RE: (Sociology's problems)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 11 Feb 2004 - 15:37:33 GMT

  • Next message: Steven Thiele: "RE: (Sociology's problems)"

    At 11:57 AM 11/02/04 +1100, Steven wrote:


    >In more recent times, sociology has been characterised by a range of
    >different and incompatible positions, most of which must be wrong simply
    >because they can't all be right at once. Sociologists avoid this obvious
    >conclusion by the strategy of presenting the different positions as
    >Sociology is a mess and it is time sociologists admitted this.
    >This doesn't mean that there is nothing of intellectual value going on in
    >sociology, but it does mean that it is a minor current. If anyone
    >disagrees with this, then spell out what sociologists have achieved of
    >lasting value and then compare this with all the nonsense that
    >sociologists have come up with over the last 200 years.

    There was a time when chemistry was observation and recipes without any fundamental understanding of what was actually taking place. Prior to Darwin and the slow infusion of biochemistry, biology was more a descriptive science than one of deep understanding. So the current situation in sociology is not without historical precedent.

    Sociobiology (now renamed evolutionary psychology) has what it takes to lay a deeply rooted foundation under sociology. (In my opinion of course.) When this happens, the buzzing complexity of sociology will be understood in terms of a small number of common psychological traits (such as status seeking) that have evolved in people just as the formerly bewildering complexity of chemistry is now understood in terms of combinations of about a hundred elements.

    Unfortunately, "common psychological traits" can't be understood outside of their environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). We can, however, safely predict that every one of them contributed (in the EEA) to the survival of genes that built the trait.

    Most of the time this meant reproductive success for the individuals who carried the genes, but there are major exceptions due to Hamilton's
    "inclusive fitness" where the genes did well in spite of some of their carriers taking terrible risks or being killed. (As I have been discussing lately about the conditional psychological traits turned on by conditions leading to wars.)

    >If sociology had made a substantial contribution to the understanding of
    >social life there would be no room for deficient explanations like
    >memetics. Memetics only survives because sociology has largely failed in
    >its self appointed task.

    I see no deficiencies inside the frame of memetics. It is just too simple to be wrong. The "memetics frame" though is only a small part of the landscape. If you want to be able to put even a tentative answer to *why* the xenophobic class of memes emerges in ecological situations leading up to war, you have to look at the larger sociobiology/evolutionary psychology picture.

    Incidentally, I don't claim particular brilliance in figuring this out. Motivation was more of a factor. If you want a share of the same motivation, I would be happy to give you explicit directions. :-)

    Keith Henson

    PS: From

    Our species lived as hunter-gatherers 1000 times longer than as anything else. The world that seems so familiar to you and me, a world with roads, schools, grocery stores, factories, farms, and nation-states, has lasted for only an eyeblink of time when compared to our entire evolutionary history. The computer age is only a little older than the typical college student, and the industrial revolution is a mere 200 years old. Agriculture first appeared on earth only 10,000 years ago, and it wasn't until about 5,000 years ago that as many as half of the human population engaged in farming rather than hunting and gathering. Natural selection is a slow process, and there just haven't been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well-adapted to our post-industrial life.

    In other words, our modern skulls house a stone age mind. The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to deal with small, hunter-gatherer-band sized groups of people than with crowds of thousands; it is easier for us to learn to fear snakes than electric sockets, even though electric sockets pose a larger threat than snakes do in most American communities. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in a college classroom or a modern city. In saying that our modern skulls house a stone age mind, we do not mean to imply that our minds are unsophisticated. Quite the contrary: they are very sophisticated computers, whose circuits are elegantly designed to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors routinely faced.

    A necessary (though not sufficient) component of any explanation of behavior -- modern or otherwise -- is a description of the design of the computational machinery that generates it. Behavior in the present is generated by information-processing mechanisms that exist because they solved adaptive problems in the past -- in the ancestral environments in which the human line evolved.

    For this reason, evolutionary psychology is relentlessly past-oriented. Cognitive mechanisms that exist because they solved problems efficiently in the past will not necessarily generate adaptive behavior in the present. Indeed, EPs reject the notion that one has "explained" a behavior pattern by showing that it promotes fitness under modern conditions (for papers on both sides of this controversy, see responses in the same journal issue to Symons (1990) and Tooby and Cosmides (1990a)).

    Although the hominid line is thought to have evolved on the African savannahs, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA, is not a place or time. It is the statistical composite of selection pressures that caused the design of an adaptation. Thus the EEA for one adaptation may be different from that for another. Conditions of terrestrial illumination, which form (part of) the EEA for the vertebrate eye, remained relatively constant for hundreds of millions of years (until the invention of the incandescent bulb); in contrast, the EEA that selected for mechanisms that cause human males to provision their offspring -- a situation that departs from the typical mammalian pattern -- appears to be only about two million years old.

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