Tuesday, May 30, 2006

E.O. Wilson now places group selection above kin selection

The idea that group selection (or multilevel selection) could have any validity is sometimes dismissed in rather derogatory terms. It may therefore come as a surprise that one of the main "fathers" of ev psych, Edward O. Wilson, now theorizes that kin selection is NOT the why of the evolution of eusocial insects, as widely accepted, but rather group selection -- and the same seems to hold true for humans.

In an interview in the June 2006 Discover Magazine(pp. 58-61), Wilson says that one reason he now rejects the "standard theory" he helped develop is that there's very little evidence that ants and termites in the early stages of evolution could determine who's a brother, sister, cousin, etc. He says: "They're not acting to favor collateral kin. The new view that I'm proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin."

The key to Wilson's new theory is the relatively recent recognition that genes can be plastic in their expression, in response to different environmental conditions.

"So consider a gene", he writes, "that has placticity such that in one setting an individual carrying that gene becomes reproductive. Maybe this individual was the ant or wasp that arrived first, maybe it was the biggest one, or maybe it was the one to just by accident start laying eggs first. The important thing is that the reproductive role can shift from one colony to next and from one generation to the next. The group forms, and some individuals by circumstance become workers. Their cooperative behavior and the division of labor confer superiority on that group, with that particular gene, over other groups. It could be as simple as that."

Wilson explains that altruism is normally discouraged due to the fitness advantages of individual survival and reproduction, but it could pay for individuals to subvert their own interests to those of a group if the group is able to defend and exploit a very valuable resource (such as a hollow stem that could be a nest site). And once ants and termites became "fully social" they went on to dominate the world.

As for humans, Wilson agrees with Darwin that our evolution was largely a matter of "tribe against tribe" -- which might explain the endemic warfare AND altruism in which humans have engaged since prehistory. "The genes that favor this type of group cohesion would also favor an innate sense of morality and group loyalty. It would explain how so often group or tribe loyalty overrides even family loyalty."

Environment modifies genes

From Discover Magazine online

A Mother's Touch
Good parents can change children's DNA.
By Victor Limjoco
May 12, 2006 | Mind & Brain

Be grateful to your mom. Not only did she carry you around for nine months, but now new research suggests that her mothering style may have triggered genes that help determine your parenting style.

Columbia University neurobiologist Frances Champagne says that previous research across species showed that maternal behaviors are passed down from mother to daughter.

"So if your mother held you a lot, you will hold your infants a lot," Champagne says.

But she wanted to know whether mothering tendencies are passed on through genetics or experience. Her team studied mother rats that spent time licking and grooming their babies, and others that didn't.

As she wrote in the journal "Endocrinology," without enough licking and grooming, female rats had certain genes turn off, preventing the production of certain hormones key to future mothering behaviors, including estrogen and oxytocin, also known as the love hormone.

Licked rats had a higher production of those hormones, which, in turn, affected behavior when these baby rats became mothers themselves. Champagne says that this combination, genes and environment, pass maternal behaviors from generation to generation.

Champagne notes that maternal behavior is complex and that a mother's touch is just one part of a larger puzzle. But she says that these results highlight the need for bonding early in life. "Mothers are incredibly important," she says. "The quality of care that they can provide to infants is crucial for shaping infant development. And will have consequences for the next generation of mothers and infants."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Rapid gene change via behavior

Individuals with mutations in the tumor suppressor gene PTEN are prone not only to tumors but also to brain disorders, including macrocephaly (enlarged head circumference), seizures and mental retardation. Although PTEN mutations have been reported in autistic patients with macrocephaly, it is not clear whether there is a causal link between this gene and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Writing in Neuron, Chang-Hyuk Kwon and colleagues provide direct evidence that inactivation of Pten in mice results in neuropathological changes as well as abnormalities in social interaction.

