The Sixth International
7.3.03
 
Tiocfaidh a l�, but they might not like it
The Irish government are backing unionist demands for sanctions against parties (read Sinn F�in) for ceasefire violations by the terrorist groups that control such parties into whose thinking such parties have a special insight (read Provisional IRA). (Article in the FT; thanks to Slugger O'Toole for the heads-up.)

This is a welcome development. SF never tire of the mantra that they have no connection to PIRA. That's true in a purely formal sense. It's not as though either is 100% subsidiary of the other. But there's formality, and then there's the real world. In the real world, you needn't be the omniscient dog in the street to know there's only a stroke between SF and IRA.

SF can't have it both ways. They want their place in the Assembly on the basis of their 'democratic mandate'. But democratic mandates are for democrats, and SF aren't democrats as long as they are tied to a fundamentally antidemocratic armed group. No one can expect the IRA to 'go away' over night. But, until that happens, if the IRA stay quiet SF can be treated as democrats. And when they act out, SF should face sanctions for it.

It's a question of carrot and stick. No reward is too great for SF if they can transform to a genuine democratic party and bring about a permanent and total end to IRA activity. But paramilitary activity can't be given a pass. Concessions to SF should be quid pro quo. There's been a lot of quid, but not nearly enough quo.

The Irish government view everybody in Northern Ireland as Irish. If that's the case, they have a duty to consider the concerns of all the Irish people of NI - unionist as well as nationalist. By backing the nationalist 'tribe' only, they are tacitly affirming the 'two nations' view - and bolstering unionist resolve (as though this needed doing) to avoid a united Ireland. The government's message to unionists should be: 'You have an important place here whether you believe it or not. We hope you'll take it up; but that's for you and your neighbours to decide. Until then, we'll try to show you you're wrong to fear joining us.' This is a good move in that direction. SF's Mitchel McLaughlin is 'disappointed' at it; confirmation enough that it is sound.
6.3.03
 
The pitchers of water keep flying
Some day in the far future, sociobiologists may conclude we have an innate tendency to argue about sociobiology because this generates heat to keep us warm during the long cold winters. Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias continue the discussion (Mr Drum is puzzled why conservatives like the theory so much; Mr Yglesias seems disappointed that it doesn't mean he should go out and drag a nubile maiden back to his cave.) Mr Yglesias's post, and mine below, are also followed by some provocative comments from Daniel Davies and Scott Martens respectively, two frighteningly smart men who don't like sociobiology/evolutionary psychology one bit.

Check it out, and do your bit to ensure the survival of our species.
4.3.03
 
Differenziert
Amiland, a blog no one can accuse of pandering to German pacifism, has a usefully nuanced take on Gerhard Schr�der's foreign policy (more specifically, his policy towards Bad Countries). It's a refreshing change from the usual 'death to the perfidious Hun' school of warbloggery (and from some of the things Donald Rumsfeld has said).

This is purely my own subjective impression and I may be entirely wrong; but it seems that Americans (and non-Americans in the US camp) have spilt far more bile over the French than over the Germans. That's odd, in a way, as the French position is in fact much closer to that of the US. Unlike the Germans, who Just Say No, the French are quite prepared to see force used in Iraq. Their disagreement with the the US seems mostly one of timing (plus a dogged determination to maximise French influence in the middle East.)

UPDATE (5.3.2003): Erik suggests one answer to my question at Bite the Wax Tadpole: the difference between France and Germany (in the US view) is like the difference between murder and manslaughter... On reading his post I had the impression he was thinking more of negligent homicide than manslaughter, but point taken.
 
Two misunderstandings of sociobiology
Major Cuthbertson's batman, feeling a bit mischievous this morning, slipped the Major a freshly-ironed Guardian in place of the usual Telegraph. He does this quite often, and the rest of the regimental mess waited eagerly to see the Major's monocle pop out and his moustaches fly up at an alarming angle.*

Here's what triggered the show today: a chatty piece by Zoe Williams attacking sociobiology. Williams (or her sub-editor) has provocatively summarised the piece by writing, 'the "science" of sociobiology exists only to explain why men are within their rights to pursue young hotties.' Mr Cuthbertson growls that Ms Williams denies sociobiology for reasons of 'political correctness'.

There's something to his charge. But what Ms Williams is denying is not sociobiology but a cheap caricature thereof (and one that, if accurate, would be eminently worthy of denying). Her article's subtitle gives the game away. No sociobiologist would claim that men are 'within their rights' to pursue young hotties. (Or better, if one did, he would be speaking not in his capacity as sociobiologist but simply as a lecher.) What sociobiologists do claim is that there is a reason why men tend to find young hotties hot, and that reason has been shaped by natural selection. That's far from the same thing.

