Math is Hard

Definitely the case for E. O. Wilson.  In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal,  he says that many of the most successful scientists are no more than semiliterate in mathematics, and if anything he’s worse than that.  But, he says, you don’t really need to know much mathematics in most of biology, and it’s a pity that students are dropping out of science because they fear mathematics.

There are those who differ. Lord Kelvin said “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”  Even those who didn’t have much math sometimes wished that they did.  Chuck Darwin said “I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics;  for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.”

E. O. Wilson would have benefited from having that extra sense. If he had it, he might not have suggested that ridiculous “gay uncle” theory, in which homosexuality pays for itself genetically thru gay men helping their siblings in ways that produce extra nieces and nephews. First, that doesn’t even happen – so much for field work.  Second, it’s impossible.  The relationship coefficients don’t work. Nephews and nieces are only half as closely related as your own kids, so you’d need four extra to break even, rather than two, as with your own kids.  Maybe if Wilson had ever learned to divide by two, he wouldn’t have made this mistake.

Biology and softer-headed sciences such as anthropology are absolutely rife with innumerates, and there is a cost.  If I hear one more person say that average growth rates were very low in the old stone age, a teeny tiny fraction of a percent [true], and so anatomically modern humans only left Africa after it filled up, which took a hundred thousand years, I’m gonna scream.  If I hear another anthropologist say that she could understand how a small group could rapidly expand to fill New Zealand, but just can’t see how they could fill up the Americas, whole continents, in a thousand years – lady, they screwed, they had babies, and they walked.  All it took was a weird, unacademic lifestyle in which you raised three kids – pretty easy to do in the Happy Hunting Ground.

I remember talking to a field biologist studying three genetic male morphs of some screwy freshwater fish.  In passing, I said ” Of course all three forms have to have the same average fitness, over the long term.”  He said ” Why?”, because he was an idiot. Speaking of which – general intelligence and math ability are fairly well correlated.  Maybe a lot of these low-math types just aren’t very smart. I’ve never seen any sign that E. O. Wilson is.








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85 Responses to Math is Hard

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Wilson’s books have always been muddled. He’s had some good basic ideas (let’s apply Hamilton and Williams to humans! lets use science to illuminate the humanities!), but whenever he tries to work them out at length the result is a mess.

  2. misdreavus says:

    “I remember talking to a field biologist studying three genetic male morphs of some screwy freshwater fish.  In passing, I said ” Of course all three forms have to have the same average fitness, over the long term.” ”

    Well gee, if all three exist, are members of the same species, and are long established in the same territory, this almost certainly has to be the case. There would be fewer than three if it weren’t!

  3. misreavus says:

    “Second, it’s impossible.  The relationship coefficients don’t work. Nephews and nieces are only half as closely related as your own kids, so you’d need four extra to break even, rather than two, as with your own kids.  Maybe if Wilson had ever learned to divide by two, he wouldn’t have made this mistake. ”

    I’ve tried to explain this basic principle to so many people, all to no avail. To this day I still cringe just remembering their silly counterarguments — “You only need to have some kids, not a whole lot”, “Only a few more nieces and nephews have to survive, compared to the average”, “Back in the day, gay men were forced to marry, you know”, etc. Just no, no, no, no, NO! It’s so friggin obvious, A CHILD COULD UNDERSTAND IT, WHY ARE YOU ALL SO DENSE. God help us all.

    I mean just what the hell does a guy have to do to be taken seriously? There is no god damn gay gene, you should expect it a priori from first principles. Wishing it were so does not help anyone.

  4. misreavus says:

    What E.O. Wilson is trying to do is plainly obvious. Whenever his fertile imagination locks securely onto some heterodox opinion (e.g. kin selection fails to account for eusocial behavior among hymenoptera, human altruism is the product of group selection, etc.), he will launch a tireless defense in its favor with any weapon in his arsenal… and it sure helps a lot if you are a big shot celebrity in academia, and a well known public intellectual, to boot.

    Hey, if you don’t know enough math to make your dumb theories even somewhat plausible, why don’t you just hire a grad student in math to do the curve-fitting for you? Big bonus if they don’t know any evolutionary theory whatsoever. An even bigger bonus if you don’t know enough math to read your own papers. (wtf) Like I said, it’s a match made in heaven, kind of like how the mafia in the movies hires young super-hackers to do all their money laundering for them.

    • gcochran9 says:

      As I understand it, becoming a public intellectual isn’t so bad. They…go in through your nose and….they let you keep the piece of brain they cut out!

  5. Across the intelligence range, maths is a good measure of intelligence. It serves a further purpose, in that it acts as the simplest of intelligence tests, in that you can guarantee that anyone taking maths when older than 16 is of above average intelligence. Interestingly, the cohort effect (Flynn effect) seems to be weak for mathematics. One explanation is that it is the one mental task which has measurable a priori inherent difficulty, and that it is valid to talk about the increasing complexity of mathematical problems in terms of symbolic logic. “Mathematics possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture” Russell observed, but for many it is a fearful ogre best avoided.

