behaviors and mental world infinitely malleable.

Another important point from Berger and Luckmann: It is madness to think we do not control our social and discursive worlds. I deny free will and we can argue for the dialectical buildup of social structures, discourses, and norms, but we have to accept that we are capable of changing a great deal of our social worlds. And though much of this we could only do after we have become knowledgeable, more reflective adults, it does not mean we could not setup significantly different worlds around children that would mean they become vastly different than what our current structures create. This essentially happens every generation as social norms, technologies, and institutions change. We have to accept that we can set up the island from above. Most of us would define that as a world we want nothing to do with, but all of our social institutions and structures have to be considered within our grasp. Furthermore, we are born into families, communities, nations, and a broader world, including the specific time frame and all that comes with it. As individuals we do not control the entirety of those institutions, structures, and discourses (“moral” norms, for one). But, in time, we can make significant changes to such worlds, especially those institutions and discourses more immediately within our personal and familial spheres. We can within limited communities speak different thoughts.

Though I would argue that we do not have personal, sexual and family relationships that are as healthy as they should be across most swaths of society, and I believe there are significant changes that can be made on such accounts, the world that is most necessary for change (from where I stand) is the socializational/educational world we set up around most (really all) individuals. As to sexual identity and politics, obviously the first thing that needs to happen is the naturalizing of humans, to see sex for the act that it is, to see drives and emotions for what they are. Which means that any politicizing or moralizing of sexual acts have to be ignored as complete stupidities. The idea that any sexual act, such that is consensual and not obviously problematic, should be considered deviant, a sin, socially degrading, or whatever, such people should quite frankly be ignored as they come to the public or political sphere. And that is happening to some degree, I think. Though preachers may still say homosexuality and other sexual acts are sins or inherently wrong, most politicians refrain from doing so, even as they implement policies from such thought. 

Lastly, we have the identity politics of the day. Such discourses have suffered both from a poor understanding of human development but also suffered as people tried to expand social protections to all individuals. In doing so they found a “born this way” narrative to be empowering, which makes sense from an argumentative and political point of view. I would argue (probably almost libertarian-like, which I am about as far from as possible) that a better argument is just that personal choices, behaviors and ways of being are not to be interfered with unless there is evidence that they provide any social problems. People have a freedom to express identity in whatever way they find sensible and empowering, especially when it involves the stupidities of our more animalian bases. As we pull the thread, unravel why we are the way we are and how we can organize social institutions and our selves so that we are the way we want to be, empty moral notions and even moral language around issues like this simply have to be set to the side.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Official Blog Ontology

This blog's ontology is brought to you by John Heil. This is his 3AM interview. Also, his book Philosophy of Mind is a good introduction into philosophy of mind, framed in his ontology-first point of view.

[Heil, from 3AM]

. . .
What I object to is the unthinking move from linguistic premises to ontological conclusions, from the assumption, for instance, that if you have an ‘ineliminable’ predicate that features in an explanation of some phenomenon of interest, the predicate must name a property shared by everything to which it applies. (A predicate is ineliminable if it cannot be analyzed, paraphrased, or translated into less vexed predicates.)

Philosophers speak of ‘the pain predicate’. When you look at creatures plausibly regarded as being in pain, you do not see a single physical property they all share (and in virtue of which it would be true to say that they are in pain). Instead of thinking that the predicate, ‘is in pain’, designates a family of similar properties, philosophers (including Putnam in one of his moods) conclude that the predicate must name a ‘higher-level’ property possessed by a creature by virtue of that creature’s ‘lower-level’ physical properties. You have many different kinds of physical property supporting a single nonphysical property. This is the kind of ‘non-reductive physicalism’ you have in functionalism.

Non-reductive physicalism has become a default view, a heavyweight champ that retains its status until decisively defeated. Non-reductive physicalism acquired the crown, however, not by merit, but by a kind of linguistic subterfuge. If you read early anti-reductionist tracts – for instance, Jerry Fodor’s ‘Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis)’ (Synthese, 1974) – you will see that the arguments concern predicates, categories, taxonomies. Fodor’s point, a correct one in my judgment, is that there is no prospect of replacing taxonomies in the special sciences with one drawn from physics. But from this no ontological conclusions follow – unless you assume that every ‘irreducible’ predicate names a property.

