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Herbert Gintis RSS Feed (Northampton, MA USA)

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Giant Jellyfish Aquarium with Color-Changing LED Lights
Giant Jellyfish Aquarium with Color-Changing LED Lights
Offered by HearthSong
Price: $99.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, but it took some ingenuity to get it that way, June 17, 2015
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I am now quite satisfied with this product, although it took some doing to get to this point.
The tank comes with artificial plants that are quite presentable, but there is no way to secure them to the floor of the aquarium (perhaps some parts were missing). I sent away for two artificial plants, which look very nice. It took me a few days to figure out where to place them so that the jellyfish have maximal movement. Now my tank looks great.
I also added two jellyfish that I got from Sharper Image. They are much prettier than the ones that come with the aquarium.
I may add an artificial fish.

Man Is by Nature a Political Animal: Evolution, Biology, and Politics
Man Is by Nature a Political Animal: Evolution, Biology, and Politics
by Peter K. Hatemi
Edition: Paperback
Price: $25.06
41 used & new from $12.88

3.0 out of 5 stars Useful, but Limited Vision, June 12, 2015
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The most important fact about political theory is that there really is none. Or, rather, political theory generally takes almost everything as given, including the fact that human society has a political sphere, and pontificates on the merits of various political organizational structures. If you Google Political Theory, you mostly come up with political philosophy, plus the "political theory" of random outstanding thinkers (Aristotle, Dewey,...). There is simply no coherent body of general political theory.

This exploratory volume advocates grounding general political theory in evolutionary biology. I think this is a great idea, and if you have never thought much about the relationship among evolution, human nature, biology, and political life, this is a useful way to start. The editors seem to think that genetics and neuroscience should be included in evolutionary theory, so there are several chapters that simply analyze genes, neurons, and hormones. These are useful in their own right, but they have little to do with an analytical core for political theory.

The contributors to this volume simply miss the most basic facts about political theory. The most important fact is that the public sphere is the area of human social life where the rules of the game are made, stabilized, evaluated, debated, and transformed. This is important because, while many animals play games, humans alone can conceptualize the notion that games have rules, these rules can be violated or respected, and that we can agree to play by certain rules with the expectation of achieving certain social regularities thereby. Homo sapiens is thus "Homo ludens": Man the game player. This is the central fact of political theory.

We are Homo ludens because we evolved in hunter-gatherer society as fundamentally egalitarian and participatory animals. See my recent article in Current Anthropology on the topic---it's on my web site--as well as my coauthor Chris Boehm's book Moral Origins: The Evolution of
Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

The second amazing fact about our species is that individuals are willing to participate in large political events, including elections and collective actions, even though their participation is completely non-consequential. No individual has ever made a difference in a large election or a large demonstration, march, etc. Never. Humans appear to follow a social logic that I call distributed effectivity. For details, see the paper on my web site (under submission at APSR) called Homo ludens, under "Political Theory."
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 18, 2015 6:25 AM PDT

Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible
Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible
by Jerry A. Coyne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.16
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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very beautifully pesented argument---and correct!, June 5, 2015
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Coyne is an anti-accommodationist, which means that he believes that if accept science, you must reject religion. This is a deep claim, because prima facie, it is obviously false. There are many great scientists who believe in Christianity in one form or another---including Isaac Newton, who believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Of course, after Darwin and modern archeology, such literalism is difficult to sustain. But Francis Collins and many other scientists are religiously devout.

Coyne also recognizes that some religions never contradict modern science, including Catholicism and many forms of Buddhism.

What, then, does he mean? The answer is in the book's title: science accepts no truths that cannot be validated, at least provisionally and never with absolute certitude, on the basis of empirical evidence. Religion, by contrast, accepts many things as true on the basis of faith. The weakness of faith as a criterion of truth is that every religion has its own peculiar idea of what "faith" tells us is true. They cannot all be right, and there is no way to adjudicate among them, except perhaps by the sword.

An what sorts of things do religions tell us. Adam and Eve and the snake? Moses and the burning bush? Jonah and the whale? Noah's arc and the flood? What a bunch of fanciful fairly tales! What about not turning on an electric heater on the Sabbath? Wearing dreadlocks and four-foot tall black hats. It would funny thinking about these things if they were not so often tragic.

Faith is an empty shell of an abode for our spirit, which is wondrous at the miracles of nature and human consciousness. Awe, by all means. Faith? Not a chance.

