The Inexorable Progress of Science: Psychology

If psychology had high validity, people versed in its mysteries would be able to predict behavior and control it some extent. They’d be scary: they could understand things that the man on the street couldn’t, manipulate people in ways that Alcibiades never dreamed of.  They’d beat you at poker, and steal your girl. There would be psychological equivalents of the experiment where you place a tennis ball on top of a basketball, and a ping-pong ball on top of the tennis ball: when you drop the assembly, the ping-pong ball ends up on your roof – an anti-intuitive and dramatic result.

Once upon a time, psychologists were scary, at least in science fiction.  Preem Palver was more frightening than the Mule, if you ask me. Today, psychologists don’t get much respect.  What went wrong?  Or, considering the risk of domination by our very own Second Foundation, what went right?  I think we need to look at the history of psychology in the 20th century.

The better sort of psychologist, circa 1930, would have said that mental illness often ran in families, which it does (Kraepelin). Some cases were caused by tertiary syphilis, cause understood, and some progress had been made on treatment (salvarsan and Wagner-Jauregg’s  malariotherapy). Sometimes a brain tumor was the cause, and once in a while it was benign and easy to get at (meningiomas) Our hypothetical old-time psychologist also would say that there was a strong suspicion that most cases of mental illness had some kind of biological cause, exact nature unknown. They had a few drugs that were occasionally useful, like bromides.  These guys didn’t have all the answers, but they were making progress, and they weren’t crazy.

In the US, such men were largely replaced by Freudian types, for something like 40 years: 1935-1975. They were nuts.  I could go on and on about just how nuts they were – Medawar called psychoanalytic theory “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century” – but there’s not much point in a detailed analysis of a load of crap.

Anyhow, the rise of psychoanalysis surely got in the way of real progress in understanding the human mind.   To be fair, its decline doesn’t seem to have generated fantastic progress, at least not yet.   Evolutionary psychology has promise, but I have to say that a lot of the work there looks silly to me – not because it has to be, not because there’s something wrong with the idea that evolution has shaped human behavior, more that it attracts the wrong sort of people, a general problem in the social sciences.

One of the nice things about reading literature from before 1880 is that you never, ever hear a single Freudian  concept referenced. It’s wonderful, like breathing fresh mountain air.

Psychoanalysis does have one practical payoff, however – it serves as a sensitive detector of a hunger for nonsense.  Think about all the people who were significantly inspired or  influenced by Freud’s ideas.  They were loons. Are loons. It’s not just that they made a mistake – they’re the kind of people who make such mistakes, and they’ll do it again, first chance they get.

There is a a straightforward implication : if the human race is ever to get anywhere, we need a better way of  hiring intellectuals.


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Randall Parker proposed (to me and also to Razib Khan) recommending books that might do for Christmas gifts.  Here are my suggestions -

    The Princeton Companion to Mathematics


From Alexander to Actium:


     Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege


The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody:


The Conquest of New Spain



The Anubis Gates:  


The Sleepwalkers


Coup D’Etat: A Practical Handbook :


The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History


The Great Siege


  Song of the Sky


How to Solve It: 


The Double-Cross System


In Search of the Indo-Europeans :  


The Washing of the Spears


Eagle Against the Sun


The Steel Bonnets




Rats, Lice, and History


The Great Impostor

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Instinctive Fears

It is easier to develop a phobia about snakes than electricity or carbon monoxide, probably because we have built in neurological mechanism that confer that propensity.

Likely most animals have a similar propensity to develop a fear of fire: or it might come automatically.   If there was such a fear-of-fire mechanism, we have lost it: and dogs have as well.  If this is correct, one could learn about this hypothetical mechanism by comparing dogs and wolves.

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World Without Stars

Some recent work suggests that most galaxies have too many gamma-ray bursters, such that most planets get hosed every so often, making complex life practically impossible – as if it wasn’t already.  It seems that low levels of heavy elements (heavier than helium: “metallicity”) make this more likely, so that conditions were unfavorable in almost all galaxies for the first few billion years.

On the other hand, another recent paper suggests that there are many rogue stars outside of galaxies, flung there by gravitational interactions with giant black holes in galactic cores.  That and spindizzies.

Seems to me that forming in a galaxy might give a solar system enough heavy elements, while being flung into the intergalactic deeps would protect you from cosmic catastrophes like gamma-ray bursts.   Such stars might be good homes for complex life, especially a few billion years ago.

