The Biology of Moral Systems (III)

This will be my last post about the book. It’s an important work which deserves to be read by far more people than have already read it. I have added some quotes and observations from the last chapters of the book below.

“If egoism, as self-interest in the biologists’ sense, is the reason for the promotion of ethical behavior, then, paradoxically, it is expected that everyone will constantly promote the notion that egoism is not a suitable theory of action, and, a fortiori, that he himself is not an egoist. Most of all he must present this appearance to his closest associates because it is in his best interests to do so – except, perhaps, to his closest relatives, to whom his egoism may often be displayed in cooperative ventures from which some distant- or non-relative suffers. Indeed, it may be arguable that it will be in the egoist’s best interest not to know (consciously) or to admit to himself that he is an egoist because of the value to himself of being able to convince others he is not.”

“The function of [societal] punishments and rewards, I have suggested, is to manipulate the behavior of participating individuals, restricting individual efforts to serve their own interests at others’ expense so as to promote harmony and unity within the group. The function of harmony and unity […] is to allow the group to compete against hostile forces, especially other human groups. It is apparent that success of the group may serve the interests of all individuals in the group; but it is also apparent that group success can be achieved with different patterns of individual success differentials within the group. So […] it is in the interests of those who are differentially successful to promote both unity and the rules so that group success will occur without necessitating changes deleterious to them. Similarly, it may be in the interests of those individuals who are relatively unsuccessful to promote dissatisfaction with existing rules and the notion that group success would be more likely if the rules were altered to favor them. […] the rules of morality and law alike seem not to be designed explicitly to allow people to live in harmony within societies but to enable societies to be sufficiently united to deter their enemies. Within-society harmony is the means not the end. […] extreme within-group altruism seems to correlate with and be historically related to between-group strife.”

“There are often few or no legitimate or rational expectations of reciprocity or “fairness” between social groups (especially warring or competing groups such as tribes or nations). Perhaps partly as a consequence, lying, deceit, or otherwise nasty or even heinous acts committed against enemies may sometimes not be regarded as immoral by others withing the group of those who commit them. They may even be regarded as highly moral if they seem dramatically to serve the interests of the group whose members commit them.”

“Two major assumptions, made universally or most of the time by philosophers, […] are responsible for the confusion that prevents philosophers from making sense out of morality […]. These assumptions are the following: 1. That proximate and ultimate mechanisms or causes have the same kind of significance and can be considered together as if they were members of the same class of causes; this is a failure to understand that proximate causes are evolved because of ultimate causes, and therefore may be expected to serve them, while the reverse is not true. Thus, pleasure is a proximate mechanism that in the usual environments of history is expected to impel us toward behavior that will contribute to our reproductive success. Contrarily, acts leading to reproductive success are not proximate mechanisms that evolved because they served the ultimate function of bringing us pleasure. 2. That morality inevitably involves some self-sacrifice. This assumption involves at least three elements: a. Failure to consider altruism as benefits to the actor. […] b. Failure to comprehend all avenues of indirect reciprocity within groups. c. Failure to take into account both within-group and between-group benefits.”

“If morality means true sacrifice of one’s own interests, and those of his family, then it seems to me that we could not have evolved to be moral. If morality requires ethical consistency, whereby one does not do socially what he would not advocate and assist all others also to do, then, again, it seems to me that we could not have evolved to be moral. […] humans are not really moral at all, in the sense of “true sacrifice” given above, but […] the concept of morality is useful to them. […] If it is so, then we might imagine that, in the sense and to the extent that they are anthropomorphized, the concepts of saints and angels, as well as that of God, were also created because of their usefulness to us. […] I think there have been far fewer […] truly self-sacrificing individuals than might be supposed, and most cases that might be brought forward are likely instead to be illustrations of the complexity and indirectness of reciprocity, especially the social value of appearing more altruistic than one is. […] I think that […] the concept of God must be viewed as originally generated and maintained for the purpose – now seen by many as immoral – of furthering the interests of one group of humans at the expense of one or more other groups. […] Gods are inventions originally developed to extend the notion that some have greater rights than others to design and enforce rules, and that some are more destined to be leaders, others to be followers. This notion, in turn, arose out of prior asymmetries in both power and judgment […] It works when (because) leaders are (have been) valuable, especially in the context of intergroup competition.”

“We try to move moral issues in the direction of involving no conflict of interest, always, I suggest, by seeking universal agreement with our own point of view.”

“Moral and legal systems are commonly distinguished by those, like moral philosophers, who study them formally. I believe, however, that the distinction between them is usually poorly drawn, and based on a failure to realize that moral as well as legal behavior occurs as a result of probably and possible punishments and reward. […] we often internalize the rules of law as well as the rules of morality – and perhaps by the same process […] It would seem that the rules of law are simply a specialized, derived aspect of what in earlier societies would have been a part of moral rules. On the other hand, law covers only a fraction of the situations in which morality is involved […] Law […] seems to be little more than ethics written down.”

“Anyone who reads the literature on dispute settlement within different societies […] will quickly understand that genetic relatedness counts: it allows for one-way flows of benefits and alliances. Long-term association also counts; it allows for reliability and also correlates with genetic relatedness. […] The larger the social group, the more fluid its membership; and the more attenuated the social interactions of its membership, the more they are forced to rely on formal law”.

“[I]ndividuals have separate interests. They join forces (live in groups; become social) when they share certain interests that can be better realized for all by close proximity or some forms of cooperation. Typically, however, the overlaps of interests rarely are completely congruent with those of either other individuals or the rest of the group. This means that, even during those times when individual interests within a group are most broadly overlapping, we may expect individuals to temper their cooperation with efforts to realize their own interests, and we may also expect them to have evolved to be adept at using others, or at thwarting the interests of others, to serve themselves (and their relatives). […] When the interests of all are most nearly congruent, it is essentially always due to a threat shared equally. Such threats almost always have to be external (or else they are less likely to affect everyone equally […] External threats to societies are typically other societies. Maintenance of such threats can yield situations in which everyone benefits from rigid, hierarchical, quasi-military, despotic government. Liberties afforded leaders – even elaborate perquisites of dictators – may be tolerated because such threats are ever-present […] Extrinsic threats, and the governments they produce, can yield inflexibilities of political structures that can persist across even lengthy intervals during which the threats are absent. Some societies have been able to structure their defenses against external threats as separate units (armies) within society, and to keep them separate. These rigidly hierarchical, totalitarian, and dictatorial subunits rise and fall in size and influence according to the importance of the external threat. […] Discussion of liberty and equality in democracies closely parallels discussions of morality and moral systems. In either case, adding a perspective from evolutionary biology seems to me to have potential for clarification.”

“It is indeed common, if not universal, to regard moral behavior as a kind of altruism that necessarily yields the altruist less than he gives, and to see egoism as either the opposite of morality or the source of immorality; but […] this view is usually based on an incomplete understanding of nepotism, reciprocity, and the significance of within-group unity for between-group competition. […] My view of moral systems in the real world, however, is that they are systems in which costs and benefits of specific actions are manipulated so as to produce reasonably harmonious associations in which everyone nevertheless pursues his own (in evolutionary terms) self-interest. I do not expect that moral and ethical arguments can ever be finally resolved. Compromises and contracts, then, are (at least currently) the only real solutions to actual conflicts of interest. This is why moral and ethical decisions must arise out of decisions of the collective of affected individuals; there is no single source of right and wrong.

I would also argue against the notion that rationality can be easily employed to produce a world of humans that self-sacrifice in favor of other humans, not to say nonhuman animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Declarations of such intentions may themselves often be the acts of self-interested persons developing, consciously or not, a socially self-benefiting view of themselves as extreme altruists. In this connection it is not irrelevant that the more dissimilar a species or object is to one’s self the less likely it is to provide a competitive threat by seeking the same resources. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to find humans who are highly benevolent toward other species or inanimate objects (some of which may serve them uncomplainingly), yet relatively hostile and noncooperative with fellow humans. As Darwin (1871) noted with respect to dogs, we have selected our domestic animals to return our altruism with interest.”

“It is not easy to discover precisely what historical differences have shaped current male-female differences. If, however, humans are in a general way similar to other highly parental organisms that live in social groups […] then we can hypothesize as follows: for men much of sexual activity has had as a main (ultimate) significance the initiating of pregnancies. It would follow that when a man avoids copulation it is likely to be because (1) there is no likelihood of pregnancy or (2) the costs entailed (venereal disease, danger from competition with other males, lowered status if the event becomes public, or an undesirable commitment) are too great in comparison with the probability that pregnancy will be induced. The man himself may be judging costs against the benefits of immediate sensory pleasures, such as orgasms (i.e., rather than thinking about pregnancy he may say that he was simply uninterested), but I am assuming that selection has tuned such expectations in terms of their probability of leading to actual reproduction […]. For women, I hypothesize, sexual activity per se has been more concerned with the securing of resources (again, I am speaking of ultimate and not necessarily conscious concerns) […]. Ordinarily, when women avoid or resist copulation, I speculate further, the disinterest, aversion, or inhibition may be traceable eventually to one (or more) of three causes: (1) there is no promise of commitment (of resources), (2) there is a likelihood of undesirable commitment (e.g., to a man with inadequate resources), or (3) there is a risk of loss of interest by a man with greater resources, than the one involved […] A man behaving so as to avoid pregnancies, and who derives from an evolutionary background of avoiding pregnancies, should be expected to favor copulation with women who are for age or other reasons incapable of pregnancy. A man derived from an evolutionary process in which securing of pregnancies typically was favored, may be expected to be most interested sexually in women most likely to become pregnant and near the height of the reproductive probability curve […] This means that men should usually be expected to anticipate the greatest sexual pleasure with young, healthy, intelligent women who show promise of providing superior parental care. […] In sexual competition, the alternatives of a man without resources are to present himself as a resource (i.e., as a mimic of one with resources or as one able and likely to secure resources because of his personal attributes […]), to obtain sex by force (rape), or to secure resources through a woman (e.g., allow himself to be kept by a relatively undesired woman, perhaps as a vehicle to secure liaisons with other women). […] in nonhuman species of higher animals, control of the essential resources of parenthood by females correlates with lack of parental behavior by males, promiscuous polygyny, and absence of long-term pair bonds. There is some evidence of parallel trends within human societies (cf. Flinn, 1981).” [It’s of some note that quite a few good books have been written on these topics since Alexander first published his book, so there are many places to look for detailed coverage of topics like these if you’re curious to know more – I can recommend both Kappeler & van Schaik (a must-read book on sexual selection, in my opinion) & Bobby Low. I didn’t think too highly of Miller or Meston & Buss, but those are a few other books on these topics which I’ve read – US].

“The reason that evolutionary knowledge has no moral content is [that] morality is a matter of whose interests one should, by conscious and willful behavior, serve, and how much; evolutionary knowledge contains no messages on this issue. The most it can do is provide information about the reasons for current conditions and predict some consequences of alternative courses of action. […] If some biologists and nonbiologists make unfounded assertions into conclusions, or develop pernicious and fallible arguments, then those assertions and arguments should be exposed for what they are. The reason for doing this, however, is not […should not be..? – US] to prevent or discourage any and all analyses of human activities, but to enable us to get on with a proper sort of analysis. Those who malign without being specific; who attack people rather than ideas; who gratuitously translate hypotheses into conclusions and then refer to them as “explanations,” “stories,” or “just-so-stories”; who parade the worst examples of argument and investigation with the apparent purpose of making all efforts at human self-analysis seem silly and trivial, I see as dangerously close to being ideologues at least as worrisome as those they malign. I cannot avoid the impression that their purpose is not to enlighten, but to play upon the uneasiness of those for whom the approach of evolutionary biology is alien and disquieting, perhaps for political rather than scientific purposes. It is more than a little ironic that the argument of politics rather than science is their own chief accusation with respect to scientists seeking to analyze human behavior in evolutionary terms (e.g. Gould and Levontin, 1979 […]).”

“[C]urrent selective theory indicates that natural selection has never operated to prevent species extinction. Instead it operates by saving the genetic materials of those individuals or families that outreproduce others. Whether species become extinct or not (and most have) is an incidental or accidental effect of natural selection. An inference from this is that the members of no species are equipped, as a direct result of their evolutionary history, with traits designed explicitly to prevent extinction when that possibility looms. […] Humans are no exception: unless their comprehension of the likelihood of extinction is so clear and real that they perceive the threat to themselves as individuals, and to their loved ones, they cannot be expected to take the collective action that will be necessary to reduce the risk of extinction.”

“In examining ourselves […] we are forced to use the attributes we wish to analyze to carry out the analysis, while resisting certain aspects of the analysis. At the very same time, we pretend that we are not resisting at all but are instead giving perfectly legitimate objections; and we use our realization that others will resist the analysis, for reasons as arcane as our own, to enlist their support in our resistance. And they very likely will give it. […] If arguments such as those made here have any validity it follows that a problem faced by everyone, in respect to morality, is that of discovering how to subvert or reduce some aspects of individual selfishness that evidently derive from our history of genetic individuality.”

“Essentially everyone thinks of himself as well-meaning, but from my viewpoint a society of well-meaning people who understand themselves and their history very well is a better milieu than a society of well-meaning people who do not.”


September 22, 2017 Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

Random stuff

i. Fire works a little differently than people imagine. A great ask-science comment. See also AugustusFink-nottle’s comment in the same thread.


iii. I was very conflicted about whether to link to this because I haven’t actually spent any time looking at it myself so I don’t know if it’s any good, but according to somebody (?) who linked to it on SSC the people behind this stuff have academic backgrounds in evolutionary biology, which is something at least (whether you think this is a good thing or not will probably depend greatly on your opinion of evolutionary biologists, but I’ve definitely learned a lot more about human mating patterns, partner interaction patterns, etc. from evolutionary biologists than I have from personal experience, so I’m probably in the ‘they-sometimes-have-interesting-ideas-about-these-topics-and-those-ideas-may-not-be-terrible’-camp). I figure these guys are much more application-oriented than were some of the previous sources I’ve read on related topics, such as e.g. Kappeler et al. I add the link mostly so that if I in five years time have a stroke that obliterates most of my decision-making skills, causing me to decide that entering the dating market might be a good idea, I’ll have some idea where it might make sense to start.

iv. Stereotype (In)Accuracy in Perceptions of Groups and Individuals.

“Are stereotypes accurate or inaccurate? We summarize evidence that stereotype accuracy is one of the largest and most replicable findings in social psychology. We address controversies in this literature, including the long-standing  and continuing but unjustified emphasis on stereotype inaccuracy, how to define and assess stereotype accuracy, and whether stereotypic (vs. individuating) information can be used rationally in person perception. We conclude with suggestions for building theory and for future directions of stereotype (in)accuracy research.”

A few quotes from the paper:

Demographic stereotypes are accurate. Research has consistently shown moderate to high levels of correspondence accuracy for demographic (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender) stereotypes […]. Nearly all accuracy correlations for consensual stereotypes about race/ethnicity and  gender exceed .50 (compared to only 5% of social psychological findings; Richard, Bond, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).[…] Rather than being based in cultural myths, the shared component of stereotypes is often highly accurate. This pattern cannot be easily explained by motivational or social-constructionist theories of stereotypes and probably reflects a “wisdom of crowds” effect […] personal stereotypes are also quite accurate, with correspondence accuracy for roughly half exceeding r =.50.”

“We found 34 published studies of racial-, ethnic-, and gender-stereotype accuracy. Although not every study examined discrepancy scores, when they did, a plurality or majority of all consensual stereotype judgments were accurate. […] In these 34 studies, when stereotypes were inaccurate, there was more evidence of underestimating than overestimating actual demographic group differences […] Research assessing the accuracy of  miscellaneous other stereotypes (e.g., about occupations, college majors, sororities, etc.) has generally found accuracy levels comparable to those for demographic stereotypes”

“A common claim […] is that even though many stereotypes accurately capture group means, they are still not accurate because group means cannot describe every individual group member. […] If people were rational, they would use stereotypes to judge individual targets when they lack information about targets’ unique personal characteristics (i.e., individuating information), when the stereotype itself is highly diagnostic (i.e., highly informative regarding the judgment), and when available individuating information is ambiguous or incompletely useful. People’s judgments robustly conform to rational predictions. In the rare situations in which a stereotype is highly diagnostic, people rely on it (e.g., Crawford, Jussim, Madon, Cain, & Stevens, 2011). When highly diagnostic individuating information is available, people overwhelmingly rely on it (Kunda & Thagard, 1996; effect size averaging r = .70). Stereotype biases average no higher than r = .10 ( Jussim, 2012) but reach r = .25 in the absence of individuating information (Kunda & Thagard, 1996). The more diagnostic individuating information  people have, the less they stereotype (Crawford et al., 2011; Krueger & Rothbart, 1988). Thus, people do not indiscriminately apply their stereotypes to all individual  members of stereotyped groups.” (Funder incidentally talked about this stuff as well in his book Personality Judgment).