Why not just let the faithful alone in their blithering delusions? Because many powerful religions make claims that counter what we know is justified scientifically (e.g., faith healing, Adam and Eve, creationism). But why not go for accommodationism in the form of: science won't make anti-faith claims and religions won't make anti-science claims? Coyne rejects this tack, but his arguments are not cogent. I can reject faith as a criterion of truth and yet let people go to church and anoint their children. And I can do science perfectly well without denying the existence of the supernatural.

Coyne is also s special kind of scientist---one who accepts some things on faith himself! Most important is "determinism," when means that all of reality as we know it evolves completely deterministically according to physical laws. How could he know this? What evidence could he have for this? I cannot imagine. All my equations have random error terms. I don't know if they are random, or just some sorts of forces, perhaps non-physical, that I don't (yet) understand (and may never understand). Quantum mechanics is fundamentally non-deterministic. If you believe the many-worlds version (which I tend to think is most plausible), our universe is a superposition of a hugely vast number of quantum states, yet our consciousness is firmly attached (as far as we know) to exactly one of these states. When a quantum event occurs, more superimposed states, and our consciousness becomes superimposed as well. Is this what we mean by determinism? I think not. The fact is, there may be phenomena that affect the course of the universe that are not physical in the way we think of physical. Who knows? To be a determinist is not to be agnostic about this possibility, but to actively reject ti. That is fail in action.

On special form of determinism is rejecting free will. Coyne certainly rejects free will, on the grounds of naturalistic determinism: the brain makes decisions, the brain is physical, physical is causally deterministic. Hence no free will. Personally, I am agnostic. I cannot predict how humans will behave in any given situations (I have spent much of my life on studying human behavior), so how can I be sure that the physical nature of the brain is sufficient to explain behavior? Denial of free will is an act of faith, pure and simple.

For instance, Coyne is fond of saying that the theory of evolution proves that the emergence of our species is completely determined by physical law. Perhaps. But perhaps not. Who knows? If some guy with a pasta strainer on his head claims that we were steered into existence by a God who likes steamed noodles, I can simply shrug.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 5, 2015 4:20 PM PDT

To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science
To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science
by Steven L. Weinberg
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.33
63 used & new from $12.61

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exccellent source for the history of astronomy, May 28, 2015
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I love both Weinberg's erudition and his iconoclasm. This is really a history of science the way it should be done---recording the passage from error to truth, and explaining scientific controversies in scientific as opposed to sociological terms. Here is one of my favorite paragraphs: Descartes and Bacon are only two of the philosophers who over the centuries have tried to prescribe rules for scientific research. It never works. We learn how to do science, not by making rules about how to do science, but from the experience of doing science..."

Actually, I there are rules for doing science, but they are social rules concerning how scientists must behave towards each other for scientific research to be successful.

The technical notes at the end of the book are fabulous.

Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science
Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science
by Alice Dreger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.13
77 used & new from $14.43

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly readable memoire from someone in the trenches, May 10, 2015
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Alice Dreger is my kind of scientist. She describes herself, like Galileo, as "pugnacious, articulate, political incorrect, and firmly centered in the belief that truth will save me, will have to save us all." The truths she has to reveal from her personal experience and her research has professional historian of science include (a) how frequently what should remain at the level of scientific discourse and dispute ends up transforming into disgusting and unprofessional ad hominem arguments that seriously tarnish the reputations of even highly talented researchers; (b) "how badly most people want simple stories of make and female, nature and nurture, good and evil"; and (c) "So long as we believe that bad acts are only committed by evil people and that good people do only good, we will fail to see, believe, or prevent these kinds of travesties [of scientific discourse]."

Alice Dreger learned something very important when she interviewed the great anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon when he was treated disgracefully by the politically correct post-modern honchos of the American Anthropological Association. However low they stoop to defame your character, never respond in kind. Just stick to the issues and present the evidence. It may take years, but the evidence almost always wins out.

Some of my favorite behavioral scientists come out poorly in Dreger's account (though none is a major actor) of the transgender issue. I will have to ask them for their side of this fascinating story.

Tea Beyond Clear Glass Teapot Pink Butterfly 710ml 24oz with Tea Warmer Cozy
Tea Beyond Clear Glass Teapot Pink Butterfly 710ml 24oz with Tea Warmer Cozy
Offered by Tea Beyond
Price: $30.00
2 used & new from $30.00

5.0 out of 5 stars This has become my favorite teapot, April 21, 2015
I was sent this teapot by the company because I am a top Amazon reviewer---almost exclusively of books. I receive many offers of free merchandise from sellers who hope I will review the product. I turn almost all of the offers down.
In this case, I said yes and I am pleased that I did. This has become my favorite teapot, mostly because of its convenience. If you drink a lot of tea throughout the day, this may be the product for you.