This language-driven way of thinking is not one that would have occurred to the ancients, the medievals, or the early moderns – or to my aforementioned philosophical models. It is an invention of the 20th century, one that has led to the emasculation of serious ontology.

. . .

JH: I am not sure what ‘ontological reduction’ would be. How could you reduce one thing to another? I understand reduction as a relation among categories, or predicates, or taxonomies, or theories. Can you take a true description formulated in biological terms, and paraphrase it into a description formulated in terms of quarks and leptons? If that seems unlikely, then the reduction of biology to physics is not in the cards.


My conception of ontology differs from that of Ladyman and Ross, so I am unmoved by their rhetoric. Most philosophers nowadays accept Quine’s observation that there is no sharp boundary between philosophy and science. And, as Donald Davidson puts it, ‘where there are no fixed boundaries, only the timid never risk trespass’. Measured reflection on what we know about the universe suggests that wherever physics leads us we will find substances and properties.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Intelligence (Identity Series)



On Intelligence

Identity Series Continued

This is a bit out of order, but in some ways this post is easier to write. Intelligence is more difficult to define than things such as introversion/extroversion or sexuality, which gives more wiggle room as we discuss behaviors surrounding it. It can also be less controversial, which may be good.

A Tautology:

If you teach a child under 15 a second language, they will know a second language.

This takes language as a skill requirement. Any individual without serious brain damage we have to assume is capable of speaking a second language by the age of 15. (If anyone doubts this, I can expand further.) Second language attainment is often seen as a mark of education and I argue that pretty much any other academic discourse, whether math or science or logic (etc.), must be seen as within the same ballpark as language acquisition. To learn math or chemistry is to learn a discourse. It is to learn how to apply that discourse appropriately, and in a way not wholly different than language use. There are obvious differences, but as far as capacity to perform such skills or knowledge sets they are seemingly similar.

Malcolm Gladwell gets criticized often, perhaps fairly, but one of his main messages from Outliers rings true with me, and I read that as a similar tautology:

If you teach a child under 18 to be an excellent violinist, they will be an excellent violinist.

Meaning that requisite skill attainment of playing violin, at least to the point that you and me are unlikely to be able to tell that they are not "highly proficient", is capable of being taught to any individual. Such an idea is irregardless of any “musical ability” that we think somehow inheres within genetic structures. (Also see John Shenk, The Genius in us all.)

A counterargument is that the amount of work, the amount of environmental finesse we would have to engage in to get such an individual to learn a second language by the age of 15 or to be truly excellent on the violin may mean that we would be unable to teach them basic algebra, because we would be spending so much time pounding a second language into such individuals. This is one designation of intelligence after all, that there are marked differences in knowledge or skill attainment. And it would make sense that some individuals could acquire a certain amount of skills faster than others. Perhaps we can create true excellence in one skill sphere in any individual but only to the detriment of another. In the end, such a claim is true about every individual, and about why we find benefits in the divided skill accomplishments among a community. One can be a well-rounded but ready to specialize 20-year-old, but in the end, even if such an individual tries to take in a wide swath of knowledge, there is only so much depth that one can gain in any one area (and all areas are specialized out the wazoo, nowadays). One may be able to go in depth on 2 or 3 subjects or micro-subjects, but there is certainly a point where one is going to be unable to fully follow the top journals of many disparate fields. That is just the limit of the beast that is knowledge.

With that said, just the acknowledgment that (almost) any individual is capable of being one very skilled chemist by the age of, say, 22, is already to cast doubt on our intuitions that genes and intelligence sets are somehow being appropriately tended to by the environments we set up around all (and any) individuals. Or that we even know how to generally speak about intelligence. Or that our schools and reflections about such subjects are anywhere close to the appropriate ballpark.

