Book review: Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals by Robert M. Sapolsky.
This collection of essays starts out by rehashing nature/nurture arguments that ought to be widely understood by now, but then becomes mostly entertaining and occasionally quite informative.
He mentions one interesting study which questions sexual selection arguments put forward by Geoffrey Miller and others about animals selecting mates with better genes. The study shows that female Mallards produce stronger offspring after mating with more attractive males because they invest more resources in those eggs, rather than because of anything that seems connected to the genes provided by the males.
He helps explain the attraction of gambling by describing experiments which show larger dopamine releases due to rewards that are most uncertain (the subject thinks they have a 50% chance of happening) than is released when there’s more certainty (e.g. either a 25% chance or a 75% chance) of the same reward.
One place where I was disappointed was when he described “repressive personalities”, which he made seem quite similar to Aspergers, and made me wonder whether I fit his description. “dislike novelty”? My reaction to novelty is sufficiently context-dependent that any answer is plausible. “prefer structure and predictability”? Yes and usually. “poor at expressing emotions or at reading the nuances of emotions in other people”? That’s me. “can tell you what they’re having for dinner two weeks from Thursday”? I could probably predict 5 days in advance with 50% accuracy, so I’m probably closer than most people. So I Googled and found another description (mentioning the same researcher that Sapolsky mentioned) in the Sciences and find descriptions of “repressive personality” that seem wildly different from me (”a strong personal need for social conformity” and “agreement with statements framed as absolutes, statements loaded with the words never and always”). Who wrote this competing description? Wait, it’s the same Sapolsky! It looks like his current description reuses a small piece of an older article with inadequate thought to whether it’s complete enough.
Archive for August, 2008
Book review: Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals by Robert M. Sapolsky.
News reports plus the pattern of crude oil fluctuations indicate that the large price increases around May and June were due mainly to Chinese desperation to guarantee a larger than normal margin of safety during the Olympics, not manipulation (although the results bear a good deal of resemblance to the results of manipulation).
Book Review: Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility by Lant Pritchett.
This book is primarily written for economists and academics in related fields, but most of it can be understood by an average person.
I was a little hesitant to read this book because I suspected it would do little more than reinforce my existing beliefs. There were certainly parts of the book that I would have been better off skipping for that reason.
But one important effect of the book was to convince me that the effects on the poor of migration to wealthier countries is so large compared to things like “foreign aid” and free trade that anyone trying to help the poor by influencing government policies shouldn’t spend any time thinking about how to improve “foreign aid” or trade barriers.
I’ve long been wondering how to respond to remarks such as Jimmy Carter’s ‘We are the stingiest nation of all’ based the U.S.’s low “foreign aid” to GDP ratio. Pointing out that “foreign aid” is mostly wasted or even harmful requires too much analysis of lots of not-too-strong evidence. Pritchett shows that the wealth affects of allowing the poor to work in rich countries should dominate any measure of how those rich countries treat the poor. By that measure, adjusting for country size, the U.S. ranks better than countries in the EU, but is embarrassingly callous compared to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.
The book addresses both moral and selfish arguments for restricting immigration. It treats the selfish arguments (even those based on myths) as problems that can’t be overcome, but which can be reduced via compromises. These pragmatic parts of the book are too ordinary to be worth much.
The sections about moral arguments are more powerful. He clearly demonstrates a large blind spot in the moral vision of those who think they’re opposed to all discrimination but who aren’t offended by discrimination on the basis of the nationality a person was assigned at birth. But he exaggerates when he claims that nationality is the only exception to a widely agreed on outrage at discrimination based on “condition of birth”. Discrimination based on date of birth still gets wide support (e.g. the drinking age). And if you’re born as a conjoined twin, don’t expect much protection from surgery that looks about as moral as brain surgery designed to cure a child’s homosexuality should.
Perhaps this book is one small step toward creating a movement with a slogan such as “Tear down that kinder, gentler Berlin wall!”.
F.M. Busby’s The Breeds of Man was written in 1988. Many of his expectations for what was then the future are surprising not just because they’re wrong, but because it took me a fair amount of effort to remember that back in 1988 I wouldn’t have dismissed them as silly.
Most of the book takes place in an unspecified year that is no earlier than 2005 and probably no later than 2020. One of the most striking features of the story is that a powerful person is able to exert pressure on the news media to kill a story that at least one reporter is working on. The story would have generated enough publicity that in 1988 it would have been somewhat doubtful whether it could have been suppressed, but it would have been the kind of possibility that in 1988 I would have expected to generate some entertaining debates. But today, the idea that the reporter couldn’t advance her career by taking the story to an alternate news channel seems too foreign for even a moderately crazy conspiracy theorist to propose.
The book is not particularly bad as science fiction goes, but it’s full of places where I’m almost shocked at how primitive the flow of information seems. And when I think back, I remember that for more than half my life I lived in that primitive world.
Book review: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 by Charles Murray.
I was reluctant to read this book but read it because a reading group I belong to selected it. I agree with most of what it says, but was underwhelmed by what it accomplished.
He has compiled an impressive catalog of people who have accomplished excellent feats in arts, science, and technology.
He has a long section arguing that the disproportionate number of dead white males in his list is not a result of bias. Most of this just repeats what has been said many times before. He appears do have done more than most to check authorities of other cultures to verify that their perspective doesn’t conflict with his. But that’s hard to do well (how many different languages does he read well enough to avoid whatever selection biases influence what’s available in English?) and hard for me to verify. He doesn’t ask how his choice of categories (astronomy, medicine, etc) bias his results (I suspect not much).
His most surprising claim is that the rate of accomplishment is declining. He convinced me that he is measuring something that is in fact declining, but didn’t convince me that what he measured is important. I can think of many other ways of trying to measure accomplishment: number of lives saved, number of people whose accomplishment was bought by a million people, number of people whose accomplishment created $100 million in revenues, the Flynn Effect, number of patents, number of peer-reviewed papers, or number of meta-innovations. All of these measures have nontrivial drawbacks, but they illustrate why I find his measure (acclaim by scholars) very incomplete. An incomplete measure may be adequate for conclusions that aren’t very sensitive to the choice of measure (such as the male/female ratio of important people), but when most measures fail to support his conclusion that the rate of accomplishment is declining, his failure to try for a more inclusive measure is disappointing.
His research appears careful to a casual reader, but I found one claim that was definitely not well researched. He thinks that “the practice of medicine became an unambiguous net plus for the patient” around the 1920s or 1930s. He cites no sources for this claim, and if he had found the best studies on the subject he’d see lots of uncertainty about whether it has yet become a net plus.