Lucky Go Happy: Make Happiness Happen!
Lucky Go Happy: Make Happiness Happen!
Price: $3.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Modern Aesop's Fables, March 29, 2015
These are something like modern versions of Aesop's Fables, meant to give readers insight into why they might be lacking in happiness, and what they might think about to correct this. I read the book from cover to cover with pleasure. I didn't personally learn anything new, but then I am pretty happy as is. I think the book might be profitably read to children, each chapter the basis for a family discussion.

American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone
American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone
by Marco Rubio
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.13
84 used & new from $12.02

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lots of good, innovative ideas. Some important wrong-headed ideas., February 18, 2015
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Republicans have been worried for some time that their standard ideology speaks only to middle-aged middle-class white males. Demographics are turning against them, so may conservatives have been exploring new directions. This books is a deeply knowledgeable contribution to this process.

All of the traditional ideology of American Conservatism (the centrality of tradition, adherence to Christian fundamentalism, wild-west individualism, glorification of the minimalist state, opposition to welfare) are chucked by Rubio. There are a couple of right-wing ideas he champions that I find objectionable, including opposition to gay marriage and a sustained attack on the Affordable Care Act.

Rubio speaks directly to struggling Americans, and proposes social policies to help them succeed. The most imaginative is the Wage Enhancement credit, which is like the Earned Income Tax Credit, but based on individual income not family income. This overcomes a weakness in the EITC that gives poor couples an incentive not to marry. Rubio also champions online education, and faults the bureaucratic accreditation boards for creating a monopoly of mortar and brick schools that thwarts low-cost high-quality higher education.

Rubio's objection to gay marriage is not religious at all. He believes gay marriage "weakens the family." I think exactly the opposite is the case.

There is a lot of fluff in this book, but it is basically entertaining reading and its social-science based ideas are a breath of fresh air.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 17, 2015 4:56 AM PDT

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
by Michael Shermer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.76
80 used & new from $14.26

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Challenging Emancipatory Vision, January 24, 2015
Is science leading to social emancipation or to our enslavement by technologically sophisticated masters? This question has been the perennial subject of learned disquisitions. It is relatively new that they are now asked by behavioral scientists using scientific evidence. Science historian Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc is a brilliant contributions to this contemporary branch of sociopolitical discourse.

Applying scientific principles to human society is hard. Society is a perfect example of a complex dynamical adaptive nonlinear system. Moreover, it is non-ergodic: rapid technical change, increased population density and globalization mean that we cannot reliably predict the future from the past. Even human nature, forged in the remote Pleistocene, turns out to be stunningly plastic.

Shermer’s The Moral Arc, while grounded in recent advances in behavioral game theory and social psychology, is a challengingly speculative book. He offers a rallying defense of science and reason as emancipatory tools in the face of bigotry, pseudoscience and faith. He too argues that humans are basically moral and cooperative, but adds that they are extremely parochial, willing to fight for and contribute to their community. When this community is threatened, people turn compassion for kith and kin into hatred for outsiders. This propensity, Shermer observes, is part of our evolved human nature and arguably always will be so.

Shermer’s central point is that even evil people are generally morally motivated. Violence perpetrated against outsiders is the application of justice in the perpetrators’ minds. This justification requires that the enemy be morally inferior and the cause of a community’s problems — an excuse historically manipulated by Machiavellian leaders to gather support for their ambitions, as when the Nazis blamed the Jewish people for Germany’s economic woes. Here is where science, technology and reason come into play, Shermer argues: the growth of our global information and communications networks has rendered it increasingly difficult to perpetrate the falsehoods authoritarian leaders demand to maintain their rule. In Shermer’s view, an increasingly educated populace with access to information technology tends to undermine parochialism and pseudoscience, allowing people to judge for themselves. The role of cell phones and social media in fueling the recent Arab Spring uprisings is a case in point.

This is a curious and welcome turn-around from The Believing Brain (2011), in which Shermer argues the rather nihilistic postmodern position that “beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow”. That would imply, for example, that people who believe autism is caused by vaccines would only listen to supporters of that belief. But in The Moral Arc Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, adheres to classical Enlightenment thought. The subtitle, How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, evokes the call to arms of eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant in What is Enlightenment?: “Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Some of Shermer’s positions ¬would have surprised Enlightenment writers. Kant, for instance, believed that the oppressive state and authoritarian church were the sole impediments to truth and justice. We know now that even people with access to the ballot box and a modicum of free expression can embrace intolerant and obscurantist doctrines. Moreover, Voltaire and others believed that the uneducated lacked a capability for applying reason to the affairs of life. Shermer, by contrast, is a vigorous proponent of political democracy and equal rights.

