Book Review: The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body by Steven Mithen
This book presents some interesting and refreshing speculations on how music and language evolved, emphasizing reasons for believing that music was at least as important as language during significant parts of human evolution. It stretches the limits of what we can figure out from the available evidence, so it’s likely the some of it is wrong. But his hypotheses appear more likely to help us ask the right questions than to lead us astray.
Mithen’s knowledge of archeology helps make his book different from most books about the human mind in that he emphasizes very different selective pressures at different stages in human evolution, corresponding to changes in conditions that our ancestors faced.
Here are some surprising and informative section titles that will tell you something about the flavor of the book: “The musical implications of bipedalism”, and “The sexy hand-axe hypothesis”.
I was intrigued by his description of how music helps a group cooperate by synchronizing their emotions. But he helps point out the limits of those benefits by noting that the chants at Nazi rallies that helped unite most of the German people.
Book review: Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games by Edward Castronova
Castranova is one of the first intellectuals to notice the importance of new societies that are being created in cyberspace. Much of this book is devoted to (sometimes redundant) explanations of why they are more than just games.
Around the middle of the book, he switches from describing a typical world for the benefit of those who doubt the importance of virtual worlds to describing how to design good worlds. This is where I started to find the book interesting and the questions thought-provoking, but the answers often unconvincing.
His most important discussion is about the near-anarchy that prevails in most virtual societies. He attributes this partly to the “Customer Service State” of for-profit world builders who are too cheap to pay for as much government as he assumes citizens want. But he seems to believe this is too inevitable to be worth much analysis. His more interesting question is why don’t the world’s citizens organize a government of their own? His answer is that citizens don’t have enough power over each other to enforce laws they might create. But he doesn’t convince me this is true (are boycotts useless? is repeatedly killing an outlaw not punishment?), nor does he explain why the designer face little pressure to change the design of the world to make it easier to enforce laws (what would happen if the world were designed to enable one person to effectively banish a person she doesn’t like from her view of the world?). I suspect part of the answer is that there’s less demand for government than he expects. I see some hints that his desire for government in cyberspace is a simple reflection of his desire for government in the real world. Yet I’d expect the analysis of whether government is desirable to be nontrivially affected by such differences as whether poverty and death cause much harm.
He claims “A fun economy should have property, theft, and jail too”, but only gives a few cryptic hints about what theft and jail add to an economy.
He claims “there should be no goods which never depreciate”, and partly justifies that by pointing to some benefits of a continuing need to produce new goods, but leaves me wondering why the rule should be universal or even close to universal.
He hints at the desirability of creating p2p virtual societies so that control over them can be decentralized instead of being determined by a corporate owner, but I’m disappointed that he fails to analyze whether this is practical.
One insight I liked was this description of how to deal with the desire for everyone to have high status: “How do you make a world in which everyone is in the top 10 percent? The answer: AI.”
He has a disturbing idea about the military uses of virtual worlds – an aggressor need not be hampered by unfamiliarity with the land he’s invading if he has unlimited ability to practice the invasion in simulation.
He has some ideas about how virtual worlds might help deal with threats such as grey goo, but doesn’t develop them as well as I would like. His ideas on using virtual worlds to make AIs more friendly appear to anthropomorphise AI in a rather naive and dangerous manner.
Book Review: Knowledge and the Wealth Of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery by David Warsh
This book is an entertaining (but sometimes long-winded) history of economic thought that focuses on the role of technological knowledge, showing how sporadic attempts starting with Adam Smith to incorporate it into the mainstream of economic thought kept getting marginalized until a paper by Paul Romer in 1990 finally appears to have convinced the profession to include it in their models as a nonrival, partly excludable good.
Warsh writes in a style intended to be appropriate for laymen, but I find this rather frustrating, as it leaves out a fair amount of technical detail that I would like to understand, but probably fails to satisfy laymen since the subject of the book will only seem important to readers who already have enough familiarity with economics to handle a more technical discussion.
