Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Born in abundance?



In the light of Stuart's talk I've been ruminating on some of the upshots. The story so far is that having heard and discussed Knight's theories (relayed in the link) I'm not convinced but I don't think they are beyond the pale and at least need treating seriously. That's by the by.

In another piece, I recall, Stuart discussed the costs of communication - that animals can compete symbollically by investing energy and effort into communication - and so all communication requires, if you like, a gold standard of cost to back up its worth. For example, biologists define altruiism as not attacking forst, humans are a species where we greet with a handshake - not only are we not attacking first, but deliberately revealing our weaponlessness and leaving ourselves open to attack. That requires a great deal of trust.

However - the cost theory of communication is based on the malthusian (non-derogatory) underpinnings of Darwinism - that all beings everywhere are scraping by in subsistence because all species will breed to the limits of their niche (and beyond) - if a species doesn't, another one will.

If, though, we suppose a species that found itself in a new niche - possibly a unique niche where others couldn't follow - and one where it biologically could not breed to fill (because, say, it was a slowly maturing species that produced few babies) then we can posit a species existing not in scarcity, but in abundance.

If it is unable to breed to fill the niche, all it can do is consume more and improve the chances of its small numbers of surviving.

Perhaps, much like physics has problems where it's laws break down at the begining, the Darwinian account of human evolution must break the underlying Malthusian premises - humans are not subject to Malthus now (I'd argue), perhaps we were born in that escape.

Briefly, you could model this as humans as scavengers - the best in the game chasing other scavengers away with stones (hand axes?) - a low investment reward rich startegy in which the immense surplus energy could go to feeding brains and social symbollic pressure to develop coalition consciousness. Which in turn could be teh basis for a meme explosion.

17 Comments:

Blogger DespairToWhere said...

Hi Bill,
Interesting stuff, but not in contradiction with Chris's model as far as I can make out. He discusses what you have to say in chapters 7 and 8 of Blood Relations. I'll make sure Chris sees your post as I may have got that wrong.
All the best

3:36 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Yes, I remember the stuff about scavenging from there.

It's not necessarilly in conflict, though Occam's razor may favour one over t'other. My point was, that perhaps strictly Darwinian models may not apply (and such models are abstractions of complex real world scenarios anyway) and that possibly looking to the internal organisation of the species may miss the fact that it may have been an external environmental change that caused the features we see today.

i don't think, BTW< that my random and evidenceless musings are worth passing on.

I'm just interested in the possible connection between abundance and humanity...

4:24 PM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

OK, though Chris thought you were on the right lines. You say that you're not convinced about the theory. Is there a human origins story that you find more convincing?

5:04 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Well, when I read Blood Relations id did strike me as a bit silver bulletty - which means I think natural caution is called for - extraordinary claims call for extraordinary proof, etc.

I think the Grandmother hypothesis does have legs, as does symbollic competition - specifically coalition politics (which I think creates determinations that exist as mostly uunspoken - in most presentations - premises of Knight's theory).

I don't think we can really go beyond broad strokes, though. Especially not on a blog...

5:39 PM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

I agree with what you say, but disagree that Chris has done that. If he was a Marxist academic or a philosopher or just a political hack, he could get away with whatever wild speculation he liked. His work is published in peer reviewed scientific journals. It's true that wild and unsupportable claims make it into such journals, but their claims don't last long as they are quickly pulled apart or laughed out of court. Chris's major achievement is that he is taken seriously by his scientific peers, and his speculations and evidence not been found wanting.

Once you've had this sort of success, though, you can kill off unpopular or radical ideas by ignoring them, as Engels said happened to Lewis Henry Morgan. That's why I'm doing what little I can to make a noise about it.

Cheers

12:56 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I'm taking the other route and interroagting it mercilessly....

2:55 PM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

So you should (and so of course have his scientific peers and his colleagues, and his model changed under that pressure) though I don't think anything you've said so far falls outside of the model or is a criticism of it.

To my mind, there are only really two ways to challenge this. The first would be to create a rival synthesis, capable of explaining as much in as parsimonious a manner. That's a massive jigsaw puzzle and would probably be a lifetime's work. The other way is to test the model or try to falsify it. If you read Knight's papers, you'll find that he does you the kind favour of specifying what exactly you'd need to find.

I keep meaning to write a blog looking at how Marxism could become a genuine science. It's clearly the best jigsaw on the block (point 1 above), but we should really stick our necks out and think about what would consitute a test or falsification (point 2).

Sorry, rambling in your comments box...

