Friday, August 31, 2007

Tour de France

It's that time of year again, when The Wife and I disappear into the French countryside and all you people will have to find some other way of amusing yourselves till sometime in mid September.

Before we're off, though, I wanted to share this photo, taken in our backyard, which is, I think we can all agree, very nice.

So, it's off to the Normandy coast tomorrow, where the seafood is plentiful and the beaches can be quite pebbly. But the place we head to is relatively out of the way and quiet, which is just what we're looking for, in order--among other things--to finally get some rest. And some reading done.

In the next eighteen days, we've a lot before us. Me, for instance, I hope to tackle...

Jack London, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
Jim Crace, Being Dead
Doris Lessing, The Sweetest Dream
Harlan Ellison, Strange Wine
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station

This combines things I've already read but feel I should revisit (Jack London), things I haven't read but feel I should, but know that I will hate, (Ayn Rand) and things I think I should read for the first time since I think I'll find them good (all the rest).

Rand is receiving my attention because the fiftieth anniversary of The Worst Fucking Novel Ever Written (Atlas Shrugged) is coming up and I want to be better prepared to say something nasty about that (which doesn't actually involve reading all of Atlas Shrugged).

I'm taking Lessing along since I liked The Good Terrorist so much that I want to continue reading things in that vein.

Crace's book takes place on a beach and looks disturbing. What more need be said?

The other have their own reasons for coming along.

The Wife, for her part, plans to read the following:

William Boyd, Restless
Jim Crace, Six
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Toby Litt, Corpsing
Alexander McCall Smith, The Two and a Half (can't do the numbers on here) Pillars of Wisdom.

She notes:

Do I need to explain why? Oh well ... I bought the Boyd on an (look out -- product placement!) recommendation, but didn't manage to read it. Now's the time for rampant entertainment.

Crace is an author I should be reading more (like Adam Thorpe), but sadly don't. So there. When John has finished Being Dead I shall turn to that and will have filled that embarrassing gap in my contemporary fiction knowledge.

I return to Madame B. after a long, long, long time of reading it, thinking that it's about time I did that.

was recommended to me by the author himself when I talked to him about my plan for a seminar on revenge. That's work, then, really, and comes with a big notebook.

And McCall Smith's book -- about an idiosyncratic academic -- might be a good segue into the big chill out. I will start with that.

If you find all this a wee bit too masculine -- and maybe bloody (not as bad as The Husband's Levi-reading): somewhere in the French-speaking world I will also buy this month's Marie Claire and peruse the beauty tips, thereby doing my bit to uphold the old phallocratic, patriarchal and logocentric order.

I might buy some French lipstick, too!!! And put it on!

Oh, and I will also take the latest Andrew Bird album bought sometime in late spring which I haven't really had enough time to listen to. I need an alternative to The Husband's rather monotonous choice -- which is The Grateful Dead, The Grateful Dead ... and The Grateful Dead.

No, hang on: he's just told me that he will take another album after all. Hoorah! It's The Gang of Four. Oh, and he's adding Kula Shaker (have I said that the new album sounds quite good? This one is an old one, though). And The Streets. And Robyn Hitchcock.

Ain't we eclectic. The endless, empty highways of France will be alive with the manifold sounds of music.

Wish us well!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

'I believe they're not going to be back...'

We're still riding the nostalgia train today, and this may be tiresome for many of you, so we'll make a brief pause for those who wish to disembark...


As a result of looking at a couple of Replacements-related links yesterday I ran across 'It ain't over 'till the fat roadie plays', a live recording of the band's final concert on 4 July 1991 in Chicago's Grant Park. The concert was part of a day-long series of shows at the 'Taste of Chicago' food festival and broadcast on WXRT which, at least for much of the 80s and early 90s was an oasis of good music in a largely arid radio landscape. (I haven't lived in the Chicago area since 1992, so I can't testify to their quality since then...)

The recording is available for download from Infonistacrat (via here) and--since I had some difficulty with the first track there--here. (Though the latter includes a final song that does not seem to actually be the Replacements: the original concert, in any case, ended with 'Hootenany')

I'm happy to have found it for a number of reasons. I'm continually struck by how significant music was (and still is) in shaping my memories, and the Replacements were one of those groups whose albums became more than just something to listen to and somehow became something important.

A more direct reason is that I was at that show.

I had discovered the Replacements in 1986, when I had a show on my high school's radio station (88.3 FM, quite literally 'left of the dial'). Someone had made a cart of 'Kiss Me on the Bus' and put it amongst the other random things people left there. (I discovered a lot of music that way.) I played it once and was hooked, and I think I played it during every subsequent show.

The first album of theirs that I bought, I think, was Pleased to Meet Me (1987) which I still think is their best (although you can start a rather long argument with other fans about which is best and whether the early punk years were better than the more melodious direction they later took, etc. That's all very tiresome. It's all good. In terms of best album cover, though, I think it's the one for 'Let It Be', pictured. It sums up an era, musically and stylistically.)

Over the following years, there was a point at which I had everything they had put out (including the infamous live bootleg "The Shit Hits the Fans") in one form or another (mainly on cassettes, which disappeared in one of my many moving-house experiences. It's amazing when I think back to how important a technology cassettes were to us...I had hundreds of albums taped from people and spent an inordinate amount of time putting together compilations for friends of mine.)

The 'Mats combined energy with melody and a strong current of desperation (and, at least on the earlier albums, a lot of humour) in a way that few bands did, and for me personally they marked an early transition between my obsession with 60s music and taking more interest in what was going on in the world of what was then called 'college rock', well before the term 'alternative' had been invented.

Two years before the Grant Park gig, I saw them at the Aragon Ballroom (aka, "Aragon Brawlroom") in 1989, in an environment that was much more appropriate: dark, dingy, crowded and loud. It remains one of the best concert experiences I can remember, though it's a somewhat sad one since I saw them with a good friend of mine at the time who soon after seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Anyway, I don't remember all the details of the July 4th 1991 concert, other than it was sunny and hot, and we were very excited to be there. (It was a good summer for concerts: nearly two weeks earlier, on my 21st birthday, I had inadvertently seen Smashing Pumpkins at the Cabaret Metro: 'inadvertently' since we'd never heard of them but went in order to see the opening band, Big Hat.)

As I recall, I was in Grant Park that day with at least one other member of the band I was in at the time.

