The Panglossian Paradigm thrives in the Intellectual Dork Web


I knew A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein was going to be a bad book just from the title alone, and so I haven’t read it and won’t read it, unless it becomes inexplicably popular and I need to start addressing its arguments. I’m on the fence about whether that will happen. On the one hand, the reviews have been scathing and the excerpts I’ve seen have been infantile; on the other hand, infantile bullshit of the evolutionary psychology type seems to be popular on the Right. I have to be grateful to people like Stuart Ritchie, who has read the book and wrote one of those scathing reviews that I hope will kill a bad book a-birthing.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that modern society really is terribly bad for us (although, given vast increases in life expectancy, we shouldn’t). How do we know which parts of human nature are the ones we should take better account of? Heying and Weinstein’s answer is essentially everything. If it is something complex, costly (in terms of energy or materials), and has been around for a long time in evolutionary or cultural history, it’s probably an adaptation – there for a reason, and not a mere accident.

This does readers a disservice. The debate over “adaptationism” in biology is long-running, and is not going to be solved by glib reasoning like this. Heying and Weinstein lunge clumsily at evolution’s Gordian knot, fail even to nick it with their blade, yet still smugly tell their audience that they have sliced it right in half.

Well helloooo, Dr Pangloss. This is pure panadaptionism, which also happens to be the foundation of evolutionary psychology.

My easy argument against universal optimization in evolution is the mammalian scrotum. Our body temperature is around 37°C, but the various enzymes involved in maturation of sperm, as well as the proteins for motility, are optimized for 33°C. Place mature sperm in a test tube at 37°, and they break down and lose all motility within hours, while sperm at room temperature (20°) remain happy little wigglers for nearly a full day. (Don’t panic at the nightmare that comes to mind with that fact — out of the test tube, dessication and bacterial action kill them quickly. Toilet seat impregnations are virtually impossible.)

The average mammalian solution to this problem is an adaptation, evolved with good reason to solve a real problem. Dangle those baby-makers out in the cool breeze! Does that mean we must regard it as a good solution? No. It’s more of an ad hoc, jury-rigged answer, a bad temporary fix that has become permanent because it’s easier to keep doing the same old thing rather than going in and adapting the sperm production facilities and now relocating the factory to a safer spot.

And we know it’s not the only possible solution. Birds have high body temperatures, too, and their testicles are tucked deep into their bodies. I guess they managed to evolve biochemical processes that could cope with their standard body temperatures. Marine mammals use water cooling, wrapping internal testicles with vascular networks that first cool blood by passage near the skin surface before arriving at the gonads. Some mammals, like elephants and rhinos, retain the basal condition — internal testes — and evolved changes to testis metabolism that allowed them to function internally at the same time their cousins, our ancestors, struggled with the incompatibility in optimal temperatures and committed to the duct-tape-and-baling-wire solution of letting the testes flap in the wind.

So yeah, panadaptationism is a crock. It doesn’t take into account the fact that adaptations can have secondary consequences, and that dismantling a temporarily successful solution can be more expensive than doing the job right in the first place. There are multiple adaptive peaks, and some of them are separated from a more thoroughly adaptive solution by deep valleys.

The biggest problem with panadaptationism, though, is that it leads to rampant and ridiculous rationalizations of whatever bogus preconceptions the authors have in their heads. If something exists, it must have an adaptive reason for it, therefore all you have to do is point to something like fascism, and since it definitely exists, there must be some virtuous cause that has lead to that solution. Heying and Weinstein are not quite that blatant, but they do indulge in quite a bit of pseudoscientific invention.

Not that the authors do much better when they engage with studies. They make alarming pronouncements based on flimsy data, such as when they say that water fluoridation is “neurotoxic” to children based on one reference to a “pilot study”. They lazily repeat false information from other pop-science books, such as the “fact” that all known species sleep (some, including certain amphibians, don’t!). The final chapter, in which they embrace the bonkers “degrowth” movement, contains what might be the single stupidest paragraph on economics ever written (claiming, bizarrely, that the invention of more efficient versions of products such as fridges would bring the economy to its knees).

But maybe what’ll make this book totally irrelevant, sparing me any need to read it, is that Heying and Weinstein are just bad writers. I’ve listened to some of their podcast, and their arrogance shows there, too.

Above all, Heying and Weinstein are really annoying. Their seen-it-all, know-it-all attitude is grating from around page five, and becomes increasingly irksome as they pontificate their way through each chapter. If only you knew as much about evolution as they do, you would know how to organise society. You would know to “steer clear” of genetically modified food (the millions of lives saved by such food apparently don’t warrant a mention). You’d know not to have casual sex. You’d know not to look at your smartphone so much. And so on.

And they haven’t merely solved the central questions of biology. They are also, apparently, the best teachers imaginable. Without embarrassment, they quote a student describing their classroom as “an ancestral mode for which I was primed, but didn’t even know existed”. Their towering self-regard gives them the false belief that all their arguments – including the book’s premise, which is just a repackaging of 18th-century Burkean conservatism with a faux-Darwinian paint job – are staggeringly innovative.

