Book: The origins of virtue; Screwy on memes - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: The origins of virtue; Screwy on memes
Saturday, 09 June 2007 at 11:06 pm
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Author: Matt Ridley

Details: (c) Matt Ridley 1996; Pub Penguin Books 1997; ISBN 0-14-024404-2

Verdict: The origins of virtue overreaches and doesn't make it.

Reasons for reading it: I generally like Ridley as a science writer, and I'm interested in the topic of evolution even though I don't have much to learn from popular biology books at this point.

How it came into my hands: I don't remember; it's the sort of thing I would only have bought if I happened to find it cheaply.

I wanted to like The origins of virtue, partly because it's a book that needs to exist, discussing some of the mechanics of how selfish genes can give rise to altruistic behaviour, and partly because I have a lot of admiration for Ridley's earlier book, The Red Queen. Indeed, I still recommend that book if you want a readable and rigourous introduction to modern genetics unpolluted by Dawkins' anti-religion polemic. Although Ridley is clearly an intelligent person and a strong writer, in The origins of virtue he's trying to be Jared Diamond and doesn't quite make the cut.

The origins of virtue seems to be assuming an audience who have a basic lay grasp of what natural selection is and are not completely ignorant of modern genetics; the book is more or less blurbed as a sequel to The selfish gene and it works at about that level. This hypothetical audience hasn't fully understood the later chapters of the Dawkins and needs some examples and expansion of the idea that organisms may be driven by their genes to do things which disadvantage them in the short term. All fair enough. There's some pretty nice stuff about game theory and the overlap between biology and economics, synthesizing the two approaches to give a clear picture of apparently paradoxical ways that self-interest can manifest. The one thing that Ridley seems to miss altogether is that game theory views of evolution predict an equilibrium with a mixed population of cooperators and defectors; an evolutionarily stable strategy doesn't mean that every individual in the population will behave identically. But other than that, not at all bad, a decent overview which argues cogently from the history of science to explain the state of the art today. Ridley also strikes a good balance between accepting that humans are animals and subject to biology like everything else, and acknowledging that humans do make conscious decisions and there are features of human biology that have no exact analogues in the animal world.

However, as the book progresses, it gets increasingly political, and does so in rather a naive way. I don't hugely disagree with the conclusions, namely that the free market is a better and more equitable way of running society than excessive statism and central control. But just because I happen to find that kind of mild libertarianism appealing, it doesn't make me any less annoyed at trying to claim that the fundamentals of biology make this particular political conclusion inevitable. 1996 is frankly a bit late to be writing hagiography of Thatcher and Gingrich, and trying to force your description of the process of evolution into a vindication of Adam Smith (!) makes for bad biology as well as bad political science. And he Godwins all over the place, too.

I have the impression that Ridley is trying to write a synthesis of various different fields of endeavor and show that the same abstractions can be applied at different levels, which is certainly an admirable aim. However, he doesn't seem to understand economics, political science and particularly sociology and anthropology half so well as he understands biology. (The same is true of me; I'm clearly far more expert in biological sciences than social sciences, but I have enough to see where Ridley is making autodidact errors.)

He falls a bit into trying to create a just-so story for why gender roles are biologically determined to be just they way they happened to fall out in modern western society (which he tries to soften with a bit of apologetics about how women are generally nicer than men). And in his enthusiasm to refute Rousseau's Noble Savage theory he goes on at great length about people in low tech societies doing horrible things, and the disclaimer that he only thinks brown people are as bad as white people, not worse, doesn't really balance the negative impression created by sheer weight of text. There's a long passage where he gives the Jews, who think of themselves as the chosen race (why use that loaded term rather than the more neutral "chosen people"?), as an example of how human societies are often very community-oriented and charitable within the group but can be extremely aggressive towards outsiders, such as Joshua implementing a highly moral code for the Israelites while committing genocide against the Canaanites. But of course it's just an example, he's doesn't have anything against Jews. I don't think Ridley is actually racist and sexist and anti-semitic, just crass. He's so determined to believe that he is the sort of person that treats scientific facts "objectively" and isn't swayed by "political correctness", that he is completely blind to his own cultural biases.

