Hide Sociobiology Like Sex?

Self-interest goes a very long way to explaining human behavior.  Yet when we educate our young, we prefer to bias them, focusing their attention on the virtues of undiscriminate altruism.  Why?

In Friday’s issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education David Barash accepted (temporarily un-gated version here) Nietzsche’s claim that “society encourages self-sacrifice because the unselfish sucker is an asset to others,” and Freud’s complaint that

[Education] does not prepare [children] for the aggressiveness of which they are destined to become the objects.  In sending the young into life with such a false psychological orientation, education is behaving as though one were to equip people starting on a Polar expedition with summer clothing and maps of the Italian Lakes.

Nevertheless, Barash prefers that we discuss self-interest as we do sex: too little too late:


The teaching of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) should be undertaken only with great caution. The renowned primatologist Sarah Hrdy … questioned "whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level … … The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. … Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this." … Preferable, I submit, is to structure the teaching of sociobiology along the lines of sex education: Teach what we know, but do so in age-appropriate stages. Just as we would not bombard kindergartners with the details of condom use, we probably ought not instruct preteens in the finer points of sociobiology.

What reason does Barash give?

There is an altruistic as well as a selfish side to the evolutionary coin. A half-baked introduction to the discipline, which pointed only to the latter, would therefore do students a substantial disservice. … Writes the gene theorist David Haig, "… even though genes may cajole, deceive, cheat, swindle, or steal, … this does not mean that people must be similarly self-interested." … The real test of our humanity might be whether we are willing, at least on occasion, to say no to our "natural" inclinations, thereby refusing go along with our selfish genes. To my knowledge, no other animal species is capable of doing that.

I’m skeptical that humans are special in this way.  But more important, Barash fails to say why the possibility of such a special ability suggests that we should wait to teach children about self-interest.   It seems to me that Barash has failed here to otherwise rationalize his own apparently self-interested behavior in encouraging others to be “unselfish suckers.”

Nevertheless, the key question remains: what price do we pay, individually and socially, for overcoming bias?

Hat tip to Keith Henson.

Addendum:  I’ve fixed the Freud quote, which was completely wrong.  Sigh.

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  • http://gabriel.mihalache.name/econ/ Gabriel M.

    It’s something I call “normativity puzzle #1” and it’s most obvious in “normative economics”: If each agents cares, by hypothesis, only about his consumption bundle, who’s left to care about Pareto efficiency?

    Similarly, if each individual already has selfish interests, shouldn’t it also be the case that moralist researchers are the same? — Silly me for thinking that research is about knowledge and understanding. Shame on these philosopher-kings-wannabes that want to filter information because of their value judgments (mostly skewed towards “altruism”). — There’s nothing wrong with selfishness from a selfish point of view and there’s nothing suspicious about altruism from an altruist point of view; there are problems in crossed evaluations, but that’s irrelevant, it seems to me. So to what exactly does the researcher in question appeal when calling for systematic ignorance?

    P.S. Great subject for a blog! Good luck with this much-needed project!

  • albatross

    Nitpick: Freud probably didn’t make many comments about sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

    Teaching children the truth as best we can find it out and convey it seems like the best policy in about 99.9% of the cases. The issue with teaching kids about sociobiology seems more one of them having enough background to put it into a useful framework of knowledge than one of finding out how to avoid polluting them normally.

    I mean, if we taught sociobiology in schools, why, there’d probably be a pecking order and an alpha-male on the playground. Weaker and weird kids would probably get picked on. Girls might become catty and competitive about looks and dress. Clearly, avoiding the topic is the way to protect kids from these things, right?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nicholasshackel/ Nicholas Shackel

    Perhaps an argument can be given on Barash’s behalf: children are biased about the relation between human nature and right action — they tend to believe that if something is natural it is right; so if taught that we have certain directly or indirectly selected behavioural dispositions then they will conclude that the behaviour that those dispositions give rise to is right; but that behaviour arises from such a disposition is not sufficient for it to be right; therefore teaching children sociobiology will bias their moral judgements.

