Book Reviews

Book review: Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama.

This book describes the rise of modern nation-states, from the French revolution to the present.

Fukuyama focuses on three features that influence national success: state (effective bureaucracy), rule of law, and autonomy (democratic accountability).

Much of the book argues against libertarian ideas from a fairly centrist perspective, although he mostly avoids directly discussing libertarian beliefs. Instead, he implies that we should de-emphasize debates over big government versus small government, and look more at effectiveness versus corruption (i.e. we should pull sideways).

Many of these ideas build on what Fukuyama wrote in Trust – I suggest reading that book first.

1.

War! What Is It Good For?. Fukuyama believes that war sometimes causes states to make their bureaucracy more efficient. Fukuyama is more credible here than Morris because Fukuyama is more cautious about the effects he claims to see.

The book suggests that young nations have some key stage where threat of conquest can create the right incentives for developing an efficient bureaucracy (i.e. without efficient support for the military, including effective taxation, they get absorbed into a state that does better at those tasks). Without such a threat, states can get stuck in an equilibrium where the bureaucracy simply serves a small number of powerful people. But with such a threat, politicians need to delegate enough authority that the bureaucracy develops some independence, which enables it to care about broader notions of national welfare. (Fukuyama talks as if the bureaucracies are somewhat altruistic. I think of it more as the bureaucracies caring about their long-term revenue source, when individual politicians don’t hold power long enough to care about the long term).

It seems plausible that China would have helped to lead the industrial revolution if it had faced a serious risk of being conquered in the 17th and 18th centuries. China’s relative safety back then seems to have left it complacent and stagnant.

2.

Fukuyama hints that the three pillars of modern nation-states (state, law, autonomy) have roughly equal importance.

Yet I don’t buy that. I expect that whatever virtues are responsible for the rule of law are a good deal more important than effective bureaucracies or democratic accountability.

Fukuyama doesn’t make a strong case for the value of democracy for national success, presumably in part because he expects most readers to already agree with him about that. I’ll conjecture that democracy is mostly a byproduct of success at the other features that Fukuyama considers important.

It’s likely that democracy is somewhat valuable for generating fairness, but that has limited relevance to what Fukuyama tries to explain (i.e. mainly power and wealth).

3.

Full-fledged rule of law might be needed to get all the benefits of the best modern societies. But the differences between good and bad nations seems to have originated well before those nations had more than a rudimentary version of rule of law.

That suggests some underlying factor that matters – maybe just the basic notion of law as something separate from individual leaders or ethnic groups (Fukuyama’s previous book says Christianity played an important role here); or maybe the kind of cultural advance suggested by Greg Clark.

Fukuyama argues that it’s risky to adopt democracy before creating effective states and the rule of law. He’s probably right to expect that such democracies will be dominated by people who fight to get the spoils of politics for their family / clan / ethnic group, with little thought to national wellbeing.

4.

National identity is important for producing the kind of government that Fukuyama likes. It’s hard for government employees to focus on the welfare of the nation if they identify mainly as members of a non-majority ethnic group.

He mentions that the printing press helped create national identities out of more fragmented cultures. This seems important enough to Europe’s success that it deserves more emphasis than the two paragraphs he devotes to it.

He describes several countries that started out as a patchwork of ethnic groups, and had differing degrees of success at developing a unified national identity: Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was a bit disappointed that the differences there seemed to be mostly accidents of the personalities of leading politicians.

He talks as if the only two options for such regions were to develop a clear national identity or be crippled by ethnic conflict. Why not also consider the option of splitting into smaller political units that can aim to become city-states such as Singapore and Dubai?

5.

He makes many minor claims that sound suspicious enough for me to have moderate doubts about trusting his scholarship.

For example, he tries to refute claims that “industrial policy never works”, mainly by using the example of the government developing the internet. (His use of the word “never” suggests that he’s not exactly attacking the most sophisticated version of the belief in question). How familiar is he with the history of the internet? The entities in charge of internet tried to restrict commercial use until 1995. Actual commercial use of the internet started before the government made a clear decision to tolerate such use, much less endorse it. So Fukuyama either has a faulty understanding of internet history, or is using the phrase industrial policy in a way that puzzles me.

Then there’s the claim that the Spanish conquered important parts of the New World before the native nations had declined due to European diseases. Fukuyama seems unfamiliar with the contrary evidence reported by Charles C. Mann in 1491 and 1493. Mann may not be an ideal source, but he appears at least as reliable as the sources that Fukuyama cites.

6.

That leads into more general doubts about history books, especially ambitiously broad books aimed at popular audiences.