One thing worth mentioning in the context of stereotypes is that if you look at stuff like crime data – which sadly not many people do – and you stratify based on stuff like country of origin, then the sub-group differences you observe tend to be very large. Some of the differences you observe between subgroups are not in the order of something like 10%, which is probably the sort of difference which could easily be ignored without major consequences; some subgroup differences can easily be in the order of one or two orders of magnitude. The differences are in some contexts so large as to basically make it downright idiotic to assume there are no differences – it doesn’t make sense, it’s frankly a stupid thing to do. To give an example, in Germany the probability that a random person, about whom you know nothing, has been a suspect in a thievery case is 22% if that random person happens to be of Algerian extraction, whereas it’s only 0,27% if you’re dealing with an immigrant from China. Roughly one in 13 of those Algerians have also been involved in a case of ‘body (bodily?) harm’, which is the case for less than one in 400 of the Chinese immigrants.

v. Assessing Immigrant Integration in Sweden after the May 2013 Riots. Some data from the article:

“Today, about one-fifth of Sweden’s population has an immigrant background, defined as those who were either born abroad or born in Sweden to two immigrant parents. The foreign born comprised 15.4 percent of the Swedish population in 2012, up from 11.3 percent in 2000 and 9.2 percent in 1990 […] Of the estimated 331,975 asylum applicants registered in EU countries in 2012, 43,865 (or 13 percent) were in Sweden. […] More than half of these applications were from Syrians, Somalis, Afghanis, Serbians, and Eritreans. […] One town of about 80,000 people, Södertälje, since the mid-2000s has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined.”

“Coupled with […] macroeconomic changes, the largely humanitarian nature of immigrant arrivals since the 1970s has posed challenges of labor market integration for Sweden, as refugees often arrive with low levels of education and transferable skills […] high unemployment rates have disproportionately affected immigrant communities in Sweden. In 2009-10, Sweden had the highest gap between native and immigrant employment rates among OECD countries. Approximately 63 percent of immigrants were employed compared to 76 percent of the native-born population. This 13 percentage-point gap is significantly greater than the OECD average […] Explanations for the gap include less work experience and domestic formal qualifications such as language skills among immigrants […] Among recent immigrants, defined as those who have been in the country for less than five years, the employment rate differed from that of the native born by more than 27 percentage points. In 2011, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that 35 percent of the unemployed registered at the Swedish Public Employment Service were foreign born, up from 22 percent in 2005.”

“As immigrant populations have grown, Sweden has experienced a persistent level of segregation — among the highest in Western Europe. In 2008, 60 percent of native Swedes lived in areas where the majority of the population was also Swedish, and 20 percent lived in areas that were virtually 100 percent Swedish. In contrast, 20 percent of Sweden’s foreign born lived in areas where more than 40 percent of the population was also foreign born.”

vi. Book recommendations. Or rather, author recommendations. A while back I asked ‘the people of SSC’ if they knew of any fiction authors I hadn’t read yet which were both funny and easy to read. I got a lot of good suggestions, and the roughly 20 Dick Francis novels I’ve read during the fall I’ve read as a consequence of that thread.

vii. On the genetic structure of Denmark.

viii. Religious Fundamentalism and Hostility against Out-groups: A Comparison of Muslims and Christians in Western Europe.

“On the basis of an original survey among native Christians and Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan origin in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Sweden, this paper investigates four research questions comparing native Christians to Muslim immigrants: (1) the extent of religious fundamentalism; (2) its socio-economic determinants; (3) whether it can be distinguished from other indicators of religiosity; and (4) its relationship to hostility towards out-groups (homosexuals, Jews, the West, and Muslims). The results indicate that religious fundamentalist attitudes are much more widespread among Sunnite Muslims than among native Christians, even after controlling for the different demographic and socio-economic compositions of these groups. […] Fundamentalist believers […] show very high levels of out-group hostility, especially among Muslims.”

ix. Portal: Dinosaurs. It would have been so incredibly awesome to have had access to this kind of stuff back when I was a child. The portal includes links to articles with names like ‘Bone Wars‘ – what’s not to like? Again, awesome!

x. “you can’t determine if something is truly random from observations alone. You can only determine if something is not truly random.” (link) An important insight well expressed.

xi. Chessprogramming. If you’re interested in having a look at how chess programs work, this is a neat resource. The wiki contains lots of links with information on specific sub-topics of interest. Also chess-related: The World Championship match between Carlsen and Karjakin has started. To the extent that I’ll be following the live coverage, I’ll be following Svidler et al.’s coverage on chess24. Robin van Kampen and Eric Hansen – both 2600+ elo GMs – did quite well yesterday, in my opinion.

xii. Justified by More Than Logos Alone (Razib Khan).

“Very few are Roman Catholic because they have read Aquinas’ Five Ways. Rather, they are Roman Catholic, in order of necessity, because God aligns with their deep intuitions, basic cognitive needs in terms of cosmological coherency, and because the church serves as an avenue for socialization and repetitive ritual which binds individuals to the greater whole. People do not believe in Catholicism as often as they are born Catholics, and the Catholic religion is rather well fitted to a range of predispositions to the typical human.”

November 12, 2016 Posted by | Books, Chemistry, Chess, Data, dating, Demographics, Genetics, Geography, immigration, Paleontology, Papers, Physics, Psychology, Random stuff, Religion | Leave a comment

Random stuff

i. A very long but entertaining chess stream by Peter Svidler was recently uploaded on the Chess24 youtube account – go watch it here, if you like that kind of stuff. The fact that it’s five hours long is a reason to rejoice, not a reason to think that it’s ‘too long to be watchable’ – watch it in segments…

People interested in chess might also be interested to know that Magnus Carlsen has made an account on the ICC on which he has played, which was a result of his recent participation in the ICC Open 2016 (link). A requirement for participation in the tournament was that people had to know whom they were playing against (so there would be no ultra-strong GMs playing using anonymous accounts in the finals – they could use accounts with strange names, but people had to know whom they were playing), so now we know that Magnus Carlsen has played under the nick ‘stoptryharding’ on the ICC. Carlsen did not win the tournament as he lost to Grischuk in the semi-finals. Some very strong players were incidentally kicked out in the qualifiers, including Nepomniachtchi, the current #5 in the world on the FIDE live blitz ratings.

ii. A lecture:

iii. Below I have added some new words I’ve encountered, most of them in books I’ve read (I have not spent much time on recently). I’m sure if I were to look all of them up on some (many?) of them would not be ‘new’ to me, but that’s not going to stop me from including them here (I included the word ‘inculcate’ below for a reason…). Do take note of the spelling of some of these words – some of them are tricky ones included in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right, which people often get wrong for one reason or another:

Conurbation, epizootic, equable, circumvallation, contravallation, exiguous, forbear, louche, vituperative, thitherto, congeries, inculcate, obtrude, palter, idiolect, hortatory, enthalpy (see also wiki, or Khan Academy), trove, composograph, indite, mugginess, apodosis, protasis, invidious, inveigle, inflorescence, kith, anatopism, laudation, luxuriant, maleficence, misogamy (I did not know this was a word, and I’ll definitely try to remember it/that it is…), obsolescent, delible, overweening, parlay (this word probably does not mean what you think it means…), perspicacity, perspicuity, temblor, precipitous, quinquennial, razzmatazz, turpitude, vicissitude, vitriform.

iv. Some quotes from this excellent book review, by Razib Khan:

“relatively old-fashioned anti-religious sentiments […] are socially acceptable among American Left-liberals so long as their targets are white Christians (“punching up”) but more “problematic” and perhaps even “Islamophobic” when the invective is hurled at Muslim “people of color” (all Muslims here being tacitly racialized as nonwhite). […] Muslims, as marginalized people, are now considered part of a broader coalition on the progressive Left. […] most Left-liberals who might fall back on the term Islamophobia, don’t actually take Islam, or religion generally, seriously. This explains the rapid and strident recourse toward a racial analogy for Islamic identity, as that is a framework that modern Left-liberals and progressives have internalized and mastered. The problem with this is that Islam is not a racial or ethnic identity, it is a set of beliefs and practices. Being a Muslim is not about being who you are in a passive sense, but it is a proactive expression of a set of ideas about the world and your behavior within the world. This category error renders much of Left-liberal and progressive analysis of Islam superficial, and likely wrong.”

“To get a genuine understanding of a topic as broad and boundless as Islam one needs to both set aside emotional considerations, as Ben Affleck can not, and dig deeply into the richer and more complex empirical texture, which Sam Harris has not.”

“One of the most obnoxious memes in my opinion during the Obama era has been the popularization of the maxim that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is smug and self-assured in its presentation. […] too often it becomes an excuse for lazy thinking and shallow prognostication. […] Modern Western liberals have a particular idea of what a religion is, and so naturally know that Islam is in many ways just like United Methodism, except with a hijab and iconoclasm. But a Western liberalism that does not take cultural and religious difference seriously is not serious, and yet all too often it is what we have on offer. […] On both the American Left and Right there is a tendency to not even attempt to understand Islam. Rather, stylized models are preferred which lead to conclusions which are already arrived at.”

“It’s fine to be embarrassed by reality. But you still need to face up to reality. Where Hamid, Harris, and I all start is the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not hold views on social issues that are aligned with the Muslim friends of Hollywood actors. […] Before the Green Revolution I told people to expect there to be a Islamic revival, as 86 percent of Egyptians polled agree with the killing of apostates. This is not a comfortable fact for me, as I am technically an apostate.* But it is a fact. Progressives who exhibit a hopefulness about human nature, and confuse majoritarian democracy with liberalism and individual rights, often don’t want to confront these facts. […] Their polar opposites are convinced anti-Muslims who don’t need any survey data, because they know that Muslims have particular views a priori by virtue of them being Muslims. […] There is a glass half-full/half-empty aspect to the Turkish data. 95 percent of Turks do not believe apostates should be killed. This is not surprising, I know many Turkish atheists personally. But, 5 percent is not a reassuring fraction as someone who is personally an apostate. The ideal, and frankly only acceptable, proportion is basically 0 percent.”

“Harris would give a simple explanation for why Islam sanctions the death penalty for apostates. To be reductive and hyperbolic, his perspective seems to be that Islam is a totalitarian cult, and its views are quite explicit in the Quran and the Hadith. Harris is correct here, and the views of the majority of Muslims in Egypt (and many other Muslim nations) has support in Islamic law. The consensus historical tradition is that apostates are subject to the death penalty. […] the very idea of accepting atheists is taboo in most Arab countries”.

“Christianity which Christians hold to be fundamental and constitutive of their religion would have seemed exotic and alien even to St. Paul. Similarly, there is a much smaller body of work which makes the same case for Islam.

A précis of this line of thinking is that non-Muslim sources do not make it clear that there was in fact a coherent new religion which burst forth out of south-central Arabia in the 7th century. Rather, many aspects of Islam’s 7th century were myths which developed over time, initially during the Umayyad period, but which eventually crystallized and matured into orthodoxy under the Abbasids, over a century after the death of Muhammad. This model holds that the Arab conquests were actually Arab conquests, not Muslim ones, and that a predominantly nominally Syrian Christian group of Arab tribes eventually developed a new religion to justify their status within the empire which they built, and to maintain their roles within it. The mawali (convert) revolution under the Abbasids in the latter half of the 8th century transformed a fundamentally Arab ethnic sect, into a universal religion. […] The debate about the historical Jesus only emerged when the public space was secularized enough so that such discussions would not elicit violent hostility from the populace or sanction form the authorities. [T]he fact is that the debate about the historical Muhammad is positively dangerous and thankless. That is not necessarily because there is that much more known about Muhammad than Jesus, it is because post-Christian society allows for an interrogation of Christian beliefs which Islamic society does not allow for in relation to Islam’s founding narratives.”

“When it comes to understanding religion you need to start with psychology. In particular, cognitive psychology. This feeds into the field of evolutionary anthropology in relation to the study of religion. Probably the best introduction to this field is Scott Atran’s dense In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Another representative work is Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. This area of scholarship purports to explain why religion is ubiquitous, and, why as a phenomenon it tends to exhibit a particular distribution of characteristics.

What cognitive psychology suggests is that there is a strong disjunction between the verbal scripts that people give in terms of what they say they believe, and the internal Gestalt mental models which seem to actually be operative in terms of informing how they truly conceptualize the world. […] Muslims may aver that their god is omniscient and omnipresent, but their narrative stories in response to life circumstances seem to imply that their believe god may not see or know all things at all moments.

The deep problem here is understood [by] religious professionals: they’ve made their religion too complex for common people to understand without their intermediation. In fact, I would argue that theologians themselves don’t really understand what they’re talking about. To some extent this is a feature, not a bug. If the God of Abraham is transformed into an almost incomprehensible being, then religious professionals will have perpetual work as interpreters. […] even today most Muslims can not read the Quran. Most Muslims do not speak Arabic. […] The point isn’t to understand, the point is that they are the Word of God, in the abstract. […] The power of the Quran is that the Word of God is presumably potent. Comprehension is secondary to the command.”

“the majority of the book […] is focused on political and social facts in the Islamic world today. […] That is the best thing about Islamic Exceptionalism, it will put more facts in front of people who are fact-starved, and theory rich. That’s good.”

“the term ‘fundamentalist’ in the context of islam isn’t very informative.” (from the comments).

Below I have added some (very) superficially related links of my own, most of them ‘data-related’ (in general I’d say that I usually find ‘raw data’ more interesting than ‘big ideas’):

*My short review of Theological Correctness, one of the books Razib mentions.

*Of almost 163,000 people who applied for asylum in Sweden last year, less than 500 landed a job (news article).

*An analysis of Danish data conducted by the Rockwool Foundation found that for family-reunificated spouses/relatives etc. to fugitives, 22 % were employed after having lived in Denmark for five years (the family-reunificated individuals, that is, not the fugitives themselves). Only one in three of the family-reunificated individuals had managed to find a job after having stayed here for fifteen years. The employment rate of family-reunificated to immigrants is 49 % for people who have been in the country for 5 years, and the number is below 60 % after 15 years. In Denmark, the employment rate of immigrants from non-Western countries was 47,7 % in November 2013, compared to 73,8 % for people of (…’supposedly’, see also my comments and observations here) Danish origin, according to numbers from Statistics Denmark (link). When you look at the economic performance of the people with fugitive status themselves, 34 % are employed after 5 years, but that number is almost unchanged a decade later – only 37 % are employed after they’ve stayed in Denmark for 15 years.
Things of course sometimes look even worse at the local level than these numbers reflect, because those averages are, well, averages; for example of the 244 fugitives and family-reunificated who had arrived in the Danish Elsinore Municipality within the last three years, exactly 5 of them were in full-time employment.

*Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal (“The report estimated that 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town between 1997 and 2013, predominantly by gangs of British-Pakistani Muslim men […] Because most of the perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage, several council staff described themselves as being nervous about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist […] It was reported in June 2015 that about 300 suspects had been identified.”)

*A memorial service for the terrorist and murderer Omar El-Hussein who went on a shooting rampage in Copenhagen last year (link) gathered 1500 people, and 600-700 people also participated at the funeral (Danish link).

*Pew asked muslims in various large countries whether they thought ‘Suicide Bombing of Civilian Targets to Defend Islam [can] be Justified?’ More than a third of French muslims think that it can, either ‘often/sometimes’ (16 %) or ‘rarely’ (19 %). Roughly a fourth of British muslims think so as well (15 % often/sometimes, 9 % rarely). Of course in countries like Jordan, Nigeria, and Egypt the proportion of people who do not reply ‘never’ is above 50 %. In such contexts people often like to focus on what the majorities think, but I found it interesting to note that in only 2 of 11 countries (Germany – 7 %, & the US – 8 %) queried was it less than 10 % of muslims who thought suicide bombings were not either ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ justified. Those numbers are some years old. Newer numbers (from non-Western countries only, unfortunately) tell us that e.g. fewer than two out of five Egyptians (38%) and fewer than three out of five (58%) Turks would answer ‘never’ when asked this question just a couple of years ago, in 2014.

*A few non-data related observations here towards the end. I do think Razib is right that cognitive psychology is a good starting point if you want to ‘understand religion’, but a more general point I would make is that there are many different analytical approaches to these sorts of topics which one might employ, and I think it’s important that one does not privilege any single analytical framework over the others (just to be clear, I’m not saying that Razib’s doing this); different approaches may yield different insights, perhaps at different analytical levels, and combining different approaches is likely to be very useful in order to get ‘the bigger picture’, or at least to not overlook important details. ‘History’, broadly defined, may provide one part of the explanatory model, cognitive psychology another part, mathematical anthropology (e.g. stuff like this) probably also has a role to play, etc., etc.. Survey data, economic figures, scientific literatures on a wide variety of topics like trust, norms, migration analysis, and conflict studies, e.g. those dealing with civil wars, may all help elucidate important questions of interest, if not by adding relevant data then by providing additional methodological approaches/scaffoldings which might be fruitfully employed to make sense of the data that is available.

v. Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States.

vi. The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence. Autistics may be smarter than people have been led to believe:

“Autistics are presumed to be characterized by cognitive impairment, and their cognitive strengths (e.g., in Block Design performance) are frequently interpreted as low-level by-products of high-level deficits, not as direct manifestations of intelligence. Recent attempts to identify the neuroanatomical and neurofunctional signature of autism have been positioned on this universal, but untested, assumption. We therefore assessed a broad sample of 38 autistic children on the preeminent test of fluid intelligence, Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Their scores were, on average, 30 percentile points, and in some cases more than 70 percentile points, higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence. Typically developing control children showed no such discrepancy, and a similar contrast was observed when a sample of autistic adults was compared with a sample of nonautistic adults. We conclude that intelligence has been underestimated in autistics.”

