Sunday, 4 September 2016

Ingold's straw men

Social anthropologist and memeophobe Tim Ingold has recently posted: a piece explaining the problems he has with cultural evolution. He writes:

One of these ideas, endlessly rehashed over the past century and more, is that there is a parallel between biological inheritance and cultural heritage. News to anthropologists? Certainly not. For us it is long-discredited old hat. Most sensible social and cultural anthropologists effectively abandoned the idea some fifty years ago.
It seems to be true that most social and cultural anthropologists abandoned the idea of Darwinian cultural. However, this observation is well explained by other hypotheses. These folk know little about evolutionary theory, were actively misled by poor quality teachers - and so on.

In the article, Tim focuses on two straw men. He claims that evolution:

requires a kind of ‘population thinking’ (the phrase comes from Ernst Mayr) according to which every living organism is a discrete, externally bounded entity, one of a population of such entities, and relating to other organisms in its environment along lines of external contact that leave its basic, internally specified nature unaffected.

Instead, Tim says the correct position is incompatible with this. That position is:

This is that the identities, characteristics and dispositions of persons are not bestowed upon them in advance of their involvement with others but are the condensations of histories of growth and maturations within fields of relationships. Thus every person emerges as a locus of development within such a field, which is in turn carried on and transformed through their own actions.

This isn't an either-or situation, though. In biology, organisms have their own largely-unchanging essence specified in their genome, and they also grow, develop and change as a result in interactions with other organisms and with the environment. It isn't easy to imagine why Tim thinks that developmental changes are incompatible with modern evolutionary theory. As far as I can tell, practically nobody else thinks this is a problem. Tim's proposed solution is to make biology more relational. However, biologists already study biological interactions. Biology is already highly relational. It has been so since the beginning - but became even more so during the symbiology revolution of the 1960s-1980s.

Tim's other straw man is 'scientism'. Tim defines this as follows:

Scientism is a doctrine, or a system of beliefs, founded on the assertion that scientific knowledge takes only one form, and that this form has an unrivalled and universal claim to truth.

Really? Who are these 'scientism' enthusiasts? Do they know any Bayesian statistics? I doubt these folk actually exist. Tim's cult of scientism is a straw man. I can easily believe that scientists fairly uniformly reject Tim's nonsense - but that does not make them part of a cult of 'scientism'. It just means that Tim is peddling a bunch of unorthodox doctrines that few scientists accept. These days, that is the unfortunate position of all anthropologists who reject who cultural evolution. The facts and evidence are not on their side, and so increasingly they will have to turn to conspiracy theories and imaginary cults to explain the positions of their opponents.

We've had over 150 years of pre-Darwinian thinking in the social sciences. Now we have the internet, finally some social scientists are waking up and getting on board, with economists typically leading the way, confirming the position of economics as the most scientific of the social sciences. However, the evolution revolution evidently takes some time, and some people get on board earlier than others.

1 comment:

  1. In my opinion, Ingold's first argument is a part of long lasting discussion on topic of the definition of 'one'.

    Should we consider atom as 'one'? Or probably a neutron?

    In physics, the answer depends on the energy of interaction (relation). Simply put, iff the interaction between parts of 'one' is much greater than the incoming 'interaction' than there is a sense in describing the whole situation as formula 'entity + force'.

    If the orders of magnitude of the energies are equal, then another approximation like 'Mean field theory' is required to properly describe what is happening there.

    I believe the same holds for the interactions of the memeplexes, with a note* below.

    If an incoming idea is easily interpreted by the means of contexts (memeplexes) that invidual consists of then this idea simply adds to them. This is how second year of the studying of a topic looks like.

    Otherwise, "we are what we eat" rule comes into play and this new incoming idea either makes a new context in the mind of an invidiual or gets rejected completely.

    Some of the memeplexes are delibaratively produced incomprehensible so they do form new identities in carrier's mind. For instance, Apple's marketing is built this way, and religions and ethnicities are good examples. I prefer to call these 'identities'.

    I'm struggling to get rid of the 'responsibility' as 'the ability of one to reflect one's actions' from the way one can change his/her own identities and separate personality from the parasite identities such as bad habbits. So, the best-surviving identities are these taking away personal responsibility and giving hosts the reason to be proud of something (e.g. Empires).

    * However, because the memes are interactions themselves (it is the encoding of information), the system is significantly non-linear. This makes definition of 'one' for memeplexes far more complex, because there is no good 'Mean field theory' for such explicitly non-linear systems and everything depends on the amount of integration just like Integrated Information Theory states.