Tetlock’s research into the accuracy of political pundits has led me to assume that a broad range of “expert” commentary is roughly equivalent to random guessing. Much of what historians do [1] seems quite similar to the opinions of the experts that Tetlock studies. Neither historians nor political pundits get adequate feedback about mistaken beliefs, or get significant rewards for insights that are later confirmed by new evidence. That leads me to worry that the study of history is little better than voodoo.

7.

In sum, I can’t quite decide whether to recommend that you read this book.

[1] – I.e. drawing inferences from aggregations of data. That’s not to say that historians don’t devote lots of time to reporting observed facts. But most of those facts don’t have value to me unless I can generalize from them in ways that help me understand the future. Historian’s choices of what facts to emphasize will unavoidably influence any generalizations I draw.

Book review: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

This book describes some interesting mysteries, but provides little help at solving them.

It provides some pieces of a long-term perspective on the evolution of intelligence.

Cephalopods’ most recent common ancestor with vertebrates lived way back before the Cambrian explosion. Nervous systems back then were primitive enough that minds didn’t need to react to other minds, and predation was a rare accident, not something animals prepared carefully to cause and avoid.

So cephalopod intelligence evolved rather independently from most of the minds we observe. We could learn something about alien minds by understanding them.

Intelligence may even have evolved more than once in cephalopods – nobody seems to know whether octopuses evolved intelligence separately from squids/cuttlefish.

An octopus has a much less centralized mind than vertebrates do. Does an octopus have a concept of self? The book presents evidence that octopuses sometimes seem to think of their arms as parts of their self, yet hints that their concept of self is a good deal weaker than in humans, and maybe the octopus treats its arms as semi-autonomous entities.

2.

Does an octopus have color vision? Not via its photoreceptors the way many vertebrates do. Simple tests of octopuses’ ability to discriminate color also say no.

Yet octopuses clearly change color to camouflage themselves. They also change color in ways that suggest they’re communicating via a visual language. But to whom?

One speculative guess is that the color-producing parts act as color filters, with monochrome photoreceptors in the skin evaluating the color of the incoming light by how much the light is attenuated by the filters. So they “see” color with their skin, but not their eyes.

That would still leave plenty of mystery about what they’re communicating.

3.

The author’s understanding of aging implies that few organisms die of aging in the wild. He sees evidence in Octopuses that conflicts with this prediction, yet that doesn’t alert him to the growing evidence of problems with the standard theories of aging.

He says octopuses are subject to much predation. Why doesn’t this cause them to be scared of humans? He has surprising anecdotes of octopuses treating humans as friends, e.g. grabbing one and leading him on a ten-minute “tour”.

He mentions possible REM sleep in cuttlefish. That would almost certainly have evolved independently from vertebrate REM sleep, which must indicate something important.

I found the book moderately entertaining, but I was underwhelmed by the author’s expertise. The subtitle’s reference to “the Deep Origins of Consciousness” led me to expect more than I got.

Book review: Aging is a Group-Selected Adaptation: Theory, Evidence, and Medical Implications, by Joshua Mitteldorf.

This provocative book argues that our genes program us to age because aging provided important benefits.

I’ll refer here to antagonistic pleiotropy (AP) and programmed aging (PA) as the two serious contending hypotheses of aging. (Mutation accumulation used to be a leading hypothesis, but it seems discredited now, due to the number of age-related deaths seen in a typical species, and due to evidence that aging is promoted by some ancient genes).

Here’s a dumbed down version of the debate:
<theorist>: Hamilton proved that all conceivable organisms age due to AP and/or mutation accumulation.
<critic>: But the PA theories better predict how many die from aging, the effects of telomeres, calorie restriction, etc. Also, here’s some organisms with zero or negative aging …
<theorist>: A few anomalies aren’t enough to overturn a well-established theory. The well-known PA theories are obviously wrong because selfish genes would outbreed the PA genes.
<critic>: Here are some new versions which might explain how aging could enhance a species’ fitness …
<theorist>: I’ve read enough bad group-selection theories that I’m not going to waste my time with more of them.

That kind of reaction from theorists might make sense if AP was well established. But AP seems to have been well established only in the Darwinian sense of being firmly entrenched in scientists’ minds. It got entrenched mainly by being the least wrong of a flawed set of theories, combined with some poor communication between theorists and naturalists. Wikipedia has a surprisingly good[1] page on the evolution of aging that says:

Antagonistic pleiotropy is a prevailing theory today, but this is largely by default, and not because the theory has been well verified.

