Tuesday, August 21, 2007

With a wave of the hand: capitalism, history and genes, part II

I was pleased to see Gregory Clark's 'response' at Cliopatria to critical comments on his new book A Farewell to Alms. (Thanks to Sharon for lending me her scare quotes.)

And then I read it. And was less pleased.

Now, obviously, the 'you haven't read my book' defence upon which Clark relies rather heavily can be an effective one. Up to a point.

I, for one, have not read his book (nor did I claim to have), which is why my original critique concluded in the way it did, by hoping that my comments would help pose some 'questions' that Clark's readers should keep in mind with regard to his assumptions and framework.

As to those assumptions and that framework, Clark is also right, of course, that books and arguments can become badly mangled in brief reviews, even those, as Clark helpfully points out, in such prestigious publications as The Economist, the Financial Times and the New York Times.

Nobody, after all, is perfect.

However, Clark's defence becomes a bit more inexpensive (I'll avoid the more harsh synonym for the moment) when he suggests that all the critiques he has so far received are based merely based upon 'misapprehensions' due to 900 word reviews.

I, for one, linked to and quoted from a paper of Clark's (more than 60 pages; some 13,000 words) that appears to contain at least some of the fundamental arguments contained in his book.

Obviously, in a book one can flesh out and revise the materials that have been earlier developed in articles and papers; however: an argument based upon shaky foundations is not strengthened by adding height.

The book--as described in various places--sounded a lot like the essay, and that was the basis of my critique. This was sufficient information, I think, to raise relevant questions about at least the basics of Clark's thesis, questions that could have been answered directly and succinctly, had Clark decided to do so.

Instead, in his 'response'--alongside the 'read the book' defence--he makes an argument that can, I think, be described with some fairness as 'cheap':

The one thing that of course gets people most riled up is the possibility raised that there may be genetic differences between societies like China or England which had long experience with stable, settled capital intensive agrarian life, and those such as the Australian Aboriginals who had no such experience. Now, of course, when Jared Diamond made exactly this type of speculation at the beginning of Guns, Germs and Steel, based on nothing more than guesswork, it raised not a murmur as far as I know, because he was speculating that New Guinea tribesmen were likely smarter than Europeans as a result of this process. And if I had written a book confirming this, all would have been sweetness and light. People, it seems are not opposed to talking about possible genetic differences between groups. They just have very strong priors about what genetic differences they would like to see.

Here, Clark tries to brush off criticism as mere political correctness or, maybe, some kind of more general bio-phobia. He also succeeds in being enormously condescending by suggesting that people are simply getting 'riled up' (read: making purely knee-jerk, hysterical responses) by his argument rather than having more serious qualms about his approach and conclusions. So far, so predictable.

Undoubtedly, there will be people who reject his argument on these grounds, but, as I sought to point out, there are good methodological reasons to question Clark's emphasis on genetic change as the motive force behind capitalist development.

The reference to Jared Diamond is odd in this context and deserves a moment's thought. Diamond did indeed make what I think is an ill-judged 'speculation' about the greater intelligence of New Guineans than Westerners in the introduction to Guns, Germs and Steel. However, there are at least two reasons why Diamond's speculation is of somewhat different quality. (Clark really doesn't like this comment from Diamond: it also features in his 'Genetically Capitalist?' article.)

First, anyone who has read Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel would realise that Diamond's comments on Aboriginal intelligence are a brief digression (the key pages in the paperback version would be 18-22), are hedged in by Diamond's scepticism about the whole issue of measuring genetic-based intelligence, and, most significantly, play no further role in the rest of his relentlessly detailed, nearly-500-page argument. Indeed, one of the key insights of Diamond's work is that genetic difference (other than that perhaps related to disease resistance) is unnecessary in explaining enormous differences in social development. (One might say the same about what we understand about evolutionary psychology, but more on that anon...)

To imply that this speculative comment is somehow emblematic of Diamond's argument is...well, unfair and somewhat bizarre.

The second difference is related to the historiographical context in which Diamond brings up his thoughts on intelligence. Why is his speculation that hunter-gatherers might (as a 'possibility') be more intelligent less controversial? Well, that just might be because Diamond felt the need, before embarking on an argument to explain the historical emergence of Western dominance, to distance himself from the many previous arguments that approached the same question and were based on specious notions of biological superiority (and that did have some very 'strong priors' about what they were willing to see).

