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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

June 8, 2009 | 28 Comments

The Noble Savage Altruistic Warrior

Constant Battles War Before Civilization

There is a charming myth among idealists that before industrialization and its accoutrements, such as patriarchy and pollution, mankind lived an entirely peaceful existence. That is, there was no war.

Man was a “noble savage” before the military-industrial complex reared its warheads. The mealy philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while not originating the term, promulgated the belief that civilization corrupts. No cities, no swords.

Rousseau was a Christian and he had, had he not?, scriptural support for his view. But he never had history on his side. Nor do his modern contemporaries who claim that humans lived “in harmony” with nature, and were kind and tolerant of one another, and claimed no private property. To idealists, war is a modern invention purely the result of capitalism.

This view has always been nuts because there has never been evidence that mankind was ever peaceful. Idealists never tried refuting arguments against their position. The noble savage was simply true, and so obviously true that history need not be consulted. So history was ignored.

But not by Steven Le Blanc and Katherine Register who wrote Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, and Lawrence Keeley who wrote War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (the subtitle trend says a lot). These authors took on the tedious and depressing job of showing that, yes, mankind has a recalcitrant violent streak and rarely passes an opportunity to bonk a perceived enemy on the head for even the slightest provocation.

The empirical fact of human belligerence, besides destroying communistic idealism, is also seemingly at war with altruism and the science of evolution. Why would a soldier fight and risk losing his selfish genes? Why would another leap onto a grenade? We know Rousseau’s (Christian) answer, but the evolutionist is in a pickle. He wants to say “altruism”, but then he knows altruism is a “problem”.

This is because strict Darwinian interpretations of human behavior dictate that there should be no altruism: no adoptions, no charity, no doctors, no soldiers, no voluntary celibacy (priests, monks, nuns), no pro bono. David Stove, in Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution points out that humans are obviously altruistic and shows why the strict theory of evolution in the case of humans is flawed (NOTE: in no way does Stove argue evolution is false—he accepts, as I do, evolution—he only argues that the theory, like many theories in science, is so far incomplete).
Darwinian Fairytales

The first theory to attempt to solve the “altruism problem” was Hamilton’s reciprocal altruism, a flawed—which is to say false—theory of the evolution of altruism. It is a mathematical model that mandates that if you have a choice between saving your own child or five first-cousins, you will choose the cousins because there is a larger share of your genes in those five people than in your son (I might have the math wrong: it could be seven second cousins; my summary, however, is correct; the theory says you’d also save a second cousin over a wife or an aged parent).

A somewhat more complicated extension of the reciprocity argument contends that war could never exist (note: not that it should not exist, but that it could not; think of all those enemy genes being destroyed, most of which are shared by you). There are other well known flaws, the most damning is that Hamilton’s theory does not say how altruism could have evolved in the first place (some argue that it can answer this). In any case, there is discontent with the theory.

Samuel Bowles, an evolutionary biologist, has a rival theory (story from the indispensable Arts & Letter Daily). As the human population grew, separate clans began to meet, occasions which were not always jolly and during which bloodshed occurred. Disputes arose over the most common things: access to food, water, and mates.

These battles forced people to coalesce in their groupings which naturally contained more shared genes than the folks on the other side of the river. One way to look at this puts human evolution in part on the social or group level and not entirely at the individual one because altruism is in part an instinctive behavior an not entirely culturally learned. Not everybody agrees with that idea, however.

But it’s not a ridiculous notion, either. For example, thinking along those lines makes explanations of the universal taboo against incest easier to explain (taboos that existed before genetics was known). What better way to propagate your selfish genes than by marrying your sister? The fact that we don’t, and the obvious existence of altruism and bizarre behavior like suicide, means the Darwinian picture is still a little blurred.

June 4, 2009 | 3 Comments

Informative Kindle 2 review at Amazon

Gadget Queen, an owner of a Kindle 1 and 2, posted this review of the Kindle 2 at Amazon. It confirms the suspicions I had a while back that you will be paying more than once for the same content.

Says Gadget Queen:

1. I have a tremendous volume of Kindle content (public domain and Amazon). I discovered that I could not directly transfer from my computer backup for Kindle 1 to the new K2 …All my content had to be reformatted by Amazon and re-downloaded from their site specifically for and to the Kindle 2…

2. All of my previous issues of magazines and newspapers were lost (ie, I could not re-download them specifically for the K2) because Amazon does not back up subscriptions on their server for more than 6 days. SINCE I PAID FOR THE CONTENT, I SHOULD BE ABLE TO HAVE THAT CONTENT ALWAYS AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD. Sorry, but I won’t consider buying any more newspapaers or magazine subscriptions to the Kindle 1 or 2. Several (Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest) are less expensive online (with print edition also included) and have ALL content (not MIA content pictures, charts, quotes, etc).

4. Although Amazon says it keeps you content on their server, I found many instances where I could not download my books to my computer because the item THAT I PAID FOR was not available for download to my new Kindle2. Amazon said the book had been “pulled.” Excuse me, but I paid for it, pulled or not, it should always be avaiable to me since I paid for it. When I asked for a refund for the pulled item now unavailable to me, SINCE I COULD NOT GET THE ITEM REDOWNLOADED, I was told that a refund was not possible. LESSON LEARNED: I now back up ALL my Kindle content on my computer. Since Amazon says “Don’t worry, your content is safe with us.” I respectfully disagree. Also, some authors issued new versions of their books for K2. However, then the original version for K1 “disappeared” from the server so I could not even download it to K2, nor K1. Same filename, so if I had been in a Whispernet area, the original would have been completely overwritten without my realizing it! Imagine, I bought a K2 Users Guide in May 2008, before it come off the engineers drafting table, instead of in February 2009!

She has other complaints, but the worst is that some books that she had already bought formatted for Kindle 1 disappeared. They can, of course, be bought again in their Kindle 2 implementation, but how often does a Stephen King novel change?

Other items she bought disappeared completely and were not re-formatted to the new Kindle (magazines and newspapers).

I do not want to, and will not, pay for the same book more than once simply because the technology behind the reader has changed.

I am ignorant of Sony’s reader. Are the same problems found with it?

Sony has an access at Google for books, but the software only runs on a mysterious platform called “Windows”. I’ll try WINE and see if it works (doubtful).

June 3, 2009 | 21 Comments

The more educated there are, the less education there is: Part 2

Last time we showed that as the percentage of people who attend college increased, it necessarily meant that the difficulty of courses offered by colleges decreased, thus the value of a “college education” lessened. On average, anyway.

That is, it might still be the case that superior colleges will not falter—as long as matriculation at these institutes does not depend on any characteristic besides ability; as soon as they veer from strict meritocracy, the value of education even at superior colleges lessens. Next time we’ll see that there is a third reason why even good schools will degrade.

Now, even though what is learned at college becomes less difficult, still something is learned. The questions becomes: is it worth it? After all, even bad colleges—for example those excessively committed to sports or that primarily offer degrees in “business”—students usually come out knowing more than when they came in. But is going to college, even at a below average school, worth the cost? At the Center for Student Opportunity, “an online clearinghouse of college programs and admissions information serving first-generation and historically underserved [sic, but interesting spelling!] student populations”, claims “College graduates earn over 70 percent more on average than those with only a high school diploma—that’s an average of $1 million more over a lifetime.”

That statistic is widely reported and believed. It is, at best, misleading. To see why, let’s go back in time sixty or seventy years. Then, many in the upper class and few or none in the middle or lower classes went to college. College graduates usually, but obviously not always, went on to high-profile or well-paying careers. Those Who Care looked at these people and said, “These high-profile people all went to college. People who go to college do better. Therefore, going to college increases people’s earning potential. More people should go to college.”

Earn more money today!

Alas, this is old error of confusing correlation with causation. Because even the upper class members who went to college and failed to master its subjects also went on to good jobs—because they were in the upper class. Their fathers, brothers, and others had jobs waiting for them. If there were no such thing as college, they still would have had good, well-paying careers. After all, they were upper class. We must also remember that their course of study was purposely non-practical. “Can there be anything more ridiculous than that a father should waste his money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language, when at the same time he designs him for a trade…?” asked John Locke. So why go to college? Knowledge was thought (and is) good in itself, useful to answer the eternal question What is the best way to live?

Those Who Care would have been better served by saying, “Just because somebody is upper class should not mean they can automatically go to college.” This is the busybody argument, because it is none of their business who goes to college if they are not paying for it. If a school lets somebody in on grounds other than merit, it is their mess to clean up. No. What Those Who Care should have said is, “Make it so Those That Are Smartest can attend college so that they can become the wisest among us.” But that smacks of elitism, which is anathema to Those.