The discipline of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology as it is now sometimes called) became famous through E.O. Wilson's book of that name. There's nothing particularly 'revolutionary' about what Wilson wrote. He worked within the framework of the 20th century 'neo-Darwinian synthesis', arguing that if two alternatives, x and y (be these anatomical features, behaviours or what have you) have a genetic basis, and if x increases reproductive fitness relative to y, then we may expect that natural selection will, over time, increase the incidence of x and reduce that of y. And he followed G.C. Williams in arguing that (in almost all cases) natural selection works not on groups but on individuals: behaviours and physical characters are not selected because they work 'for the good of the species'. Rather, even in cases where a behaviour seems to be 'selfless' - i.e., in some way harms the animal so behaving, whether that selflessness be 'positive' (altruistic) or 'negative' (spiteful), the behaviour is adaptive only if it is, in a special narrow sense, 'selfish', i.e., increases the chances of the animal's reproductive success. And, following W.D. Hamilton, Wilson recognises that reproductive success need not be personal success. (The celibate worker bee enjoys greater reproductive success by 'selflessly' helping her mother make more sisters than she would by reproducing herself. Admittedly, the haplodiploid bees are a special case; sisters share 75% of their genes. The same case holds more generally, though, as J.B.S. Haldane understood when he remarked that he would lay down his life for two brothers or four cousins.)

Ordinarily, none of this is particularly controversial. (That is, there are controversies over quite a lot of it, but they don't normally inspire people to call biologists nazis or pour pitchers of water over them.) E.O. Wilson wrote about lots of animals, and nobody coughed up their tea. It was only when he turned his attention to one particular animal that those animals became upset. They didn't like the thought that so many of their behaviours, including a number we now all generally agree are bad, could make evolutionary 'good sense'.

But a behaviour that is evolutionarily 'good' may be very bad indeed. All decent people (and most indecent people as well) condemn rape as one of the vilest possible crimes short of murder. Yet rape can be 'successful' in Darwinian terms. In a society in which women are in short supply, a man without the status or personal qualities to attract a woman may be able to reproduce only by rape, assuming he succeeds in impregnating his victim, and that she cannot or will not terminate the pregnancy. And, if a tendency to be willing to perpetrate rape has a genetic basis, this tendency can even be viewed as 'adaptive' under these circumstances. Note that this does not come within a million miles of saying that rape is 'good'. (Yet when R. Thornhill and C.T. Palmer published their study of the biological bases of rape, they were attacked for claiming exactly that, though they took pains to stress they abhorred rape and hoped a better understanding of the behaviour would aid efforts to prevent it.)

It wounds our pride, no doubt, to hear that we are in many ways like other animals. I suspect this lies behind many of the attacks on sociobiology (and on evolutionary theory more generally). Mr Cuthbertson chides Ms Williams for writing that sociobiology's '"agenda is conservative, misogynist and homophobic", as though scientific facts must conform to her political prejudices.' Mr Cuthbertson is right; Ms Williams has let politics cloud her judgement. Certainly there may be sociobiologists whose agenda are conservative, misogynistic or homophobic. The same cannot be said of sociobiology. (Indeed, a homophobic sociobiologist can only have failed to do his homework, for sociobiology offers an explanation of how homosexuality can be an adaptive behaviour!)

Ironically, though, and despite her political axe-grinding, Ms Williams is sounder on the science than is Mr Cuthbertson. She recognises that there is a plethora of reproductive strategies (including more than one among humans). And, where she labours under a political misunderstanding of sociobiology, Mr Cuthbertson oversimplifies the theory itself:
Sociobiology asserts that human behaviour is influenced by the inborn desire to pass on one's genes.
Sociobiology asserts no such thing. Like evolutionary theory in general, it asserts that behaviours tending to increase the passing on of genes contributing to those behaviours tend to become more commonplace. A conscious 'desire' (inborn or not) to pass on one's genes doesn't have anything to do with it. (Here Mr Cuthbertson is falling into the trap Richard Dawkins inadvertently set with his metaphor of the 'selfish gene'. It's a startlingly apt metaphor in the context of Dawkins's book, but of course genes desire nothing; they have no 'selves'. However useful the metaphor, Dawkins has found himself ever since needing to warn his readers over and over again against reading too much into it.)

