Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Long piece by Mary Midgley on “the mythology of selfishness.” She makes lots of good points to counter simplistic evolutionary psychological thinking a la Dawkins. But I’m not sure she gets everything right either.

Anti-intellectualism is taking over the US. Hmm, I’m afraid it’s a fait accompli, at this point.

Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that there is a selfish side to the latest craze in positive psychology: gratitude exercises.

What should  our attitude be toward a past from which we benefited, and yet that is objectionable on moral grounds? If you were born because the Holocaust happened, for instance.

Scientific American’s John Horgan is moving, and while packing he came across a number of reminders of why he has been so critical of certain aspects of science.

56 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. SocraticGadfly

    I love John. I highly recommend both “Rational Mysticism” and “The End of Science.” I told him the other day that I like him a lot in part because a lot of his thinking on a lot of subjects is broadly parallel to yours, Massimo.


  2. SocraticGadfly

    Ehrenreich fails to mention that, as head of the APA, Marty Seligman could also be regarded as the father of modern torture. I have less than zero respect for the man. Other than that, he’s enlisted himself in trying to make at least as much money as the positivity gurus off all this. Good tie-in with Templeton, and the knots it causes with some of its research grants.

    That said, with her memoir, she kind of opened herself to some anti-New Agey brickbats directed her own way.


    On Midgley, yeah, she’s dipping a bit in the waters of D.S. Wilson. Group selection may prove to be worth more than most biologists think — and yet still turn out to be less than D.S. Wilson claims at times.


    Isn’t Todd May’s Opinionator piece, at bottom line, a variant on the “pro-life” movement’s “Congratulations, you aborted Beethoven” stock in trade? Beyond that, ANY attempt to get individuals, qua individuals, to apply a quasi-utilitarian “view from nowhere” to the brute fact of their own existence is bound to fail.

    It’s like the likes of Kunstler or someone even worse, who say the planet can “really” only support 2 billion, but then never volunteer to be part of the 75 percent who “need to leave.”


  3. Coel

    The Mary Midgley piece demonstrates for genius for getting hold of the wrong end of every stick.

    “Most speech appears to transfer useful information from the speaker to the listener, and it costs time and energy. It seems to be altruistic. What fitness benefit can be attained by giving another individual good information? […] Miller then asks how it can be that our species has managed to buck this trend by actually developing speech.”

    Reciprocal altruism, surely? I’m baffled that she would write a lengthy piece on such issues without even mentioning the accepted mainstream explanation for such things.

    “The trouble is that theorists who think natural selection can only work by cut-throat competition between individuals …”

    But then absolutely no-one thinks that! A large part of the point of gene-based perspectives is to explain the evolution of cooperation.

    “… as Richard Dawkins puts it, the universe contains, “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” This sounds value-free enough. Unexpectedly, however, Dawkins then goes on to write “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music”. This, then, is still the same highly teleological story that we heard in The Selfish Gene. We are still lumbering robots, unable to escape the manipulating hands of the genes. This means that the genes themselves must have a purpose and a vast, cosmic purpose at that. They must also have some fairly supernatural powers, since (rather surprisingly) they apparently rule our universe

    What a farcically ludicrous interpretation! Just bonkers! If Midgley were to attempt a satirical parody of herself, it would look exactly like that paragraph.


  4. Thomas Jones

    I had mixed feelings after reading Horgan’s piece except to interpret it as an ambivalent reminiscence–perhaps with an undertone of sour grapes–on his career as a “science journalist.”

    For example, he writes:

    “[The Petrosky] episode also taught me some lessons about science journalism that my subsequent experiences reinforced. First, researchers, when accused of hype, love to blame it on the media. But media hype can usually be traced back to the researchers themselves.”

    This smacks of self-service, especially when he admits to initially writing “a puff piece” on Petrosky and excuses it’s shortcomings as a “rookie” mistake that he corrected in a subsequent article “which I toiled over for months.” Perhaps, as telling is the statement, “I also learned that critical journalism is much harder, more time-consuming and riskier than celebratory journalism.”

    I don’t doubt that findings such as those of Ioannidis point to a serious problem. But perhaps Horgan could better serve the scientific community by “toiling over” and investigating how science journalists might correct their own roles in these debacles.