Shermer’s is an exciting, emancipatory vision, but he is mistaken in thinking that truth, freedom and justice are the inevitable byproducts of scientific advance. Modern liberal democracy is indeed the product of masses of people collectively throwing off the yoke of authoritarian states. But the power of popular action was made possible by a new military technology, the handgun: this displaced elite cavalry and required nations to cede the vote to peasants and citizens, who became the lifeblood of national military defense. Despite an awesome array of modern military technology, the foot soldier with portable fire power remains the bedrock of military power. Even the United States, with its formidable drones and missiles, cannot win a war without “troops on the ground”.

We cannot predict the future of technology, but we must be on constant guard against new instruments of information control, persecution and death that could once again render secular and religious totalitarianism a viable social alternative. Constant vigilance by rationalists such as Michael Shermer may in the end win the day.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 23, 2015 5:26 AM PDT

Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science)
Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science)
by David Sloan Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.68
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Introduction to Human Prosociality, January 24, 2015
Are humans basically selfish yet browbeaten by society into curbing their instincts, or are they basically altruistic yet corrupted by unjust societies? This question has been the perennial subject of learned disquisitions. It is relatively new that they are now asked by behavioural scientists using scientific evidence. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson's Does Altruism Exist? is a brilliant contribution to this contemporary branch of sociopolitical discourse.

Applying scientific principles to human society is hard. Society is a perfect example of a complex dynamical adaptive nonlinear system. Moreover, it is non-ergodic: rapid technical change, increased population density and globalization mean that we cannot reliably predict the future from the past. Even human nature, forged in the remote Pleistocene, turns out to be stunningly plastic.

Wilson's question is: does altruism, or actions mainly benefiting unrelated others at personal cost, exist? How could anyone doubt it? We give to charity, vote for public education even when we have no children, volunteer to fight and die in war. People regularly conform to social norms even when no one is looking, and sanction the anti-social behavior of others even when it is costly to do so. Yet for decades a countervailing theory has held in biology and economics.

Richard Dawkins, in his wildly popular The Selfish Gene, reflects the current opinion among biologists in 1976: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish." Some 45 years later, in a letter to Nature, 134 prominent evolutionary biologists petitioned that "natural selection leads organisms to become adapted as if to maximize their inclusive fitness" -- meaning that even in the most highly social species, individuals limit helping others as much as possible to genetic relatives. In fact, natural selection does nothing of the kind. Inclusive fitness maximization is a pious wish of many population biologists that has never been validated in theory or fact.

Wilson has struggled for decades against this received wisdom. His basic principle, delivered in a joint 2007 paper with Edward O. Wilson, is the group selection credo: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." So within each social group, selfish individuals will do better than their altruistic counterparts, but groups with many altruists can outcompete groups with few. As Darwin noted in Descent of Man (Murray, 1871), a hunter-gatherer band with many brave, altruistic soldiers will triumph over a group with mostly selfish cowards, even though the best thing of all for an individual is to be a coward surrounded by brave compatriots. The mathematics supports this scenario.

It is fashionable to question this view, but the difficult theoretical issues have been resolved for decades. I go through the details in my article "Inclusive Fitness and the Sociobiology of the Genome," Biology & Philosophy 29,4 (2014):477-515. Groups do not mate or produce offspring, and hence do not have biological fitness. Rather, the particular social organization of a species, its mating patterns and social groupings, is inscribed in the genomes of members of the species. Groups with more successful social organization tend to enhance the fitness of their members, whose genomes code for this social organization. Altruism can evolve in such groups provided altruists tend to be grouped preferentially with other altruists, in which case their biological fitness can on average be at least as high as that of selfish types.

As Wilson shows, another important source of our success as a species is that human cultures stress cooperation within the group, and so punish antagonistic individuals. This has led to humans "domesticating themselves", favoring a human nature that is relatively docile and dependent upon the company of and approval of others. You can find the details in Ann Gibbons, "How we Tamed Ourselves-and Became Modern," Science 346,6208 (2014):405-406. But Wilson's book stands alone as a great introduction to the subject of human cooperation and prosociality.
Moreover, humans have evolved to be collaborative, coordinating their behaviour through each member of a team "reading the minds" of the others and identifying with common goals. This is described well in Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard University Press, 2014).
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 15, 2015 10:36 AM PDT

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