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Book review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner.

This book reports on the Good Judgment Project (GJP).

Much of the book recycles old ideas: 40% of the book is a rerun of Thinking Fast and Slow, 15% of the book repeats Wisdom of Crowds, and 15% of the book rehashes How to Measure Anything. Those three books were good enough that it’s very hard to improve on them. Superforecasting nearly matches their quality, but most people ought to read those three books instead. (Anyone who still wants more after reading them will get decent value out of reading the last 4 or 5 chapters of Superforecasting).

The book’s style is very readable, using an almost Gladwell-like style (a large contrast to Tetlock’s previous, more scholarly book), at a moderate cost in substance. It contains memorable phrases, such as “a fox with the bulging eyes of a dragonfly” (to describe looking at the world through many perspectives).

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Book review: The Rationality Quotient: Toward a Test of Rational Thinking, by Keith E. Stanovich, Richard F. West and Maggie E. Toplak.

This book describes an important approach to measuring individual rationality: an RQ test that loosely resembles an IQ test. But it pays inadequate attention to the most important problems with tests of rationality.

Coachability

My biggest concern about rationality testing is what happens when people anticipate the test and are motivated to maximize their scores (as is the case with IQ tests). Do they:

  • learn to score high by “cheating” (i.e. learn what answers the test wants, without learning to apply that knowledge outside of the test)?
  • learn to score high by becoming more rational?
  • not change their score much, because they’re already motivated to do as well as their aptitudes allow (as is mostly the case with IQ tests)?

Alas, the book treats these issues as an afterthought. Their test knowingly uses questions for which cheating would be straightforward, such as asking whether the test subject believes in science, and whether they prefer to get $85 now rather than $100 in three months. (If they could use real money, that would drastically reduce my concerns about cheating. I’m almost tempted to advocate doing that, but doing so would hinder widespread adoption of the test, even if using real money added enough value to pay for itself.)

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Book review: Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill.

This book is a simple introduction to the Effective Altruism movement.

It documents big differences between superficially plausible charities, and points out how this implies big benefits to the recipients of charity from donors paying more attention to the results that a charity produces.

How effective is the book?

Is it persuasive?

Probably yes, for a small but somewhat important fraction of the population who seriously intend to help distant strangers, but have procrastinated about informing themselves about how to do so.

Does it focus on a neglected task?

Not very neglected. It’s mildly different from similar efforts such as GiveWell’s website and Reinventing Philanthropy, in ways that will slightly reduce the effort needed to understand the basics of Effective Altruism.

Will it make people more altruistic?

Not very much. It mostly seems to assume that people have some fixed level of altruism, and focuses on improving the benefits that result from that altruism. Maybe it will modestly redirect peer pressure toward making people more altruistic.

Will it make readers more effective?

Probably. For people who haven’t given much thought to these topics, the book’s advice is a clear improvement over standard habits. It will be modestly effective at promoting a culture where charitable donations that save lives are valued more highly than donations which accomplish less.

But I see some risk that it will make people overconfident about the benefits of the book’s specific strategies. An ideal version of the book would instead inspire people to improve on the book’s analysis.

The book provides evidence that donors rarely pay attention to how much good a charity does. Yet it avoids asking why. If you pay attention, you’ll see hints that donors are motivated mainly by the desire to signal something virtuous about themselves (for example, see the book’s section on moral licensing). In spite of that, the book consistently talks as if donors have good intentions, and only need more knowledge to be better altruists.

The book is less rigorous than I had hoped. I’m unsure how much of that is due to reasonable attempts to simplify the message so that more people can understand it with minimal effort.

In a section on robustness of evidence, the book describes this “sanity check”:

“if it cost ten dollars to save a life, then we’d have to suppose that they or their family members couldn’t save up for a few weeks, or take out a loan, in order to pay for the lifesaving product.”

I find it confusing to use this as a sanity check, because it’s all too easy to imagine that many people are in desperate enough conditions that they’re spending their last dollar to avoid starvation.

The book alternates between advocating doing more good (satisficing), and advocating the most possible good (optimizing). In practice, it mostly focuses on safe ways to produce fairly good results.

The book barely mentions existential risks. If it were literally trying to advocate doing the most good possible, it would devote a lot more attention to affecting the distant future. But that’s much harder to do well than what the book does focus on (saving a few more lives in Africa over the next few years), and would involve acts of charity that have small probabilities of really large effects on people who are not yet born.

If you’re willing to spend 50-100 hours (but not more) learning how to be more effective with your altruism, then reading this book is a good start.