6:54 PM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

... But what the hell, may as well ramble here as anywhere. Another point against Knight's critics occurs. This doesn't apply to you or to anyone who attended my talk, but it's common, and it's what Richard Dawkins calls the "Argument from Personal Incredulity". This is the idea that just because something seems incredible or outrageous to common sense, then it can't possibly be true. It's the creationist argument against evolution, for example. Scientifically, this argument has no standing whatsoever. I personally find Einstein's theories incredible, but don't put any faith in the idea that I might therefore be onto something.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

"Personal increduility", though, is the principle that extrordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Those claims that clash, jar or contradict substantially with existing ideas and perceptions will be held up - quite rightly - and challenged accordingly. The people articulating thew argument may not consciously mean that, but that is the underlying mechanism.

As for challenging it I don't think we have to, Knight is aware enough to call it a myth, and I think we can just stop short of the point of calling in the myth and stick to a 'social pressures' model of brain development without going any further (since we'll never be able to prove any theory).

Also, ISTR looking at your handout and the timeline, IIRC did put the first recorded use of fire before his start dates, which opens up alternative models...

8:08 AM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

Sorry, Bill, you can't have it both ways. Either you want to engage with the theory and the evidence (when humans first started using fires and whether this is in contradiction with Knight's model (it isn't), the rapid growth of the brain, the "Machiavellian intelligence" theories of primatology, etc), or you don't (we'll never know anyway).

I think you've also misunderstood why Knight calls his model a myth in Blood Relations. He doesn't mean by that that he doesn't think it is literally true. He does, and demands that it be tested against the evidence, and falsified if possible. That's the science 'game'; that's how a 'myth' (including the millenarian 'myth' that a communist world is coming) comes to be empowering.

Do you find any of the following claims extraordinary?

1. All of life had a single origin in a gloop of organic molecules a few billion years ago.

2. Mankind evolved from ape-like ancestors.

2. At some point in the future, the mass of humanity will rise up against capitalism and establish a world of cooperation, peace and harmony.

None are less extraordinary or less open to scientific investigation than the topic you have arbitrarily drawn a line around.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I could have it both ways - I'm not putting forward a model, merely knocking one. However, I don't see a contradiction in the current state of knowledge there are simpler theories that suffice, but that doesn't mean I can't entertain Knight's theories on the validity of their logic and structure.

He called it a myth precisely ebcause it's unprovable, and there are equally unprovable myths currently holding the field.

Those facts are amazing, however given that they don't clash with teh current understanding and theorry of the way the world works they are not extraordinary - it is for those who propound a theory to provide proof, not merely be asked to be disproved.

All theories are guilty until provien innocent.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Oh, forgot, I've not drawn an arbitrary line round any subject - the standard of proof stands for all claims to be scientific - I don't consider the claim that there will be a socialist revolution to be a scientific claim cheifly because we can't prove that until after it's happened.

4:36 PM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

There aren't simpler theories that suffice. That's why I asked you earlier which human origins story you found more convincing. I'm convinced there isn't one. If you tell me which ones are sufficient and simpler, then I can join you in the model-knocking fun.

You're still wrong about why Knight said his story was a 'myth'. It was not because he thought it 'unprovable'. If a theory is unprovable (or, rather, untestable or unfalsifiable, no scientific theory can be 'proved') then, whatever other merits it may have, it's not science. If Knight's model was *just* a myth, then it wouldn't have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

To see what he meant by calling his model a myth, see the first few pages of chapter 15 of Blood Relations.

The amazing facts (let's leave aside whether socialism/Marxism is scientific for another day) may not conflict with the state of our knowledge now, but they certainly did in recent times. They were revolutionary ideas and faced an enormous amount of opposition, as I'm sure you're aware. The opposition they faced was actually remarkably similar to what Knight's is facing (from politicos) now. Same arguments; little scientific validity. Knight's model is, I would argue, on more solid ground than Charles Darwin's was when he published. (Darwin had no notion of modern genetics, and therefore nothing but the vaguest notion of how on earth his theory might work.)

It's remarkable that you imply that Knight's model offers no proof (I presume you mean evidence). That is not only a slur on Knight's lifetime's work, but a slur also on the whole field of anthropology. A trip to the anthropology museum in the British Museum and the Natural History museum should relieve you off that notion. There may not be as much evidence as we'd like but you can't build an argument on what's not there, only on what is.

I'll remind you of what I've said before: there's nothing in Knight's model that is extraordinary. Most of it is the accepted wisdom in the fields from which it is drawn. All that's extraordinary is how Knight has made the jigsaw pieces fit together. Bit like Marx's Capital, really.

10:28 PM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

I meant anthropology library in the British Museum.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

There aren't simpler theories that suffice. That's why I asked you earlier which human origins story you found more convincing. I'm convinced there isn't one. If you tell me which ones are sufficient and simpler, then I can join you in the model-knocking fun.

Tehre is - as I've said, simply leaving the end of the story at social pressure - we might not be able to go into further detail then that.

