Baba Brinkman says he wants my money

But he doesn’t want it badly enough to actually address the substance of any of my criticisms of his scheme to rid the world of meanness via “an entirely defensible ‘bottom up’ form of eugenics.”

Oh, and I see he’s speculating about my sex life. Real charmer, this guy.

In his non-response response, Brinkman doubles down on his fixation with the fact that, across human populations, males become more likely to be involved in violent crime right around the time we hit puberty:


Another reason I think meanness is partially genetic is the work of evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, which interprets violent crime and murder as adaptive responses to high stress, competitive, dangerous environments. Daly and Wilson’s research is too complex to fully summarize here, but if you’re interested, their argument is captured nicely by this article

… If the forms of meanness [documented by Daly and Wilson] aren’t at least partially caused by evolutionary adaptations, then why are they so much more likely to be perpetrated by young men than young women, starting at exactly the age of puberty, escalating until the average age of parenthood, and then declining until death? How could “culture” possibly explain that pattern completely, when the same trend can be found cross-culturally around the world? [Hyperlinks sic.]

Since it’s a point of contention that I’ve come across before in discussions of human evolution by non-biologists, let me go into a little more detail about why this pattern isn’t even “suggestive” that we could select meanness out of human populations. The problem, ironically, is the very universality of the pattern that Brinkman finds so compelling.

Consider another trait that is invariant across human populations: almost everyone on the planet has five fingers on each hand. Five-fingered hands absolutely have a genetic basis—they’re ultimately the product of the interaction of the regulatory and protein-coding genes that shape our development. But knowing this doesn’t tell us, when we see a man with only four fingers, that there’s a genetic basis to the variation he represents. Environmental conditions can have profound effects on human skeletal morphology, as the thalidomide tragedy illustrates pretty graphically. To test whether genetic variation is responsible for variation in finger number, we’d need to study lots of people with different numbers of fingers, raised in environments that are as similar as possible—not a dataset that shows how common it is to have five fingers.

In the same way, it may well be that there is something programmed into the development of human males that makes us, as a group, more likely to be violent once we’ve reached maturity—and, certainly, the development of boys into men is controlled by our genes. But natural selection (or artificial selection promoted by a nerd-rapper) needs genetic variation in order to operate. The fact that every male becomes more violent after puberty doesn’t tell us anything at all about whether individual differences in the magnitude of that change—differences that can be dramatic, both across and within cultural groups—are due to individual genetic differences. And if you don’t know that, you really can’t claim that you could select for reduced masculine meanness.

This is a somewhat subtle point, but it’s one that most evolutionary biologists would consider pretty basic to understanding how natural selection works. And, personally, I think it’s a point that anyone who wants to educate the public about evolution ought to be able to grasp.

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14 comments on “Baba Brinkman says he wants my money

  1. genobollocks says:

    He didn’t speculate about your sex life.
    You said you sleep with men only, he then said the cultural impact applies to gay men as well.
    He also said “I could respond by lobbying Yoder’s current sex partner(s) to put my slogan into practice, but I don’t know them, so I’ll settle for an old fashioned rebuttal.”
    The speculation here being that he doesn’t know your current sex partners?
    So, because you apparently concocted this “speculation” out of thin-air, I’ll have to agree with his assessment that you feel offended by the “perceived heteronormativity” and now are unable to be balanced.
    Also, I’m sorry, I’ll have to say an evolutionary biologist who isn’t able to keep the concept of heteronormativity apart from “only heterosexual sex matters for sexual selection on the genetic component of meanness” seems worse to me than a rapper who dabbles in evolution, gets the idea mostly right, but not the citations? I mean, you’re presumably not a blank-slatist and you must’ve heard about behaviour genetic studies of psychopathy, disagreeableness. All just a bunch of hogwash of course? But when Kevin Mitchell says the same thing (http://www.wiringthebrain.com/2013/05/the-new-eugenics-same-as-old-eugenics.html) it’s ok?
    You’re worse at conflating the issue of “selected for” doesn’t mean “desirable” (obviously evolution selects against homosexuality, that doesn’t mean homosexuality is bad) than he is at least (he says meanness was selected for, but it’s bad).

