Evolutionary Psychology: Predictively Powerful or Riddled with Just-So Stories?

Laith Al-Shawaf in Areo:

A common refrain in the social sciences is that evolutionary psychological hypotheses are “just-so stories.” Amazingly, no evidence is typically adduced for the claim—the assertion is usually just made tout court. The crux of the just-so charge is that evolutionary hypotheses are convenient narratives that researchers spin after the fact to accord with existing observations. Is this true?

In reality, the evidence suggests that evolutionary approaches generate large numbers of new predictions and new discoveries about the human mind. To substantiate this claim, the findings in this essay were predicted a priori by evolutionary reasoning—in other words, the predictions were made before the studies took place. They therefore cannot be post-hoc stories concocted to fit already-existing data.

More here.

Not All Identities Are Created Equal

Razib Khan in Quillette:

In 2020, much of the public discussion of social issues revolves around notions of identity. Ideas about race, reformulations of gender, and considerations of class or religious confession. But it is not often stated that these identity categories are qualitatively different, and these differences have different implications for the real world. Some reflection on the real-world consequences of identity ought to make this apparent. Why is a party based on working-class solidarity far less sinister than a party based on a racial or ethnic group? Perhaps because being working-class is not a fixed identity, and solidarity is open to all. One’s race or ethnicity is viewed as more static. Most of us can imagine struggling to pay bills and keep a roof over our heads, but few can imagine being another race. Race-thinking is anti-empathetic by its nature.

Obviously, most humans have a variety of identities that they balance, synthesize, and are enriched by. Before World War I, socialists expressed their opposition to a conflict that they believed, correctly, would only bring suffering to the workers of the world. But once the Great War commenced socialist parties in the main fell into line, expressing national patriotism. This shattered the illusion of radicals that socialism would supersede nationalism, and that class solidarity trumped patriotic feeling. The rise and success of the Soviet Union as a socialist state proved that identities and emotions beyond class are necessary. A cult of personality around Stalin flourished, while to defeat Nazi Germany the Soviet Union promoted the “Great Patriotic War” rooted in a traditionalist Russian nationalism.

More here.

Mary Somerville, for Whom the Word “Scientist” Was Coined

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings:

Despite her precocity and her early determination, it took Somerville half a lifetime to come abloom as a scientist — the spring and summer of her life passed with her genius laying restive beneath the frost of the era’s receptivity to the female mind. When Somerville was forty-six, she published her first scientific paper — a study of the magnetic properties of violet rays — which earned her praise from the inventor of the kaleidoscope, Sir David Brewster, as “the most extraordinary woman in Europe — a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Lord Brougham, the influential founder of the newly established Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge — with which Thoreau would take issue thirty-some years later by making a case for “the diffusion of useful ignorance,” comprising “knowledge useful in a higher sense” — was so impressed that he asked Somerville to translate a mathematical treatise by Pierre-Simon Laplace, “the Newton of France.” She took the project on, perhaps not fully aware how many years it would take to complete to her satisfaction, which would forever raise the common standard of excellence. All great works suffer from and are saved by a gladsome blindness to what they ultimately demand of their creators.

more here.

On Obscenity and Literature

Ed Simon at The Millions:

A direct line runs between the vibrant, colorful, and earthy diction of canting to cockney rhyming slang, or the endangered dialect of Polari used for decades by gay men in Great Britain, who lived under the constant threat of state punishment. All of these tongues are “obscene,” but that’s a function of their oppositional status to received language. Nothing is “dirty” about them; they are, rather, rebellions against “proper” speech, “dignified” language, “correct” talking, and they challenge that codified violence implied by the mere existence of the King’s Speech. Their differing purposes, and respective class connotations and authenticity, are illustrated by a joke wherein a hobo asks a nattily dressed businessman for some change. “’Neither a borrower nor a lender be’—that’s William Shakespeare,” says the businessman. “’Fuck you’—that’s David Mamet,” responds the panhandler. A bit of a disservice to the Bard, however, who along with Dekker and Middleton could cant with the best of them. For example, within the folio one will find “bawling, blasphemous, incharitible dog,” “paper fac’d villain,” and “embossed carbuncle,” among such other similarly colorful examples.

more here.