Using several behavioral models, the researchers show that the Pten-mutant mice have deficits in social learning and interaction. For example, the mutant animals spent less time investigating the social target (a new mouse) compared with controls. When presented with a choice between the social target and an inaminate object, the Pten mutants spent similar amounts of time interacting with both. When the social target was removed and later re-introduced, the mutant mice, unlike their normal counterparts, did not reduce their interaction with it, indicating that they might have impaired social learning.

Our genes, like our environment, merely increases probabilities of certain states of affairs or behaviors without determining anything specific.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Kwame Anthony Appiah on Cosmopolitanism

The fear is that the values and images of western mass culture, like some invasive weed, are threatening to choke out the world’s native flora.

The right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals – not nations, tribes or ‘people’ – as the proper object of moral concern. It doesn’t much matter what we call such a creed, but in homage to Diogenes, the fourth-century Greek Cynic and the first philosopher to call himself a ‘citizen of the world’, we could call it cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitans take cultural difference seriously, because they take choices individuals make seriously. But because difference is not the only thing that concerns them, they suspect that many of globalisation’s cultural critics are aiming at the wrong targets....

Yes, globalisation can produce homogeneity. But globalisation is also a threat to homogeneity.That prospect is unsettling for some people (just as it is exciting for others)....

Urbanity: the big, polyglot, diverse world of the city.

Human variety matters, cosmopolitans think, because people are entitled to options. What John Stuart Mill said over a century ago in On Liberty about diversity within a society serves just as well as an argument for variety across the globe: “If it were only that people have diversities of taste, that is reason enough for not attempting to shape them all after one model. But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can exist in the same physical, atmosphere and climate. The same things which are helps to one person towards the cultivation of his higher nature, are hindrances to another… Unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.”

The textiles most people think of as traditional West African cloths are known as Java prints; they arrived in the 19th century with the Javanese batiks sold, and often milled, by the Dutch. The traditional garb of Herero women in Nambia derives from the attire of 19th-century German missionaries, though it is still unmistakably Herero, not least because the fabrics used have a distinctly un-Lutheran range of colours. And so with our [Ghanan] kente cloth: the silk was always imported, traded by Europeans, produced in Asia. This tradition was once an innovation. Should we reject it for that reason as untraditional? How far back must one go? Should we condemn the young men and women of the University of Science and Technology, a few miles outside Kumasi, who wear European-style gowns for graduation, lined with strips? Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.

From Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers W.W. Norton Jan 2006

Comment from Izaak Van Gaalen: "Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah attempts to articulate an ethical theory that applies to our current age of globalization. Taking as his starting point the writings of Diogenes, the 4th century Greek Cynic philosopher, Appiah develops a philosophy of cosmopolitanism modeled on Diogenes' "citizen of the world." A citizen of the world regards the individual rather than family, tribe, or nation as the primary focus of ethical agency. And that it is important to recognize that individuals are bound by belief systems and cultures that are not only different but may also be opposed to their own. Cosmopolitanism is an ethics somewhere between relativism and universalism that can build a working relationship between adherents of different belief systems enabling coexistance but not necessarily agreement.

This is not as easy as it sounds; in fact, it doesn't even sound easy. Cosmopolitanism is, in addition to Diogenes legacy, a product of the Enlightenment in that it celebrates diversity and multiculturalism; it is tolerant of diverse moralities. However, it is intolerant of those who would deny tolerance of this diversity or plurality. This is the central dilemma of cosmopolitanism. It attempts to reconcile liberal universal values with the values of those who disagree with them. Cosmopolitanism believes in the basic freedoms, including freedom of speech but it will curb any speech that calls for restricting that freedom.

'Cosmopolitans don't insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don't have all the answers. They're humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can't learn from them.'"