I liked an analogy that the book reports of the history of maps of Africa, where improved standards of accuracy sometimes caused mapmakers to produce less informative maps as they removed unverified reports of features from interior parts of Africa well before they were able to replace them with something more reliable. The book shows how similar processes in economic models have resulted in similar blank spots in economic thought.
He claims that Romer’s theory amounts to an argument against free markets and in favor of some poorly specified state management of some aspects of the economy. But I saw no analysis to support that conclusion. All I see are arguments that classical economic theory is too simplistic, that we probably need to study lots of messy empirical evidence before deciding what Romer’s theory says about state action.
His analysis of the Microsoft antitrust case provides a better argument than I’d previously heard for breaking up Microsoft into an OS company and an Apps company, but still leaves me wondering why it would make much difference – most of the causes of Microsoft’s OS monopoly power would remain unchanged. His claim (apparently reporting Romer’s remarks) that Microsoft solved the double marginalization problem in a way that a breakup wouldn’t alter seems confused. He is right to point out that those pricing effects weren’t the main issue, although he doesn’t seem to understand why (see Lessig’s The Future of Ideas for a good explanation of how monopolies stifle innovation).
He has a chapter titled “How the Dismal Science Got Its Name” which says nothing about the actual origin of that term (which was coined by a racist who hated Mill’s belief that blacks could be productive without being slaves).
Book Review: Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle
This book provides a fairly good, but not very novel, description of what does and does not influence happiness, the problems with measuring it, and some bits of evolutionary theory that hint at why it is hard to achieve lasting increases in happiness.
The claim I found most important is that “If you control for social class, there is almost no relationship between income and life satisfaction.” This seems to have important implications for what kind of social equality we ought to be encouraging. I’m disappointed that he doesn’t say enough about this for me to determine how robust this conclusion is to the way it’s measured.
I’m disappointed that he ends with some misleading arguments for an alarming trend of increased distress among the least happy. He reports that suicides have increased among the young in recent decades, but fails to note that overall suicide rates in the U.S. have declined over that period. He claims “People are as hard as they ever have”, but cites no references for that, and Robert Fogel has reported research that reached the opposite conclusion in The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.
Book review: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality by Judith Rich Harris
This book provides a clear theory of what causes the personality differences between people that can’t be explained by genetic differences. She focuses a fair amount on identical twins, because the evidence that their environmentally caused personality differences are the same as ordinary siblings, and the same whether they’re reared together or apart, rules out many tempting theories.
Amazon reviewer Sioran points out an inconsistency – she claims early on that random chance can’t explain all of the variation, but her explanation ends up amounts to saying the causes are ultimately random. I find her early arguments against randomness unconvincing. And her explanation’s reliance on randomness doesn’t imply that her explanation is useless – she rules out most kinds of randomness as a cause, narrowing down the class of random causes to those which affect the person’s view of her status in society (e.g. differences in who outside family the person interacts with, and physical differences such as being tall due to better nutrition).
The most surprising prediction she makes is that mindblind (i.e. most) animals won’t have persistent personality differences that can’t be explained by genetic differences. I’m unsure whether to believe this – it seems that animals should only need to remember differences in how others treat them (rather than have a theory of mind) in order to produce the results we see. She would probably predict that autistic people have no persistent environmentally caused personality differences, but she isn’t clear about that (it may depend on the degree of autism).
One interesting result that she mentions is that autistic children are unable to use the fusiform face area (which in most people is specialized to do good face recognition), and instead seem to recognize faces the same way they recognize ordinary objects. I’m wondering how much this explains about why autism impairs many parts of the mind that deal with relationships.
I’m annoyed by how many pages she spends recounting the reaction to her prior book (The Nurture Assumption, a better book than this). If you’ve read that, most of the first half of this book will be a waste of time.
One interesting piece of evidence she mentions is this paper from the Journal of Political Economy which says that one’s height as a teenager is a better predictor of wages as an adult than adult height.
One small quibble: she says being a firstborn is unimportant (often not even known) outside the home in “contemporary societies — at least those not ruled by monarchies”. Korean society appears to be a clear exception to that claim.