  6. Paul Morel says:

    A lot of people is reading Wilson as saying that you don’t need any math (#reading comprehension fail!). But please — DO read what he said: “If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have.”

    E. O. Wilson is right. You really don’t need much math to do 99.9% of biology. And the little math you need (basic linear algebra and statistics and so on) is nothing that a physics graduate* wouldn’t sneer at. The street cred of E. O. Wilson is living proof that you don’t need to be a von Neumann to make a difference — at least in some fields, some of the time.

    * And maybe even here you don’t need to be a math genius. Einstein was famously awkward with advanced math — but HE invented General Relativity, not von Neumann, for God’s sake!

    • A Erickson Cornish says:

      Street cred is proof of anything?

    • Kaleberg says:

      I don’t really agree with WIlson’s essay, but he does make a good point: a lot of people are so scared of math that they avoid any endeavor that might require it. (Yes, I know he only makes this argument elliptically, but he does make it.) Our culture has the view that math is a matter of talent, and no others need apply. This forms a barrier for a lot of people. I’ve seen enough students choke at the sight of an equation, but once they get their pulse and shaking hands under control they can traipse through the exercise. They are better at math than they think, but they would never consider a science career, because a science career would require math. (The cultures in Eastern Europe, China, Korea and a number of other countries do not raise this barrier. Everyone is assumed more than able to learn a fair bit of math without palpitations, dry heaves and what not.)

      Since we are unlikely to be able to change our culture, maybe we should consider teaching science course and introducing just enough math to keep moving forward. If they enjoy and feel some measure of competence in a subject like biology or materials science, they’ll find the necessary mathematics much less painful to absorb.

  7. bruce says:

    According to Robert Wright (‘Three Scientists and their Gods’) Wilson wrote ‘Sociobiology’ when “Francis Watson [also Harvard faculty] openly argued evolutionary biology had a limited future at best; the real action would come in molecular biology, and that’s where the university should put it’s money.” So Wilson wrote ‘Sociobiology’ to keep up with the Watsons and Cricks, and then Gould and Lewontin went political to keep up with him.

    I’ve got to say, writing ‘Sociobiology; the New Synthesis’ is one hell of a cut above most faculty politics.

  8. winestock says:

    This reminds me of a quote from John McCarthy, of Lisp fame: “Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to talk nonsense.” Then there was that plaque over the entrance to Plato’s Academy: “Let no man enter who is ignorant of geometry.”

    Never mind people being bad at math. So many so-called experts are bad at their own specialties. Your example of that field biologist in your final paragraph is one. He wouldn’t have needed math to figure that out, just reason from natural selection. It’s not just the natural sciences, either. Edward Feser has been griping about philosophers who barely know more about Scholasticism than laymen, yet denounce it anyway.

    The next step from your post is to imagine what happens when the results of applied or pure math contradict the prevailing regime of taboos. One would think that smart people would be a little more ambivalent about democracy after finding out about “voting paradoxes” ( ), but they aren’t. Even calling them paradoxes is telling, as though popular elections could not possibly be anything other than an unalloyed good.

    It puts me in mind of what Axel Oxenstierna said to his son: “Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is ruled?”

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  10. Jason says:

    Gay gene would reduce reproductive fitness to near zero, but how about something that reduced individual reproductive fitness (say you have three kids on average instead of four) but also somehow helped your tribe win more battles? Or is Wilson a complete crank? I’m in the middle of The Social Conquest of Earth, should I stop reading?

    • misreavus says:

      Helping your tribe win more battles is not going to help spread your genes if it reduces your own fitness. Just think of the coefficient of relatedness between two random members of a given tribe. The gene wouldn’t even get a _foothold_, yet alone rise to fixation.

      • gcochran9 says:

        When you consider the possibility of deliberate punishments and rewards, this gets more complicated. Imagine a situation in which men who were successful in war had big reproductive rewards. Of course actually getting killed, especially early in your career, would interfere with this, but we’re talking strategies. On average. And while we’re at it, it is also possible to imagine a situation in which slackers are punished. As Zhukhov once said, it took a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army.

        The invention of taxation moves the needle again. Conquerors are tempted into keeping the losers around as assets, instead of exterminating them. That has to reduce the reproductive payoff for military prowess. And the formation of states means that more and more you’re fighting for unrelated groups. Selection might favor risky bravery at the tribal level ( considering rewards and punishments and relatedness) but it’s much less likely to do so if you’re fighting for Tyranny and the Assyrian Way.
        A few millennia of that and a population should become hopelessly unmilitary, all asabiya lost.

        • ilkarnal says:

          Why come Japs are so asabiyatic? Chinese maybe less so, but still not totally unmilitary. Civilization’s pretty old in both places.

          I’ve heard you say that Middle Easterners have the asabiya of scorpions in a bottle, but tribal fighters have good reputations. Germans encountering Spahi infantry in the Battle of France considered them very fierce and good fighters.