There are certainly some fun tidbits in The origins of virtue. I enjoyed the discussion of some of the historical reality behind the Tragedy of the Commons, for example. I also liked the proposed reason for why it is such a common belief that people get what they deserve, in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary. And the introductory chapter explaining why there is no more in principle reason for the cells of the body to cooperate than for different organisms in the same pack or community to do so is a lovely essay. Overall, though, this is one to skip (though I would be amused to see a takedown of this from one of the left-leaning economists around here, like lavendersparkle or smhwpf.)

This reminds me that I've been meaning to post about how Screwy doesn't think that memes are a useful concept. I know he reads the blog sometimes, so if you feel like clarifying your position here, J, that would be great. I don't want to misrepresent your arguments. Anyway, what I understood from our lively discussions over Pesach is this:

  • The spreading of and competition between memes isn't meaningfully analogous to genetic inheritance, and trying to use biology to argue about ideas and beliefs leads to erroneous conclusions.
  • The meme concept and the underlying selfish gene idea were associated with 80s, highly individualist politics, and the whole framing was created to justify that attitude.
  • There is no clear definition of what a meme is; is it the Iliad or a few words of quotation from it?
  • Calling something a meme doesn't give you any more explanatory power than simply calling it an idea. You don't need the theory of evolution to explain why the popularity of an opinion isn't a reliable guide to its rightness. The Bible and Plato were already aware of this!Anyway, what do you think? I think it's a very interesting challenge and one that some of you guys would have informed opinions about.

  • Whereaboooots: Älvsjö, Stockholm, Sweden
    Moooood: thoughtfulthoughtful
    Tuuuuune: Hazel O'Connor: Rebecca
    Discussion: 22 contributions | Contribute something
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    redbird: default
    From:redbird
    Date:June 10th, 2007 01:30 pm (UTC)
    3 hours after journal entry, 08:30 am (redbird's time)
    (Link)
    What Screwy's last point seems to be missing is that the meme theory (hypothesis? model? it doesn't seem well-enough defined to count as a theory yet) doesn't just say that the popularity of an idea isn't a good way of telling whether it's correct, it's trying to figure out what makes ideas popular, and what makes them spread or persist.

    (Constellations have no more predictive value than the four humors theory of personality, but there are astrology columns in many newspapers, read and often taken seriously by people who would never consider that how a person's liver works is a useful way of predicting their actions or personalities.)

    From another angle, I think memes are a subset of cultural artifacts: "draw blackwork figures on your pots" can be a meme as well as a cultural artifact, but a specific oil jar with such figures is only the latter.
    (Reply to this comment) (Thread)
    livredor: likeness
    From:livredor
    Date:June 11th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 07:22 pm (livredor's time)
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    Thanks for this comment, it's just the sort of discussion I was hoping for!

    I have the impression that memes are studied rigorously, and from various angles, it's not all just biologists dabbling in philosophy. Dennett I'm fairly sure is a serious researcher and not just a pop science writer. I tried some crude searches to confirm or contradict this, but my searches got confused by researchers named Meme, and a sequence data algorithm called MEME. Still, I assume when Screwy told me that the meme hypothesis had been debunked, he was referring to the work of actual philosophers and not just telling me his personal opinion.

    I think the thing about popularity not being a guide to rightness is my fault, I started the conversation on that tack. It's not Screwy's only argument why the meme model is pointless. I think I got stuck on the point that you can't use memes to distinguish between bad and good ideas; but the question of exactly why bad ideas sometimes become popular is also a useful one.

    I like your examples of memes, too.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    rysmiel: scale error
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 10th, 2007 02:50 pm (UTC)
    4 hours after journal entry, 10:50 am (rysmiel's time)
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    To use evolutionary notions to support 80s-type selfish politics is to make a drastic scale error about the level at which selection pressures work, which right-wing politicians of all stripes are still falling into; to wit, that they work at the level of individuals more so than they do at the level of species. Natural selection is a statistical process, after all.

