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Reviews Written by
Herbert Gintis RSS Feed (Northampton, MA USA)

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Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society
Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society
by Robert A. Paul
Edition: Paperback
Price: $30.00
50 used & new from $16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely broad-ranging and informative, August 22, 2016
Paul is a cultural anthropologist with a broad range of sociological knowledge concerning small-scale societies. He develops dual inheritance theory adequately, and applies it to a vast number of issues in different societies. His analysis is very successful scientifically and yet remains enjoyable throughout. He is an excellent writer and the book fits together well.

Paul argues that there are two competing/conflicting systems of human sociality. The first is kinship/family, which we share with innumerable other species. The second is "tribal," which does not suppress family, but promotes cooperation, amity, and regard independent of kinship genealogy. He suggests that human cultural symbolic systems induce individuals to stress their cooperation and friendship with non-family, which accounts for our success as a species. Paul has thought deeply about these matters, and his treatment is well worth thinking about.

Paul stresses repeatedly that genetic and cultural systems develop almost independently, and are often in conflict. The fitness-reducing nature of some cultural institutions was stressed by Edgerton decades ago (Robert B. Edgerton, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992), and curiously Paul does not reference this great book at all. I suspect that Paul prefers the term "dual inheritance" to "gene-culture coevolution" because the latter suggests harmony, not conflict, between the two systems.

Paul's treatment of human evolutionary theory is, however, not completely balanced. First, he refers to the masters of inclusive fitness theory only in the historical section of the book, and he misstates repeated the notion that individuals can spread their genes only by personal biological reproduction. This is not a big problem, but it is incorrect and very annoying. Second, he makes no case whatever for gene-culture coevolution, a process which is infinitely more important than the class of genes and culture which he stresses. I will not go into the proof of the importance of gene-culture coevolution, as the interested reader can consult the primary literature, or read about it from my web site (Google: Gintis on gene-culture coevolution.

Paul is mostly fair in his treatment of other writers, but I must say that he misstates my theory (with Samuel Bowles in A Cooperative Species) by asserting that we believe human cooperation is based on human warfare. We never say this,and are analysis does not depend on any way on this assertion. We have two chapters on warfare and human altruism, but we present these as plausible models, and no more.

Economics: An Introduction to the Basic Fundamentals of Economics
Economics: An Introduction to the Basic Fundamentals of Economics
Price: $2.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Correct, but too brief introduction to economics, August 15, 2016
This precis of economics is quite accurate, but I found it much too short and concise to be useful for a beginner in economics. It is not that the arguments are oversimplified. Rather, it is that they are not sufficiently developed to be clear for a beginner.

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth
Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth
by Jim Baggott
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.00
71 used & new from $5.10

5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced, sensitive, and highly informative, August 11, 2016
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This book is really a careful review of the current state of theoretical physics. One can read it with profit even if one knows the physics and does not care about the metaphysics. Baggott's critique of string theory is carefully done and is quite accurate. It is, of course, nothing new.

I found Baggott's dismissal of the weak anthropic principle unconvincing. The anthropic principle does not explain anything, but it raises really interesting questions of a clearly scientific nature.

I read many of the reviews of this book, and found that those giving low marks to the book are defending SUSY and string theory. Everyone agrees that these theories are worth exploring, but until there is empirical substantiation, they are metaphysics, not physics.

The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works
The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works
by Timothy Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.66
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars First-rate choice for beginners who what to know what economic really says, August 6, 2016
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Most books on basic economic for beginners are politically biased, unrepresentative of what economic theory really says, and often present theories that are bizarre and quite unfounded. The great strength of this book is that it just presents the theory as it is taught in most economics departments around the world. This is very, very rare indeed.

The author is a well-know economist who has run the most widely read journal among economists, the Journal of Economic Perspectives. What he says is what in fact economic theory says.

I think the author should write a longer book in which he explores some key issues missing from this book. One is to give solid advice on personal investment, and a second is to apply the theory to evaluating important social policy questions. He doesn't have to come down on one or the other side of a debate, but rather to state clearly what economic theory has to add to the evaluation of issues.