Furthermore, I think that people are automatically less suspicious of notions of genetic influences on intelligence when they are being claimed for groups other than the one to which the person making the claim belongs.

The fact that the radical constructionist fable about the blank slate has become more than tiresome doesn't mean that any old dodgy argument about genetic difference should get a free pass.

(And a third point occurs to me: what planet has professor Clark been living on? Diamond's book was greeted with far from universal acclaim, least of all in the historical profession. I've run across as many people who find Diamond's biogeographical approach as 'determinist' and 'eurocentric' as who admire it.)

In explaining cultural change, Clark continues:

you cannot rule out the possibility of genetics. That may have implications to some people that are profoundly distasteful. But if we commit when we study human history to only admitting accounts full of hope and uplift regardless of the data, then why bother collecting more data?
The Argument from Distaste, it's safe to say, is a variation on the PC defence noted above and can be ignored.

But here, maybe, I find at least some common ground with Clark, since I too am frustrated with scholarship (or science) that puts its activism before its rigour. I, too, think that we have to explore the way the world is rather than confuse that with the way we think it ought to be.

But not only am I doubtful about whether Clark has identified the way the world is, he seems to be making a blanket claim that cannot be sustained: that those who question his research are doing so simply because they don't like the results rather than because they pose serious methodological questions about his approach.

One of those methodological issues, to reiterate slightly from my earlier post, is that in arguing for a significant role for genetic change within historical time Clark is arguing against the extensive findings of evolutionary psychology.

Actually, no I'm wrong. He doesn't so much argue against them as simply ignore them.

As I mentioned, although there is an abundance of economics citations in his 'Genetically Capitalist?' paper, there is a notable dearth of natural science literature on gene-culture coevolution, population genetics, evolutionary psychology or neuroscience, fields that, we might think, are at least tangentially related to the argument he is making.

Now, I do not expect Clark to necessarily agree with evolutionary psychologists on topics such as, say, whether complex psychological adaptations are necessarily adaptive in present societies (their answer: often they are not) or whether they can be affected by selection over a matter of centuries (their answer: with all probability, no).

However, if he is going to include the genetic argument as a serious part of his argument, then he should engage with and address those fields (or at least read a few good summaries) somewhere in his 420 pages.

If it's not a serious part of his argument, then what is it doing there?

For those interested in an overview of evolutionary psychological perspectives, I recommend this chapter by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (PDF) from David Buss's Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. It is dense and long and contains thorough citations.

It also contains, for instance, observations like this:

Thus, humans are free to vary genetically in their superficial, nonfunctional traits but are constrained by natural selection to share a largely universal genetic design for their complex, evolved functional architecture. Even relatively simple cognitive programs must contain a large number of interdependent processing steps, limiting the nature of the variation that can exist without violating the program’s functional integrity. The psychic unity of humankind—that is, a universal and uniform human nature—is necessarily imposed to the extent and along those dimensions that our psychologies are collections of complex adaptations. In short, selection, interacting with sexual recombination, tends to impose at the genetic level near uniformity in the functional design of our complex neurocomputational machinery. (p.39)
This is only the conclusion of a rather detailed section, and if you choose to take a look at it, you will find that it contains extensive citations on the debate about the interaction between evolution and society.

Clark is free to disagree with such conclusions and assumptions, and I don't for a moment claim that evolutionary psychology is the last word on the matter.

Does it 'rule out the possibility of' genetics' (or, more specifically, Clark's claim of more recent genetic changes encouraging the transmission of 'middle-class values')? No, not absolutely. But saying that it is impossible to 'rule out the possibility' of something is very different than providing reasons to think it is a good idea to build an argument upon it. And one of the things that evolutionary psychologists have done is to provide many reasons why the kind of social change and cultural variability that Clark highlights is possible in the absence of genetic change.

If Clark has startling new data about genes, then that would be very welcome. But I doubt that he does.

Again, if this is a serious part of his argument, then he should have engaged with at least some of the (extensive, readable, not hard to find) literature that has sought to nail down precisely the kind of relationships between evolved nature and culture that he seems to be interested in.

He doesn't do this in the Times article. He doesn't do this in the 'Genetically Capitalist?' essay.

