Evolutionary Dynamics

Nice to see an excellent science writer, Carl Zimmer, write about an excellent mathematical biologist, Martin Nowak, in an article in the New York Times (via The Loom).

Here is a non-technical lecture on evolutionary dynamics by Martin Nowak.

I also look forward to reading his most recent book, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life.

Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics was established by Harvard’s then President Larry Summers as a way of using the theory of evolution as a common foundation for biology and economics (I am not sure that he took the other social sciences seriously). Judging from the website, the program’s current mission is now somewhat less ambitious. 


New diversity research scares its author

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is very nervous about releasing his new research, and understandably so. His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. He fears that his work on the surprisingly negative effects of diversity will become part of the immigration debate, even though he finds that in the long run, people do forge new communities and new ties.

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer.[…]

Putnam writes: “Across local areas in the United States, Australia, Sweden Canada and Britain, greater ethnic diversity is associated with lower social trust and, at least in some cases, lower investment in public goods.” […]

From City Journal. Previous post here, other references and discussion on Stumbling and Mumbling.

Moral Psychology

Jonathan Haidt’s review paper The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology is here.

People are selfish, yet morally motivated. Morality is universal, yet culturally variable. Such apparent contradictions are dissolving as research from many disciplines converges on a few shared principles, including the importance of moral intuitions, the socially functional (rather than truth-seeking) nature of moral thinking, and the coevolution of moral minds with cultural practices and institutions that create diverse moral communities. I propose a fourth principle to guide future research: Morality is about more than harm and fairness. More research is needed on the collective and religious parts of the moral domain, such as loyalty, authority, and spiritual purity.

 Previous post on Haidt here.

Haidt on the five foundations of morality

Here is a video where Jonathan Haidt talks about the five foundations of morality,

  1. harm/care,
  2. fairness/reciprocity,
  3. ingroup/loyalty,
  4. authority/respect,
  5. purity/sanctity

He makes the point that political liberals (in the American sense) have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations, and therefore misunderstand the moral motivations of political conservatives, who generally rely upon all five foundations (see also here).

But why exactly five and only five foundations? Any proof that there couldn’t be more?

Accelerating human evolution

The concept of the EEA, the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, never made much sense. In its strong form it is based on the misunderstanding that we evolved during the Stone Age, and then we more or less stopped evolving.

World Science reports on a study by Greg Cochran and John Hawks,

The tra­di­tion­al pic­ture of hu­mans as a fi­n­ished prod­uct be­gan to erode in re­cent years, sci­en­t­ists said, with a crop of stud­ies sug­gesting our ev­o­lu­tion in­deed goes on. But the new­est in­vest­i­ga­tion goes fur­ther. It claims the pro­cess has ac­tu­al­ly ac­cel­er­at­ed.

It al­so down­plays the im­por­tance of a much-scru­ti­nized era around 200,000 years ago, when hu­mans con­sid­ered “ana­tom­i­cally mod­ern” first ap­pear in the fos­sil rec­ord. In the stu­dy, this ep­och e­merges as just part of a vast arc of ac­cel­e­rat­ing change.

“The or­i­gin of mod­ern hu­mans was a mi­nor event com­pared to more re­cent ev­o­lu­tion­ary chang­es,” wrote the au­thors of the re­search, in a pre­sent­a­tion slated for Fri­day in Phi­l­a­del­phia at the an­nu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Phys­i­cal An­th­ro­po­l­o­g­ists. [...]

Hawks and Coch­ran said some of the most no­ta­ble phys­i­cal changes in hu­mans have been ones af­fect­ing the size of the brain case.

A “thing that should prob­a­bly wor­ry peo­ple is that brains have been get­ting smaller for 20,000 to 30,000 years,” said Coch­ran. But brain size and in­tel­li­gence aren’t tightly linked, he added. Also, growth in more ad­vanced brain ar­eas might have made up for the shrinkage, Coch­ran said; he spec­u­lated that an al­most break­neck ev­o­lu­tion of high­er fore­heads in some peo­ples may re­flect this. A study in the Jan. 14 Brit­ish Den­tal Jour­nal found such a trend vis­i­ble in Eng­land in just the past mil­len­ni­um, he noted, a mere eye­blink in ev­o­lu­tionary time.

Research pub­lished in the Sept. 9, 2005 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence by Lahn and col­leagues found that two genes linked to brain size are rap­idly evolv­ing in hu­mans.

Harpending on McKinnon on Evolutionary Psychology

Henry Harpending reviews Susan McKinnon’s book Neo-Liberal Genetics,

…She does not complain that evolutionary psychology is bad science according to standard criteria for evaluating science: Instead she dislikes the “rhetorical structures and strategies of the texts.” She deplores the “narrative” of evolutionary psychology because it “severely constricts the kinds of questions we can ask and the kinds of social worlds we can possibly imagine and endeavor to create for ourselves” (p. 152). In other words McKinnon dislikes the implied constraints on her political fantasies.

Everyone understands and deals with evolutionary psychology. We understand why our cat was easier to toilet train than our baby was: One has the brain of a denning predator and the other of a mobile and occasionally arboreal ape. We also understand that there is no “should” implied in this: No one thinks that children should not be toilet trained. MacKinnon, by contrast, attributes to evolutionary psychologists the belief that saying something “is” is the same as saying that that it “ought” to be. Here, for example, is her notion of what genetic individualism means: “that the ‘public good’ should be replaced by individual responsibility and social services privatized; that profit and capital should be maximized through the deregulation of markets – that is, that competition should run its course unchecked – in a ‘race to the bottom’ – regardless of the social consequences” (p. 44). Notice the “shoulds”, none of which are appropriate…

Despite an occasional interesting insight, most of this book reads like a clone of the dreadful wrong-headed ramblings that were the “sociobiology debate” of the 1970s.

Bob Trivers gets the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences

We are a bit late, but here is the announcement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences,

… Robert Trivers, is one of the small group of pioneering scientists who began to ponder on the social behaviour patterns of animals and how they might have arisen through evolution. Between 1971 and 1976, he launched five ideas that have been of the greatest importance for the development of sociobiology. They have inspired many behavioural ecologists, who have to a large extent confirmed Trivers’s ideas.

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