We could go on and make two more claims. The first I do not think most people argue for, but some surely do. The first is that as a society we, or the Europeans or the Koreans, have set up a fairly level playing field, and now such a field is sorting people through such (genetic) intelligence differences. That is unquestionably wrong, and it is wrong across the nation, within communities and even within families. But we could tone that down and say something more ordinary like, there is the possibility of creating an equal opportunity educational system that will in the end sort people by intelligence levels, so that those with more genetic intelligence gifts end up being the ones who are more knowledgeable and more skillful. I think there is good reason to think that the second claim may be near impossible as well, at least from our ground level.

In the end, anyone who thinks that we can shrug at the gross disparity between knowledge and skill attainment between individuals, or who even hints that such differences have a significant genetic component (other than as some trivial measure), must present some argument about where such differences exist. It is difficult for me to argue against the above tautologies. And as I see pretty much any other knowledge attainment as falling along similar lines, the question becomes how do we even begin thinking that radical environmental changes to all individual lives are not the first and foremost change that we should be arguing for. That is, we should be willing to setup the environment around every individual in our society so that they become (say) very good chemists. And again, by very good chemist here, I mean something like in the top 10,000 chemist in the world. One that is highly skilled and employable. Now, if genes come in, I may grant that due to genes some random individual may not be able to get into the cream of the crop, say in the top 100. But can they adequately perform the skills of an excellent chemist or those skills of our well-qualified doctors? Without a doubt. The argument that any given genetic repertoire (other than significant impairment) renders any individual incapable of such skill attainment is surely wrong. 

Furthermore, we are products of our genes and environment, given that its not in the genes, then it is in the environment, and later in the programming/brain of that individual as they respond more complexly to the environment. And there is much low hanging fruit where such environmental factors are concerned. Due diligence is probably the first step. 



Some other references: 

Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility
Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality
Stanislas Dehaene, Reading and the Brain

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Game Theory, or Why we are Blank Slates

Infinite behavior means blank behavior.

The blank slate was a bad metaphor from long ago. Why we need to defend it or kill it I do not know. But I do so all the same.

Our behavior is infinite. Our selves, a given set of genes, are capable of endless behavioral repertoires. We could be an infinite many selves. Ones that vary in behavioral dispositions and identity characteristics in infinite ways. That is, the things that we think are integral to our self today are capable of being infinitely manipulated, and yet still have remaining a robust, viable individual (though perhaps one that our present selves would disapprove of).

I am tempted to say that is enough to make us blank slates. A slate is not blank because I can do anything to it. If all I have is yellow chalk, all I can do is write in yellow, though I can write the word “blue.” Anyways, enough of that.

What we care about are intricate characteristics of our selves. We care about behaviors and why we do the things we do, and whether those things could be done radically differently. Games show that behavior is infinite, and that is because we can create infinite numbers of games that our brain/body can play, and this will lead to infinite behaviors. Now, there is limitations to our behaviors. We cannot fly unaided (in a gravity world) or calculate as fast as computers, and thus our game behaviors are limited by such things. But that also shows by careful manipulation of our environment, say by creating zero-gravity chambers or living on the moon, we can create a significantly different game than the one we create on earth or before the science revolution. 

Just because there are certain parameters to behavior and behavioral expression, it does not mean that behavioral expression is not infinite. Integers have significant parameters to them, but yet we still declare, intuitively, that they are infinite.

Language and games show the infinite behavioral manipulation that can be made to any body/brain, to any individual. The language and society one grows up in will mean that one's language and game-behavior will be determined by that culture. But of course, it is completely blank what the games are within the culture that your genes happened to have been born into. It is therefore blank as to what game behavior you will end up having.

I, of course, only care a little about game behavior, even if it is infinite (and hence blank). We care more about other personal characteristics such as knowledge-gathered and knowledge-used (intelligence). We care about things like the scope of our relationships and how we interact with people. But these latter things are capable, once we put all social institutions and social discourses on the table, of being infinitely arranged as well. And given that our genes are capable of being born into many disparate societal arrangements, the selves we end up being are capable of being infinitely altered, and in the most dramatic of ways. Hence, I would argue that for most people, such an argument is enough to make us blank slates.

