(This is the second post in a short sequence discussing evidence and arguments presented by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá's Sex at Dawninspired by the spirit of Kaj_Sotala's recent discussion of What Intelligence Tests MissIt covers Part II: Lust in Paradise and Part III: The Way We Weren't.)

Forager anthropology is a discipline that is easy to abuse. It relies on unreliable first-hand observations of easily misunderstood cultures that are frequently influenced by the presence of modern observers. These cultures are often exterminated or assimilated within decades of their discovery, making it difficult to confirm controversial claims and discoveries. But modern-day foraging societies are the most direct source of evidence we have about our pre-agricultural ancestors; in many ways, they are agriculture's control group, living in conditions substantially similar to the ones under which our species evolved. The standard narrative of human sexual evolution ignores or manipulates the findings of forager anthropology to support its claims, and this is no doubt responsible for much of its confused support.

Steven Pinker is one of the most prominent and well-respected advocates of the standard narrative, both on Less Wrong and elsewhere. Eliezer has referenced him as an authority on evolutionary psychology. One commenter on the first post in this series claimed that Pinker is "the only mainstream academic I'm aware of who visibly demonstrates the full suite of traditional rationalist virtues in essentially all of his writing." Another cited Pinker's claim that 20-60% of hunter-gatherer males were victims of lethal human violence ("murdered") as justification for a Malthusian view of human nature. 

That 20-60% number comes from a claim about war casualties in a 2007 TED talk Pinker gave on "the myth of violence", for which he drew upon several important findings in forager anthropology. (The talk is based on an argument presented in the third chapter of The Blank Slate; there is a text version of the talk available, but it omits the material on forager anthropology that Ryan and Jethá critique.)

At 2:45 in the video Pinker displays a slide which reads

Until 10,000 years ago, humans lived as hunter-gatherers, without permanent settlements or government.

He also points out that modern hunter-gatherers are our best evidence for drawing conclusions about those prehistoric hunter-gatherers; in both these statements he is in accordance with nearly universal historical, anthropological, and archaeological opinion. Pinker's next slide is a chart from The Blank Slate, originally based on the research of Lawrence Keeley. Sort of. It is labeled as "the percentage of male deaths due to warfare," with bars for eight hunter-gatherer societies that range from approximately 15-60%. The problem is that of these eight cultures, zero are migratory hunter-gatherers.

In descending order of bloodiness, the societies mentioned are the Jivaro (who cultivate numerous crops, keep livestock, and live in "matrilocal households"), the Yanomamo (who live in villages and grow bananas), the Mae Enga (who have scattered homesteads and cultivate sweet potatoes), the Dugum Dani (who live in villages, cultivate sweet potatoes, and raise pigs), the Murngin (more commonly known as the Yolngu; the data cited was collected in 1975, after they had been living with "missionaries, guns, and aluminum powerboats" (Ryan and Jethá, 185) for more than three decades), a different tribe of the Yanomamo (who still live in villages and grow bananas), the Huli ("exceptional farmers"), and the Gebusi (who live in longhouses and keep gardens).

While Keeley's research is the basis for this claim, it should be noted that he distinguishes (if somewhat confusingly) between what he calls "sedentary hunter-gatherers" and true "nomadic hunter-gatherers" (War Before Civilization, 31, as cited by Ryan and Jethá). Keeley also points out that "Farmers and sedentary hunter-gatherers had little alternative but to meet force with force or, after injury, to discourage further depredations by taking revenge." The nomads, on the other hand, "had the option of fleeing conflict and raiding parties. At best, the only thing they would lose by such flight was their composure."

Pinker is not so easily excused. It is possible that he failed to recognize this critical research failure for the five years between The Blank Slate's publication and the TED talk in question, and that no one with a copy of his best-selling book and access to the internet noticed the error and pointed it out to him. It is also possible that he was being deliberately deceptive. In either case, while this doesn't warrant discarding every claim that Pinker has ever made about evolutionary psychology, he should probably not be considered a reliable source on the topic. (See Menand, Blackburn, and Malik, for example, for further criticism of Pinker's approach in The Blank Slate.) 


What does forager anthropology have to say about human sexual evolution and the standard narrative, then? Ryan and Jethá offer a wealth of examples in support of their thesis--that in the human evolutionary environment, communal sexual behavior was the dominant paradigm.

Partible Paternity - While we (and the standard narrative's advocates) take it for granted that any given individual can have only a single father, this was not established scientifically until the 19th century. This belief is not universal, however, and Beckerman and Valentine (pdf) have compiled decades of anthropological research on dozens of South American tribes (both foragers and farmers) that believe in partible paternity: that "a fetus is made of accumulated semen" (Ryan and Jethá, 90), and so can have multiple biological fathers.This is not a regional oddity, either--the Lusi of Papua New Guinea had similar beliefs. One of the consequences of this belief is that a woman who wants to give her future child every possible advantage should "solicit 'contributions' from the best hunters, the best storytellers, the funniest, the kindest, the best-looking, the strongest, and so on--in hopes her child will literally absorb the essence of each" (Ryan and Jethá, 91).

It is a key point in the standard narrative that men benefit when they enforce sexual monogamy on their mates and ensure their paternity. But Hill and Hurtado (review here) found that among the Aché, a South American tribe that believes in partible paternity, children with multiple fathers were more likely to survive than those with only one. It should not be hard to see why: keeping all else equal, men in a society in which all children have one father have the same rate of biological paternity as men in a society in which all children have three fathers. Should a particular man in the first society die before his child is grown, his child has no other man to rely upon for resources; should a particular man in the second society die, his child is one of three receiving the resources of the two surviving men. (The second society would then have a strong selection pressure for men who were more likely to provide the sperm originally responsible for fertilization; the next post in this sequence, on comparative anatomy, will cover sperm competition.)

Alloparenting - The standard narrative considers it a given that individuals should have no incentive to raise children which they know are not their own; this is why paternity is important in the first place. While it should be possible to fool a man into thinking a child carries his genetic legacy (and it is important for the standard narrative that this is so), fooling a woman in the same way is rather less plausible. Chimp and gorilla mothers never allow other females in their tribe to hold their young children, probably because females of both species are quite willing to kill infants not their own; this is precisely what the standard narrative tells us we should expect. And yet, in 87% of human forager societies, mothers are willing to allow other women to breastfeed their children. This is not just a lack of rampant infanticide: it's an active expenditure of resources. (See Hrdy's Mothers and Others; review here.)

This is the sort of highly-cooperative situation that might seem like it could only be explained by group selection, and if that were so it would probably be a good idea to discard evolutionary explanations of alloparenting entirely. But positing group selection is unnecessary when there's a much more plausible explanation available: kin selection. W.D. Hamilton identified two different mechanisms by which kin selection might operate, and humans are among the minority of species which fit the criteria of both. (The related Price Equation may offer a more definitive explanation of the process, but I admit that I haven't taken the time to grok the math involved.) Kin selection also explains why alloparenting is more frequently practiced by close relatives (like grandparents, aunts, and uncles) than by distant relatives or unrelated tribe members. 

(If you're still uncomfortable with kin selection's similarity to group selection, take a look at the breeding patterns of naked mole rats and try to explain them any other way.)