    I’m generally against the implicit paternalism of applying this argument to adults, who also tend to assume that if it is natural it is right (and of course, what is right must bear *some* relation to our natures). But in the case of children, paternalism is the right attitude!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Nicholas, the case you suggest would of course be stronger if we have clearer evidence that such a bias exists. And your argument seems to suggest that we avoid telling children about anything bad in the world, as they would then tend to accept those bad thing too much. So why to we teach children the history of wars and slavery and so on?

    Gabriel, selfish people can together want to talk about Pareto improvements, in order to help them make deals that benefit each of them.

    Albatross, we seem to teach kids a lot about altruism, though their frameworks for that are also impoverished.

  • Paul Gowder

    How does what you describe constitute a “bias?” It seems like there’s a blurring of the is-ought distinction underneath the hood in this post: there need be no bias in teaching children that people are self-interested, but ought to be altruistic. For various moral theories, that can be perfectly accurate. Moreover, Barash’s position is perfectly understandable from that perspective if we assume that children are imperfect learners, and particularly, that children might confuse the is-ought problem themselves. If children are unable to reliably refrain from inferring the way things ought to be from the way things are, then teaching them the way things are (self-interested) first runs the risk of them inferring that this is morally appropriate, and making the later moral lesson that much harder. That is how I understand Barash’s argument.

    If that’s true, and if by “bias” you mean “error,” then you’ve either got to take the position that people ought not to be altruistic, or that children are actually being taught that people are altruistic, i.e. altruism as a positive rather than a normative claim. I’ll assume you’re making the second claim (which would require empirical support, and doesn’t seem at all obvious, but is still better than the first). But even if that’s true, I’m not sure that this constitutes a bias in the sense of error. Suppose that belief is self-fulfilling? In other terms, suppose the preference for altruistic behavior is endogenous?

  • http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton Bruce G Charlton

    There may be a misunderstanding around.

    Genes are always selfish (or they go extinct), but selfish genes may pursue their best interests by making humans (and other animals) altruistic. Indeed, we can be altruistic _because_ genes are selfish.

    Our altruistic instincts are as ‘genetic’ as our selfish ones. This is probably most clearly argued in Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue.

    But there is another kind of abstract and rationally-calculated altruism, highly necessary in modernizing societies such as the US and the UK – this is mostly a product of formal education – this is very well argued in Keith E Stanovich’s The Robot’s Rebellion.

    Back to the main point – theories like natural selection can always be misunderstood or misapplied – but we should still teach them anyway. Overall, understanding abstract theories does greatly more good than harm, in modern societies, when a part of a multidisciplinary, systematic, scientific education.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    If I might report a bit of (anecdotal) personal experience in this area…

    If I recall correctly, I was 15 years old when I first discovered evolutionary psychology – by way of reading an article in “Newsweek” about Wright’s “The Moral Animal”. The fact that I still remember (if memory does not deceive me) the room I was in at the time, tells you something about the impact it had on my life.

    To my youthful self, the normative/normal distinction was clear from the first moment. That was what made the idea *important* – that I could see the puppet strings evolution was dangling me from, and try to cut the strings.

    Not until I was older, I admit, did I properly understand that the entire brain and human mind-pattern, including even my feelings of rebelliousness and dismay, were evolved machinery; that there was nowhere else for complex brain machinery to come from. Today I think in terms of renormalizing my morality, using it to reflect upon itself, rather than trying to correct evolutionary “meddling”.

    Nonetheless, the main error of my younger self was in the exact opposite direction from what Barash is worried about. I selectively questioned “selfish” emotions as evolutionary puppetry, without properly appreciating that the same question could be applied to my altruistic emotions, or my machinery for representing, updating, and arguing declarative moral beliefs.

    I’m not the first person to observe that religious scripture can be used to justify anything, and thus good folks use their religions to justify being good, and bad folks use their religions to justify being bad. To the extent that teenagers misunderstand sociobiology, they will likely use it to justify whatever they already felt like doing. But consider: the vast majority of these kids are *already* being exposed to religion. They’re being told, by authority figures, that God put their emotional impulses into them. Evolutionary psychology might help counterbalance that – teach teenagers not to accept their own emotions uncritically. To the extent it has any impact at all, it should encourage teenagers to think, introspect, judge themselves critically, suspect their motives. That’s a good mental habit to acquire, even if they don’t get the results perfect on the first try. And also we should not overlook EP’s great advantage of being true.