I recall that back when I was diagnosed I was subjected to a battery of different cognitive tests of various kinds, and a few of those tests I recall thinking were very difficult, compared to how difficult they somehow ‘ought to be’ – it was like ‘this should be an easy task for someone who has the mental hardware to solve this type of problem, but I don’t seem to have that piece of hardware; I have no idea how to manipulate these objects in my head so that I might answer that question’. This was an at least somewhat unfamiliar feeling to me in a testing context, and I definitely did not have this experience when doing the Mensa admissions test later on, which was based on Raven’s matrices. Despite the fact that all IQ tests are supposed to measure pretty much the same thing I do not find it hard to believe that there are some details here which may complicate matters a bit in specific contexts, e.g. for people whose brains may not be structured quite the same way ‘ordinary brains’ are (to put it very bluntly). But of course this is just one study and a few personal impressions – more research is needed, etc. (Even though the effect size is huge.)

Slightly related to the above is also this link – I must admit that I find the title question quite interesting. I find it very difficult to picture characters featuring in books I’m reading in my mind, and so usually when I read books I don’t form any sort of coherent mental image of what the character looks like. It doesn’t matter to me, I don’t care. I have no idea if this is how other people read (fiction) books, or if they actually imagine what the characters look like more or less continuously while those characters are described doing the things they might be doing; to me it would be just incredibly taxing to keep even a simplified mental model of the physical attributes of a character in my mind for even a minute. I can recall specific traits like left-handedness and similar without much difficulty if I think the trait might have relevance to the plot, which has helped me while reading e.g. Agatha Christie novels before, but actively imagining what people look like in my mind I just find very difficult. I find it weird to think that some people might do something like that almost automatically, without thinking about it.

vii. Computer Science Resources. I recently shared the link with a friend, but of course she was already aware of the existence of this resource. Some people reading along here may not be, so I’ll include the link here. It has a lot of stuff.

June 8, 2016 Posted by | autism, Books, Chess, Computer science, Data, Demographics, Psychology, Random stuff, Religion | Leave a comment

Physically Speaking: A Dictionary of Quotations on Physics and Astronomy

Here’s my goodreads review of the book. As mentioned in the review, the book was overall a slightly disappointing read – but there were some decent quotes included in the book, and I decided that I ought to post a post with some sample quotes here as it would be a relatively easy post to write. Do note while reading this post that the book had a lot of bad quotes, so you should not take the sample quotes I’ve posted below to be representative of the book’s coverage in general.

i. “The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be “Seek simplicity and distrust it.”” (Alfred North Whitehead)

ii. “Poor data and good reasoning give poor results. Good data and poor reasoning give poor results. Poor data and poor reasoning give rotten results.” (Edmund C. Berkeley)

iii. “By no process of sound reasoning can a conclusion drawn from limited data have more than a limited application.” (J.W. Mellor)

iv. “The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine.” (Ernest Rutherford, 1933).

v. “An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature’s answer.” (Max Planck)

vi. “A fact doesn’t have to be understood to be true.” (Heinlein)

vii. “God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you’re taking away from God; you don’t need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven’t figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don’t believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time – life and death – stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand.” (Feynman)

viii. “Hypotheses are the scaffolds which are erected in front of a building and removed when the building is completed. They are indispensable to the worker; but he must not mistake the scaffolding for the building.” (Goethe)

ix. “We are to admit no more cause of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” (Newton)

x. “It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

xi. “Light crosses space with the prodigious velocity of 6,000 leagues per second.

La Science Populaire
April 28, 1881″

“A typographical error slipped into our last issue that is important to correct. The speed of light is 76,000 leagues per hour – and not 6,000.

La Science Populaire

May 19, 1881″

“A note correcting a first error appeared in our issue number 68, indicating that the speed of light is 76,000 leagues per hour. Our readers have corrected this new error. The speed of light is approximately 76,000 leagues per second.

La Science Populaire
June 16,1881″

xii. “All models are wrong but some are useful.” (G. E. P. Box)

xiii. “the downward movement of a mass of gold or lead, or of any other body endowed with weight, is quicker in proportion to its size.” (Aristotle)

xiv. “those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations” (-ll-).

xv. “it may properly be asked whether science can be undertaken without taking the risk of skating on the possibly thin ice of supposition. The important thing to know is when one is on the more solid ground of observation and when one is on the ice.” (W. M. O’Neil)

xvi. “If I could remember the names of all these particles, I’d be a botanist.” (Enrico Fermi)

xvii. “Theoretical physicists are accustomed to living in a world which is removed from tangible objects by two levels of abstraction. From tangible atoms we move by one level of abstraction to invisible fields and particles. A second level of abstraction takes us from fields and particles to the symmetry-groups by which fields and particles are related. The superstring theory takes us beyond symmetry-groups to two further levels of abstraction. The third level of abstraction is the interpretation of symmetry-groups in terms of states in ten-dimensional space-time. The fourth level is the world of the superstrings by whose dynamical behavior the states are defined.” (Freeman Dyson)

xviii. “Space tells matter how to move . . . and matter tells space how to curve.” (John Wheeler)

xix. “the universe is not a rigid and inimitable edifice where independent matter is housed in independent space and time; it is an amorphous continuum, without any fixed architecture, plastic and variable, constantly subject to change and distortion. Wherever there is matter and motion, the continuum is disturbed. Just as a fish swimming in the sea agitates the water around it, so a star, a comet, or a galaxy distorts the geometry of the space-time through which it moves.” (Lincoln Barnett)

xx. “most physicists today place the probability of the existence of tachyons only slightly higher than the existence of unicorns” (Nick Herbert).

December 19, 2015 Posted by | Astronomy, Books, Physics, Quotes/aphorisms, Religion | Leave a comment


“A commonplace argument in contemporary writing on trust is that we would all be better off if we were all more trusting, and therefore we should all trust more […] Current writings commonly focus on trust as somehow the relevant variable in explaining differences across cases of successful cooperation. Typically, however, the crucial variable is the trustworthiness of those who are to be trusted or relied upon. […] It is not trust per se, but trusting the right people that makes for successful relationships and happiness.”

“If we wish to understand the role of trust in society […], we must get beyond the flaccid – and often wrong – assumption that trust is simply good. This supposition must be heavily qualified, because trusting the malevolent or the radically incompetent can be foolish and often even grossly harmful. […] trust only make[s] sense in dealings with those who are or who could be induced to be trustworthy. To trust the untrustworthy can be disastrous.”

That it’s stupid to trust people who cannot be trusted should in my opinion be blatantly obvious, yet somehow to a lot of people it doesn’t seem to be at all obvious; in light of this problem (…I maintain that this is indeed a problem) the above observations are probably among the most important ones included in Hardin’s book. The book includes some strong criticism of much of the current/extant literature on trust. The two most common fields of study within this area of research are game-theoretic ‘trust games’, which according to the author are ill-named as they don’t really seem to be dealing much, if at all, with the topic of trust, and (poor) survey research which asks people questions which are hard to answer and tend to yield answers which are even harder to interpret. I have included below a few concluding remarks from the chapter on these topics:

“Both of the current empirical research programs on trust are largely misguided. The T-games [‘trust-games’], as played […] do not elicit or measure anything resembling ordinary trust relations; and their findings are basically irrelevant to the modeling and assessment of trust and trustworthiness. The only thing that relates the so-called trust game […] to trust is its name, which is wrong and misleading. Survey questions currently in wide use are radically unconstrained. They therefore force subjects to assume the relevant degrees of constraint, such as how costly the risk of failed cooperation would be. […] In sum, therefore, there is relatively little to learn about trust from these two massive research programs. Without returning their protocols to address standard conceptions of trust, they cannot contribute much to understanding trust as we generally know it, and they cannot play a very constructive role in explaining social behavior, institutions, or social and political change. These are distressing conclusions because both these enterprises have been enormous, and in many ways they have been carried out with admirable care.”

There is ‘relatively little to learn about trust from these two massive research programs’, but one to me potentially important observation, hidden away in the notes at the end of the book, is perhaps worth mentioning here: “There is a commonplace claim that trust will beget trustworthiness […] Schotter [as an aside this guy was incidentally the author of the Micro textbook we used in introductory Microeconomics] and Sopher (2006) do not find this to be true in game experiments that they run, while they do find that trustworthiness (cooperativeness in the play of games) does beget trust (or cooperation).”

There were a few parts of the coverage which confused me somewhat until it occurred to me that the author might not have read Boyd and Richerson, or other people who might have familiarized him with their line of thinking and research (once again, you should read Boyd and Richerson).

Moving on, a few remarks on social capital:

“Like other forms of capital and human capital, social capital is not completely fungible but may be specific to certain activities. A given form of social capital that is valuable in facilitating certain actions may be useless or even harmful for others. […] [A] mistake is the tendency to speak of social capital as though it were a particular kind of thing that has generalized value, as money very nearly does […] it[‘s value] must vary in the sense that what is functional in one context may not be in another.”

It is important to keep in mind that trust which leads to increased cooperation can end up leading to both good outcomes and bad:

“Widespread customs and even very local practices of personal networks can impose destructive norms on people, norms that have all of the structural qualities of interpersonal capital. […] in general, social capital has no normative valence […] It is generally about means for doing things, and the things can be hideously bad as well as good, although the literature on social capital focuses almost exclusively on the good things it can enable and it often lauds social capital as itself a wonderful thing to develop […] Community and social capital are not per se good. It is a grand normative fiction of our time to suppose that they are.”

The book has a chapter specifically about trust on the internet which related to the coverage included in Barak et al.‘s book, a publication which I have unfortunately neglected to blog (this book of course goes into a lot more detail). A key point in that chapter is that the internet is not really all that special in terms of these things, in the sense that to the extent that it facilitates coordination etc., it can be used to accomplish beneficial things as well as harmful things – i.e. it’s also neutrally valenced. Barak et al.‘s book has a lot more stuff about how this medium impacts communication and optimal communication strategies etc., which links in quite a bit with trust aspects, but I won’t go into this stuff here and I’m pretty sure I’ve covered related topics before here on the blog, e.g. back when I covered Hargie.

The chapter about terrorism and distrust had some interesting observations. A few quotes:

“We know from varied contexts that people can have a more positive view of individuals from a group than they have of the group.”

“Mere statistical doubt in the likely trustworthiness of the members of some identifiable group can be sufficient to induce distrust of all members of the group with whom one has no personal relationship on which to have established trust. […] This statistical doubt can trump relational considerations and can block the initial risk-taking that might allow for a test of another individual’s trustworthiness by stereotyping that individual as primarily a member of some group. If there are many people with whom one can have a particular beneficial interaction, narrowing the set by excluding certain stereotypes is efficient […] Unfortunately, however, excluding very systematically on the basis of ethnicity or race becomes pervasively destructive of community relations.”

One thing to keep in mind here is that people’s stereotypes are often quite accurate. When groups don’t trust each other it’s always a lot of fun to argue about who’s to blame for that state of affairs, but it’s important here to keep in mind that both groups will always have mental models of both the in-group and the out-group (see also the coverage below). Also it should be kept in mind that to the extent that people’s stereotypes are accurate, blaming stereotyping behaviours for the problems of the people who get stereotyped is conceptually equivalent to blaming people for discriminating against untrustworthy people by not trusting people who are not trustworthy. You always come back to the problem that what’s at the heart of the matter is never just trust, but rather trustworthiness. To the extent that the two are related, trust follows trustworthiness, not the other way around.

“There’s a fairly extensive literature on so-called generalized trust, which is trust in the anonymous or general other person, including strangers, whom we might encounter, perhaps with some restrictions on what isues would come under that trust. […] [Generalized trust] is an implausible notion. In any real-world context, I trust some more than others and I trust any given person more about some things than about others and more in some contexts than in others. […] Whereas generalized trust or group-generalized trust makes little or no sense (other than as a claim of optimism), group-generalized distrust in many contexts makes very good sense. If you were Jewish, Gypsy, or gay, you had good reason to distrust all officers of the Nazi state and probably most citizens in Nazi Germany as well. American Indians of the western plains had very good reason to distrust whites. During Milosevic’s wars and pogroms, Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims in then Yugoslavia had increasingly good reasons to distrust most members of the other groups, especially while the latter were acting as groups. […] In all of these cases, distrust is defined by the belief that members of the other groups and their representatives are hostile to one’s interests. Trust relationships between members of these various groups are the unusual cases that require explanation; the relatively group-generalized distrust is easy to understand and justify.”

“In the current circumstances of mostly Arab and Islamic terrorism against israel and the West and much of the rest of the world, it is surely a very tiny fraction of all Arabs and Islamists who are genuinely a threat, but the scale of their threat may make many Israelis and westerners wary of virtually all Arabs and Islamists […] many who are not prospects for taking terrorist action evidently sympathize with and even support these actions”

“When cooperation is organized by communal norms, it can become highly exclusionary, so that only members of the community can have cooperative relations with those in the community. In such a case, the norms of cooperativeness are norms of exclusion […] For many fundamentalist groups, continued loyalty to the group and its beliefs is secured by isolating the group and its members from many other influences so that relations within the community are governed by extensive norms of exclusion. When this happens, it is not only trust relations but also basic beliefs that are constrained. If we encounter no one with contrary beliefs our own beliefs will tend to prevail by inertia and lack of questioning and they will be reinforced by our secluded, exclusionary community. There are many strong, extreme beliefs about religious issues as well as about many other things. […] The two matters for which such staunch loyalty to unquestioned beliefs are politically most important are probably religious and nationalist commitments […] Such beliefs are often maintained by blocking our alternative views and by sanctioning those within the group who stray. […] Narrowing one’s associations to others in an isolated extremist group cripples one’s epistemology by blocking out general questioning of the group’s beliefs […] To an outsider those beliefs might be utterly crazy. Indeed, virtually all strong religious beliefs sound crazy or silly to those who do not share them. […] In some ways, the internet allows individuals and small groups to be quite isolated while nevertheless maintaining substantial contact with others of like mind. Islamic terrorists in the West can be almost completely isolated individually while maintaining nearly instant, frequent contact with other and with groups in the Middle East, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, as well as with groups of other potential terrorists in target nations.”

December 7, 2015 Posted by | Anthropology, Books, culture, disagreement, Economics, Game theory, Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

Civil Wars (II)

Here’s my first post about the book. In this post I’ll continue my coverage where I left off in my first post. A few of the chapters covered below I did not think very highly of, but other parts of the coverage are about as good as you could expect (given problems such as e.g. limited data etc.). Some of the stuff I found quite interesting. As people will note in the coverage below the book does address the religious dimension to some extent, though in my opinion far from to the extent that the variable deserves. An annoying aspect of the chapter on religion was to me that although the author of the chapter includes data which to me cannot but lead to some very obvious conclusions, the author seems to be very careful avoiding drawing those conclusions explicitly. It’s understandable, but still annoying. For related reasons I also got annoyed at him for presumably deliberately completely disregarding which seems in the context of his own coverage to be an actually very important component of Huntington’s thesis, that conflict at the micro level seems to very often be between muslims and ‘the rest’. Here’s a relevant quote from Clash…, p. 255:

“ethnic conflicts and fault line wars have not been evenly distributed among the world’s civilizations. Major fault line fighting has occurred between Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia and between Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, while less violent conflicts took place between non-Muslim groups in a few other places. The overwhelming majority of fault line conflicts, however, have taken place along the boundary looping across Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims. While at the macro or global level of world politics the primary clash of civilizations is between the West and the rest, at the micro or local level it is between Islam and the others.”

This point, that conflict at the local level – which seems to be the type of conflict level you’re particularly interested in if you’re researching civil wars, as also argued in previous chapters in the coverage – according to Huntington seems to be very islam-centric, is completely overlooked (ignored?) in the handbook chapter, and if you haven’t read Huntington and your only exposure to him is through the chapter in question you’ll probably conclude that Huntington was wrong, because that seems to be the conclusion the author draws, arguing that other models are more convincing (I should add here that these other models do seem useful, at least in terms of providing (superficial) explanations; the point is just that I feel the author is misrepresenting Huntington and I dislike this). Although there are parts of the coverage in that chapter where I feel that it’s obvious the author and I do not agree, I should note that the fact that he talks about the data and the empirical research makes up for a lot of other stuff.

