Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Sing the Body Politic


•I expect both Obama and Jindal will give good speeches tonight — but if grunts and whistles preceded the rise of language, you ask, might music have existed, even been used to create a feeling of community, before humanity ever gave speeches? I think my friend Joann Kahn’s brother is directing a movie based on the novel Neuromancer, which asks that question [CORRECTION: No, wait, Snow Crash asks that question].

•It’s also a question that may pass through your mind tomorrow night (Wed., Feb. 25) if you join me at my local karaoke bar, Iggy’s on Second Ave. between 75th and 76th, where the non-Krogh faction of the annoyingly identically-named New York Young Republican Clubs will be singing. Much as I like to try new things, I feel obliged under the circumstances to once more do the libertarian anthem “Tom Sawyer,” fostering fusionism through sound — though not precisely “conservatism for punks” (I’ll be there circa 8:30, for those interested).

•Questions such as whether language was preceded by song (instead of the other way around) were also very much the sorts of topic under discussion in 2005, when I attended the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference — the big recurring evolutionary psychology event — in Austin, TX, visiting L.B. Deyo and my de facto e.p. advisor Diana Fleischman (of the University of Texas, Austin) in the process.

Without Diana’s able tutelage (in combination with research made possible by the Phillips Foundation), this “Month of Evolution” blog series probably wouldn’t be occurring. I was fortunate enough to rub elbows for a week with Fleischman and others interested in interpreting and predicting modern human behavior in the light of probable evolutionary pressures from humanity’s past — that is, things that contributed to our ancestors’ relative likelihood of reproducing, such as, say, ability to detect offspring that were not their own.


Still a relatively new discipline, e.p. is the human-centered outgrowth of the slightly broader and only slightly older field of sociobiology, which was sparked by entomologist E.O. Wilson’s mid-70s book by that title, which popularized the idea that if ant behavior and social structures can be understood in terms of the struggle to reproduce, so can human society. Interestingly, though, E.O. Wilson’s talk at the 2005 HBES centered on the revelation that some types of ants are genuinely indifferent between their own behavior vs. that of others in the colony, all members being so genetically-similar and so interdependent that there is no great survival advantage (at the level of genes) for them to selfish behavior. As Wilson put it, “Marx was right — he just had the wrong species.”

A research program as broad as the evolution of all behavior needn’t have any particular narrow political agenda (beyond a rejection, of course, of the handful of religious fundamentalists who deny evolution altogether), and the leading lights of evolutionary psychology range from libertarian (in more than a few cases) to conservative to socialist to apolitical, but it’s not surprising that political fallout was rarely far from the minds of the conference participants — and not surprising they all tend to be skeptical of the conventional empirical claims of feminism, since e.p.’s core insight may be the observation that plentiful sperm and more-precious eggs are likely to lead to instinctive (and rather reasonable) double standards and differential mating strategies and preferences, despite pretenses that it’s all just arbitrary social constructs.

The keynote speaker that year was linguist Steven Pinker, whose book The Blank Slate argued against the view that humans are born without instincts, without gender, ready to be molded as if from scratch by the politics of the societies into which they are born (and Pinker has just become an Advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, where I work, as it happens). When Pinker spoke, since-ousted Harvard president Larry Summers (previously part of the Clinton administration and today part of the Obama administration) had just generated controversy and shocked the Harvard faculty by suggesting that the insights of Pinker and other e.p. devotees might explain why men and women seem to sort themselves into different academic disciplines in unequal proportions despite affirmative action efforts to achieve perfect parity.

(On another gender-related note, one HBES speaker had devoted a great deal of research time to the importance of waist-to-hip ratio for determining female attractiveness in the eyes of males — even going so far as to use photos to confirm that males care less about weight than about said ratio, which is what men like me keep telling skinniness-obsessed dames, to little avail.)

To the extent that e.p scholars are willing to acknowledge competition, inequality, and differential success rates as fundamental explanatory facets of human existence, the e.p. crowd are bound to make liberals nervous, and since, obviously, they are ardent Darwinians and spend a great deal of their time reducing human motives to sexual strategizing, they make social conservatives nervous as well. To the extent they are willing to dispense with sanitized, popular rationales for human action and hardheadedly examine real motives, though, they are a welcome antidote to the naive fantasies of all camps (and their close cousins, behavioral economists, have even shaken some libertarians’ assumptions about rational agency in the marketplace, since, to make a long story short, people’s preferences are often nuts).


The irony is that even the truth generates fantasies, though, and those fantasies will tend to reflect the already-existing political allegiances of those who conjure them. Is evolutionary theory right-wing or left-wing, brutally authoritarian or subversively anarchic, Nietzschean or revolutionary, Supermannish or X-Hominoid?

It ought ideally to just be science, purely descriptive and not even given to just-so stories (avoiding rationalizing all observed phenomena as suvival-enhancing adaptations when they may be no such thing) — but as Diana and I were reminded by some frank pro-eugenics comments from Watson of Watson-Crick DNA fame at the 92nd Street Y (to dismayed interviewer Robert Krulwich), well before Watson’s embarrassed departure from the Cold Springs labs and not too long after HBES, it’s awfully tempting to draw sweeping conclusions when you’re unlocking secrets of human design — not to mention when you’re on LSD, as Crick apparently sometimes was, making him sound even more entertaining than the eugenics alone does.

In any case, easy as it is to make jokes about such gaffs, I would be ashamed to find we’ve become a culture more frightened of what we might discover than of remaining p.c.-but-ignorant. Another friend whose job likely makes her want to remain anonymous forwards news of a scientist who thinks profound gender differences in the brain and elsewhere ought to be more frequently studied. If this is all conventional wisdom a century from now, our contemporaries who insist for political reasons that such question cannot even be broached will look just as stupid as people a century and a half ago who insisted that Darwin was going too far, you mark my words.

(Reminder: stupider even than everyone doing karaoke tomorrow night at Iggy’s.)


Diana said...

Well, I’m glad you finally published something from those 4 days 4 years ago.

There is a book that came out recently called “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” which claims that the Descent of Man was actually written with the abolition of slavery in mind thus demonstrating that Darwinism isn’t racist (or sexist or interested in maintaining the status quo). I’m actually giving a little talk at the Dionysium this Wednesday about Darwinism and liberalism.

Diana said...

Also, this is a very good representation of what went on at HBES! thanks for honoring me with the title EP advisor, I’ll be waiting for my check.