Interstellar travel is hard enough for us, but for these guys, it would be a bitch. That first step is a doozy.

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Inferior Faunas

I mentioned South American paleontologists defending the honor of their extinct animals, and pointed  out how stupid that is. There are many similar cases: Jefferson vs Buffon on the wimpiness of North American mammals (as a reader pointed out),  biologists defending the prowess of marsupials in Australia (a losing proposition) , etc.

So, we need to establish the relative competitive abilities of different faunas and settle this, once and for all.

Basically, the smaller and more isolated, the less competitive.  Pretty much true for both plants and animals.

Islands do poorly. Not just dodos: Hawaiian species, for example, are generally losers: everything from outside is a threat.

Next up from islands is Australia: still losers. The only invasive species I can think of that originated in Australia is the brushtail possum – and it invaded New Zealand. That’s like  a dwarf beating up a midget.  Birds can be an exception – they aren’t really isolated, if they have good powers of flight.  Some say that crows originated in Australia. By the way, there is a chance that penguins originated in New Zealand.  I suspect that NZ’s faunal backwardness might have aided penguin evolution, for reasons that I leave as an exercise for my readers.

South America: not as embarrassing as Australia, where the local predators are out-competed by house cats, but South America’s only competitive mammal export is the nutria, as far as I know.  The locals did poorly in the big interchange with North America, after the formation of Panama.

North America has had lots of contact with Eurasia, is fairly big, hasn’t really been isolated. Important lineages like horses and camels originated in North America.  That said, some elements of the North American biome seem uncompetitive – seems like freshwater fish are pretty vulnerable to invaders.  And Eurasian steppe imports do pretty well – things like tumbleweed and cheatgrass.

Africa was an island continent for a long time: although some of the Afrotheria have done well, particularly elephants,  most have not. As far as I know, there was only the one mammalian lineage in old Africa, which may have limited  local competition.

Eurasia: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.  the two biggest placental clades, Euarchontoglires and Lauriasiatheria apparently originated in Lauriasia (Eurasia plus North America) .  Between them, they account for more than 95% of placental mammal species.

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something hidden

You’ve probably heard of Afrotheria. A line of placental mammals expanded into all kinds of niches, back when Africa was an island continent. Elephants, hyraxes, manatees, tenrecs, aardvarks,  elephant shrews,  and golden moles are the existing members of Afrotheria.  There used to be more:  things that looked like a rhino (Arsenoitherium), for example.  The thing is, they had diverged very far.  Biologists had realized that there was a relationship between elephants, hyraxes, and manatees, but they didn’t know that aardvarks, tenrecs and golden moles were in that same clade.   Without genetic analysis, it’s not easy to see that an apparent mole is really more closely relayed to an elephant. They’ve simply gotten too far into the part.

South America was also an island continent with its own placental mammalian lineages, and some of them filled many different niches.  One, Xenarthra, has survivors: anteaters, tree sloths, and armadillos.  The other, Meridiungulata, had members that looked like horses, camels,  rhinos, hippos, rabbits, even chalicotheres.  Most lost out after the formation of the isthmus of Panama let in North American competitors, and Amerindians finished off the the last survivors ( like Maucrauchenia and Toxodons)  By the way, you will see South American paleontologists defending the competence of their extinct fauna, making excuses for their defeat by invaders from the North: it doesn’t get much stupider than that.

I’m wondering of any of the Meridiungulata lineages did survive, unnoticed because they’re passing for insectivores or rats or whatever, just as tenrecs and golden moles did. . Obviously the big ones are extinct, probably the others as well, but until we’ve looked at the DNA of every little mammal in South America, the possibility exists.

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Bake Sale

You can now make tax-deductible contributions to the blog, and you really should.  Here are two ways:

1.  Mail a check, made out to West Hunter Incorporated.  Send it to

Gregory Cochran

6708 Loftus Ave, NE

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87109

You can make non-deductible  donations to Paypal (use the site button).  If you send a significant  amount through PayPal and want deductibilty, it can arranged, which would include a receipt.

If another donation method would be convenient for you, write me at and we’ll work it out.  This also applies to unconventional donations, such as doubloons, triploons, copies of The Ocean or On Sphere-Making, The Concert, a breeding pair of passenger pigeons, etc.

P.S. my Bitcoin address is  1Jv4cu1wETM5Xs9unjKbDbCrRF2mrjWXr5. Pronounced “mxyzptlk”

P.P.S. You can send money to me from a credit card (non-deductible) via Google Wallet to my gmail address (

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