Comment from David E. McClean: "There is, so far, no better or more mature book on moral cosmopolitanism than Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. In it, Appiah makes plain, by well-crafted appeals to the reader's good sense that are replete with ethnographic examples and real-world insights, what romantics and theologians have been telling us for ages: There is but a hair's breadth of difference between us; a tiny space that we can fill with causes for consternation and hatred, or with salutary joy at considering that difference. This Appiah does without in any way suggesting that there can ever be an end to the moral and cultural tensions that those differences do and must invite. He sketches the tenable cosmopolitanism we have been waiting for, and he parts company with the sentimentalist versions that remain - and should remain - in the shallow end of the pool.

Appiah, here as elsewhere (The Ethics of Identity), marvels that so many intellectuals have distorted the truth about the key insights of cosmopolitans, and he takes them to task. These have argued that cosmopolitanism contains an incredible and/or dangerous set of normative proposals and disregards the "facts" of human nature (that we are an insular species, with a territoriality that is red in tooth and claw). Appiah deftly replies that it is the cultural conservative, the jejune jingoist or nationalist, the duped hyper-contextualist, whose view of the world and of human nature is distorted, for the history of human social, cultural and even sexual intercourse is replete with cross-pollinations of language, religion, art, dress, rites, metaphysical outlooks, and progeny, all bespeaking an enormous aptitude for cooperation, bonding and friendship. We are an inter-cultural, intertwined, and interdependent species, just like every other on the planet. The view of ourselves as culturally isolated is the view that bears the burden of proof. It is, in fact, demonstrably false.

Appiah laments that so many philosophers and intellectuals, adopting a bad historicism, have argued, falsely, that we humans can only see the world up to the point of our own contextual "walls." He joins many - George Lakoff, Martha Nussbaum, William Sloane Coffin, Mohandis K. Gandhi, R.W. Emerson - in arguing that the greater truth of our humanity is our ability to imaginatively think new thoughts, to reconsider plans of life, to fashion new worlds of possibility, while acknowledging that each of us has a home that we should cherish, improve, perfect, and defend.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Tom Wolfe on writing

Robert Cole [Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities]: Let me turn to your work. You've described yourself as a chronicler. What is that exactly?

Wolfe: Balzac enjoyed saying, "I am the secretary of French society," meaning a secretary who takes notes, not like the Secretary of Labor or something . . . He keeps tabs on what is happening in society, in the sense of social mores as well as just "society" with a small s. If I'm working well, I'm first and foremost bringing the news.

That was Nietzsche's expression when he said "God is dead." He said this is not a manifesto for atheism. He said, I'm just bringing you the news. I'm bringing you the news of the biggest event in modern history. God is dead, by which he meant, of course, that educated people were beginning to have no faith in God any longer. This was the 1880s. He predicted that in the twentieth century would come the rise of "barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods," leading to "wars such as have never been fought before." In other words, he predicted Nazism, Communism, and the world wars. Not bad, no matter what anybody thinks about his overarching take on life. In the twenty-first century, he said, would come the total collapse of all values.

He said if that happens, it will be worse than the world wars. He said the psychological devastation when people come to the point where they believe there is absolutely no meaning to life will be horrifying

Friday, May 12, 2006

Oochy woochy coochy coo

May 11th 2006
From The Economist
Women can read men like books

A GROUP of scientists has discovered that women are attracted to men who are fond of children. In years gone by, that announcement might have qualified for one of the late Senator William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards for pointless scientific research—except that what this particular group of scientists has shown is that women can tell who is and is not fond of children just by looking at their faces.

The members of the group in question, led by James Roney of the University of California, Santa Barbara, are part of the revival of a science that once dared not speak its name—physiognomy. In the late 18th century, and during most of the 19th, it was believed that the shape of a person's head could tell you something about his character. Such deterministic thoughts fell out of favour during the 20th century. Most behavioural scientists thought that environment, not biology, shaped behaviour, and even those who did not could not see how the shape of the head or features of the face could possibly be relevant. What Dr Roney and his colleagues have found is that they are.
Their 39 male subjects, selected from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, were shown 20 pairs of pictures, each depicting an adult and an infant. They were asked to signify their preference for either the adult or the child. Some reported no interest in the child at all. The rest expressed a range of interest, including a few who always preferred the pictures of infants. The men also provided saliva swabs to assess their testosterone levels. The researchers then took digital photographs of the men and doctored the images so that their hairstyles were obscured, and could not affect the judgments of the female subjects.

