About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Massimo's picks

* Bill Maher on how the Democrats have moved to the right and the right has moved into a mental hospital...

* Newskeek's article on evolutionary psychology, featuring an interview with yours truly.

* Paul Krugman on why the so-called "centrist" Democratic senators who are trying to kill health care reform are anything but centrists...

* Tony Judt on why we should not allow Israel to get away with making a (fictional) distinction between legal and illegal settlements in Palestine.

* Thoughtful editorial by cosmologist Lawrence Krauss on why atheism is still (likely) the best bet for scientists.

* What happens when real paleontologists do a field trip at the creation museum in Kentucky...

* Our early ancestors relied more on smell than sight, and the implications for human evolution.

* Did Neanderthals go extinct because we ate them? A food tale from our distant past.


  1. "on how the Democrats have moved to the right and the right has moved into a mental hospital..."

    A House Republican from Georgia said on the Floor yesterday that global warming is a hoax. He got applause. Glenn Beck said that cap and trade is treasonous. Another Rep. from Ga. said that the Democratic leadership is like the "forces of darkness" in Iran and North Koreas.

    It's becoming difficult to accurately describe the Republican party and its mouth pieces in the media without using insulting terms such as "crazy, stupid, idiotic, kook" etc.

  2. Love your blog... just added it to my RSS.

    A video I just produced may be of interest to you and your readers. I am undertaking a rewrite of the Bible. Obviously, a shorter version... ; )

    This chapter, Genesis 1, is found on my YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/rationalmuscle

    The idea is simple: Could a true divine being (or merely superior being) have done a better job of relaying information that only a superior intelligence would have known without compromising the myth, poetry and education levels of bronze-age tribesmen?

    I say, absolutely.


    Genesis, Book One, Chapter 1
    Revised Reality Version

    1. In the beginning God brought forth the universe.

    2. And God said to all things, "Expand with might, and form order!" And it was so. And thus began the stars and their light, more numerous than the sands of the ocean, and their kindred planets. And God saw the universe and said, "It is good."

    3. And God placed his hand upon the Earth and positioned it in a special place among the planets which circle the sun, and from this the sky was born. God also pinched the Earth, and from it formed the moon. And God said, "Let the moon reflect the light of the sun at night, so darkness may have its companion." And it was so.

    4. And God watched as the Earth flourished. Waters did arise, and great masses of land were separated to form the many lands. God saw this, and said, "It is good."

    5. Then God sparked the waters and brought forth life, from the smallest to the greatest. And from this life God molded all life -- from great beasts of the distant past to the livestock of our days. All things, God did form from the waters. But God wanted a special life to be aware of His beauty and power.

    6. So God created a division of the land and weather so that upon the face of the earth and from the lesser creatures man might arise. And God watched them both, man and woman, throughout the generations, patiently waiting for their time of readiness.

    7. And it came to pass that God saw that man and woman were ready to commune with Him. So God called to his first-chosen, Adam, and to his wife Eve, and said, "Behold, I am the LORD thy God. I have formed you from the waters and the unseen. And now, I shall give you the gift of my Spirit, which shall become your soul. You shall knowest me as I knowest you."

    8. And Adam and Eve became the first with Spirit and the first to know God. And God saw this and said, "It is good."

    © 2009 RationalMuscle



  3. Massimo, do you agree with what was written in the article "Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?"? I found it overly critical of evo-psy, the field does have its many problems with being scientifically accurate but that particular article seemed to be attacking the straw-man genetic determinism, not evo-psy.

    I also found statements such as this

    "Critics of evo psych do not doubt that men and women are wired to become jealous. A radar for infidelity would indeed be adaptive. But the evidence points toward something gender-neutral. Men and women have both evolved the ability to distinguish between behavior that portends abandonment and behavior that does not, and to get upset only at the former. Which behavior is which depends on the society."

    misleading in the article. The above statement could have been made by an evo-psy. So why is it that such statements like that are ok with the author of the editorial but not others made by evo-psy? Even I would be skeptical of the claim made in that statement without adequate evidence to back it up it could turn out to be just one of Gould's spandrels.

  4. I certainly felt the same way, Aruman. While I found that article to be the most interesting, information-dense, and thought provoking of the bunch, to me it seemed as though to some extent the author gave into the default (and, frankly, lazy) "Winner Take All," "There Can Be Only One" narrative -- which is contrary to the idea of science, itself.

    While I feel I am personally able to parse the info in a way that culls out the chaff and helps diverse ideas intercombine and flourish in my own noggin, the average layman without any formal scientific training has probably not developed these critical thinking skills. By emphasizing (and exaggerating) the notion that new information is turning old hypotheses on their heads, the article seemed to be subtly castigating the scientific method, even though the very strength of science is expressed by finding better explanations than we had before.

    The details of the article are compelling in their own right, but I would nevertheless rather the public walk away with a solid understanding of the principles of science itself than know the particulars of the theories of the moment.

  5. Yes, I agree that the Newsweek article goes a bit too far (then again, I didn't write it, I was just interviewed for it).

    Still, the main point to undertand is that much of evopsych as practiced is not science for the very good reason that their scenarios -- while plausible, and in some cases almost certainly correct -- are not testable empirically.

    I have written extensively on this in my book, Making Sense of Evolution. Similar arguments have been made in:

    Kaplan, JM. 2002. Historical Evidence and Human Adaptations. Philosophy of Science 69(S3):294-304.

  6. "the main point to undertand is that much of evopsych as practiced is not science for the very good reason that their scenarios -- while plausible, and in some cases almost certainly correct -- are not testable empirically."

    I agree, although again I don't think that was the main point presented in the article. But 'nuff said about that.

    What this comment made me think of was a chapter in Guns, Germs, and Steel that deals with Polynesia. The author rightly states that history as studied does not constitute a science because experiments can't be controlled or repeated, but he does a pretty good job of navigating the gulf between the two in his examination of the island cultures of Polynesia. He reasons that, since these thousands of islands were all colonized from the same base population in Southeast Asia during a time frame of relative cultural stability, each of the island cultures that emerged can be seen as another iteration of an experiment in geoanthropology (meaning, how geology acts as a determinative factor in culture).

    We might, through careful sampling and consideration of the information we do have access to, find novel ways to recast many of evopsych's hypotheses to render them testable, and even integrable (instead of incompatible, as the article seems to suggest) with some of the newer ideas being floated these days. That may require limiting their purview to microevolution rather than macroevolution, or even just cultural evolution (without anchoring them to genetics) - which actually appears to be what some of the studies cited in the article have actually done.

    The point being, most of the grand, sweeping evopsych as popularly presented may be strong on sexy and weak on science, but it can really be very solid when approached incrementally.

  7. Massimo,

    Your site is like an oasis for the thirsty intellectual traveller.

    I was struck by the evo-psych article also. As intellectual fashions, it probably has run its course. The reductionist attempt to ascribe everything to adaptation has fizzled out.

    But evo-psych probably served a purpose and not all of it will be wasted. At lest we will not be going back to the "Blank Slate" beloved by the social macro-engineers.

  8. Toby,

    your kind words are much appreciated. Yes, I would hope that our views on "human nature" will become a bit more nuanced and include a good mixture of nature and nurture: no simplistic genetic determinism, no (equally simplistic) environmental determinism.

  9. At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo science cartoons!


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