Lastly, the common claims of evolutionary psychology often have to do with personality traits. I am a strong evolutionist, and I believe evolution can tell us important things about structures of our dispositions, but still, with enough societal jingling, much that we already do through processes of socialization, we can thoroughly undermine or rewrite or socialize out any kind of personality trait. We can change institutional and discursive structures that make genetic structuring of those dispositions vanish in the air, essentially because the social structures that such genetic structuring are reacting under has been dissolved.


Often, as we dig deep, the proposed genetic structures that align with proposed characteristics within our society may be real. As we tinker with different possible social arrangements, those genetic structures may have robust effects on the behaviors of individuals. I would caution, though, that many of these genetic effects that we see happen in radically altered environments will not fall within the broad categories that we use to describe such genetically induced characteristics within our social sphere.

I will lay more of this out in future posts. I will argue that within our present cultural structures, we already significantly alter dispositions through social structure and socialization processes. I also will argue that even with modest social shifts, we can thoroughly alter the meaning and expression of a behavioral disposition, such as the expression of introversion/extroversion.    



- For some parallel arguments, check out Jesse Prinz's Beyond Human Nature.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Preliminary to Identity Series


I am working on a series about identity and characteristics, essentially behavior, since that is all there is in the end, behavior and dispositions to behavior. I will talk about heritability more later, but these were some burning thoughts.

The other day I encountered a standard argument analyzing heritable factors, and as usual got caught off guard by this idea that a certain percentage of a characteristic's manifestation was “due to genes.” I decided the phrase was maddening. I partially mean this was a little upsetting, but more fundamentally I mean it was incapable of being clearly understood, which of course can be upsetting as well.

So, here is my maddening thoughts on such a phrase and idea. Let us take slavery. Now, we can create true propositions given certain social/environmental factors. An African in the southern United States in the 1700's is a slave “due to their genes.” Now, given that skin color comes from genes, and given that we had a social environment that relegates any person with a certain skin color to a life of slavery, under such conditions the phrase, “Slavery is correlated with genetic differences,” is true. Within such an unalterable social context, there is going to be a very strong correlation between certain genes (namely those controlling skin color) and social positions and behavioral dispositions (namely those that slaves exhibit).

But, you say, we are smart enough to realize that the correlation only holds because of the accidents of the social environment, one that we were capable of easily changing. And one that, after ridding society of slavery, rendered mute the idea that the genetic connection between certain genes and the fact that those gene's correlated with slavery was interesting or meaningful at all.

In the end, I argue, that such an argument is going to hold for any characteristic, including the ones being pointed to by many heritability claims. Now, obviously, some of the environmental engineering we would have to devise in order to rid any correlation between a defined characteristic and the social displaying of the characteristic due to genes may require very heavy handed steps. These may be steps or the creating of social/environmental structures that we are unwilling to engage in. But, still, in the end, the idea that differences in behavior manifestations is “due to genes” will be seen as a maddening phrase, just as it is for the idea that differences in being a slave tracked well with various genetic differences.

The phrase “due to genes” always only makes sense as we hypostatize the environment or social structures. As we ask questions about not only our ability to place individuals within different social and environmental spheres known to us, but also other ones that we can devise, the questions of what exactly genes are structuring becomes a little clearer.

Maybe the lesson here is that when someone makes claims from twin studies, for instance, and points to some identity factor as being correlated with certain gene similarities, and they do so without making claims about more bottom line mechanistic structures, we have to be wary about what exactly is going on. And the truth is that this is not entirely evolutionary psychology's fault. Part of it has to do with the way we take characteristics and behavioral dispositions as salient givens in the first place. That is, identity structures are not as robust and “part of who we are” as we take them to be, such as the way we describe people as extroverted, or intelligent, or heterosexual, or psychopathic. Furthermore, there are discursive, institutional, and self reflective factors that can seriously alter the manifestation of any behavioral repertoire. And such factors can probably be arranged to erase genetic disparities or erase the characteristic altogether.

And hopefully this series will clear some of that up.