The (Un-)Universality of Marriage - Well-respected anthropologists (George Murdock and Desmond Morris, for example) are in the habit of declaring that marriage is found every human society, a finding that provides strong support for the standard narrative; after all, explaining the evolutionary inevitably of human pair-bonding isn't much good if it isn't universal in the first place. Anthropologists are willing to consider all kinds of arrangements to be "marriage", though, creating confusion that is easily amplified by imprecisions of translation.1

For example:

  • The previously-mentioned Aché, who "say that a man and woman sleeping in the same hut are married. But if one of them takes his or her hammock to another hut, they're not married anymore" (Ryan and Jethá, 119).
  • "Among the !Kung San (also known as Ju/'hoansi) of Botswana, most girls marry [emphasis theirs] several times before they settle into a long-term relationship." (ibid.)
  • Younger Curripaco call a couple married when the woman moves her hammock next to the man's and begins cooking for him. Older Curripaco don't acknowledge the marriage until the couple has had a child and fasted together.
  • Modern Sunni Muslim doctrine includes provisions for a form of (often-extramarital) marriage known as Nikah Misyar, which is used specifically to avoid the usual cohabitation requirements.
  • The Canela of Brazil don't consider a couple to be married until the bride-to-be has had sex with the fifteen to twenty members of a "festival men's society." If she does well, the men make payments of meat to her future mother-in-law.
  • The Inuit sometimes swap wives--permanently--as an alternative to divorce.
  • Some Hindu castes in southern India once practiced a form of ceremonial marriage that involved no sexual contact and, usually, no contact between the bride and groom once the wedding concluded.
  • The Mosuo have a taboo against acknowledging the existence of a sexual relationship and lack any traditions that even remotely resemble marriage. Naturally, their private and impermanent pairings are known as "walking marriages."

These are not behaviors that the standard narrative should be able to explain; indeed, if it could explain them it wouldn't be paying its rent. When I first noticed this point, I very suddenly realized why I find Ryan and Jethá's thesis so convincing: it isn't trying to explain everything.

The standard narrative is supposed to explain every universal aspect of human sexual behavior, and a great deal more besides. And, its proponents hold, it should be able to explain the behavior of both modern and prehistoric humans with more-or-less equal accuracy. This more than anything else is its failure: it does not acknowledge the mutability of human preference. The current mainstream American standard of female beauty values low body fat2, which is a powerful signal of something about genetic fitness. Not long ago, the mainstream Mauritanian standard of female beauty valued obesity(as some subpopulations still do), which is a powerful signal of something contradictory about genetic fitness. No evo-psych theory should be able to explain both of these desirability criteria in a fashion more direct than "desirability criteria are easily influenced by social pressures."3

Faced with the godshatter of modern human preference, Sex at Dawn passes on trying to provide an explanation. The book's greatest virtue, to my mind, is that it just attempts to discover the patterns of prehistoric sexual behavior, acknowledging that many questions about how humans behave today are better left to other disciplines.

The next post in this sequence will look at what Ryan and Jethá have concluded from the study of comparative sexual anatomy.

(As before, I will be happy to provide whatever additional citations I can to address specific claims made in this post.)


1: To say nothing of polygamous arrangements, which should obviously prohibit any attempt to conflate marriage with monogamy.

2: This statement is true, but that does not imply that I prefer the state of affairs it describes.

3: Except, of course, when they aren't.

16

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No, body fat percentage doesn't necessarily say anything about genetic fitness, since bodyfat levels are highly dependent on diet. Show me a tribe that says asymmetrical faces, high waist:hip ratio, or pockmarked skin are attractive female traits. Those are real claims of "objective subjectivity" made by evolutionary psychologists. You seem to be unwilling to address their actual claims.

The main problem I have with this series, is that you sort of make vague criticisms about a "standard account" without being precise and specific about what you think is the correct account.

6WrongBot12y
This study [http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hbe-lab/acrobatfiles/preferred%20waist.pdf] describes a tribe that finds a high waist:hip ratio most attractive. The authors argue that waist:hip ratio signals weight, and that heavier females are more adaptive in environments where obesity is not a problem (like the human EEA [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology#Environment_of_evolutionary_adaptedness] ). I'm not sure that I buy that argument, but I'm not ready to rule it out either.
9RobinZ12y
This followup study [http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hbe-lab/acrobatfiles/profilewhr.pdf] suggests that the methodology was misleading - attractiveness was evaluated from frontal pictures rather than the WHR measurement that is correlated with health, and the reported preferences changed when examining profile pictures.
3WrongBot12y
Thanks for tracking that down. The Hadza still seem to prefer a significantly higher ratio than Americans so, but yes, the effect is much less extreme. I have a couple methodological problems with both studies, though. The earlier study found a frontal WHR preference around .9 and tested the .4-1.0 range, which may mean that subjects who would have selected a frontal WHR greater than 1.0 had their preference undervalued. The study on profile WHR only offered choices in the .55-.75 range, which seems problematic if most Hadza prefer WHRs above .8. More importantly, the illustrations used vary profile WHR by adjusting buttock projection and leaving waist-size identical, which makes weight a huge confounding factor. Drawing strong conclusions from this evidence doesn't seem possible.
6knb12y
This issue is discussed in some depth in my Ev. Psych. textbook: Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind by David Buss. The Hazda women actually have a higher average WHR compared to the global average. Hazda men still prefer a WHR significantly lower than average for Hazda women. Buss concludes by saying that preference for a low WHR is universal, but modulates somewhat based on the average WHR of local women. He also mentions that high-status men care more about WHR than low status men, which seems to fit obviously with the normal Ev. Psych account.
2thomblake12y
Which should at least be unsurprising due to anchoring [http://lesswrong.com/lw/j7/anchoring_and_adjustment/].
0knb12y
Link seems to be broken?
0WrongBot12y
Eep, sorry. Should be working now.
5NancyLebovitz12y
Agreeing with the first paragraph: Never Too Thin [http://www.amazon.com/Never-Too-Thin-Women-Bodies/dp/0136156002] is a history of how being thin came to be a symbol of health, status, and virtue. IIRC, it's a process which started in the fifties, though there were two earlier and less extreme periods of preference for thinness. One in the Victorian, when being thin symbolized innocent youth, and one in the 20s, when it symbolized decadent youth.
3Psychohistorian12y
I think it's fairly common for people to claim that a preference for thin women is genetic when it suits their purposes. I don't think many scientists would actually make this claim, but I think a lot of amateur ev-psych types would. The fact is that thin-ness as currently defined by Western society is not adaptive; in particular, I would be surprised if it is not the case that a very large proportion of fashion models are amenorrheic. For women, maximum fertility probably occurs at a higher body fat percentage than is generally considered "ideal" by American standards. Similarly, maximum fertility occurs in the mid to late teens, but I've definitely seen people argue that the male attraction to younger women causes them to prefer women in their early twenties. This may be true versus, say, women in their thirties, but if reproductive fitness were the whole story, men would really prefer fairly young teenagers, which I don't believe to be the case. Since Wrongbot's whole point is basically, "There is a serious problem with the whole just-so view of evolutionary biology, which has been whittled down and fudged to justify our socially constructed view of what a 'proper sexual relationship is," that point is well-supported by this claim. The fact that biological preferences clearly exist - like clear skin and a .7 WHR - is only evidence in favor of Wrongbot's main point.
5knb12y
I dissent from your argument in several areas, Mr. Seldon. No, you are making a factual error here. Female fertility peaks from 22 to 26. Encyclopedia Galactica [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertility#Female_fertility] has more on the subject, as it always does. As one would expect, this is when men find women most attractive for short-term mating. Certainly, fashion models, are not an optimally fertile type, nor are they approximations of what ev. psychologists have discovered are male preferences for long-term or short-term mates. (Somewhere I read an explanation for this that makes sense--high fashion garments never look so good on real people as they do on the rack. Extremely thin, tall women are the best living approximations of hangers.) The mistake I think you're making is that is a good approximation of the present American ideal beauty standard. How do you know our usually anonymous mobile garment hangers are the American beauty standard and not Scarlett Johansson or Beyonce? That is an arbitrary assumption. Are you saying that amateur Ev. Psych types claim that fashion models are a beauty ideal? I can't speak for all such people, but that seems totally wrong to me. Are you sure you aren't just beating up on an acceptable target? What I've been trying to get across is that what ev. psychologists actually say is not anything like what Wrongbot is criticizing. You're saying that amateur ev. Psych people do make such claims, but that seems quite wrong from my experience. If anything, the predominate opinion of the general populace is that beauty standards, relationship styles, even gender norms are totally socially constructed. It seems quite likely that this is much more wrong than imperfect understandings of ev. Psych amateurs. Yet it is not the ignorance of the general populace that you and Wrongbot are criticizing, but rather the rather small population of people who have a much better (but still imperfect) understanding.
4Psychohistorian12y
Your point about age-based fertility is likely valid. I claim no expertise here; I only know that I've read from numerous sources that the ideal time for a woman to have a child is in her mid to late teens, physiologically. This does not necessarily mean her fertility is at its peak. As regards thinness, I'm going off significant anecdotal experience and social observation, which is no doubt skewed to my own particular demographics. I certainly know a lot of women who aspire to be fashion-model thin, despite its negative implications for their fertility. Eating disorders also speak to this issue. I know a lot of men who have extremely high standards when it comes to the physical fitness of the women they date, even when the men aren't themselves particularly desirable. Roissy, for example, refers to optimal women having a BMI between 18 and 23, and also claims this preference is genetic. I expect this viewpoint of how thin a woman should look is rather widespread. I would be very surprised if the ideal BMI in terms of fertility were not much closer to 22-27 than it is to 18-23. I don't know what general populace you are referring to. In America, I would be absolutely astounded if your average man-or-woman-on-the-street thinks gender norms are purely socially constructed. I would guess the sample of people who's opinions and writings you are basing the estimate off of look absolutely nothing like the general public. Wrongbot has a rather difficult task. I think the group of people it's arguing against are rather difficult to define, as well as disperse. I've certainly seen and read a great deal of ev-psych thinking that centers on the idea that men are providers and women rely on them for resources to raise their children. Pretty much all of the "science" cited in the PUA-sphere relies on this assumption, and they didn't come up with it from nothing. Unfortunately, the view Wrongbot is arguing against is not a clear and formalized theory with an academic discipli
1Douglas_Knight12y
FWIW, they're probably doing this to look good in the eyes of other women, not in the eyes of men, or at least are confused about male response. Actually, they seem to be defined as Pinker...
0NancyLebovitz12y
I have a notion that evolution pulls in two directions so far as men's attraction to women is concerned--low maintenance for some features, perhaps directly related to reproduction, though I've never heard that symmetry correlates with easy birth or healthy children, but high maintenance for other features. Preferring rare but popular physical features is high maintenance in itself. And there are some other aspects of attractiveness which are obviously costly, and that's presumably the point.

