Friday, August 9, 2013

The methane made me do it! (But I'll be nicer, now)

Recent comment-worthy stories from On High (that is, news releases to the media that then get hyped for stories to fill their web pages and 24/7 agendas) have led us to devote (waste?) a day with this post:

The Darwin made me do it, or did he?
First, it seems that climate change engenders violence (BBC story about a Science article).
Shifts in climate are strongly linked to increases in violence around the world, a study suggests. 
US scientists found that even small changes in temperature or rainfall correlated with a rise in assaults, rapes and murders, as well as group conflicts and war. 
The team says with the current projected levels of climate change, the world is likely to become a more violent place.
How this jibes with the On High pronouncement by the Authority from Harvard (Steven Pinker) in his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature", that suddenly our nature (our gentler angels, that is our inherentic genetic nature somehow made prisoner by our environment until recently) has come to be in control and we're not violent any more--stories the media seem to have blessed as The Truth, we don't know!  After all, haven't we been told, with great authority, that natural selection and competition have made us the nasty violent beasts that would please any strongly adaptationist Darwinian?

Perhaps because it's less headline-worthy, so many scientists, including social scientists and not just journalists and pulp-science authors, routinely and totally ignore the power of culture, including people's circumstances (which, of course, are affected by climate), to modify how we act and live together.  These are complex aspects of human social life, certainly, and social science is far from 'solving' problems or delivering Nirvana. Perhaps it's so much easier, and more grant-worthy and publication-sexier, to say that we should measure everyone's DNA and we'll come to some then-obvious solution.

But since climates of the entire spectrum have been human habitats since there were humans, and as humans evolved from earlier hominins, and since violence has not been a particular patent in the tropics, such the-climate-made-me-do-it stories are just as fanciful over-generalizations as the DNA stories are. Now, to be fair (oh, why should we do that?) the published story does include some undoubtedly blinkered skeptics who doubt that we can blame such things as the African civil wars on climate change.  Spoil sports!

There's a madness in our methane
But we don't like to just criticize media and science excesses.  In fact this time we have a more subtle theory to propose, one that is almost certainly true, and that could actually be tested to develop a really scientific AngerOmeter that could be used to predict violence, much more reliably than behavior can be predicted from genotypes.  The facts are these:  Climate change makes things warmer, but it isn't just sweaty, baking, sultry sun-burnt alcohol-bathed temperature that drives people mad.  No, it's the global warming's release of masses of methane gas that had previously been trapped in the northern permafrost.

The pervasive, globally circulating if subtle stench of methane is what puts people in a very bad mood.  We had initially thought that this was a subtle form of global flatulitis--think about how nasty of a mood you'd be in if you were always in such an environment.  Well, that's what climate change is doing!

However, any legitimate and rigorous theory, even ours here, must be subject to testing.  So, we looked it up and found, sadly, methane has no smell. Damn! The rotten eggs are due to some other compounds.  So the explanation of how methane induces violence must be  different.  Any thoughts?

Searching for our better angel: it's not 'in the air'

Cooperating animals; Rubenstein and Kealy, 2013, The NatureEducation Knowledge Project
Now, while we groped for a climate explanation for violence, we were stunned to learn that Nature (and hence natural selection, but not the journal) doesn't favor selfishness after all!  Says the BBC:
Evolution does not favour selfish people, according to new research. 
This challenges a previous theory which suggested it was preferable to put yourself first.
Instead, it pays to be co-operative, shown in a model of "the prisoner's dilemma", a scenario of game theory - the study of strategic decision-making. 
Published in Nature Communications, the team says their work shows that exhibiting only selfish traits would have made us become extinct. 
Game theory involves devising "games" to simulate situations of conflict or co-operation. It allows researchers to unravel complex decision-making strategies and to establish why certain types of behaviour among individuals emerge.
Wait!  "A previous theory"?  Didn't a host of authoritative and very confident evolutionary behavioral Darwinists assure us, for well over a century, with great conviction of certainty, that selfishness and competition are the be-all and end-all of life?  Hasn't that been the basis of most evolutionary theory forever?  Of course, there is the ultimate safety valve for advocates that dogma: that cooperation is just selfishness in disguise.  Of course, if genetic proliferation is assumed to be the measuring stick (and the only measuring stick), then whatever proliferates is basically defined as having had a competitive advantage.  That's rather empty relative to understanding, and it's not science, any more than it would informative be to argue that all numbers are positive and that 'therefore' negative numbers are just positive numbers in reverse.