It is possible, of course, that Clark does address these things in his book, isn't it?

You know, the one we 'have to read' in order to critique in any way?

Well, unless his index is very sloppily put together (and I doubt Princeton UP would have allowed that to happen), it doesn't seem that the book contains any more discussion on these matters than his essay does.

I still don't have his book, but while the shelves at Amazon.com might be empty (but not for long!) the 'Look inside' feature is operative, and the index seems to suggest that, no, there is no effort to deal with the fields mentioned above. (Of course, while this evidence is convincing, I'm not 'ruling out the possibility' that a serious engagement with the relevant literature is hidden in there somewhere.)

The entry on 'natural selection' (which subsumes all references to 'evolution' and 'selection pressures') is mentioned on about 10 pages. There are no references to 'evolutionary psychology', 'gene-culture coevolution', 'Wilson, E. O.', 'Tooby, J.', 'Cosmides, L.', 'Pinker, S.' or 'sociobiology'. There are, for that matter, no entries for 'genes' or 'genetics'.

It may be, of course, that Clark doesn't really take the genetic aspects of his argument all that seriously. His Cliopatria response even suggests that this is likely. After making the intellectually handwaving arguments of read my book and critics are being PC he emphasises the other, non-gene-oriented contributions his book makes.

And maybe it does make those contributions. I don't know.

But while we're on those other matters, I am somewhat underwhelmed by Clark's ringing declaration that there is--amazing!--cultural variation throughout the world and history. If we were to read his book, we would find, for example:

that there is evidence of quite profound differences in the degree of impatience exhibited by people as we move across thousands of years of history from ancient Babylonia to England and the Netherlands in the eighteenth century. And that these differences are impossible to ascribe to anything other than basic changes, cultural or genetic, in how people behaved.
I'm not sure what to make of this.

The first sentence is hardly news: indeed, it was in 1939 that Norbert Elias identified a series of significant historical changes between the late medieval and modern periods with regard to things like manners, aggression, foresight and self-restraint. (And this was even within Europe.)

The second sentence says...well, nothing as far as I can tell, other than something like 'difference is caused by change'.

Uh huh.

Of the two options he mentions for why this might be so, the first has been extensively researched probably since historians started scribbling and the second, as I have argued, is either a serious claim (which requires more methodological homework) or a bit of intellectual handwaving.

And then there's this comment:

The book gives, I think, a strong argument for the idea that the economic history of pre-industrial societies has a powerful role in shaping their culture. That economics produces not just goods in the preindustrial world, but also culture.

I might be alone in this, but I wasn't aware that there was a need for such a 'strong argument' that economics affect culture.

I mean...wasn't there a little-known intellectual trend known, I think, as Marxism (it was started, I believe, by some obscure German bloke) that somewhat tepidly advanced this very proposition? I don't know, it's just a thought.

(If, using the 'Look Inside' feature at Amazon, you peruse the 'excerpt' from Clark's introduction you will find that 'wealth--and wealth alone--is the crucial determinant of lifestyles'. Interesting? Certainly. New? Hardly.)

Just to reiterate (in case any potential readers might not feel like combing through my previous post on this matter to find it), my critique is not based on a notion either that biology has no place in the analysis of history, society and culture. (I have argued the contrary.) Nor is it inspired by pique that Clark has discovered some kind of truth about human nature that violates my political principles. (While I think that giving serious consideration to human nature does in many cases have political consequences, these are not clearly left or right, contrary to what is often assumed.)

Instead, I think that--at least with regard to its 'Darwinian' aspects--his argument leaves a lot to be desired and is--as far as I can gather what it is from the shorter versions I have read--either not all that revolutionary or unconvincing.

As someone who would like to see more interaction between the natural sciences and the humanities, I find that to be worth discussing.

And that, I suppose, is where I'll have to leave it.

I would urge Clark, however, to be more willing to engage with his critics in ways that go beyond telling them to 'read the book' (there is no good argument that cannot be summarised effectively).

I was particularly disappointed to see a defence based on labelling those critics as, in essence, politically motivated (though it may be true in some cases). That argument is too easy to make and it comes across as deeply condescending.

But what do I know? After all, my book's still in stock.


Nathanael said...

He wants scholars to read his book? Does he read all theirs?

Anonymous said...

Hey John - more GC here:

Chris W