The Replacements were one of the groups we covered (we did a passable version of 'Left of the Dial') and they were on heavy rotation in the group house we shared for a year. Few other groups have the ability to instantly transport me back to those days.

Paul Westerberg, in a 1996 interview, was asked about the Grant Park concert:

Q: Was the July 4, 1991 show planned to be the final one?

A: "Tommy and I knew it was the last performance of the group. We wanted it to be absolute magic and it wasn't. It was a little tired and it was kinda sad. [...] It's tough when you know something's done. We purposely didn't make a big announcement to everyone. The beauty of that Replacements show is we ended up playing 'Hootenanny' and gave the instruments to our roadies one at a time. We left the way we started: anonymous.''

Q: Have you considered releasing it, since it was broadcast live on WXRT? Was that the reason you broadcast it - since you knew it was the last show?

A: "No, WXRT, they run the thing. They do that. Actually, it was filmed too. I have no idea who's got that footage. Somebody has that footage somewhere.''

(Yes. And where is that footage? The handing over of the instruments to the roadies during the last song, by the way, is the reason for the unofficial name of the recording.)

Despite Westerberg's modesty, I think it was a great show, as demonstrated by the recording. But it does seem obvious that he was frustrated at the time. There's a moment (right before they play 'Someone Take the Wheel') when he says 'Now you can see why we're hangin' it up' which should have made it plain to anyone that this was the end.

But I don't recall now when we found out that they had actually broken up. There was no Web in those days. I suppose it was probably via MTV or maybe in the next couple of days via XRT.


I've found a transcript of the commentary between the DJs after the show, which, as Jefito notes, makes sort of a fitting epitaph for the group:

DJ One: I believe the Replacements have left the stage and what a wild conclusion it was! But is it the conclusion?
DJ Two: Well, we sure don’t know, only the Replacements know for sure.
DJ One: The crowd is still hungry out there.
DJ Two: They are nowhere to be found. They’re not on the side stage area either. I think they’re gone.
DJ One: I think that’s it. They’re so unpredictable, though. Are they gonna come back?
DJ Two: Or they’re gonna break up? Maybe they’ll break up and then they’ll get back together and then they’ll come back.
DJ One: I believe they’re not going to be back.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thank you for the flowers and the book by Derrida...

[UPDATE:] The discussion of the Replacements continues here.

A good friend of ours introduced us to the music of The Weakerthans some time ago, for which I will always be grateful.

One of my favourite songs from the Winnipeg-based band is 'Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)'. It also, it turns out, has an excellent video.

I like the way the Weakerthans mix catchy music, clever lyrics and sly humour, and I've been trying to think of who they remind of. I've settled on a cross between The Dead Milkmen and The Replacements.

Which gives me an excuse to present the former's 'Punk Rock Girl' (the opening chords of which are enough to transport me mentally back to highschool) and a live (and, typically, rather far from sober) performance by the 'Mats from 1986.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Living together

A somewhat serendipitous and slightly random collection of links today, but over the last few days I've run across a remarkable number of readings on the topic of communal living.

At Click Opera, Momus has a nice little post on Lohmühle which is...rather hard to describe, really. They describe themselves as a 'Gesamtkunstwerk', as Momus points out, 'a synthesis of the arts, Eden, playground, field of experimentation, lifelong residence, inspiration, childhood dream, magnet, community, paradise.'

He observes:

We probably all have an inner hippy who'd be happy to live without running water or electricity in a shed surrounded by enormous sunflowers. I know I do. I confine my inner hippy to a 22 metre square area of my soul, to stop him taking over all my desires.
I'm not sure if I'd want to universalise this assumption, but I do have my own inner hippie (sorry, that's the way I learned to spell it...), and there are moments when he finds a settlement like this ramshackle little village appealing.

How 'radical' this dream is, of course, can be questioned:

Lohmuehle is terribly German -- not unlike the gardening allotments you see in Berlin suburbs. Of course, here the petit bourgeois Protestantism is tempered with radical protest -- in the bushes nestle banners against deportation or yuppification. And although all the allotment fences have been removed and the Protestant virtues of self-sufficiency and autonomy have been tilted slightly towards communitarianism and anarchism, this is essentially a rather conservative pastoral dream -- to opt out of the rat race, to live organically, to wash in water pumped up by hand from the water table, to gather rainwater from the eaves and electricity from the sun.
Not that being 'radical' is necessarily the point.

There are reasons, though, to wonder whether something like this is really all it's cracked up to be:

But isn't it cold in winter? "You burn wood in the stove and your ass gets cold when you go to the chemical toilet. In summer, if it's hot, it's worse. You rot like melted Emmenthal."
My inner long-hair, I think, has rather more need for comfort than some.

In a very different context, there's an interesting article at the New York Times on changes in the culture of the Kibbutz. Having gone through a series of crises in the 1980s, many of the Israeli collective communities appear to have gone through a successful reform process.

But starting in the 1980s, when socialism was on a global downward spiral and the country was mired in hyperinflation, Israel’s 250 or so kibbutzim seemed doomed. Their debt mounted and their group dining halls grew empty as the young moved away.

Now, in a surprising third act, the kibbutzim are again thriving. Only in 2007 they are less about pure socialism than a kind of suburbanized version of it.

On most kibbutzim, food and laundry services are now privatized; on many, houses may be transferred to individual members, and newcomers can buy in. While the major assets of the kibbutzim are still collectively owned, the communities are now largely run by professional managers rather than by popular vote. And, most important, not everyone is paid the same.

Once again, people are lining up to get in.

The article is certainly interesting, but it has its annoying tics. The reference to 'shedding socialism' turns out to be not so clear-cut: there seems to have been some privatisation and the more austere aspects of the movement have faded. However, they've hardly become bastions of turbo capitalism:
“What we love here is the simplicity,” said Boaz Varol, 38, who rides his bike along wooded pathways to work at the swimming pool, once for communal use, that he rents and runs as a private business at Kibbutz Yasur, in the rolling hills of the Western Galilee, northeast of Haifa. “Everyone does what they want, we have our independence, but without the kind of competition you find outside.”

And, furthermore, the apparent renaissance of kibbutz living appears to have included those kibbutzim that have resisted 'renewal':

Not all kibbutzim followed this kind of strategy. About 30 percent stuck to their socialist principles. But many of them are flourishing, too.

“I get calls every day from people who want to join,” said Yaniv Sagee, the secretary of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet. “I don’t have room for them.”
Now, anyone with extensive personal experience group houses knows the downsides of having to share your lives with others. (Excellent literary versions of these downsides can be found in Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist and T.C. Boyle's Drop City.)