Anyway, on to the coverage – it’s perhaps worth noting, in light of the introductory remarks above, that the post has stuff on a lot of things besides religion, e.g. the role of natural resources, regime types, migration, and demographics.

“Elites seeking to end conflict must: (1) lead followers to endorse and support peaceful solutions; (2) contain spoilers and extremists and prevent them from derailing the process of peacemaking; and (3) forge coalitions with more moderate members of the rival ethnic group(s) […]. An important part of the two-level nature of the ethnic conflict is that each of the elites supporting the peace process be able to present themselves, and the resulting terms of the peace, as a “win” for their ethnic community. […] A strategy that a state may pursue to resolve ethnic conflict is to co-opt elites from the ethnic communities demanding change […]. By satisfying elites, it reduces the ability of the aggrieved ethnic community to mobilize. Such a process of co-option can also be used to strengthen ethnic moderates in order to undermine ethnic extremists. […] the co-opted elites need to be careful to be seen as still supporting ethnic demands or they may lose all credibility in their respective ethnic community. If this occurs, the likely outcome is that more extreme ethnic elites will be able to capture the ethnic community, possibly leading to greater violence.
It is important to note that “spoilers,” be they an individual or a small sub-group within an ethnic community, can potentially derail any peace process, even if the leaders and masses support peace (Stedman, 2001).”

“Three separate categories of international factors typically play into identity and ethnic conflict. The first is the presence of an ethnic community across state boundaries. Thus, a single community exists in more than one state and its demands become international. […] This division of an ethnic community can occur when a line is drawn geographically through a community […], when a line is drawn and a group moves into the new state […], or when a diaspora moves a large population from one state to another […] or when sub-groups of an ethnic community immigrate to the developed world […] When ethnic communities cross state boundaries, the potential for one state to support an ethnic community in the other state exists. […] There is also the potential for ethnic communities to send support to a conflict […] or to lobby their government to intervene […]. Ethnic groups may also form extra-state militias and cross international borders. Sometimes these rebel groups can be directly or indirectly sponsored by state governments, leading to a very complex situation […] A second set of possible international factors is non-ethnic international intervention. A powerful state may decide to intervene in an ethnic conflict for a variety of reasons, ranging from humanitarian support, to peacekeeping, to outright invasion […] The third and last factor is the commitment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or third-party mediators to a conflict. […] The record of international interventions in ethnic civil wars is quite mixed. There are many difficulties associated with international action [and] international groups cannot actually change the underlying root of the ethnic conflict (Lake and Rothchild, 1998; Kaufman, 1996).”

“A relatively simple way to think of conflict onset is to think that for a rebellion to occur two conditions need to be satisfactorily fulfilled: There must be a motivation and there must be an opportunity to rebel.3 First, the rebels need a motive. This can be negative – a grievance against the existing state of affairs – or positive – a desire to capture resource rents. Second, potential rebels need to be able to achieve their goal: The realization of their desires may be blocked by the lack of financial means. […] Work by Collier and Hoeffler (1998, 2004) was crucial in highlighting the economic motivation behind civil conflicts. […] Few conflicts, if any, can be characterized purely as “resource conflicts.” […] It is likely that few groups are solely motivated by resource looting, at least in the lower rank level. What is important is that valuable natural resources create opportunities for conflicts. To feed, clothe, and arm its members, a rebel group needs money. Unless the rebel leaders are able to raise sufficient funds, a conflict is unlikely to start no matter how severe the grievances […] As a consequence, feasibility of conflict – that is, valuable natural resources providing opportunity to engage in violent conflict – has emerged as a key to understanding the relation between valuable resources and conflict.”

“It is likely that some natural resources are more associated with conflict than others. Early studies on armed civil conflict used resource measures that aggregated different types of resources together. […] With regard to financing conflict start-up and warfare the most salient aspect is probably the ease with which a resource can be looted. Lootable resources can be extracted with simple methods by individuals or small groups, are easy to transport, and can be smuggled across borders with limited risks. Examples of this type of resources are alluvial gemstones and gold. By contrast, deep-shaft minerals, oil, and natural gas are less lootable and thus less likely sources of financing. […] Using comprehensive datasets on all armed civil conflicts in the world, natural resource production, and other relevant aspects such as political regime, economic performance, and ethnic composition, researchers have established that at least some high-value natural resources are related to higher risk of conflict onset. Especially salient in this respect seem to be oil and secondary diamonds[7] […] The results regarding timber […] and cultivation of narcotics […] are inconclusive. […] [An] important conclusion is that natural resources should be considered individually and not lumped together. Diamonds provide an illustrative example: the geological form of the diamond deposit is related to its effect on conflict. Secondary diamonds – the more lootable form of two deposit types – makes conflict more likely, longer, and more severe. Primary diamonds on the other hand are generally not related to conflict.”

“Analysis on conflict duration and severity confirm that location is a salient factor: resources matter for duration and severity only when located in the region where the conflict is taking place […] That the location of natural resources matters has a clear and important implication for empirical conflict research: relying on country-level aggregates can lead to wrong conclusions about the role of natural resources in armed civil conflict. As a consequence of this, there has been effort to collect location-specific data on oil, gas, drug cultivation, and gemstones”.

“a number of prominent studies of ethnic conflict have suggested that when ethnic groups grow at different rates, this may lead to fears of an altered political balance, which in turn might cause political instability and violent conflict […]. There is ample anecdotal evidence for such a relationship [but unfortunately little quantitative research…]. The civil war in Lebanon, for example, has largely been attributed to a shift in the delicate ethnic balance in that state […]. Further, in the early 1990s, radical Serb leaders were agitating for the secession of “Serbian” areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina by instigating popular fears that Serbs would soon be outnumbered by a growing Muslim population heading for the establishment of a Shari’a state”.

“[One] part of the demography-conflict literature has explored the role of population movements. Most of this literature […] treats migration and refugee flows as a consequence of conflict rather than a potential cause. Some scholars, however, have noted that migration, and refugee migration in particular, can spur the spread of conflict both between and within states […]. Existing work suggests that environmentally induced migration can lead to conflict in receiving areas due to competition for scarce resources and economic opportunities, ethnic tensions when migrants are from different ethnic groups, and exacerbation of socioeconomic “fault lines” […] Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) point to spill-over effects, in the sense that mass refugee migration might spur tensions in neighboring or receiving states by imposing an economic burden and causing political stability [sic]. […] Based on a statistical analysis of refugees from neighboring countries and civil war onset during the period 1951–2001, they find that countries that experience an influx of refugees from neighboring states are significantly more likely to experience wars themselves. […] While the youth bulge hypothesis [large groups of young males => higher risk of violence/war/etc.] in general is supported by empirical evidence, indicating that countries and areas with large youth cohorts are generally at a greater risk of low-intensity conflict, the causal pathways relating youth bulges to increased conflict propensity remain largely unexplored quantitatively. When it comes to the demographic factors which have so far received less attention in terms of systematic testing – skewed sex ratios, differential ethnic growth, migration, and urbanization – the evidence is somewhat mixed […] a clear challenge with regard to the study of demography and conflict pertains to data availability and reliability. […] Countries that are undergoing armed conflict are precisely those for which we need data, but also those in which census-taking is hampered by violence.”

“Most research on the duration of civil war find that civil wars in democracies tend to be longer than other civil wars […] Research on conflict severity finds some evidence that democracies tend to see fewer battledeaths and are less likely to target civilians, suggesting that democratic institutions may induce some important forms of restraints in armed conflict […] Many researchers have found that democratization often precedes an increase in the risk of the onset of armed conflict. Hegre et al. (2001), for example, find that the risk of civil war onset is almost twice as high a year after a regime change as before, controlling for the initial level of democracy […] Many argue that democratic reforms come about when actors are unable to rule unilaterally and are forced to make concessions to an opposition […] The actual reforms to the political system we observe as democratization often do not suffice to reestablish an equilibrium between actors and the institutions that regulate their interactions; and in its absence, a violent power struggle can follow. Initial democratic reforms are often only partial, and may fail to satisfy the full demands of civil society and not suffice to reduce the relevant actors’ motivation to resort to violence […] However, there is clear evidence that the sequence matters and that the effect [the increased risk of civil war after democratization, US] is limited to the first election. […] civil wars […] tend to be settled more easily in states with prior experience of democracy […] By our count, […] 75 percent of all annual observations of countries with minor or major armed conflicts occur in non-democracies […] Democracies have an incidence of major armed conflict of only 1 percent, whereas nondemocracies have a frequency of 5.6 percent.”

“Since the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, religious conflicts and the rise of international terror organizations have made it difficult to ignore the facts that religious factors can contribute to conflict and that religious actors can cause or participate in domestic conflicts. Despite this, comprehensive studies of religion and domestic conflict remain relatively rare. While the reasons for this rarity are complex there are two that stand out. First, for much of the twentieth century the dominant theory in the field was secularization theory, which predicted that religion would become irrelevant and perhaps extinct in modern times. While not everyone agreed with this extreme viewpoint, there was a consensus that religious influences on politics and conflict were a waning concern. […] This theory was dominant in sociology for much of the twentieth century and effectively dominated political science, under the title of modernization theory, for the same period. […] Today supporters of secularization theory are clearly in the minority. However, one of their legacies has been that research on religion and conflict is a relatively new field. […] Second, as recently as 2006, Brian Grim and Roger Finke lamented that “religion receives little attention in international quantitative studies. Including religion in cross-national studies requires data, and high-quality data are in short supply” […] availability of the necessary data to engage in quantitative research on religion and civil wars is a relatively recent development.”

“[Some] studies [have] found that conflicts involving actors making religious demands – such as demanding a religious state or a significant increase in religious legislation – were less likely to be resolved with negotiated settlements; a negotiated settlement is possible if the settlement focused on the non-religious aspects of the conflict […] One study of terrorism found that terror groups which espouse religious ideologies tend to be more violent (Henne, 2012). […] The clear majority of quantitative studies of religious conflict focus solely on inter-religious conflicts. Most of them find religious identity to influence the extent of conflict […] but there are some studies which dissent from this finding”.

“Terror is most often selected by groups that (1) have failed to achieve their goals through peaceful means, (2) are willing to use violence to achieve their goals, and (3) do not have the means for higher levels of violence.”

“the PITF dataset provides an accounting of the number of domestic conflicts that occurred in any given year between 1960 and 2009. […] Between 1960 and 2009 the modified dataset includes 817 years of ethnic war, 266 years of genocides/politicides, and 477 years of revolutionary wars. […] Cases were identified as religious or not religious based on the following categorization:
1 Not Religious.
2 Religious Identity Conflict: The two groups involved in the conflict belong to different religions or different denominations of the same religion.[11]
3 Religious Wars: The two sides of the conflict belong to the same religion but the description of the conflict provided by the PITF project identifies religion as being an issue in the conflict. This typically includes challenges by religious fundamentalists to more secular states. […]
The results show that both numerically and as a proportion of all conflict, religious state failures (which include both religious identity conflicts and religious wars) began increasing in the mid-1970s. […] As a proportion of all conflict, religious state failures continued to increase and became a majority of all state failures in 2002. From 2002 onward, religious state failures were between 55 percent and 62 percent of all state failures in any given year.”

“Between 2002 and 2009, eight of 12 new state failures were religious. All but one of the new religious state failures were ongoing as of 2009. These include:
• 2002: A rebellion in the Muslim north of the Ivory Coast (ended in 2007)
• 2003: The beginning of the Sunni–Shia violent conflict in Iraq (ongoing)
• 2003: The resumption of the ethnic war in the Sudan [97% muslims, US] (ongoing)
• 2004: Muslim militants challenged Pakistan’s government in South and North Waziristan. This has been followed by many similar attacks (ongoing)
• 2004: Outbreak of violence by Muslims in southern Thailand (ongoing)
• 2004: In Yemen [99% muslims, US], followers of dissident cleric Husain Badr al-Din al-Huthi create a stronghold in Saada. Al-Huthi was killed in September 2004, but serious fighting begins again in early 2005 (ongoing)
• 2007: Ethiopia’s invasion of southern Somalia causes a backlash in the Muslim (ethnic- Somali) Ogaden region (ongoing)
• 2008: Islamist militants in the eastern Trans-Caucasus region of Russia bordering on Georgia (Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia) reignited their violent conflict against Russia[12] (ongoing)” [my bold]

“There are few additional studies which engage in this type of longitudinal analysis. Perhaps the most comprehensive of such studies is presented in Toft et al.’s (2011) book God’s Century based on data collected by Toft. They found that religious conflicts – defined as conflicts with a religious content – rose from 19 percent of all civil wars in the 1940s to about half of civil wars during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Of these religious conflicts, 82 percent involved Muslims. This analysis includes only 135 civil wars during this period. The lower number is due to a more restrictive definition of civil war which includes at least 1,000 battle deaths. This demonstrates that the findings presented above also hold when looking at the most violent of civil wars.” [my bold]

April 22, 2015 Posted by | Anthropology, Books, Data, Demographics, Geography, History, Religion | Leave a comment

The True Believer (II)

Here’s my first post about the book, which has a few general remarks and comments – the most important of which is probably that: “It is my opinion that most people would be likely to benefit from reading this book, and it’s a very easy read compared to the books I usually cover on this site.” I’m well aware most people can’t be bothered to start out on books with scary headings like: ‘Mechanisms of hormone action: I Membrane receptors’ (from Greenstein et al.) or ‘Balance equations for spatially explicit models’ (Gurney & Nisbet), and although regular readers of this blog are presumably not ‘most people’ I have no good way of really knowing how different most of you are as you provide very little information about yourselves in the comments. I’ve been asked before here ‘which book(s) I’d recommend’, and such questions are usually difficult for me to answer in part because it’s hard for me to assess how comprehensible many of the books I’m reading really are to people who don’t know what I know. This book is much easier than usual to assess because it doesn’t take any prior knowledge (people do not already have) for granted and can basically be read by anyone who’s not a dyslexic in a few hours – and there are a lot of ideas in there. I’m not in the five-star territory, but if I had been the number of people who might benefit from reading the book would probably have been significantly lower than it is. You can interpret these remarks as a qualified recommendation of the book.

I have added some observations from the second half of the book below, but I think if this stuff seems interesting to you, you should go pick up the book and read all of it.

“A pleasant existence blinds us to the possibilities of drastic change. We cling to what we call our common sense, our practical point of view. Actually, these are but names for an all-absorbing familiarity with things as they are. The tangibility of a pleasant and secure existence is such that it makes other realities, however imminent, seem vague and visionary. Thus it happens that when the times become unhinged, it is the practical people who are caught unaware and are made to look like visionaries who cling to things that do not exist.”

“Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings. For when we fail in attempting the possible, the blame is solely ours; but when we fail in attempting the impossible, we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task. There is less risk in being discredited when trying the impossible than when trying the possible.”

“One of the rules that emerges from a consideration of the factors that promote self-sacrifice is that we are less ready to die for what we have or are than for what we wish to have and to be. It is a perplexing and unpleasant truth that when men already have “something worth fighting for,” they do not feel like fighting. People who live full, worthwhile lives are not usually ready to die for their own interests nor for their country nor for a holy cause.[9] Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself. […] Dreams, visions and wild hopes are mighty weapons and realistic tools. The practical-mindedness of a true leader consists in recognizing the practical value of these tools.”

“All active mass movements strive […] to interpose a factproof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. […] It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs. […] It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith, as Bergson pointed out, manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move.[13] […] Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is. What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any effective doctrine: it must be “contrary to nature, to common sense and to pleasure.”[14]”

“The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound and sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. It must be the one word from which all things are and all things speak.[15] Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth. It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. […] The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. […] If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine. When some part of a doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it.”

“It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal — a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause. The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet.”

“Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”

“The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others. The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth […] There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom — freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse. Herein undoubtedly lies part of the attractiveness of a mass movement.”

“There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion. […] It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion went hand in hand, the latter often serving as a justification and a tool for the former. […] It also seems that, where a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually chooses the latter. Persuasion is clumsy and its results uncertain. […] Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others. The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse.”

“In order to be assimilated into a collective medium a person has to be stripped of his individual distinctness. He has to be deprived of free choice and independent judgment. Many of his natural bents and impulses have to be suppressed or blunted. […] Faith organizes and equips man’s soul for action. To be in possession of the one and only truth and never doubt one’s righteousness; to feel that one is backed by a mysterious power whether it be God, destiny or the law of history; to be convinced that one’s opponents are the incarnation of evil and must be crushed; to exult in self-denial and devotion to duty — these are admirable qualifications for resolute and ruthless action in any field.”

“Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves.”

