Friday, February 12, 2021

A troop of baboons in Caddies

I know what boys like

I know what guys want

John Dupre, in an nifty little takedown of the use of rational expectations theory as the master key to all the social sciences in Human Nature and the Limits of Science, noted the convergence of the ideology of the theory with the ideology of evolutionary psychology – both emanating from a conservative view of human nature, the one derived from Adam Smith’s notion that we are designed to truck and barter, the other finding justificatory fables in nature for social hierarchies which, in reality, we see dissolve all of the time.
There’s a nice article by Amanda Rees that explores the primatology behind evolutionary psychology in the Fall issue of the History of Science. As anybody knows who has read comments threads on feminist sites, or any site that ventures into that classic boobish trope, men vs. women (why do women do this? why do men do that?), sooner or later the male as hunter and sperm sprinkler will emerge – extra points for the comedic effect of those whose only experience of being a hunter is buying hamburger in a grocery store trying to analogize working in an office with throwing rocks in the savannah.
So where did the images come from? Rees points to the influential work of Sherwood Washburn and Irven Devore, who, in the fifties, studied and filmed baboons. Why baboons? Not because human beings have a close dna kinship. Such taxonomies were undreamt of in the fifties, anyway.
“Baboon social structure and ecology resembled the conditions thought to be characteristic of early man: both species lived in relatively large social groups, including related and unrelated animals of both sexes and all ages; both species had come down from the trees, abandoning the forest for the open savannah. Baboon life, it was thought, was likely therefore to mirror the experiences of early humans. Baboons too would have to learn to manage the tensions inherent in group life when that group includes individuals of different status and conflicting needs, and they would have to face the challenges of life on the plains. Forest primates had the option of disappearing into the trees to escape predators: animals in the open, like early humans, must have developed different defence mechanisms.”
Rees notes the presuppositions in Washburn and Devore’s work:
“When the baboon group moves from one place to another, they suggested, troop members were distributed in such a way as to give the greatest protection to the most vulnerable members. In their own words, As the troop moves, the less dominant adult males, and perhaps a large juvenile or two occupy the van. Females and more of the older juveniles follow, and in the centre of the troop are the females with infants, the young juveniles, and the most dominant males. The back of the troop is a mirror image of its front, with the less dominant males at the rear. Thus, without any fixed or formal order, the arrangement of the troop is such that the females and young are protected at the center.
As they also stressed in a later publication, this arrangement provides maximum protection for the weaker members — approaching predators would be met by large, aggressive adult males on both the troop’s periphery and in the centre, before they could reach the vulnerable animals at the troop’s heart. This model not only reflected the ‘man-the-hunter’ model that dominated anthropology at that time — casting, as it did, the males as the primary sources through which group integrity was derived and maintained — but it was also based on the assumption that it was possible to identify a single primate pattern (essential if one was to be able to generalize from primate to human behaviour), an assumption that derived from the search for species typical behaviour that was central to classical ethology, one of primatology’s
parental disciplines.”
One has to remember that Washburn and Devore are working at the height of the Cold war, when troops of the analogues to baboons – humans – were being planified into cars that drove on highways (in which the weak were crushed) that made possible suburbs that possibly dispersed the urban target from the potential missile hit. It was a man’s man’s man’s baboon world, and those who could not be attracted to buttocks that were inflamed with the right red white and blue as they worked at SAC – or the Soviet colors, as they worked at the Semipalatinsk Test Site – were not members of the order. Oddly enough, female primatologists found a different order indeed. Washburn and Devore’s student, Rowell, found something different: “Rowell’s work on forest baboons in Uganda found no sign of the typical pattern of troop movement: instead, she noted that when danger threatened, the troop’s response was “precipitate flight, with the big males well to the front and the last animals usually the females carrying the heavy babies”. Well, we can’t have deadbeat and cowardly Dad’s in the geneology, can we?
Rees’ account ends without primatology crystallizing around one paradigm. It includes the saga of Sarah Hrdy’s observations of infanticide, and how these were denied – which has become a little parable in primatology, much like Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition projected an aura of heroism on physics – but it turns out that infanticide is still a much more disputed event, in its meaning and evolutionary function, than the heroic story would make out.
Eleanor Courtemanche

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Conversation and argument

Philosophers present arguments; other people, lower in the pecking order, just argue.