And, my own experiences help to keep my own inner hippie confined to his mental room.

And then there's another, far more disturbing world of communal life, far away from those of Lohmühle and the kibbutzim.

Although calling it 'communal' is probably stretching the meaning of the term.

At Reason, I ran across a fascinating article on 'the Mesa':

In 15 square miles of abandoned land, about 400 misfits—aging hippies, disillusioned veterans, teenage runaways—have built a community where no one cares if you smoke pot, fire your rifle all day, let your kids drive your car, or walk around naked in the desert heat. It's a landscape of beat-up old trailers, shacks jerry-rigged from recycled materials, solar panels, little farms, greenhouses, and at least one tipi. "Where I live is the last remaining land of America that is left," says Dreadie Jeff, another Mesa resident. "You can do what you fucking want there."

Doing what you fucking want, of course, has its up-sides and down-sides too.

The Mesa, says Randy, represents "everything about America we loved and feared." The love, in her brother's words, is for "that pure sense of American democracy. Even though they were disillusioned with the government, they still loved the concept of America." The fear reflected the constant potential for violence, which at one point led the filmmakers themselves to think about getting armed.

I'm not surprised. Here's the trailer.

Remember: 'You don't shoot your neighbour.'

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Out of control

Of course, I have been reading and seeing the news of the deadly forest fires currently raging in Greece. It's difficult to get a sense of how widespread they are.

This photo, however, is astonishing:


And there are suggestions that this might not be merely an act of nature:

Authorities fear that several of the fires have been set by arsonists, a spokesman told the AP. Indeed, just over a week ago, arson was suspected in a vast blaze that raced down the slopes of Mount Penteli in Athens. A senior researcher with Greece's Forest Research Institute explained to SPIEGEL ONLINE earlier this month that forest management policies in the country may actually promote arson.

Forest protection is written into Greece's constitution, making it almost impossible for forest land to be re-zoned for development. But because there are no official maps delineating the boundaries of the forest areas, land at the edges of burned out forests are often claimed by developers after fires. "This is the heart of the problem," the researcher told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Eight random things

I was 'tagged' by Ophelia not too long ago on one of those Blogosphere chain-letter thingies that is circulating around. I am to name eight 'random facts' about myself and then pass it along to eight further unsuspecting victims.

To be honest...I'm not so sure what a 'random fact' is, and it is impossible to be truly random about this, since any choice is based on some kind of selective criteria. But...I'll go with 'things that just kind of occur to me which people wouldn't otherwise know and which are, in the end, basically unimportant (and which don't fit into the category of, um, Too Much Information...)'.

1) An old friend of mine that I haven't heard from for about a decade got in touch with me today, and I'm very happy about that.
2) As I am writing this I am listening to the Grateful Dead (As point two was written, it was specifically 'Dire Wolf', from Workingman's Dead).
3) My favourite German word is 'verweilen', both for its meaning and euphony.
4) My alignment of choice is 'chaotic neutral' (or at least it was, back when those things mattered to me).
5) One of my favourite writers once made dinner for me.
6) I have an irrational fear of spiders.
7) I have forgotten how to solve quadratic equations.
8) I'm a decent shot with a pistol.

OK, next: RJ, Jeanie, Geoff, Sharon, Ario, Chris, Jeangis, Jasper/Peter.

There but for fortune

At the Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich has a short article ('Smashing Capitalism') whose satire falls a bit flat but which makes a good overall point and links to a couple of things worth reading.

Taking her cue from the recent shudder that went through the world's stock markets due partly to the unfolding 'sub-prime' mortgage crisis in the US as well as from disappointing sales figures at Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich comments:

Somewhere in the Hamptons a high-roller is cursing his cleaning lady and shaking his fists at the lawn guys. The American poor, who are usually tactful enough to remain invisible to the multi-millionaire class, suddenly leaped onto the scene and started smashing the global financial system. Incredibly enough, this may be the first case in history in which the downtrodden manage to bring down an unfair economic system without going to the trouble of a revolution.

Even meant satirically, I think Ehrenreich takes a good point rather too far: it seems to me that the recent market turbulence--as far as I can understand it--is rather more complex.

(Not to mention that the system is nowhere near being smashed: Ehrenreich knows this, which makes her somewhat flamboyant rhetoric all the more silly. I say this as an admirer of some of her work, such as her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.)

But one of her conclusions is on target...

But in the long term, a system that depends on extracting every last cent from the poor cannot hope for a healthy prognosis.

...particularly since said system is extracting more than that last cent.

On that point, far more striking than Ehrenreich's sledgehammer rhetoric (in this instance) is an article to which she links from the radical lefties over at Business Week: 'The Poverty Business'.

The main topic can be summed up thusly:

In recent years, a range of businesses have made financing more readily available to even the riskiest of borrowers. Greater access to credit has put cars, computers, credit cards, and even homes within reach for many more of the working poor. But this remaking of the marketplace for low-income consumers has a dark side: Innovative and zealous firms have lured unsophisticated shoppers by the hundreds of thousands into a thicket of debt from which many never emerge.

Federal Reserve data show that in relative terms, that debt is getting more expensive. In 1989 households earning $30,000 or less a year paid an average annual interest rate on auto loans that was 16.8% higher than what households earning more than $90,000 a year paid. By 2004 the discrepancy had soared to 56.1%. Roughly the same thing happened with mortgage loans: a leap from a 6.4% gap to one of 25.5%. "It's not only that the poor are paying more; the poor are paying a lot more," says Sheila C. Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Along with many interesting and useful facts like that, the article profiles the human side of this situation, presenting stories of poor people who--in one way or another--have found themselves trapped in poverty and victimised by the purveyors of expensive--but oh-so-tempting--credit.

I found myself torn by conflicting emotions when reading some of these stories: certainly there was anger at the greed of companies whose business plans seem to consist entirely of taking advantage of people in the most outrageous ways. I was moved by the plight of individuals who don't sound at all that much different than people I have known.

There was also a certain amount of frustration with some individuals themselves, like 'Luisa' who owes creditors $169,585 and says: "I don't read things. I just sign them."

Comments like this send a certain part of my political brain--the one that is convinced concepts such as 'individual responsibility' should not simply be abandoned to the right-wing--into fits of screaming incomprehension.