          I am sure this is a real phenomenon but I think you place the emphasis incorrectly. There are tribal situations which can make you super asabiyatic, for the obvious reason that you are getting into lots of fights alongside your relatives. However, there is some asabiyatic floor that is reasonably high, so outside of these circumstances you don’t get totally unmilitary populations.

          On reflection I think you’re just wrong about the Middle East. I think controlled for IQ they are not very ‘unmilitary’ at all. The graft and incompetence you see there is not dissimilar to the graft and incompetence you see in Latin American countries. Those Latin American countries have Amerindians shot through with European admixture – they should not be terribly asabiya-depleted, certainly less than the Middle Easterners hailing from the cradle of civilization. Yet even beside Middle Easterners they are corrupt and unmilitary.

          Another thing – you’ve pointed out that various minorities in the Middle East are more similar to each other than to the broader Arab population, making it likely that they are remnants of an older population. Well, you’ve also said these older populations seem to have more ‘moxy’ than these new wave Arabs, who demonstrate the worst of the problems that curse the region. If the problem with the Middle East is gradual asabiya depletion that has gone furthest in the cradle of civilization, the oldest populations should be the worst off and generally most dysfunctional.

          No, the problem is that they are stupid, not unasabiyatic. There’s no reason to expect the relatively recent tribal invaders to have a big asabiya shortage, and they don’t act like they do. They act plenty willing to fight, but stupid and disorganized.

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  12. jb says:

    In 1998 there was a big fight in the Sierra Club between those who wanted the club to advocate reducing immigration into the U.S. (in order to reduce population growth — which incidentally happened to be the club’s traditional stance), and those who backed a 1996 decision (essentially a gag rule) by the excruciatingly PC board of directors, which forbade anyone speaking as a Sierra Club member from taking any position on immigration. E.O. Wilson was perhaps the biggest name on the list of big name endorsers of the immigration reduction initiative, and for that I’ll forgive him a lot.

    (The club leadership won, 60/40, but this might be because they cheated. Without allowing any change in the original petition question, they added a second alternative, which was deceptively worded to give the impression that anyone who voted for the first alternative was voting against teddy bears and ponies and anything good that the club had ever stood for. This is unfortunate, because if the initiative had passed it might have had a significant impact on the way liberals in the U.S. thought about immigration).

  13. BOSWELL. ‘Sir Alexander Dick tells me, that he remembers having a thousand people in a year to dine at his house: that is, reckoning each person as one, each time that he dined there.’ JOHNSON. ‘That, Sir, is about three a day.’ BOSWELL. ‘How your statement lessens the idea.’ JOHNSON. ‘That, Sir, is the good of counting. It brings every thing to a certainty, which before floated in the mind indefinitely.’
    —-Life of Johnson; Apr. 18, 1783

  14. bob sykes says:

    Wilson is also responsible for the proven-to-be-absurd claim that over 40,000 species go extinct every year. He made the number up out of literally nothing during an interview, and now the number is Holy Writ.

    His thinking was probably contaminated by his proximity to Gould and Lewontin. Eventually, bastards do wear you down.

    • gcochran9 says:

      It’s not absurd. It’s a guess, an extrapolation, but not an absurd one. Mainly we’re talking beetles.

      • teageegeepea says:

        God may be inordinately fond of them, but there are limits to his fondness.

      • unladen swallow says:

        I remember reading a book that I ultimately didn’t buy, about the whole politics of sociobiology debates. It was framed as Dawkins vs. Gould or something like that. Anyhow, in it an anonymous biologist mentioned the whole rainforest species extinction model was inapplicable to continents because it had been developed to explain extinctions on islands, usually isolated and/or small ones. He was saying that the model works for these islands because most animals can’t swim or fly off of them when habitat is razed, but zoologists were applying the theory to continents like Africa and South America, where the species just move out into neighboring areas.

        That made sense to me because clearly chopping down a bunch of trees shouldn’t kill off a species that has survived for millions or tens of millions of years of geological upheaval, particularly insect or plant species that are often very large in numbers. The implication from that section of the book was that biologists had such a poor understanding of math that they were applying the model designed for small islands and treating every micro-environment in the jungle as if it was a real island within a jungle “sea” that species could not move out of in order to survive. The biologist also said that no one wanted to blow up the theory because of the popularity of environmentalism in
        academia, which was why he spoke anonymously.

      • jb says:

        Here is a long blog post written by Willis Eschenbach (perhaps the anonymous biologist you mention?) that talks about the whole island/continent extinction thing:

        Where Are The Corpses?

        The record of continental (as opposed to island) bird and mammal extinctions in the last five centuries was analyzed to determine if the “species-area” relationship actually works to predict extinctions. Very few continental birds or mammals are recorded as having gone extinct, and none have gone extinct from habitat reduction alone. No continental forest bird or mammal is recorded as having gone extinct from any cause. Since the species-area relationship predicts that there should have been a very large number of recorded bird and mammal extinctions from habitat reduction over the last half millennium, I show that the species-area relationship gives erroneous answers to the question of extinction rates.

