Sunday, September 18, 2016

Annoying books, cont'd: Matt Ridley's "The Evolution of Everything"

Matt Ridley's book, The Evolution of Everything, answers the question, “What if everything in the universe were to be understood as differentially-replicating elements, whose bestest alternatives have been tested in free competition and have thrived to produce all the good stuff in the world?” The first few chapters deal primarily with the evolution of the natural order, and the remaining dozen with the evolution of socio-cultural forms, and the big message is: Systems spontaneously create and maintain themselves efficiently without governmental interference.

The meaning of evolution is that all social planning is bad. In fact, it’s creationist.  Leave it all alone, and the cream will rise naturally to the top, as it always has, and the future will be as rosy as the past.

In the midst of all this cry for freedom and deregulation – including the environment, by the way, which the author apparently believes can also take care of itself – we encounter the occasional grudging admission that such freedom might not actually evolve the best of all possible worlds. “The right thing to do about poor, hungry and fecund people is to give them hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food and medicine, including of course contraception” (p. 214). But Ridley never mentions how this “doing” and “giving” will come about, when his entire social desideratum involves allowing the free market of natural selection to work without any centralized plan. Perhaps I can be forgiven, then, if I doubt the author’s sincerity when he sheds a few tears on behalf of common folk.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and historian Richard Hofstadter are helpfully identified as Marxists, although the latter’s identity is merged with that of the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who may or may not be a Marxist. Just in case you’re worried about who the Marxists are. 

Apparently the author is.  Perhaps his obsession with Marxists arises from the fact that he is a Conservative member of the House of Lords, holding the rank of Viscount.  Much of the book consists of historical vignettes, but Ridley’s history is notably bloodless; one without colonialism, slavery, destitution, or exploitation, on which Marxist histories tend to harp.   It’s a happy history, of free trade, free markets, and free progress.  In other words, someone whose ancestors were busily rigging the system so that your ancestors and mine would suffer, now wants to tell you that the system works fine, so leave it alone.  

I actually found myself trying to suppress a sense of moral outrage as I worked my way through this book. Ridley idealizes a system of social behavior that runs on greed, maximizes inequality, and fails to engage with issues like justice and fairness.  It is a troubling caricature of Darwinism, and I frankly came to see the book as an abuse of science, as an attempt to rationalize an evil social philosophy by recourse to nature. “The whole idea of social mobility,” he explains, “is to find talent in the disadvantaged, to find people who have the nature but have missed the nurture” (p. 166). Well, no.  Actually the idea of social mobility is to reduce the overall proportion of privileged, wealthy douchebags who think that they owe their station in life to their inherent virtues.

You know what? Fuck him. Fuck his ancestors too.  What some inbred twit thinks the about the evolution of human society is about as relevant as what a raccoon thinks. The reason this kind of pervy-Darwinistic thought was repudiated many decades ago is that it was recognized as the vulgar self-interested bio-politics of the rich and powerful. If there is a Darwinian lesson to be extracted from the history of the 20th century, it is probably that the poor require constant protection from the ideologies of the overwealthy and underpigmented. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Brief review of Tom Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech"

I really wanted to like this book, for the simple reason that any book that the obnoxious fruifly geneticist Jerry Coyne is that contempuous of, can't be all bad. But sadly, it really is all bad.

Tom Wolfe's new book is indeed as bad as advertised, but it isn't creationist. His big idea is taken from linguist Daniel Everett (Language: The Cultural Tool), that language isn't a biological autapomorphy, like eyebrows or valgus knees, but a discovery or invention, like bifacial handaxes. The possibility that the dichotomy might be a false one apparently occurs to neither of them.

If it were not in some sense a biological feature, then it is difficult to explain why our vocal tract differs from a chimpanzee’s; and why you can’t teach a chimp to talk, as psychologists from Robert Yerkes on down have tried and failed to do.  And if it were not a cultural feature, then it is difficult to explain why people speak so many different more-or-less equivalent languages, rather than just one really good language

The first half of the book is a child’s romp through the career of Charles Darwin, written in an overtly anachronistic, and frankly sophomoric, style. The second half of the book leaps to savage Noam Chomsky. You can get distracted by Wolfe giving Ian Tattersall a post at MIT (p. 149), or awarding Joseph Dalton Hooker a knighthood 20 years before Queen Victoria did (p. 32), or his antiquated use of “man” as a generic term for the species, but it really isn’t even worth the time.  “Even the smartest apes don’t have thoughts, “ he writes on p. 162, “so much as conditioned responses to certain primal pressures.”  Who knew there were any real Cartesians left?

What ties the two halves of this short book together is not so much the history of linguistics (no Saussure, and a passing mention of Edward Sapir), but the foregrounded information that science is a social activity, with rhetoric, persuasion, and alliance as components. Somebody really ought to write a book about that.

Wolfe’s rhetoric is mainly deployed to boost the work of Everett, who seems to be rather a better linguist than ethnographer.  He says that the Pirahã language lacks the feature of recursion, which Chomsky believes that all languages have.  This ought to be little more than classic “Bongo-Bongoism” – the ethnographic demonstration that the mythical people of “Bongo-Bongo” lack whatever facet of human behavior all people are supposed to have, as first-generation ethnographers aggressively liked to point out a century ago.   But when Everett writes about the overall simplicity and primitiveness of the Pirahã language and lifeways, Wolfe notes that the published comments in Current Anthropology were dubious. “They all had their reservations about this and that,” Wolfe writes (p. 119). But “this and that” were actually the articulated doubts about the basic competence of Everett’s ethnography.  That is serious, because it means that the stuff being said about the Pirahã is not quite reliable enough to be considered as anthropological data. They “had preserved a civilization virtually unchanged for thousands, godknew-how-many-thousands, of years” (p. 113). When Wolfe calls them “the most primit – er, indigenous – tribe known to exist on earth” (p. 142), the sophisticated reader may be forgiven for reading it as romanticized pseudo-anthropological nonsense.  

After all, every sophisticated reader knows that the most primit - er, indigenous tribe known to exist on earth are really the KhoiSan
Oh shit, maybe these guys really are!

Anyway, without differentiating between (vocal) speech and (cognitive) language, Wolfe eventually deduces that speech is what made us significantly different from other animals, something that “no licensed savant had ever pointed ... out before”.  So you had better not look too hard for licensed savants pointing it out.

Wolfe concludes with a radical taxonomic proposition: that humans are cognitively so distinct that we should be alone in a higher taxonomic category.  If you don’t know that Julian Huxley said as much in the 1950s, and Terry Deacon (1997) more recently – at the subkingdom and phylum levels, respectively – then you might find the suggestion original or threatening. It’s actually neither. It’s just a matter of how much or how little you choose to privilege phylogeny when classifying. 

All in all, the wrong stuff.