But people who are more ambitious ought to be able to make a bigger difference to the world. I encourage those people to skip this book, and focus more on analyzing existential risks.

Book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, by Nick Lane.

This book describes a partial theory of how life initially evolved, followed by a more detailed theory of how eukaryotes evolved.

Lane claims the hardest step in evolving complex life was the development of complex eukaryotic cells. Many traits such as eyes and wings evolved multiple times. Yet eukaryotes have many traits which evolved exactly once (including mitochondria, sex, and nuclear membranes).

Eukaryotes apparently originated in a single act of an archaeon engulfing a bacterium. The result wasn’t very stable, and needed to quickly evolve (i.e. probably within a few million years) a sophisticated nucleus, plus sexual reproduction.

Only organisms that go through these steps will be able to evolve a more complex genome than bacteria do. This suggests that complex life is rare outside of earth, although simple life may be common.

The book talks a lot about mitochondrial DNA, and make some related claims about aging.

Cells have a threshold for apoptosis which responds to the effects of poor mitochondrial DNA, killing weak embryos before they can take up much parental resources. Lane sees evolution making important tradeoffs, with species that have intense energy demands (such as most birds) setting their thresholds high, and more ordinary species (e.g. rats) setting the threshold lower. This tradeoff causes less age-related damage in birds, at the cost of lower fertility.

Lane claims that the DNA needs to be close to the mitochondria in order to make quick decisions. I found this confusing until I checked Wikipedia and figured out it probably refers to the CoRR hypothesis. I’m still confused, but at least now I can attribute the confusion to the topic being hard. Aubrey de Grey’s criticism of CoRR suggests there’s a consensus that CoRR has problems, and the main confusion revolves around the credibility of competing hypotheses.

Lane is quite pessimistic about attempts to cure aging. Only a small part of that disagreement with Aubrey can be explained by the modest differences in their scientific hypotheses. Much of the difference seems to come from Lane’s focus on doing science, versus Aubrey’s focus on engineering. Lane keeps pointing out (correctly) that cells are really complex and finely tuned. Yet Lane is well aware that evolution makes many changes that affect aging in spite of the complexity. I suspect he’s too focused on the inadequacy of typical bioengineering to imagine really good engineering.

Some less relevant tidbits include:

  • why vibrant plumage in male birds may be due to females being heterogametic
  • why male mammals age faster than females

Many of Lane’s ideas are controversial, and only weakly supported by the evidence. But given the difficulty of getting good evidence on these topics, that still represents progress.

The book is pretty dense, and requires some knowledge of biochemistry. It has many ideas and evidence that were developed since I last looked into this subject. I expect to forget many of those ideas fairly quickly. The book is worth reading if you have enough free time, but understanding these topics does not feel vital.

Book review: Notes on a New Philosophy of Empirical Science (Draft Version), by Daniel Burfoot.

Standard views of science focus on comparing theories by finding examples where they make differing predictions, and rejecting the theory that made worse predictions.

Burfoot describes a better view of science, called the Compression Rate Method (CRM), which replaces the “make prediction” step with “make a compression program”, and compares theories by how much they compress a standard (large) database.

These views of science produce mostly equivalent results(!), but CRM provides a better perspective.

Machine Learning (ML) is potentially science, and this book focuses on how ML will be improved by viewing its problems through the lens of CRM. Burfoot complains about the toolkit mentality of traditional ML research, arguing that the CRM approach will turn ML into an empirical science.

This should generate a Kuhnian paradigm shift in ML, with more objective measures of the research quality than any branch of science has achieved so far.

Burfoot focuses on compression as encoding empirical knowledge of specific databases / domains. He rejects the standard goal of a general-purpose compression tool. Instead, he proposes creating compression algorithms that are specialized for each type of database, to reflect what we know about topics (such as images of cars) that are important to us.
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Book review: The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, by Samuel Bowles.

This book has a strange mixture of realism and idealism.

It focuses on two competing models: the standard economics model in which people act in purely self-interested ways, and a more complex model in which people are influenced by context to act either altruistically or selfishly.

The stereotypical example comes from the semi-famous Haifa daycare experiment, where daycare centers started fining parents for being late to pick up children, and the parents responded by being later.

The first half of the book is a somewhat tedious description of ideas that seem almost obvious enough to be classified as common sense. He points out that the economist’s model is a simplification that is useful for some purposes, yet it’s not too hard to find cases where it makes the wrong prediction about how people will respond to incentives.