One can hope their obvious incompetence kills their message, but I said the same thing about creationists and Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro. At some point, expertise and actual knowledge are the things that become irrelevant, if the message is what your audience wants to hear.

Comments

  1. says

    This sounds a lot like the old standard fascist blithering that we’re all animals, therefore we should stop trying to suppress our true animal natures, stop trying to “chain” ourselves and each other with civilized norms and rules, “rebarbarize,” and embrace and follow the primal animal instincts that drive, and protect, our true selves.

  2. raven says

    They make alarming pronouncements based on flimsy data, such as when they say that water fluoridation is “neurotoxic” to children based on one reference to a “pilot study”.

    These are crackpots, members of the lunatic fringe.

    The question isn’t, are they wrong?
    It is, how wrong are they about how much?
    It’s somewhere between a lot and everything.

  3. raven says

    PZ mentioned Jordan Who above as the peer group of the current lunatic fringers.
    When last we saw Peterson, he was off the ventilator in Moscow after trying to get off his benzodiazapine drug addiction, went to Serbia, and caught the Covid-19 virus.

    He is still a babbling idiot.
    We’ve had vaccine mandates for centuries. We have all followed them. To go to most schools as children we needed to be vaccinated for a long series of illnesses. For me back in the Dark Ages it was tetanus, diptheria, and whooping cough. Later on it was polio.
    You also need vaccinations to travel to and from various countries and if you join (or were drafted) into the military.

    Peterson. “being driven by people who are more afraid than they should be”. Guy is still an idiot. The Covid-19 virus is one of the most dangerous in objective terms we’ve had to deal with since the 1918 flu. The body count is a huge 800,000 which is probably an undercount with more like 1.2 million dead Americans. The number of long haulers is roughly 25% of the 50 million cases at 12.5 million and many of those will be permanently disabled.

    Peterson is still an exceptional dumb idiot.

    Newsweek Jordan Peterson Says COVID Vaccine Mandates Imitate Totalitarian States
    BY AILA SLISCO ON 11/11/21 AT 7:24 PM EST

    Controversial Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson has blasted COVID-19 vaccine mandates as an imitation of “a totalitarian state.”

    The self-proclaimed “professor against political correctness” said that COVID-19 policy was “being driven by people who are more afraid than they should be” during an appearance on the conservative talk show The Rubin Report on Wednesday.

    Peterson, who argued that the mandates were an example of “herd” mentality, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in August 2020 while receiving treatment for prescription drug dependence in Serbia and has since been vaccinated against the virus.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    I would definitely read “A Hunter-Killer’s Guide to the 21 Century Or Wherever the Enemies of Skynet Are Hiding”.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    “Water fluoridation”.
    In other words, you can get their $$$ by selling them the Brooklyn Bridge. I must strike quickly before someone else “harvests” Weinstein and Heying.

  6. billseymour says

    Remembered from a Mary Tyler Moore Show of many years ago:

    Mary’s mother (explaining why she took a bus):  If we were meant to fly, we would have been born with wings.

    Mary:  Yes, instead of wheels.

  7. DanDare says

    Vaxine mandates just like nazi rules only if you ignore the intent. I get this piece of drivel from friends who are amazed that the rules are kindof sortof similar. I point out that muslim theocracies don’t let women drive and we don’t let drunk people drive, therefore we must be a muslim theocracy too.

  8. crimsonsage says

    @9 You beat me to it. Unless I am mistaken the degrowth movement is about using that with we produce effectively and humanely and not focusing on endless mindless consumption. As it is we produce enough food, clothes, and shelter for everyone in the world several times over already, why do we still need growth?

    Maybe the author is thinking of like some sort if an anprim thing or something?

  9. John Morales says

    As it is we produce enough food, clothes, and shelter for everyone in the world several times over already, why do we still need growth?

    Fashion.

  10. F.O. says

    I don’t have any problem with the book being bad, but the reviewer calling the degrowth movement “bonkers” is enough for me to dismiss his review entirely; in the best case scenario he didn’t do his homework and has no fucking clue what he’s talking about.

    https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Degrowth

  11. Kagehi says

    It doesn’t take into account the fact that adaptations can have secondary consequences, and that dismantling a temporarily successful solution can be more expensive than doing the job right in the first place.

    The truly stupid thing about there attempt to claim that “evolved systems” somehow optimize things better than this is that half the shit we engineer has this same problem – its cheaper to keep making some crap design, which sort of works, but maybe badly, than waste the time and effort to re-engineer the damn thing to remove all the bugs, glitches, and problems. In some cases, proper function is even DEPENDENT on these flaws, with any attempt to correct them likely to render the design non-functional entirely. But.. this is a, presumably, “biologist” trying to out think and engineer, or if there are engineers involved, then bloody hell, don’t hire these people, for anything, because it won’t be the “efficiency” of what ever they design for you that ends you business, it will be the 20x as much wasted effort they put into telling you, “Wait, this doesn’t quite work right, we need 12 more months to redesign it!”