However, there are many different ways of being working-poor, and, as is clear, if, say, you need a car to get a job (not at all that rare in the US) and you lack ready cash and good credit, your choices are limited and buying the used Saturn from the local bloodsuckers at 25% interest starts to look like an opportunity rather than a disaster.

This is even more the case when the extent of economic illiteracy (or maybe just basic innumeracy) is taken into account. Niall Ferguson is a condescending bastard, but he points to a real problem:

In 2006, the British Financial Services Authority carried out a survey of public financial literacy. It revealed that one person in five had no idea what effect an inflation rate of 5 per cent and an interest rate of 3 per cent would have on the purchasing power of their savings. One in 10 did not know which was a better discount for a television originally priced at £250: £30 or 10 per cent.
It makes you want to weep, doesn't it?

Of course, it has always been this way, and some people have always made bad choices. (And, though I can manage rather better than the people Ferguson cites, please do not ask me to explain the finer points of my mortgage to you...). Human psychology with regard to economic behaviour is a complex and often irrational thing.

But what does seem to be new is the fact that there is an entire industry devoted to taking advantage of those weaknesses in grand style. The point seems not to provide credit to assist the borrower in succeeding, but to count on the fact that they will fail.

Hence, the 'NINJA' loan for those with 'No Income, No Job and No Assets'.

And I think there is another antidote to the open contempt for the working poor that seems to roll so easily off the tongue of many commentators to the articles at the Nation, the Telegraph and Business Week: the 'There but for fortune' principle.

I have been very fortunate in life, but having worked (and borrowed) my own way through my (extended) education--and having known enough people who were living lives on the margins or who faced setbacks that were not of their own making--it is not easy to look down upon people who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in trouble.

And, unless you come from an extraordinarily sheltered background (in which case, you have nothing useful to add anyway), I imagine you'd have to admit the same.

Which is an excuse to offer this song, which I've always liked very much.

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 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.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I miss your hard edges, I miss your bone marrow

I heard a couple of songs from the latest Tunng album a couple of days ago (on Deutschlandradio Kultur) and was awestruck in that way that happens all too rarely when something comes on the car radio. (Actually, for traffic safety reasons, it's probably a good thing that it occurs only occasionally...)

This is from something earlier. It's beautiful.

'Woodcat' from Tunng.

Sunday readings

A few brief comments about some relatively random things I've noted in the last week:

1. An excellent article by Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker about Philip K. Dick. I had enjoyed a few of Dick's books and stories over the years, but I didn't really know that much about him. Gopnik packs a lot of insight into a relatively small space. I noticed myself nodding at a few bits in particular, such as that on Dick's shortcomings as a writer:

The trouble isn’t that Dick suffers by some school-marmish standard of fine writing. It’s that the absence of any life within the writing on the page ends up robbing the books of the vital force that pushes you past pages. As an adult reader coming back to Dick, you start off in a state of renewed wonder and then find yourself thumbing ahead to see how much farther you are going to have to go. At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences.
When I re-read Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep and Minority Report a few years ago, I had exactly this experience. Dick was full of amazing concepts, which is perhaps why his work has been so adaptable to film. Whatever weaknesses he had, though, he remains a compelling author, and Gopnik nicely puts his finger on what it is in the Dickian universe that appeals to me:
Although “Blade Runner,” with its rainy, ruined Los Angeles, got Dick’s antic tone wrong, making it too noirish and romantic, it got the central idea right: the future will be like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on. Dick’s future worlds are rarely evil and oppressive, exactly; they are banal and a little sordid, run by a demoralized élite at the expense of a deluded population. No matter how mad life gets, it will first of all be life.

2. An article at Stern (in German) made me aware of the somehow appalling Bible-themed toys available from one2believe. There are the slightly bizarre 'Messengers of Faith' action figures, for example, or the rather predictable 'Jesus Loves Me Bear'. There are also the 'Tales of Glory' figurine sets which allow your child, I suppose, to re-enact favoured stories from the bible such as 'Jesus walks on water' or 'Daniel and the lion's den'.

As ever, there is something very selective about this. What, no Sodom and Gomorrah playset? No 'Lot and his daughters' amongst the 'Messengers of Faith'? Where's the edifying tale of Abraham and Isaac? No figures for depicting the genocidal massacre of the Canaanites?

Of course, I suppose the violent religious action figure market has already been captured by the fine people at Jesus Christ Superstore ('Putting the fun back into fundamentalism and the laughter into sectarian slaughter').

But what should we make of the 'P31' dolls 'based on the biblical teaching of Proverbs 31' and designed 'to encourage young girls to pursue biblical womanhood'?

I don't imagine that this refers to the bit of Proverbs 31 which commands 'Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.' Nope, no 'Hooters' girls among these dolls.

No, they're aimed at the more Good Housekeeping aspects of said proverb, the ones that propose the proper role of women as their manly men's helpmeet and such.

(But there's also just bizarre stuff in that proverb, like this: 'When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.' Uh huh... nothing like red clothes to keep you warm....)

However...the first thing I notice about them is that their heads are rather too big for their bodies. They seem...seriously ill somehow.

God's will, I suppose.

3. An interesting but somehow disappointing essay by Freeman Dyson at

I agree with Dyson that there is plenty of need for those willing to think 'heretical' thoughts about the world, but I'm not so sure about his elevation of heresy into a value in itself. I mean...this seems to give comfort to creationism or to flat-Earthism. I'm not convinced that simply being contrarian is a valuable way of interacting with the world.

His scientific points are well taken in some ways, but when he moves beyond that he says some rather silly things:

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans.

Now, debates about the specifics of global warming here or there, nobody can argue that American investment in fighting poverty or infrastructure has suffered mainly because of all that money going to fight global warming.

Dyson may be well meaning here, but I think he's very misguided.

There has been, I see, a more recent response to Dyson by Alun Anderson.

OK, I suppose that's enough for one Sabbath. Keep it holy, people.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stuff your genes

While we're on the topic of genes (capitalist or otherwise), here for your reading pleasure is a contribution from The Wife on related issues.


In 1987, the French feminist Luce Irigaray had the following modest proposal for a potential exit route from the “patriarchal phallocratic order”:

In all homes and all public places, attractive images (not involving advertising) of the mother-daughter couple should be displayed. It's very damaging for girls always to be faced with representations of mother and son, especially in the religious dimension. I'd suggest to all Christian women, for example, that they place an image depicting Mary and her mother Anne in their living room, in their daughters' rooms, and in their own room. There are sculptures and easily reproducible paintings of them available.