    That form of thinking also, frequently, seems to me, to come from some muddled backbrain notion that "fit" in the "survival of the fittest" sense refers to something like physically fit, with mental echoes in the Nietszchean superman direction, rather than "fit" in the sense of "best fit to the environment" which I am pretty sure is what Darwin meant.

    I disagree with you on the free market vs. central control issue, though, because we are a sentient species who understand about selection so going along with it in venues under our control entirely is a matter of choice, not necessity, and free markets are wasteful. Mind you, I also think we're only now getting to the tech level in terms of information management where statism can actually sensibly be implemented - have you read the bit in Designing Freedom about Allende's Chile ? Attempting to equip a state-run economy with real-time responses, rather than the standard problem of your response in budget form coming months later than the most recent information you can respond to, is really pushing it with early 70s tech.
    (Reply to this comment) (Thread)
    livredor: p53
    From:livredor
    Date:June 11th, 2007 09:15 pm (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 09:15 pm (livredor's time)
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    To use evolutionary notions to support 80s-type selfish politics is to make a drastic scale error
    Yes, agreed entirely. (Your eel icon still makes me smile, though!) I basically think it's wrong to use evolutionary ideas to support any kind of politics; it may work for descriptive purposes as long as you're careful to avoid the pitfall of just-so stories about current social norms. But evolution is never going to provide any kind of moral imperative, partly because of sentience and partly just because it doesn't work logically to argue that a strategy which was selected for in prehistory is going to lead to political success now.

    they work at the level of individuals more so than they do at the level of species. Natural selection is a statistical process, after all.
    I think I agree with you, but your wording is confusing. Definitely, it's important to hold the distinction between statistical and population effects and the chances of success of a specific individual. But the whole point of Dawkinsian biology is that selection pressures can't be acting on species, but must act on genes (or whatever is analogous to genes if we're extending the metaphor away from biology). Indeed, natural selection is the cause of speciation.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    rysmiel: freedom evolves
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 12th, 2007 07:43 pm (UTC)
    2 days after journal entry, 03:43 pm (rysmiel's time)
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    I basically think it's wrong to use evolutionary ideas to support any kind of politics; it may work for descriptive purposes as long as you're careful to avoid the pitfall of just-so stories about current social norms.

    I think awareness of the omnipresence of evolutionary processes is kind of essential for any ideology that wishes not to become hubristic about having found perfect eternal solutions; understanding that the environment will change and the best response thereto will also change.

    Definitely, it's important to hold the distinction between statistical and population effects and the chances of success of a specific individual. But the whole point of Dawkinsian biology is that selection pressures can't be acting on species, but must act on genes (or whatever is analogous to genes if we're extending the metaphor away from biology). Indeed, natural selection is the cause of speciation.

    You're right, that was poorly phrased. It was the context within a population that I meant to emphasise.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    livredor: p53
    From:livredor
    Date:June 13th, 2007 11:55 am (UTC)
    3 days after journal entry, 11:55 am (livredor's time)
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    awareness of the omnipresence of evolutionary processes is kind of essential
    If evolutionary processes are omnipresent, then Screwy must be wrong that you can't apply such models to memes. Would you like to help my argument by expanding on this? I feel you're right, but I can't justify it.

    understanding that the environment will change and the best response thereto will also change
    I am reminded of a silly conversation with some schoolfriends, who were complaining that it's confusing the way green chillis are often hotter than red chillis. One friend declared very firmly: Evolution needs to change!, which was such a beautiful double meaning that I remember it more than ten years later. But more seriously, I think you're right about people assuming fit means strong and tough and spending lots of time in the gym, whereas really it means suited to the environment, and often adaptability is a major part of that.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    rysmiel: freedom evolves
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 13th, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
    3 days after journal entry, 03:44 pm (rysmiel's time)
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    Would you like to help my argument by expanding on this? I feel you're right, but I can't justify it.

