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Herbert Gintis RSS Feed (Northampton, MA USA)

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A Darwinian Left (Darwinism Today series)
A Darwinian Left (Darwinism Today series)
Price: $9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, well written, and partially compelling, January 22, 2016
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Peter Singer's book has many virtues, not the least of which is that it is succinct, lucid, straightforward and touches only on the main and most important points. He argues that Marxism is no longer the theoretical basis for a Left vision of the good society (if it ever was). The most important two failures of Marxism were first, its reliance on the working class and trade unions as the basis for social change, and second, its acceptance of the notion if infinite psychological malleability of human beings.

On the inadequacy of the working class as the basis for social change Singer does not have much to say, although of course he is perfectly correct. On the weaknesses of trade unions he is right on the mark, writing "When barriers to imports are removed, nationally based trade unions are undermined.... The only way for unions to maintain their clout would be for them to organise internationally; but when the discrepancies between the living standards of workers are as great as they are today between, say, Europe and China, the common interests for doing so are lacking." Contemporary Leftists are completely blind to this crystal clear logic. Of course, Leftists could argue for protectionism so unions could avoid wage competition with the rest of the world, but this would not be a popular argument, as it benefits union members only, not the general public. Unions are nowadays both anachronistic and anti-efficiency special interest groups.

Singer waxes eloquent on the fact that there is a biologically evolved human nature, and that infinitely malleability of the human mind is radically false. He notes: "In one of his celebrated ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (VI), Marx had written: '. . . the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.' It follows from this belief that if you can totally change the ‘ensemble of the social relations’, you can totally change human nature. This claim goes to the heart of Marxism and of more broadly marxist (with a small‘m’) thinking. As a result, it affects much of the thought of the entire left...Belief in the malleability of human nature has been important for the left because it has provided grounds for hoping that a very different kind of human society is possible. Here, I suspect, is the ultimate reason why the left rejected Darwinian thought. It dashed the left’s Great Dream: The Perfectibility of Man."

Singer argues that true Left values (and his values) are utilitarian---people should act to improve the lot of the greatest number, and the downtrodden are the most easily improved group because of the declining marginal utility of income. "My own ethical position, " he writes, " is utilitarian, and the imperative of reducing suffering flows directly from that position. Although as a utilitarian I do not value equality for its own sake, I am very conscious of the principle of diminishing marginal utility, which tells us that while a given sum of money, say £ 100, makes very little difference to the utility of someone who already has a lot, it may make a huge difference to the utility of someone who has very little."

He then argues that Darwinian evolution has given humans a predisposition to cooperate and help others, and the Left can draw on this predisposition to create a more equal and humane society. He writes: "I want to suggest that one source of new ideas that could revitalise the left is an approach to human social, political and economic behaviour based firmly on a modern understanding of human nature. It is time for the left to take seriously the fact that we are evolved animals, and that we bear the evidence of our inheritance, not only in our anatomy and our DNA, but in our behaviour too. In other words it is time to develop a Darwinian left."

Singer presents very little empirical support for this position, citing only a couple of rather out-of-date authors. But there is much contemporary support for the notion that humans are predisposed to be both cooperative and (conditionally) altruistic. You can find many references to the literature in one of my books, say The Bounds of Reason (Princeton, 2009) and on my website http://people.umass.edu/gintis. He writes: "would a Darwinian left really have to accept Hardin’s Cardinal Rule that we should never ask people to act against their own self-interest? Is it really impossible for the left to seek to promote a society in which there is a strong feeling of concern for the good of others, and opportunities for people to work for the good of the whole society or, even more broadly, for the welfare of human and nonhuman sentient beings wherever they may live? Altruism – not just kin altruism, or reciprocal altruism, but genuine altruism toward strangers – does exist."