  5. Thomas Jones

    Williams’s piece on anti-intellectualism is disturbing for many reasons. But consider Horgan’s piece in light of this quote of a journalist in Williams’s piece:

    “Riley hadn’t read the dissertations; they’re not even published yet. When questioned about this, she argued that as ‘a journalist… it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them,’ adding: ‘there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.'”

    Or this, in light of Massimo’s recently suggested article on “activism” and educators:

    “According to Harris, ‘I was told… that I’m being paid to teach, not to be an activist.'”

    Williams’s pieces raises a bunch of questions and interrelated issues–lots of blame to spread around.


  6. SocraticGadfly

    Thomas, Horgan’s older than I am by a couple of years, so that “puff piece” was … 30 years ago, as the story notes. I’m pretty sure he’s “developed” since then. Per your last graf, I think he’s probably doing that now as a professor of science journalism and other communications.


  7. Thomas Jones

    I always enjoy reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s essays, even when they address technical subjects about which I know little. She writes with a biting clarity that is engaging. Nevertheless, do I really need her to weigh in and unpack “gratitude”? No, not at this point in my life. Still, I’ve got to applaud when I read a statement as finely crafted as this: “If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love, and the current hoopla around gratitude is a celebration of onanism.”


  8. Massimo Post author


    I’m pretty sure the passage you find so damning in Migdley’s article was intended sarcastically, not literally.

    As for reciprocal altruism, that’s just not going to cut it. Besides the fact that there is precious little empirical support for Robert Trivers’ ideas, it’s hard to see how it would explain genuinely altruistic behavior (with no hope of reciprocation) on the part of many humans, and possibly other primates.

    My suspicion is that this can’t be done without some form of group selection, and even, possibly, that cultural evolution has so disentangled us from biological imperatives as to generate its own dynamics. I mean, there is absolutely zero survival or reproduction value in me blogging almost every day. And I certainly don’t expect reciprocation in the currency of natural selection…


  9. Thomas Jones

    Todd May’s piece. Couldn’t finish it. Stopped at “cosmic perspective.” I’m sure there is a point worth considering here, but my time to address it has passed. I’m old, and what I feel is how much I miss loved ones and friends who are now gone. I miss, I miss, I miss. My life seems a sort of resigned accommodation of attrition, of what’s gone or what’s leaving. The other night I cried over the loss of my dogs and the realization that I would never have another. Moral questions? I’d rather take a dog for a walk and watch it sniff out the hidden secrets of the journey while it wags its tail.


  10. Thomas Jones

    Socratic, no doubt. Perhaps, he’ll provide us status updates. 🙂 Too much Petrosky, too little Horgan in this particular piece, which BTW seemed pretty puffy too.


  11. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    I’m pretty sure the passage you find so damning in Migdley’s article was intended sarcastically, not literally.

    Hmm, possibly I guess. But can one tell? Is all the rest of her commentary on such issues also satirical? That would explain a lot! Was her decades-long failure to realise that the word “selfish” in “selfish gene” was metaphorical also a self-parody on her part?

    … it’s hard to see how it would explain genuinely altruistic behavior (with no hope of reciprocation)

    Given that, for most of our evolutionary heritage — with much smaller numbers of humans and much less travel around — the chances were that if you encountered a human once then you would likely encounter them again, I’m not sure there is actually a problem needing explaining. It seems pretty plausible that a default “altruistic within limits” mode could have been evolutionarily favoured for most of our history.

    Re: Horgan and “hype”.

    It’s pretty obvious and hardly news that scientists hype their results. That’s because they don’t control access to the media, the journalists do, so the scientists do their best to interest the journalists. If the journalists started to publish un-hyped results in preference to hyped results, then scientists might stop hyping.

    But, of course, that is not going to happen. Thus, of course there is going to be hype. The art of hyping is getting the degree of it right, so that the outcome is not unreasonable!


  12. Daniel Kaufman

    The Midgely piece is outstanding. Like Peter Hacker, she very clearly sees the basic category errors — not to mention the philistinism — of contemporary scientistic endeavors such as sociobiology and “ev-psych.” The failure to understand that much of what we are interested in studying human behavior is not the reasons for motor movement, per se, but rather, the reasons for behavior, *under intentional description* — and that in these cases, reductive and physicalistic explanations are completely irrelevant — is, in my view, what is ultimately responsible for the rabbit-hole type endeavors that result from scientistic efforts in the social sciences.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Coel

    Hi Dan,

    The failure to understand that much of what we are interested in studying human behavior is not the reasons for motor movement, per se, but rather, the reasons for behavior, *under intentional description* …

    No, not at all. The sociobiologists are merely asking a different question, namely, why do people have *those* feelings and attitudes, and to what degree are they evolutionarily programmed? These questions are interesting, in addition to the questions you point to being interesting.