    I don't think the argument that evolutionary processes apply to ideas and that one can therefore treat them as memes needs any further support than that a) ideas change and develop, so there is mutation, and b) people choose whether to accept ideas or not, so there is selection. Mutation + selection == Darwinian behaviour. I think Dawkins is completely crazy in the extent to which he wants the meme model to explain everything, but his fundamental point is not deniable. Pretty much anything that has consequences of any sort will behave in a Darwinian way.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    livredor: ewe
    From:livredor
    Date:June 11th, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 09:24 pm (livredor's time)
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    I'm not going to argue with you about economic policy, at least not until I've actually read your Beer. I think if anything is going to seduce me over to the Reds, it's going to be a book that starts from control theory and gives real world examples (as opposed to claiming that the Soviet Union would have been really great if it had only lived up to the ideals of its founders.) Interesting thought about tech; my instinct is that political solutions are not in fact independent of tech level.

    I completely agree with this part: we are a sentient species who understand about selection so going along with it in venues under our control entirely is a matter of choice, not necessity
    That's why biology can never be used effectively in a prescriptive fashion. I don't think even Ridley would hold otherwise; he is arguing from biology to politics in a spurious way, but he isn't exactly a determinist for all that.

    But I'm slightly boggled that you would argue for statism on the grounds of efficiency! I've heard it claimed that a centralized system is worth sacrificing the efficiency because it can give you more justice (at least assuming the people with whom the power is concentrated are thoroughly moral people), but never come across anyone who claims that government bureaucracy is less wasteful than more devolved systems.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    rysmiel: moon dragon
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 12th, 2007 07:23 pm (UTC)
    2 days after journal entry, 03:23 pm (rysmiel's time)
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    I'm not going to argue with you about economic policy, at least not until I've actually read your Beer. I think if anything is going to seduce me over to the Reds, it's going to be a book that starts from control theory and gives real world examples (as opposed to claiming that the Soviet Union would have been really great if it had only lived up to the ideals of its founders.)

    Unfortunately, what appears to happen is "oit looks red to the CIA, so they squish it".

    Interesting thought about tech; my instinct is that political solutions are not in fact independent of tech level.

    Oh, entirely agreed. There are probably interesting theses out there somewhere on effective political hegemony as a function of transport and communications speeds.

    But I'm slightly boggled that you would argue for statism on the grounds of efficiency! I've heard it claimed that a centralized system is worth sacrificing the efficiency because it can give you more justice (at least assuming the people with whom the power is concentrated are thoroughly moral people), but never come across anyone who claims that government bureaucracy is less wasteful than more devolved systems.

    That seems absolutely fundamental to me; any form of resource management based on competition involves entities losing and therefore their efforts going to waste to some extent; this is not an inherent feature of a centrally controlled system in the same way.

    Which is not by any means an argument against options, or choice; what it is an argument for, IMO, is not staking near so much on competition as our current capitalist structures do, and not constructing an arena of competition such that those that do get to become monopolies have been encouraged to develop a profit motive rather than other forms of optimisation along the way.

    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    livredor: ewe
    From:livredor
    Date:June 13th, 2007 12:17 pm (UTC)
    3 days after journal entry, 12:17 pm (livredor's time)

    OK, maybe we are discussing politics a bit

    (Link)
    The squishing by the CIA part will probably depress me, but that's not an excuse for me to bury my head in the sand and not find out about it.

    Your definition of competition seems really strange to me. If several companies are selling similar products and one grabs a bigger market share than the others, that doesn't mean that the efforts of the less successful companies are wasted. And given your point about changing circumstances, even a centrally run organization is sometimes going to become obsolete, or at least not be able to work without changing so much that it's not meaningfully the same organization. I don't see that as any less wasteful than an unsuccessful company going out of business.