    I suppose I can see Barash’s point. I was probably prepped to understand EP to an unusual degree, for a fifteen-year-old, before I encountered it. There are plenty of grown adults who still don’t understand the difference between “normative” and “normal”. But I think it may have been very important that I discovered EP *when* I did. I think I might not exist as this person today, if I had not.

    So my visceral reaction to Barash’s suggestion is “You’re right, we shouldn’t be teaching ev-psych in high school. We should be teaching it in fourth grade.”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Paul, Barash claims, and I agree, that kids are misleadingly taught to expect a lot of altruism from others and from themselves, and that these expectations are far from fully self-fulfilling. Nicholas also suggested that we are concerned with kids confusing is and ought, and I asked him why then do we ever tell kids about any bad things, such as war or slavery? If the claim is that this “is” is easier to confuse with “ought,” then the question becomes: why?

  • http://gabriel.mihalache.name/econ/ Gabriel M.

    Robin, yes, selfish individuals might make voluntary deals which are Pareto improvements almost by definitions (ignoring ex ante vs. ex post, uncertainty, etc.), but who’s left to care about “restoring efficiency” and breaking up monopolies and so on? Pareto efficiency is not a parameter of the utility function and therefore unless we can show that desiring Pareto-efficiency (not an improvement involving you) is implicit or deducible from desiring more consumption (in the specific sense) there’s a problem.

    But leaving the economics aside, Barash cares about altruism, but according to theories he seems to support, he’s an egoist in a sense, so he’s egoistically proselytizing altruism.

    My point is that we can’t have, at the same time, descriptive theories that exhaustively describe human behavior (mechanism-wise) and then normative requirements. The agents in these sort of model/theories don’t choose their objectives, only their means, instrumentally. I think that someone is internally inconsistent if he hold an egoist positive theory of human action and a normative theory different from egoism. (Unless one is fine with demanding of people things impossible to them.)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Relative to war or slavery, the reason why people might be more tempted to confuse “is” and “ought” in ev-psych seems pretty straightforward. If Genghis Khan starts a war, then you can tell the kids: “The war was bad.” Why did Genghis start it, then? “Genghis was bad.” Okay, they say. The key point is that war and slavery occupy a subordinate causal position relative to human choice. On the other hand, evolutionary psychology occupies a superordinate causal position relative to human choice. Why did Genghis feel that it was okay to kill lots of people who weren’t of his tribe? You can answer in terms of ancestral selection pressures, or just say, “Evolution did it.” But either way, we’re no longer talking about a human choice that “could” (under a folk theory of free will) have been made some other way. When evolution does something bad, one doesn’t naturally form the counterfactual “If only evolution had made us more altruistic!” in the same way one automatically says “If only Stalin hadn’t planned those famines!”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, yes, we might try to blame wars on a few exceptional bad individuals, but we cannot so easily explain slavery. If our ancestors mostly accepted owning slaves, we’d have to say they were mostly bad, which doesn’t seem that different from saying our distant human ancestors were mostly effective at achieving their self

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Robin, the dichotomy is not many versus few, but moral agents versus something else. War can be blamed on a few individuals, slavery can be blamed on many individuals. So long as human choices are clearly involved in the process, people will automatically evaluate those choices as good or bad. When you see an evil outcome it’s easy to attribute the evil outcome to an evil bad guy, or to a whole evil society – which brings the evil into the foreground as a caused exception from the default state of affairs. The potentially confusing issue with ev-psych is that evolution is not a moral agent, and there’s no one to blame. There isn’t even an exceptional condition to blame, as in some kind of mysteriously disturbed balance – natural selection was operating the same way as ever.

  • http://www.productivityshock.com/learning_microeconomics_is_worthwhile_pt_2.htm Jason Briggeman

    I’ve argued (click my name for the relevant post) that we should be teaching some economics in elementary school, but I argue this because there are some safe, useful, bedrock concepts ready to be rolled out. Concepts like opportunity cost, sunk costs, and comparative advantage should be first out of the gate. These concepts are reasonably simple, fundamentally uncontroversial, and highly useful in decisionmaking — as a bonus, comparative advantage shows how cooperation is productive.