You're still wrong about why Knight said his story was a 'myth'. It was not because he thought it 'unprovable'. If a theory is unprovable (or, rather, untestable or unfalsifiable, no scientific theory can be 'proved') then, whatever other merits it may have, it's not science. If Knight's model was *just* a myth, then it wouldn't have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

No, you can make a scientific claim, which is disprovable, but you might not be able to get any positive proof. Disprovability is merely the invite into the club, after that you have to obey the dress code.

The amazing facts (let's leave aside whether socialism/Marxism is scientific for another day) may not conflict with the state of our knowledge now, but they certainly did in recent times. They were revolutionary ideas and faced an enormous amount of opposition, as I'm sure you're aware. The opposition they faced was actually remarkably similar to what Knight's is facing (from politicos) now. Same arguments; little scientific validity. Knight's model is, I would argue, on more solid ground than Charles Darwin's was when he published. (Darwin had no notion of modern genetics, and therefore nothing but the vaguest notion of how on earth his theory might work.)

Yes, they required extrordinary proof. If you came in and told me it had been raining - even if you were dry, I'd believe you, that requires no strong rproof. If you told me it had been raining frogs, I'd require proof.

It's remarkable that you imply that Knight's model offers no proof (I presume you mean evidence). That is not only a slur on Knight's lifetime's work, but a slur also on the whole field of anthropology. A trip to the anthropology museum in the British Museum and the Natural History museum should relieve you off that notion. There may not be as much evidence as we'd like but you can't build an argument on what's not there, only on what is.

I'm implying nothing, merely that the evidence presented to date doesn't convince me, and I'd need more - that's hardly a slur on anyone, only on the perfidy of the evidence in not presenting itself.

I'll remind you of what I've said before: there's nothing in Knight's model that is extraordinary. Most of it is the accepted wisdom in the fields from which it is drawn. All that's extraordinary is how Knight has made the jigsaw pieces fit together. Bit like Marx's Capital, really.

It is making significant claims, which require significant proof. Until then, it's just one model among many.

9:28 AM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

"Tehre is - as I've said, simply leaving the end of the story at social pressure - we might not be able to go into further detail then that."

That's not a theory, and it's not a human origins story that would convince anyone, not even those that stand as rivals to Knight's. It's just one fragment of evidence. Standing alone, it doesn't explain anything. It just states the problem in different words.

"No, you can make a scientific claim, which is disprovable, but you might not be able to get any positive proof. Disprovability is merely the invite into the club, after that you have to obey the dress code."

Not sure what the significance of this is, but it doesn't contradict anything I said. Human origins stories are a mix of positive proof and inspired (falsifiable, testable) guess work. Paleoanthropologists find one tooth, or a fragment of jaw, from a million year old hominid. What can they tell? Nothing for certain. But they're not after certainty. They're after testable models. And what they can deduce from that one tooth would put Sherlock Holmes himself to shame.

"Yes, they required extrordinary proof. If you came in and told me it had been raining - even if you were dry, I'd believe you, that requires no strong rproof. If you told me it had been raining frogs, I'd require proof."

No, they required the same kinds of proof that Knight uses to back up his model. There is no film footage of the origins of life, or of our ape-like ancestors. Neither is there of the origins of human culture. What you're demanding is indeed the impossible.

"I'm implying nothing, merely that the evidence presented to date doesn't convince me, and I'd need more - that's hardly a slur on anyone, only on the perfidy of the evidence in not presenting itself. "

To remain unconvinced is one thing. I don't know of a single person in the Radical Anthropology Group who doesn't remain sceptical. But there's reasonable and unreasonable scepticism, and the latter is I think based on the deep and wide public misunderstanding of science. An important contemporary example is climate change. Many people say they are "sceptical" because they know there is a lot of uncertainty and debate over climate change models. But uncertainty and debate are the stuff of science. That doesn't mean that something approaching a scientific consensus doesn't exist. It doesn't mean climate change isn't (very probably) real.

"It is making significant claims, which require significant proof. Until then, it's just one model among many."

It is, but you've still not named a rival one. The point is that Knight's is the best, and I challenge you again to name a better one so that I can throw some sceptical, critical comments back at you.
All the best

11:24 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

It is, but you've still not named a rival one. The point is that Knight's is the best, and I challenge you again to name a better one so that I can throw some sceptical, critical comments back at you.

Nope - don't have to - your answer above outlines my position nicely, there is no proof, there is no definitive theory, all we can do is go to very broad generalisations.

I like Knight's theory, I think it's cute, but I wouldn't spend my time promoting it - in my opinion, it's just not strong enough. I don't care about if there are any stronger or less strong theories, I don't have one to defend, you do.

1:06 PM  

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