    I can't easily see how a system can have choice without having competition, but I'm not assuming out of hand that such a system is impossible. I suspect that part of your enthusiasm for statism depends on not holding democracy as a particularly high value, and if you don't care about the population getting a say in who governs them, a lot of political choices might seem more viable to you than they do to me.

    I do actually agree that there are problems with the way capitalism goes on at the moment; there needs to be a limit on monopolies and protectionism and the ability of large companies to buy governments, because none of those things is compatible with the free market ideal. Also a much stronger prohibition on companies effectively owning their employees, because that is not democratic nor free market, in addition to being horribly immoral. So I do think the government has a role in preventing those abuses of capitalism, in policing the market to keep if free, if you like. I'm absolutely not an anarchist.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    rysmiel: red son
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 13th, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
    3 days after journal entry, 03:12 pm (rysmiel's time)

    Re: OK, maybe we are discussing politics a bit

    (Link)
    And given your point about changing circumstances, even a centrally run organization is sometimes going to become obsolete, or at least not be able to work without changing so much that it's not meaningfully the same organization. I don't see that as any less wasteful than an unsuccessful company going out of business.

    Well, yes. I agree with you on that last entirely, but I'm inclined to see that too as an unacceptable degree of waste of human time and energy. I think my problem with the current modalities of capitalism is the scale of consequences, that it's possible for large-scale failures to have such huge consequences in terms of human misery, and that large-scale successes can lead to the enhancement of already gross imbalances between rich and poor. The relative moral merit of ten teams getting half a million dollars each to develop competing product to sink or swim in the free market, and the same ten teams getting the same half a million dollars each to develop alternative solutions within a context where the various solutions will be internally assessed, the best solution or set of solutions go on for further development, and nobody gets fired or becomes obscenely rich thereby seems obvious to me. And that's before I begin to get into the notion of such things as cars being deliberately designed with a short finite lifespan, and the immense amounts of resources going into perpetuating a culture of the new being desirable, when it's entirely within our technological cpacity to build cars as robust, long-lasting and relatively easy to maintain as the VW Beetle and the Citroen 2CV. That's not competition towards optimisation or towards meaningful increase of choice, that's competition purely and simply for the sale of profit. Does that seem a reasonable distinction ?

    I suspect that part of your enthusiasm for statism depends on not holding democracy as a particularly high value, and if you don't care about the population getting a say in who governs them, a lot of political choices might seem more viable to you than they do to me.

    It depends on the scale on which you see things as appropriate to be voted on, and pretty much every democracy in the world maintains some fundamental principles as not susceptible to immediate voting out by brute majoritocracy; to my mind, the absence of any such protections allows any given sixty per cent of a populace to proceed at any given time to remove civil rights from whichever forty per cent they disagree with, which is not an acceptable notion; so any civil rights of any form whatsoever require some abatement of democracy in their protection. [ As I have said elsewhere, "liberty and justice for all" are in fact mutually exclusive. ] I do not think there is a qualitative distinction between my position here and that of the majority of people in the Western world; I just see more things as falling under the heading of civil rights, and possibly have a more stringent notion of what responsibilities are inherent in those rights.