“The fact that mass movements as they arise often manifest less individual freedom[18] than the order they supplant, is usually ascribed to the trickery of a power-hungry clique that kidnaps the movement at a critical stage and cheats the masses of the freedom about to dawn. Actually, the only people cheated in the process are the intellectual precursors. They rise against the established order, deride its irrationality and incompetence, denounce its illegitimacy and oppressiveness, and call for freedom of self-expression and self-realization. They take it for granted that the masses who respond to their call and range themselves behind them crave the same things. However, the freedom the masses crave is not freedom of self-expression and self-realization, but freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. […] They do not want freedom of conscience, but faith — blind, authoritarian faith. […] The immediate result of a mass movement usually corresponds to what the people want. They are not cheated in the process.”

“Said Oliver Cromwell: “A man never goes so far as when he does not know whither he is going.”[8] When a mass movement is set in motion to free a nation from tyranny, either domestic or foreign, or to resist an aggressor, or to renovate a backward society, there is a natural point of termination once the struggle with the enemy is over or the process of reorganization is nearing completion. On the other hand, when the objective is an ideal society of perfect unity and selflessness – whether it be the City of God, a Communist heaven on earth, or Hitler’s warrior state – the active phase is without an automatic end. […] Where a mass movement preserves for generations the pattern shaped by its active phase (as in the case of the militant church through the Middle Ages), or where by a successive accession of fanatical proselytes its orthodoxy is continually strengthened (as in the case of Islam[1]), the result is an era of stagnation — a dark age.”

“In the eyes of the true believer, people who have no holy cause are without backbone and character — a pushover for men of faith. On the other hand, the true believers of various hues, though they view each other with mortal hatred and are ready to fly at each other’s throats, recognize and respect each other’s strength.”

September 4, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

The True Believer (I)

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

“However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.”

“[This] book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations — all of them theories — are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: “All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.” […] The reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this […] book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored. But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions.”

I’d rather have read an authoritative textbook on these topics, which both the rating I gave the book and the review I wrote on goodreads reflect. That said, this is not a bad book, and it’s very ‘quotable’ – the attentive reader will recall that I’ve quoted Hoffer multiple times before in my quotes posts. In my quotes posts I usually search the blog for all the quotes I intend to add to the new posts before I add them, in order to avoid repeating any quotes I’ve already posted here; it would however be a lot of work to try to avoid repeating anything posted in quotes posts in this post and to limit coverage to stuff I haven’t already blogged. This would also be somewhat counterproductive, as some key points made in the book would likely have to be left out of this post coverage simply on account of having been covered elsewhere on the blog before.

As I pointed out in the goodreads review, “Paraphrasing what I said about Kuhn’s book, ‘it’s a model.’ I don’t think it’s a bad model as such, but there’s a lot of stuff he’s left out of the picture. This, and the speculative nature of the coverage and the over-reliance on anecdotes, makes it difficult for me to give the book a higher rating, despite the fact that I quite liked this book. ” In a way this is a slightly inaccurate way to put it, in the sense that there’s arguably more than one model presented here (there’s a receptiveness model, a model of the evolutionary path of mass movements, a behavioural model, etc.) – this is relevant because some model aspects are more ‘correct’ in hindsight than are others, and this is of course again relevant because it makes it even harder to evaluate the book as a whole. It is my opinion that most people would be likely to benefit from reading this book, and it’s a very easy read compared to the books I usually cover on this site.

I have added some ideas and quotes from the book below.

“This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness. All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance. […] This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer — the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause — and an attempt is made to trace his genesis and outline his nature.”

“The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future. Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo. On the other hand, extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power—a slogan, a word, a button. No faith is potent unless it is also faith in the future […] Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion. […] When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.”

“There is a hope that acts as an explosive, and a hope that disciplines and infuses patience. The difference is between the immediate hope and the distant hope. A rising mass movement preaches the immediate hope. It is intent on stirring its followers to action, and it is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to act. […] Later, as the movement comes into possession of power, the emphasis is shifted to the distant hope — the dream and the vision. For an “arrived” mass movement is preoccupied with the preservation of the present, and it prizes obedience and patience above spontaneous action […] Every established mass movement has its distant hope, its brand of dope to dull the impatience of the masses and reconcile them with their lot in life. Stalinism is as much an opium of the people as are the established religions.”

“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”

“When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. […] This receptivity to all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer has become the ardent convert of a specific movement. Where mass movements are in violent competition with each other, there are not infrequent instances of converts — even the most zealous — shifting their allegiance from one to the other.”

“One mass movement readily transforms itself into another. A religious movement may develop into a social revolution or a nationalist movement; a social revolution, into militant nationalism or a religious movement; a nationalist movement into a social revolution or a religious movement. […] It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movement, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one. […] The religious character of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions is generally recognized. The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross. The ceremonial of their parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession. They have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers. The Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions are also full-blown nationalist movements. The Nazi revolution had been so from the beginning, while the nationalism of the Bolsheviks was a late development.”

“The problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another. A social revolution can be stopped by promoting a religious or nationalist movement. Thus in countries where Catholicism has recaptured its mass movement spirit, it counteracts the spread of communism. […] In general, any arrangement which either discourages atomistic individualism or facilitates self-forgetting or offers chances for action and new beginnings tends to counteract the rise and spread of mass movements.”

“It is sometimes difficult to tell where a mass migration ends and a mass movement begins—and which came first. […] Every mass movement is in a sense a migration—a movement toward a promised land; and, when feasible and expedient, an actual migration takes place. […] whether in the form of foreign conquest, crusade, pilgrimage or settlement of new land it is practiced by most active mass movements.”

“Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery. Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed. […] It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt. […] The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired. […] Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.”

“Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure and frustration. Freedom alleviates frustration by making available the palliatives of action, movement, change and protest. Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility […] They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. […] If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity.”

“we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and […] we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.”

“the technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure.”

“The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice. […] With few exceptions,1 any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities — both noble and base — of a mass movement. On the other hand, a mass movement is bound to lose much which distinguishes it from other types of organization when it relaxes its collective compactness […] The technique of fostering a readiness to fight and to die consists in separating the individual from his flesh-and-blood self—in not allowing him to be his real self. This can be achieved by the thorough assimilation of the individual into a compact collective body […]; by endowing him with an imaginary self (make-believe) […]; by implanting in him a deprecating attitude toward the present and riveting his interest on things that are not yet […]; by interposing a fact-proof screen between him and reality (doctrine) […]; [and] by preventing, through the injection of passions, the establishment of a stable equilibrium between the individual and his self (fanaticism)”.

“To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness. […] The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. When asked who he is, his automatic response is that he is a German, a Russian, a Japanese, a Christian, a Moslem, a member of a certain tribe or family. He has no purpose, worth and destiny apart from his collective body; and as long as that body lives he cannot really die.”

“Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable—it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual existence that is dour, hard, repressive and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral. To enjoy oneself is to have truck with the enemy — the present. […] The very impracticability of many of the goals which a mass movement sets itself is part of the campaign against the present. All that is practicable, feasible and possible is part of the present. To offer something practicable would be to increase the promise of the present and reconcile us with it. […] All mass movements deprecate the present by depicting it as a mean preliminary to a glorious future; a mere doormat on the threshold of the millennium. To a religious movement the present is a place of exile, a vale of tears leading to the heavenly kingdom; to a social revolution it is a mean way station on the road to Utopia; to a nationalist movement it is an ignoble episode preceding the final triumph.”

“A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. But unless joined with sanguine expectations of the future, an exaggerated view of the past results in an attitude of caution and not in the reckless strivings of a mass movement. On the other hand, there is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future. Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past. Religious movements go back to the day of creation; social revolutions tell of a golden age when men were free, equal and independent; nationalist movements revive or invent memories of past greatness.”

“It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins.”

September 1, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy, Psychology, Quotes/aphorisms, Religion | Leave a comment

The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (III)

I have read almost three-fourths of the book by now. In this post I have quoted extensively from chapter 14 because this chapter is somewhat different from most of the other chapters in the book; it has no math, but it has a lot of observations which relate to the work they’ve covered in previous chapters, and it’s much easier to blog than most of the stuff in this book.

I don’t always agree with the authors about the details and about the conclusions they draw, but this book is consistently interesting and provides high-quality coverage of the topic in question. Unless things go seriously downhill during the last part of the book, I’ll give it five stars on goodreads.

I wrote some comments and personal observations along the way when I wrote this post, many of which are not closely related to the book coverage. I have posted them below the quotes from the book, in the second half of the post proper. I actually did earlier on make the decision not to include the stuff I’d written in this post at all because I didn’t like what I’d written, but after making a few revisions I changed my mind. I may change it again. Either way writing about these things, rather than just reading about them, is a great way to force yourself to think more carefully about them.

“Evolutionary explanations are recursive. Individual behavior results from an interaction of inherited attributes and environmental contingencies. In most species, genes are the main inherited attributes, but inherited cultural information is also important for humans. Individuals with different inherited attributes may develop different behaviors in the same environment. Every generation, evolutionary processes — natural selection is the prototype — impose environmental effects on individuals as they live their lives. Cumulated over the whole population, these effects change the pool of inherited information, so that the inherited attributes of individuals in the next generation differ, usually subtly, from the attributes in the previous generation. Over evolutionary time, a lineage cycles through the recursive pattern of causal processes once per generation […] Note that in a recursive model, we explain individual behavior and population-level processes in the same model. Individual behavior depends, in any given generation, on the gene pool from which inherited attributes are sampled. The pool of inherited attributes depends in turn upon what happens to a population of individuals as they express those attributes. Evolutionary biologists have a long list of processes that change the gene frequencies, including natural selection, mutation, and genetic drift. However, no organism experiences natural selection. Organisms either live or die, or reproduce or fail to reproduce, for concrete reasons particular to the local environment and the organism’s own particular attributes. If, in a particular environment, some types of individuals do better than others, and if this variation has a heritable basis, then we label as “natural selection” the resulting changes in gene frequencies of populations. We use abstract categories like selection to describe such concrete events because we wish to build up — concrete case by concrete case — some useful generalizations about evolutionary process. Few would argue that evolutionary biology is the poorer for investing effort in this generalizing project. Although some of the processes that lead to cultural change are very different than those that lead to genetic change, the logic of the two evolutionary problems is very similar.”

“Evolutionary theory is always multi-level […] evolutionary theories are systemic, integrating every part of biology. In principle, everything that goes into causing change through time plays its proper part in the theory. […] In theorizing about human evolution, we must include processes affecting culture in our list of evolutionary processes along side those that affect genes. Culture is a system of inheritance. We acquire behavior by imitating other individuals much as we get our genes from our parents. A fancy capacity for high-fidelity imitation is one of the most important derived characters distinguishing us from our primate relatives […] We are also an unusually docile animal (Simon 1990) and unusually sensitive to expressions of approval and disapproval by parents and others (Baum 1994). Thus parents, teachers, and peers can rapidly, easily, and accurately shape our behavior compared to training other animals using more expensive material rewards and punishments. […] once children acquire language, parents and others can communicate new ideas quite economically. Our own contribution to the study of human behavior is a series of mathematical models in the Darwinian style of what we take to be the fundamental processes of cultural evolution”

“We make [the] claim that a dual gene-culture theory of some kind will be necessary to account for the evolution of human cooperative institutions. Understanding the evolution of contemporary human cooperation requires attention to two different time scales: First, a long period of evolution in the Pleistocene shaped the innate “social instincts” that underpin modern human behavior. During this period, much genetic change occurred as a result of humans living in groups with social institutions heavily influenced by culture, including cultural group selection […] On this timescale genes and culture coevolve, and cultural evolution is plausibly a leading rather than lagging partner in this process. We sometimes refer to the process as “culture-gene coevolution.” Then, only about 10,000 years ago, the origins of agricultural subsistence systems laid the economic basis for revolutionary changes in the scale of social systems. The evidence suggests that genetic changes in the social instincts over the last 10,000 years are insignificant. […] Our hypothesis is premised on the idea that selection between groups plays a much more important role in shaping culturally transmitted variation than it does in shaping genetic variation. As a result, humans have lived in social environments characterized by high levels of cooperation for as long as culture has played an im portant role in human development. […] We believe that the human capacity to live in larger scale forms of tribal social organization evolved through a coevolutionary ratchet generated by the interaction of genes and culture. Rudimentary cooperative institutions favored genotypes that were better able to live in more cooperative groups. Those individuals best able to avoid punishment and acquire the locally-relevant norms were more likely to survive. At first, such populations would have been only slightly more cooperative than typical nonhuman primates. However, genetic changes, leading to moral emotions like shame, and a capacity to learn and internalize local practices, would allow the cultural evolution of more sophisticated institutions that in turn enlarged the scale of cooperation. These successive rounds of coevolutionary change continued until eventually people were equipped with capacities for cooperation with distantly related people, emotional attachments to symbolically marked groups, and a willingness to punish others for transgression of group rules.”

“Upper Paleolithic societies were the culmination of a long period of coevolutionary increases in a tendency toward tribal social life. We suppose that the resulting “tribal instincts” are something like principles in the Chomskian linguists’ “principles and parameters” view of language […] The innate principles furnish people with basic predispositions, emotional capacities, and social dispositions that are implemented in practice through highly variable cultural institutions, the parameters. People are innately prepared to act as members of tribes, but culture tells us how to recognize who belongs to our tribes, what schedules of aid, praise, and punishment are due to tribal fellows, and how the tribe is to deal with other tribes — allies, enemies, and clients. […] Contemporary human societies differ drastically from the societies in which our social instincts evolved. Pleistocene hunter-gatherer societies were likely comparatively small, egalitarian, and lacking in powerful institutionalized leadership. […] To evolve largescale, complex social systems, cultural evolutionary processes, driven by cultural group selection, takes advantage of whatever support these instincts offer. […] cultural evolution must cope with a psychology evolved for life in quite different sorts of societies. Appropriate larger scale institutions must regulate the constant pressure from smaller-groups (coalitions, cabals, cliques), to subvert the large-group favoring rules. To do this cultural evolution often makes use of “work arounds” — mobilizing tribal instincts for new purposes. For example, large national and international (e.g. great religions) institutions develop ideologies of symbolically marked inclusion that often fairly successfully engage the tribal instincts on a much larger scale. Military and religious organizations (e.g., Catholic Church), for example, dress recruits in identical clothing (and haircuts) loaded with symbolic markings, and then subdivide them into small groups with whom they eat and engage in long-term repeated interaction. Such work-arounds are often awkward compromises […] In military and religious organizations, for example, excessive within-group loyalty often subverts higher-level goals […] Complex societies are, in effect, grand natural social-psychological experiments that stringently test the limits of our innate dispositions to cooperate.”

“Elements of coercive dominance are no doubt necessary to make complex societies work. Tribally legitimated self-help violence is a limited and expensive means of altruistic coercion. Complex human societies have to supplement the moralistic solidarity of tribal societies with formal police institutions. […] A common method of deepening and strengthening the hierarchy of command and control in complex societies is to construct a nested hierarchy of offices, using various mixtures of ascription and achievement principles to staff the offices. Each level of the hierarchy replicates the structure of a hunting and gathering band. A leader at any level interacts mainly with a few near-equals at the next level down in the system […] The hierarchical nesting of social units in complex societies gives rise to appreciable inefficiencies […] Leaders in complex societies must convey orders downward, not just seek consensus among their comrades. Devolving substantial leadership responsibility to sub-leaders far down the chain of command is necessary to create small-scale leaders with face-to-face legitimacy. However, it potentially generates great friction if lower-level leaders either come to have different objectives than the upper leader ship or are seen by followers as equally helpless pawns of remote leaders. Stratification often creates rigid boundaries so that natural leaders are denied promotion above a certain level, resulting in inefficient use of human resources and a fertile source of resentment to fuel social discontent. On the other hand, failure to properly articulate tribal scale units with more inclusive institutions is often highly pathological. Tribal societies often must live with chronic insecurity due to intertribal conflicts.”

“The high population density, division of labor, and improved communication made possible by the innovations of complex societies increased the scope for elaborating symbolic systems. The development of monumental architecture to serve mass ritual performances is one of the oldest archaeological markers of emerging complexity. Usually an established church or less formal ideological umbrella supports a complex society’s institutions. At the same time, complex societies extensively exploit the symbolic ingroup instinct to delimit a quite diverse array of culturally defined subgroups, within which a good deal of cooperation is routinely achieved. […] Many problems and conflicts revolve around symbolically marked groups in complex societies. Official dogmas often stultify desirable innovations and lead to bitter conflicts with heretics. Marked subgroups often have enough tribal cohesion to organize at the expense of the larger social system. […] Wherever groups of people interact routinely, they are liable to develop a tribal ethos. In stratified societies, powerful groups readily evolve self-justifying ideologies that buttress treatment of subordinate groups ranging from neglectful to atrocious.”

