Introducing three new papers on the concept of group selection, which Steven Pinker calls “a scientific dust bunny, a hairy blob in which anything having to do with ‘groups’ clings to anything having to do with ‘selection’.”
“Monsters of the Night”, my review of The Myth of the Born Criminal by Jarkko Jalava, Stephanie Griffiths, and Michael Maraun, is now live at the Literary Review of Canada. Unfortunately, I had to excise a few sentences to keep within the magazine's word limit, and a bit of context was lost in the shuffle. Count this, then, as a very brief postscript.
For five years—and probably more—I've been tinkering with an idea. I think it may be the most interesting one I've ever had, and I'm overjoyed to say that it's just been published in fine form in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. (Don't worry: there's a video at the bottom of this page that will make sense of it, I promise. Feel free to skip to the end if you'd rather not wait.)
We live in the most peaceful time humans have ever known, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. In the wake of civil war in Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan, in the news reports of a multiple homicide in your city, in the increasing layers of security you are subject to whenever you attempt the trip from the airline check-in desk to your departure gate, it is impossible not to get the impression that we live in one of the bloodiest times in history. Nevertheless, Steven Pinker has convincingly proved that impression wrong.
Over the last two weeks, media coverage of an article has repeatedly found its way into my inbox. It’s an interesting piece by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler on the genetics of friendship. The article is very technical, but the take-away is perfectly simple: friends have more genes in common than you’d expect, except where they have fewer genes in common than what you’d expect. OK, so maybe it’s not perfectly simple.
Last January, the Wall Street Journal published a spectacularly hyperbolic letter. Written by billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins, it likened today’s “rich” to Jewish Germans living in the shadow of the Nazis, defended novelist Danielle Steel (Perkins’ ex-wife) against allegations of snobbery, and warned of “a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent” that is bound to culminate in a “progressive” Kristallnacht. As this fretful piece made the rounds, it was ridiculed, partially recanted, awkwardly defended, and, as is par for the course, made worse in the retelling.
There’s a good chance that you’re familiar with the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS), even if you don’t know it by name. Replaced in 2011 by the National Terrorism Advisory System, it was that color-coded notification system developed in the wake of 9/11 that ostensibly functioned to alert the public of a probable terrorist threat to the United States. Green indicated a low risk of attack; blue, a general risk; yellow, an elevated risk; orange, a high risk; and red, a severe risk. In spite of the supposed “generality” of the blue level, the advisory had not once been lower than an “elevated” yellow in its nine years of existence. Instead, it vacillated between yellow and orange for the most part, though it did strike red in 2006.
As I argued previously, reproductive variance was the first inequality—all other forms that matter to us, like income inequality, do so because they have historically been related to reproductive variance. Those with more resources, for instance, had more babies that survived to reproduce; when possible, those babies also tended to inherit their parents’ resources, starting the cycle anew. These chronic effects on reproductive success have imposed selection pressures on the human mind to compete optimally for resources.
As far as hot button issues go, income inequality is certainly having a moment. A worldwide, popular movement was spurred on by it, several Nobel-prized economists have damned it in no uncertain terms, Barack Obama made it a pillar of his presidency (though, on this, he may have begun to waver), and The New York Times has devoted a regular series to it.
In the midst of the financial panic sparked by the fall of Lehman Brothers, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from mid-1987 to 2006, shocked the American public. Testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on October 23, 2008, Greenspan had this extraordinary exchange with Representative Henry Waxman...
In my last post, I dismissed a common objection to the study of the genetics of behavior, political or otherwise: complexity—as in, development is too complex for genes to affect behavior. I hope that I managed to convey the certainty with which scientists have answered the question “does genetic variation affect behavior?” in the affirmative. There is a considerable body of evidence substantiating this claim, from the most basic (centuries of animal husbandry by domestication) to the most extraordinary (myriad knock out, knock down, knock in, and transgenic experiments). We are no longer dealing with correlations alone but with unambiguous cause and effect: polygamous voles turn monogamous, anxious mice relax, and heterosexual fruit flies become bisexual, all at the turn of a gene or three.
Cake is a marvelous thing. It comes in all varieties of shape and size, understated or ornamented, whole or tiered, vanillaed or chocolated or anything-ed in between, and it always seems to deliver. One especially satisfying feature of the mighty cake is that it presents itself to the taster as a unified whole, rather than as a mere assemblage of ingredients, baked at a specified temperature for a specified time.