    Given which position, I'm entirely in agreement with you that none of the things mentioned in your last para should be permitted.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    lavendersparkle: queens'
    From:lavendersparkle
    Date:June 10th, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC)
    9 hours after journal entry, 07:58 pm (lavendersparkle's time)
    (Link)
    I wonder whether the concept of a meme could be seen as a sort of academic imperialism, where biologists claim to be able to tackle issues within other subjects through their methodology because they see their methodologies as inherently superior ways of approaching truth. This reminds me of a book I've just started reading called Feminism, Objectivity & Economics. The main premise of the book as that some methodologies, such as mathematics, are perceived as 'masculine', whilst others, such as dialectical reasoning, are perceived as 'feminine'. In a patriarchy the 'masculine' methodologies are seen as inherently better regardless of what methodologies are most appropriate for a given problem.
    (Reply to this comment) (Thread)
    pseudomonas: default
    From:pseudomonas
    Date:June 11th, 2007 05:10 pm (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 05:10 pm (pseudomonas's time)
    (Link)
    Do mathematical and dialectical approaches not yield equivalent results? Is the "better" a question of which yields a better sort of answer or which is the most efficient route to the same answer?
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    lavendersparkle: queens'
    From:lavendersparkle
    Date:June 11th, 2007 09:17 pm (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 09:17 pm (lavendersparkle's time)
    (Link)
    Well, my perspective is mainly from a methodology of economics approach and different approaches do lead to different ways of understanding the economy and different policy suggestions based upon these different views. One problems with 'mainstream' economics is that certain mathematical approaches are used unquestioningly to approach all situtations without a full appreciation of the implicit assumptions that involves. To give an example, a lot of economics is based upon a set of assumptions about individuals and how they interact (for example that individuals aim to maximise a utility function) and then build a mathematical model of how the economy works from these assumptions. Economists who base their understanding on a less mathematical approach, one which involves examining what they observe in economies and try to find an expanation that fits tend to come to quite different conclusions. There's a book called Reorienting Economics which is all about this problem.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    rysmiel: complex systems go chaotic
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 12th, 2007 07:36 pm (UTC)
    2 days after journal entry, 03:36 pm (rysmiel's time)
    (Link)
    there is always the theory that any given model of economics works descriptively on the periods in the past described by its inventors, but then fails to work when people are using it predictively because the reactions based on the model are confusing whatever it was to lead to the model being accurate in the first place.

    There are no classical economic models to my knwoledge that explain why WWII ended the Great Depression when wars generally cause depressions; my preferred explanation there is that it was singinficant qualitative increase in technology, diversity and complexity, so there were just more economic sectors after than before.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    livredor: p53
    From:livredor
    Date:June 12th, 2007 06:34 am (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 06:34 am (livredor's time)
    (Link)
    Hm, academic imperialism may be a problem. I think in many ways it's the other way round though: a lot of this stuff was based on applying the methods of economics to biology. It just happens that biology illustrates the principles rather better, cos you get larger populations, longer timescales and fewer confounding factors.

    At best, this kind of thinking is breaking the boundaries between disciplines, but it does also lead to a lot of biologists mouthing off about stuff they don't really understand, which I think is what is going on with Ridley, unfortunately. What would be cool would be if the philosophizing biologists I read and the real philosophers Screwy reads would talk to eachother! The whole field got started in the 70s because biologists and economists were talking to eachother, but I fear people don't always regard philosophers as intellectually serious, and that's a mistake.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 12th, 2007 07:39 pm (UTC)
    2 days after journal entry, 03:39 pm (rysmiel's time)
    (Link)
    What would be cool would be if the philosophizing biologists I read and the real philosophers Screwy reads would talk to eachother!

    Where would you count Daniel Dennett ? Freedom Evolves seems to me to be right in the interface you're talking about.
    (Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
    livredor: ewe
    From:livredor
    Date:June 12th, 2007 06:53 am (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 06:53 am (livredor's time)
    (Link)
    You know, speaking as a female natural scientist, I'm a little offended by the idea that quantitative approaches are inherently masculine. Definitely picking the right method for the problem is important, and the right method isn't always the mathematical one. But damnit, that isn't because women can't do maths!

    Intellectual rigour is objectively a good thing, it's not just something that happens to be valued by "the patriarchy". I don't see any advantage in going along with the sexist idea that women can't do hard science, so let's put more value on feminine strengths like communication and team-building. Definitely both kinds of skills are important, but why not encourage people to specialize in whatever they happen to be drawn to, rather than dividing it up by gender?
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    lavendersparkle: queens'
    From:lavendersparkle
    Date:June 12th, 2007 10:04 am (UTC)
    1 days after journal entry, 10:04 am (lavendersparkle's time)
    (Link)
    Sorry, I should have explained better. It's not that science or mathematics are inherently things that men do or that dialectical reasoning is inherently something that women do. Rather, in English we tend mentally attach words and concepts together which aren't inherently related, for example we associate up with good and down with bad even though there's no reason it couldn't be the other way around. Similarly, cats and dogs are arbitrarily associated with feminine and masculine respectively. Certain methodological approaches have been associated with masculinity and feminity and which ones are in which category vary across time and cultures as the association is more or less arbitrary.

