February 2007
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Month February 2007

A clear day on the northwest border

This morning I had a good long conversation with my friend L, made special and unusual because we no longer live in the same city, and the fact that he’s one of my “partially-connected” friends. I mean this in the sense that he and I exchange email and IM, but as a means of connecting for those moments where we talk by phone, and even more rarely these days, meet in person. He doesn’t share my obsession with being online and part of the “flow” of information, so I don’t talk to him as much as I’d like.

L just spent a bit of time in the Bay Area, and while he was there his home in New England received a big snow dump, a commonplace in years past but a rarity this year. He said today, “I wish I could transport you there, to share the 5 feet of snow we’ve gotten.” Naturally, I wish I could be there as well — his house and the countryside are incredible even without snow, and I only imagine what it’s like thickly blanketed with white snow, sound muffled by the falling snow in the air.

When I was young I read Farmer Boy, one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and the one which chronicles the boyhood of Laura’s future husband, Almanzo. The book made a deep impression on me in many ways, too many to discuss here, but in particular the descriptions of deep winter were a revelation to a Northwest boy, growing up in a climate where winter meant rain, grey skies, unwilling trips at 6am to fish for steelhead in cold Northwest rivers, and dominant colors of dark green and all the possible shades of grey, from light to deep steel — usually the color of the clouds while standing in the middle of the river fishing.

So I’m always captivated by the New England version of winter. And L’s wish to share the deep snow with me resonates strongly. But not quite strongly enough. Today was a gorgeous day here in the islands — blue skies streaked with high, fluffy clouds, light winds keeping the temperature crisp, but not so crisp that one couldn’t enjoy coffee on the deck with a sweater and long underwear.

Soon I’m headed down to Seattle for a short visit, and to spend some time with Carl Lipo, working on some papers we’re writing and projects deeper in the pipeline. I always hate leaving to travel — even down to Seattle. Each day I spend up here, surrounded by the water and clouds and wind is special — a destination I was apparently aiming for all this time, whether I knew it or not. Once I hit the mainland and start my trip it’ll all be fine, but I always go through this same feeling, no matter how often I commute back and forth. Few of us, I think, are lucky enough nowadays to know where home is. L does, and now I do as well. And that makes us both immensely fortunate.

Darwin Day 2007: Darwin’s Impact on the Social Sciences

In addition to being Lincoln’s birthday today, it’s also the 198th birthday of Charles Darwin, celebrated around the world as “Darwin Day.” In recognition of the day, I thought I’d share some thinking on Darwin’s contribution to the social sciences, because these are potentially as powerful as his direct effect on biology, if much less well developed. What follows is necessarily a sketch, since (a) much of it is reprising other sources, and (b) fully justifying and documenting this would turn it into an article or book, rather than a blog posting.

Ernst Mayr, the great biologist and architect of the Modern Synthesis, wrote in a 1959 essay that Darwin’s great contribution to biology was anti-essentialism, or what Mayr called “population thinking.” By this, Mayr meant that Darwin was one of the first biological thinkers to offer a theory of the evolution of species which did not rely upon changes to, differences in, or transformation of the “essence” of a species. In the older view, which goes back to Aristotle (at in terms of codifying this view; the origins of this view are much more ancient and are likely bound up in the cognitive science of “natural kinds”), each species is characterized by an “essence” or definition, which tells us what characteristics an animal, plant, and so on must have in order to belong to that species. The fact that each individual in a species is unique, and that often many individuals lack one or more essential characteristics, but are still considered part of the species, is explained away in Aristotelian essentialism as simply noise or reproductive error that causes the real world to be an imperfect reflection of the species’s underlying “reality.” Variation is thus explanatorily unimportant when species are viewed as characterized by pre-Darwinian biology. And the evolution of one species into another, over time, seems to run up against a massive gulf between two “essences.” One sees echoes of this “problem,” for example, in the objections of many contemporary anti-evolutionists when presented with what biologists believe is the abundant empirical evidence of evolution: the key words “intermediate forms” pop up as tell-tale signs, even though such a notion really arises only if one thinks a species has an “essence” between which a form could be “intermediate.”

Darwin’s great contribution, at least according to Mayr and others, was in founding modern evolutionary biology on a firm basis of anti-essentialism. In this case, what Mayr originally meant by “population thinking” (philosophers will recognize it as a variety of anti-essentialism) is that variation among individuals is not “noise,” nor is it meaningless error — variation among individuals is both the cause of evolution, and the great engine that powers the development of successive adaptations through the continuous (if occasionally roundabout) process of selection. Variation isn’t just important for selection, variation is critical for selection. No variation, no selection, as pointed out by the great mathematical biologist and statistician Ronald Fisher. In fact, selection might simply be the statistical consequence of having variation, some of which makes a difference of our life chances, in an environment where there aren’t enough resources, or enough room, or enough time, for every individual to succeed equally. Selection almost comes naturally when you think about the world through the lens of Darwin’s population thinking.

What has this got to do with social science and Darwin’s contribution to the human sciences? Potentially everything.

Notes on a cold Superbowl Sunday

I’m about to start watching the game, but I like to let Tivo get a little ahead so I can zip through the slow parts of most games (the TV pace and commentary virtually guarantee that the game is much slower than it needs to be).  So I’m sitting here in the office getting a few things done, writing up some notes from last week’s talks by Robert Boyd at the UW.  And just a minute ago, tDsc_0043_croppedwo relatively young bald eagles swooped past the window, one chasing the other, as they dived and twirled their way north along the shore of Rocky Bay.  I’m not quite sure where the nest is, but they like to stop on a dead tree snag just off my property line but towering over the deck, so I see quite a few eagles here at the house.  (note: the picture here isn’t from today — it’s far cloudier and grey today — but it is the snag and one of my raptor neighbors).

Boyd’s talks were excellent, discussing evolutionary models for the association of "group markers" which non-randomly assort with traits which represent behavioral norms, and provide a way to make in-group, out-group identifications in situations where the underlying norm may be observationally transparent (e.g., attitude, religious belief, moral rule, etc).  The analysis followed McElreath et al.’s 2003 article in Current Anthropology, and when the model is overlaid on spatially distributed populations, it demonstrates that within-group covariance between the marker trait and the norm trait is strongest at boundaries, not in group cores.  This is true even in the simplest spatial case of a 1-D lattice or ring.  This makes sense because similarity between any two random individuals is lowest at group boundaries, and highest in group cores, where two randomly chosen interaction partners have the highest chance of being similar in their expression of a norm, so the selective advantage of the marker/norm covariance is lower. 

While down in Seattle I moved into the room I’m renting near the University, complete with a nice 3-layer futon from Soaring Heart (man, those 3 layer systems are comfortable…might switch my traditional mattress at home for the 3-layer in the guest room….), internet service from Clearwire (which works surprisingly well once you futz around with antenna positioning a bit, and a couple of items from my storage locker.  I still need to sort through the locker (which has enough stuff to furnish a 1 bedroom apt), take the desk and dresser to the new house, and haul the rest of this crap up to the island since I don’t need to furnish a kitchen, etc.  But that’s work for a future trip.