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      BB: “We’ve also been showing up in some blogs including this lovely one by Rob Brooks and this extremely nasty one by Jeremy Yoder which I hope earns him a lifetime of celibacy.”

      So, okay, not exactly speculation? Just, ya know, hoping in public that I die alone and unloved. Regardless, not what I’d call the most effective persuasive strategy.

      I’ve written pretty extensively about the evolutionary context of same-sex attraction, and I’ve never said that I object to the idea that not having the kind of sex that leads to babies is at a selective disadvantage. Who’s putting words in whose mouth, here?

      Finally, there are indeed studies that show a genetic contribution to psychopathy—in limited, highly uniform, populations. When we’re talking about the relative contribution of environment versus genetics to the entire range of “meanness” observed in human populations—that is, the proportion of variation explained by each—environment is, hands down, the bigger contributor. And, regardless, the data Brinkman’s citing doesn’t even address this question.

      • genobollocks says:

        I can’t say I had seen that statement, but you still seem pretty easily offended if you take it seriously – joking exaggeration, contextually applicable to the idea he is suggesting (ie you were mean to him, thus he hopes you don’t get laid, I don’t see him say alone and unloved).
        Moreover, saying that he speculated about your sex life gives the impression that this is some homo-hating bigot who challenges your arguments by ad hominem. Which he is not.

        I know you have written extensively about same-sex attraction and evolution. Great work by the way. You still conflated ethics and evolution when you attacked the idea on the grounds of being “heteronormative as hell”. Maybe doesn’t happen to you often, but now you’re angry and it did.

        Your final paragraph touches on interesting issues. However, what you’re questioning is one of the basic problematic assumptions in behaviour (and often molecular) genetics. It is not only hard to grasp for rap-science-popularisers but frequently misunderstood by people in the field. So, maybe this is more the kind of thing to resolve by, you know, explanations and dialogue. Or maybe hate on all those HBD idiots on the web, who get this wrong on a daily basis with far worse moralistic conclusions.
        On the other hand, presumably the people BB talks to mostly choose their mates from this limited, highly uniform population, don’t you think?

      • Jeremy Yoder says:

        Hmm. We’re out of comment-nesting levels. So:

        I’m quite aware that he means the “lifetime of celibacy” thing as a joke—my point is that, if he’s trying to jolly me into some sort of concession, he’s got an odd way of going about it. I’m really far more insulted that he thinks he can win me over by dangling an offer of an interview in the proposed documentary.

        Re: heteronormativity—it’s not heteronormative to talk about hetero-sex in the context of natural selection (duh). But to make it the centerpiece of your outreach project/half-serious plan to make the world a better place? That’s heteronormative. I may not have made that distinction clear, but that’s what I was aiming for.

        (And, on a not-quite-entirely unrelated level, the implication that violence is part of the human condition because straight women haven’t taken enough effort to avoid mating with “mean” men? That’s really not okay.)

        Really, “don’t sleep with mean people” is fine as a tossed-off joke in the context of a broader discussion about evolution. But building it into a whole public awareness campaign is intellectually lazy, at best, and actively contrary to the goal of improving public understanding of evolution at worst.

        And but so, I should give Baba Brinkman a pass because he’s making a common mistake? I made a stink this time round because he’s been making it pretty much as long as I’ve been aware of his work. (Even while, as I noted in the beginning, he does some pretty good work on other topics.) And, call me crazy, but I think people who set themselves up as ambassadors for evolutionary biology have a responsbility to understand what they’re talking about—that, I consider a moral requirement.

      • genobollocks says:

        All these gender and sexuality related objections seem soo far-fetched. He’s fairly clear that sexual selection goes both ways and that he’s aiming for cultural impact too – thus no guilt-tripping of females or straight people. Saying that homo- and heterosexuals play an equal role in a breeding experiment would be simple misinformation. And once more, sorry, but you’re the one messing up the different levels of analysis when you mix up a proposed idea about how meanness stayed around over evolutionary time with a moralistic attack on today’s women’s mate choices. And attacking the wrong guy – I mean even if he missteps somewhere, he will never be as bad as Greg Cochran, subtly trying to get the notion that homosexuality is sick thus wrong back into the public consciousness.