He goes on:
So when a man falls in love, it is because he has found a woman who will enable this effectively.
Errr... I can't speak for Mr Cuthbertson, of course. But I suspect that most of us fall in love for other reasons altogether. The germ of truth in what he says is that most people find roughly the same sorts of physical characters attractive: heterosexual men tend to like women with an 'hourglass' figure, heterosexual women men with a 'V-shape'; everybody likes more-or-less symmetrical facial features. And these attributes can serve as indicators of reproductive health, or health in general, making their possessors a good evolutionary bet. But most of us fail fully to reflect these ideals (some of us quite dramatically), yet most of us manage to find mates and even to fall in love. Sociobiology doesn't (probably can't) explain why we love; all it can do is explain how countless millennia of evolution have shaped the things we tend to find physically attractive.

Mr Cuthbertson also has a simplistic view of adultery. He thinks it a howling error of Ms Williams to claim that 'women have more to gain, biologically, from promiscuity, and men have more to gain from fidelity.' And so it is, but not for the reason he thinks. Mr Cuthbertson counters this claim with the standard 'sperm is cheap' argument: a man can impregnate any number of women, then leave; a woman must invest far greater time and resources in her children. (A women can abandon a child too, of course; but at least before the advent of the social state, this child had even less chance of surviving to reproductive age than children abandoned by a father; and in the meantime, the woman has been off the Darwinian market for nine months during the which the man can have been impregnating merrily away.) Mr Cuthbertson and Ms Williams are both wrong (the latter should know better, as she understands the variability of reproductive strategies). Strict fidelity can be a quite successful strategy for both men and women. The mother gains the support of the domesticated man, increasing the chances for her children. The man gives up the chance to maximise his sheer numerical success, but (in addition to reducing his exposure to sexually-transmitted disease) gains children likelier to be better equipped for survival and, ultimately, for reproduction of their own; and, crucially, he knows the children for whom he is doing this are his own; he isn't wasting resources on a cuckoo's egg.

Fidelity can be a very successful strategy, but it is not what J. Maynard Smith would call an evolutionarily stable strategy. A population of pure monogamists is vulnerable to invasion by adulterers (and if this happens, then to the extent faithfulness and straying are genetically based, cheaters will become more numerous.) Cheating is in fact quite common in animals, and even (I am told) in humans. The point is, both men and women have incentives to cheat; but their incentives are very different. For men the incentive is obvious. They may enjoy all the reproductive advantages of fidelity, yet pick up a 'bonus' on the side. If cheating men tend, in their wanderings, to leave their genes in even one more child that lives to reproduce, a 'cheating' gene could easily spread. For women the situation is slightly more complex. Women want two things in a mate. First, they want a male who can contribute the best possible genes, to make the package that will contain half their own genes (the child) as good as it may be. Second, they want a male who can contribute the best possible resources for bringing up the child, to ensure that the 'package' has every environmental advantage that may contribute to its later success. The incentive for female cheating, as clever female cheaters realise, is that a woman needn't get both of these things from the same male. (And note well: males and females needn't, and most often probably don't, consciously 'want' any of these things. Rather, natural selection will tend to 'reward' with increasing incidence genetically-based behaviours that produce the same result as 'wanting'.)

Now at this point you are probably saying, 'Just a moment, Mrs Tilton! When I sneak round behind my spouse's back, I very definitely do not have 'increased reproductive success' in mind! In fact, that would make things very messy, and I take pains to ensure it won't happen.' Well, yes. This leads us to another reason why sociobiology has its limits as a tool for understanding who and why we are. Sociobiology is nothing more than evolutionary theory applied. It cannot explain behaviours beyond explaining how they may be adaptive. And we haven't spent very much time at all in our present environment. For most of our history - the time during which some genes were being weeded out and others increasing - we were hunter-gatherers wandering about the savannah in small bands. Many of the behaviours sociobiology can (quite successfully) explain as adaptive may be today mere relics, of no current evolutionary significance, or may even have become non-adaptive. To use an example much loved by science writers, if you are a hunter-gather on an arid plain, never getting quite enough food and most of that of poor quality, it is highly adaptive for your brain and senses to make you feel pleasure in eating something that tastes rich and sweet. That same adaptation lives on, but in making us prone to gorge ourselves on Lindt chocolates it is not really contributing to fitness in quite the same way. In the same way, a sexual behaviour that might have been adaptive a long time ago (though for a very long time) might well be non-adaptive today. So we learn to avoid it (perhaps using religious or ethical teachings as well as social standards as reinforcements), or else learn to avoid the consequences (e.g., through contraception).

