Saturday, February 27, 2016

We are pleased to announce the publication of Volume 12.1, February 2016, of the ASEBL JournalThis issue includes two provocative papers along with reaction from the scholarly community. The process of assembling and editing began in May 2015. Join with me in celebrating the accomplishments of our authors, anonymous readers, and other contributors. 

You can read the issue HERE.

In addition to two hefty co-authored research papers by prominent researchers, there are a number of comments by a range of distinguished academics. Lead paper authors also respond to comments. The issue concludes with a spirited look at a controversial book by an important Indian author. 

Here's a condensed version of the table of contents of the issue.

† Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson“Moral Beliefs about Homosexuality: Testing a Cultural Evolutionary Hypothesis.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Craig T. Palmer and Amber L. Palmer“Why Traditional Ethical Codes Prescribing Self-Sacrifice Are a Puzzle to Evolutionary Theory: The Example of Besa.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Aiman Reyaz and Priyanka Tripathi“Fight with/for the Right: An Analysis of Power-politics in Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades.”

-Gregory F. Tague, editor


Mark Sloan said...

Moral Beliefs about Homosexuality by Newson and Richerson provides an interesting perspective on evaluating the explanatory power of the “kin influence hypothesis” for recent changes and wide diversity of moral beliefs about homosexuality from two contemporary social surveys. (The kin influence hypothesis is essentially that homosexuality becomes more acceptable when economic development reduces the extent to which family members socially influence one another.)

However, I would have liked to see the hypothesis tested against the much larger and diverse data set of all known cultural moral beliefs about homosexuality, not just two contemporary surveys. Testing against larger and more diverse data sets enables making more robust conclusions about the explanatory power of hypotheses.

For example, what if the kin influence hypothesis explained moral beliefs about homosexuality in the two contemporary surveys, but it was unable to explain historical examples of acceptance of homosexuality in societies with high kin influence? That would not be a robust hypothesis.

I would also like to see other hypotheses evaluated that are derivative of what I understand to be the growing consensus in the science of morality – that virtually all past and present descriptively moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies. In that data set we have both 1) cultural moral norms that condemn homosexuality as deserving punishment and 2) cultural moral norms that are accepting of homosexuality and condemn such punishment. The critical point to understand is that these contradictory norms are both elements of strategies that can increase the benefits of cooperation in those societies. Then, understanding which moral norm a particular culture has at a given time becomes simply a matter of identifying the selection forces for moral norms that are most active in that society (such as increased in-group cooperation by demonizing out-groups, such as homosexuals, as a supposed threat) and which subsets of that society are gaining benefits or suffering exploitation due to these norms.

Newson and Richerson end by saying “It is therefore important that social scientists develop and use methods to compare explanations for cultural differences.” I agree. But to effectively do that requires recognizing what moral norms “are” - elements of cooperation strategies. Once they are understood as elements of cooperation strategies, it is much easier to have rational, coherent conversations about which cultural moral norms are most likely to achieve a society’s common goals.

Lesley Newson said...

Thank you for your comment, Mark. The Kin Influence Hypothesis does, as you suggest, propose that non-acceptance of homosexuality originated as part of a cooperation strategy. Families expect their young adult members to cooperate by acting in the interests of the family by ignoring their sexual preferences, marrying a person the family approves of and producing new young family members. I wonder, if some moral beliefs originated as part of a coordination strategy rather than a cooperation strategy.

We do however see problems with your suggestion that we could make more robust conclusions about the explanatory power of the hypothesis by testing it against the much larger and diverse data set of all known cultural moral beliefs about homosexuality. Cultural beliefs about homosexuality are extremely diverse. For example, a number of historical and contemporary cultures accept or at least tolerate what we in the West would refer to as “homosexual behaviour” but do not accept the current Western idea of there being a certain category of person who is “a homosexual” and cannot be expected to marry someone of the opposite sex and produce descendants (Kirkpatrick, 2000). The kin influence hypothesis does not predict that populations with high family influence would condemn all same-sex sexual behaviour. As one of the commentators pointed out, non-exclusive homosexual behaviour is not a threat to the interests of an individual’s family or the fitness of his or her relatives. The use of the contemporary World Values Survey data increases the probability that respondents would give their opinion on homosexuality as defined today in the West, which does threaten the interests of the family and its members.