        Consider me a somewhat impartial observer (and not a sockpuppet, wtf) – I certainly won’t give this guy my money to teach Americans about evolution, around here teachers more or less do their job (though I still learned bull ideas like “ritualistic fighting” in school, I don’t think my teachers failed a moral duty because they didn’t have a postdoc-level understanding of evol. biology) and of course the idea is at best trivial.
        Do I think this guy is the best possible ambassador for evolutionary psychology? No, but I doubt he does more harm than good. And he seems responsive to criticism or at least emphasises that he is “peer-reviewed” and listens to the audience.
        You, on the other hand, chose a lazy attack: ironic statements that may only be obvious to people in-the-know, destructive insults (“inane pseudo-science”) that make it hard to react to them in good humour. So, in this case you’re being a pretty bad ambassador yourself (though, again, yes, I’ve read your other stuff and some of it is good work).
        Not everyone educated about evolutionary biology agrees with you (e.g. me and some voices on Twitter). To me it seems like there are legitimate debatable points about this, some of which are honestly interesting (e.g. I would like to see a debate about inferences of heritability in uniform populations and problems with doing the same across countries and continents that doesn’t centre on race and IQ, for once). So, I think he can be excused for incomplete understanding, quite a few specialists are guilty of that too. And you could be part of the solution by clearly explaining why you’re so sure that the main relevant component of meanness is environmental (not that easy, is it?).
        We might learn something interesting (ie that kindness to ingroup members is more about genetic individual differences while meanness to outgroup members, i.e. crime, genocide, meat eating is more of a cultural/genetically universal thing).

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      Yeah, I guess it is rather mean-spirited of me to expect that biology education should involve actual biology.

  2. twachinas says:

    I think I smell a sock puppet or two. One for each foot.

  3. I reckon you’d find the male aggression / homicide literature really interesting Jeremy. Obviously the difficulties of working with humans make the types of evidence a bit less direct than we’d strive for in the lab, but it looks like young male aggression is phenotypically plastic. It responds to sex ratio, income inequality and cues that also trigger fast life history. As a result, so do homicide rates and other aggregate outcomes of male violence.

    You know I’m a supporter of Baba’s. I’m behind him on this campaign, not because I think it is workable – it remains top-down social engineering which is always vulnerable to self-interested defection – but because I think it is an interesting discussion.

    I’m really pleased that Baba is engaging new people in thinking about evolution beyond the tired old crap on Discovery or the BBC. Evolution is way too important to simply hand over to the mumbo-jumbo social constructionists in the way Gould and Lewontin tried to do on our behalf and folks like PZ Myers seem to want to cringingly emulate.

    So I found your retreat into kind of stereotyped pseudo-argument Gould might have employed a bit disappointing. But suggesting that Baba’s proposal mightn’t work due to a lack of heritable variation is like a creationist pinning their hopes on the “God of the gaps” argument. Very very few traits show no genetic variance (Yep, get it about the five fingers). Male violence is far from universal, and seems to be familial and exquisitely sensitive to environmental cues. And that’s before we start looking at syndromes like the Dark Triad. So if I had to bet, I’d place a pretty large one on there being more than enough variation.

    Dissent and disagreement are healthy, and I’m glad to see this one bubbling along. So thanks. I tend to feel we biologists need to leave the safety of our tight academic studies and focus on improving the way we, and popular communicators, use knowledge about evolution to understand our modern lives.

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      Wow. You’ve conceded all the factual points, then reasserted the thesis that they contradict, compared me to a Creationist, and wrapped up with a paen to healthy debate.

      Okay, I have to admit, I have no idea how to respond to this one. You win?

  4. […] his recent blog post, evolutionary biologist and sleeping-with-mean-people advocate Jeremy Yoder tries his best to win […]

  5. […] point—that in his first attempt to shore up the scientific basis of DSWMP, he cited data that has nothing to do with the question at hand—Brinkman chides me for not doing my homework. In fact I’ve acknowledged at every step of […]

  6. […] should note that this is Yoder’s argument now. In his previous post it was about how “natural selection needs genetic variation in order to operate” and […]

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