There's a deep problem in general with using modern hunter-gatherer or forager societies to get data about historic human societies. These societies live in the margins, often in isolation in land that was not taken by other humans. Thus, they are likely to live in areas with different resource availibility constraints and less trading than historical human groups. This problem impacts both what you call the standard narrative and your alternative.

Good point. I hadn't considered that there are strong effects determining which hunter-gatherer societies survived to get surveyed by anthropologists. I'll have to adjust my estimation of the significance of this evidence downwards; I wish I could see a way to do better.

4PhilGoetz12y
The label "hunter-gatherer" is also a problem. The variety of hunter-gatherer societies may be as great as the variety of agricultural or herder societies. The technology levels of hunter-gatherer societies can differ widely.
3KrisC12y
Especially when the groups you talk about aren't even H-G's. This is a field with a strong statistical tradition. Count the calories. And keep in mind that most band and tribes will claim to be hunters just because they think it is high status.

I don't see how kin selection and alloparenting fall outside the standard view.

I am starting to wonder if this "standard view" thing is a bit of a straw man. Most of the stuff WrongBot describes that is supposedly outside the standard view, I learned in college anthropology/bio/psych classes, so it can't be too nonstandard. I could agree that some positions in the supposed "standard view" used to be more common, but I think that they have been debunked enough that they aren't really standard anymore.

2[anonymous]12y
Agreed - I was under the impression that kin selection based on % relatedness was a fairly basic prediction of standard evolutionary theory.
3knb12y
It absolutely is! Wikipedia even has a subsection entitled kin selection in evolutionary Psychology! [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kin_selection#Kin_Selection_in_evolutionary_psychology]

I am thoroughly confused by the amount of flack WrongBot has been getting, and I hope that he continues to post.

I found an excellent counterpoint to the Pinker Evo Psych claims is in Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb. They present a picture which is much more complicated than what Pinker presents in such books as How the Mind Works and they provide some specific critiques to his claims. The feature which struck me is how measured these books are in their claims. At no point do Jablonka and Lamb criticize the Pinker viewpoint as being absurd or ridiculous; they merely think it is exaggerated.

Evolution is extremely complicated and extensive... (read more)

4MichaelVassar12y
This seems extremely likely to be correct. I expect popular writers to take exaggerated positions, and in the human realm there's always room for scholars to add nuance to the conclusions logicians argue for.
0WrongBot12y
Do you really consider "taking an exaggerated position" to be equivalent to "deliberately misrepresenting key evidence in support of a position?"
8Craig_Heldreth12y
I have looked at this particular linguist fairly close in the last month. This began when I put a post on my blog which lifted a particularly stupid quotation out of any context from Tooby and Cosmides book Adapted mind. I took a cheap shot at one of the contributors, and decided that if I was going to post such a thing on my blog I had to perform at least a little diligence. I read How the mind works very closely looking for a similarly stupid quotation I could lift out and score off of. I could not find one. Pinker measures his statements in that book very careful, in spite of numerous instances of loose argument. For example at one point he states that King Solomon had a harem of 700 wives and concubines. If you want to get picky, there is no historical record of any such thing, or even of any specific person such as King Solomon who is discussed at length in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. So, although there is a blatant falsehood, he does not make any inferences from it; instead he uses it as an illustration of what he wants the reader to conclude about the arguments which he does make. In that particular book his argumentation is not demonstrably fallacious as far as I could tell (and I was looking pretty close for exactly that.) I get the impression he is fond of making statements that appeal to college students in his classrooms, even if he is not appealing to their better nature and good judgment. When he gives more informal talks that is bound to show. He is an interesting hybrid between a scientist (long list peer-reviewed sound method works) and a charlatan. He is a star, so he can make his own rules as long as he isn't writing a submission for the Journal of Linguistics.
5MichaelVassar12y
Voted up, and agreed with, except that the phrase charlatan seems utterly inappropriate as a description of what you just described. How about 'celebrity'. Almost any scientist who is actually famous does the same things. Without famous scientists, would we even have science?
6xamdam12y
Interesting comment by Andrew Gelman [http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2010/07/when_is_experti.html] on "becoming a scientific celebrity": "To follow up on one of my earlier thoughts, I think Levitt really has changed his career trajectory in a big way with Freakonomics 2. Before Freakonomics 1, Levitt was a very successful professor: well paid, with the opportunity to work with excellent students, lots of invitations to speak in interesting places, the assurance that people would notice his articles when they came out, etc. After Freakonomics 1, he had all this, plus riches and fame. And I have the impression that he worked hard to keep up with his academic duties, doing research, editing journals, etc. After this new book, though, I think there's no going back. A lot of people just aren't going to take his stuff seriously anymore--and the people who do like it, might very well like it for the wrong reasons. Also, Levitt's gotta be careful now about who he pisses off. He might feel on top of the world now, as an equal-opportunity offender who's riled conservatives on abortion and race, punctured liberal myths on climate change, and lived to tell the tale. At this point, though, further bold stands might well be subtractive, chipping away at the proportion of the audience that can trust him."
3Craig_Heldreth12y
Fair enough; I take back charlatan. Would you go for grandstanding? Or perhaps sophistry? People said the same thing about Carl Sagan but in Sagan's case I believe that criticism was unfair. He was enthusiastic about stuff which merited his enthusiasm. Compare the style of Pinker; this is remarkable stuff (freaking evolution man--five billion years ago our ancestors had one cell) and no grandstanding is necessary. It's like Horowitz performing a concert with Liberace staging.
2MichaelVassar12y
Grandstanding is more fair. I think that people in the public eye generally get treated unfairly, Sagan, Pinker, Kurzweil, movie stars, politicians, CEOs, the works.
3MichaelVassar12y
No I don't. If you paid any attention to the denotations of what I have written on the topic so far, rather than imposing connotations from your own preconceptions, you would see that I have said that a) I'm interested in "sex before dawn" because I expect it has good, data-rich scholarly arguments. b) I doubt its well reasoned because Pinker is almost always better reasoned than his debate opponents c) that doesn't mean he's right. It's very likely that some of his views are exaggerated, partly because he's a popular writer d) for that reason, I expect his scholarly opponents like Jablonka and Lamb to be able to add valuable nuance.
3WrongBot12y
That was an incredulous question. Like asking someone if they deny the theory of evolution [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2hq/against_the_standard_narrative_of_human_sexual/2b7j?c=1] . I was trying to point out that, regardless of whether Pinker has taken exaggerated positions, he has "deliberately misrepresented key evidence in support of a position." Is doing that well-reasoned? Demonstrating in painstaking detail that he has done so is the entire point of the first third of the post. Did you not find that convincing?
6MichaelVassar12y
Convincing of what? I really feel like you think arguments are soldiers and that that is ALL that arguments are. I can't do much to help that. I'm sorry, but I can't. You need to observe more arguments.
4WrongBot12y
That Steven Pinker is unreliable when it comes to evolutionary psychology because he has misrepresented his evidence on at least one occasion. That doesn't make his conclusions wrong, but it should make them more suspect. I really don't think that. I think it's a good idea to be wary of Steven Pinker because I don't expect that he will always point towards the truth. Would it be better if I phrased my question as "Have you updated your opinion of Pinker's credibility based on the knowledge that he misrepresented evidence on one occasion? If not, was it because you believe that the evidence demonstrating that he did so was inaccurate?"
5jimrandomh12y
This is a great example of an error that, now that I think about it, is extremely common. I should write a longer article about this, since I haven't seen any complete explanations of the phenomenon. I hope you don't mind my using your comment as an example; you are definitely not the only person who makes this mistake, your comment just the one that happened to be the one that crystallized some concepts in my mind. Your statement is literally true, but it's also enough inferential steps away from the statements we're likely to care about, that it's effectively meaningless. It is four inferential steps away. (1) Even supposing that Pinker was maximally wrong (his opinions were generated by throwing dice), any given conclusion is still at least as likely to be true as it would be if Pinker hadn't said anything at all. (2) Pinker is not maximally wrong; even if he did have a pattern of misrepresenting evidence, there would still only be a small chance of him having done it on any particular instance. (3) It's not established that there is a pattern; there's just one example, which could be atypical. And (4) it's not even necessarily established that there is such an example; I might disagree with your interpretation. As discussions proceed, they get further and further away from the original conclusion. And on the topic of human sexuality, they start at a longer than normal distance to begin with, because there are so many nasty traps for studies to fall into (especially people lying on surveys and to researchers). I think that on an unconscious level, people track the average inferential distance, and respond negatively if it's out of range.
7WrongBot12y
It's not that he does no better than chance, exactly. It's that he promotes hypotheses in an unjustified way. And so for any given hypothesis that you hear, you should ideally discount its probability by the difference between the number of bits of evidence the hypothesis should need and the number of bits of evidence you expect him to actually have. If that's a big difference, then he's not worth paying attention to. Your other points are solid, though. I definitely have a habit of underestimating inferential distance.