“Many individuals in modern societies feel themselves part of culturally labeled tribal-scale groups, such as local political party organizations, that have influence on the remotest leaders. In older complex societies, village councils, local notables, tribal chieftains, or religious leaders often hold courts open to humble petitioners. These local leaders in turn represent their communities to higher authorities. To obtain low-cost compliance with management decisions, ruling elites have to convince citizens that these decisions are in the interests of the larger community. As long as most individuals trust that existing institutions are reasonably legitimate and that any felt needs for reform are achievable by means of ordinary political activities, there is considerable scope for large scale collective social action. However, legitimate institutions, and trust of them, are the result of an evolutionary history and are neither easy to manage nor engineer. […] Without trust in institutions, conflict replaces cooperation along fault lines where trust breaks down. Empirically, the limits of the trusting community define the universe of easy cooperation […] At worst, trust does not extend outside family […] and potential for cooperation on a larger scale is almost entirely foregone.”

If I were the kind of person who were interested in political stuff, I might have decided to talk a bit about how the above remarks may relate to how to set up optimal policies aimed at maintaining cooperation and trust (perhaps subject to a few relevant constraints). Some ideas spring to mind, perhaps in relation to immigration policy in particular. But I’m not that kind of person, so I won’t talk about that here.

I figured it might be a good idea to cover some ‘related’ topics here, as I can’t be sure how much the people reading along here has read about this kind of stuff and what kind of background people have. Many of the remarks below are only tangentially related to the coverage above, but they’re arguably important if you want ‘a bigger picture’.

One thing to note is that in the context of this part:

“only about 10,000 years ago, the origins of agricultural subsistence systems laid the economic basis for revolutionary changes in the scale of social systems. The evidence suggests that genetic changes in the social instincts over the last 10,000 years are insignificant.”

…there are at least two important points to mention. One is that the 10.000 years number is ‘just a number’, and that there is no ‘one true number’ here – that number depends on geography and a lot of other stuff. The origins of agriculture are still somewhat murky, though we do know a lot. There are lots of problems archaeologists need to deal with when analyzing these sorts of things, like for instance the issue that locally the date for first observed/established case of agricultural adoption may not correlate well with the first actual adoption date, because we have this tendency to overlook the sort of evidence that has already evaded attention for thousands of years. Another problem is that the switch was often gradual and took a lot of time, and involved some trial and error. A related point is that switches in food procurement strategies likely happened at local levels in the far past – in some areas of the world it would seem likely that a strategy of mostly relying on a few select crops (‘agriculture’) in ‘good periods’ (perhaps lasting hundreds of years) and then relying more on a more diversified set of different crops as well as other complementary food sources (‘hunter-gathering’) in ‘bad periods’ may have been superior to a strategy of relying exclusively on one or the other, especially around the ‘border areas’ where people almost couldn’t make agriculture work at all due to climatic factors. It’s incidentally worth noting that “no single plant can provide the mix of amino acids that primates need for growth, so primates must either eat a variety of different plants to achieve an adequate amino-acid balance, or have a regular supplement of animal foods in their diet”, so the ‘rely-on-only-one-plant agricultural model and nothing else’ is not workable in practice and never was (quote from Sponheimer et al., p.361. Less extreme versions of dependence on a single crop is feasible if you can get the other stuff elsewhere, but it’s highly risky – ask e.g. the Irish. Despite how far we’ve come in other areas, we humans incidentally rely on quite few crops to supply a substantial part of the calories we need, making us somewhat vulnerable; for example more than one-fifth of all calories consumed by humans are derived from rice). Yet another problem is that ‘agriculture’ isn’t just ‘agriculture’ – people got better at this stuff over time and things like intensification and yield improvements were important, yet often difficult or frankly impossible to estimate, especially at the intensive margin. This means that ‘we think agriculture started here in 8900 BC’ may in some contexts not mean quite what you could be tempted to think it means.

But the above, and many related, issues aside, of course the main problem with a statement including words like ‘about 10,000 years ago’ is that the variation in when different people living different places ‘adopted agriculture’ (whatever that may mean) is astonishingly huge. Here are two illustrative passages from Scarre et al. – exhibit 1: “The site of Ohalo II in northern Israel, dated around 20,000 BC, provides a remarkable snapshot of lifeways in the Levant during the Last Glacial Maximum […] At Ohalo II […] we have evidence for the exploitation of a broad spectrum of plants and animals, the extensive use of storable plant foods, and the year-round occupation of a settlement. The starch traces found on the surfaces of grinding stones confirm that they were indeed used in the preparation of hard-seeded plant foods.” The site is a hunter-gatherer site, but these guys belonged to a sedentary hunter-gatherer settlement inhabited by people who were doing many, though not all, of the things we usually only associate with traditional farmers, illustrating how these sorts of categorizations sometimes get slightly complicated if you’re not very careful when you define your terms (and sometimes even if you do) – and perhaps illustrating that it makes sense to be cautious about which mental models of our hunter-gatherer forebears we apply. Either way more ‘proper’ farming communities, such as these, which started to pop up during the early Neolithic were themselves likely at least in part ‘the result’ of gradual changes that humans which came before them had had on their surrounding environments (especially local flora and fauna – in terms of the latter probably especially our impact on local megafauna) – the processes which eventually lead us to agriculture probably took a lot of time, though just how long into the past you need to look to get the full picture is an open question, and probably will remain so as the amount of evidence available to us is sparse (which impact had human activities taking place during the late Pleistocene had on the range and distribution of potential domesticables at the beginning of the Holocene? Such questions do not to me seem easy to answer, and they’re part of the story). Although agriculture in some areas of the world by now has a ‘shelf life’ of 10.000 years or more, in other areas of the world that ‘shelf life’ is much, much shorter – exhibit 2: “no agricultural colonization of Australia, the last completely hunter-gatherer continent to survive until European contact, ever occurred.”

Agriculture provided the economic foundation for achieving the scale of social complexity which humans have achieved. This is true, but an important point/caveat here is that the evolution of ‘(relatively) advanced cultural and societal complexity’ in prehistoric times was not always contingent upon agriculture; agriculture often did lead to societal complexity, but humans could rise in societal complexity and experience significant cultural evolution without it – there were sedentary populations of some size and organizational complexity living in communities without what we usually conceptualize as agriculture (viz farming or pastoralism), e.g. in areas well-endowed with natural resources such as those near major lakes or coasts full of fish. To take one example (again from Scarre et al.), “agriculture was not a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of chiefdoms in the Southeast [North America]” – another example would be the “longstanding “Maritime Hypothesis” […] which proposes […] that maritime resources sustained population growth and the rise of sedentary earthwork-building communities” along the Pacific coast of South America during prehistoric times. There were mound builders in pre-agricultural North America as well, see e.g. this and this.

It’s worth remembering when thinking about human societies which existed especially during transitional phases – which may include many different time periods, depending on which part of the world you’re looking at – where people were starting to use agriculture but perhaps hadn’t really gotten the hang of it yet, that hunter-gatherer groups occasionally simply outcompeted farmers at the local level because some places just plain aren’t very good places to engage in agriculture, meaning that the ‘cultural victory’ of agriculturalists was by no means universal or a given at the local level, even if it’s very easy to convince yourself otherwise if you don’t know very much about these aspects of human development. Sometimes new (‘cultural’) inventions, like irrigation systems, could turn the tide in situations and geographic localities where agricultural food procurement strategies were at a disadvantage, but occasionally even that wasn’t enough.

Food production practices are/were key to societal complexity, because in order to get complexity you need to produce enough ‘excess food’ for some people to be free to engage themselves in non-food-production/procuring-activities, but another related point is that how to actually categorize and delineate various prehistoric food production practices is not always completely obvious. Food production undertaken by humans can take on multiple forms, and sometimes an ‘agriculture’ vs ‘hunter-gatherers’ dichotomic conceptualization of the issues may make you overlook important details due to ‘misclassification’ or similar problems; to take a couple of examples, some prehistoric sedentary societies based on fishing were as mentioned more or less stable food producing societies, and on a different note the cultural practices of (mobile) pastoralist societies often shared some social dimensions with hunter-gatherer societies that e.g. sedentary rice farming societies did not. Worth keeping in mind in this context is also that present-day hunter-gatherer societies still in existence often do not well reflect the cultural aspects of hunter-gatherer societies which existed in the far past, meaning that you need to be very careful about which inferences you make and what you base them on.

An aspect really important to keep in mind in general when thinking about the Holocene ‘post-agricultural period’ of human development is that the cultural development which took place in agricultural societies did not take place in a vacuum. Agriculturalists interacted with hunter-gatherers, farmers interacted with pastoralists, different e.g. geographic (mountains, seas) and biological constraints (malaria, horses) shaped human development in all kinds of ways. Boyd and Richerson do talk about this in the book, but I figured I should as well in this post. One thing to note is that in some areas agricultural practices spread much faster than in others for reasons having nothing to do with ‘the type’ of people who were doing these things, for example due to reasons of physical geography or other environmental constraints or the lack of such, and both the speed and manner of adoption likely had important (and varied) cultural ramifications. These things had genetic ramifications as well; areas where agricultural spread was particularly easy saw population growth other areas did not. Climate and climatic variation post-adoption incidentally naturally had important cultural ramifications as well – for example looking over the (pre)history of pre-colonial South America, it’s obvious that climate here was a key parameter with a huge impact on ‘the rise and fall of civilizations’.

There were multiple ways for agriculture to spread, from pure displacement to pure local adoption, as well as any combination in between, and how it proceeded varied with geography and probably a lot of other stuff as well. Some places and times the optimal type of agriculture was variable over time; which didn’t just mean that it made sense for farming societies to diversify and rely on more than one crop with different responses to e.g. drought, but also that climate change sometimes caused people to switch away from farming and towards pastoralism in bad periods – a good example of the latter is Peru during the Late Intermediate Period, where it is clear that “intensification of pastoralism was an important respone to drought” (see Moseley, p.246). Aspects such as climate have certainly had various important cultural as well as genetic impacts around the globe, e.g. on cultural transmission patterns at the regional level even during the ‘post-agricultural’ period. I mentioned interaction patterns – themselves a result of cultural dynamics, but also a driver of them – between sedentary farming societies and more mobile hunter-gatherers or pastoralists above, and perhaps I should say a little more about this kind of stuff because people may not be clear on precisely what I’m getting at there. It seems clear that in some areas division of labour dynamics played an important role in explaining and shaping cultural evolution; for a great account of these aspects of cultural dynamics and evolution in mountainous terrains and their surrounding areas, I again refer to Moseley’s account here. Inhabitants of sedentary farming societies didn’t move around very much, so things which were far away from them were things they’d often be willing to trade with more mobile human groupings. From one point of view you have a type of (modified) core-periphery model where the people from the core produced ‘excess’ food, and/or things which the people living in the core area who did not have to work on food procurement could come up with, which they then traded for other stuff, e.g. various natural resources located elsewhere (metals and wood are classic examples), with people who lived on the periphery. People looking at these things today without knowing anything about how such interaction patterns looked like may, I think, have a tendency to think of mobile hunter-gatherer groups as the morons who were left behind in this story and the pastoralists as more ‘primitive’ than the farmers, but I don’t really think that’s necessarily how it was – sometimes quite neat systems of exchange benefited both groups and were arguably by themselves important drivers of ‘cultural progress’, in the sense that they enabled and facilitated increased social complexity in the societies engaged in such systems. Of course peaceful interaction patterns were not the only ones which were explored.

May 28, 2014 Posted by | Anthropology, Archaeology, Books, culture, Evolutionary biology, Religion | Leave a comment

What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking (I)

“It is not that the Romans knew only a little and were puzzled about a whole lot, [rather] they thought — just as we do — that they had a pretty good idea of what was going on in the world.”

“The main theme of this book […] is about what it means to understand a world […] If we look to the Roman sources, we find an exceedingly rich and complex tangle — every bit as rich and complex as our own, but very, very different. Sometimes startlingly so: different entities, different laws, different tools and motivations for studying the natural world. So, too, different ways of organizing knowledge, and sometimes different ways of understanding even the most basic levels of sensory experience. This book is an inquiry into how and why the Romans saw things differently than we do, or to put it more pointedly, how and why they saw different things when they looked at the world.”

Here’s one (brief) review of the book – I disagree with the last sentence and I would not have given it 4 stars based on what I’ve read so far, but aside from these objections I cannot find much in there with which I disagree.

I’ve read half of the book at this point. If not for the fact that I hadn’t updated the blog in a while I probably would not have covered this book before I’d read it all – I’m not really sure it ‘deserves’ two blogposts. Incidentally this might be a good reminder of the fact that what you read here on the blog is not what I read in order to write these posts – the post here is based on 130 pages of academic writing and however much of it I decide to include in my coverage here on the blog, reading 130 pages actually takes a while. If you want to update a book blog frequently you need to either read some pretty interesting stuff, or you need to read a lot (preferably presumably both).

The book is sort of okay but nothing too special. In my opinion the author uses a lot of words to say not very much, but some of the points he does make are really rather interesting which is why I’m still reading. The world looked very differently to people who lived in Rome around the time of Cicero, and a lot of the ways in which their perceptions of the world differed from ours may well be surprising to the modern reader, as will surely some of the ways in which specific beliefs about the world were justified – as pointed out in the book, “relatively innocuous-looking assumptions about how phenomena are related, and how those relationships enable possibilities for interaction, can have major effects on how the world itself looks to be put together, and on what kinds of things are possible or impossible, patently obvious or patently ridiculous, in that world.”

The book’s coverage centers around the writings of people such as CiceroLucretius, Galen, Ptolemy, and Seneca, and it’s most certainly not a book about what the average guy on the street knew and thought about stuff during Roman times – such a book would be exceedingly hard to write.

Parts of the book are hard to cover here in detail due to what might be termed the contextual nature of the arguments presented, and I’ve actually decided against covering a few things which I’d sort of planned on covering here on account of not wanting to have to bother with explaining terms in the quotes with other quotes, but I have added what I believe to be a few interesting observations from the book below:

“when Cicero finally comes to laying out the details of the specific laws of the ideal state, we find the mapping out of the duties of people to gods as the first order of business. Not just any gods, but public gods, for the public good. Thus at the outset, Cicero establishes not the existence of the gods, for he thinks that is a given, but the parameters and responsibilities of the state religion […] what emerges repeatedly is an insistence that the maintenance of the official cult is absolutely central not just to the maintenance of the state as it stands, but […] to the maintenance of justice itself, and of all human society. […] Only when we come to know nature — perhaps better, Nature — can we fully understand religio, our duty to the gods, and the core of the best possible state. […] careful observation of higher-order aspects of nature (its beauty, its order) leads inevitably to proper ethical behavior, both between people, and between people and the gods. […] today, it is often taken as definitional that ancient science begins where ancient theology ends,[38] and many treatments of ancient political philosophy tend to downplay the foundational roles of the gods, even though natural-law theory is saturated with theology for most of its history. […] the gods are never very far away in ancient science.”

“the big schools of philosophy that had developed in the Hellenistic period were in large part […] dedicated to ethics as the primary focus of the school’s teaching. Many schools saw their physics and their logic as deeply connected with, and in some cases primarily as instruments in the pursuit of, ethical ends. […] Looking to Seneca’s works on nature, we find ethics front and center.”

“Ancient optics is not about light, it is about vision. The modern idea that visual information is carried in the first instance by the action and movement of light has become so ingrained for us that it is often difficult to set this assumption aside and to allow some room for the very foreign mechanisms of sight in ancient optics […] In antiquity light played some very different roles in seeing, and not every account of seeing seems to have even felt the need to invoke or explain the role of light in any detail. Perhaps the oddness of ancient light is seen most clearly in Aristotle, for whom light was nothing more than the actualization of the inherent (but passive) tendency of air to be transparent.[12] That is: air (or water) is potentially, but not always, see-through. At night, the potential transparency is unactivated, and the air is accordingly nontransparent, so we cannot see through it. Light is just the actualization of the air’s potential transparency, which thus allows visual forms to pass.
This is a very foreign idea, indeed.
Turning from physics to mathematical optics, we find virtually universal agreement on a different model. Unlike the modern model, where the eye takes in light and thence information, for ancient mathematical opticians the eye instead sends out some kind of radiative visual force that contacts objects in the world and somehow then passes information back to the eye. The details of this radiation vary from writer to writer, but the basic model is one of extramission out from the eye, rather than intromission into the eye.[13]”

March 26, 2014 Posted by | Books, History, Philosophy, Religion | Leave a comment

A few Cochrane reviews and links

I’ve spent the last few days at my parents’ place and haven’t had much time for blogging due to social obligations. I read The Murder on the Links the day before yesterday and I’ll finish Lord Edgware Dies later today – I’ll probably blog the books tomorrow. For now I’ll just post a few Cochrane reviews and a couple of links:

i. Abstinence-only programs for preventing HIV infection in high-income countries (as defined by the World Bank). (link to the full paper here)

“Abstinence-only programs are widespread and well-funded, particularly in the United States and countries supported by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. On the premise that sexual abstinence is the best and only way to prevent HIV, abstinence-only interventions aim to prevent, stop, or decrease sexual activity. These programs differ from abstinence-plus designs: abstinence-plus programs promote safer-sex strategies (e.g., condom use) along with sexual abstinence, but abstinence-only programs do not, and instead often highlight the limitations of condom use. An up-to-date review suggests that abstinence-only programs do not affect HIV risk in low-income countries; this review examined the evidence in high-income countries.