        This is a claim that, if even remotely tenable, I would think we would be hearing a lot, but we just don’t. I find this puzzling — and don’t tell me it’s because it’s being suppressed by the PC crowd, because even if that were so there ought to be plenty of crackpots willing to pick the idea up and run with it, and we should at least be hearing it from them.

      • ziel says:

        there ought to be plenty of crackpots willing to pick the idea up and run with it

        The WUWT blog doesn’t make the crackpot category?

  15. namae nanka says:

    perhaps a watered down systems biology course in high school could help? perhaps also help with diversity, though of the wrong kind?

    “Interestingly, the cohort effect (Flynn effect) seems to be weak for mathematics. ”

    doesn’t seem to be the case at least in US. Jonathan Wai, Flynn Effect Puzzle in which he looks at the top 5%, the scores on maths subtests have been increasing, while verbal are stagnant or even falling.
    41% drop in actual number of those scoring >700 on SAT-verbal from 72 to 93, from Inequity in Equity, benbow and stanley
    verbal scores should be more amenable to preparation on tests like SAT, ACT, GRE

    • misreavus says:

      Why, it’s not like the SAT has been renormed multiple times, or even had its content altered over the past several decades.

  16. I swear I don’t always comment just to post links to my work, but science perplexes me greatly, so I can usually only contribute when it’s about some cognitive issue. I read this blog all the time.

    “Speaking of which – general intelligence and math ability are fairly well correlated.”

    An area I don’t think we’ve examined enough involves outliers: high verbal people who have difficulties with math. I mean genuinely high verbal people, not “likes to read”. As I mention in the link below, I made it through AP Calc in high school but really didn’t understand math at all. Yet now I’m a math teacher, got an 800 on the GRE Quant, and so on. What was different? And even now, while I’m “good at math”, I am probably not capable of advanced math. As I’ve written more than once, I don’t think we pay enough attention to people with high verbal and logic skills but (I’m guessing here) lagging spatial aptitude. Clearly, we can succeed in math if we can figure out how to learn it.

    It’s a long post, but how often do you see the reason for trigonometry, CICS, and Wily Coyote all in one essay?

    • Discard says:

      educationrealist: You’re not the only one surprised to find himself teaching math. My verbal scores are a good deal higher than my math scores, but I found that I was much better at teaching math than teaching literature. Perhaps I had more empathy for the math strugglers than for the illiterate? Or maybe since my verbal ability exceeds my math, I can put any math that I actually understand into words that my students could grasp? No doubt there are mathematically adept teachers who are too inarticulate to explain what they know. Teaching is about communication, so those of us who can’t do, teach.

      • I enjoy teaching literature and history (am credentialed in all three subjects), and have sympathy for strugglers in all of the subjects. But I agree that people who learned math later in life, or who struggled with it, can be quite effective with strugglers themselves.

  17. Abelard Lindsey says:

    E.O. Wilson’s career itself illustrates well Heinlein’s comment about the difference between legitimate science and “mere” scholarship.

  18. I am having trouble figuring out whether this essay and these comments are sarcastic trollisms or not. Many of them could not be more obviously wrong. That three morphs must have the same average fitness over the long term is a bizarre concept. I am not even sure what you mean by fitness. Almost surely the case here is that each morph’s “fitness” depends on the frequency of the other morphs. So fitness is perhaps the most vaguely and unintelligibly defined concept one could possibly imagine. This would certainly be my reaction if you mentioned fitness – what the hell do you mean? I think invasibility is what you mean.
    Second, the idea that you can know anything about selection by having knowledge of cousin or uncle relationships is the silliest thing I have ever heard. First, the only relevant consideration for selection is the relatedness at the locus under selection. Second, relatedness is the second most vaguely defined concept in biology. Obviously, if there is no polymorphism in a population, everyone is 100% related and cousin uncle sister doesn’t make a difference. On the other hand, many species specifically mate with individuals that are as unrelated to them as possible (think humans mating with others who have unrelated MHC genes), making it sometimes more likely that your genes (or actually, the relevant locus) is more closely related to a random member of the population than it is to your sister. Third, most people think about of relatedness on a genotypic level. This is stoopid. It should be thought of on a phenotypic level (if you are thinking about selection and evolution).

    If any of you have thought even briefly about the fundamentals underlying Hamilton, you would have realized the terrible ambiguity and vagueness of his logic. Brilliant idea, terrible execution. It has nothing to do with relatedness.

    Let me put it simply: the only thing you have to know is the phenotype of the individual you expect to run into. Period. This is then your “fitness” – your ability to beat the expected phenotype of whomever you run into. It is that simple.

    So please, think before you write, as it is very clear most people here have not, including the OP. Moron.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

    • Tamerlane says:

      I suggest that you at least try to absorb enough mathematics so that you might begin to understand some simple implications of the Hardy-Weinberg Law. Then you might consider re-examining your silly post and writing an embarrassed apology to those who their wasted time reading it.

      • ziel says:

        A wast of time? Or an entertaining “Dunning-Kruger” illustration?.