This sounds like a better argument than I have seen from you earlier, indicating to me that you do have the ability to make such arguments when you are inclined, at least some of the time.

With respect to its content, yes, I think this is a reasonable conclusion regarding how one should respond to Pinker's conclusions. However, as I noted, my observation is that Pinker argues well. When you have a good argument in front of you its primarily the argument and not the evidential value of the opinion which you have to confront.

1WrongBot12y
I think that I'm placing more emphasis on whether his arguments are sound [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soundness], and you're more concerned with their validity.
3MichaelVassar12y
Yep. When evaluating a dispute between someone and Pinker I started by saying that I could take it for granted that his arguments are sound, but that it seemed to me that their arguments might be worth-while and scholarly. (I could also have said fact-filled and valuable, especially if not taken literally, as a source of added validity). In practice, arguments that aren't sound are practically never fully valid, but they are frequently a valuable complement to sound arguments as part of how validity of belief is achieved.
-1WrongBot12y
Did you mean valid here? Its the soundness of Pinker's arguments that I am claiming to have undermined, so I'm kind of confused. I think that my internal argument-evaluation-algorithm focuses most of its effort on premises and treats the subsequent reasoning as a mostly mechanical and straightforward process. Getting enough and good enough data together instinctively seems like the greater obstacle to me, possibly because I do fairly well with formal logic.
4MichaelVassar12y
Yep. My mistake. Ah. The problem with treating reasoning as mechanical is that almost no-one actually does reasoning reliably enough for that to work. If they did, the quality of public debate would be completely different.
0WrongBot12y
Absolutely agreed. I know I don't reason as reliably as I seem to generally expect. This is my bug, not the world's.
1MichaelVassar12y
The fact that you can be so wrong about what I have said, when it's all there in writing, seems to me to be strong evidence that you just don't know how to think carefully about arguments when they engage your emotions, which is what I was initially saying in my critical comments to your first post. I'm Not saying that you make certain mistakes mind you, lots of people do that. Rather, it seems to me that you aren't playing the "lets use reason to figure things out" game at all, probably because at some level you don't know how or don't think it can be done. This doesn't make you a bad person. I don't know how to surf and that doesn't make me a bad person. It does mean, however, that I don't really belong in a surfing club. It's cool for me to watch surfing if that's how I want to spend my time, and maybe to learn how to surf by doing so, but it's not fair to the other surfers if I get out there in the ocean with them and start taking up space on the waves doing the sorts of stunts that the best surfers in the club are doing without making a serious attempt to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect. If too many people start doing that, there will be a serious injury and the club will be shut down.

The fact that you can be so wrong about what I have said, when it's all there in writing, seems to me to be strong evidence that you just don't know how to think carefully about arguments when they engage your emotions, which is what I was initially saying in my critical comments to your first post.

Whatever WrongBot’s failings as a poster may or may not be, I haven’t seen anything in his posts to suggest that the problem is arguments engaging his emotions. You’ve expressed the opinion that WrongBot can’t reason, and perhaps this comment is evidence for that (although I think I understand the point he is trying to make), but I don’t perceive the connection to emotions. It is, of course, possible that I’ve missed something demonstrating that his emotions are at the root of any failures he has exhibited.

At any rate, it seems to me that there are any number of posters on LW who’ve exhibited reasoning failures at one time or another, and I don’t understand why you’ve focused on WrongBot to the extent of asking him to stop posting on LW until he can reason better. If anything, as a more or less independent observer, I feel like it is your focus on WrongBot that could be interpreted... (read more)

Even poorly reasoned posts can lead to interesting discussions, as I think WrongBot’s posts have.

Indeed. I upvoted this post and the other on this topic because they contained interesting information that was new to me, and since I "like and want more of that", they deserve upvoting on that basis.

I do think that both posts contain a bit too much whaling on the strawman of "the standard narrative" and could do without it altogether, but at the same time I don't see why people are so focused on arguing with that. It's almost like a sacred cow is being threatened, or that WrongBot has previously been identified as an enemy outsider due to having supported polyamory.

(IOW, I see some of the reaction to WrongBot as greater evidence of emotional involvement by people other than WrongBot.)

