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"We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers"
October 13, 2007 7:36 PM   Subscribe

"We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers." Evolutionary psychologist Andy Thomson analyzes suicide terrorism from the perspective of evolutionary biology. The presentation was part of the Atheist Alliance International convention in D.C. last month.
posted by McLir (19 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
If you're curious to learn more about evolutionary psychology, I had an Ask about the topic that was very useful.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:49 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Bleh... what disturbs me is the vast amount of giggling that goes on during this lecture.

I could do without that. It's a serious subject.
posted by Sam.Burdick at 8:38 PM on October 13, 2007


Please stop confusing "evolutionary biology" with "evolutionary psychology." It's like calling an astronomer an astrologist.
posted by nasreddin at 10:35 PM on October 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


That's a harsh comparison for an astrologist, nasreddin.
posted by Alex404 at 10:49 PM on October 13, 2007


Evolutionary psychology is the new social darwinism.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:00 AM on October 14, 2007


In the case of Thomson's presentation, I don't see anything "astrological." He bases his arguments on strong empirical evidence.

The segment on male coalitions was particularly interesting. I was reminded of Daniel Dennett's advocacy for compulsory religious education (largely to encourage religion in benign forms).

When I was a kid, I played war. I can see how organized male violence is part of the male psyche. I'm curious whether we can (similar to Dennett's recommend) encourage this tendency for male coalitions in benign forms.
posted by McLir at 1:10 AM on October 14, 2007


No not even close. Social darwinism means rich people justifying their position. Evolutionary psychology means left wing people trying to get other left wing people to use more effective measures. Just read A Darwinian Left by Peter Singer. Yes, that's the animal rights guy there, not yours. lol

In-fact evolutionary psychology ideas are embraced by aid workers & such whenever their useful. For example, aid workers much prefer giving food & medicine to women rather than men---women make sure people get enough while men hoard & get a prostitute. Micro loans are similarly targeted for women.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:22 AM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'd like to disagree with this guy but I don't have time to watch more than an hour of video right now...could someone summarize this three prongs for me?

I was really into sociobiology when I was a teenager, about the same time I discovered Nietzsche. The explanations from evolution are always retroactive and always the same. Humans exhibit a huge variety of behaviors. The evolutionary psychologist picks some very broadly defined behavior like "war" or "suicide" which, because of how broadly defined it is, can be found throughout all eras and cultures. Then they say "well, it must be how we evolved" and they fish around in prehistorical conditions for something they can call a selective pressure in favor of "war" or "suicide". But of course it's easy to find something that could somehow correlate with "war" or "suicide", since you're looking retroactively, you don't have to make any prognoses, you don't have to worry about your theory being falsified by anything. And if humans had turned out differently -- say, if "war" did not exist -- then the evolutionary psychologist would explain this in the exact same way. They would again say that we must have evolved to be this way and they would again just fish around for something they could correlate with the behavior. The explanations are always retroactive, non-specific, and non-falsifiable and thus their explanatory value begins to approach zero. It's as much speculation as you'll find in any religion.

On preview: jeffburdges, that's a great example. If it's true that "women make sure people get enough while men hoard & get a prostitute" then they didn't found this to be true using the theory of evolution. They found that it was true independently of evolutionary theory just by looking at what happens over and over again when they give food and medicine to the men in these cultures, and by looking at how much more effective it is to give them to women. And then after finding this to be true, we can speculate that we evolved this way; but if the reverse had been true, if men had been better sharers than women, we would of course also speculate that that's how we evolved.
posted by creasy boy at 1:38 AM on October 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Evolutionary psychology is intelligent design reversed. It's smart people making theoretical predictions about how things must be when they already know what the result is that they are predicting. Amazingly, their predictions have always already come true 100% of the time. That kind of support for your theory is hard to fake. Therefore evolutionary psychologists are the very best scientists
posted by srboisvert at 1:42 AM on October 14, 2007


creasy boy, Peter Singer's point is precisely that such a move by aid workers is antithetical to the historical Marxist basis for modern leftist thought. But evolutionary thinking means our hypothetical aid worker notices the trend more quickly, and generalizes it more widely.

As I said, evolutinary psychology isn't about left vs. right. It's just about how those who seek to improve society should best conceptualize & generalize their observations. Do you fight biology or manipulate it?
posted by jeffburdges at 2:22 AM on October 14, 2007


If anybody is curious he goes by the name James Anderson Thomson and is a forensic psychiatrist. The majority of his publications are in lower impact journals and all of his listed publications appear to be non-experimental (I don't have journal access at home). Don't view this as a scientist speaking about science. It is more like a applied practitioner who is delivering a descriptive historical talk with largely unsupported speculation.