These were a group of 29 women, from equally diverse backgrounds, who were shown the photographs. They were asked to rate the men according to whether they thought the men liked children, and whether those men appeared masculine and physically attractive. They were also asked to say which men they preferred for short-term and which for long-term relationships. The results, which have just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, confirm that women are very good at reading faces.

The first part of the study provided confirmation of work done previously by other groups, using different methods. When asked to rate the men's masculinity, the women agreed on who was top and who was bottom, and their rankings correlated with the testosterone levels from the swabs. What was novel was that when asked to rate the men's liking of children from the photographs, they ranked them in the same order as the researchers had done from the interest the men themselves had shown in pictures of infants.

In physiognomic terms, the first result is easy to explain. Testosterone has multiple effects. When its production rises during puberty, it causes both body and mind to be reshaped, so it is little surprise that the former (square jaws and so on) reflect the latter (lust). But Dr Roney and his colleagues were unable to quantify what it was about the faces of the baby-friendly that signalled this attitude to women.

When asked with whom they would prefer to have a short-term relationship, women tended to pick the high-testosterone males. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, since testosterone suppresses the immune system. Like the proverbial peacock's tail, an excess of testosterone suggests that an individual must have particularly disease-resistant genes in order to compensate. These make desirable partners for a woman's own genes in her children. The problem with testosterone-fuelled males is that they are less likely to remain faithful to their partners.

By contrast, men who show an interest in children are also likely to make good partners, because they will care for their offspring. The study showed that women prefer these men for long-term relationships. Again, no surprise.

The surprise is this: some men were perceived both as masculine and as interested in children. From an evolutionary point of view, a trade-off between the two would have been predicted. That would produce what is known as an evolutionarily stable strategy in which the child-loving men father fewer babies to start with, but see as many live to maturity because they help to raise them rather than deserting the mothers. From the female point of view, the existence of men who are both hunky and child-friendly might seem too good to be true. For the men involved, it certainly seems like a lot of hard work.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The importance of delayed gratification

Self Control is the Key to Success

AROUND 1970, psychologist Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn't ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

In videos of the experiment, you can see the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes -- desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows. Their performance varied widely. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.

The Mischel experiments are worth noting because people in the policy world spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve education, how to reduce poverty, how to make the most of the nation's human capital. But when policymakers address these problems, they come up with structural remedies: reduce class sizes, create more charter schools, increase teacher pay, mandate universal day care and try vouchers.

The results of these structural reforms are almost always disappointingly modest. Yet policymakers rarely ever probe deeper into problems and ask the core questions, such as how do we get people to master the sort of self-control that leads to success? To ask that question is to leave the policymakers' comfort zone -- which is the world of inputs and outputs, appropriations and bureaucratic reform -- and to enter the murky world of psychology and human nature....

If you're a policymaker and you are not talking about core psychological traits such as delayed gratification skills, then you're just dancing around with proxy issues. The research we do have on delayed gratification tells us that differences in self-control skills are deeply rooted but also malleable. Differences in the ability to focus attention and exercise control emerge very early, perhaps as soon as nine months. But there is no consensus on how much of the ability to exercise self-control is hereditary and how much is environmental....

What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of "The Happiness Hypothesis," is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off -- and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it.

This pattern would be too obvious to mention if it weren't so largely ignored by educators and policymakers. Somehow we've entered a world in which we obsess over structural reforms and standardized tests, but skirt around the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success. Mischel tried to interest New York schools in programs based on his research. Needless to say, he found almost no takers.