Joe Biden and the Possibility of a Remarkable Presidency

Bill McKibben in The New Yorker:

There’s really nothing in Joe Biden’s character or his record to suggest that he would be anything more than a sound, capable, regular President, which would obviously be both a great advance and a relief. If we could return to the days when we could forget that the White House even existed for days at a time, that in itself would be worth waiting in line for hours to vote. That said, there’s at least an outside chance that the stars are aligning in a way that might let Biden make remarkable change, if that is what he wants to do. America clearly has pressing problems that must be addressed, the coronavirus pandemic being the most obvious. But it also has deep structural tensions that are threatening to tear it apart, and which no President in many years has dared to address. And here’s where Biden could have an opening.

For one thing, it seems possible (not that I have let up on my phone-banking for a single evening) that he could win by a large margin—the polls currently show him further ahead than any candidate was on Election Day since Ronald Reagan, when he crushed Walter Mondale, in 1984. A nine-point win, if the margins hold through Election Day, would not be entirely a reflection on him—there’s no evidence that he unduly animates the electorate. But the body politic seems ready to reject, decisively, Donald Trump. People’s eagerness to see him gone from our public life has them voting early, amid a pandemic, in numbers that we’ve never witnessed before. That determination could presage a real groundswell that temporarily breaks the blue-red ice jam that has been frozen in place for so long; right now it also seems plausible that the Democrats could not just flip the Senate but emerge with a working majority that could get things done.

More here.

Memories Can Be Injected and Survive Amputation and Metamorphosis

Marco Altamirano in Nautilus:

The study of memory has always been one of the stranger outposts of science. In the 1950s, an unknown psychology professor at the University of Michigan named James McConnell made headlines—and eventually became something of a celebrity—with a series of experiments on freshwater flatworms called planaria. These worms fascinated McConnell not only because they had, as he wrote, a “true synaptic type of nervous system” but also because they had “enormous powers of regeneration…under the best conditions one may cut [the worm] into as many as 50 pieces” with each section regenerating “into an intact, fully-functioning organism.”

In an early experiment, McConnell trained the worms à la Pavlov by pairing an electric shock with flashing lights. Eventually, the worms recoiled to the light alone. Then something interesting happened when he cut the worms in half. The head of one half of the worm grew a tail and, understandably, retained the memory of its training. Surprisingly, however, the tail, which grew a head and a brain, also retained the memory of its training. If a headless worm can regrow a memory, then where is the memory stored, McConnell wondered. And, if a memory can regenerate, could he transfer it?

More here.

Thursday Poem

The Moment

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the center of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper.
You own nothing.

You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.

We never belonged to you.

You never found us.

It was always the other way round.

by Margaret Atwood

Rousseauvian Reflections on a Preferred Pronoun

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack Newsletter:

You will recall that while I carried on and on about myself in the first missive, I also promised that in subsequent instalments the autobiographical dimension would fall away, and the person behind the writing would for the most appear only indirectly. And yet I have in the past weeks consistently inserted myself, the author, into every topic I have touched. Why do I keep doing this? Is this not a variety of self-absorption? And if so may we perhaps distinguish between vicious and virtuous instances of what is ordinarily taken to be an unmitigated vice?

I believe Jean-Jacques Rousseau can assist us in answering this question. I have been reading his Confessions these past weeks (completed in 1770, published posthumously in 1782), and have found this work surprisingly helpful for understanding Rousseau as a thinker. Over the years I’ve taught The Social Contract a number of times; I read La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) a long time ago; and more recently, inspired by Pankaj Mishra’s interpretation of the dispute between Voltaire and Rousseau concerning national sovereignty and empire in Eastern Europe, I’ve had occasion to read the latter’s Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772).