Bayco LBC-200 Floodlight Bulb Changer
Bayco LBC-200 Floodlight Bulb Changer
Price: $8.00
29 used & new from $4.87

5.0 out of 5 stars Does the job, August 6, 2016
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It really works.

What We Cannot Know
What We Cannot Know
by Marcus Du Sautoy
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and insightful modern review of physical theory, August 6, 2016
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This review is from: What We Cannot Know (Hardcover)
Reading this book is like sitting down with a gifted thinker and listening to his stories about exploring the brilliant success and remaining mysteries of modern physics and logic. It is entertaining and informative even if you know the issues involved, and can be appreciated even if they are new to you.

the principle of Relativity
the principle of Relativity
by Sommerfeld, A. ; Lorentz, H.A. ; Einstein, Albert ; Minkowski, H ; Weyl, H
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting exploration of the masters of modern physics, August 6, 2016
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If you are really interested in the thought of the masters of relativity theory, it is incredibly exciting to read their papers.

The Illusion of Conscious Will (MIT Press)
The Illusion of Conscious Will (MIT Press)
by Daniel M. Wegner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.65
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1.0 out of 5 stars Absurdly misleading, logically and scientifically flawed, August 6, 2016
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In the final chapter of this book, the author proclaims "Conscious will is the mind's compass." What he means is that just as the compass on a ship at sea registers the direction of movement but does not determine the direction of movement, so conscious will registers our choices and decisions, but does not determine them. Unfortunately, his argument is completely without merit---even the slightest bit of merit. The author is simply misleading his readers.

This could have been a good book, if the author stuck to what he can show, which is that there are interesting illusions of conscious will. The faulty logic is this: if there are consistent and replicable illusions of conscious will in humans, then all experiences of conscious will are illusions.

How do we know (or at least comfortably believe) that this logic is incorrect? Well, what about optical illusions? There are many optical illusions that prove that humans can reliably judge reality to be different from the objective truth (e.g., comparing the length of two lines, or the relative brightness of two patches). This does not imply that reality is an illusion, or that our faith in ourselves to use our eyes to assess reality is unfounded.

Do I believe in conscious will? I have read a lot about this, and I know a lot of natural and behavioral science, as well as philosophy. Yet I am not sure. I do know that none of the arguments I have encountered, on one side or the other, is at all convincing. The common assertion that modern science supports strict determinism is clearly wrong. If we extend deterministic causality to "mechanistic causality," which adds quantum-level randomness and possibly chaotic dynamics, it is more plausible to assert that if there is free will, it must be compatible with mechanistic causality. The problem here is that we simply do not know all the forces of nature. We know four types of forces (strong, weak,electromagnetic, and gravity, which is not really a force), but we also know our theories are incomplete. Moreover, either general relativity is wrong (unlikely) or most of the matter in the Universe involves forces other than those with which we are familiar. Conclusion: there could be other forces that control our choices and behaviors other than the four known forces, and they might render human consciousness a causal material force in the Universe.

I am inclined toward the possibility of such an interpretation of consciousness because consciousness is a costly evolved trait of a few biological species, and costly traits are likely to be fitness-enhancing. Fitness-enhancing traits cannot be epiphenominal.

The standard philosophical argument against this view is that if there is free will, then the individual must have been able to make a different choice under exactly the same material conditions. But if there is mechanistic causality, the individual might have been able to make a different choice, but only because of quantum (or other) randomness. But, despite its popularity, this notion is clearly faulty. If an evil person makes and evil choice, in what sense could he have done otherwise? Evil people make evil choices. The counterfactual statement (he could have done otherwise) is fraught with metaphysical imprecision, and I reject it without qualification.

When we say someone is morally responsible for an evil choice, we do not me "he could have done otherwise." We mean that some individuals in that situation would have made different decisions, and we have no reason to believe this individual has some special life-history or medical reason (e.g., a tumor in the cortex) that relieves him of responsibility. This has nothing to do with the ontology of modern physics.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 9, 2016 8:59 AM PDT

Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics
Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics
Price: $3.99

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Free-Market-Biased Special Pleading, August 3, 2016
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Kling gives free market ideologists what they are looking for---a critique of scientific regulation of the market economy. He rejects standard economic theory by trivializing it (e.g., he says economists think of the economy as a machine, and they lack the most fundamental insights into how economies work) rather than explaining exactly what it says and how it defends its ideas.