    The point I was trying to make is that in patriarchy the methods that are classified as 'masculine' are privalidged over methods that are seen as 'feminine' because 'masculine' is associated with 'better' and 'feminine' is associated with 'inferior'. The problem with this isn't that women can't do the 'masculine' methodolgies, but rather that 'masculine' methodolgies are applied in situations where 'feminine' methodologies are more appropriate and this gets in the way of intellectual rigour and objectivity. As science and economics tend to be classified as 'masculine', the attempts by practitioners of these subjects to explain questions from other subjects, without being open to insights from 'softer'* subjects like philosophy could be seen as a reflection of the science=masculine=better mentality.

    I'm not suggesting that academic subjects shouldn't cross the boundaries between them, as intermingling of ideas from different subjects often results in really interesting insights. I'm saying that we should notice when this process is very asymmetric and be aware of some of the penitious value assumptions that could be causing this.

    *Soft is associated with feminine and hard with masculine.
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    livredor: likeness
    From:livredor
    Date:June 12th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)
    2 days after journal entry, 03:26 pm (livredor's time)
    (Link)
    OK, I'm mollified. There's a slight but crucial disctinction between "qualitative and dialectical methods are devalued because they are arbitarily classified as feminine" and "women can only do fluffy stuff." You must see this particularly clearly in economics, because of all fields that's the one that has the most obvious mix between highly numerical stuff and the messy details of assessing what actual humans do. The wrong but prevalent association with masculinity is a likely explanation for why mathematical methods are over-used in situations where they're not appropriate.
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    From:(Anonymous)
    Date:June 21st, 2007 08:43 pm (UTC)
    11 days after journal entry

    memes not politics

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    The meme concept and the underlying selfish gene idea were associated with 80s, highly individualist politics, and the whole framing was created to justify that attitude. I probably did say that but it's not what I think. Seems to me that the meme concept and the selfish Gene were both motivated by and motivation for psychological egoism. the nature is red in tooth and claw view associated with Hobbes.this position says that humans are incapable of ever acting except for their own ends. A mild version of this might be acceptable, one that says I always have to motivate myself if I am to act, so I had to want to be nice if I am to be altruistic. psychological egoism was used, Invalidly, as a justification for 80s Thatcherism.

    So why is the selfish gene thing problematic? one place to start looking is Mary Midgley, she built a career bashing Dawkins (that is a bit unfair) and you can find some of her articles on the web, roughly her complaint seems to be that Dawkins' commitment to psychological egoism leads him to posit a fundamental layer of explanation and this is metaphysically dubious. Dawkins doesn't believe in the reality of species or genus or even of the individual organism. His basic ontology is made up of genes. People are gene machines blindly programmed by these ontologically basic entities. the idea is that species are not part of the world as it is in itself (whatever that means)is probably right. But why should I think that genes are? Midgley's thought is that the only reason to be committed such position is to think that whatever is ontologically basic in this area will be out for itself and itself alone. species and individuals are altruistic so they cannot be candidates for the fundamental layer of reality. We can posit that of genes, so they are what is real.she then holds that the idea of a fundamental "particle" that can explain everything else is an outdated and incorrect scientific myth and we can see that when we drop psychological egoism.