I basically share Mishra’s view that Rousseau is a crucially important counter-Enlightenment figure before this tendency found its more familiar home in Germany, and that the debate with Voltaire over the fate of Poland is therefore key to understanding what has been at stake in numerous instances, over the subsequent centuries, of conflict between the pseudo-universalism of hegemons, on the one hand, and local demands for self-determination on the other, between the imposition of external power under the guise of an objective norm and the preservation of organic folk-ways. In this conflict, I generally have more sympathy for the side defended by Rousseau, and I take Voltaire to be a disgraceful apologist for imperialism.

More here.

An Unexpected Twist Lights Up the Secrets of Turbulence

David H. Freedman in Quanta:

The blob is a cloud of turbulence in a large water tank in the lab of the University of Chicago physicist William Irvine. Unlike every other instance of turbulence that has ever been observed on Earth, Irvine’s blob isn’t a messy patch in a flowing stream of liquid, gas or plasma, or up against a wall. Rather, the blob is self-contained, a roiling, lumpy sphere that leaves the water around it mostly still. To create it and sustain it, Irvine and his graduate student Takumi Matsuzawa must repeatedly shoot “vortex loops” — essentially the water version of smoke rings — at it, eight loops at a time. “We’re building turbulence ring by ring,” said Matsuzawa.

Irvine and Matsuzawa tightly control the loops that are the blob’s building blocks and study the resulting confined turbulence up close and at length. The blob could yield insights into turbulence that physicists have been chasing for two centuries — in a quest that led Richard Feynman to call turbulence the most important unsolved problem in classical physics.

More here.

Radical Conditionality: Rewriting the Rules of Macroeconomic Policy

Eric Lonergan & Mark Blyth in OECD Forum:

The global pandemic has re-written the rules of global macroeconomic policy for us. We have witnessed significant monetary and fiscal policy innovation; growing unwillingness to accept that the design of stimulus should be independent of broader environmental and social goals; and a far more acute focus on the competence and scope of the State.

These trends were already in evidence pre-pandemic, as we outlined in our book Angrynomics. In the book we argue that populism is a coherent response to economic and political failure. We argue that mainstream politics lost its motivating force because centrist politics and neo-liberal economics had major shortcomings, and were indeed complicit in the two conjoined crises facing OECD populations: rising wealth and income inequality, environmental self-destruction, and a consequent outpouring of social distress.

In response to the pandemic, mainstream policy actors have finally shown a desire to act on these issues. But we believe that this response needs to be both better focused and normalised in order to preserve liberal democracy. Meaningfully tackling wealth inequality and ending environmental destruction should be recognised as interdependent urgent crises, not just opportunistic dimensions of the pandemic policy response that policymakers could renege on once COVID has abated.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

This Is the City That I love

This is the city That I Love. Habichuelas bubbling on the stovetop. The kitchen door opens to our backyard. My father cuts out a piece of the campo and plants it here in Brooklyn. There are neighbors who knock on the door with a broom to let us know they’re selling pasteles. The train rumbles into a screech in the background, “This is Gates Avenue, the next stop is…”

Where are the gentrifiers now? Who watch us, ignore us, copy us, deny us, reject us, shame us, question us, kill us, laugh at us? Who fight for their claim to be New Yorkers because they waited for the train for like 30 minutes that one time. Saw a rat pull out a pizza slice that one time. Stepped into a bodega and bought a baconeggandcheese that one time.

Where are the gentrifiers now? The ones who suck this city dry. Chew at it and spit up its bones. They say they love this city. But they never loved us.

We have always made this city breathe. Pumped its heart with our bare hands. Pressed our lips against the concrete and brought air into its lungs. Held up its rib cage and spine even as our own skeletons were crushed by factory machines. Our lungs punctured by the chemicals in the dumps. Our blood rising against our arteries in protest of the food deserts, the stress, the generational trauma.