  14. Thomas Jones

    Mary Midgley, what an amazing person. Still at it. This is a wonderful piece, skillfully crated, nose-picking and all. Ties into your piece that distinguishes between teleonomy and teleology. Her usage of the term “motive” could have explicated a bit more, though.


  15. ejwinner


    Midgley’s piece is a nice compliment to your previous post on teleonomy v. teleology. I think she makes some important points against the mechanistic view of evolution that has become dominant in some fields of research. But I worry that she seems to veer towards some form of vitalism in her response to this problem.

    Patricia Williams’ piece reminds us that there ‘social justice warriors’ on the Right as Well as the Left; but while Left SJWs can exert social pressure on institutions, and sometimes get regulations established through such pressure, those on the Right get elected to legislatures and enact laws. But if the majority of Americans were more concerned about the intellectual culture of the nation, the ‘culture wars’ would be more about the contents of books rather than perceived threats and ‘triggers.’

    I agree with Thomas Jones, that Ehrenreich is always an enjoyable read. I was blissfully unaware of the recent fad for ‘gratitude psychology.’ Reads pretty much like another self-help scam. My own take is that real gratitude is the result of humility, which is the virtue to be cultivated – but of course more difficult to accomplish, and no impediment to social commitment.

    Horgan’s piece is depressing; Steven Novella’s response to it, while attempting a balanced review of the general issues that swings towards the positive, is frankly also depressing, because the positive swing involves calls for remediation that are unlikely to be pursued. However, this is not a new issue to me; I was introduced to it a few years ago through David Freedman’s “Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them” (Little Brown, 2010). And of course there are all the issues we’ve discussed before, concerning ‘Socio-biology,’ ”Ev-psych,’ and the seeming loss of empirical research involved in string-theory – etc., as Horgan notes. Now it seems the explanatory power of science itself not only needs explanation, but even defense.

    Not very impressed with May:

    “Had Hitler not come to power in Germany, the Holocaust and World War II would not have happened. Had World War II not have happened, my father would not have signed up for officer’s training school. Had he not signed up, he would not have gone to college, majored in economics, and then moved to New York for a job. And so he would not have met my mother. In short, without the Holocaust I would not be here.”

    Is May aware that this is mere updated paraphrase of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss (himself parody of philosopher Christian Wolff)? The conclusion is obvious – this is the “best of all possible worlds”! And the proper response is Candide’s: “All that may be true, yet we must cultivate our garden.”

    Secondly, he doesn’t get to the real question until the end – ‘how do we respond to various political crises in our own day?’ Nor does he do this in the deeper sense of asking after our own culpability in belonging to a society either engendering such crises, responding to others poorly, and yet always finding some way to benefit from them. It’s now an old question, needing fresh insights – but May doesn’t go there.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Thomas Jones

    Coel, “These questions are interesting, in addition to the questions you point to being interesting.”

    Actually, it is something of a question whether a question is interesting. Pick a subject and poll your neighbors. Perhaps, what you find interesting is how the question is framed or schemed. Unfortunately, many remain beggars, asking for a meal while expecting loose change with which to use as they like.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. brodix

    Unfortunately not having time to read anymore than comments yet, but to offer a few;

    As to gratitude and altruism, I’m going to risk irritating the powers that be and refer back to thermodynamics. We accumulate resources according to availability and dispense with them similarly. People naturally give what they can afford, according to where it might seem to fit and while some will consider the potential for positive feedback, i.e., rewards, much of it is just the ebb and flow of life.

    As to benefiting from others loss, that applies to everyone who ever lived and will live. We are all lost in the long run and those who come along to replace us, wouldn’t have the room to do so, if we hung around. More of the ebb and flow stuff.

    As for anti-intellectualism, that it mostly short-sightedness, if not narcism on the part of those who consider themselves “intellectual.” Yes, there are a lot of complete idiots out there, but outside our particular frames of reference, we are all lost.

    Signal in the noise.

    Best all.