That happens because society provides weak pressures that produce cooperation under some conditions, and because financial incentives send messages that influence whether people want to cooperate. I.e. the parents appear to have previously felt obligated to be somewhat punctual, but then inferred from the fines that it was ok to be late as long as they paid the price.[*].

The book advocates more realism on this specific issue. But it’s pretty jarring to compare that to the idealistic view the author takes on similar topics, such as acquiring evidence of how people react, or modeling politicians. He treats the Legislator (capitalized like that) as a very objective, well informed, and altruistic philosopher. That model may sometimes be useful, but I’ll bet that, on average, it produces worse predictions about legislators’ behavior than does the economist’s model of a self-interested legislator.

The book becomes more interesting around chapter V, when it analyzes the somewhat paradoxical conclusion that markets sometimes make people more selfish, yet cultures that have more experience with markets tend to cooperate more.

He isn’t able to fully explain that, but he makes some interesting progress. One factor that’s important to focus on is the difference between complete and incomplete contracts. Complete contracts describe everything a buyer might need to know about a product or service. An example of an incomplete contract would be an agreement to hire a lawyer to defend me – I don’t expect the lawyer to specify how good a defense to expect.

Complete contracts enable people to trade without needing to trust the seller, which can lead to highly selfish attitudes. Incomplete contracts lead to the creation of trust between participants, because having frequent transactions depends on some implicit cooperation.

The book ends by promoting the “new” idea that policy ought to aim for making people be good. But it’s unclear who disagrees with that idea. Economists sometimes sound like they disagree, because they often say that policy shouldn’t impose one group’s preferences on another group. But economists are quite willing to observe that people generally prefer cooperation over conflict, and that most people prefer institutions that facilitate cooperation. That’s what the book mostly urges.

The book occasionally hints at wanting governments to legislate preferences in ways that go beyond facilitating cooperation, but doesn’t have much of an argument for doing so.

[*] – The book implies that the increased lateness was an obviously bad result. This seems like a plausible guess. But I find it easy to imagine conditions where the reported results were good (i.e. the parents might benefit from being late more than it costs the teachers to accommodate them).

However, that scenario depends on the fines being high enough for the teachers to prefer the money over punctuality. They appear not to have been consulted, so success at that would have depended on luck. It’s unclear whether the teachers were getting overtime pay when parents were late, or whether the fines benefited only the daycare owner.

Book review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal.

This book is primarily about discrediting false claims of human uniqueness, and showing how easy it is to screw up evaluations of a species’ cognitive abilities. It is best summarized by the cognitive ripple rule:

Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.

De Waal provides many anecdotes of carefully designed experiments detecting abilities that previously appeared to be absent. E.g. asian elephants failed mirror tests with small, distant mirrors. When experimenters dared to put large mirrors close enough for the elephants to touch, some of them passed the test.

Likewise, initial observations of behaviorist humans suggested they were rigidly fixated on explaining all behavior via operant conditioning. Yet one experimenter managed to trick a behaviorist into demonstrating more creativity, by harnessing the one motive that behaviorists prefer over their habit of advocating operant conditioning: their desire to accuse people of recklessly inferring complex cognition.

De Waal seems moderately biased toward overstating cognitive abilities of most species (with humans being one clear exception to that pattern).

At one point he gave me the impression that he was claiming elephants could predict where a thunderstorm would hit days in advance. I checked the reference, and what the elephants actually did was predict the arrival of the wet season, and respond with changes such as longer steps (but probably not with indications that they knew where thunderstorms would hit). After rereading de Waal’s wording, I decided it was ambiguous. But his claim that elephants “hear thunder and rainfall hundreds of miles away” exaggerates the original paper’s “detected … at distances greater than 100 km … perhaps as much as 300 km”.

But in the context of language, de Waal switches to downplaying reports of impressive abilities. I wonder how much of that is due to his desire to downplay claims that human minds are better, and how much of that is because his research isn’t well suited to studying language.

I agree with the book’s general claims. The book provides evidence that human brains embody only small, somewhat specialized improvements on the cognitive abilities of other species. But I found the book less convincing on that subject than some other books I’ve read recently. I suspect that’s mainly due to de Waal’s focus on anecdotes that emphasize what’s special about each species or individual. Whereas The Human Advantage rigorously quantifies important ways in which human brains are just a bigger primate brain (but primate brains are special!). Or The Secret of our Success (which doesn’t use particularly rigorous methods) provides a better perspective, by describing a model in which ape minds evolve to human minds via ordinary, gradual adaptations to mildly new environments.

In sum, this book is good at explaining the problems associated with research into animal cognition. It is merely ok at providing insights about how smart various species are.