Even though when I first read this statement, in the early 1990s (in the initial experimental stages of a doctoral degree), when I was still mildly sympathetic towards even the more abstruse forms of feminist thought, I felt somewhat ... disappointed by Irigaray's idea.

So this is all the Godmother of “feminism of difference” and then Director of Research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Paris could come up with as a death blow against patriarchy? A new billboard campaign? Christian devotionalia? Admittedly, Irigaray had other “practical suggestions” – her words – to make, but they were no less esoteric and, actually, far from practical. (E.g., “Between mother and daughter, interpose small handmade objects to make up for the losses of spatial identity, for intrusions into personal space.”)

Then as now my atheistic self shudders at the thought of being surrounded by big sisterish images of Mary and Anne. Granted, Irigaray suggests them as an option for Christian women who've seen a crucifix too many; nevertheless, one wonders whether a good starting point for a war against patriarchy wouldn't be a campaign against Christianity itself. And why, one might ask, would a feminist working within a staunchly secular system, where religion is an entirely private thing (unlike in Germany, where generations of schoolchildren grow up in the shadow of the cross), want to reinforce Christianity rather than undermine it?

I also was (and continue to be) more than vaguely disturbed by Irigaray's view of the human mind. Apparently, all it takes to create a feminist awareness are a few cunningly displayed mother-daughter images (which, in any case, seem to exist in abundance). But this idea – apart from revealing Irigaray's dismissive attitude towards women – smacks of brainwashing and invokes illustrations in biology textbooks, of Skinner's pigeons merrily picking away at their seeds, as well as passages from Brave New World. For a brief moment, we see the beast of behaviourism peep out from under the cosy blanket of constructionism, where it otherwise lurks unnoticed.

The end of the phallocratic patriarchal order?

In his erudite and witty attack on the “blank slate” psychology underpinning contemporary constructionism, Steven Pinker acknowledges the fascination of such an idea ... but then he tears it limb from limb. The jury is still out, of course, as to whether Pinkerian eloquence (and a whole bunch of science) can outgun the sheer utopian delights of constructionist thought.

How can you top the following quote, taken from the cover of Richard Lewontin's Biology as Ideology (though possibly not written by him): “our genetic endowments confer a plasticity of psychic and physical development, so that in the course of our lives, from conception to death, each of us, irrespective of race, class, or sex, can develop virtually any identity that lies within the human ambit.”

“Any identity, daddy? Could I be Pol Pot then?”

Of course, even radical constructionists wouldn't go that far. After all, they tend to be right-thinking people confident that their Weltanschauung is the royal route to the best of all possible worlds – one free of psychopathic mass-murderers, megalomaniac dictators, or mean little capitalist bastards for that matter. Such is the dream of many a professional educator hell-bent on combatting social injustice through dubious measures, such as banning Legos from the grade-school classroom.

Little wonder, then, that even some of the milder claims of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology are deemed anything from unsexy to dangerous by self-proclaimed “radical” constructionists. For them, the belief that the human organism is meaningfully shaped by its evolutionary past is to adhere to a reductionist determinism that sees us all as Hobbesian robots. Selfish genes make for selfish people, they say. In a parallel universe, they might have a point. In this one, however, no serious sociobiologist or evolutionary biologist/psychologist would say such a thing. Nevertheless, the criticism arises again and again, like some horrible zombie meme that just will not die.

This, in a nutshell (or nucleus), is the tragedy of genes: their cuddle-factor is terribly low. They seem so hard, so edgy, so cold. It is difficult to integrate them into myths of benevolent symbiosis characteristic of some strands of evolutionary biology, especially those with an ecological slant. In an inspiring paper (PDF) on evolutionary biology and the pastoral imagination, Louise Westling of the University of Oregon has eloquently defended a Darwinian view of humans as part of nature rather than outside (and above it). Human beings not only exist in the world, sharing the environment with insects, birds and numerous smaller and larger mammals, they function themselves as host environments for countless forms of bacteria:

Six hundred species in our mouths neutralize the toxins all plants produce to ward off their enemies. Four hundred species colonize our intestines; without them we could not digest and absorb the food we eat .... Tiny creatures live all over our bodies, eating dead skin and performing many other kinds of housekeeping functions, as for example the microscopic lobster-like insects that infest our eyelashes and continually clean away the lubricants that would otherwise glue our eyes shut. As we move and breathe, we actively exchange nutrients and waste, energy and even atoms, with the air and things around us and the millions of creatures within us. Each person is a bipedal, mobile, and self-conscious community of living agents sharing an inner sea bound by the semipermeable extended surface organ of skin and given firm shape by bones. Armies of friendly microbes swim through our inner seas, scouting for and devouring invaders, cleaning the pipes, carrying freight. The “human” DNA that shapes and marks each of our unique selves is far less a proportion of the DNA in our body mass than that of our microbe friends. Even within our individual cells, the mitochondria that make our energy have their own, different DNA than that in our “human” chromosomes.
Oh brave new world that has such wonderful microbes in it!

Westling's facts are of course immaculate, yet what bothers me slightly is the style in which they are put. In her depiction, the bacteria living in and on every human body as restless busybodies enabling the upkeep of our complex organism. Housekeeping and cleaning, guarding and defending, they are fundamentally friendly, working for our benefit – a little like Cinderella's winged helpmeets in the Disney movie, holding up the clothes line so Cinderella can hang up the laundry, maybe whistling while working. Our friends, not our enemies, doing stuff us humans would do, bacteria even may be in the range of human communication.

From this perspective I could even envision feeling all warm and fuzzy about my mitochondria.

But note how the pastoral vision tips over into biocentrism towards the end, reinstating the distinction between humans and nature but reversing the hierarchy: nature good, humans bad – but not quite so bad as that nasty Mr Dawkins has been saying. Although for some ecocritics humankind comes pretty close to being the big bad wolf in an otherwise rather benign environment, they would never accept that suggestion if it came from the sociobiology faction.

Maybe it is impossible to think of the incessantly vibrant microdimension of the human organism in any other way than by anthropomorphising it. There is a deep level of existence scurrying about well beneath our conscious radar. And a good thing to, because were we to spend too much time thinking about it we would be too preoccupied with the fear and terror of it all: just getting through Westling's short paragraph above has its disconcerting moments. Mites and mitochondria represent human existence stripped of its sociocultural fictions, and this is a frightening fact.