  12. KG says

    numerobis@9,14, crimsonsage@11,

    I’d also like to see some evidence for the “millions of lives saved by” GM foods. There’s plenty of nonsense produced by anti-GMO groups, but also by GM-boosters. As crimsonsage@11 points out, the wolrd produces enough food for everyone – the problem is that a lot of people are too poor to buy what they need, and by reinforcing the dominance of agribusiness corporations, GM technology could well exacerbate that.

  13. KG says

    Further to #17, I’m not myself a particular fan of “degrowth” – what needs to shrink is the destructive effects of human societies on the ecosphere; conventional measures of economic growth such as GGP are a distraction, and there are a lot of poor people who very much need to increase their consumption, as well as a lot of rich ones who need to reduce theirs. And “efficiency” isn’t an unalloyed good. It may result in putting people out of work, which in the absence of universal basic income/services means putting them in poverty, and there’s also the “Jevons paradox”: increasing the efficiency with which a particular resource is used often increases the total amount of that resource used, because it makes previously uneconomic uses viable.

  14. davidc1 says

    @3 In the guardian it says that 37 American service people have been kicked out of the military for refusing a covid vaccine .
    And in other covid news ,a guy whose wife won a legal battle to have him treated with ivermectin has died ,what a surprise .

  15. Jazzlet says

    Kagehi @16
    Way back in the mists of time (early1980s) my biotechnology professor told us about an attempt to increase the efficiency of sugar making plant. Samples had been taken, studies had been done, and it was established that a percentage of the sugar refined was being consumed by bacteria. The plant was thoroughly cleaned, sterile liquid sugars introduced, and it wouldn’t crystalise. After a lot more work, along with an expensive plant being off line while the work was done, it was realised that yes, the bacteria did eat a small percentage of the total sugar out put, but they also provided the nucleus on which the crystalisation occured. The bacteria were reintroduced and the plant again produced crystals of sugar. Whenever you eat crytals of sugar each has a bacteria at it’s heart.

  16. VolcanoMan says

    I thought the more you studied a subject, the more you realized how little you knew about it? Like…both of these people are professors, having attained doctorates in evolutionary biology. Surely they are well-informed enough to NOT fall into the old Dunning-Kruger trap on their own subject (nevermind assuming that they have top-tier knowledge and expertise in psychology…a field neither studied beyond the undergraduate level).

    Now that I think about it though, this is a common trap for academic “influencer”-type people. And I don’t understand why…are these people just blinded by their own intellect, to the point where they start to believe that they know everything worth knowing? It’s ludicrous…like, does Sam Harris really think that HE’S the guy who’s going to solve the is-ought problem, a philosophical rule articulated by one of the most celebrated intellectuals EVER? He should know better. Why don’t they know better?

  17. says

    @21: Maybe they’re PAID not to know better, by interest-groups who need a veneer of scienciness as cover/excuse for whatever policies (or non-policies) are beneficial to them.

  18. VolcanoMan says

    @22

    Maybe that’s true for some of them. But I think most genuinely believe that they’re taking a principled stand. More importantly, only a few toe the line on what have become known as “conservative” values, supporting unconstrained capitalism/corporatism, traditionalism and “family values.” Guys like Harris are about as anti-Trump as it’s possible to be, and they generally believe in, and support strong action against climate change, as well as agreeing with major left-wing policies like female bodily autonomy (unconstrained access to birth control and abortion), providing a universal basic income to all people, raising taxes on the wealthy, reforming the justice system, etc.

    I have no trouble believing that hacks like Peterson are paid to be morons, but it does seem like the vast majority of these guys (and yes, most are men) would be ideological allies, but for a couple extremely moronic ideas they’ve spouted. Also, I do think some are being manipulated by the right…the commitment to “freeze peach” as a foundational value has suckered many a would-be liberal to go all libertarian. But even those people seem like useful idiots, and believe in their heart of hearts that they’re left-wingers protecting the left from its own worse impulses.

    I dunno…it has always been difficult for me to understand how someone can be so smart, and so STUPID at the same time.

  19. unclefrogy says

    these people seem to be living in some kind of protective bubble separate from the harsh realities of existence how else could they be so irrational as to not believe the evidence so easily available that illustrates their errors.
    I am continually astounded .

  20. Pierce R. Butler says

    Late to the party here, but I brought a question about a different dubious book.

    Has anybody read Harvard evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven’s T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us (Holt, 2021)? An excessively conventionally-minded but well-meaning friend has pushed recommendations for it at me as part of his argument that transwomen should stay out of women’s athletics, but when I looked it up via a web search every site supporting it belonged to either booksellers or Murdoch minions and their ilk. Hooven’s own promotional publicity apparently consists of appearances on False Noise and podcasts by the like of Joe Rogan and Andrew Sullivan. :-P

    Nowhere have I found a review by anyone even claiming credentials as a biologist, which is what I want before possibly wasting days and risking confusion of what little endocrinology I know on apparently-misleading material.

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