    Are there comparable basic concepts in sociobiology that are appropriate for an eight-year old, or even a 14-year-old? Consider that, as a field, economics is something like 300 years old, and it hasn’t really even cracked the middle schools, let alone the elementary schools. Sociobiology is less than 50 years old. Are sociobiologists prepared with a near-consensus on some concepts, where they are quite ready to say to a ten-year-old “be on the lookout for evolved personality characteristic X, to which you don’t want to fall prey”?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Jason, as you indicate there are useful things we can teach early about economics – the reason we do not seems to be more that many people are uncomfortable with the idea. Similarly, many people seem to be uncomfortable with teaching sociobiology, even before anyone seems to have tried it much. Clearly there is a comfort issue, whatever other issues there are.

    Eliezer, we teach kids about storms and earthquakes and lots of other bad things caused by non-moral agents, where there is no one to blame. I’m confused about what the proposed theory here is.

  • Bruce G Charlton

    RH “Jason, as you indicate there are useful things we can teach early about economics – the reason we do not seems to be more that many people are uncomfortable with the idea. Similarly, many people seem to be uncomfortable with teaching sociobiology, even before anyone seems to have tried it much. Clearly there is a comfort issue, whatever other issues there are.”

    My suspicion is that those who are suspicious about the teaching of sociobiology and economics are suspicious because they themselves abuse the privilege of teaching by propagandizing students in a moralistic way…

    In a sense, they don’t believe in science, they don’t believe anyone could be really interested in teaching science unless it was a covert method of political brainwashing.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Bruce, Barash is a known evolutionary psychologist.

    Robin, storms and earthquakes *have* been rationalized as “God’s will” for quite a long time – the notion that they are impersonal weather systems is a relatively recent one, with uptake nowhere near 100%. The correct explanations for storms and earthquakes have no moral dimensions at all. Storms and earthquakes are not the *causes of* human choices and morality. You can take morality out of storms and earthquakes entirely, divorce it as a concept; but you can’t do that with evolutionary psychology.

    Jason, I would pick the “core concept” of a divergence of sexual strategies between males and females – not all the details, which are still being worked out, but the core concept that boys and girls have different emotions that correspond to different strategies because of differences in the reproductive challenges. The field has a nearly universal consensus on this point, and I think it could probably be taught to any kid smart enough to comprehend the concept of a “sunk cost”. Whether you would want to do it is a different issue.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    “Eliezer, yes, we might try to blame wars on a few exceptional bad individuals, but we cannot so easily explain slavery. If our ancestors mostly accepted owning slaves, we’d have to say they were mostly bad, which doesn’t seem that different from saying our distant human ancestors were mostly effective at achieving their self”

    Even though there’s a corollary to be drawn that “if our ancestors had a widespread approval of slavery then such a widespread approval is psychologically possible today”, that sort of corollary (based on elementary genetic reasoning) is not one that people readily draw, and it tends not to have anywhere near the impact that teaching evolutionary psychology has on people. Though they say some of the same things, Ev. Pych. is much more direct about it.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nicholasshackel/ Nicholas Shackel

    Robin, in the argument a lot of work is done by the notion of a human nature and mistaken reasoning that may be done on that basis, which do not apply to the facts of history or natural disaster. The concept of an object’s nature is a concept of what is essential to it being the kind of thing it is. There is a sense of the word ‘ought’ for which the following is valid: x is of kind K; G-ing is in the nature of Ks; therefore x ought to G. Many people mistake this kind of reasoning for reasoning about what human nature implies for right action, which reasoning must use ‘ought’ in a different sense.

    That being said, I do not agree with Barash’s conclusion and the tone of his article expresses a deep distrust of allowing common people to come to their own moral and political conclusions on the basis of the facts of human nature. But that is a very common prejudice in academia, and is also clearly expressed by Plato!

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin: it’s easy to see how children might be more likely to confuse the “is” in “people are selfish” with an “ought” than suffer the same confusion with respect to, e.g., slavery. Only “people are selfish” is presented as a claim about essential human nature, and a common way people rationalize bad behavior is “I can’t help, it’s in my nature.”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    OK, what we have here is an overt relatively easy to see bias, telling kids to expect more altruism relative to self-interest than is realistic, that people think is plausibly justified by a covert relatively hard to see bias, that children (more than adults) will tend to confuse any explanation of the causal origin of common bad behavior with an endorsement of such behavior. I fear this is a common pattern; people justify their easy to see biases as compensating for hard to see biases they believe exist in others. “Yeah, well he started it just before you came into the room.”

