Skip to content
 

Antman again courts controversy

Commenter Zbicyclist links to a fun article by Howard French on biologist E. O. Wilson:

Wilson announced that his new book may be his last. It is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities, as well. . . . Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain.”

This reminds me of my recent remarks on the use of crude folk-psychology models as microfoundations for social sciences.

The article also discusses Wilson’s recent crusade against selfish-gene-style simplifications of human and animal nature. I’m with Wilson 100% on this one. “Two brothers or eight cousins” is a cute line but it doesn’t seem to come close to describing how species or societies work, and it’s always seemed a bit silly to me when people try to loop everything back to a selfish-gene story.

13 Comments

  1. Marmaduke says:

    I feel it’s important to realize that, even if you believe the selfish-gene is the fundamental actor in evolution, it’s not necessarily relevant when developing useful theories for the real-world. No more so than electron orbitals are useful in biochemistry.

  2. K? O'Rourke says:

    > because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain.”

    Some philosophhies were (e.g. nominalism or the philosophy of greed and self interest).

    But Peirce (and others no doubt) argued that a sound philosophy had to avoid being based any findings of science.

    For one thing philosophy needs to be able to justify science and hence it would be circular to base philosophical argument on sceince.

    There is no way I would make time to read the work, but will speculate that of whats new and true there –
    the true aint new and the new aint true ;-)

  3. Acilius says:

    ‘this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain.”’ Well, that depends on what sort of “use” you have in mind. My students seem to get something out of my discussion of how Aristotle, in his theory of the brain, tried to move toward a strict empiricism. Since some of Aristotle’s contemporaries had made pretty lucky guesses about the functions of the brain, and the observations a scientist living centuries before the invention of the microscope could make didn’t justify positing the existence of anything like the central nervous system, his conclusions may make Aristotle look foolish. So we may chuckle when we find that the only positive hypothesis he can offer as to what the brain does is that it might regulate blood temperature. However, if no one had taken those first steps away from guesswork, no one would have known what to do with a microscope when it finally was invented. When I talk about this with my classes, it often leads them to wonder what dumb mistakes we have to be willing to make today if we’re to repeat Aristotle’s achievement.

  4. revo11 says:

    This kind of thing is fun to think about, but whenever I see these fierce arguments over these theoretical explanations of historical narratives, I’m reminded of Henry Kissinger’s comment on academic arguments being the most vicious ones because the stakes are so small…

  5. Manuel Moe G says:

    > it’s always seemed a bit silly to me when people try to loop everything back to a selfish-gene story

    Seems reasonable to try to use the least powerful mechanism to explain phenomena – “least powerful” meaning “more fundamental”/”fewest moving parts”. Group selection exists but it is a much more sophisticated and plastic and subtle mechanism, bristling with seeming contradictions and hedges, so it readily supplies some sort of explanation of anything and everything, real or imagined, in the positive or the negative or only on Tuesdays. Appeals to group selections are frequently made even if it is simply a lack of imagination that prevents an sound explanation from a more fundamental mechanism.

    It is only a fallacy when the failure to find an explanation through a selfish-gene-story leads one to deny the existence of really-existing phenomena, or if to provide an explanation of a phenomena you must appeal to nonesuch genes or nonesuch genetic mechanisms.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    ““Two brothers or eight cousins” is a cute line but it doesn’t seem to come close to describing how species or societies work, and it’s always seemed a bit silly to me when people try to loop everything back to a selfish-gene story.”

    Of course, but … have we gotten all we can out of that logic yet? In particular, only a few people have yet thought hard about “32 second cousins or 128 third cousins or 512 fourth cousins.”

    • I always thought of this line as just a way to explain to naive people how many genes we share with relatives of various degrees.

      To promote it into a political argument seems wrong.

  7. Steven says:

    It doesn’t seem like you know much about inclusive fitness, a theory has been massively successful in evolutionary biology. Despite the odd and unsupported comments made by Nowak et al., it stands firm as a well-supported and useful body of theory. Here’s a link to the letter published in response to Nowak et al.’s original article, signed by 137 authors including most of the field’s brightest minds:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v471/n7339/full/nature09831.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20110324

    The appeal to authority doesn’t mean that they’re right, of course, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; Nowak et al. have done nothing but ignore the entire published literature on inclusive fitness spanning decades and comprised of hundreds if not thousands of studies, while proposing a mathematical model that adds nothing to our understanding beyond what current theory already provides.

    I respect your work on statistics, have always enjoyed reading your blog, and your book (BDA) is sitting on my shelf right now, but your offhand comment above is uninformed and very aggravating; I’d like to deal with that aggravation by offering to assist you in understanding one of the most powerful explanatory mechanisms in evolutionary biology. The letter above provides a succinct summary of the evidence that Nowak et al. ignore, but it might be a bit much for a non-technical audience; I haven’t published directly in this field, but I do work in evolutionary biology and I should be able to answer any specific questions you may have if you would like to pose them. If I can’t answer them myself, I will find people who can.

    • Andrew says:

      Steven:

      No, I don’t know much about this at all. I get irritated by what seems to me the fundamentalism of some of the selfish-gene promoters who don’t seem to want to admit the possibility of any group selection at all. But I don’t know the scientific literature on inclusive fitness, and it may very well be that this literature is much more reasonable than it might appear from the popularizations I’ve seen. I’m certainly not trying to make any authoritative pronouncement on the current controversy; I’m just sharing my quick reaction.

      I understand your irritation. I get irritated when non-statisticians make naive claims about why they do or don’t like Bayesian statistics, based on various secondhand impressions and without knowing what Bayesian data analysis really is like.

      • K? O'Rourke says:

        Andrew:

        That fits in with nominalism – at least one view being that groups are just figments of our imagination and there are only individuals who agree to act together to maximize their expected benefit.

        But this is not my area and I am likely making a niave claim based on various secondhand impressions that might (should?) annoy some who know better.

        But, but I still think thats what blogs are for.

  8. […] because I don’t understand where priors come from?”  It bugged me enough that I left this comment: It doesn’t seem like you know much about inclusive fitness, a theory has been massively […]

  9. I find it more than slightly annoying when contemporary scientists heap scorn on long-dead philosophers for getting the science wrong. Bluntly, that is to completely fail to understand the historical development of science. If it weren’t for the failed models of the mind/brain produced by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, and many others, we wouldn’t have the more successful (but probably still false) models that we currently have.

    Heaping scorn on contemporary philosophers for bothering to read and reflect on the things older philosophers said, either for inspiration or just out of historical curiosity, is similarly misguided.

Where can you find the best CBD products? CBD gummies made with vegan ingredients and CBD oils that are lab tested and 100% organic? Click here.