Race and War

White Guilt and the Western Past
Why is America so delicate with the enemy?

Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Wall Street Journal Online

There is something rather odd in the way America has come to fight its wars since World War II.

For one thing, it is now unimaginable that we would use anything approaching the full measure of our military power (the nuclear option aside) in the wars we fight. And this seems only reasonable given the relative weakness of our Third World enemies in Vietnam and in the Middle East. But the fact is that we lost in Vietnam, and today, despite our vast power, we are only slogging along--if admirably--in Iraq against a hit-and-run insurgency that cannot stop us even as we seem unable to stop it. Yet no one--including, very likely, the insurgents themselves--believes that America lacks the raw power to defeat this insurgency if it wants to. So clearly it is America that determines the scale of this war. It is America, in fact, that fights so as to make a little room for an insurgency.

Certainly since Vietnam, America has increasingly practiced a policy of minimalism and restraint in war. And now this unacknowledged policy, which always makes a space for the enemy, has us in another long and rather passionless war against a weak enemy.

Why this new minimalism in war?

It began, I believe, in a late-20th-century event that transformed the world more profoundly than the collapse of communism: the world-wide collapse of white supremacy as a source of moral authority, political legitimacy and even sovereignty. This idea had organized the entire world, divided up its resources, imposed the nation-state system across the globe, and delivered the majority of the world's population into servitude and oppression. After World War II, revolutions across the globe, from India to Algeria and from Indonesia to the American civil rights revolution, defeated the authority inherent in white supremacy, if not the idea itself. And this defeat exacted a price: the West was left stigmatized by its sins. Today, the white West--like Germany after the Nazi defeat--lives in a kind of secular penitence in which the slightest echo of past sins brings down withering condemnation. There is now a cloud over white skin where there once was unquestioned authority.

I call this white guilt not because it is a guilt of conscience but because people stigmatized with moral crimes--here racism and imperialism--lack moral authority and so act guiltily whether they feel guilt or not.

They struggle, above all else, to dissociate themselves from the past sins they are stigmatized with. When they behave in ways that invoke the memory of those sins, they must labor to prove that they have not relapsed into their group's former sinfulness. So when America--the greatest embodiment of Western power--goes to war in Third World Iraq, it must also labor to dissociate that action from the great Western sin of imperialism. Thus, in Iraq we are in two wars, one against an insurgency and another against the past--two fronts, two victories to win, one military, the other a victory of dissociation.

The collapse of white supremacy--and the resulting white guilt--introduced a new mechanism of power into the world: stigmatization with the evil of the Western past. And this stigmatization is power because it affects the terms of legitimacy for Western nations and for their actions in the world. In Iraq, America is fighting as much for the legitimacy of its war effort as for victory in war. In fact, legitimacy may be the more important goal. If a military victory makes us look like an imperialist nation bent on occupying and raping the resources of a poor brown nation, then victory would mean less because it would have no legitimacy. Europe would scorn. Conversely, if America suffered a military loss in Iraq but in so doing dispelled the imperialist stigma, the loss would be seen as a necessary sacrifice made to restore our nation's legitimacy. Europe's halls of internationalism would suddenly open to us.

Because dissociation from the racist and imperialist stigma is so tied to legitimacy in this age of white guilt, America's act of going to war can have legitimacy only if it seems to be an act of social work--something that uplifts and transforms the poor brown nation (thus dissociating us from the white exploitations of old). So our war effort in Iraq is shrouded in a new language of social work in which democracy is cast as an instrument of social transformation bringing new institutions, new relations between men and women, new ideas of individual autonomy, new and more open forms of education, new ways of overcoming poverty--war as the Great Society. This does not mean that President Bush is insincere in his desire to bring democracy to Iraq, nor is it to say that democracy won't ultimately be socially transformative in Iraq. It's just that today the United States cannot go to war in the Third World simply to defeat a dangerous enemy.

White guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems--even the tyrannies they live under--were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. We must "understand" and pity our enemy even as we fight him. And, though Islamic extremism is one of the most pernicious forms of evil opportunism that has ever existed, we have felt compelled to fight it with an almost managerial minimalism that shows us to be beyond the passions of war--and thus well dissociated from the avariciousness of the white supremacist past.

Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to be "good," in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. (People as seemingly disparate as President Jacques Chirac and the Rev. Al Sharpton are devoted pursuers of the moral high ground to be had in anti-Americanism.) This formula is the most dependable source of power for today's international left. Virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism. And it is all the more appealing since, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort--only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.

Today words like "power" and "victory" are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, "might" can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression. But, in reality, military victory is also the victory of one idea and the defeat of another. Only American victory in Iraq defeats the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today's atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so.

America and the broader West are now going through a rather tender era, a time when Western societies have very little defense against the moral accusations that come from their own left wings and from those vast stretches of nonwhite humanity that were once so disregarded.

Europeans are utterly confounded by the swelling Muslim populations in their midst. America has run from its own mounting immigration problem for decades, and even today, after finally taking up the issue, our government seems entirely flummoxed. White guilt is a vacuum of moral authority visited on the present by the shames of the past. In the abstract it seems a slight thing, almost irrelevant, an unconvincing proposition. Yet a society as enormously powerful as America lacks the authority to ask its most brilliant, wealthy and superbly educated minority students to compete freely for college admission with poor whites who lack all these things. Just can't do it.

Whether the problem is race relations, education, immigration or war, white guilt imposes so much minimalism and restraint that our worst problems tend to linger and deepen. Our leaders work within a double bind. If they do what is truly necessary to solve a problem--win a war, fix immigration--they lose legitimacy.

To maintain their legitimacy, they practice the minimalism that makes problems linger. What but minimalism is left when you are running from stigmatization as a "unilateralist cowboy"? And where is the will to truly regulate the southern border when those who ask for this are slimed as bigots? This is how white guilt defines what is possible in America. You go at a problem until you meet stigmatization, then you retreat into minimalism.

Possibly white guilt's worst effect is that it does not permit whites--and nonwhites--to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.

This is a fact that must be integrated into our public life--absorbed as new history--so that America can once again feel the moral authority to seriously tackle its most profound problems. Then, if we decide to go to war, it can be with enough ferocity to win.

Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is author, most recently, of "White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era," published this week by HarperCollins.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Monday » May 8 » 2006

On the 150th birthday of Sigmund Freud, Roger Scruton explains why Freud's improbable theories still dominate the way we think about our minds

Roger Scruton
The Spectator
Saturday, May 06, 2006

Freud was born 150 years ago today, on May 6, 1856, the same year that Richard Wagner finished work on his opera Die Walkure, a work that dramatizes all the themes, from dreams to incest, that were to fascinate Freud.

There is no doubt in my mind that it was Wagner, not Freud, who got things right, and that a knowledge of Wagner's masterpiece casts serious doubts on Freud's claims to originality. However, Freud's reputation remains as great today as it was in my youth, when the Kleinians, the Jungians and the Adlerians were disputing his legacy. The idea of sexual repression has entered the culture, as has the doctrine (not one of Freud's) that repression is harmful. It is almost universally assumed that the mind has a large unconscious component, that the sex drive (the "libido") is the motive of our primary attachments, and that we all have "complexes" instilled in childhood according to the archetypal patterns proposed by Freud. And every now and then some commentator will tell us that these assumptions are not merely true but also the proven results of a genuine science.

Freud, who assumed the mask of the objective observer, who presented his results as the inescapable conclusions of arduous empirical study, who repeatedly claimed that his psychological discoveries would one day be grounded in biology, is now widely accepted at mask-value. Freud the artist, Freud the literary critic, Freud the high priest of manipulation, Freud the sex-obsessed and cold-blooded enemy of womankind are rarely put on display, though all those personae lie behind the mask, and each is much closer to the original inspiration than the Freud to whom psychology now defers.