  • Paul Gowder

    Three things.

    1) WRT your last reply, if the hard-to-see bias is real, mightn’t it legitimate to compensate for it?

    2) I don’t think you’ve really addressed the endogeneity point. If systematically teaching children that the incidence of altruism ought to be (and/or is) higher than it really is increases the altruism to some point approaching, although not actually reaching, the taught point, and altruism is a social benefit, why wouldn’t it be permissible to teach that altruism in order to achieve it? This would both yield a social gain and possibly also a gain to the “victim” of this teaching, who will live in a society where s/he, too, benefits from more pervasive altruism. The effect might be akin to a game where there are multiple stable equilibria, at all-selfish and all-altruistic (or critical mass-altruistic), with the latter being maximizing for every agent but requiring an exogenous shock (the teaching) to achieve.

    3) I think there needs to be a more explicit definition of the notion of “bias” that you’re working with here. Is all false information a bias? Only false information that works to the advantage of the teacher? Only false information that impairs the decision-making ability of the holder? Impairs that ability in some systematic way? Only false information about decision-making technology (e.g. poor probabilistic reasoning)? False information about general facts applicable to many decisions? Disadvantageously “false” normative claims? What?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Paul, yes of course it would be legitimate to compensate for a real but hard to see bias. I just worry that we will set too easy a standard for when to believe in such things, allowing us to excuse our biases by making up others they compensate for. Also, yes, it is possible that we could make people better off by biasing their beliefs, but it is also possible we are just trying to make ourselves, and not them, better off.

    Eventually we should have a post on the subject I suppose, but for now I’d say bias is costlessly-avoidable belief error. If I am biased it is because I could have chosen more accurate beliefs, without much of a resource (e.g., time, money, etc.) penalty, but chose otherwise. If I bias you it is because I could have helped you to choose more accurate beliefs, without much of a resource penalty, but chose otherwise.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I would not propose lying to children or telling them to expect more altruism than is realistic. I am, in general, *extremely* skeptical of the proposition that you can make one bias cancel another.

    The idea, from my perspective, would be to show some of the children the puppet strings, and tell them: “Resist!” Or at least, “Choose!”

    If you showed them the puppet strings for selfish behavior first, and left the evolutionary origins of altruism until college, you’d recapitulate my own history – which wasn’t perfect, but wasn’t all that bad either. This is an ethically grey area – but the simple emotions, like sex strategies, are genuinely easier to understand than the origins of moral reasoning.

    The point is that you do not have to lie to children and tell them that human nature is altruistic. You can point out the selfish parts of human nature, trace their origins to evolutionary psychology, and thereby get them to question the selfish parts of their nature. You deliberately make the distinction between normal and normative and emphasize it repeatedly. You start, right from the beginning, saying: “What evolution does isn’t always right” and you illustrate it with the clear-cut case of selfishness, which they’ve already been taught isn’t right. Then you make the analogy to slavery – “This used to happen, but just because something happens doesn’t make it right.” And the analogy to hurricanes: “They’re natural, but they hurt people – just because something happens doesn’t make it right.” And, “It’s the same way with evolutionary psychology.”

    That’s how I’d teach it, but whether it’s realistic to hope for it being taught in the schools that way is another matter. Still, if one wishes to know my counterproposal to Barash, there it is (in very rough outline).

  • Zhong Lu

    I teach chess elementary school kids on a daily basis and I find the proposal to teach them “economic concepts” and “socio-biology” hilarious.
    Half the kids at my workplace simply don’t get the very obvious concept of “giving up your less valuable pieces for your opponent’s more valuable pieces.” When I use analogies like “giving up your five-dollar bill to get their ten-dollar bill” they say things like: “I like my piece and I don’t want to lose it.” My point is what’s obvious to an adult is NOT obvious to a kid. Teaching them “obvious” economic concepts like “comparative advantage” or “opportunity cost” is a waste of time because their brains aren’t developed enough to understand it.