I shouldn't have to repeat this, but prudence bids me do so anyway: all the talk above about something being adaptive or 'good' in an evolutionary sense has no bearing whatever on whether that thing is 'good' in the sense we usually use the word.

The moral of the tale is that 'moral' is a word completely out-of-place in biology. Those who recoil at the ideas of sociobiology are victims of the naturalistic fallacy (though it's always possible they are reacting to some debased pop version of sociobiology that itself embodies this error). Mr Cuthbertson is correct in criticising Ms Williams for sacrificing science to 'political correctness'. But he should remember that there are many different political correctnesses, all of them incorrect; and science (evolutionary science in particular, and most particularly bad evolutionary science) may be perverted to serve any of them. Spencer's camp-followers used a crude reading of evolution to promote 'social Darwinism'; Lysenko's neo-Lamarckianism appealed to Stalin's desire to craft a 'new Soviet man'; respect for Godwin's Law stays my hand from citing the most egregious example. Sociobiology is most certainly a legitimate and exciting field of study, but it is best to leave the politics - any politics - out of it.

In the meanwhile, those interested in a thoughtful discussion of some of these issues may wish to read this essay by Simon Blackburn.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum is also thinking about sociobiology at CalPundit.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Peter Cuthbertson insists (see comments) that he doesn't make the mistake of taking evolutionary metaphors literally. I'm happy to learn that he does not. He seems quite upset, and I hope he will understand that I am not attacking him but rather the views he expressed in his post (and I'm not even attacking those with any real venom). His understanding of evolution might very well be better than his post expressed. Nevertheless, he wrote what he wrote; and knowing nothing about what he thinks of evolution beyond what he wrote, I do not think my reading of his post was unfair. But it would be unfair not to highlight his response.

* Peter Cuthbertson doesn't really have a moustache. He doesn't really wear a monocle (or at least, not all the time) and, so far as I know, he is not member of a regimental mess. The description in the first paragraph above is another example of the rhetorical device known as 'cheap caricature'.
 
Au contraire
Props to my homey Ami for plugging T6I.

Ami has obviously wrestled with the question of how I can watch Sabine Christiansen week after week. (Simple answer: it's rollickin' great entertainment!) Ami's conclusion, though, is that I am able to sit through Christiansen because I am British.

As yer man Beckett replied to Pinget...
3.3.03
 
Der Feind meines Feindes
As I've argued before, here and elsewhere, German opposition to a war in Iraq is broad-based, nonpartisan and genuine. And though I believe their opposition mistaken, I am persuaded that, in most Germans, it is an honest mistake.

Germany does, however, have its share of idiots. There's the usual shower of it's-all-about-oil chanters, of course; but then, America has plenty of these too. Yesterday I came across a rather different sort of antiwar activism. I don't think America has quite so much of this. Somebody has gone round sticking up flyers demanding 'No German Troops Abroad... and No Foreign Troops in Germany!' Hmmm... what to make of this? German isolationists? Militant pacifists who want to reduce the US military presence in Germany even beyond the dramatic reductions of the last decade? Hard to say; the front side of the flyer is pretty coy, in fact.

There was something about the tone, though, that awakened suspicion, so I pulled down the flyer to have a look at the back. (I seem somehow to have neglected to put it back up. A regrettable oversight, of course.)

Ah, yes; suspicion confirmed in a sulphurous whiff of nazism. The back side of the flyer didn't say much about the war, except to quote the bits in the German constitution and criminal code that forbid wars of aggression. The main complaint was that Germany 'lacks sovereignty' because of the Feindstaatenklausel of Art. 53 of the UN charter, and that Germans 'can't seek redress for Allied war crimes' during WWII. I have to admire the cheek of German nazis using the constitution to back up their arguments, given that there are few things they hate more than the success of Germany's post-war democracy.

The fine print at the bottom referred to a website. The website publishes a number of essays that true believers are invited to slip into schoolbooks to make sure little Germans get the 'true story' that the State is hiding from them. You needn't bother looking, as you already know what you'll find: Germany wasn't to blame for the war, justice demands the re-Germanisation of Silesia and Prussia and the Sudetenland, it's all the Jews' fault und so weiter. I won't help these people by publishing their URL; you will find all you need to know about their kind here.