9HughRistik12y
I mostly agree with PJ. I found the book discussion in WrongBot's posts interesting. His claims about evolutionary psychology and its "standard narrative" were half-baked, but I attribute that to him not having done enough homework on these subjects. There is a lot of bad information on evolutionary psychology out there which seems to have biased WrongBot, and combined with his values, makes him vulnerable to claims that evolutionary psychology "does not acknowledge the mutability of human preference" (see this book review [http://www.human-nature.com/nibbs/03/curry.html] for more debunking). I'm quite confident that WrongBot is a good enough rationalist that he will update when exposed to more evidence.The kinds of errors he is making are the typical errors that intelligent human rationalists can make when they are first approaching subjects that they don't know much about, when they have been exposed to biased information and hold values in those areas. I think he has been misled and is under-informed on the topic of evolutionary psychology, rather than being fundamentally biased by his emotions. I recommend that he read more on the subject, and not just popular books. While I will urge him to do more research before making his own speculations on these subjects in ways that go beyond summarizing, I don't think his posts are in any way a threat to LessWrong, and I would be interested in continued posting from him in the future. The assessments of MichaelVassar and rhollerith's friend seem overly harsh. The reason is that there is a long history of people being wrong in criticizing evolutionary psychology, and rationalists should be able to do better. I'm interested in real scrutiny of the field, not recycled criticisms that have already been answered by evolutionary psychologists over a decade ago (see the link to that book review for an example), or the resurrection of debunked positions that most mainstream evolutionary psychologists don't hold anymore.
3WrongBot12y
For what it's worth, all that talk about (and emphasis on) the standard narrative comes from Sex at Dawn. I don't think it's representative of all (or even most) current thought in evolutionary psychology, though there are some discussions on LW that have been framed in its terms. In any case, point taken. I'll shut up about it in my remaining posts in the sequence.
0rhollerith_dot_com12y
For example, people's emotional involvement with Malthus's assertion that human populations increase at an exponential rate absent limits on resources :) ? ADDED. I retract this comment since (I now realize) PJ wrote some of the reaction, and obviously I cannot refute what PJ wrote by listing instances in which the reaction was justified on rational grounds.
2pjeby12y
Er, you did see the word some in there, right?
3rhollerith_dot_com12y
Upvoted, and grandparent retracted.
7rhollerith_dot_com12y
How much experience have you had watching the trajectory of online communities? Have you for example informed yourself of the case of Reddit (the original one) which is particularly relevant to this community in that the software is so similar? I have not, but Paul Graham has (since he was an investor in Reddit) and he has stated many times that he believes that his community, Hacker News, is in constant danger of falling prey to the dynamic that rendered Reddit worthless to thoughtful busy people, and he has taken many different measures, including banning a user relatively frequently, denying new users the right to cast downvotes -- or any votes at all if their karma is low enough -- and disappearing the "reply" link on certain posts based on an algorithm.
7Wei_Dai12y
Is anyone aware of any good write-ups on this topic? I'd be interested in seeing any insights as to why things happen the way they do, and what we can do to improve matters.
8Wei_Dai12y
To answer my own question, here are a few write-ups I found about why the quality of an online community tends to decline over time, and what can be done about this problem: * A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy [http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html] by Clay Shirky * What I've Learned from Hacker News [http://www.paulgraham.com/hackernews.html] by Paul Graham * Trolls [http://www.paulgraham.com/trolls.html] by Paul Graham * Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism [http://lesswrong.com/lw/c1/wellkept_gardens_die_by_pacifism/] by Eliezer Yudkowsky Also, the book "The Virtual Community" that Richard Hollerith mentioned is available online [http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/], although I wasn't able to find much information in it about the specific topic at hand.
5rhollerith_dot_com12y
Howard Reingold's book with the string "Virtual Community" in it. Old though: 1994 or so, but very informative on pre-Internet communities. The chapter on France's Minitel (term?) I found particularly valuable. I've been participating in online communities since 1992, and most of my information has come from short comments by people trying to preserve the character of specific communities. Paul Graham's comments on Hacker News are particularly worthwhile, but have not been collected in any one place.
5Airedale12y
I have not studied this with any rigor, although I have seen communities that I previously enjoyed enter periods of decline (sometimes recovering at a later point, sometimes not). I don't disagree that with online communities, there is often some tipping point when the bad reasoning/noise outweighs the good. That's why I also made this part of my comment: Perhaps I'm wrong about this. At any rate, if LW is actually in a serious period of decline, the problem is more serious than just WrongBot, and I disagree with implementing a solution where individual posters take it upon themselves to ask other posters to leave. (If EY wants to create some sort of system like Paul Graham's or make new moderators with these sorts powers, that would be different in my view than this sort of ad hoc approach, which doesn't seem likely to work (due to both its ad hoc nature and unenforceability) and also presents greater risks of abuse, decisions based on personality conflict, etc.)
9rhollerith_dot_com12y
Agreed. In particular, LW has successfully weathered long flurries of comments and posts by people worse than WrongBot. The primary sign that LW is in danger of becoming the kind of place that I and those I admire no longer want to visit is the (negative) magnitude of the score on comments asking WrongBot to stop writing on things beyond his skill and the (positive) magnitude of the scores of WrongBot's replies to those (negatively scored) comments. That is new.
6rhollerith_dot_com12y
Note that the vast majority of readers of LW never attempt to create evolutionary arguments relevant to human behavior or summarize novel arguments made by others. I would hope that that is because they realize that it is too difficult for them.
1Barry_Cotter12y
Nobody can downvote on Hacker News. The only vaguely analogous function is "flag" which leads to posts (not comments) being killed or marked for killing. (Edit:rhollerithdotcom points out correctly that this is only true for submissions and that above a karma threshold comments are downvotable) Useful essay on online communities http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2009/3/12/33338/3000 [http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2009/3/12/33338/3000]
3rhollerith_dot_com12y
If one has enough karma (ISTR the threshhold being 200 points at one point, though it has probably been raised a few times since then) one can downvote comments or else how to explain the presence of comments with negative scores in almost every comment section. You might be right about top-level submissions though.
3WrongBot12y
I've also been finding this to be incredibly confusing. I feel like I must have done something to terribly offend him, but I have no idea what that might have been. And many of his comments aren't consistent with that hypothesis, so that's probably not it. I just went and looked through his comment history for replies he's made to me that might explain this appearance of personal antagonism, and now I'm more confused. This [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2ga/some_thoughts_are_too_dangerous_for_brains_to/2aaf?c=1&context=2#comments] was the first time he replied to a comment I'd made. Key line: So maybe I'm being singled out for not living up to a promising first impression? I really have no idea. Michael Vassar is probably the only one who could answer the question with any confidence.
5WrongBot12y
"[Y]ou just don't know how to think carefully about arguments when they engage your emotions" was exactly the kind of specific criticism I asked for, and you did not (then) offer it. I've considered and dismissed the possibility that I was falling prey to that failure mode on several occasions, but my dismissals may have been too hasty. I'll take a look at my comment history, wait to see if people chime in to agree with or upvote you, and then reevaluate.
4rhollerith_dot_com12y
Since you are essentially asking for feedback, WrongBot, I will chime in with my opinion: you are nowhere near able to use evolutionary arguments to arrive at correct conclusions about human behavior. There is no shame in that since creating evolutionary arguments about human behavior is one of the human endeavors most demmanding of rationality skills, in particular the skill of staying free from motivated cognition. This place (and OB before it and SL4 before OB) is very special in that deleted: a significant fraction :deleted some of the participants are rational enough to succeed at that task and similar tasks, and I would humbly point out to you and the people who have been voting you up and Michael Vassar down, that if the ratio of good argumentation and good conclusions to poor ones gets low enough for long enough the people you want to learn from will stop reading, and no one will be able to learn anything about advanced rationality here. I had a houseguest for a few days recently, a long-time reader who has only written a handful of comments, and I commented to him that the quality of discussion on LW is worse than it has ever been, and his reply was, "Well, yeah if you are talking about WrongBot." I hope my being open with my perceptions has not caused you unnecessary pain.

I had a houseguest for a few days recently, a long-time reader who has only written a handful of comments, and I commented to him that the quality of discussion on LW is worse than it has ever been, and his reply was, "Well, yeah if you are talking about WrongBot."

I hope my being open with my perceptions has not caused you unnecessary pain.