    Teaching kids self-interest is like teaching a fish how to swim. For example, one of the first things people notice about kids is their remarkable ability to whine, i.e. their ability to rationalize recently taught moral principles to explain why the world should be run their way. Kids (including teenagers) understand self-interest before they understand morals principles. This is why we teach them “altruistic” moral principles as opposed to “sociobiology” or “survival of the fittest.”

  • Zhong Lu

    I’m not proclaiming myself an expert on kids, but I am questioning your competence to address the matter of “what we should teach our kids.” Seriously, for those of you arguing that we should teach elementary school kids sociobiology and economic principles, have you ever actually tried to do that with a real group of kids? I get the impression that most of you are talking about this subject in an entirely abstract and philsophical manner disconnected from the real world.

  • Zhong Lu

    On a more abstract note, isn’t being “against bias” a bias itself? The question is purposefully confusing (I’m using two different definitions of “bias”) in order to point out that most people when writing for this blog immediately jump to the conclusion that this blog is “against [religious] bias.” I would like to point out that that attitude is biased itself.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Zhoung, “kids” doesn’t necessarily mean elementary school; the quote was regarding high school, an age when kids surely are able to learn to trade chess pieces, and to gain insight from trading in classroom markets.

  • Zhong Lu

    [“So my visceral reaction to Barash’s suggestion is “You’re right, we shouldn’t be teaching ev-psych in high school. We should be teaching it in fourth grade.”]

    [Are there comparable basic concepts in sociobiology that are appropriate for an eight-year old, or even a 14-year-old? Consider that, as a field, economics is something like 300 years old, and it hasn’t really even cracked the middle schools, let alone the elementary schools. Sociobiology is less than 50 years old. Are sociobiologists prepared with a near-consensus on some concepts, where they are quite ready to say to a ten-year-old “be on the lookout for evolved personality characteristic X, to which you don’t want to fall prey”?]

    In the comment section: If you meant to say “teenager” please say “teenager” or “high school student” and not “kid” or “children.” “Children” are adorable, cute little things that like to roll around on the floor in circles. “Teenagers” are gangly, pimple-faced, angst-driven immature and uncomfortable half-adults with silly concepts of the world.

  • Zhong lu

    Haha. I probably should read through everything before commenting.

    Robyn, sociobiology shouldn’t be taught to high schoolers because most schools don’t have the teachers necessary to teach it properly. For top-of-the-line high schools with the right teachers, these “socio-biological” issues should be part of a a broader philosophy class that every kid should take.

    Also, I don’t believe there is any such thing as an “unselfish sucker.” People perform unselfish acts out of a deep personal need and by performing these acts they become happier. They may look like suckers to the outsider, but so what? People live to pursue happiness, and if they can find it through unselfish acts, then so much the better.

    Real suckers are those who do altruistic deeds they don’t want to do: like, for example the kid who gets bullied out of his lunch money, and then rationalizes why it’s ok for himself to be bullied out of his lunch money. He’s the real sucker.

  • Zhong Lu

    [insert foot in mouth. Keep foot permanently inserted]. By “kid,” I meant “teenager.”

  • http://www.subsolo.org/gustibus/archives/2007/02/index.html#004729 De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

    O viés do argumento

    Robin Hanson, sobre um artigo que discute sociobiologia. Leia tudo. Claudio…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nanobug/ Michael Richards

    Ok, late to comment here, as I am reading this blog from the beginning. Don’t feel obliged to respond to any of this unless you see an obvious error.

    Nietzche’s claim that “society encourages self-sacrifice because the unselfish sucker is an asset to others” forgets the fact that society does nothing, its the individuals in society that do things, the teachers, and the curriculum setters for example. On an individual level, they personally are not benefited by their students not understanding the concepts and origins of self-interest clearly.

    Barash’s claim that we should “Teach what we know, but do so in age-appropriate stages”, is self-evident, we do the same for all subjects. We do not teach advanced calculus to kindergartners either. But in practice, it seems we usually let students graduate from high school with no explicit coverage of altruism and selfishness, and all they seem to pick up (in and out of school) is that one is “good’ and the other is “bad”.