The anthropomorphic fantasy also characterises the range of cuddly toys launched a few years back representing different more-or-less nasty microbes, from those that cause the common cold to the ones that bring us bubonic plague. The toys are advertised as "great learning tools for parents and educators." Educators? How ever would you use those in the classroom?

“If you see one of those one-eyed pink rabies viruses, run away as fast as you can.”

Or: "If you see a flesh eating virus, be nice to it – it can't help being lethal”?

But however useless these toys may be from an educational perspective, they do give me an idea for how to pimp the image of our old friend the gene. Here's my modest proposal in the spirit of Irigaray:

In all homes and all public places (and I mean all: really these things should be everywhere), attractive images (not involving advertising) of the gene should be displayed. It's very damaging for human being always to be denied representations of their friend, the double helix (especially in the religious dimension)....

And so on.

Sadly there are not all that many “sculptures and easily reproducible paintings” of the gene available (incidentally, images of Anne and Mary are not that easy to come by either: usually the two women come with baby Jesus attached -- art historians call this type of image "Anna selbdritt").

But this gap could be filled, ideally in the form of cuddly toys like the aforementioned microbes. We need genes in hot pink and peppermint green. Rather than cold hearted letter combinations let's give them comforting names, like Knut (“FOXP2” and “Hox” are good starts, and “D4DR” has a certain nostalgic Star Wars sort of ring to it, but we can do better!) I admit that there is a colourful stuffed double helix already (which can be accompanied by a bobble-headed Watson), but I have the sneaking feeling that children would not really want to snuggle up with that at night (certainly the child in the picture looks distraught).

Now that Mattel is going through a major crisis, the gene might in fact provide a nice opening for inventive and enterprising toy manufacturers. Any volunteers?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

War is over

I am reminded by norm that today marks the 62nd anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

My father and mother, each in their own way, contributed to that end.

And I am reminded that I miss them both very much.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Some thoughts on evolution, history and capitalist genes...

I've been pondering the profile of historian Gregory Clark that appeared in the New York Times recently (via Cliopatria). To be honest, I find a lot of things bothersome not only about the article but also about Clark's argument itself. There seem to be a lot of people who find this work 'important' and somehow pathbreaking, but I have my doubts. And it doesn't seem that such doubts are being sufficiently raised.

The Times article, for instance, is an odd one. Some things are presented as new that don't seem all that revolutionary (as has been pointed out by Jason Kuznicki). Other arguments which are in some way new are not questioned as closely as they should be.

In particular, I refer to the 'Darwinian' claims made by Clark.

And let's be clear, these are the claims that have resulted in this book's being written up in the Times. (Garnering, therefore, attention that more mainstream cliometricians might sacrifice a limb for.)

It is curious, though, that in an article that spends so much time speculating about the genetic basis of social change there appears no commentary from people who might have something relevant to say about the matter: i.e., evolutionary psychologists or geneticists. (This is not, of course, Clark's fault.)

There have been, after all, at least 30 years or so of intensive scholarship trying to work out the extent to which biological factors influence social behaviour. Instead, the article relies on the comments of economists who, to be honest, seem a bit out of their depth when it comes to thinking about genes.

Now, I happen to find a lot of research and theory regarding what we might call the biological basis of behaviour to be very useful; indeed, I have recently argued at length that historians should take account of the increasing amount of insight into the human mind that cognitive and evolutionary psychology have provided.

So, unlike some, perhaps, I do not have trouble with Clark's argument because it's biological; instead, I doubt whether what biology his argument contains is understood and applied correctly.

And it is important to get it right, since I think it's high time that the humanities began breaking down the needless wall that has been built up between them and the natural sciences, and I think there's much to be gained by abandoning the more extreme versions of cultural theory and taking seriously again the concept of human nature.

However, in wrestling with these concepts myself (as evidenced in my recent article at Cultural and Social History on the 'limits of culture' as well as in an essay in the recently published Cultures of Violence) I think such cross-disciplinary borrowing should be done carefully.

And I'm not sure from the initial indications whether Clark is nearly as careful as he should be.

Neither is The New York Times. It is not, for instance, only 'many historians' who

have assumed that evolutionary change is too gradual to have affected human populations in the historical period.

Consider the field of evolutionary psychology, which--in alliance with a number of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists--has given a great deal of thought to the issue of how biology might affect behaviour. (An excellent and readable introduction is available in a 'Primer' written by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides.)

One of its fundamental principles, for example, is that structure of the human psyche was fundamentally formed during the period in which our species lived as hunter gatherers, i.e., for about 99% of its existence. This doesn't mean that our behaviour or abilities are limited to the tasks undertaken in that period: we can do all sorts of things that were not 'selected for' by natural selection but which are fairly fundamental to modern life, such as reading, using a computer, or driving a car. (Many skills, though, are not fundamentally that different, as much of human life revolves around social skills and interactions that haven't changed all that much: i.e., evolutionary psychology is far less about hunting mammoths than about getting along in groups).

However, we required no additional genetic adaptations to do such things.

And, as far as evolutionary psychologists are concerned, post-stone age genetic change has been, at best, a negligible factor. As Tooby and Cosmides note:

Our species lived as hunter-gatherers 1000 times longer than as anything else. The world that seems so familiar to you and me, a world with roads, schools, grocery stores, factories, farms, and nation-states, has lasted for only an eyeblink of time when compared to our entire evolutionary history. The computer age is only a little older than the typical college student, and the industrial revolution is a mere 200 years old. Agriculture first appeared on earth only 10,000 years ago, and it wasn't until about 5,000 years ago that as many as half of the human population engaged in farming rather than hunting and gathering. Natural selection is a slow process, and there just haven't been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well-adapted to our post-industrial life. ('Primer')

It is not, of course, that those associated with 'evolutionary psychology' have a monopoly on arguments about biology.

Some researchers, particularly those asserting some form of 'gene-culture coevolution', have, in fact, emphasised the possibility of more 'recent' genetic change, cited examples typically being the development of lactose tolerance among some populations or the mutations in the sickle cell gene in populations in malarial regions.

One of the key figures associated with 'gene-culture coevolution' and 'sociobiology' is E. O. Wilson, who has done a lot more thinking about the connections between society and biology than most. Like most sociobiologists, Wilson has (wrongly) been depicted as imposing a 'determinist' and 'reductionist' model on human behaviour. (Although I don't agree with Wilson on everything, I highly recommend his book Consilience to anyone interested in the relationship between the humanities and sciences.)