Silly nazis. Don't they know Hitler didn't like it when people smuggled flyers into schools? He had them guillotined for it, in fact. Of course, those flyers told the truth about nazism. The publishers of the flyer I found might want to poison schoolchildren, but they'd have been safe enough in the Third Reich.
 
German TV makes Mrs Tilton go all warbloggy
It's Sunday night in Germany - time for the Krise der Woche. I refer, of course, to Sabine Christiansen, the leading deadly-serious political talk show in a country that produces more of this genre per capita than any other place on earth. Christiansen is at the very pinnacle of her profession. She's often joined by ministers of state and leading members of the opposition, key figures from business, academia and the media and the occasional foreign luminary (past guests have included Tony Blair and Bill Gates). When Germany and the world face a crisis that requires earnest frowns - and don't worry, Christiansen will find at least one such crisis every week - this is the place to come for the required orgy of frowning earnestness.

No prizes for guessing the more or less permanent crisis of late. Last night, Christiansen featured government and opposition mouthpieces, a US government advisor and a Kurdish neurosurgeon-in-exile (though as he's become a German citizen since immigrating a decade ago, maybe 'exile' is no longer the right word). The government and oppo men uttered reasonable and measured statements of government and oppo measured reason, respectively. The American somehow managed to come across as measured and reasonable in stating that the US is determined to go into Iraq only with a UN mandate and a wide range of allies, unless it has to go in without one and alone. The ex-Iraqi Kurd was also reasonable and measured in his judgement that Saddam Hussein is a Bad Thing.

But all this reasonable measuredness was mere background noise. The main attractions were actress/leftist militant Vanessa Redgrave and veteran German journalist Peter Scholl-Latour.

Christiansen noted that Redgrave is known for her 'engagement on behalf of the Palestinians'. This is a bit like describing creationists as 'engaged on behalf of religion' - true enough as far as it goes, but somehow it doesn't give the complete picture. Christiansen didn't think it worth mentioning that Redgrave is also a leading figure in a sectarian communist groupuscule. Now, fringe communist sectarians are entitled to their opinions. On specific issues, their opinions might even be sound (unlikely, but it's at least possible). It's not as though Christiansen, by informing her audience of Redgrave's connection to the Marxist Party (UK), would have been automatically disqualifying everything Redgrave said. Still, the disclosure would have been useful, don't you think? Had Christiansen failed to do her homework, or did she think identifying Redgrave as a neotrot cultist would have been, emm, distracting?

So what did Redgrave say, anyway? Well, for starters, There Must Be No War On Iraq. She thinks German chancellor (PM) Gerd Schr�der has done a great job preventing one so far, and hopes he will keep up the good work. (All that Schr�der has done a great job of so far, in fact, is reflecting the broad antiwar consensus among Germans. Why Redgrave thinks this consensus will have any influence on a UN or unilateral US decision to disarm Iraq by force remained unclear.) Redgrave concedes that Hussein is Very Bad Indeed. She thinks he ought to be officially declared a War Criminal. (Declared by whom remained unclear; perhaps the Central Committee of the MP(UK) can perform this essential task.) She also thinks he ought to face charges before the International Criminal Court (though how he'll get there, given that There Must Be No War On Iraq, also remains unclear).

But Scholl-Latour was much, much better. He's resigned himself to the thought that there very probably will be War On Iraq. He doesn't like it, though; he's just visited Iraq, you see, and all the Iraqis he was brought to see assured him that they would fight to the bitter end against American aggression. (The Iraqi exile neurosurgeon, by contrast, reported that most people he knows back home - both in the Kurdish region and in Baghdad - have told him they just might manage to see the positive aspects of American aggression. Perhaps he and Scholl-Latour know different Iraqis.) Scholl-Latour was also sure that, even as he spoke, American special forces troops were busily smuggling weapons of mass destruction into Iraq to serve as post-war justification for an invasion. (And they'd better be, for as Saddam has said, Iraq has no WMD....) And, oh yes, before I forget: this is all merely the first stage in the establishment of a world-wide American empire.

Hats off to Peter Scholl-Latour. It's no great achievement for a veteran journalist to become a fatuous self-regarding windbag. But it takes a special man altogether to make Vanessa Redgrave seem the voice of reason by comparison.

Redgrave's and Scholl-Latour's performances (not to mention Christiansen's uncritical response to same) had a strange effect on me. Though I believe war against Hussein would be justified, I am firmly in the camp of the Sceptical Liberal Hawks. Yet while under the spell of the Christiansen show I found myself practically channelling Steven Den Beste. Could Christiansen be a diabolically clever American propaganda tool?

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