    And of course much perceived altruism is biased self-deception, where people interpret their own actions as altruistic, for reasons such as improving their own self-image, social status signaling, and attracting mates. Recognizing this helps us maintain a more accurate self-image.

    “What price do we pay … for overcoming bias? you ask. I would ask the reverse – what price do we pay for not encouraging people to learn to recognize and overcome bias? Its in their own best interest to do so, and if teenagers *were* taught that altruism is not necessarily the opposite of selfishness, and that selfishness is not necessarily a bad thing, but a necessary part of survival, then maybe they would understand the negative effect of bias in decision making.

  • douglas

    I see no reason not to teach children about self-interest and altruism. Both phenomena are easily observable and could lead to a fruitful discussion about how they could or should act.
    I see no reason to teach anyone sociobiology, as it is a philosophical/metaphysical theory based on a notion of the physical universe that was falsified over 100 years ago.
    Perhaps there is a reason to teach sociobiology then– as a cautionary tail as to how a belief in the ‘truth’ of any scientific theory can lead to blinding bias.

    • Peter David Jones

      You might as well say physics is easily observable. Most teaching is giving shortcuts to ideas that are deducible in principles.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Douglas, you keep making these extravagant claims about science that are simply not true. Please either desist, or offer enough details of what you consider constitutes falsification so that readers can work out what your comments mean and judge how seriously to take them.

    So, for instance: what on earth are you talking about here? My best guess — which is pretty absurd, so I hope it’s wrong — is that you claim that (1) sociobiology is dependent on physical determinism and (2) physical determinism was refuted by the advent of quantum mechanics. Well, #1 is obviously 100% untrue and I can’t see how anyone not completely in thrall to an ideology could either believe it or say it; #2 is overstated at best, since (e.g.) “many-worlds” and Bohm are both deterministic interpretations of QM.

  • douglas

    g- I didn’t know my comments were extravagent
    From “Consilience” by Edward O Wilson-page 55 on reductionism-

    “ It’s strong from is total consilience, which holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced. This transcendental world view is the light and way for many scientific materialist (I admit to being among them), but it could be wrong.”
    So my statement that Mr. Wilson’s work (and that would include sociobiology) is based on a metaphysical/ philosophical worldview is not extravagent. I know of no experimental tests of this theory, or any possible readings of it that could not accept any observation whatsoever. (It is a philosophy, not a science). I would be interested in any information you could provide to the contrary.
    To say that world view was falsified is to say that there is no current understanding of physics that yields completely to any known laws. That is to say that all tenable interpretations of physics include free choices of observers.
    Bohm’s pilot-wave model does not accommodate relativistic particle creation and annihilation- both are features of the universe in which we live. All attempts to fix this problem have ended in failure.
    The Many Worlds fails to solve the basis problem (why do I experience only one outcome?). For a useful discussion of this problem see “Mindful Universe” by Stapp,
    Or Zurek arXiv/quant-ph/0306072.

    By the way- I really love Mr. Wilson for his work in conservation and the preservation of the biosphere.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Douglas, your alleged quotation from E O Wilson

    1. isn’t even grammatical (so I doubt it’s exactly what he wrote);

    2. doesn’t say that sociobiology is dependent on the position he describes (and the fact that he’s happy to say “it could be wrong” about the latter suggests that he doesn’t think it is);

    3. doesn’t describe that position as determinism (which you could say has been falsified without outright insanity) but physicalism (which, unless you are trying to suggest that Wilson had never heard of quantum mechanics when he wrote it, clearly doesn’t contradict QM);

    4. says, at the absolute most, what *Wilson*’s view of the world is based on. Sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology, or whatever you want to call it, isn’t the same thing as “what Wilson does”. This is just like the way creationists talk about “Darwinism” instead of “evolutionary biology” and seem to think that when they identify anything unsatisfactory in Darwin’s own thinking they’ve dealt a serious blow to evolution. (I know you aren’t a creationist, but you sound exactly like one a lot of the time.)

    There is no “basis problem” any more than there is an “of all the billions of people in the world, how come I’m *me* rather than any of the others?” problem.

    (I’ll take your word about Bohm and particle creation and annihilation, at least for purposes of argument. I think many-worlds is a much better approach anyway.)