Here it is. Here is New York. Here is the poor, the working class, the immigrants, the undocumented, Black and brown, the descendants of a Jim Crow south and invaded continents. The dead.

Have you finally caught the pain of this city? Felt it lodge deep in your throat?

I call my mom and she tells me that the ambulance sirens are a constant. They run down Broadway towards Woodhull Hospital, raising her skin into goosebumps.

An essential worker. She goes on to tell me stories of her job in the senior home in the Bronx. How she’s learning to transition to online masses and prayers and English classes too. I hold her face through the screen. She smiles and laughs. I ask for her blessing, “’cion Mami.” She responds,

“I pray for you and you pray for me mija.”

by Rosemary Ferreira
Split This Rock
Author’s reading: here

Neuroscience and Psychology Suggest No Surprise Victory for Trump This Time

R Douglas Fields in Scientific American:

Will we be surprised again this November the way Americans were on Nov. 9, 2016 when they awoke to learn that reality TV star Donald Trump had been elected president? That outcome defied prognosticators and polls, and even Trump’s own expectation. “Oh, this is gonna be embarrassing,” Trump later recalled he had said at the time, anticipating defeat.

Another surprise victory is unlikely to happen again if this election is looked at from the same perspective of neuroscience that I used to account for the surprising outcome in 2016. Briefly, that article explained how our brain provides two different mechanisms of decision-making; one is conscious and deliberative, and the other is automatic, driven by emotion and especially by fear. Trump’s strategy does not target the neural circuitry of reason in the cerebral cortex; it provokes the limbic system. In the 2016 election, undecided voters were influenced by the brain’s fear-driven impulses—more simply, gut instinct—once they arrived inside the voting booth, even though they were unable to explain their decision to pre-election pollsters in a carefully reasoned manner.

In 2020, Trump continues to use the same strategy of appealing to the brain’s threat-detection circuitry and emotion-based decision process to attract votes and vilify opponents. “Biden wants to surrender our country to the violent left-wing mob…. If Biden wins, very simple, China wins. If Biden wins, the mob wins. If Biden wins, the rioters, anarchists, arsonists and flag-burners, they win,” Trump declared at his Wisconsin campaign rally on September 17, 2020, offering new alleged threats to our nation as his 2016 bogeymen of rapist immigrants and foreign terrorists have lost potency.

More here.

Azadi by Arundhati Roy – at her passionate best

Ashish Ghadiali in The Guardian:

Arundhati Roy’s literary career has been one of a kind. Thrust into the limelight of the global publishing industry back in 1997 when her debut novel, The God of Small Things, won an advance of half a million pounds and then the Booker prize, she might have gone on to become a household name of cosmopolitan novel writing in the way that Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro had in the decades before. Instead, she steered clear of the form altogether for the next 20 years (until the 2017 publication of her follow-up novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), devoting her attention and profile in the meantime to prose nonfiction that has energetically uncovered skeletons in the closet of India’s economic growth story: the nuclear arms race with Pakistan; the thousands of indigenous people displaced by the Narmada dam project; the Maoist insurrection across the country’s tribal heartlands; and the issue of Kashmir’s longstanding and brutal military occupation.

…In spite of what she describes in Azadi, her latest collection of essays, as an atmosphere of “continuous, unceasing threat”, Roy has refused to back down and this volume, which takes its title from the Urdu word for “freedom” – azadi is the chant of Kashmiri protesters against the Indian government – serves to keep the Kashmiri situation in the minds of her global readership. “What India has done in Kashmir over the last 30 years,” she writes in the essay The Silence Is the Loudest Sound, “is unforgivable. An estimated 70,000 people – civilians, militants and security forces – have been killed in the conflict. Thousands have been ‘disappeared’, and tens of thousands have passed through torture chambers that dot the valley like a network of small-scale Abu Ghraibs.” Azadi, which builds on the 1,000-page edition of Roy’s collected nonfiction, My Seditious Heart (published in 2019), consists of nine stand-alone essays, written between early 2018 and early 2020 and originally delivered either as lectures or long-form print pieces, often in Britain or the US. Roy writes repeatedly in response to Hindu fundamentalism’s new hegemony in India, exemplified by the second electoral victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

More here.