      • Selection. Acts. On. Phenotypes. Hardy Weinberg is about genotypes. And furthermore, assumes neutrality and no selection and a host of other things, and only shows that genotype numbers remain constant in a population over generations. I am having trouble understanding your implication?

    • misreavus says:

      When it comes to a certain class of people who thrive best on college campuses, the more they immerse themselves in philosophy of biology, the less they understand *anything* whatsoever about the natural world. This post right here exemplifies this trend in a nutshell. What you have to say makes not one iota of sense. You are merely parroting silly arguments that were first expounded by charlatans who are every bit as pea-brained as you are, and moreover, you don’t even do a good job repeating them.

      How evolutionary change occurs is blessedly simple. All you need is self-replicating matter, the basic unit of heredity, and a statistical correspondence between the structure of the hereditary matter and the morphology of the organism. (Here I suggest that the lifelong behavior of the organism may be treated as an natural extension of its morphology, which offends certain people to no end. Oh, the horrors!) The relationship between phenotype and genotype need not be canalized in nature — in some cases, there may be a tenuous relationship between the two, and more often than not, the connection is merely statistical in nature. Organisms that thrive best are those whose replicators endure throughout the ages. A phenotype is an ephemeral husk that withers away upon the death of an organism, but genes endure throughout the ages.

      If you think this truism lends credence to political opinions that you personally may abhor (see: Dick Lewontin, Stevie Gould, and their acolytes), you are probably wrong. And even if you weren’t, that’s just simply too damn bad. A sober observer could simply accept reality for what it is and move on — but no, in Lewontin’s case, it is better to swagger against neo-Darwinism like a deranged lunatic, and hopefully drag some reputations through the mud while you are at it.

    • misreavus says:

      It has come to my attention that a lot of this sniping against biological theories that actually work originates from a certain tribe of academic celebrities who are deeply afraid of the political implications of certain theories that rub them the wrong way, and thus waste the bulk of careers convincing the public to reject them a priori, rather than building up competing theories for themselves.

      Take Lewontin, for instance. He, along with a handful of dimwitted philsophers of science, have spent decades trashing the usefulness of heritability in the behavioral sciences. To Lewontin, heritability estimates are a worthless measure of anything, because heritability is a mere estimate of the average phenotypic contributions of a restricted set of environmental variables to a range of genotypes within a population. They don’t tell you how tall Johnny could grow, or how high Maria’s IQ could rise in all possible environments that can ever be demonstrated to exist in the universe — in other words, the norm of reaction, which is the only thing that should truly matter for behavioral genetics. And of course, as he points out, there is no way for us to calculate any norm of reaction for our species to begin with. (What was the point then, you jackass?) Therefore, behavior genetics is reactionary pseudoscience, and genes do not matter. QED.

      For a fledgling science that receives almost no funding, is held in ill repute, and goes entirely ignored by biologists (and even geneticists themselves), these people sure seem to spend an absurd of time bashing behavior genetics. Sure, medical researchers and the like may pay lip service to twin studies, but they curiously seem to ignore all of their most important implications. (E.g. parenting doesn’t matter, school funding doesn’t matter, heritability is high for IQ, and low for homosexuality, etc.) Sheesh, Bouchard had to go all the way to the Pioneer Fund to obtain funding for his Minnesota twin study. And last I checked, most of the active researchers are psychologists who have little formal training in biology. Why do they spend so much time kicking a cooked goose?

      Kin selection is yet another example. W.D. Hamilton, Maynard Smith, George Price, and other theorists have developed an elegant theory that explains everything from the evolution of eusocial behavior among ants and bees, to the sex ratio in mammals, to self-sacrificing behavior, altruism, and beyond. But we can’t have that, because it implies the pesky notion that parents love their own kids more than they love other people’s kids, even in our species, and that this behavior is hardwired somehow. Hence no Communist utopia, no shared ownership of the means of production, and no final withering away of the state. The horrors! You mean to tell me we weren’t all brainwashed to be selfish by our Eurocentric, capitalist society?

      The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins famously quipped that kin selection has no relevance to human beings, because people in primitive cultures do not know enough math to calculate the fraction of relatedness between themselves and their nearest relations. That is not even wrong. That is powerful stupid.

      No, the truth has to lie elsewhere — genes are only one out of many equally important vehicles for the differential survival of biological forms. If you believe otherwise, you are a reductionist asshole, and a Nazi. Group selection is indeed an important mechanism for evolutionary change, as is species selection, or even selection for clades above the species level. Natural selection works by increasing diversity, not by reducing it, because diversity is our strength. Genes play only a minor role in phenotype, and we can feel free to ignore them whenever we want. Epigenetic change! Biology is really, really, really, really complicated; therefore all generalizations are false, especially if they use math. The sky is pink, the grass is blue, the earth is flat. The end.

      • Rob King says:

        You are being overly kind to Sahlins. Sahlins did not quip this. He made it the central tenet of his gawd awful book. He reiterates the error in his latest book too.

    • misreavus says:

      Also, there is a way for a phenotype to evolve in a way that genes play progressively less and less of a role in its development, until finally we reach the stage until they do not matter whatsoever. In fact, that is the only way it can evolve.

      Just ask Stevie Gould, he writes about this a lot in his landmark Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

  19. a very knowing American says:

    Not terribly advanced math, but it’s surprising how many people don’t get exponential growth. Darwin certainly got it, and it’s central to his thinking. (Check out the chapter on the struggle for existence in The Origin.) But I’ve heard people argue that Australia was thinly populated for more than 30,000 years of prehistory because aborigines just hadn’t got to carrying capacity, or that people didn’t bother to invent agriculture til 10,000 BC because they spent tens of thousands of years below carrying capacity and didn’t need the extra food. Apparently these people never heard the story I did as a kid about the clever courtier who asked the king for a modest gift of one grain of rice for the first square on the chess board, two for the second, four for the third, etc. Or they somehow don’t associate compound growth rates with doubling times. Or the whole topic of Malthusianism is so depressing they don’t want to think about it. Not sure what the problem is.

    Exponential growth is why the Fermi Paradox is so paradoxical. If the Zebulonians or whoever reached our level of technology tens of millions of years ago, they should long since have turned the galaxy into Dyson spheres. Unless they (100% of them) blew themselves up or turned into Lotos eaters. Or unless we are the only Zebulonians-to-be around.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      That’s the reason i tend to think sci-fi is wrong in having lots of very different space-faring alien races. I think they’ll likely be exactly the same i.e. they’ll all have figured out the one way to get to that point without self-destruction of some kind.

      If so and that singular way is “nice” then maybe they’d quarantine any species that hadn’t made it yet as those that made it would be guaranteed to be safe and those that didn’t – well you certainly wouldn’t to give them laser cannons.

      • jb says:

        I don’t know how alike space-faring alien races will be, but my suspicion is that all extraterrestrial life (and I think that life at least at the bacterial level is probably fairly common) will be based on very similar chemistry. To be more specific, I think their genetics will be based on DNA, they will use ATP to power their cells (isn’t it remarkable that all cells use ATP!), and there be dozens of other very specific points of similarity.

        My reason for thinking this has to do with the Anthropic Argument and the idea of the Landscape. If it is true we live in a multiverse in which the vast majority of universes do not allow any sort of life at all, then one would expect that the next most common case would be universes in which only one sort of life was possible, and that these universes would vastly outnumber universes in which two or more fundamentally different forms of life coexist.

        Note that is a testable hypothesis — for example if the arsenic-based life thing had panned out the hypothesis would have been falsified. It follows also that if we do discover life on Mars, and it turns out be very similar to ours (DNA, ATP, etc.), that this is notnecessarily proof of panspermia!

    • JayMan says:

      On the Fermi issue, why do you think the Zebulonians keep building Dyson spheres? 😉

      • a very knowing American says:

        For the same reason humans over the last thousands of years have turned more and more of the Earth over to cropland and pasture: to capture more of the sun’s output to support exponentially growing populations. Maybe there’s an alternative to Dyson spheres, like ripping whole suns apart, but you’d think it would be pretty obvious.

        But maybe galactic civilization is kept at low density by the same thing that kept some pre-state societies at low density: war. Maybe there’s some evil first-strike advantage in interstellar war where you eliminate the guys in neighboring star systems out to some distance because otherwise they’ll do the same to you. And you refrain from colonizing neighboring stars because soon enough your colonies will turn on you. So the galaxy is filled with widely dispersed single-star civilizations with no-man’s-lands between them. This is assuming a first strike eliminates the other guys’ ability to retaliate, for whatever technical reason. You’re not competing over resources, but just stuck in a game where “Get them before they get you” is a stable equilibrium and “Everybody play nice” is an unstable equilibrium.

    • aisaac says:

      I was going to leave essentially the same comment, but you beat me to it. What’s even more surprising is how many people understand exponential growth in one context, but not in another. John McCarthy, of Lisp fame, surely understand why brute force would never solve an NP-hard problem, but he didn’t understand why population growth can’t go on at 20th century rates for billions of years, even though the reason is mathematically the same in both cases. – exponentially growth leads to a number bigger than Jesus, and quicker than you think. I catch myself making similar errors occasionally. It’s just not intuitive.

    • teageegeepea says:

      I see that in Raymond Crotty’s “When Histories Collide”. He treats some societies as land-limited, while others are limited by labor or capital, and that’s over very long periods of time. But the logic of Malthus/Darwin is that population/labor will always expand to meet the carrying capacity of land (including effects of overpopulation like disease or fighting).

    • JayMan says:

      “For the same reason humans over the last thousands of years have turned more and more of the Earth over to cropland and pasture: to capture more of the sun’s output to support exponentially growing populations.”

      Ah but that’s just it. Think about it: is it a given that the populations of technological species grow indefinitely? Even on own world it appears that population growth might cease after some time.

      Colonization, especially indefinite colonization only makes sense with continued population growth. This may not even be an issue.

      • bruce says:

        In the seventh decade of the previous century, youngster, when PCs and scientific pocket calculators were coming in, you could try your best to advance the state of the art and fail totally, poop out a squawking turkey, and still sell it as a desktop calculator and make a living. And if you DID advance the state of the art, REALLY smart people would notice and pay you REALLY good money and hire you or come work for you. They built a computer revolution.

        Nowadays, you can try your best to advance the state of the art in personal medical monitoring and drug dispensing, assemble good people, be smart and hardworking and fail totally, poop out a giant squawking turkey, and still break even selling it to overly endowed hospitals. Or if it’s dumb enough, to exercise freaks. And if you really advance the state of the art, and smart people etc, we get a medical implant revolution. We could tweak personal abilities like IQ, like Poul Anderson’s ‘Brain Wave’. It’s only twenty years away! Like fusion since 1952. Um. Or Obamacare might do unto American medicine like Nader’s Raiders did Detroit’s Big Three.

        Where are the aliens? Somewhere smarter than we can imagine. A society of billions, where pets and retards at the far left of the bell curve have 180 IQs: it’s closer than star travel.

  20. unladen swallow says:

    He has become increasingly wishy-washy as he has aged. Once the establishment welcomed him back into the fold and he became a spokesman for environmentalism around the early 1990’s, his ideas have become increasingly muddle-headed and he has been tacking more to the left. Sociobiology was a great book in part because he had Trivers do the heavy lifting theoretically for him, while he focused on the empirical side which is his strength. Later Harvard denied tenure to Trivers ostensibly because of his psychological problems, but really because he was carrying the banner for Sociobiology and it served as a convenient pretext. I think Hamilton was briefly at Harvard, then went to the U of Michigan, but apparently went back to Britain because of the hostility he felt towards his ideas in the US.

  21. BS King over at Bad Data, Bad! had similar thoughts, with some additions you might like.

  22. Ron Hoeflin, who designed the Mega Test the High-IQ societies sometimes use, found that number series questions correlated with the overall score better than any other category. I suspect the ability is very similar to the Raven’s, just in a different form. I would have thought that the spatial questions, which had one rotating three interpenetrating cubes in one’s head, would have been better, but they weren’t. Worked out for me, as I just could not do those well at all.

    The person I knew who did those best, BTW – a math major from Brown who found them to be second-nature – has chucked it all and now runs a motel in the Adirondacks.

  23. namae nanka says:

    “We have one such course called Method and Logic in Quantitative Biology, and we teach the classic papers, many of which are forgotten because they can’t be taught now because people don’t understand the math. You may remember reading Luria and Delbruck, and you may remember that nobody understood Luria and Delbruck because they didn’t have the math–and these were MIT graduate students! Poisson distribution–don’t bother me.”

    and more recently:

    Students were asked “If a is a positive whole number, which is greater: a/5 or a/8?” Fifty percent would answer correctly if they just guessed. Percentage who answered correctly: 53%.

    • Richard Sharpe says:

      Is it possible that a more careful statement is required here? Something along the lines of “Some (NAM) students seem to have a problem with math.”

  24. bokko says:

    “Maybe a lot of these low-math types just aren’t very smart. I’ve never seen any sign that E. O. Wilson is.”

    You’re right. No sign at all. At all.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I liked Sociobiology, and read some more of his books. The Ants was also interesting, but the others, those I read, didn’t seem to say anything. When I ask people what important problem Wilson has solved, what important prediction of his has come true, I hear crickets.

      • misdreavus says:

        He has done a lot of stamp collecting. You can’t forget that. And he writes the most beautiful prose.

      • bokko says:

        The Superorganism alone explains the workings of the world more than any extant history, economics, or political science course, and if one follows that up with his seminal work with MacArthur on island biogeography, one grasps even more. Biological lenses allow anyone to see the world more clearly.

        Just now, grabbing Sociobiology off of my shelf and thumbing through it after having opened it last perhaps five years ago, I’m in awe over the amount of data gathered, synthesized, and cogently presented therein. If this is what “not very smart” is, one wonders where the lockstepped leavers of pithy comments on websites fall on your intelligence scale.

      • teageegeepea says:

        My recollection is that he was the first to predict the existence of eusocial mammals, before we knew about naked mole rats.

  25. Jim says:

    To Paul Morel –
    Since Von Neumann was born in 1903 perhaps we can overlook his failure to develop the General Theory of Relativity.

  26. unladen swallow says:

    To JB, Are you saying that the extinctions are happening? We know that animals and plants track habitat when it meanders around. Before the beginnings of the Pleistocene Ice Ages, their was a lot more forest cover than there is now, then it dropped to far less than there is now. The Sahara extended something like 300 miles further south than today, the Kalahari likewise expanded further north. We know that the Congo forest contracted by 80 percent compared to present day during the coldest parts of the Pleistocene. We don’t see mass extinctions with forest cover loss far greater than anything that is happening now. During the peaks of glaciation there was three times the current area that was covered by glaciers, obviously this leads to less precipitation that fuels tropical forest growth.

    As regards to PC people suppressing it, they are probably more effective than other issues because it’s a tangential issue to a lot of non-PC people. It’s way down on their list of environmental fallacies to debunk, and the people out in the field are probably more can’t see the forest for the trees types anyway. They are worried about studying this species or that habitat and besides why bring it up if it will hurt funding for themselves? As it has already been pointed out here, biologists are not exactly math savvy and I’m guessing field biologists are the least theory oriented of all biologists.

  27. Noname says:

    Not math,the logical thinking is difficult.

  28. I think you’re right in regards to measured intelligence. I have something like 113 in Wechsler III and I can only deal with quite simple math, I guess, and most regular elements of humanities and social sciences. Perhaps Wilson is a typical quite high verbal IQ person.

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  34. Chris says:

    The only idiot here is you, or you are complete homophobe, or -the most likely- you are both. You make various incorrect assumptions: first, you assume that sexuality is black or white (i.e., gay or straight); second, you assume that gay and lesbian do not have biological kids; third you are ignorant of other theories than “gay uncle” and assume it is the only one (clearly you too much of an idiot to learn how to google).

    • Discard says:

      Chris: “Homophobe” is not a word, it’s a mating cry for leftist bigots. Normal, healthy people don’t care for homosexuality. We don’t hate them, obsess about them, or harass them, we may even socialize with them, but we’re not so brainwashed or confused as to think that there’s not something wrong with them. Your contention that a person with such attitudes is suffering from a phobia is a clear indication of your own deficiencies. Only a neurotic, a homosexual, or a slavish follower of intellectual fashion would define an aversion to perversion as a sickness.

      • Chris says:

        Discard, you are prolly old and irrelevant. Your kind will be extinct soon.

      • Discard says:

        No Chris, my kind will not be extinct soon. We breed. We work. We are the host population.

      • alysdexia says:

        It is a word as it has meaning. Learn semicolons. By definition only a theist can be a bigot (by god). Normality has nothing to do with morals nor does it apply to you. Some definitions and the cause of sexuality (also see each of my comments thru under notthistimenet’s comment):

        There are things wrong with every group. How about we talk about the depravity of your unisexual altersexual breeding group who beget and rear children without their consent, waste resources on redundant life, lead to the decay and death of the parents, pass on defects and diseases to offspring, sexually abuse kids more than any other group, refuse to adopt and promote mosaic/perfect intersexual genitals and recreation/procreation, and cannot contribute skill rather than labor to society, instead of end the birth-death loop like other species. Ye may go extinct yet, and shall go extinct when someone GMs zika and like viria so that mating no longer works.

  35. Pingback: Unz vs. Cochran Smakckdown on “‘Gay Gene’ vs. ‘Gay Germ’” Theories | Conservative Heritage Times

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  38. ju xie says:

    E. O. Wilson would have benefited from having that extra sense. If he had it, he might not have suggested that ridiculous “gay uncle” theory, in which homosexuality pays for itself genetically thru gay men helping their siblings in ways that produce extra nieces and nephews. First, that doesn’t even happen – so much for field work. Second, it’s impossible. The relationship coefficients don’t work. Nephews and nieces are only half as closely related as your own kids, so you’d need four extra to break even, rather than two, as with your own kids. Maybe if Wilson had ever learned to divide by two, he wouldn’t have made this mistake.


    humans, unlike internet bloggers reproduce sexually, and thus our own children have only half of our genes. You need two extra per sibling. Consider: If you have an average amount of kids per family of 10, you are forgoing 5 sets of your genes by being a gay. You’d need 20 nieces or nephews to break even If you have 9 (~10) siblings, you need to increase each family by 2.

    anyway, the take away should be evo psych is pretty much bullshit, especially in regards to questions of human depravity. Lol, babyfurs are caused by ancient competition between alphas for wooly mammoths! The baby part comes from sexual attraction to neotonal features (i personally am not attracted to such features, mr. fbi).

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  41. Mike Del Sol says:

    What is the evidence that homosexuals have fewer children than heterosexuals, historically and in contemporary society?

  42. Alice says:

    I got banned from Marginal Revolution for pointing out to one of the authors that P(A|B) didn’t equal P(B|A). Another author didn’t understand that a probability is a statement of ignorance, and thought there was something magical that a person could reproduce a physical experiment with high fidelity and achieve the same result repeatedly–that experiment happened to be a coin toss.

    I recently realized that biologists and chemists routinely mistake answers on surveys for being independently identically distributed random variables with mean 0. That means attempts to stop p hacking don’t help; they fundamentally misunderstand anything mathematical about probability and randomness.

    It would be better if they took actual math in college taught by math people. But it’s too late for most of them. What will get them to admit they’re wrong?

  43. Pingback: Greg Cochran’s “Gay Germ” Hypothesis – An Exercise in the Power of Germs – Saffron Storm Trooper

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