What evidence does Freud adduce for the existence of the Oedipus complex? A play by Sophocles, dealing with a situation so strange that it must be treated as an exception. What evidence does he adduce for the theory of infant sexuality? The sight of "a baby sinking back satiated at the breast," which is a self-evident "prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life." It was simply obvious to Freud that infantile sexuality exists and that it passes through three stages -- oral, anal and genital -- each stage characterized by its defining "erogenous zone." Yet he defines the erogenous zones so widely that every body part, even the eye, is included. Someone must have reminded him that not all children are boys; but he had an easy way with his critics, which was to throw the Greeks at them. Thus was born the Electra complex, conjured from a thigh-bone of Oedipus. Faced by a patient with a dream that seemed to refute his wish-fulfilment theory, Freud retorted that the dream fulfilled the patient's wish to refute the theory. At every point where scientific method might impose its logic on the argument, Freud stepped sideways into metaphor, asserting with dogmatic intransigence that this is how things are because this is how they must be.

Freud's scientistic aspect is enhanced for the English reader by James Strachey's absurd translation. To render Das Ich, Das Uber-Ich and Das Es as Ego, Superego and Id is to give a medicine-chest aspect to these idioms, even though they are fairly straightforward borrowings from German philosophy. When Freud tells us that the libido "enters" or "occupies" (besetze) some object, Strachey tells us that it "cathects" that thing, and "cathexis" then spreads across the page like a dangerous disease. It is very hard for the reader to reach through this armoured idiom to the often poetic, and invariably fanciful, description of the human being that Freud was constructing.

It is especially hard to recognize the true nature of Freud's genius, which lay not in his theories, which are bunkum, or in his practice, which was inspired quackery, but in his astonishment. Freud saw mysteries where others saw facts. He recognized that the influence of parents on their children ran through deep and hidden channels, that it showed itself in every aspect of their future lives, and in no matter more fatefully than that of sexual desire. He pondered the mysteries of guilt, anxiety and mourning and tried to fathom them. He was amazed by both jokes and dreams, and offered a crazy diagnosis of their meaning. Where others saw muddle and eccentricity, he imagined diseases of the soul and set out to vanquish them. And in his case studies he presented unforgettable portraits of wrecked human beings, about whose flailing carcasses he patrolled like a jackal, tearing off pieces and holding them up to the light, which he imagined to be a light of science, but which was in fact a light of the imagination, transfiguring all on which it fell.

Freud suffered from the "charm of disenchantment." Like Marx he was irresistibly drawn to explanations that demean us, and which turn our world view upside down -- or set it, as Marx insisted, "on its feet." This is apparent in Freud's theory of the "incest taboo," which begins from a characteristic gesture of astonishment. Why is it that incest is not just avoided but forbidden?

What explains the horror and the sense of pollution that caused Jocasta to hang herself and Oedipus to stab out his eyes? Freud leaps at once to his conclusion: that which is forbidden is also desired. And the horror is needed because the desire is great. If it is so great, it must be there in all of us, repressed but simmering, seeking the channels through which to flow in some disguised but virulent version.

A real scientist, observing the facts, would draw the opposite conclusion. Incest arouses horror not because we desire it but because we don't. Why don't we? First, because incest undermines the relationships on which the home is built, and so impedes the transfer of social capital; second, because communities that permit incest pay a genetic price. The horror is there because societies that lack it have all died out. The Freudian story is a fiction, believed not because of its explanatory power but because of its charm. We are thrilled by disenchantment, which seems to set us free from social norms. We watch with fascination as our ideals are punctured, and our gods brought down to Earth. After this Gotterdammerung, we imagine, there will be a bleak but permissive dawn.