When I hear talks like this it always highlights the huge gulf between experimental psychology and clinical/practitioner psychology. It's unfortunate that they share the name of Psychology because they are really quite different.
posted by srboisvert at 2:34 AM on October 14, 2007


jeffburges, it never occurred to me that evolutionary psychology is about 'left vs. right', you're the one who brought up "A Darwinian Left". I find it hard to imagine an actual situation in which an aid worker finds evolutionary psychology a better prognostic tool than Marxism. Who is this aid worker?

Marxism at least can be used to make prognoses and thus can be falsified or, if it turns out to be true on balance, could maybe have some explanatory value. Whereas the explanations from evolution cannot predict anything. The aid worker only knows that in the cultures where she works, the men hoard and the women share. The aid worker has no evidence as to whether its universal or just cultural, and Darwinism on its own can hardly entitle us to predict whether 'hoarding' or the opposite is universal or variable. Darwinism just says that whatever does turn out to be the case will have evolved that way through natural selection.

But, again, I strongly suspect that the aid worker consults neither Marx nor Darwin but rather notices that giving women the food is a much more effective technique.
posted by creasy boy at 2:35 AM on October 14, 2007


Just so I don't waste my time, is it anything like this article which argues that practitioners of Islam are uniquely predisposed to be killing machines?
posted by Deathalicious at 3:25 AM on October 14, 2007


Just so I don't waste my time, is it anything like this article which argues that practitioners of Islam are uniquely predisposed to be killing machines?

No.
posted by srboisvert at 3:30 AM on October 14, 2007


In-fact cultural gender roles are embraced by aid workers & such whenever their useful. For example, aid workers much prefer giving food & medicine to women rather than men---women make sure people get enough while men hoard & get a prostitute. Micro loans are similarly targeted for women.

Fixed that for you.
posted by afu at 3:52 AM on October 14, 2007


creasy boy, No aid workers may not generalize their observations. But there are plenty of people studing their efforts.

It's fairly obviously that evolutionary biology provides many more testable hypotheses than Marxism, and the experements won't cost as much.

For example, in the US, you could easily grant women more access than men to wellfare and need based scholarships, but even before you try you can just ask biologists if the standard effects visible in say micro loans will be as pronounced in these age groups.

Deathalicious, His point is that one must accept that suicide attacks are the coalitionary violence tendencies present in all human males, but exploited by religion in a specific way. He views the suicide bombers are victims of their religious leaders.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:12 AM on October 14, 2007


afu, I don't know but I've been under the impression that this effect is cross cultural in general, if maybe slightly weaker in the west.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:16 AM on October 14, 2007


It's got a nice comment about sexual segregation at 3:30. heh
posted by jeffburdges at 4:41 AM on October 14, 2007


For example, in the US, you could easily grant women more access than men to wellfare and need based scholarships, but even before you try you can just ask biologists if the standard effects visible in say micro loans will be as pronounced in these age groups.

So, just to be clear on what you're saying -- you think you can go to a biologist and ask whether American women will use welfare checks more responsibly than men? and the biologist is the expert on this? based on evolutionary theory? and you don't think this is bringing us dangerously close to social Darwinism?

I might believe you that women, for whatever reason, tend on average to use money, food etc. more responsibly for their family. I wouldn't be surprised if this were true in Africa and in America. But appending the explanation "because we evolved that way" is rather vacuous, since, as I said, if it had turned out that men were the better caretakers we would have the same explanation: "because we evolved that way". Evolutionary explanations of how we already know ourselves to be do not unearth any new facts, they merely append the same vacuous explanation to facts that we already have. You might as well just say "because God intends it that way".

Evolutionary biology can produce testable hypotheses like: if an animal population expresses characteristics a and b, and you introduce factor x that favors a, then they will all become a (maybe the animals are moths and a is a white coloring instead of a black coloring). But this has nothing to do with evolutionary psychology, where the human species has already evolved, you have no control group, and the behaviors are so complex that it's almost impossible to distinguish culture from nature.

You can see the vacuousness of the explanation with your suicide bomber example: "the coalitionary violence tendencies present in all human males, but exploited by religion in a specific way". Oh OK: so the reason why certain people become suicide bombers depends, it turns out, on the religion that exploits this tendency, in other words on culture. So when suicide bombers arise you can say it's because we evolved that way, but the people who aren't suicide bombers also evolved that way, and so the difference turns out to be entirely cultural. The evolutionary part explains people being suicide bombers equally as well as it explains them not being suicide bombers, in other words it explains relatively little and could hardly be called testable. Bad science.
posted by creasy boy at 7:38 AM on October 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


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