All posts filed under: Hypothesis

The Political Chimp

As of January 2018, the symbolic Doomsday Clock reads two minutes to midnight. The current age of global instability and uncertainty has revived discussion of an age-old question: is war ingrained in human nature? Warfare has been studied for centuries, by everyone from historians of ancient Greece to primatologists. But something strange is happening to the way we consider the subject, especially with respect to the study of chimp-on-chimp violence. Conspecific killing among chimpanzees (i.e. when chimps kill one another) has become a particularly political and controversial topic, and contending arguments seem to reflect the ideological preferences and outlook of the researchers on either side of the debate. At issue are the implications data about primate warfare might have for our understanding of human violence. A link between chimpanzee and human warfare has been stated outright by leading primatologists, who suggest that it demonstrates humans’ innate predisposition for violence. I first encountered this controversy during graduate school. Steven Pinker had just published The Better Angels of Our Nature which provoked heated discussion of war-like behavior as an evolutionary mechanism in humans. Then, two …

The Case for Diversity

Editor’s note: this piece is part of an ongoing series on the subject of diversity. If you would like to join the diversity debate please comment below or send a submission to pitch@quillette.com. The issue of racial and gender diversity in our schools, companies, and communities has become highly politicized. While one tribe sees diversity as an imperative cure-all for many of the world’s problems, another tribe sees diversity as a form of tokenism at best, and a nefarious conspiracy at worst. Even political moderates can have a visceral reaction to the term “diversity” and may accept any line of thinking that validates their reaction, leading to shallow reasoning on all fronts. Rather than advocate for a particular position in this essay, I hope to add some nuance to the conversation and show that the truth is much more complicated than many are willing to admit. The business case for diversity What are the arguments for and against diversity? It’s often claimed with certainty that a diverse workforce is good for a business’s bottom line, but …

“Equalitarianism” and Progressive Bias

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” –Friedrich Nietzsche   “I want to understand how a normal brain becomes conservative,” my professor said. “That is the thing that most puzzles me.” At the time (I was in my early twenties) I completely agreed*. That was the question. Sometimes I would stare at a picture of G. W. Bush like Hamlet staring at a skull, pondering how any sane human could have voted for him. It just didn’t make sense. Progressivism was so obviously correct that it baffled me that anyone could deviate from its basic principles. I didn’t hate conservatives. I even knew one or two. I was just befuddled by them. Most social scientists feel today about conservatives as my professor and I did then. Almost all social scientists (especially social psychologists) are socially liberal, and most of them voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. To many of these scientists, conservatives are like eccentric antiquities that belong in a museum, where they can be …

A Deep Dive into Jordan Peterson’s Channel 4 Interview

When Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson was interviewed on Britain’s Channel 4 last month, gender was the main topic of discussion. The first question set the tone for the rest of the interview: “Jordan Peterson, you’ve said that men need to, quote, ‘grow the hell up.’ Tell me why.” This led to questions about the percentage of men among Peterson’s followers, about whether parts of academia are hostile to men, about the gender pay gap, about the number of women running FTSE 100 companies, about an underlying threat of physicality in discussions between men, about whether the market is driven by men, about whether companies should adopt more female traits, and about why free speech rights should trump transgender people’s rights to not be offended. Even the last few minutes’ talk about lobsters related indirectly to the gender issues they had discussed previously. The interviewer, Cathy Newman, had clearly picked out the parts of Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, that could form the basis for a discussion on gender, …

a Chemical Garden

Where Did We Come From? An Astonishing Hypothesis

“Where did we come from?” Nick Lane’s The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life tries to answer this question. He looks back to two moments in time: 1. When bacteria/archaea appeared on Earth about 4 billion years ago. 2. When complex life (eukaryotes) appeared about 2 to 1.5 billion years ago. Lane discusses both of these events. This article will restrict itself to Lane’s hypothesis about the first of these events: the likely emergence of simple cellular life (bacteria and archaea) from an alkaline hydrothermal vent located near a mid-ocean ridge. I shall also discuss recent research about the likely evolution of viruses. This indicates that the ancestors of modern viruses were independently replicating virocells that co-evolved with the bacteria and archaea, and all three of them – virocells, bacteria and archaea – had a last universal common ancestor (LUCA). Lane’s book does not have a detailed discussion of viruses. Nor does the virocell literature discuss where virocells may have evolved. But if Lane and virocell theory are both right, the first …

The Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism

When the Soviet Union fell, Marxist utopianism came to an end. In the decades since, a new breed of utopianism has gripped the collective imagination. Cosmopolitanism dreams of a borderless world united in peace and understanding, and it is underpinned by a powerful narrative of historical progress that has much in common with its Marxist cousin. Its name is cosmopolitan historicism. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper wrote that “we may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets”. In Popper’s view, historicism was defined by its simplistic understanding of history, viewed as an unfolding of inexorable iron laws. Based on what they saw as their unique insight into these presumed laws, historicists issued wild prophecies about the future of human society. For this they were mercilessly critiqued by Popper. In his eyes, dogmatic attachment to a utopian blueprint provided by what was understood as history’s ultimate destination caused historicist zealots to doggedly push ahead toward the end of history while ignoring signs that their …

Against the Demonization of Drugs

For most of us, the word ‘drugs’ comes burdened with negative associations. Run a quick mental check: how many positive associations come to mind when you think of the term ‘drugs’? However, a ‘drug’ is simply any substance other than food that causes a physiological change when introduced into the body (inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed, absorbed, etc). As such, the term ‘drugs’ is so broad that any sweeping generalization about them is likely to be false. Drugs include a whole spectrum of substances ranging from the highly addictive, such as crack cocaine, to the life saving and pain relieving, such as anaesthetics, to the mind enhancing, such as caffeine, to the purely recreational, such as alcohol. Yet public discourse on the subject is usually limited to the narrow mantra that “drugs are bad.” Where are the people reminding us that “drugs can be good”? There is no doubt that most anti-drug campaigns have good intentions (such as protecting people from addiction), but the simplistic picture they provide makes it difficult to make useful distinctions between …

What is Mindfulness? Nobody Really Knows, and That’s a Problem

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. These days, it’s everywhere, like many ideas and practices drawn from Buddhist texts that have become part of mainstream Western culture. But a review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows the hype is ahead of the evidence. Some reviews of studies on mindfulness suggest it may help with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress. But it’s not clear what type of mindfulness or meditation we need and for what specific problem. The study, involving a large group of researchers, clinicians and meditators, found a clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist. This has potentially serious implications. If vastly different treatments and practices are considered the same, then research evidence for one may be wrongly taken as support for another. At the same time, if we move the goalposts too far or in the wrong direction, we might lose the potential benefits of mindfulness altogether. So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness receives a bewildering assortment of definitions. Psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, …

Is There a Biological Case for Criminal Justice Reform?

Tell a woman the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and if she doesn’t cry, she’s a witch. In the 1500s, women who failed this test were burned alive. The test—clearly and painfully faulty—was not publicly questioned until Dutch physician Johann Weyer wrote “De Praestigiis Daemonum” (or “On the Tricks of Demons”) in 1564. Weyer correctly argued that many older women couldn’t cry due to atrophy of their lachrymal glands. Prosecutors were presented with a dilemma: reform the witch trial system or potentially kill innocent women. A paltry sum of sanity was brought to the system, and hundreds of potential deaths were prevented. Stanford University neurobiology professor Robert Sapolsky believes that today’s U.S. criminal justice system has similar biological blind spots. Just as witch prosecutors didn’t know about the lachrymal glands’ connection to tears, we don’t fully understand an untold number of connections between DNA, the brain, hormones, and other dynamic aspects of the human body. In Sapolsky’s latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he argues that our justice system falls …

What Sadomasochism Can Teach Us About Human Sexuality

Like all good husbands, I took my wife to see the latest instalment of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie series—Fifty Shades Darker­­—on Valentine’s Day weekend. Admittedly, this romantic gesture was not entirely altruistic. As it happens, I am currently doing research on the role of dominance and submission in human sexuality. Although neither of us is in the “scene,” we are nonetheless swept up in the current cultural fascination with consensual sadomasochism, albeit for different reasons. My fascination stems from my general interest in human sexuality and its evolution. My field, evolutionary psychology, has been at the forefront of exploring human behavior through the evolutionary lens for more than two decades, and has made immense advances over the years. Although its greatest accomplishments are in the realm of sex differences and mating behavior, it is not confined to the sexual realm, as is evidenced by the increasing output of research on the evolution of morality,1 religion,2 and politics.3 Indeed, E. O. Wilson’s dream of a consilience of knowledge across the biological sciences and humanities is …