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November 06, 2002

Evobio Keeps Up With the Times


I don’t know if you noticed, but the NY Times Science Times section of November 5 was an orgy of sociobiology, or at least stories with a strong sociobiological dimension. The stories included “Weighing the Grandma Factor” which covered the first international conference devoted to grandmothers:

It turns out that there is a reason children are perpetually yearning for the flour-dusted, mythical figure called grandma or granny or oma or abuelita. As a number of participants at the conference demonstrated, the presence or absence of a grandmother often spelled the difference in traditional subsistence cultures between life or death for the grandchildren.

It also included a book review of Dr. Olivia Judson’s “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation” which seems to be pretty entertaining, judging from the following:

Eggs are few, and sperm are many. This microscopic-level asymmetry is the root cause of ardent civil war that in every species pits male against male, and male against female. Males, from sea lions and fruit bats to [the] Taliban, are driven to control females’ fertility so as to ensure their own paternity. But a female’s interest usually lies in having many lovers…[enabling her] to guard against male sterility, to ensure diversity in her offspring, to encourage each male in her group to think that he is the father and protect her children accordingly and to encourage competition among the sperm of several males so as to ensure her egg gets the best. “Natural selection, it seems, often smiles on strumpets,” Dr. Tatiana writes without much hint of regret. “Sorry, boys.”
judson.jpg Olivia Judson, Ph.D., a.k.a. Dr. Tatiana

Of course, not everyone is a convinced sociobiologist. In “Brain Power: The Search for Origins” we hear from Dr. Terrence J. Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego who is advancing a more culture-centric view of brain development:

“It’s true you can’t separate the question of who we are from the world our ancestors passed through on their way to becoming us,” Dr. Sejnowski said. But that evolution did not occur in the relatively stable savanna described by evolutionary psychologists, he said, but rather during a period of unusual, extreme and rapid oscillations in climate. If the brain evolved any trait during the Peistocene, he declared, it was flexibility.

However, before arguing for a “blanker-slate” theory, Dr. Senjnoski should check in on another story in the section, “On Profit, Loss and the Mysteries of the Mind: A Conversation with Daniel Kahneman”

I think the major phenomenon we [he and Dr. Tversky, his long-time research partner] observed is what we called “loss aversion.” There is an asymmetry between gains and losses, and it really is very dramatic and very easy to see. In my classes, I say: “I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would have have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?” People want more than $20 before it is acceptable. And now I’ve been doing the same thing with executives or very rich people, asking about tossing a coin and losing $10,000 if it’s tails. And they want $20,000 before they’ll take the gamble.

Gee, I don’t know, sounds like a bit of, ahem, genetic wisdom to me. You can read these stories here (although it requires registering.)



posted by Friedrich at November 6, 2002


That's quite a landmark, if the NYT is taking fair-minded note of evo-bio thinking. Hard to imagine that it reflects any deep change in how they see things, though. In fact, coming to think of it, I'm looking forward to seeing how they're going to fold it back into their usual drippy-PC vision.

Posted by: Michael on November 6, 2002 1:57 PM

The problem with sociobiology is actually the problem with excessive claims for Darwin's natural selection, and a flawed methodology that is clearly visible in the 'ethical mechanics', a non-starter, entailed by selectionist monism. I think my 'eonic model' makes toast of such excessive claims, and we can not only see the factor of macroevolution in history, we can infer from that that something MAJOR is missing from Darwin's account of the descent of man.

Posted by: John Landon on November 12, 2002 9:14 AM

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