Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

Babies, bonobos, and brains

I’ve written fairly often here about the behaviour of our nearest primate relatives, typically with a view to deflating the idea that there’s something special about the human animal. Of course, there is something special about us. But my contention has always been that our specialness is much more a matter of degree than of kind.

That is, to pick just one felicitously phrased example, I believe that we are specially creative, but not the product of special creation. Our superior mental abilities are extreme versions of similar or analogous abilities in other creatures; these abilities are not one-off gifts from a benevolent creative force, natural or supernatural.

I’m back to this topic thanks to the conjunction of three sources: a book, a journal study, and a popular science article. Although these sources are quite independent, taken together they highlight a number of connected points about primate mental development. And this set of overlapping sources adds yet another layer to the arguments that (1) evolutionary biology is the key to any deep understanding of human nature and behaviour and (2) our proudest achievements are extensions of the skills of other creatures.

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How scientific is the ape “mid-life crisis”?

I’ve written before (such as here) about my unease with interpreted behavioural studies, especially those that purport to show that other animals, usually near-relative primates, “share” with us mental characteristics such as empathy and jealousy.

My discomfort was not eased by last week’s trendy “scientific” news that apes may suffer from a “mid-life crisis” equivalent to our own.

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New look at baby study shows weaknesses of behaviour interpretation

I’ve argued here more than once that, when it comes to psychology, measurement trumps interpretation. That’s one big reason that I am less critical of brain scans than some others are. To the extent that you have to interpret a game or speculate about a gesture, you’re on potentially shaky ground.

A newly-published study provides evidence of some of the potential problems that can plague research that may appear to be empirical, but really isn’t.

The study, “Social Evaluation or Simple Association? Simple Associations May Explain Moral Reasoning in Infants,” published by PlosOne on August 8th, re-evaluates a landmark experiment that used a toy scenario to conclude that infants have an innate preference for “moral” helpers. Continue reading

Why would atheists study religion?

Just when you thought that it was safe to ignore the “debate” between science and religion, along comes The Chronicle Review with a long article on the emergence of a “new” science, “evolutionary religious studies.”

From the start, let’s get the oxymoron jokes out of the way by noting that it’s not called “evolutionary religious beliefs.” The point isn’t to prove religion right; it’s to examine religion’s evolutionary character, its origins and its impact on individuals and societies.

When the suggestion arose that we consider the social origins of religion, a member of my Monday morning discussion and coffee group (not to be confused with my Wednesday morning coffee and discussion group) demurred, likening the suggestion to inviting a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses for tea and a chat. His distaste for the whole idea was clear.
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Can biology explain art?

OK, so you buy into all of that evolutionary psychology stuff and look for the adaptational drivers behind everything humans think and do and are.

You will be on the solidest of ground when you’re describing the physical mechanisms of bodily states and functions. And you’ll do pretty well, most of the time, with speculations about the evolutionary advantage of this or that adaptation. You’ll convince a growing number of people of the interaction of both individual and group selection.

But once you’ve done that, what do you do with the hard stuff?

Consciousness is notoriously hard to explain, and even after many articles on the subject here I’m not at all confident that I, or anyone else, really has a handle on it. For now, I’m leaving that topic alone.

The other really tough topic is art, the creative and imaginative output of the free-flowing human mind. What advantage does art add to the evolutionary mix?
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Haidt & Gazzinaga on E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, has generated the usual firestorm. Wilson couldn’t publish a bus schedule without complaints from a large group of angry scientists who prefer the train.

So it’s a little unusual to encounter so close together two predominately positive references to Wilson.

The first is admiring passages in Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Self. (Review to come — I’m still reading.) The second is last week’s Wall Street Journal article, “Evolution Revolution,” by Michael Gazzaniga.
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