This is one of the most painfully ego-deflating things I've ever heard. That makes it the best kind of feedback, and I appreciate your honesty.

If your friend's opinion is at all widespread on LW, then the karma system is badly, badly broken. If people see something I've written and think that it's making the site worse, I would prefer that they downvote it and, if they are feeling particularly generous, explain why. If the purpose of this community is to make rationalists stronger, it needs to tell them where they are weak.

9Alicorn12y
WrongBot, I would like to chime in that I have generally enjoyed your contributions, and am not at all sure why you're being singled out for special chiding.
3jimrandomh12y
It doesn't make sense to me, either. Maybe it's due to a mismatch between the quality of the posts and their prominence? WrongBot's posts generated tons of discussion, more than posts at that score and quality level normally do, so maybe on a subconscious level, some people to felt as though attention had been misallocated.
2Emile12y
More discussion isn't necessarily a good thing if they degenerate into flame wars, though that hasn't been the case here, despite a few somewhat inflammatory remarks by MichaelVassar. Another explanation: if in a given week we have five great posts and five "meh" ones, you won't hear a lot of moaning about the low quality of the "meh" ones. It seems that this week we've pretty much only had "meh" posts.
1rhollerith_dot_com12y
Is it really so ego-deflating to be told that some of the readers here consider your contributions below the standard for the place that has by far the highest standard for discussion on subjects like human sexuality of any place on the web ? Also, you probably have (understandably) strong feelings about your subject, which usually makes it harder to meet a high standard of rationality. Also, I am less charitable and less tolerant of very long discussions that would (because of their relative lack of rationalist skill) tend to discourage and drive away the kinds of participants I most wish to engage with when the very long discussions are about a subject such as polygamy that I consider far from the core topics of the site (rationality and improving the world) or when they are about a subject (like sex or politics) in which upholding a high standard of rationality is especially difficult for most people. In fact, my first impression of you was that you were imposing a heavy cost on the community (namely, lowering the signal-to-noise ratio, writing mainly on one of the topics most likely to overwhelm participants capacity for rationality) so that the community could help you with one of your personal problems or so that the community could help you in your attempt to change your society's sexual mores for deeply-felt personal reasons.
8WrongBot12y
It's not that someone thought my contributions were below LW's standards (though if they are, people voting on posts should really take that into account), it's that someone identified me as a primary force responsible making the site worse without any prompting. It's not that I'm part of a bad trend, according to your friend, it's that I am the trend. If I'm making the site seem worse all by myself, I figure that must mean I'm pretty bad. Well, this definitely isn't a personal problem, as I think I've mentioned elsewhere a couple times. And it's not that I want the community to help change sexual mores for personal reasons, either, at least in the sense I think you mean. I just think that many people could have significantly better lives than they otherwise would, if they made more rational and informed decisions on the subject. So I guess, yes, technically that's a deeply-felt personal reason insomuch as I'm some kind of utilitarian. But I'm not privileging polyamory over other topics with more (perceived) instrumental value, I don't think.
7rhollerith_dot_com12y
I am almost certain he did not mean it that way. It was just an offhand reply to me with no detectable emotion behind it. As for why he would think of you, well, like Newport has already pointed out, you've been among the most frequent comment-makers lately. Also, Alicorn, jimrandomh and Hugh Ristik and fairly strong rationalists and have been respected members of the community for a long time, and they have just chimed in to say that they are not put off by your writings here. So, cheer up!
3WrongBot12y
All the points you mention have cheered me up considerably. And in the long run I think the occasional burst of self-doubt is a positive; I've tentatively a couple things I should be doing to improve the quality of my posts (like spending much more time outlining), which is a good thing no matter what the baseline was. Also in the plus column: I may have lead Michael Vassar to formulate a difficult and important problem [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2i6/forager_anthropology/2c7s?c=1] that I (and others) may try to work on.
6jimrandomh12y
There's another explanation for rhollerith's anecdote which, now that I think of it, I'm surprised no one else has mentioned: your username. It's made of two words that both directly suggest low-quality posts, so there's probably some priming effect going on.
1Emile12y
Seconded, and I hesitated about mentioning this before - I don't think I've been aware of not liking a username on LessWrong before (though I've seen plenty of stupid/annoying usernames on other Forums), but "WrongBot" doesn't rub me the right way, especially the "Wrong" bit. I'm aware that often, internet users often choose a username when they're young and then grow up and find their username stupid, annoying, or embarassing, but keep it because at least it's a convenient label, so i'l trying to correct for that. (heck, I know it happened to me ^-^)
2WrongBot12y
Unfortunately, I can't claim the excuse of youth. I picked out WrongBot as the name for my now-neglected blog a couple years ago, on the grounds that I am usually wrong and my friends think I'm a robot. On the bright side, there were a couple usernames from my youth that were far, far worse, and have since been abandoned.
3Blueberry12y
Now I'm curious. (By the way, I love your username.)
3WrongBot12y
I was a pretentious, isolated, and self-pitying thirteen year-old. The two worst handles I used were LonelyAntiSheep and AGreatBigEmpty, which should make that obvious. I admit them here only because shame is an emotion I wish to defeat.
3komponisto12y
That's interesting; I had interpreted it as a reference to Wikipedia, specifically to those automated users that correct little errors in articles. (With the implication that you saw yourself as a sort of "error-correction machine" for the world at large.)
1CronoDAS12y
I guess I'm pretty lucky that CronoDAS isn't a particularly stupid user name, then, considering that it goes back to the time when AOL charged hourly fees. Once, my brother and I deliberately tried to come up with the most ridiculous email address we could (that hadn't already been taken, and wasn't actually offensive) for his (now inactive) Yahoo account; we ended up with "imjunkmail".
5mattnewport12y
I'd speculate that the reason for this perception (and the reason you are being singled out [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2i6/forager_anthropology/2c9h?c=1]) is the relatively high posting frequency. You've made 4 posts in just over a month and these posts have also been dominating the recent comments so you have created a mini-trend of your own of sorts.
4WrongBot12y
That sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. After my first post I was worried about this possibility and asked about it [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2d9/open_thread_june_2010_part_4/27m9], but I could believe the responses didn't reflect many people's opinions. Or that I've strayed from cousin_it's or JoshuaZ's standards. I'll probably wait a while before posting the next part of this sequence. I'd been intending to spend more time revising it in any case, but now I have even more reason to do so.
1JoshuaZ12y
I'm probably not a good standard to use. If I am, note that I have not yet made any top-level posts, in a large part because I'm not sure I have the time and expertise to contribute well-written detailed posts that are of sufficient quality as to be top-level posts.
1Blueberry12y
I think that was the point. I have no problem with WrongBot's posts, and I don't think they are lower quality than most others here. I suspect a lot of the reaction WrongBot is getting from a few people is because he joined and immediately made several posts about controversial topics, and people are wary of newcomers rocking the boat. If someone who had been here longer and seemed more familiar made them, I doubt anyone would have objected.
5cupholder12y
I think your houseguest might not have read a representative selection of LW posts; their assessment doesn't ring true for me. I haven't read WrongBot's top-level posts closely (nothing personal - the evolutionary psychology stuff just isn't that interesting to me), but I've skimmed through the resulting threads/comments on them as they've passed through Recent Comments, and they honestly don't look all that bad. I can think of a few recent posts/discussion topics that I am fairly confident have lower quality than WrongBot's: * '(One reason) why capitalism is much maligned [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2h9/one_reason_why_capitalism_is_much_maligned/]' * Daniel_Burfoot's quite rambling series [http://lesswrong.com/lw/299/preface_to_a_proposal_for_a_new_mode_of_inquiry/] of [http://lesswrong.com/lw/29l/development_of_compression_rate_method/] posts [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2ap/significance_of_compression_rate_method/] that uses 7000 words just to talk up data compression as an add-on to the scientific method * whpearson's bit of evolutionary psychology 'Summer vs Winter Strategies [http://lesswrong.com/lw/29h/summer_vs_winter_strategies/]' * MBlume's link to 'Jinnetic Engineering [http://lesswrong.com/lw/26f/jinnetic_engineering_by_richard_stallman/]' - the content is good, but it's not meaty enough for a top-level post IMO * the string of posts a while back dancing around the Sleeping Beauty puzzle and what it meant - there was a lot of good in them, and their comments, but the discussions got really flabby really fast
1whpearson12y
Mine was intentionally low quality. I don't have the patience for long essays, and thought it was an interesting hypothesis and worth sharing for that reason.
1mattnewport12y
This was the impression I got from your posts and comments as well. I'm inclined to agree with most of MichaelVassar's criticisms though I don't think it was necessary to go as far as asking you to leave.
0[anonymous]12y
Am I confused here, or did WrongBot just completely miss the sense of what MichaelVassar said?
2Airedale12y
WrongBot wasn't very clear in that particular comment, but he explained what he meant somewhat here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2i6/forager_anthropology/2c84?c=1]

This bit:

The standard narrative of human sexual evolution ignores or manipulates the findings of forager anthropology to support its claims, and this is no doubt responsible for much of its confused support.