I am open to the possibility that there might have been some genetic change over the preceding thousands of years (evolution, after all, has not ended).

It is also true, I think, that in some sense we only have as much culture as our nature allows.

But even Wilson, the arch-sociobiologist, who argues that culture might promote genetic change in the long term, concludes the following:

'While individuals within a particular society vary greatly in behavioral genes, the differences mostly wash out statistically between socieites. The culture of the Kalahari hunter-gatherers is very distinct from that of Parisians, but the differences between them are primarily a result of divergence in history and environment, and are not genetic in origin.' (Consilience, 155)
One reason for that last statement is that behaviour and thought result from complex assemblages of mental elements, and Wilson is clear about the level of generality on which the 'epigenetic rules' that shape our preferences operate:

'Genes do not specify elaborate conventions such as totemism, elder councils, and religious ceremonies. To the best of my knowledge, no serious scientist or humanities scholar has ever suggested such a thing. Instead, complexes of gene-based epigenetic rules predispose people in invent and adopt such conventions.' (Consilience, 181)

I would extend Wilson's reference to 'elaborate conventions' to Clark's 'middle-class values', and would, therefore, question just how 'serious' this claim is.

For instance, Clark's claims about adaptation (for his argument is basically an adaptationist one) seem to be somewhat confused. From the NYT article, we learn,

“Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes.

It seems to me that the 'long agrarian passage' and the 'modern economic world' contain enough serious differences to make the alleged genetic adaptations to the former not entirely a preparation for the latter.

Keeping in mind Wilson's caution noted above, however, the adaptations in question seem to be the following:

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes.

Now, leaving aside Clark's rather simplistic view of pre-modern social history (which would require another equally long post, so I'll spare you), he is presented in the NYT article as being undecided on the issue of whether these 'values' were being transmitted via culture or genes. There is something rather too offhand about his references to genes.

However, in his essay 'Genetically Capitalist? The Malthusian Era and the Formation of Modern Preferences' (available here, thanks to Steve for bringing it to my attention) there is somewhat less ambiguity (Subsequent references to 'GC').

The abstract will give you a solid sense of the argument, one part of which is:

The highly capitalistic nature of English society by 1800 – individualism, low time preference rates, long work hours, high levels of human capital – may thus stem from the nature of the Darwinian struggle in a very stable agrarian society in the long run up to the Industrial Revolution. The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality. (GC, 1)

The recurring 'may' (just like the question mark in his title) leaves some wiggle room, but the genetic gist is clear enough in the body of the article: Clark's aim, I think, really is to argue that in some kind of very specific way, capitalism really is in our genes.

In making that argument, Clark makes a number of assumptions. This, of course, is fine, all historians do that. However, he seeks to support enormously weighty conclusions on rather shaky foundations.

For instance, a major part of Clark's argument seems to be that there was a general technological, social and cultural stagnation before 1800. (Sometimes it's technological, sometimes it's social; however, he jumps around rather rapidly between different kinds of measurements and standards.) He states that we can test empirically the question of

whether the average person in 1800 was any better off than the people of 10,000 BC on any dimension, and the answer is no. (GC, 10, emphasis added)

This extraordinary claim (life was not better 'on any dimension'?!) is based upon a comparison of calorie intake. But his data for England are based upon extrapolations from data about the poorest among the English and his comparison with the hunter gatherers comes from modern hunter-gatherers. These latter societies are, by definition, most likely the most successful hunter gatherers (since they are still around), but Clark uses them as a basis to make quite extravagantly general claims about hunter-gatherer life:

Primitive man ate well compared to one of the richest societies in the world in 1800. (GC, 15)

I think there is something to the argument--made convincingly by Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee--against the naively 'progressivist' view of agriculture (i.e., that it made everyone's lives better). But Diamond (who has a lot of experience with hunter-gatherers and has written extensively about the deep history of agriculture) considers that 'all those modern hunter societies have been affected by farming societies for thousands of years and do not tell us about the conditions of hunters before the agricultural revolution' (Third Chimpanzee, 167).

(I think they do tell us something about those conditions and they are a useful means of reaching broadly accurate conclusions about about life in the Pleistocene, but I think one has to be far more careful about reaching the far more specific conclusions that Clark does .)

([UPDATE]: Peter Ryley has posted a nice discussion of 'deep materialism' and Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. I too think it is an intriguing book.)

Now, I'm a humble cultural historian, and not as statistically competent as the cliometricians in my profession, but when someone takes a rather selective range of calorie intake figures from broadly diverse societies ('1,452 kilocalories per person per day for the Yanomamo, to a kingly 3,827 kilocalories per day for the Ache', GC, 15), uses them to create a median and lets this stand for the life of 'primitive man' I think it's fair to be more than a little sceptical. What if most hunter-gather societies were more like the Yanomamo than the Ache? Wouldn't this have a significant affect on the resulting median?

I don't know. But I suspect there is a lot more complexity (and uncertainty and margin of error) behind these figures than Clark suggests.

Clark's other key notion, according to the Times, seems to be that “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages”.

Now, again, I'm not an economic historian or a demographer. But a few things occur to me immediately.

First, real 'upper classes' tended to be vanishingly small in terms of their population. (The following info comes from The Peoples of the British Isles: A New History 1688-1870 by T.W. Heyck).

In eighteenth-century Britain, the titled aristocracy (with, say incomes around 8,000 pounds a year or even far more) made up less than two hundred families; adding in the big landlords of the gentry (with 1,000 pounds or more) brings us to somewhat more than 15,000 families, or less than 1.5 percent of the population, who possessed about 15 percent of the national income.

On the other hand, we have people who actually did most of the work in the country, from freeholders and tenant farmers to farm labourers. There were about 350,000 families who could be ranked among the freeholders and farmers, most of whom earned between 40 and 150 pounds a year. There were a further 400,000 families of 'cottagers' or 'paupers' earning around 6 or 7 pounds a year. There were also large numbers of labouring poor in the towns (and the towns, recall, only made up 20 to 25 percent of the total population) and an indeterminate population of beggars and vagrants.

There were also many in the 'middling ranks' but determining what that meant was difficult. As Paul Langford (in A Polite and Commercial People) has noted, 'the most elementary generalizations about it are difficult to sustain' and, based on rather fuzzy contemporary statistics, he suggests that anywhere between 20 and 40% might be considered in the 'middling ranks'. (61-63).

