Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pop Goes the Sociobiologist

The Times op-ed section a while ago published a peculiarly conflicted pop science account of sociobiology. Pinker's account reads like a blog posting someone should have read over or submitted to peer review.

[The original article has been removed to the Times pay site, but it might be found at his Harvard promotion site.] http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/

Sniffing Out the Gay Gene

By STEVEN PINKER Published: May 17, 2005 Cambridge, Mass.

A team of Swedish neuroscientists scanned people's brains as they smelled a testosterone derivative found in men's sweat and an estrogen-like compound found in women's urine. In heterosexual men, a part of the hypothalamus (the seat of physical drives) responded to the female compound but not the male one; in heterosexual women and homosexual men, it was the other way around. What is evolutionarily adaptive and what is morally justifiable have little to do with each other. Many laudable activities - being faithful to one's spouse, turning the other cheek, treating every child as precious, loving thy neighbor as thyself - are "biological errors" and are rare or unknown in the natural world.

Steven Pinker, a professor of cognitive science at Harvard, is the author of "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate."

BrooklynDodger(s) comment: Steven Pinker published a popular book on language and cognition, "The Language Instinct," when on the faculty at MIT. Now it appears he's moved west on Mass Ave to Harvard. Linguistics at MIT was the fort from which Noam Chomsky launched a scientific revolution, and also his personal political campaign to remake thinking about first the Vietnam War, imperialism generally, and the middle east.

The "Language Instinct" was an interesting book, with a lot of computational stuff on language recognition which appeared convincing, perhaps because it was recondite and reflective of computer programming logic.

Since then, Pinker has gone over to the dark side. The paragraphs above are pretty bogus, an example of the arrogance of going beyond a technical range and trading on academic credentials.

First, the Dodger(s) wants to see some inter-rater variability data on these brain MRI's before even crediting the observation in the first place. The Dodger(s) doesn't(don't) doubt that female hormones lit up one of the straight guys, whose brain scan made the publication, and air-balled a gay guy, whose picture also made it.

What's the scoring system, how many were scanned, how were straight and gay determined, all of that stuff.

Second, the sociobiology of evaluating every trait in a phenotype as having to be adaptive is bogus, generating just-so stories. Some stuff is there as a by product of something else which does create a selection advantage.

Third, the second paragraph dumps the entire literature on re-iterated prisoner's dilemma. Cooperation benefits the species, exploitation diminishes the species. The mechanisms by which cooperation is enhanced and preserved are a subject of study. For people, it's not how many children a male can procreate, it's how many of them which prosper and procreate which enhances the penetration of some genetic trait in the male in the population. Men taking care of children rather than running out can be adaptive in the circumstance where nurture is important. Maybe more adaptive now than it was before agriculture was invented 10,00 years ago.

Both types of traits are also carried by females, and may be expressed in females [perhaps in a different way] and impact their reproductive success, and that of offspring. Likewise female traits.

No comments: