Associated Press jumps the shark

Everybody has been saying that the Internet is killing journalism, but I see it as more of a suicide.

The argument for lowercasing Internet is that it has become wholly generic, like electricity and the telephone. It never was trademarked and is not based on any proper noun,” Tom Kent, AP Standards Editor, said in a statement. “The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the term was new. At one point, we understand, ‘Phonograph’ was capitalized.”

Mr. Kent has become an arbiter of journalistic composition despite being apparently unfamiliar with the concept called “research.” Which explains the death of journalism better than the Internet, or indeed any number of internets.

Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

Somebody (possibly Henson himself) posted Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War over at Kuro5hin in 2006. I had no idea Kuro5hin still existed, and Henson’s paper could use some consideration of group selection, but anyway it’s a worthwhile and controversial read.

It seems to me that if Henson’s basic thesis is right, our current global political situation is not just eerily similar to that of the mid-1930s, it’s actually the same phenomenon – so we better get it under control.

Group dynamics and prototype theories of cognitive neuroscience

Humans are pack animals. They need to gather according to shared traits and then see an enemy of everyone who does not fit.

— Some geeky guy on Slashdot.

Computer scientists are taught classical categorization, which has little correspondence to how our brains actually categorize. The Aristotelian “necessary and sufficient” check-lists of traits, on which we’ve built giant monoliths of computer code (hello, Active Directory) and theory (hello, cladistic phylogeny) are something like the phlogiston theory; a bluntly workable model, that lets you get things done, but also fundamentally wrong, and thus a limitation on what can be understood and predicted.

Research that’s been ongoing since the 1960s or earlier, by people like Eleanor Rosch and Paul Kay, and later George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker, has provided significant amounts of data showing our brains do not assign people to us/them categories because they have a set of traits that we’ve understood and identified. In neurological reality, we assign people to categories based on how closely we think they resemble one or more prototypes, which might be real people (a group leader, typically) or an idealized belief or perception of how men and women should be. The prototype can be fixed (like, say, Jesus) or constantly changing (like, say, a political candidate).

There will always be someone in the group who least resembles the prototype, so there is always a scapegoat available if there’s not enough food or someone needs to take the blame for some unavoidable accident. There may also be anti-prototypes and whoever most resembles that person is less “in the group” than someone who is otherwise the same but lacks these correspondences with the anti-prototypes.

In a strange way this confirms one of Cipolla’s famous “basic laws of human stupidity“; since we’ve evolved a categorization method that mainly serves to quickly identify who gets thrown off the sled when the wolves are catching up, of course there will always be more than enough people to fill that role. If you need a scapegoat, you’ll always be able to identify someone as the stupid person responsible; our brains are biased to work that way.

More evidence for group selection

Kinship selection was always an inadequate explanation for animal behavior observed in the natural world. Relying solely on kin selection to explain the evolution of our consensus reality implicitly depends on making sweeping, ridiculous claims that a lot of really obvious phenomena (like fostering and adoption and homosexuality and cross-species altruism and so forth) are just aberrant behaviors, which do not really need to be accommodated or even comprehensively considered by evolutionary biologists.

The experimental colonies proved more successful if their docile-to-aggressive ratios matched that of the naturally occurring control colonies in the same areas, the researchers report online this week in Nature. The results provide an example of group selection, where individual traits evolve according to the needs of a group.

Paywalled article at Nature here, popular treatment at Science here.

E. O. Wilson on group selection

It’s two years old, but Smithsonian has a nice interview with E.O.Wilson in which he speaks briefly about the group selection heresy. (Out-takes from that interview here).

The way I define it, group selection operates on the fitness, or lack thereof, of the social interactions in the group. In other words, it’s not simply group versus group in that sense but what actions individuals take that affect the group. And that would of course be communication, division of labor and the ability to read others’ intentions, which leads to cooperation.

When it’s an advantage to communicate or cooperate, those genes that promote it are going to be favored in that group if the group is competing with other groups. It gives them superiority over other groups and the selection proceeds at the group level, even as it continues to proceed at the individual level.

I usually give a simplified version of group selection – “the largest group of mutual altruists always wins” – but people generally don’t understand my point. Wilson, unsurprisingly, has a cleaner explanation.

Within groups, selfish individuals win and between groups, altruistic groups beat groups of selfish individuals.