This review included thirteen randomized controlled trials comparing abstinence-only programs to various control groups (e.g., “usual care,” no intervention). Although we conducted an extensive international search for trials, all included studies enrolled youth in the US (total baseline enrollment=15,940 participants). Programs were conducted in schools, community centers, and family homes; all were delivered in family units or groups of young people. We could not conduct a meta-analysis because of missing data and variation in program designs. However, findings from the individual trials were remarkably consistent.

Overall, the trials did not indicate that abstinence-only programs can reduce HIV risk as indicated by behavioral outcomes (e.g., unprotected vaginal sex) or biological outcomes (e.g., sexually transmitted infection). Instead, the programs consistently had no effect on participants’ incidence of unprotected vaginal sex, frequency of vaginal sex, number of sex partners, sexual initiation, or condom use.”

ii. Healthcare financing systems for increasing the use of tobacco dependence treatment.

The short version:

“Apart from providing counselling and drug treatment, strategies that reduce or cover the costs of accessing or providing these treatments could help smokers quit.

We found eleven trials, eight of which involve financial interventions directed at smokers and three of which involve financial interventions directed at healthcare providers.

Covering all the costs of smoking cessation treatment for smokers when compared to providing no financial benefits increased the proportion of smokers attempting to quit, using smoking cessation treatments, and succeeding in quitting. Although the absolute differences in quitting were small, the costs per person successfully quitting were low or moderate. Financial incentives directed at healthcare providers did not have an effect on smoking cessation.”

From the paper:

Summary of main results:

With very high to modest levels of consistency, we detected a statistically significant positive effect of full financial interventions targeting smokers with regard to abstinence from smoking compared to provision of no financial intervention at six months follow-up or more (all abstinence measures: RR 2.45, 95% CI 1.17 to 5.12). The effect of full financial interventions was also extended to favourable outcomes on the use of smoking cessation treatments: the pooled effect of full coverage compared with no financial intervention on the use of smoking cessation treatments was highly significant for each treatment type (NRT, bupropion, and behavioural interventions).Despite the observation of multiple favourable effects of full as compared to no financial intervention, when full coverage was compared to partial coverage, results showed no significant effect on smoking cessation or quit attempts. […]

Five studies presented data on cost effectiveness. When full benefit was compared with partial or no benefit, the costs per quitter ranged from $119 to $6,450. [the $6,450 estimate is an outlier in that group; the other estimates are all much lower, at or below $1500/quitter – US] […]

In this review, covering the full cost to smokers of using smoking cessation treatment increased the number of successful quitters, the number of participants making a quit attempt, and the use of smoking cessation treatment when compared with no financial coverage. As the majority of the studies were rated at high or unclear risk of bias in three or more domains, and there was variation between the settings, interventions and participants of the included studies, the results should be interpreted cautiously. The differences in self-reported abstinence rate, number of participants making a quit attempt and use of smoking cessation treatments were modest.”

iii. Psychosocial and pharmacological treatments for deliberate self harm.

“Deliberate self-harm is a major health problem associated with considerable risk of subsequent self-harm, including completed suicide. This systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of various treatments for deliberate self-harm patients in terms of prevention of further suicidal behaviour. […]

Main results:

A total of 23 trials were identified in which repetition of deliberate self-harm was reported as an outcome variable. The trials were classified into 11 categories. The summary odds ratio indicated a trend towards reduced repetition of deliberate self-harm for problem-solving therapy compared with standard aftercare (0.70; 0.45 to 1.11) and for provision of an emergency contact card in addition to standard care compared with standard aftercare alone (0.45; 0.19 to 1.07). The summary odds ratio for trials of intensive aftercare plus outreach compared with standard aftercare was 0.83 (0.61 to 1.14), and for antidepressant treatment compared with placebo was 0.83 (0.47 to 1.48). […]

Authors’ conclusions:

There still remains considerable uncertainty about which forms of psychosocial and physical treatments of self-harm patients are most effective, inclusion of insufficient numbers of patients in trials being the main limiting factor. There is a need for larger trials of treatments associated with trends towards reduced rates of repetition of deliberate self-harm. The results of small single trials which have been associated with statistically significant reductions in repetition must be interpreted with caution and it is desirable that such trials are also replicated.”

A few other links which are not from the Cochrane site:

iv. Plausible indeed!

v. Errors in DCP2 cost-effectiveness estimate for deworming.”Over the past few months, GiveWell has undertaken an in-depth investigation of the cost-effectiveness of deworming, a treatment for parasitic worms that are very common in some parts of the developing world. While our investigation is ongoing, we now believe that one of the key cost-effectiveness estimates for deworming is flawed, and contains several errors that overstate the cost-effectiveness of deworming by a factor of about 100. This finding has implications not just for deworming, but for cost-effectiveness analysis in general: we are now rethinking how we use published cost-effectiveness estimates for which the full calculations and methods are not public. […]we see this case as a general argument for expecting transparency, rather than taking recommendations on trust – no matter how pedigreed the people making the recommendations. Note that the DCP2 was published by the Disease Control Priorities Project, a joint enterprise of The World Bank, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, and the Population Reference Bureau, which was funded primarily by a $3.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation. The DCP2 chapter on helminth infections, which contains the $3.41/DALY estimate, has 18 authors, including many of the world’s foremost experts on soil-transmitted helminths.”

vi. Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design – a Gallup poll from last year. According to that poll a majority of Americans (56%) think creationism should be taught in public school science classes. One of the questions asked were: If the public schools in your community taught the theory of evolution, — that is, the idea that human beings evolved from other species of animals — would you be upset, or not?  A third of the people asked (34%) answered yes to this question. Incidentally in related news it should be noted that in a recent poll of South Korean biology teachers, 40% of them “agreed with the statement that “much of the scientific community doubts if evolution occurs”; and half disagreed that “modern humans are the product of evolutionary processes”.”

In slightly related news, according to an older poll conducted shortly before the turn of the century roughly one in five Americans asked back then didn’t know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Other countries didn’t do any better:

“Gallup also asked the following basic science question, which has been used to indicate the level of public knowledge in two European countries in recent years: “As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun or does the sun revolve around the earth?” In the new poll, about four out of five Americans (79%) correctly respond that the earth revolves around the sun, while 18% say it is the other way around. These results are comparable to those found in Germany when a similar question was asked there in 1996; in response to that poll, 74% of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16% thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10% said they didn’t know. When the question was asked in Great Britain that same year, 67% answered correctly, 19% answered incorrectly, and 14% didn’t know.”

You do have a potential ‘this is a silly question so I want to mess with the people asking it’-effect lurking in the background, but that’s probably mostly related to people giving the wrong answer deliberately. But even if many of the people asked perhaps gave the wrong answer deliberately, there’s still a substantial number of people answering that they ‘don’t know.’ I found the numbers surprising and I would love to see some updated estimates; a brief googling didn’t turn up anything.

July 28, 2013 Posted by | Data, Demographics, Economics, Evolutionary biology, Health Economics, Infectious disease, Medicine, Psychology, Religion, Studies | 5 Comments


i. Contradictory Messages: A Content Analysis of Hollywood-Produced Romantic Comedy Feature Films.

“This study analyzed the romantic content of a sample of 40 romantic comedy films using a basic grounded theory methodology. Analyses revealed that such films appear to depict romantic relationships as having qualities of both new and long-term relationships; that is, to be both novel and exciting, yet emotionally significant and meaningful. Furthermore, relationships were shown to have both highly idealistic and undesirable qualities but, for any problems or transgressions experienced to have no real negative long-term impact on relationship functioning. The potential for viewer interpretations is discussed and the need for future research highlighted. […]

Of the 107 [romantic] gestures coded, male characters performed 90, they gave 35 of 37 gifts, performed 14 of 17 favors, and took more steps to initiate relationships (63 of 84). Such a proportion of effort could lead to the distinguishing of gender roles, identifying the man’s role to ‘‘take the lead’’ when it comes to relationships. A further implication could be female adolescent viewers’ forming of somewhat idealized relationship expectations. With films depicting male characters as frequently performing exaggeratedly romantic gestures […], female adolescents may be led to believe that such behaviors are the norm. Furthermore, by preferring to focus on behaviors between couples such as the aforementioned, it is possible that such films may make these gestures more salient to adolescents as an indication of the extent of partners’ feelings for them and the quality of the relationship itself over factors such as communication and trust.

Although there were 61 coded instances of ‘‘open about feelings and intentions,’’ there were only 4 incidents coded pertaining to trust, with 3 of these demonstrating a character’s lack of trust in their partner. […] The lack of depiction of trust becomes particularly notable when looking at the number of incidents of ‘‘deception’’ coded. There were 82 such incidents, occurring across all 40 films, ranging from white lies so as to spare partners’ feelings, to more serious acts of deception such as ulterior motives and direct lying for personal gains. These far outweighed characters confessing their lies and deceptive acts to their partners (9), with lies being discovered by partners typically by chance or indeed not at all. […]

Another category to emerge at this stage of coding that may have the potential to influence viewer perceptions was ‘‘being single.’’ Although this was one of the smaller categories, each coded incident (15) was consistently negative. Individuals who were single were depicted as either lonely and miserable […], frustrated […], or made to feel insecure […]. Two films […] even suggested that being single might interfere with career progression. Such a consistently negative representation of being single could, therefore, have the potential to negatively influence viewers’ feelings toward being single themselves. […]

It should be further noted that of the incidents of affection coded, a vast minority occurred between married couples. Married couples were typically portrayed as either unhappy with their spouse […], or were implied as happy but did little to reflect this […]. Of the depictions of affection between married couples that were coded, many were interspersed with episodes of arguing […], and most were limited to gestures such as brief kisses or standing with an arm around one other. Such a representation of marriage may leave adolescent viewers to see marriage and romance as disparate entities and with affection between married couples as an exception instead of the norm. […]

What is interesting to note about the behaviors comprising this category [‘relationship issues’], however, is that, irrespective of seriousness, there appeared to be no real consequences for characters’ transgressions in their relationships. […] Such depictions do not accurately reflect the actual emotions individuals typically experience in response to acts of deception and betrayal in their relationships, which can involve feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, and relational devaluation (Fitness, 2001). As a result, with characters’ negative behaviors either going undiscovered or having no long-lasting impact on their relationships, adolescent viewers may underestimate the consequences their behaviors can have on their own relationships.”

ii. The burden of knowledge and the ‘death of the renaissance man’: Is  innovation getting harder? by Benjamin Jones.

“This paper investigates, theoretically and empirically, a possibly fundamental aspect of technological progress. If knowledge accumulates as technology progresses, then successive generations of innovators may face an increasing educational burden. Innovators can compensate in their education by seeking narrower expertise, but narrowing expertise will reduce their individual capacities, with implications for the organization of innovative activity – a greater reliance on teamwork – and negative implications for growth. I develop a formal model of this “knowledge burden mechanism” and derive six testable predictions for innovators. Over time, educational attainment will rise while increased specialization and teamwork follow from a sufficiently rapid increase in the burden of knowledge. In cross-section, the model predicts that specialization and teamwork will be greater in deeper areas of knowledge while, surprisingly, educational attainment will not vary across fields. I test these six predictions using a micro-data set of individual inventors and find evidence consistent with each prediction. The model thus provides a parsimonious explanation for a range of empirical patterns of inventive activity. Upward trends in academic collaboration and lengthening doctorates, which have been noted in other research, can also be explained by the model, as can much-debated trends relating productivity growth and patent output to aggregate inventive effort. The knowledge burden mechanism suggests that the nature of innovation is changing, with negative implications for long-run economic growth.”

iii. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

iv. Beyond Guns and God, Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America. I haven’t read it and I don’t think I will, but I thought I should put the link up anyway. The link has a lot of data.

v. Some Danish church membership numbers. The site is in Danish but google translate is your friend and there isn’t much text anyway. Where I live almost 5 out of 6 people are members of the church. Over the last 20 years the national membership rate has dropped by ~0,5 percentage points/year. 4 out of 5 Danes are members of the national church, in 1990 it was 9 out of 10. Approximately 90% of the people who die are members, whereas ‘only’ approximately 70% of children being born get baptized. Children of non-Western immigrants make up less than 10% of all births (9,1% from 2006-2010) – so even though population replacement may be part of the story, there’s likely other stuff going on as well.

vi. Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns. I may blog this in more detail later, for now I’ll just post the link.

vii. Theodore Dalrymple visited North Korea in 1989. The notes here about his visit to Department Store Number 1 are worth reading.

October 11, 2012 Posted by | culture, Data, Demographics, IQ, Papers, Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

Theological Incorrectness

Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.

I read it today. Aside from the recent Pratchett novel and ‘work’ reading, I pretty much haven’t touched any ‘book-stuff’ in something like 3 weeks – a very long time. I paused the book reading at the start of the semester in part as a strategic ploy to try to improve work efficiency (I also did it because I ran out of books I had at home which I actually wanted to read, but the other aspect was the reason why I didn’t just order some new ones a lot sooner than I actually did), however I don’t think that strategy works so I’ve given up on it by now; instead of studying more I just manage to find other even less productive ways to waste my time. So when I received some books from amazon this morning I decided to go right ahead and start out by reading this little thing today. Razib Khan has mentioned it quite a few times on his blog so I figured I’d check it out.

It’s somewhat interesting but not super great; I’d probably give it a 3/5 or 4/5 on amazon (closer to 4 than 3). I’ve left more than a few critical notes in the margin and I didn’t find all the components of the framework laid out by Slone equally convincing, but on the other hand some of the good stuff is, well, not bad at all. There was a lot of stuff in there I didn’t know.

The book is not about why religious people believe (in) things which aren’t true – you know, like gods and stuff. There are some relatively well known explanations for that stuff included in the book as well, but that’s not the main focus. No, the book sets out to explain why religious people believe things they’re not supposed to believe, according to the tenets of their own beliefs. I’ll quote from the introduction:

“Why is this problem important? It is important because, for one, it teaches us the lesson that theology doesn’t determine people’s actual thoughts and behaviours. In fact, the ideas that one learns in one’s given culture, such as theological ideas, play only a partial role in what people actually think and do. This book offers an explanation for how and why.”

The book uses insights from cognitive science to explain how religious people make sense of the world and how religion impacts decisionmaking. It also deals with how (and which kinds of) religious ideas (are likely to) spread, again linking observations about these matters with observations from cognitive science which are then used to explain the dynamics. It’s also a book which deals with how the study of religious beliefs and religious behaviour has changed over time; I didn’t know anything about this beforehand so I believe that I learned a lot from those sections.

September 25, 2012 Posted by | Books, Religion | 1 Comment

Anti-blasphemy laws by region

I found it a bit interesting that if you live in a random European country, you’re five times as likely to be living in a country where anti-blasphemy laws are enforced than if you live in a random country in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are lots of reasons one could come up with that might help explain that difference and of course not all the laws in question are similar, but no matter how you set out to explain it, I still think it’s thoughtprovoking. The figure is from Pew.

September 13, 2011 Posted by | Data, Religion | Leave a comment

Random stuff/thoughts

Not a lot of time spent developing these ideas, just some things that popped into my mind.

i. Most people like living their own lives less than they’d like living the lives of others. That’s why most of them spend a not insignificant amount of the time they have more or less complete control over (leisure) watching made-up people’s lives and their progress – or they read about them in books. A big part of why TV-soaps and fictional accounts of made-up people’s lives are very popular is that most people have a strong wish that they were living some other person’s life, a life far more interesting than their own. Because face it, most people’s lives aren’t that interesting. And even for people who’ve done very well for themselves, reality can’t compete with fantasy. Everybody implicitly know this and when we consider societal norms we usually find that taking the fictional stuff too seriously is considered immature, bordering on childish – but strangely enough, spending quite a bit of time in fictional worlds is not. That’s interesting, it’s okay to try to escape reality on a regular basis but only if you’re not too serious about it.

ii. People are extremely good at coming up with plausible sounding reasons for not parting voluntarily with their money. When I say money people just think ‘money’. But money is a claim on resources. And in a biological evolutionary framework resources really matter, bigtime. A big part of most people’s moral philosophy is stuff that they make up on the go, or perhaps their grandparents did. Their ideas about what is moral usually turn out to be ideas that make them look good and make it okay for them to not part with their ressources. Perhaps the ideas that make it through even make it okay for them to cheat others – like the guy on the right:

That’s because other people (and organisms, this process has been implicitly going on since the time before sexual reproduction) have tried to coax and cheat them for millions of years. When your date demands that you pay for her dinner, she’s engaging in the latest of a very long series of battles about limited ressources between the sexes.

iii. When people think about major threats to humanity (perhaps not extinction risk, most people don’t give that one much thought – but at least major risks), most people either think in terms of environmental parameters (climate, asteroids) or in terms of intraspecific competition (we’ll all kill each other in a nuclear holocaust). We like to think that humans are really important, and we like to think that we’re important enough for other life-forms not to matter all that much in the big picture; we like to think that humans are by now beyond the point where interspecific competition even matters. The funny thing is that a disease like smallpox alone was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century – a death toll high enough to wipe out the entire human race just a thousand years ago. Roughly a third of the world’s population has been infected with tuberculosis. People who think we don’t still compete with other lifeforms all the time don’t think big enough – or rather ‘small enough’, as it were.

iv. This is a nice one to have at hand in the future.