  • douglas

    g- I missed typed. My quote would be accurate if I had put an ‘s’ after the word ‘materialist’ above.
    You asked for references about physics, I gave you two. Your reply suggests that you failed to avail yourself of the knowledge therein, as your statements re: physics are non sequitur.
    I asked for an example of an observation or experiment that would overturn sociobiology- you supplied none. This would be a reasonable way to change my mind regarding the nature of the subject.
    You say I “sound like a creationist” using what I take to be an ‘ad hominem’ attack.
    When I give you references and give you a clear indication of what I would accept as evidence that would get me to rethink my position, I would appreciate that you at least speak to the issues.
    Thank-you.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Douglas, I wasn’t referring to the missing “s” on “materialist” but to the opening of the sentence: “It’s strong from is total consilience”. Actually, reading it again it’s pretty clear what happened — it should be “Its strong form is total consilience”, yes? — and I can believe that with all the typos fixed it is in fact what Wilson said. Its interesting that even this quote-mined remark from Wilson makes it clear that he’s distinguishing between a “strong form” of consilience and some weaker version (presumably defined, or at least adumbrated, in what came before your quotation). Do you really take him to be saying that everything he’s worked on would collapse if he had to give up the “strong form” and make do with the weak one?

    I doubt that “sociobiology” is sharply enough defined for there to be any experimental observation that would overturn it. (I’d say the same about “physics” or “psychology”, but that doesn’t make those branches of philosophy or pseudoscience.) Sociobiology is a field of study, not a proposition.

    No, I’m not arguing ad hominem when I say you sound like a creationist. I’m pointing out what a lot of debating tactics you share with the creationists, which you might care about (1) because you might prefer not to sound like a creationist or (2) because those debating tactics aren’t generally conducive to arriving at truth. And in this specific instance, I pointed out a specific way in which your “sounding like a creationist” was a matter of actual logical unsoundness.

    I’ve no idea on what grounds you say that my statements about physics are non sequiturs. (Non sequuntur?) I retracted my appeal to Bohm’s theory in response to your statement (which I haven’t checked) that there are important things no one’s found a way to make it work for. How does that not follow? I replied to your statement that the Everett interpretation of QM “fails to solve the basis problem” by disagreeing about the existence of any such problem that needs solving and indicating briefly (but, I’d overoptimistically hoped, clearly) why I don’t think there is one. How does that not follow?

    … Ah, I see; I think I misunderstood what you meant by “the basis problem”. That would be because what you turn out to mean (if you mean the same thing as Zurek describes in words that somewhat resemble yours) is obviously not a “problem” for the Everett interpretation in the sense of something that makes it less probable. (It’s like saying that Newtonian mechanics is in trouble because of the Three-Body Problem.) My apologies for the misunderstanding.

    There is nothing in Zurek’s article that supports your contention that the Everett interpretation is any way invalidated by its alleged failure to solve the “basis problem”. Quite the reverse; it suggests a particular way of attacking it, which he clearly regards as just as applicable to the Everett approach as to others.

    You still haven’t indicated in any way I can make sense of how sociobiology is dependent on anything that was falsified 100 years ago. In particular, it is not dependent on determinism (and the quotation from Wilson that you provide gives no reason to think it is) and determinism has not been falsified.

  • douglas

    g—‘and determinism hasn’t been falsified.’ You are correct. It is not even possible to falsify determinism.
    I want to thank-you for your patience. You have helped me understand that the conclusions I draw from the evidence are not shared by all reasoning people, and that in order to communicate I need to be more specific and take fewer things for granted.
    I often assume that people have a similar data base to mine (which is obviously stupid as I write that).
    Thank-you again.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    So perhaps you’d like to start 🙂 by explaining what it is that (1) was falsified a century ago and (2) sociobiology couldn’t exist without.

  • Peter David Jones

    I’m not sure about the premise that children aren’t taught about selfishness…there’s plenty about the darker side of human nature in humanities subjects like history and eng. lit. (Shakespeare!).

    I think there could be a Typical Nerd Fallacy in assuming that kids dont learn about thses nasty things (because nerds disdain humanities subjects) and that you need sociobiology to learn them (because that’s where nerds learn them).