    Seems to me that there are other motivations for fundamental explanations and one of these is a particular view of truth. You might think that there has to be a way the world is that can be captured in thought, if there is to be such a thing as a true rather than useful explanation. However, this move (and I think it's wrong)is not going to help Dawkins. if he is not committed to genes being a particular length of DNA just any trait that can be inherited, then genes are not any more or less real than species.all Dawkins can do is remind us that when doing evolutionary science it is no good focusing on what is good for the species or even an individual, we can only talk about the selection for particular traits. But if we think this that we can't think that species or individuals are somehow not real, all sorts of other questions from other disciplines (even in biology) will require using such things in our explanations. I have no more reason to think of myself as a bundle of traits, than I have for accepting Hume's notion that I am no more than a bundle of perceptions.

    here is the fundamental objection to memes then.there are good exclamatory motivations for talking about genes. having defined fitness we can go on to explain it if not with necessary and sufficient conditions at leastwith explanations that are in the same ballpark, these tend to be to do with reproduction.

    When it comes to memes though they serve no explanatory role. a meme is said to be any reproducible unit and is deemed to be fit if it spreads through the population. can I find any commonly present conditions that will explain how this happens? No why should I think that anything will be common to the answers to these questions "why did the letter 'a', or the Roman alphabet, spread through the population?" And "why did Thatcherite economics prove so pervasive in the 80s?"? the only answer seems to be a commitment to a fundamental explanatory layer, some basic particles out of which everything else can be explained. if you do believe in such a view of science then why posit memes as intermediaries between ideas, cultural processes and your fundamental layer? because you think that there are no such things as nice people, just competitive units fighting it out for survival.
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    rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
    From:rysmiel
    Date:June 22nd, 2007 02:41 pm (UTC)
    12 days after journal entry, 10:41 am (rysmiel's time)

    Re: memes not politics

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    Seems to me that the meme concept and the selfish Gene were both motivated by and motivation for psychological egoism. the nature is red in tooth and claw view associated with Hobbes.this position says that humans are incapable of ever acting except for their own ends.

    Even if one were to grant that, which I don't, why on earth should that argument prevent the reclamation of a useful idea from its obnoxious political context ?

    Midgley's thought is that the only reason to be committed such position is to think that whatever is ontologically basic in this area will be out for itself and itself alone. species and individuals are altruistic so they cannot be candidates for the fundamental layer of reality.

    The gaping flaw in this position is the failure to grasp that competition at one level can provide an absolutely solid basis for altruism and other such virtues at other levels of complexity.

    she then holds that the idea of a fundamental "particle" that can explain everything else is an outdated and incorrect scientific myth

    Which is sufficient of a rejection of the underlying axioms of the scientific method as to be downright pernicious.

    all Dawkins can do is remind us that when doing evolutionary science it is no good focusing on what is good for the species or even an individual, we can only talk about the selection for particular traits.

    Which strikes me as a distinction without an underlying difference of any substance; selection happens on all scales simultaneously.

    I have no more reason to think of myself as a bundle of traits, than I have for accepting Hume's notion that I am no more than a bundle of perceptions.

    What do you consider there as being to you beyond the bundled traits of every possible decription of you, then ?

    When it comes to memes though they serve no explanatory role. a meme is said to be any reproducible unit and is deemed to be fit if it spreads through the population. can I find any commonly present conditions that will explain how this happens? No

    How not ?

    Example; small human children in hunter-gather environments need to be able to handle, roughly, recognition and distinction of 150 to 200 different sorts of thing in their environment in order to be able to eat sensibly and not poison themselves. Therefore, there's a selective advantage to having an attraction to and capacity for handling patterns and sets of distinctions on that scale. Which same facility provides a suggestive explanation for the popularity of such collection-oriented recreations as Pokemon; the vector of memetic spread in this case being a particular pattern-matching capacity that has a clear evolutionary avantage for humans in the wild.

    if you do believe in such a view of science then why posit memes as intermediaries between ideas, cultural processes and your fundamental layer?

    Because any degree of complexity beyond the very simplest allows for mutation and selection, and hence Darwinian processes on every scale.

    because you think that there are no such things as nice people, just competitive units fighting it out for survival.

    That's an entirely spurious opposition, as even something as simple as iterated Prisoner's Dilemma demonstrates.

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