How should we evaluate Singer's interesting argument? Most important is his analysis of the weaknesses of Marxism. Marxism's strategy of basing progressive social change on the working class is simply antiquated and irrelevant. Labor unions are just another interest group, and to my mind a generally distasteful one. Teachers' unions impede the dismissal of bad teachers and police unions protect bad cops. An so on.

What about basing a Left politics on Darwinism? Well, evolutionary biology is scientifically true and the past few decades have done much to elucidate the biological bases of human nature. No matter what your politics are, except for the dogmatic fundamentalist religious idiots who promote creationism, you should accept Darwinian analysis, just because it is true. Moreover, it can help you understand what sorts of alternatives are possible and which are not. But, as Singer stresses, Darwinism has absolutely no ethical implications. Its just science. Moreover, there are plenty of modern politically conservative Darwinists who deny none of the truths that Singer (and I) accept. Try Larry Arnhart, for instance.

The real problem with Singer's argument is that he accepts without the slightest argument that there exists an alternative to capitalism based on cooperation instead of competition. He writes: "Building a more cooperative society Any human society will show some competitive tendencies and some cooperative ones. We cannot change that, but we may be able to change the balance between these two elements. America in the twentieth century has been the paradigm of a competitive society, in which the drive for personal wealth and to get to the top is widely seen as the goal of everything we do." The problem is that there is no known alternative that shifts the balance to any serious degree in the direction advocated by Singer. Worker-owned firms have been a suggestion---one that I espoused for many years. But for many reasons, they jut do not present a serious alternative to the capitalist enterprise. See Why Democratic Socialism Does not Work, on my website, under You Must Read This!

The idea that Darwinism will save the Left is just wishful thinking.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 3, 2016 5:41 PM PST


Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
by Edward S. Herman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.11
96 used & new from $8.99

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars An Unconvincing Explanation for the Unpopularity of Radical Socialism, January 14, 2016
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If you are a good Leftist and you want to know why your ideas are not popular, this is the book for you. You don't have to worry that perhaps your ideas are wrong, or your values are not shared by the larger public. Just blame it on the media.

The main reason I do not like this book is precisely the above. It leads serious people who want to reform society into circling their wagons, talking only to each other, and ignoring the importance of speaking to the people as a whole.

The second reason I do not like this book is that I think the major argument is false, and the authors have made a poor case of marshaling the evidence for their model's being superior to other models. Indeed, they present no other models.

Here is another model: the commercial media consist of firms in competition with one another for audience. The firms that best give people what they want will succeed and the others will fail. Capitalist owners are profit-oriented and hire managers, journalists, commentators and others who maximize their firm's profits by giving people what they want. Of course, some people just want to hear stuff that confirms the political prejudices. But others base their opinions on the facts, and this part of the clientele of the media are broad enough that the observed level of delivery of factual information obtains.
Comment Comments (9) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 25, 2016 10:55 AM PST


The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory (Complete Idiot's Guides (Lifestyle Paperback))
The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory (Complete Idiot's Guides (Lifestyle Paperback))
by George Musser
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.45
65 used & new from $2.34

4.0 out of 5 stars A Triumph of Words over Symbols, January 14, 2016
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I am always skeptical of physics for laypeople that avoids all the math. The math of string theory, however, is for experts only. Musser does a great job of explaining the lay of the land. He does not only string theory, but all the background needed to make sense of string theory. I do think string theory is seriously overhyped. It makes no testable predictions (as of yet).


Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time--and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything
Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time--and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything
by George Musser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.39
68 used & new from $10.35

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting speculations, January 10, 2016
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Most of the criticisms of this book are on the mark. If you don't know anything about non-locality, this book will probably not help you much. If you don't like metaphysical speculation arising from conundrums of contemporary physics, this is not the book for you. I found the speculations interesting, although Musser applies the term non-locality to far more phenomena than deserve the term. I looked at some of the papers on alternatives to the notion of space and found them extremely half-baked, with lots of hand-waving.


Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
by Lisa Randall
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.68
70 used & new from $10.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Probably wrong about the dinosaurs, but lots of good physics here., January 8, 2016
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This book is a lively introduction to contemporary cosmology (especially the notion of dark matter), and leads the reader through lots of interesting physics with the ostensible purpose of explaining the demise of the dinosaurs. The geology is quite out of date and I don't believe her thesis is plausible. But I liked the book anyway. It is a good read and the reader will learn a lot of interesting stuff.


War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views
War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views
by Douglas P. Fry
Edition: Paperback
Price: $36.41
31 used & new from $22.04

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting anthropology, but asks the wrong questions, January 7, 2016
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Douglas Fry's message in this edited volume is that "warfare is not ancient,,, arising within the timeframe of the agricultural revolution" (pp. 4,6).Therefore making war is not part of human nature and hence can be avoided. How? "In this interdependent world of the twenty-first century we need to 'Expand the US to include the Them." (p. 546).

I think the basic conclusion, that war is not ancient, is most probably wrong, as I have written recently in Current Anthropology (with Carel P. van Schaik and Christopher Boehm, "Zoon Politikon: The Evolutionary Origins of Human Political Systems", Current Anthropology 56,3 (2015):327-353), and more extensively in my book with Samuel Bowles (A Cooperative Species, Princeton University Press, 2011). Humans are the only mammals who make war, by which I mean organized combat involving the coordinated action of many combatants facing a well-organized opposition of considerable size. Most nonhuman primate species have great trouble in acting collectively in conflict with neighboring groups. Chimpanzees are a major exception: they engage in war-like raids where larger parties cooperate closely to target and destroy much smaller ones. But Chimpanzees engage in raids and fight only when they encounter single individuals from another group. There is no organized combat between groups of comparable size and strength.. War among human hunter-gatherers likewise largely consists of such a raiding strategy, suggesting a shared predisposition to engage in this type of warfare. Obviously, the dramatic changes in human social organization accompanying the origin of defensible wealth produced major changes in the nature of warfare. But despite the confident claims of Fry and others in this volume, there is ample evidence that this behavior is characteristic of humans.

Despite the intrinsic interest in the question of war and human nature, it is really of virtually no relevance to the issue of promoting the abolition of war. Warlike human nature does not make war inevitable, but other aspects of human nature make war a permanent aspect of human socially organized life. First, like other primates, humans are naturally aggressive when threatened. Moreover, humans are masterful creators and users of artificial lethal weapons (i.e., not natural biological weapons such as claws and venom), on a scale quite unknown in other species. Finally, humans organize and collaborate in large-scale enterprises in hunting, economic production, and social defense. Making war is simply the creative composition of lethal weapon use and large-scale human collaboration.

How should we treat Fry's solution to modern warfare (expand the Us to include Them so there is no need for warfare)? Suppose all societies followed this rule. Then any society that defected from this rule could reap huge games by exploiting its peaceful neighbors. The situation of universal peace is there not stable. Perhaps we can correct this problem by maintaining that all societies be strong in defense but not engage in offensive attacks. This is pretty much what we have now. It is only partially successful because the line between offense and defense is subtle and hard to draw. Virtually every group that attacks does so in the name of defending its principles and prerogatives.

War is the continuation of politics by other means," von Clausewitz tells us. He does not say this because he has some concept of human nature in which the drive to kill The Other is a prime directive. He says it through historical observation. War is of course horrible and to be avoided under most conditions. But urging us to love our enemies is simply silly, and saying that war can be abolished because war-making is not part of our nature is a gross non-sequitur.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 6, 2016 7:38 PM PST


String Theory and the Scientific Method
String Theory and the Scientific Method
by Richard Dawid
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $80.35
31 used & new from $37.65

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Nice try, but completely nonconvincing, January 1, 2016
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This physicist turned philosopher attempts to justify the notion that we should give up the traditional criteria for accepting the (provisional) truth of a theory. The traditional criterion is that the theory has adequate empirical support. String theory has no empirical support, and it may never have such support because test current models require energy levels far beyond anything we have or are likely ever to have. Yet string theorist continue to spend much time and energy spinning out new results based on the simple notion that fundamental particles are not dimensionless points, but one-dimensional strings in some high-dimension space. The higher dimensions are too small to be detected, and may never be detected.

String theory is attractive because it provides a significant unification to the laws of physics, especially important being its unification of quantum mechanics and gravitational theory. It also explains black hole inertia and in general is pretty elegant in conception. The general point is that standard point-particles can get infinitely close to one another, leading to crazy infinities, only some of which can be normalized away. Vibrating strings cannot get that close to each other, so the infinities disappear.

The fact that, although string theory is severely underdetermined in any detail, it is capable of unifying so much leads many of its proponents to declare its truth, even without empirical support. Dawid attempts to defend this view, which is supported by very influential and serious people, but he does not succeed. This is through no fault of his own. The view is simply indefensible. All the arguments In favor of it are blatant special interest pleadings that cannot be taken seriously. If you cannot make predictions that are empirically verified, you don't have a supportable theory. That is all there is to it. The notion that Bayesian updating using non-empirical facts (such as the theory getting more elegant, more inclusive, or remaining the only game in town) cannot substitute for empirical evidence. Either there are little strings or there are not. You have to see the strings to credibly assert their existence. Without this evidence, string theory may remain a formidable speculative hypothesis, well worth working on, but it is still speculation.

It is a tribute the incredible progress in our understanding of the laws of physics that in some areas we appear to be at a point where we can go no further without really fundamentally new insights. My understanding of quantum mechanics, for instance, leads me to believe a version of multiuniverse theory in which the whole universe is in quantum superposition, so that the observations that appear to entail the collapse of the wave function really just means that the observer is in quantum superposition. But I have no idea how to test this notion, so it is just another speculation. Like string theory, we may never know. Or perhaps with better theory we will be able to attack this problem fruitfully.

I learned a lot from this book about the philosophy of string theory. But I remain completely unconvinced.


Yuren Flameless Tea Light Flickering Irregular Wave LED Battery Tea light Candles (1.7*1.4 inch)
Yuren Flameless Tea Light Flickering Irregular Wave LED Battery Tea light Candles (1.7*1.4 inch)
Offered by Joanna's home
Price: $45.90

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a pleasant surprise!, November 22, 2015
These little lights were an extremely pleasant surprise. The light the project is subtle and beautiful, despite the candle's diminutive size. The take flat 3 volt batteries, which cost about 35 cents each. I don't know how long a battery lasts, but the candle shuts itself off after a while.

The company sent them to me for free because I am a top Amazon reviewer. Very funny, because almost all my reviews are of non-fiction books in the natural and behavioral sciences. I turn down hundreds of offers for free all sorts of things, but this candle captured my eye. A great find.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2015 12:48 AM PST


Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics
Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics
by Max Jammer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.81
44 used & new from $6.90

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Waste of time, October 26, 2015
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I found this book utterly pedantic and boring. Why would I care what the ancients said about mass, unless as part of a systematic study of the thought of the different philosophers. I found the treatment of Newtonian and relativistic theory labored and lacking in insight. Just study Newtonian mechanics, special relative, and general relativity and you will understand the notion of mass. Also cosmology and dark matter/dark energy.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 3, 2015 10:04 AM PST


Group Selection
Group Selection
by George C. Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: $35.95
34 used & new from $16.75

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book of historic value, October 26, 2015
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This review is from: Group Selection (Paperback)
It is not surprising that this book has no review up to this point. It is very technical (but not very mathematical) and probably only of interest to history science types. I am rankled that I had to pay a huge amount of money for this thin book, most of whose essays I now find can be download from online sources.
The book should cost about ten dollars.
Nevertheless, the essays are very cogent, and George Williams is a careful and thoughtful commentator.


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