Kirkpatrick, R. C. (2000). The evolution of human homosexual behavior. Current Anthropology, 41(3), 385-398.

James Waddington said...

This is a follow-up to Lesley Newson’s and Peter Richerson’s response to my comment. I am a huge admirer of Richerson’s Not by Genes Alone (Boyd, 2005). However I do have to point out that within Newson’s and Richerson’s response(and I am grateful that they have devoted so much time to my few paragraphs) they are in error about one particular.
Waddington argues that [Darwin’s] tools cannot be useful in explaining culture…
My project is devoted to using Darwinian tools to explain culture. The book that I am working on starts with the argument “that human culture, which is to say the extended human phenotype, is a subset of the mass of the universe that has evolved, in the manner described by Darwin, step by step and alongside and in obligate symbiosis with the human organism.”
I will put in a nutshell a couple of the axioms which underlie this hypothesis:
1. While inputs to the cerebral cortex are electro-chemical, perceivable outputs from the cortex are always mediated by muscle contraction.
2. Cause and effect can be reduced without distortion to an energy transfer between two entities. (This is not apparently true of quantum entanglement).
Lexemes such as suggestion, evidence, opinion, behaviour occur in natural English and are beyond doubt useful. However their meanings are distributed around a network, often a complex network, of instances. Mind is a good example. The lexeme mind occurs in a great many contexts, and in each one its properties are different. There is no such one thing as mind. As humans, with human brains, our neo-cortexes can deal with this kind of distributed meaning even while the officious Me has difficulty recognising it.
Needle on the other hand has specific referents in the world, closely constrained by shape, substance and topology.
The utterance and auditory reception, or the writing and reading of a word, are transfers of energy. It is a cause and effect sequence.
If I say, “Give me a needle”, I expect to get a needle. If I say, “Speak your mind,” I cannot predict what will happen.
The transfer of energy of my speaking the word “mind” in isolation will have multiple and unanticipatable effects. To save space I’ll refer to nouns with a multiplicity of referents as categorical nouns.
As an example of the difficulties with categorical nouns I suggest:
The hypothesis also suggests that variables which provide evidence of the individual’s opinion of behaviors that weaken the family will predict acceptance of homosexuality.
Here we have a chain of lexemes which can occur in a great many contexts, and in each one their reference may be different. They are predicated upon homosexuality, which as the authors quite rightly point out has been more closely likened to an ethnicity than a fact.
It could be argued that variable has one precise mathematical referent, but that is not the case in
variables representing a number of other factors (e.g. level of education, wealth, employment, personality and socio-economic status).
A variable representing personality that is going to end up as a number accurate to two places of decimals requires massive analytical underpinning.
The paragraph quoted above can be reduced to a chain of five categorical nouns each acting on the preceding one.
If we limit the indeterminacy of reference of each, very conservatively, to three possibilities, I calculate, probably wildly erroneously, the possible outcomes to be over forty three million; anyway, too many for any meaningful conclusion about a predicate the size of an ethnicity.
Peter Richerson in (Boyd, 2005) explicitly abandoned the possibility of a Darwinian approach to culture. It’s there in the sub-headings:
Population thinking is useful even if cultural variants aren’t much like genes
Cultural variants are not replicators
Replicators are not necessary for cumulative evolution
Cultural variants need not be particulate
These are unexceptionable beliefs, but they raise the question of what is understood by evolution rather than, say, change or development.

Lesley Newson said...

James, we apologise for wrongly suggesting that you argue that Darwin's tools cannot be used to explain culture. We obviously misinterpreted some of the statements you made in your commentary - or perhaps we overestimated the extent you agree with the arguments of Massimo Pigliucci whom you cited in your commentary.

Your project to explain culture seems interesting but difficult to adequately summarize in a commentary or blog post.