Projecting Fantasies Onto The South Bronx

Sasha Frere-Jones at Bookforum:

Urban Legends is a parabolic dish microphone pointed at history, collecting the waves that outsiders have bounced off the South Bronx. L’Official gathers representations of the South Bronx found in fiction, like Don DeLillo’s description of urban tourism in Underworld, and the ways it has been filtered through journalistic language. He proposes that classifications like “inner city” and the “ghetto” are also “versions of urban legends as well.” L’Official presents these ideas as euphemisms and “coded spatial signifiers for race,” which they are. In fact, the focus of Urban Legends is squarely on the views of those who never lived in the neighborhood. Very little of it touches on how the residents of the South Bronx represented themselves, and L’Official acknowledges this several times, best of all in the conclusion: “Though Urban Legends falls short of discussing ‘all kinds’ of artists, its aims were, and are, aligned with those of the Fort Apache Band, as articulated by Andy González: showing that art can, and does, emerge from an imperiled environment.” L’Official seems to know that hip-hop and graffiti don’t need his help at this point. He writes that graffiti artists in the South Bronx—“most of whom pointedly referred to themselves as writers—would no doubt tell you, graffiti was Bronx literature, and a populist form at that, which hardly required an agent or a publishing contract to reach an audience.”

more here.

Wandering Ways

Andrew Shenker at the LARB:

IN HER 2007 BOOK, Awkward: A Detour, Mary Cappello posits the title state as a natural response to a world indifferent to our comfort or desires. “Awkwardness could be an effect of the rough handling of reality over which one has no control,” she proposes, and over the course of her wide-ranging, digressive, book-length essay, Cappello approaches the question of awkwardness from a variety of different angles. Melding memoir, literary and film criticism, etymological study, and many other modes, her book offers up a range of perspectives on and definitions of the state of awkwardness, all of which speak to the gap between our natural inclinations and the ways we are forced to adjust these inclinations to fit both a physical world and a social environment that routinely refutes them. “Each day on earth,” Cappello writes, “is at base an endless adjustment to there being too much or not enough, to there being something missing or something extra,” and it’s in this adjustment that awkwardness occurs.

more here.

Abnormal / Normal: the art of Cao Fei

Morgan Meis in The Easel:

There are two dead babies sitting in a medical pan inside a nondescript room. These babies face one another. Are they conjoined twins? There are tubes connected to the twin cadavers. A Chinese couple, a man and a woman, sit in chairs on either side of the babies. The tubes from the babies are connected to the arms of the couple. They are feeding their own blood into the mouths of the dead babies, who receive the elixir without discernible effect as the blood dribbles down their faces. It is a horrendous scene, made all the more horrendous by the fact that it is so compelling to look at, so fascinating to think about. Are these people trying to help the babies, connect with them somehow? Are they making fun of these dead babies or of the situation? Are we meant to laugh, cry, recoil in horror? What is this disturbing scene and why are we being subjected to it?

Well, we are in Shanghai in the year 2000. The millennium is upon us. We’re at an art exhibit. The couple feeding blood to the dead babies are Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. The show has been curated and organized by two Chinese artists who will go on to become international art stars. They are Feng Boyi and Ai Weiwei. They have created a show called “Fuck Off.” It is neither, like most exhibits of Chinese art at the time, sponsored by the Chinese government nor by any Western government or institution. The show was an epochal moment in Chinese contemporary art and will, I’d wager, become recognized more and more over time as one of the crucial moments in the history of art in general, like the famous and era-shifting Armory Show in New York City 1913.

More here.