Oh, and by the way: one wife only!!
Yes, and in this day of bounty on the Science Junk-O-sphere is the startling finding that monogamy is how the human brain evolved.  Now this may seem somewhat odd, given that many or perhaps most human societies tolerated or favored, or looked the other way about, polygamous unions and relationships.  If monogamy was so important, then it would have been important millions of years before humans arrived and one would expect little deviation from it.  It would as a strict Darwinist might say, strongly have been built into our genomes.  Still, we can look the other way about that, and make our Darwinian assertions--it's much easier than trying to think about alternative evolutionary explanations--including that there is no particular selection-mandated way to manage human reproduction.

The alternative explanation for monogamy that's just been proposed is that it evolved to prevent infanticide. It's a way for males to be assured they are the father of their faithful mate's children.  But, is abortion not a form of infanticide?

Here we enter the Land of the Forgotten.  Some of us elders were around when there was a spate of biological and anthropological discussion and observation of the widespread and diverse practices of infanticide around the world, from the most primitive to technically sophisticated cultures, and in all climates (not just as the top story might argue, in sultry anger-producing ones). Maybe journalists have forgotten, or for getting out their story choose to forget or ignore or not research, such literature.  But there's no excuse for that among scientists.

The BS factor
The problem, of course, is that the bullshit factor (that's a technical term we scientists use, for which there isn't a good vernacular equivalent) is now part of science.  It's science's playing on the stage of attention-seeking, and the media (presumably trained somewhere, but apparently not trained to do their job properly and be skeptical) dance along.  Well, it's how science is done these days.  Unfortunately, we let the scientists tell Hollywood stories--melodramatic, scary, heavy, and so on--but we don't require Hollywood to pay for the 'research' on which they're based.


John R. Vokey said...

I have recently been involved in a case that I think fits your "BSfactor" category in spades. We originally wrote this piece to respond to the Science magazine's (I can no longer call it a journal) over-the-top hyping of an article that Science claimed showed that baboons can learn to engage in orthographic processing (i.e., lexical decisions). The hype was picked up and repeated in many other sources, New Scientist and National Geographic to name just two. And, it appeared in almost every newspaper and online science magazine (including Nature).

Science refused even to send our response (a simple neural net simulation of the Science paper results showing that simple familiarity---not orthographic processing---could account for the results) out for review with no justification given. Fair enough, I guess. But then a new paper in Psychological Science appeared that provided new evidence with the same baboons that what we had claimed (no citation given, even though, as Science requires, we had sent our ms to the original authors), expressed as a general concern (again, fair enough, we were most likely not the only people to notice the weaknesses of the original claims), showed that, indeed, it was orthographic processing the baboons were using. So, we immediately updated our simulation to handle the latest results. It is now under review at Psychological Science.

As with your piece, our concern is 1) how either of these articles made it through the review process in the first place, and 2) the exaggerated plethora of hype that followed the original publication. Seriously, none of this is rocket science. And the claims are simply preposterous from the outset. The unfortunate downside of all of this is that the authors have developed an amazing system for testing the animals that I am trying to replicate in my own department (but for wild corvids, not baboons), that may get lost in the resulting kerfuffle over over-charged claims.

A pre-print of the version submitted to Psychological Science is here:

Ken Weiss said...

The BS-Meter glows red just about every day, sometimes with Big Story reports of basically much ado about very little, but too often total nonsense blown into a Big Story. Yesterday was a real genetic disease howler by an otherwise respectable writer for the Times (I won't name names in this public space, since the story is so egregious anyone can find it).

Still, this is how our culture works, how careers are made, and so on. Every now and then there is a grain of value in the hurricane of chaff.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks for sharing this John. I'm writing about things like monkey and ape cognition (in language and social contexts specifically) digging myself deep into fields that aren't so familiar to me ... and it's always great to read about counter-interpretation like yours. It really helps even if I still don't really understand it completely.

John R. Vokey said...

There are at least two worlds of thought in those domains, structuralists and those (like me) who see the structural regularities of behaviour emerging from the memory of past experience. So in addition to my modest contributions, you might want to look at the work of Landauer and Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) that also uses singular value decomposition (SVD) of large spaces (see There is also all the work of Burgess and his lab ( that seems to capture the same themes. The point, though, is simple: with enough varied experience, structure emerges as a necessary consequence, especially (or necessarily) if dimension reduction is involved. I won't bore you with the details, the citations are enough. And reading Brooks (1978), the true source of nonanalytic cognition, should set you on the path.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply John but this is way out of my league right now. I was just happy to see how the same behaviors could be explained differently by different observers, and experts at that.