As a result, this book is not for the thinking, critical reader. Rather, it is baby food.

This is not to say that some of Kling's ideas are not insightful---some are. In particular, he follows closely Hayek's brilliant 1942 AER paper, which is a powerful critique of the notion that planners can replace the price mechanism. He also mirrors Milton Friedman's perceptive critique of Keynesian theory and his pessimism concerning the possibility of active counter-cyclical government spending and taxation policies. These are very useful critiques, and well worth emphasizing.

Kling's critique of macroeconomics is by and large correct. He stresses that macro models predict poorly, which is quite true. Macroeconomic theory is rather a mess. But macro policy should not aim at prediction, and it can be wildly successful with zero capacity to predict. The macro economy is healthy when it has institutions that allow the economy to recover quickly from shocks. The free market economy with unregulated (or lightly regulated) financial institutions does not have this capacity. Kling basically advises that regulatory institutions abandon the quest for promoting stability. The is a fatal error. The advanced economies around the world are developing regulations that promote financial stability (e.g., by requiring transparency, separating industrial and commercial banking, and increasing reserve requirements of large banks).

The underlying problem is that Kling does not give the reader the tools necessary to make informed judgments as the the potential efficacy of proposed interventions. He provides no systematic analysis of either market failures or state failures. There is no discussion of regulating environmental externalities, ensuring consumer safty, regulating interstate commerce, providing public goods, or fostering public health and social security. The reader who leans only what Kling teaches gets only half a story.

Most of Kling's judgments are useful, if one-sided. But some are bizarre and absurd. The notion that inflation is a purely subjective phenomenon unrelated to the money supply is one. The notion that central banks have no effect on the economy is another. If Kling had his way, I suspect, we would still be in the financial crisis set off in 2008.

Free Will
Free Will
by Robert Kane
Edition: Paperback
Price: $44.84
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very clear and balanced presentation of basic material, July 25, 2016
This review is from: Free Will (Paperback)
Kane divides theories of free will into several distinct categories, according to their positions on determinism (D) and the possibility of free will (FW). A third central category discussed throughout the argument is the relationship of D and FW to moral responsibility (MR), but this category does not make it to Kane's categorical positions. A fourth and quite important part of the argument is the relationship of D and FW to consciousness (C). This is never discussed in the book.

Compatiblists (Co) believe D and FW could both be true. Most are soft-determinists who believe both D and FW are true. Incompatiblists (InCo) hold that D and FW cannot both be true. Libertarians (Li) are InCo's who believe FW is true and D is false. Hard determinists (HD) believe that (a) D implies not FW; (b) FW is false, whatever the status of D; and (c) some believe D is true, others are not so sure.

The deepest problem with this analysis is its assumption that FW means one thing and we must decide what that one thing is. But in my studies, I perceive at least three very different FW's. First, there is "scientific FW" (FWscientific) in which the issue of causal determinism is central. FWscientific deals with physics in depth, especially quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Second, there is "social FW" (FWsocial), which deals with the meaning of FW in everyday life and its relationship to moral responsibility. This view is well represented by Strawson and Wallace in the book. Third, there is "ethics-theory FW" (FWethical-theory) which is much like FWsocial, except that instead of asking how people actually use the terms FW and MR, asks how we ought to use these terms.

The problems and confusions emerge when philosophers ignore these distinctions. For instance, I think FWsocial is a purely sociological concept, and understanding it requires studying various cultures and their varied use of the terms. It is silly to criticize an FWsocial theory because it doesn't deal with the question of whether an individual could have behaved differently, and it is completely independent from any position of physical determinism. Thus, I am a Compatibilist with regard to FWsocial. I have absolutely no interest in FWethical-theory. I find FWscientific extremely interesting, but the issue is not dealt with in depth in the book.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 16, 2016 6:53 AM PDT

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