  18. Philip Thrift

    I hadn’t read anything of Mary Midgley before, but her “many maps, many windows” view ( reads as something like the way I see it.


  19. Massimo Post author


    “you know what I think about D.S. Wilson, and it’s pretty close to you. Who do you note as doing better work than him on group selection”

    I think Wilson’s claims are a bit all over the place, and hard to test. I don’t follow the field closely any more, though the most clear articulation of the *theory* of multilevel selection is, I think, still that of Samir Okasha, in a book he published a few years ago for Oxford Press.

    And yes, I saw the glowing article about Trivers. I met the guy, and I can confirm his extreme unpleasantness. And Pinker is way over the top when he says he is one of the greatest intellectuals of the century. Still, he has done good stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Daniel Kaufman

    Insofar as the behavior we are interested in explaining is under intentional description, no non-intentional explanation will ever be sufficient on its own.

    This is only in part due to the impossibility of reducing intentional predicates to non-intentional ones. It is also due to the fact that intentional states are not “in the head,” in the sense that their semantic content is rule-governed and thus, public in nature. To suppose otherwise is to run headlong into Wittgenstein’s Rule-Following and Private Language arguments.

    Traditional Wittgensteinians — like Peter Winch — thought that this meant that social scientific explanations are not, in fact, explanations at all, if what we mean by ‘explanation’ is anything like what we mean by it in the physical sciences. I have been vacillating back and forth on this question — on whether intentional explanations are really doing something of a very different sort from explanations in the physical scienes or whether they *are* genuinely explanations, but simply are irreducible to lower-level ones. In the past, I have leaned towards the latter view, but more recently, I have been more inclined to the former — i.e. a full blown Winchian — view.

    This is something I will be writing about on EA and hopefully doing a discussion on, with Massimo.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Coel

    Hi Dan,

    Insofar as the behavior we are interested in explaining is under intentional description, no non-intentional explanation will ever be sufficient on its own.

    This is indeed correct, noting the last three words. Other explanations are complementary, rather than replacing intentional ones. But it is not erroneous to also be interested in these complementary questions, as sociobiologists and evo-psych-ers are.

    To suppose otherwise is to run headlong into Wittgenstein’s Rule-Following and Private Language arguments.

    Out of interest, what do you think of Stephen Law’s claimed refutation of the private-language argument; is there a rebuttal published anywhere?


  22. Daniel Kaufman

    Coel, the objection is not to physical scientific — whether neuroscientific or biological — investigation into aspects of the etiology of human behavior. It is to the very common — almost ubiquitous — overreaching of such efforts, something that seems to espcially plague Ev Psych and Ev Soc, but is also quite common in neuroscientific accounts.

    As for Law’s argument, I do not find it at all persuasive, though I don’t have time to go into why, here. As for whether he, specifically, has been rebutted, I don’t know. There have been any number of attempts to refute the PL argument, although the more common tactic is simply to ignore it.


  23. Robin Herbert

    I must say that I find the relentless and unnecessary design and agency metaphors of the Dawkins school irritating and unhelpful, but I can fix that with the simple expedient of not reading any more of his books.

    Of course I always got that it was a metaphor, but Dawkins himself appears to lose sight of this in his more purple passages.

    We are so spoiled for choice these days for books on every area of science at every level, with or without spin, that it hardly matters.


  24. michaelfugate

    Midgley, meh. The selfish gene as literal truth is still wrong – move along. Are there scientists who think evolution is only about competition? who think natural selection means organisms are passively selected by the environment without the means of altering said environment – even the internal environment? Then there is the issue of contingency, which she gets in part, but conveniently forgets that we are also products of our parents and their parents, etc. choices. We are provided with an array of sensory receptors and other physical attributes that restrict our choices. Would my partner look attractive in ultraviolet? It is easy to battle a caricature.

    She is correct that group selection needs to be considered – what else are multicellular organisms than groups of cells?


  25. Robin Herbert

    i was interested in the implication that there is a common standard of aesthetics between birds and mammals like us, even though we are distant from them in an evolutionary sense.

    In the case of altruism, I don’t see why group selection would automatically be the explanation in all cases. For example the willingness to fight for a piece of territory might have had a strong individual survival value back when weapons were primitive and being pushed off a particular piece of land was almost certainly lethal. In that case staying and fighting would probably have provided the best survival advantage, even on an individual basis.


Comments are closed.