... kinda turned me off from reading the rest, because it made me expect partisan arguments rather than well-presented information. Your post would probably be better by just presenting whatever interesting information you found in that book without any reference to a "standard narrative".

And I don't even know whether I agree or not with ... (read more)

The standard narrative is supposed to explain every universal aspect of human sexual behavior, and a great deal more besides.

Says who?

They try to explain what they can, especially broad commonalities across cultures, but of course they can see that there are variations.

5WrongBot12y
In general, when evolutionary psychologists see things they think are cultural universals, they look for an evolutionary explanation. Some evolutionary psychologists also go looking for evolutionary explanations for broad commonalities, and these explanations usually have commensurately lower strength. But broad commonalities are sometimes thought to be cultural universals (as in this [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2i6/forager_anthropology/2c3c?c=1] comment), which leads to inappropriately strong explanations. Less often, narrow commonalities are thought to be broad commonalities or cultural universals, which again leads to errors. Mistakes of this class are made more often than they probably should be because psychologists perform most of their studies on college undergrads; I often see studies labelled as "multi-cultural" because they sample college undergrads from several predominantly white, industrialized, modern Western cultures.

If an evolutionary psychologist says that we expect something to be a widespread property of societies, it isn't a valid rebuttal to say, "But the Aché of South America didn't have that property." That's like laughing at the warnings on cigarettes because your grandmother smoked until she was 96.

6HughRistik12y
Exactly... especially since different populations have different gene frequences. There is a false assumption that if a certain trait or preference varies between populations, then it must be culturally influenced, and not related to evolution, such that you can "debunk" evolutionary hypotheses for a trait/preference by showing that it varies between populations. Here is an example of that false assumption from WrongBot's post: There is no necessary contradiction here. It's not surprising at all from the standpoint of evolutionary theory that there should be some variation in preferences between geographically isolated populations. Difference areas with different ecology will have different selection pressures, so which traits lead to "genetic fitness" may differ between areas. As a result of this differing selection pressures, populations that were geographically isolated for long enough could evolve different traits, and preferences for different traits in their partners. The fact that a certain trait varies between different populations with different ancestry is only weak evidence against an evolutionary factor in that trait, and weak evidence for a cultural hypothesis (these hypotheses are not, of course, mutually exclusive). Different genetic backgrounds and selection pressures between the populations could be the underlying third variable that explains both the difference in traits between two populations, and the differences in cultures and culturally-encouraged preferences. What would be more impressive evidence against an evolutionary hypothesis, or for a cultural hypothesis, is if the trait varies between two different measures of one population at different times (accompanied by documented cultural changes within that population), or if the trait varies between two different populations with similar ancestry.
6JohannesDahlstrom12y
AFAIK low body fat was not an attractive trait in the Western societies before the 20th century, either.
5WrongBot12y
So far as I'm aware, the Aché are the only partible-paternity-believing culture for which we have those kinds of of statistics. More data would be better, yes, but I'm not inclined to throw out what we have because there isn't more of it.

It sounds good to say that we can look at present day foraging societies as the nearest we have to early man and to point out that they do often have some agriculture etc. but really there is a big problem. These societies are likely to be atypical of pre-agricultural precisely because they did not move into more agricultural dependent societies.Suppose, hypothetically, that their sexual norms and beliefs did not fit with the inherited ownership of land, water wells etc.

I am also having a little trouble with the nomadic idea. It seems to me that humans, es... (read more)

1NancyLebovitz12y
Another difference is that modern foragers don't have access to the best land.

Facts and books of facts are both nice, but nothing in this post seems very surprising to me. I think that you are attacking... not a straw man, but a trivially false set of popular claims that few people here would endorse.

3WrongBot12y
I may have overcompensated [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2hq/against_the_standard_narrative_of_human_sexual/2b7u?c=1] . Ah, maybe someday I'll get it right.
1Douglas_Knight12y
Actually, I think Michael Vassar's complaint is pretty similar to Cousin It's, so not only have you not overcompensated, you haven't compensated much at all. To overcompensate would be to produce Wei Dai's list, which would still be better than this post.
5WrongBot12y
Wei Dai's list mostly focuses on physiological evidence, which my next post will try to nail down; this post was an attempt to cover the relevant anthropological evidence. I read cousin_it's comment as something along the lines of "your ratio of facts to interesting claims is too low," and tried to adjust accordingly. And now MichaelVassar's complaint seems to be along the lines of "your ratio of facts to interesting claims is too high." If I've read both of them correctly, that sounds like overcompensation to me. If I've totally failed to get the point that either or both of them were making, then I either compensated for the wrong thing or, as you suggest, compensated much less than I thought I had. Clarification on whether my readings were accurate would be appreciated; I may need to seriously re-calibrate.

I saw my initial complaint as identical to CousinIt's except for being admittedly lazy and vague (but later elaborated somewhat). I don't think that you understood my or cousin it's complaints. None of the complaints are about ratios of fact to claims. Both are about the relationship between facts and claims. It seems to me that, simply put, you don't know how facts are supposed to relate to claims.

Cousin it's original comment said "This post doesn't make a convincing argument for any of its points."
That's the key point. It's not enough that fact suggest claims to you. It's necessary to actually make an argument that leads from the facts to the claims. You don't seem to be doing that but making mistakes, which is why I find it difficult to criticize your mistakes. Rather, you don't seem to be making arguments at all, just giving facts and saying what they suggest to you. This is a valid way of reasoning, communicating, or figuring things out. It's a useful way of arguing, and it's all humans did for thousands of years. Combined with swordsmanship it can even work for resolving arguments, but by itself it doesn't serve that purpose. I honestly think that you d... (read more)