August 16, 2011 Posted by | dating, rambling nonsense, Random stuff, Religion | 6 Comments

Some data

From Pew:

From the report: “Nearly a decade after September 11, 2001, skepticism about the events of that day persists among Muslim publics. When asked whether they think groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., most Muslims in the nations surveyed say they do not believe this.

There is no Muslim public in which even 30% accept that Arabs conducted the attacks.”

“Muslims continue to believe there is widespread hostility toward them in the West. More than seven-in-ten think most or many Americans are hostile toward Muslims in the Palestinian territories, Turkey, and Pakistan, and solid majorities feel this way in Egypt and Jordan.

Moreover, perceptions of American hostility have increased since 2006 in four of the five countries where trends are available”

“On balance, respondents in the non-Muslim nations surveyed believe Muslims in their countries want to be distinct from the larger society. Majorities or pluralities hold this view in Western Europe, the U.S., Israel and Russia. This opinion is particularly widespread in Germany (72%), Spain (69%), and Russia (66%).”

“Among the Muslim publics surveyed, those in Lebanon offer the most positive ratings of Christians; 96% express a favorable opinion of the religious group, which makes up about 40% of the Lebanese population. Majorities of Muslims in Jordan (57%) and Indonesia (52%) also rate Christians favorably; Egyptian Muslims are nearly evenly divided, with 48% offering positive views and 47% saying they have an unfavorable opinion.

In contrast, Muslims in Turkey and Pakistan offer overwhelmingly negative views of Christians. In Turkey, just 6% of Muslims have a favorable view and 82% offer negative opinions of Christians; among Pakistani Muslims, 16% have positive opinions and 66% offer unfavorable views.” [my emphasis]

“Ratings of Jews are dismal in the seven predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. About one-in-ten (9%) Muslims in Indonesia, and even fewer in Turkey (4%), the Palestinian territories (4%), Lebanon (3%), Jordan (2%), Egypt (2%) and Pakistan (2%) express favorable opinions of Jews.”

“In the Arab countries surveyed, large majorities of Muslims who say some religions are more prone to violence consider Judaism to be the most violent religion; 97% in Jordan, 93% in Egypt, 88% in the Palestinian territories and 77% in Lebanon share this view.”

“On balance, Muslims in the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed are more likely to associate negative characteristics with Westerners than non-Muslims are to associate them with Muslims. For example, nearly nine-in-ten (89%) Jordanian Muslims use at least three of the six negative adjectives tested to describe people in Western countries, as do majorities in Egypt (81%), Turkey (73%), the Palestinian territories (71%), Pakistan (67%) and Indonesia (63%); only in Lebanon is this not the case.

In contrast, Spain is the only Western country surveyed where a majority (60%) of non-Muslims associate three or more negative characteristics with Muslims. At least three-in-ten non-Muslims in Britain (39%), the U.S. (35%) and France (30%) do not attribute any of the six negative characteristics tested to Muslims.”

The link has more.

July 26, 2011 Posted by | Data, Religion | 4 Comments

Small Gods (II)

More stuff from the brilliant book:

1. “‘The captain just said something odd. He said the world is flat and has an edge.’
‘Yes? So what?’
‘But, I mean, we know the world is a ball, because…’
The tortoise blinked.
‘No, it’s not,’ he said. ‘Who said it’s a ball?’
‘You did,’ said Brutha. Then he added: ‘According to Book One of the Septateuch, anyway.’ […]
‘I told you I never made the world,’ said Om [the tortoise]. ‘Why should I make the world? It was here already. And if I did make a world, I wouldn’t make it a ball. People’d fall off. All the sea would run off the bottom.’
‘Not if you told it to stay on.'”

2. “A few Ephebian citizens watched idly from the roadside. They looked surprisingly like the people at home, and not like two-legged demons at all.
‘They’re people,’ he said.
‘Full marks for comparative anthropology.’
‘Brother Nhumrod said Ephebians eat human flesh,’ said Brutha. ‘He wouldn’t tell lies.’
A small boy regarded Brutha thoughtfully while excavating a nostril. If it was a demon in human form, it was an extremely good actor.”

3. “‘Ask them about gods,’ Om prompted.
‘Uh, I want to find out about gods,’ said Brutha.
The philosophers looked at one another.
‘Gods?’ said Xeno. ‘We don’t bother with gods. Huh. Relics of an outmoded belief system, gods.’
There was a rumble of thunder from the clear evening sky.
‘Except for Blind Io the Thunder God,’ Xeno went on, his tone hardly changing.
Lightning flashed across the sky.
‘And Cubal the Fire God,’ said Xeno.
A gust of wind rattled the windows.
‘Flatulus the God of the Winds, he’s all right too,’ said Xeno.
An arrow materialized out of the air and hit the table by Xeno’s hand.
‘Fedecks the Messenger of the Gods, one of the all-time greats,’ said Xeno.

[A little later in a tavern Brutha asks a barman the same question:]
‘Gods don’t like that sort of thing,’ said the barman. ‘We get them in here some nights, when someone’s had a few. Cosmic speculation about whether gods really exist. Next thing, there’s a bolt of lightning through the roof with a note wrapped round it saying “Yes, we do” and a pair of sandals with smoke coming out. That sort of thing, it takes all the interest out of metaphysical speculation.'”

4. “The Ephebians believed that every man should have the vote.* Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant, provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible and trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch with the view of the ordinary philosopher in the street looking for a towel. And then five years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.

*Provided that he wasn’t poor, foreign nor disqualified by reason of being mad, frivolous or a woman.”

5. “‘Your missionary had said that people who did not believe in Om would suffer endless punishment. I have to tell you that the crowd considered this rude.’
‘And so they threw stones at him…’
‘Not many. They only hurt his pride. And only after they’d run out of vegetables.’
‘They threw vegetables?’
‘When they couldn’t find any more eggs.'”

6. “‘Slave is an Ephebian word. In Om we have no word for slave,’ said Vorbis.
‘So I understand,’ said the Tyrant. ‘I imagine fish have no word for water.'”

7. “‘I know about sureness,’ said Didactylos. […] ‘I remember, before I was blind, I went to Omnia once. This was before the borders were closed, when you still let people travel. And in your Citadel I saw a crowd stoning a man to death in a pit. Ever seen that?’
‘It has to be done,’ Brutha mumbled. ‘So the soul can be shriven and -‘
‘Don’t know about the soul. Never been that kind of a philosopher,’ said Didactylos. ‘All I know is, it was a horrible sight.’
‘The state of the body is not -‘
‘Oh, I’m not talking about the poor bugger in the pit,’ said the philosopher. ‘I’m talking about the people throwing the stones. They were sure all right. They were sure it wasn’t them in the pit. You could see it in their faces. So glad it wasn’t them that they were throwing just as hard as they could.'”

8. “Gods are not very introspective. It has never been a survival trait. The ability to cajole, threaten and terrify has always worked well enough. When you can flatten entire cities at a whim, a tendency towards quiet reflection and seeing-things-from-the-other-fellow’s-point-of-view is seldom necessary.
Which had led, across the multiverse, to men and women of tremendous brilliance and empathy devoting their entire lives to the service of deities who couldn’t beat them at a quiet game of dominoes.”

9. “‘And there’s some barbarians up towards the Hub,’ said the mate, relishing the word, ‘who reckon they go to a big hall where there’s all sorts to eat and drink.’
‘And women?’
‘Bound to be.’
The captain frowned. ‘It’s a funny thing,’ he said, ‘but why is it that the heathens and the barbarians seem to have the best places to go when they die?’
‘A bit of a poser, that,’ agreed the mate. ‘I s’pose it makes up for ’em … enjoying themselves all the time when they’re alive, too?’ He looked puzzled. Now that he was dead, the whole thing sounded suspicious.”

June 9, 2011 Posted by | Books, Quotes/aphorisms, Religion, Terry Pratchett | Leave a comment

Small Gods (I)

Link. Read it yesterday. Pure escapism, I needed that. Wonderful book.

Some quotes:

1) “what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.”

2) “The trouble with being a god is that you’ve got no one to pray to.”

3) “Many feel they are called to the priesthood, but what they really hear is an inner voice saying, ‘It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting, do you want to be a ploughman like your father?'”

4) “He knew from experience that true and obvious ideas, such as the ineffable wisdom and judgement of the Great God Om, seemed so obscure to many people that you actually had to kill them before they saw the error of their ways, whereas dangerous and nebulous and wrong-headed notions often had such an attraction for some people that they would – he rubbed a scar thoughtfully – hide up in the mountains and throw rocks at you until you starved them out. They’d prefer to die rather than see sense. Fri’it had seen sense at an early age. He’d seen it was sense not to die. […] for Fri’it, not dying had become a habit.”

‘How should I know? I don’t know!’ lied the tortoise. […the divine tortoise. The tortoise in question is a god. But a small one. To be quite frank, it’s only about the size of a tortoise.]
‘But you … you’re omnicognisant’´,’ said Brutha.
‘That doesn’t mean I know everything.’
Brutha bit his lip. ‘Um. Yes. It does.’
‘You sure?’
‘Thought that was omnipotent.’
‘No. That means you’re all-powerful. And you are. That’s what it says in the Book of Ossory.’


‘Who told him I was omnipotent?’
‘You did.’
‘No I didn’t.’
‘Well, he said you did.’
‘Don’t even remember anyone called Ossory,’ the tortoise muttered. […] ‘Ossory. Ossory,’ said the tortoise. ‘No … no … can’t say I -‘


‘What! If you didn’t give them [the Discworld version of the Commandments] to him, who did?’
‘I don’t know. Why should I know? I can’t be everywhere at once!’
‘You’re omnipresent!’
‘What says so?’
‘The Prophet Hashimi!’
‘Never met the man!’
‘Oh? Oh? So I suppose you didn’t give him the Book of Creation then?’
‘What Book of Creation?’
‘You mean you don’t know?’
‘Then who gave it to him?’
‘I don’t know! Perhaps he wrote it himself!’ […]
‘that’s blasphemy!’
‘Blasphemy? How can I blaspheme? I’m a god!'”

6) “On the whole, Vorbis discouraged red-hot irons, spiked chains and things with drills and big screws on, unless it was for a public display on an important Fast day. It was amazing what you could do, he always said, with a simple knife…
But many of the inquisitors liked the old ways best.”

7) “Gods don’t like people not doing much work. People who aren’t busy all the time might start to think.”

8 ) “‘He tortures people,’ he said coldly.
‘Oh, no! The inquisitors do that. They work very long hours for not much money, too, Brother Nhumrod says. No, the exquisitors just … arrange matters. Every inquisitor wants to become an exquisitor one day, Brother Nhumrod says. That’s why they put up with being on duty at all hours. They go for days without sleep, sometimes.'”

9) “‘He turned me on to my back,’said Om [the tortoise mentioned above].
‘Yes, but humans are more important than animals,’ said Brutha.
‘This is a point of view often expressed by humans,’ said Om.”

10) “People said there had to be a Supreme Being because otherwise how could the universe exist, eh?
And of course there clearly had to be, said Koomi, a Supreme Being. but since the universe was a bit of a mess, it was obvious that the Supreme Being hadn’t in fact made it. If he had made it he would, being Supreme, have made a much better job of it, with far better thought given, taking an example at random, to things like the design of the common nostril. Or, to put it another way, the existence of a badly put-together watch proved the existence of a blind watchmaker. You only had to look around to see that there was room for improvement practically everywhere.
This suggested that the Universe had probably been put together in a bit of a rush by an underling while the Supreme Being wasn’t looking […] Koomi’s theory was that gods come into being and grow and flourish because they are believed in. Belief itself is the food of the gods. […] When the Omnian Church found out about Koomi, they displayed him in every town within the Church’s empire to demonstrate the essential flaws in his argument.
There were a lot of towns, so they had to cut him up quite small.”

11) “Om listened to the sailors. They were not men who dealt in sophistries. Someone had killed a porpoise, and everyone knew what that meant. It meant that there was going to be a storm. It meant that the ship was going to be sunk. It was simple cause and effect. It was worse than women aboard. It was worse than albatrosses.”

12) “The captain, whose face now looked as if sleep had not been a regular night-time companion” […] – Pratchett makes sure that there are always wonderful sentences like these all over the place in his books. I love stuff like this.

Probably more later, I think this is one of his best books I’ve read, though it is actually quite hard to compare them. I’ve started on Soul Music today, have read the first 100 pages. I’ll not start studying again at least until I’ve finished that one as well.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | Books, Quotes/aphorisms, Religion, Terry Pratchett | Leave a comment

Politics matters

“It turns out that people place more emphasis on finding a mate who is a kindred spirit with regard to politics, religion and social activity than they do on finding someone of like physique or personality,” said John Alford, associate professor of political science at Rice University and the study’s lead author.

On a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 means perfectly matched, physical traits (body shape, weight and height) only score between 0.1 and 0.2 among spouse pairs. Personality traits, such as extroversion or impulsivity, are also weak and fall within the 0 to 0.2 range. By comparison, the score for political ideology is more than 0.6, higher than any of the other measured traits except frequency of church attendance, which was just over 0.7.

Link, via Razib Khan. He’s written a lot of good stuff lately, the main reasons why I’ve not linked to him more is that a) I feel bad about linking to so much of his stuff all the time, b) I’ve not exactly tried to hide the fact that I think you people should be reading his stuff already. He has two posts on trust up at his discover gnxp blog which you should go read right away if you don’t already have (The slow decline of trust over time, The End of Trust: Hawk & Dove, maybe some of you’ll find the gender difference post interesting as well, I didn’t consider the main finding at all surprising).

In my mental model, people should ideally choose a mate where the disagreements which exist between the partners can be more or less ignored on a daily basis. If they can’t, the partners are more likely to run into problems in the long run. Politics is difficult to ignore on a daily basis because people spend a lot of time discussing it (I tend to think that this and gossip makes up a large percentage of total daily verbal communication for the average individual); it’s part of many people’s every day lives in some way or another, so choosing a mate with very different views is probably quite costly on average. I don’t think all of this is just politics, it’s also that politics correlates with other stuff that really matters a lot in the long term; like views on child rearing and loyalty/trust-aspects (‘if (/s)he does not agree with me on X, I can’t really trust him/her’) – remember that a lot of politics is about signalling that you belong to the ‘good tribe’, and people (especially females) who belong to the good tribe and have invested some in belonging to that tribe will be much less likely to partner up with one of the ‘bad guys’.

Like Razib, I’ve been unable to find the paper online. If I do, I’ll post a link here later.

May 11, 2011 Posted by | politics, Psychology, Random stuff, Religion | Leave a comment


1. “Civilizations can only be understood by those who are civilized.” (Alfred North Whitehead)

2. “science is real. religion is made up. yes, i know religious people think they’re studying something real, so theologians are doing real work. i don’t think they are, they’re doing fake work with all the intellectual heft of a witch-doctor reading goat entrails.” (Razib Khan. To be fair to the witch-doctors, some ‘science’ is made up too. And some of the stuff people like to call science isn’t science at all. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’ll do it anyway; no, this does not improve upon the position/credibility of the witch-doctors – they’re still reading goat entrails.)

3. “statistical and probabilistic thinking is a real damper on “intellectual” conversation.” […] “introduction of questions about the moments about the distribution, or skepticism as to the representativeness of their sample, and so on, tends to have a chilling affect on the regular flow of discussion. While the average human being engages mostly in gossip and interpersonal conversation of some sort, the self-consciously intellectual interject a bit of data and abstraction (usually in the form of jargon or pithy quotations) into the mix. But the raison d’etre of the intellectual discussion is basically signaling and cuing; in other words, social display. No one really cares about the details and attempting to generate a rigorous model is really beside the point.” (Razib again, an old quote from a post called Why people don’t care about statistics)

4. “Douleur toujours nouvelle pour celui qui souffre et qui se banalise pour l’entourage.” – ‘Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him.’ (Alphonse Daudet)

5. “The concessions of the weak are the concessions of fear.” (Edmund Burke)

6. “It seems like the best time to start something is 5 years ago.” (Kelly Oxford)

April 12, 2011 Posted by | Quotes/aphorisms, Religion, Science, Statistics | Leave a comment