Ken Miller's book scores well on several points, but ends up weak on the task he set himself.
The first three-fifths of this book is a well presented r...moreKen Miller's book scores well on several points, but ends up weak on the task he set himself.
The first three-fifths of this book is a well presented rebuttal on the accusations the Intelligent Design (ID, née Creationism) community has made against the Darwinian theory of evolution. Miller is an excellent advocate: he presents the science at enough depth to convince and to satisfy the more technically-minded among his audience, without getting overly burdened by details. He reveals the astonishing story that ID's attacks have indirectly strengthened the Darwinian argument by posing a series of supposedly fatal flaws, only to fail time and again: evolution answers those challenges with yet more fascinating and delightful molecular legerdemain.
But Miller didn't set himself the task of merely defending Darwin's science, but providing a plan of defense against the broader attack the ID movement is attempting: the overthrow of the Enlightenment's materialist world view, the foundation of the scientific method.
At this point, confusion accumulates. Miller's qualifications are incomparable for the discussion of science, but the larger attack is one of social philosophy, involving questions of theology and ontology, as well as the tactics of manipulation of the raw populace of the United States and western world. Miller does a better job than most could -- his citations of Augustine and Aquinas are spot-on -- but his argument lacks focus, clarity and, above all, force. After plowing through the final hundred pages, we are left to wonder how reassuring the assertion that "we are made of stardust" would be to Joe the plumber as he considers his vote for his school board. That is, of course, a cruel trivialization of those hundred pages, but it is hard to draw out anything more concrete.
Only a Theory is definitely a worthwhile read, both to understand the attacks on and defense of Darwin's theory, and as an introduction to the ID movement's frightening attempt to roll back hundreds of years of progress in thought and knowledge.
But Miller's attempt at providing a strategic outline of a cultural defense or counterattack -- no.
P.S. Miller cites Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind while discussing the means and ends of culture wars. It occurred to me that Miller is, perhaps, like Bloom in an important way: Bloom's vituperative lambaste was an overreaction to the worst excesses of academia's embrace of postmodern cultural relativism. But the system didn't fail: Bloom had underestimated the common sense of plain folk and had mistrusted the inherent appeal of the better choice. I hope and suspect that Miller is also reacting to his worst fears, and that the recent efforts of the ID movement will be its high tide mark -- its very successes have exposed it to too much glaring scrutiny. American's have gone through paroxysms of reactionary extremism before, after all. The republic survived McCarthyism, and will survive Intelligent Design. (less)
(Excellent article discussing this book's major theme was printed in the New York Times on 3 March 2009.)
Less than halfway through, but this is a good...more(Excellent article discussing this book's major theme was printed in the New York Times on 3 March 2009.)
Less than halfway through, but this is a good book and I've got to start getting my notes into coherent form.
• Hrdy is an academic (over 100 pages of this book is allocated to endnotes and bibliography), but her writing style is very accessible given the subject.
• Key proposition: "the crucial different between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions" (p. 9).
• Two revelations, one quite startling. First, the way we got to the above is via collaborative caregiving to children.
• Second: children — even neonatal — are subject to evolutionary pressures just as adults are. Becoming cute is fundamentally adaptive: a child that becomes attractive to caregivers increases the likelihood that it will survive compared to its non-cute competitors. Evolution has provided infants and children with instinctive abilities and subconscious strategies intended to co-opt others into providing care.
• Primate contrast: the other Great Apes besides humans exhibit obsessive and jealous maternal care. If a gorilla or orangutan infant in the wild is ever not in its mother's embrace, it is almost certainly because the mother is dead. Mothers not only don't permit others to assist in caregiving, they literally aren't out of contact with the infant for the first four or six months of the infant's life (p. 68ff).
• More like humans are the callitrichids, which as New World monkeys, aren't even all that closely related to humans. But they: (1) breed fast, like humans (other Great Apes breed much slower than we do), (2) enlist many others in caregiving, (3) adapt quickly to new environments and thus spread quickly (p. 94ff).
• Disconcerting quote: "Children do best in societies where childrearing is considered too important to be left entirely to parents" (p. 103). A corollary of the "It Takes a Village" hypothesis, heavily backed by empirical evidence.
• Disconcerting research: A child's nutritional status is best predicted by the security of a child's attachment to his mother, however that attachment shows no significant association to the child's socio-emotional development. "The strongest predictor of empathy, dominance, independence, and achievement orientation often turned out to be a strong attachment to a non-parental caregiver" (p. 131).
Basic theory: humans differentiated from other Great Apes when they adopted the novel (compared to the other Great Apes) strategy for cooperative caregiving of the young. By enlisting others in care (especially pre- and post-fertile females), a mother is free to acquire calories and accelerate the next breeding cycle.
» This isn't novel across all species, just within Great Apes. Plenty of other species have collaborative care.
» However, Great Apes had already evolved social tribes, for collaboration in defense. Most social animals rely on biochemical cues; Great Apes had developed large-ish brains instead, using them to track relationships and hierarchy.