4pjeby12y
It won't be, since the interpretation of a message is dependent on the internal state and structure of the message's interpreter - i.e., the receiving human being. This is a fundamental flaw to all forms of attempted other- and self-optimization, not just the ones involving the development of rationality.
2MichaelVassar12y
Teaching literacy and arithmetic are pretty fast. So is a lot of Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique, first aid, or basic swimming. I don't see any strong generalizations to make here.
5pjeby12y
I didn't say you can't teach things quickly, I'm saying that teaching them depends on the state of the learner. That includes a lot of things like whether the person is motivated to do it, and whether they have existing bad habits or interfering beliefs. Also, ISTM most of the things you just mentioned require external feedback for most people to learn quickly; simply giving someone a static "explanation" of the skill is not sufficient for them to actually learn to do it, or at least not very efficiently. (Which is also part of my point about learner state-dependence. Learning skills in general requires interaction and feedback of some kind; explanations are not sufficient.)
5NancyLebovitz12y
I'm currently disentangling myself from the ill effects of combining Alexander Technique with perfectionism and desperation. I hope I'm not adding another layer of bad habits. I agree with pjeby-- the state of the person receiving the information makes a big difference.
2NancyLebovitz12y
Maybe it would help to suggest a few especially good examples of going from facts to claims.
2katydee12y
"If such a technique is fast enough and reliable enough I would literally expect its development to solve all of the world's problems within a half century in the absence of a Singularity before then." This seems like an incredibly strong claim, especially given the divisions and arguments even among Less Wrong posters. Perhaps WrongBot is merely low-level and misguided, and should listen to more advanced users and mend his ways-- but what about Roko, for instance?
4rhollerith_dot_com12y
katydee replying to Mike Vassar: Well, what Vassar is saying here is tricky! If I say, for example, that if I could do X, I could make a billion dollars and get Eliezer to admit that I am smarter than he is, then I am in effect saying that X is really hard to do. As to why Vassar would say such a thing, well, a few days ago, WrongBot was complaining (and getting upvoted for it) that in his criticism of WrongBot, Vassar had not said anything that WrongBot could use to improve WrongBot's rationality. So, my guess is that this is Vassar's somewhat roundabout way of saying to WrongBot that doing that is really hard, and if WrongBot ever comes to have any good suggestions on how to do it, he should share them with everyone here. I hasten to add that today WrongBot was careful in his wording to avoid implying that anyone here had any obligation to improve WrongBot's writing or thinking (but of course this careful wording came after Vassar comment).
0katydee12y
I might be interpreting Michael Vassar's post incorrectly, but it seemed like an authentic, if radically optimistic, suggestion and not a hyperbolic or sarcastic one.
2MichaelVassar12y
It wasn't sarcastic. I really think that it's fairly likely to be possible, but extremely difficult. OTOH, I think that many extremely difficult things are worth attempting. That's why SIAI exists after all. LW posters may disagree fairly frequently, but that's probably significantly because there are so few of us that we don't really have time to collectively build an official correct world-view which is far better than any of us could do on our own. I really do think my claim about the implications of developing such a technique is correct, in fact, understated, and that this follows trivially from the world having resources which are far beyond what is needed to solve its problems if those resources were allocated half-way sanely. A large number of Rokos would definitely be enough to do the job.
3katydee12y
I'll redouble my efforts, then. This topic also probably deserves a thread of its own.
2rhollerith_dot_com12y
If I say that "if you could travel backward in time by arranging four flux capacitors into a wheatstone bridge, someone probably would have travelled back in time already, and consequently, you probably cannot travel back in time by arranging flux capacitors into a wheatstone bridge," I am being neither hyperbolic nor sarcastic (nor am I being optimistic).
1katydee12y
Thank you for continuing to engage after my rather silly reply; while in the process of writing a more detailed response to your latest post, I figured out what you meant originally. I now agree with your earlier interpretation of Michael Vassar's post, though I am still skeptical of the jump between "dramatically expanding LW" and "solving all the world's problems without a singularity."
2rhollerith_dot_com12y
Your skepticism of the jump is reasonable and understandable. Note however that having served as President of the Singularity Institute for the last two years or so, Vassar has a great deal of experience in thinking about the global situation. My pleasure.
1NancyLebovitz12y
Agreed.

Nice to see your bit on PInker; that is what I'd concluded as well, that his violent death stats were unreliable re our distant ancestors.

It's worth noting that the 'yams' several of these cultures cultivate are not the same as the 'sweet potatoes' that are commonly called 'yams' in the West. Wikipedia) has a wealth of information for the interested.

As a further tangent, I once worked at a grocery store where the sweet potatoes were split up into spaces on opposite sides of the produce department, one labeled 'yam' and one labeled 'sweet potato'. Folks from produce were sometimes called up to the register to verify whether a particular sweet potato should be rung up as a yam or a sweet potato (since they had different codes) and they'd just pick one.

2WrongBot12y
Ugh, thanks for pointing out my latest linguistic crutch. I'll try and eradicate that ASAP.
5jimrandomh12y
I do my writing in two passes, with the second devoted almost entirely to removing unnecessary words. Sometimes I go a step further, and change tenses to eliminate unnecessary affixes. It makes a big difference, even though readers don't often recognize what they're responding to.

Here is what I would have done for this sequence. Rather than trying to summarise everything from the book, figure out what my argument would have been like for the same and then put the pieces that fit the argument in place and then highlight the pieces of evidence missing. Critique and praise the book.

First I would have checked to see what the view of how fluid human sexuality was around here; to avoid calling something the standard view if it wasn't.

Then my argument would have been something like this.

1) Talk about standard sexuality in humans (polygamo... (read more)

and so can have multiple biological fathers

Or just the probability who the father is, is dispersed over many males. Not necessary the uniform distribution, of course.

7RobinZ12y
No, they believe the child can have multiple fathers. Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god, and I don't think they meant ten out of sixteen great-great-grandparents.
0Sniffnoy12y
...huh. I had always just assumed that referred to him being somehow two-thirds god "in substance", rather than in parentage...
-1Thomas12y
I think both is possible.
1RobinZ12y
You think it is possible that the historical civilizations under discussion had an understanding of reproduction such that they could predict that each child could only have one father? What evidence leads you to promote this hypothesis?

2: This statement is true, but that does not imply that I prefer the state of affairs it describes.

Why did you choose to add this disclaimer?

1WrongBot12y
When reading discussions that use similar examples, I frequently see people arrive at the conclusion I was disclaiming, even when it seems obvious to me that that conclusion is unwarranted. I included the disclaimer to save myself the potential aggravation of explaining myself.

EDIT: Ignore the rest of this... just see WrongBot's comment. (Hm, there's no way to do strikethrough in Markdown, is there?)

To recall something related that came up here recently and might be worth mentioning, I seem to recall someone (Alicorn, I think?) posting something here recently about a culture that actually hadn't figured out the sex/pregnancy connection, due to their diet containing many natural contraceptives (being largely based on yams, IIRC?)? And that still doesn't really acknowledge it culturally now that they've learned about it? Though those were not foragers, IIRC.

I can't seem to find it right now, though... can anyone remember what I'm thinking of?

3WrongBot12y
Heh, that was one of my comments [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2ee/unknown_knowns_why_did_you_choose_to_be_monogamous/27do?c=1&context=1#comments] , on the Trobriand [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trobriand]. They're subsistence yam farmers.
2JoshuaZ12y
Echoing qwern's comment for a citation for their belief. This seems like such a near human universal that I'd really want to see a better source than a Wikipedia article without further sourcing. If a diet reduced conception levels that much I'd expect to a) have heard about what the food in question is in that context and b) see a selection pressure against those who ate that diet. It also doesn't require a very high conception rate to make the sex-pregnancy connection. I'd be surprised if one couldn't make that connection at any pregnancy rate that was able to keep population levels at least constant. And any such society is going to have shorter life-spans and high infant mortality, which would mean that the minimum pregnancy level would be pretty high. It seems more plausible to me that the connection goes in the other direction: the highly polyamorous culture has made it more difficult to see the sex-pregnancy connection. But even that seems a bit of a stretch. ETA: So this [http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/baloma/index.htm] looks like a source but some of the other mentions of the "Baloma" belief on the internet (none in reliable sources as far as I can tell) claim that the belief is that sex is a method of opening the womb to the baloma, which would mean that the sex-pregnancy connection is understood, but possibly not that the child inherits any traits from the father. More sources are seriously needed to pin down what is happening here.
0WrongBot12y
I'm trying to remember where I first read about the Trobrianders, and failing. The Ethical Slut, maybe? Malinowski seems to be responsible for most of the scholarship on them, which I agree is a little suspicious. IIRC, the yams in question have an unusually high level of progesterone, which does (or at least should) have observable effects on fertility rates. But I think there was more to it than that--if I remember my original source, I'll definitely pass it along.
2gwern12y
What's the source for their sex!=pregnancy belief? The Wikipedia article doesn't seem to cover that at all.
0Alicorn12y
I don't think it was me who posted it, and I don't know who did.