on sex and suicide bombing

Please note this post was edited (below) on 23 May 2011

David Lawson, Kesson Magid and I have just published On Sex and Suicide Bombing: An evaluation of Kanazawa’s ‘Evolutionary Psychological Imagination’. This is a critique of Satoshi Kanazawa’s 2007 paper: “The Evolutionary Psychological Imagination: Why You Can’t Get a Date on a Saturday Night and Why Most Suicide Bombers are Muslim.”

Many objections to evolutionary psychology are ideological or political. This is not the case in our paper: nothing makes me (and my co-authors) froth at the mouth more than bad science. We say:

The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to ask, and sometimes answer, tough questions.
Addressing the tough questions without the transparency afforded by the scientific method is not brave: it is simply cavalier.

Kanazawa’s paper is full of bad science. We are not the first to criticise him on such grounds, but it bears repeating that when there are controversial and sensitive issues at stake, we beholden to demand a high standard of scholarship and science.

EDIT 23 May 2011

In the light of another piece of “science” by Kanazawa, reported on his blog, I have decided to add to this post a list of the published academic responses to Kanazawa’s work. It really saddens me that someone who pushes an agenda to carry out controversial investigations cannot pair that agenda with quality science. As said above, with academic freedom comes responsibility.

This list was compiled with the help of colleagues. Please let me know of any additions or corrections. At last count, the 20 listed papers involved 56 separate authors.

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bob, was it not enough to organise a rock concert?

This makes me cringe:

Bob Geldof and the BBC have unveiled plans for a website and television series that aim to record every human society.

The Dictionary of Man website and an eight-part television series, The Human Planet, will be made with help from BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm. Crews will travel the world to try to film the 900 separate groups of people that anthropologists believe exist.

The makers hope the project will produce a definitive record of mankind.

First, it is clearly too much to ask that we cease using “man” and “mankind” as generic terms for all human beings. Humanity. PEOPLE.

Second, and bear in mind I am a big fan of ethnographic databases, why exactly do we need to spend this money in this way? Is it so that when languages die out, and people cannot continue their accustomed lifeways due to things like industrial logging and waterway pollution, then people in the UK can feel okay because they have a glossy set of pictures to look at?

Third: good luck with that.

BBC headlines ‘really annoying’

A rant, just for a second.

Like every other computer-bound sod I compulsively check the BBC news webpages all day and consider myself somewhat familiar with their style. The thing that’s really narking me off right now is their headlines. From today’s (although yesterday’s was much worse):

1. Twin blasts ‘kill 24’ in Baghdad

2. Majority ‘back’ animal research

3. Schools ‘must teach about drugs’

The little ‘scare quotes‘ are breeding and multiplying all over the page. It was my understanding that scare quotes are used to denote where a term was a matter of opinion rather than strict fact (or to convey some sort of journalistic editorialising if one could be bothered with the double entendre). So the use in the title of this post, and in the last example there, seem to be the valid use of the little splashes of punctuation. But why (for example) in ‘kill 24’? According to the sources at least 24 people were killed. As a reading of breaking news, I am quite okay with Twin blasts kill 24 in Baghdad, even if it ends up that somewhat more or less is the confirmed number. Do people really get terribly and litigiously upset if headlines don’t indicate uncertainty on every detail?

The second example is presumably qualifying that the majority of people polled, while supportive of animal-based research, don’t necessary want their taxes spent on it. But we get that from the article. There is a statement of general fact there: the majority of people polled do back research. Of course there’s qualification, else the article would merely be the headline.

Now, I completely understand that the headline-writing for the BBC News website is some sort of ordeal of attempting to fit maximum clickable interest into less than seven words. BUT. The increase (and I really do think it has increased) in the use of the quotes implies to me (1) lack of imagination and (2) some sort of lazy journalism where the headlines become all about opinion – and not balanced presentation of the facts and issues as well as the requisite quotes from two polarised sources, just for ‘balance’.

And since one of the Editors said on their blog the other day that they read what bloggers say about their site, I look forward to my queries being addressed.