Even today, therefore, people are drawn to the most disenchanting of Freud's theories, which is the theory of infantile sexuality. And once again the theory is upside down. Children develop from blobs of needy flesh to rational adults, and their sexuality develops with them. Only with puberty does it begin to focus on the Other, since only then can sexual desire be integrated into personal life. Were it otherwise, then chaos would ensue, both in the home and in the reproductive potential of the community.

Pedophilia horrifies us; but societies without the horror have all died out. Freud simply cannot accept that kind of explanation. Instead of reading childish sexuality forward into its mature realization in adult desire, he reads adult desire backwards, into the naive titillations of the child. By thus polluting the image of childhood he casts a spell over his readers. This is how it must be, he implies; and as with the theory of incest, we acquiesce in fascination as our last picture of innocence is destroyed. It is an interesting feature of Freud that he devised a comprehensive answer to his skeptical critics, and that is psychoanalysis. Once you are on the couch the analyst has ways of changing your mind; you are no longer criticizing the theory but resisting it.

You have become a case for treatment, and the answer to your problem is not a refutation but a cure. And the cure goes on for ever, since there was no disease.

© National Post 2006

Copyright © 2006 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Resilience and genes

The Question of Resilience


Excerpts from New York Times Magazine article April 30, 2006

In recent years, biological science has proposed a new paradigm. The latest research shows that resilience can best be understood as an interplay between particular genes and environment — GxE, in the lingo of the field. Researchers are discovering that a particular variation of a gene can help promote resilience in the people who have it, acting as a buffer against the ruinous effects of adversity. In the absence of an adverse environment, however, the gene doesn't express itself in this way. It drops out of the psychological picture. "We now have well-replicated findings showing that genes play a major role in influencing people's responses to adverse environments," says Sir Michael Rutter, a leading British psychiatrist ...

Scientists have determined that 5-HTT is critical for the regulation of serotonin to the brain. Proper regulation of serotonin helps promote well-being and protects against depression in response to trauma or stress. In humans, each 5-HTT gene has two alleles, and each allele occurs in either a short or a long version. Scientists are still figuring out how the short allele affects serotonin delivery, but it seems that people with at least one short 5-HTT allele are more prone to depression. And since depression is associated with unemployment, struggling relationships, poor health and substance abuse, the short allele could contribute to a life going awry....

In their 2003 study, Caspi and Moffitt looked at 847 New Zealand adults and found a link between having at least one short 5-HTT allele and elevated rates of depression for people who had been mistreated as children or experienced several "life stresses" — defined as major setbacks with jobs, housing, relationships, health and money. Having two short alleles made it highly likely that people who had been mistreated or exposed to unhinging stress would suffer depression. One short allele posed a moderate risk of depression in these circumstances. Two long alleles, on the other hand, gave their carriers a good chance of bouncing back under negative circumstances. ....

It seems that only under dire circumstances — abuse, the strife of war, chronic stress — is the gene triggered. Eventually scientists hope to understand more about other genes that most likely play a role like 5-HTT's....

In an ongoing study, Suomi has found that motherless, peer-raised monkeys who have a copy of the short 5-HTT allele are more likely to experience fear, panic and aggression (accompanied by low levels of serotonin acid in spinal fluid) when a strange monkey in a cage is placed next to them. Motherless, peer-raised monkeys with two long alleles, on the other hand, are more likely to take the presence of the stranger in stride, as mother-raised monkeys do....

Having "good support" isn't just a question of good luck. Researchers have found that children who are resilient are skillful at creating beneficial relationships with adults, and those relationships in turn contribute to the children's resilience....

Eventually, a designer drug might succeed in mimicking precisely what the long-allele variation of 5-HTT does to foster resilience. "A magic drug down the line — yes, that's the whole point of understanding the neurological mechanisms," Joan Kaufman says....

Launching myself into the blogoshere

Testing one, two, three...three, two, one, we have lift off. Here I am with my chum, Bacchus.