» Large brains already using social cognition, when paired with collaborative caregiving, put evolutionary pressure on children to develop social strategies to enhance survival odds: become attractive to alloparents or die.
» Babies instinctively scan adult faces for cues to emotional states to gauge intention, and thus which might become caregivers and what strategy to use to manipulate those adults. For example, an infant must choose whether to cry or coo, to babble and giggle or be coy (p. 139). Proto-human infants are subject to cognitive challenges that will have evolutionary survival significance.
» Babbling, for example, may be a strategy to capture the attention of adults long enough to co-opt them. Note that infants babble at strangers more often than mothers. Babbling doesn't occur in continuous-care-and-contact species such as chimpanzees, but does among a few other collaborative caregivers, such as marmosets (callitrichids). Hrdy believes babbling arose long before speech. (P. 122ff.)
» Evolutionary pressures developed social skills in infants and children, and increase the social abilities of the adult brain as well, thus giving rise to more and more complex societies.
» Other Great Apes juveniles play, just as humans do. But those other apes will have spent their infancy with their mothers in continuous-care-and-contact, where interacting with others is not a critical part of survival. Proto-humans, in contrast, will already be relative masters at empathy and engagement (p. 138).
• Role of father. The most significant aspect of paternal care seems to be the provision of meat. In many primitive cultures it is not provided reliably, but can still be a major source of annual calories. But in some cultures meat is major: the Ache derive 87% of their annual calories from game (p. 152).
• When assistance in provisioning for children looks sketchy, women (or both parents) would add an extra "father" to the family. Among the Ache, children with two "fathers" were better fed and on average more likely to survive (p. 155).
• In traditional China, a nominally patriarchal society, extra men might be added to provide additional wages (p. 153). (Perhaps we'll see this again to deal with the surplus of males in China.)
• "When they find themselves 'hungry for meat', Kulina women order men to go hunting. On their return, each woman selects a hunter other than her own husband as a partner. 'At the end of the day the men return in a group to the village, where the adult women form a large semicircle and sing erotically provocative songs ... asking for their "meat"' (p. 156ff). (Didn't Michener use something like this in his Hawaii?)
• Stepchildren are notoriously vulnerable. However, "one stepchild ... who fared unusually well was also a nephew, the child of a deceased brother whose mother the hunter had married" (p. 158). (Doesn't the Old Testament command something like this? Hmmm, no: Deuteronomy 25:5-10 only applies to brothers without issue. Strange.)
Children are addictive. Keeping children fed is so crucial that parental brains are heavily conditioned.
» Example one. Animals respond instinctively to stimuli that might sometimes be triggered inappropriately. Here a Northern Cardinal is feeding a goldfish, whose gaping mouth apparently was similar enough to a chick's (p. 201).
» You know that rats will chose cocaine over food, right? They'll starve themselves to death to feed their addition. So which wins: cocaine or infants? No contest: the mother rat will forgo the cocaine for pups (p. 213).
» Babies encourage kidnapping. Immature female lemurs will hunger for experience with babies so much that if none are available in their troop, they'll risk kidnapping one from a neighboring troop (p. 219).
» Babies do this on purpose. Even at the risk of higher predation, babies evolve signs that indicate "Baby on board": coloration that is very highly visible, for example. Or, for humans, extra plumpness that indicates they are healthy and full-term and thus worth keeping (p. 223ff).
» Humans have more resistance — this comes with cooperative breeding. If a new mother doesn't perceive adequate social resources, she is more likely to abandon the baby or suffer post-partum depression. Both humans and other socially breeding primates are more provisional regarding care; continuous-care-and-contact primate mothers are obsessive and not provisional at all.
• "Among foragers, any girl sufficiently well-fed to ovulate in her early teens was, almost by definition, a girl surrounded by supportive kin, people who after she gave birth were likely to be willing to help her rear her young. After the Pleistocene, and increasingly over the ensuing centuries, even young women still psychologically immature and woefully lacking in sympathy or social support could nevertheless be well-fed enough to ovulate and conceive while still in their early teens." (p. 287)
• "Perverse as it sounds ... it appears that children today have begun to survive too well. ... Back in the Pleistocene, any child who was fortunate enough to grow up acquired a sense of emotional security by default. Those without committed mothers and also lacking allomothers responsive to their needs would rarely have survived long enough for the emotional sequelae of neglect to matter. Today, this is no longer true..." (p. 290).
• Alarmist conclusion: "If empathy and understanding develop only under particular rearing circumstances, and if an ever-increasing proportion of the species fails to encounter those conditions but nevertheless survives to to reproduce, it won't matter how valuable the underpinnings for collaborations were in the past. Compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish" (p. 293). Probably wrong. Even if the circumstances that gave rise to these attributes in evolutionary history were to disappear, the traits themselves are strongly adaptive (recall the monkeys-on-a-plane story the book opened with), and the fact that the attributes can be expressed means evolution is more likely to select for their continued presence by other means than for their absences.
Back to central thesis: Before evolutionary divergence, we shared with other great apes advanced cognitive capacities, Machiavellian intelligence, and an incipient "theory of mind". What triggered our development into more advanced humans was the shift to cooperative breeding, which isn't actually very rare, even among primates (just not among apes). Larger brains, language, etc., arose from that convergence (p. 280).