Gavin Menzies rewriting Polynesian origins, neat!

Via Savage Minds, who have reproduced the article from the Dominion. Gavin Menzies (author of a book called 1421: The Year China Discovered The World–which I have not read) claims all sorts of interesting selective stuff about Chinese exploration of the Pacific (transcript of a speech, here) and most mindbogglingly, that the Maori were not actually Polynesians but result of "Melanesian slaves raping Chinese prostitutes".

Reading the speech linked above it seems clear to me that Menzies is relying heavily on selective-to-the-point-of-distorted interpretations of genetic work. Yes, East Asian lineages appear in Polynesian and South American populations. But this is because they share common East Asian ancestors a good, oh, 6000 years ago, in the case of the Polynesians, and likely twice that for South Americans. Not because they're descended from a Chinese/Japanese "fleet" from 600 years ago.

More from the speech above:

M. Hertzberg and Colleagues found an Asian specific delection of mitochondrial DNA in Polynesians – notably, Niueans, Tongans, Samoans and Maoris. Shinji Harihara and colleagues produce startling pie charts – it appears the Niueans, Tongans, Samoans and Fijians had ancestors from the Shizoka province of Japan. To this day Niueans share close linguistic similarities with Mainland Chinese.

I'd expect this in a second-year anthropological genetics paper (which I would subsequently give a C). The whole point about the 9bp deletion is that it tracks (roughly) the Austronesian expansion, of which all those Polynesian populations were the end result. I can't even begin to stop laughing at "startling pie charts" and hope one day to get a review which praises MY startling pie charts. And Niueans sharing close linguistic similarities with Mainland Chinese (uh, what are we calling Mainland Chinese?)… okay. I would like to see the statistical comparison there that demonstrates more cognates between Niuean and Mandarin than Niuean and Tikopian, or Niuean and Mekeo, or Niuean and freakin' MALAGASY, and then I might listen.

Yup. Might be waiting some time for that.

Back to the Dominion report:

Menzies said his book had been well-received around the world but had drawn hostile criticism in New Zealand — because academics were government servants out to protect their pensions.

"People just don't believe them any more. I think they live in boxes and their whole way of teaching history is fundamentally flawed, from the bottom up."

Well, it is always a big clue when the academic pension is regarded as the carrot by which scores of anthropologists/historians/biologists conspire to fraudulently rewrite history, and a lone voice carries the truth, right?

I am quite tempted to read this book as a bit of rage is sometimes quite healthy, but like Oppenheimer's Eden in the East, I fear it might sit nicely alongside a bit of Graham Hancock.

edited to add: A quick tour of 1421exposed and links therein reveals right-thinking folk have gone ahead and thoroughly demolished this rubbish. Well done, learned peeps. 

Have a more interesting link instead, (beautiful) photos of the Columbian Nukak

please leave a msg, the aliens are on myspace

Geoffrey Miller writes in SEED Magazine about Why We Haven't Met Any Aliens.

Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot.

According to GM, the best and brightest minds get seduced by fancy entertainment technologies that mimic our evolutionary go-to impulses: fast-food, porn, iPods. There'll be no-one left to run NASA, and maybe–like the aliens–there'll just be no-one left.

Uh, I don't think so. As a bright spark in our discussion group said, Miller deflates his own argument later on:

Some individuals and families may start with an "irrational" Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism.

That is, natural variation will contain strategies that will outcompete the Sims-addicted entertainment-happy phenotypes. This happens to me all the time because other people read journal articles when I read Batman. 

It's provoking, this piece, and I suspect not entirely serious–although the last remarks concerning the rise of  fundamentalism(s) need to be unpacked with respect to evolutionary motivations ALSO. I do like the term "creative class", but it irks me because it comes from a place of privilege. Someone's gotta be out there running the hamster wheel that makes the internet go. Someone's soldering the chip in your VR goggles. And that someone will quite likely be more than motivated to take your place in the great quest for knowledge if you're just slouched on the couch.