Among the meanings of the Latin verb, arguere, is blame a person for a crime. In Roman law, this is the initial moment in the process of bringing the defendant to trial. James Ayto, in his book Word Origins, takes the arg back to its putative Indo-European origins, where it means white or bright – silvery, as in the French l’argent. How one hop skips and jumps from the silvery moon to “presenting a thesis” is one of those moments in which etymology most slavishly follows an enlightenment ideology, even though it means reasoning by wild analogies. Another etymological school holds that the Hittites, my fave mystery civilization, were at the bottom of the word, with arkuuae – to make a plea. In this history, the quarreling and blaming emotion hidden in argument came out, in English, long after the legal use of the term.

Perhaps: or perhaps, because etymology depends so much on written texts, the legal sense of argument was followed or even proceeded by the ordinary sense of blame. Of course, even on the high cultural plane, argument has a passive aggressive social significance. Anybody who has been in a lounge in a philosophy department and heard “arguments” in favor of, say, realism can testify that blaming is a large part of philosophical reasoning.  Yet it is rare to hear anybody speak in favor of blaming as a guide to practical reasoning, much less reasoning.

In the twentieth century, argument has seemed to some philosophers to be too legal, too formal, to encompass what philosophy does. That last silvery glimmer of “wisdom” is drowned in the arg-ument, according to this view. So there are other candidates to take argument’s place: conversation, dialogue, discourse, deliberation. Martin Buber in the 1920s was proposing dialogue, or, really, conversation. Mikhel Bakhtin, who was the great proponent of plurivocity, claimed that Buber was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century ... “and perhaps in this puny century, perhaps the sole philosopher on the scene.” Bakhtin was obviously impressed with the book Buber published after I and Thou – Zweisprache, translated as “Dialogue” and included in a collection in English with the very pipesmokin’ title of Between Man and Man.

Richard Rorty ended up, as well, advocating for “conversation” and even dissolving philosophy into conversation. In the Consequences of Pragmatism, he wrote that his conception of pragmatism “ the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones — no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow inquirers.” This seems to give inquiry over to its circumstances without a thought for how those circumstances came to be or how conversation influences and changes them, and maybe Rorty would say that since we have the sciences, which do inquire into and make our social circumstances, then philosophical inquiry just goes on in reference to this greater circumstance.

Or maybe he would not. Myself, I think that democracy produces a difficult mixed mode of discourse, in which argument – the presentation of a thesis – and arguing – the fixing of blame – compete and mate with each other. One of the sociologically interesting things to me about the vids showing the Capitol rioters is that so many of them are so prompt to make speeches. The speeches are, very often, very badly argued, because argument has become almost completely a quick finding of blame – blame for a crime that these people feel has been committed against them. I don’t think that crime is the stealing of the election, which is the surface prompt for the violence. But stealing is definitely at the core of it, the sensation of being the victims of a steal even as they steal. And this poses some interesting questions about how arguing and argument work within an ethos framed by the Atlantic revolutions in the 18th century.

I’d like it to be the case that Buber has discovered the magic key to lead us out of this moronic inferno. Notoriously, the I and Thou was shattered in the Germany he lived in. And Buber was not happy with the Israel he helped to found, since the conversation there turned exclusionary.

If it isn’t a magic key, though, it is certainly suggestive as to how the current political situation not only in the U.S., but everywhere in the old democracies, can be understood.

 I’m big on the understanding front, since I suck on the persuasion front. Perhaps there is no politics of the “thou” – the kingdom of the you is inside you. It is from the lack of politics that we can work towards politics, maybe. Maybe.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Rilke on the 10


Surely, giving the finger

to the man tailgating you on Highway 10

is poetry too, and should be counted


where they count such things

in Rilke’s heaven.

Among my tropes and ruses


and the CD playing today’s road music

and the ominous signage for Pasadena

looming ahead of me like the SAT


there’s room for my own version

of “you must change your life”:

You must change your lane.

- Karen Chamisso

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...