These admittedly come from a somewhat later period than the sixteenth and seventeenth century sample noted by Clark, but since he argues there were 'static living standards' before 1800, this shouldn't make much difference.

Clark is of course right to note some degree of 'downward mobility' for wealthier classes, and the historical problem of what to do with 'younger sons' (due to primogeniture) has long been of interest to English historians.

The big winners in England were the first-born sons, who generally inherited the estate as a whole. Many of those who did not inherit went into the expanding professions and became merchants: but Clark's claim seems to be that they also served to replace the working-classes, particularly in urban areas. As the Times article argues:

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.
Now, Clark does seem to demonstrate--at least in the sample he's examining, which, considering the level of generality of his argument seems a bit small--that there was some downward mobility in the seventeenth century (GC, 34).

But there seems to be a logical problem with his argument connecting wealth to reproduction to capitalist genes.

Looking at the data from Clark's paper, while there may have been some downward mobility, it looks very incremental, as people moved from 'the rich' to the somewhat less rich.

However, the idea that the children of the aristocracy were turning into agricultural labourers is far fetched.

There was, of course, likely to be rather more mixing at lower levels, where the borders between the lower middle 'ranks' and the upper levels of the labouring classes could be somewhat porous.

But, in the absence of more significant mixing from the top to the bottom, Clark's argument seems a bit shaky.

Why? For the moment, let us grant (which I doubt we really can) some kind of genes which directly generate the middle-class values that Clark suggests they might. Even in this case, if the 'rich' were not sinking immediately down into the ranks of the poor (taking their money-making genes with them) then how, we might ask, did those rich genes make it to the lower classes?

If it was step-by-step, through the gradual process of downward mobility, then it seems we have a problem (or rather Clark does): those who are moving downward across the generations are unlikely to be in possession of the magic success genes. If they were, they wouldn't be ending up poorer and poorer every generation.

Alternatively, if the genetic mixing was between social levels that were much closer anyway (and this is likely the way it was happening), I'm not sure that one can make the argument (even based on Clark's questionable notion of a tight gene-success relationship) that this would have meant much, genetically speaking, since the people at each level would have been more genetically similar. (Again, taking as an assumption that the gene-success relationship is valid.)

Neither option bodes well for Clark's argument.

This is entirely overlooking the fact that the question of who remained at the very top of society, the aristocracy, was not decided by which child was necessarily the most 'successful' (or even by the question of competence), but rather by simple birth order and sex. The first-born son got it all. And, even if he were a relative moron, it was likely that in some way he would remain rich and an attractive marriage partner for some aspiring merchant's daughter.

Now, we also have to keep in mind that this whole issue of upward and downward mobility is taking place in a period of time that is at least 600 years or so long (Clark focuses on the period between 1250 and 1800.) Clark seems to see this period as one large Malthusian mass of 'static living standards' (GC, 37). And he may be right that there is a recognisable amount of continuity--certainly according to the numbers and factors he chooses to pay attention to.

However, this is also a period in which there were major social, political and cultural changes. This period, after all, includes the Black Death (which had a major impact on relationships between labourers and landowners), frequent struggles between monarchs and nobility, the development of trade, increasing exploration, several wars and changes in agriculture such as the increasing incorporation of farming into a market system and the furtherance of enclosures.

All of these factors affected the composition of the social elite, though for different reasons. One might be granted a peerage, for instance, for reasons that had little to do with capitalist success and rather more to do with simply being on the right side of a political squabble, making a good marriage or having success in war. (Just as losing one's wealth might have had to do with contingencies related to the above factors.)

'Wealth' and 'success' were being amassed in England in a variety of ways: slave trading, tobacco planting, empire building, monarch-bribing, textile weaving and goods trading (not to mention, at least in the earlier period, being good with a sword).

Which gene is it, precisely, that is going to promote success in all these different ways of getting ahead in life?

Evolutionary biology seems relatively clear on the point that adaptation requires strong environmental pressures leading in one direction. However, is it not likely that the turbulent period between the late middle ages and the beginning of the modern era and the variety of economic and social activities that led to success during it somewhat undermines the notion that genetic influences would have consistently been selected for leading to Clark's rather idealised version of the middle-class man?

After all, combined with the unlikelihood that 'downward social mobility' was sufficient to transmit rich peoples' genes from the tiny successful class at the top to the broad social base, at the bottom, just what were those who became rich as merchants trying to do with their hard-earned and saved money? That's right: become aristocrats. And being one of those involved a set of behaviours (enormous and wasteful conspicuous consumption among others) that was rather different than the ones Clark emphasises.

It involved a great expenditure to maintain that lifestyle to which so many wished to become accustomed.

Clark's wish to find some kind of consistent, steady genetic selection for particular traits that are particularly well-fitted to capitalism seems questionable on many grounds. It must also be noted, I think, that the bibliography of his 'Genetically Capitalist?' essay--while it contains a lot of interesting history, economics and anthropology--includes precious few references from the natural sciences that would back up his rather extravagant (yet somehow strangely off-hand) reliance on genetics.

The fact that societies around the world are making rapid changes to more market-based, free-enterprise systems in a generation or two (and the ability of second-generation immigrants from some of the poorest countries in the world to thrive in some of the richest) should make the obvious point that one doesn't need genetic difference to have social change and variety.

I prefer not to make too harsh a judgement of a book I haven't read, but based on the information in the Times article and Clark's essay, I think those who do read it should do so with a number of questions in mind.

In the preface to his new book (via here), Clark writes:

Doubtless some of the arguments developed here will prove oversimplified, or merely false. They are certainly controversial, even among my colleagues in economic history. But far better such error than the usual dreary academic sins, which now seem to define so much writing in the humanities, of willful obfuscation and jargon-laden vacuity. As Darwin himself noted, "false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness: and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."' Thus my hope is that, even if the book is wrong in parts, it will be clearly and productively wrong, leading us toward the light. ...
I would concur with Clark on the 'dreary academic sins', and I would much rather interact with a a clear argument that is wrong than a muddled one that doesn't even contain enough content to be wrong.

I'm not sure, though, whether his argument is leading us toward light or toward a dead end. And it would be unfortunate if historians took Clark's questionable arguments as a definitive statement on what Darwinian perspectives on history and society potentially have to offer. Getting it too far wrong may not end up leading us forward but rather setting us back.

[Update] The story continues here.