Eventually, Those Who Care had their way and a larger percentage of people did go to college (through more colleges being created and not by increasing enrollment at extant colleges). More importantly, it began to look like those that attended college did earn more money than those who did not. What happened was a version of the self-fulling prophecy and bad math.

Bad math first. Suppose upper class members go to college and, because they are upper class, they earn good money on average, even if they only at college to discover, as John Mortimer’s father told him, “the Latin word for parsley.” Others will earn good money by taking difficult course work that is valuable, like electrical engineering, etc. That’s one group.

Contrast these with the group of non-upper class people who go to college and get degrees in hotel management, human resources, business, women’s studies, English literature, or other non-difficult subjects. They will not make as much money. They will also, on average, have debt and will have forgone four years of income.

The average lifetime of all college graduates is thus a misleading number because it does not take into account the quality of the school or the subject studied or the class of the people. That “$1 million” is heavily skewed by the first group of people. What should be compared are those who study non-difficult subjects and those who never attend college. Do that, and the value of college fades away.

Charles Murray has written about this extensively (here, here, here, and others), and proves that a college degree isn’t the guaranteed road to riches most hope it is. A very large percentage of college graduates will not earn as much as those who learn a useful trade: Crawford’s recently popular Shop Class as Soulcraft expounds on this subject at length. The quotation that always appears is, “Do you know what a plumber makes?”

Now self-fulfilling prophecy. Some companies—I mentioned Jamba Juice a while back—require a “degree” for even the most entry of entry-level positions. These companies are indifferent to the material studied behind the “degree”. Because their employees have a “degree”, human “resource” apparatchiks will assign a salary using a formula that pays them more than non-degreed people. Not much more, but more. The reason they pay them more is because these people have a “degree” and certainly not because these people are skilled (as far as I know, no college yet offers a degree in fast food mall beverage management). The result is that the company has hired somebody they still have to train and must pay more. It also, initially, makes it appear that college graduates earn more. But this seeming advantage doesn’t last. Jamba Juice will still have to call in the plumbers to fix their sinks.

Thus, college is not always worth it, particularly to those who do not study difficult subjects. Of course, college still might be valuable morally. We’ll save that for another time.

June 1, 2009 | 15 Comments

French woman led away in chains for refusing to be safe

I’m exaggerating only slightly. What happened was that a woman, while entering the subway, refused to hold the handrail of the escalator she was on. This is against the law in The Great White North. So she was arrested, cuffed, and carted off to the pokey. Here’s the story.

What prompted this elegant Chess-playing woman, with no previous criminal record, to join the ranks of the nefarious? Germs. Yes, she was terrified of picking up a stray microorganism from the railing.

The law stating that “Thou shalt hold the handrail” is obviously the result of bounteous bureaucratic busybodiness, a rule created to stem the fear in the minds of the excessively nervous that somebody might get hurt. These lawmakers are the sorts of people who sit up nights and concoct various scenarios of escalator doom (lopped off fingers are nothing to them) until it gets so bad that there are unable to live with their frightening musings, and so they see to it that those who would rob them of their sleep are punished

Which is fine. None of my business, and not my country. But what is interesting is the alibi used by the woman: fear of germs. If she merely said, “I don’t want to hold the damn rail. Leave me alone” she would have no allies and no hope.

But she brilliantly played off the those with a Fear of Falling with those with a Fear of Disease. It will fascinating to watch her case play out in court. Experts from both sides will be called. Which will create the most lurid scene?

The Falling group, besides touting the obvious cases of lost limbs, will claim women might trip and catch their earrings in the treads, thereby risking an embarrassing loss of face. But the Disease group has Swine Flu, TB, and the ebola virus on their side. Frankly, I don’t see how they can lose.

Which means the law will be changed to “Thou shalt not hold the handrail.” Perpetrators will be forced to attend classes on cleanliness and will be made to demonstrate proper hand washing. Lawyers will discover groups—under-served groups, naturally—who got sick after riding the escalator, and soon manufacturers will be sued for allowing the spread of disease. Handrails will be removed at great taxpayer expense. And all will be right with the world.

Until somebody trips.