This book was good, but it was either written too early — or perhaps it was written with the wrong perspective.
The basic concept: the author put himse...moreThis book was good, but it was either written too early — or perhaps it was written with the wrong perspective.
The basic concept: the author put himself through as many of the next generation medical tests as he could, in three primary areas: genetics, toxicology, and neurology. Some of these tests are available to the average patient/consumer under limited circumstances, but the majority are out of reach. This might simply be due to cost, but others are still so experimental the implications of their results aren’t even well understood by the scientists, much less doctors and patients.
In theory, what made the book more than just a litany of tests was the personal impact on a human: the author. He worked hard to make us understand when he feared the results, when the test itself was onerous, how he felt when taking a test that might tell him bad news without recourse to treatment. Sometimes that worked, but more often his experiences as “the experimental man” were too distant and abstract. He was and remains, after all, a fundamentally healthy middle-aged man.
The best part of the book was the description of the various tests and the growing realization of how much things are changing. In the next decade or so, these tests will reveal aspects of what is going on inside us that would have been inconceivable just a decade or so ago. How are these very expensive tests going to be made available? Some are already on the consumer market, others require a doctor’s request. But what if the testing companies become like the drug companies and encourage us to push and shove our doctors into requesting tests we might not need? What will this do to already critical health care costs?
The book’s other strong point was when the tests the author took shed light on his brother’s health problems, or on his daughter’s future health. This allowed him to dip his toe into the dilemma of knowledge without power. Some tests partially explained what was ailing his brother, but provided absolutely no promise of help, much less health. Other tests hinted his daughter might face serious problems in the future—but was this knowledge a boon or a burden?
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the book ended up a litany of exams taken for no real reason by a healthy person. Perhaps it was written too early: in a few more years when these tests are closer to having a real impact on a large number of people this would have been a more interesting and informative litany. Or perhaps the perspective was wrong: he could have found other cases similar to his brother’s, involving people with real problems which these tests might soon be able to help with—or at least better illuminate. There would have been much more drama, although perhaps also more heartbreak.
For anyone interested in what kind of medical science we’re heading for, this is still a worthwhile book, despite its limitations.
P.S., for amusement only: I took one of the online cognitive tests pointed to in the book (via www.experimentalman.com) entitled “What’s the Age of Your Brain?” and received the pleasant if somewhat startling result that the brain in my fifty-year-old body is a mere 18 years old.
He comes home, just a little late, to a quiet house. As he opens the door, he can smell the Chinese takeout she had mentioned in her text message.
Drop...moreHe comes home, just a little late, to a quiet house. As he opens the door, he can smell the Chinese takeout she had mentioned in her text message.
Dropping his bag, he turns into the dining room and stops short. Spread across the table, mixed in with the takeout cartons, are dozens of academic journals, along with notepads full of scrawled handwriting and hastily drawn figures. But what his eyes linger over are other things, like the empty caulking gun, the bathing cap, several rubber spatulas. And duct tape—of course, there's always duct tape. Lying on the floor are several large trash bags, some glistening with an oily sheen.
At the far end of the table he sees that his wife is smiling up at him with that childlike enthusiasm that so charmed him, years ago. The rest of the world is still enamored of his beautiful and brilliant wife, the famous animal sex researcher and journalist, and her impish grin. He alone understands there are burdens to bear that go along with genius.
"Hem. Uhm—ahem—", he starts to greet her, to ask how her day has been, but he is also trying gauge his risk, and consider whether he has any escape from her... enthusiasms. "—how are you?" He coughs, and spots the food, "Is the Chinese still hot?"
"Oh. No, but we can reheat it. But I was thinking of doing something special with it", her eyebrows rising. Considering the possibilities, he is astonished at the innocence of her smirk.
Hastily, he takes a half step back. "Oh, no—that's fine—I'm not very hungry, really". Thank goodness for the snacks at that afternoon meeting. He coughs again, a carefully measured cough, "I'm thinking of heading to bed early. There's a cold going around, and I want to curl up under the blankets. Maybe read for a bit."
"Oh, that's probably a good idea." She steps to him and hugs him warmly, "maybe a hot bath first?"
He almost shudders. He knows the dangers of the tub on an evening like this. He glances at the table. Is that Crustacean Sexual Biology buried under the bungee cords? He hasn't been in the jacuzzi since that night, months ago...
"No, uh, I'm not really feeling sick. Just a bit preemptive."
She smiles up at him. "As your personal doctor, I endorse that heartily. But reading in bed is a bad habit, you know." Giggling, she flicks off the dining room lights and takes his hand. "I've got a much better idea."
He briefly winces, suddenly trapped. Struggles for an excuse... anything.
But he's cut off. She leads him up the stairs, smiling over her shoulder. "I know exactly how to make sure you get a good night's sleep. I learned a trick from a tropical spider mite that I've been studying all afternoon." Too late, he spots the folded graph paper in her other hand and whimpers.