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Much Nothing about Ado: The Uselessness of Dehumanized Darwinism

Humans are mere animals in Darwinian thinking. The same evolutionary mechanisms and selective pressures that make fruit flies cooperate, or fish to swarm, or rams to bash their heads together, cause Homo sapiens to form political parties, revolt against kings, or cheer at baseball games. Human exceptionalism is omitted from their equations. According to Darwinians, every human behavior, as well as every fish behavior or fruit fly behavior or chimpanzee behavior, is a consequence of natural selection. If this premise were scientific, evolutionary anthropologists should be able to model human behavior and make predictions.

Suppose a scientist tells you about his new model. It goes like this: 

If we assume X, then Y might result under particular circumstances, as long as we hold A constant, as Dr. Wizard surmised in his widely accepted model of the evolution of human and non-human animal behavior H. But according to our revised model, the situation is more complex. It turns out that B is a function of C, which affects A in unpredictable ways, resulting in chaotic behavior, depending on whether selection is taken into account. When selection is not considered, stable cyclic behavior is a possible outcome, at least in some studies, but those models do not correlate with field observations. Our revised model finds that D(E) has been overlooked, which is likely influenced by F(P), and since A is not always constant, as has been assumed, one might get a stable equilibrium, or a cycle, or chaos, depending on the weather. It’s complicated.

Are you impressed by this advance toward the scientific understanding of human nature? 

Research from Stanford and Tel Aviv

Something very similar to it was just published in PNAS by four scientists from Stanford and Tel Aviv Universities pretending to explain “Cultural evolution of conformity and anticonformity.” Conformity might be illustrated by a fruit fly imitating its neighbor’s behavior, or a teen following what the other teens are doing. Anticonformity might be a bird leaving the flock, or a man defying his state’s coronavirus lockdown guidelines. To Kaleda Krebs Denton, Yoav Ram, Uri Liberman, and Marcus W. Feldman, the subjects in the population make no difference, because “We’re all in this [Darwinian thing] together.”

The evolutionary dynamics of cultural variants under conformist- and anticonformist-biased transmission have implications for humans and nonhuman animals. Humans display both conformist and anticonformist biases, and models of conformist-biased transmission have been proposed to explain large-scale human cooperation. Nonhuman animals have been shown to display conformist biases in mating and foraging decisions. Here, we investigate established mathematical models of conformist and anticonformist bias with and without selection and find complex dynamics, including multiple stable polymorphic equilibria, stable cycles, and chaos. [Emphasis added.]

This paper illustrates two things: (1) Darwinian theory is utterly useless when applied to human behavior, and (2) no amount of mathematical hand-waving can fix bad premises.

A “Wave” of Fans

Admittedly, there may be a little predictability to human behavior in regard to conformity. When a “wave” starts in a football stadium, most people (but not all) will cheerfully join in to keep it going. Every parent worries about peer pressure their offspring will face at college. Military recruits are drilled to obey orders, fearing the bad consequences of disobedience. But people are not fish! Papers like this one relegate humans to pawns of evolutionary forces. It’s a denial of free will. And it’s absurd; if a person conforms, natural selection did it. If the person does not conform, natural selection did that, too. Natural selection is Darwin’s catch-all explanation for everything, even opposite things. Daniel Dennett called it a “universal acid,” but didn’t catch the fact that it dissolves its container, too — evolutionary theory itself! In the end, it explains absolutely nothing. 

Naïve readers of this PNAS paper might be intimidated by the math. You can ignore the following example paragraph, because it is so vague, it has nothing to do with the real world. Human behavior is a subject that matters to all of us, but this Darwinian approach to behavior signifies much nothing (emptiness) about ado (fuss, or busy activity about something that matters). To borrow another line from Shakespeare, it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The real message is in the theory rescue words between the symbols:

It might be expected that if p∗=12 is the unique polymorphic equilibrium, then either p∗=0 and p∗=1 are both stable and p∗=12 is not stable, or both p∗=0 and p∗=1 are not stable and p∗=12 is stable, since it is a protected polymorphism. In fact, when p∗=0 and p∗=1 are both stable, there is global convergence to one of them; p∗=12 is not stable, such that [0,12) is the domain of attraction of p∗=0 and (12,1] that of p∗=1. However, when both p∗=0 and p∗=1 are not stable, then even when p∗=12 is the unique polymorphic equilibrium, it is possible that p∗=12 is not stable. For example, following Eq. B8 in SI Appendix, section B, let ϕn=1+(12)n−2∑n−1j=kD(j)n(nj)(2j−n). From Eq. 4, the lower bound of ϕn occurs when D(j)=−j for all k≤j≤n−1, in which case all of the D(j) s are negative and p∗=12 is unique by Result 3. SI Appendix, Table S1 presents the lower bounds on ϕn for n=3,4,…,20. The bounds on D, namely, −j<D(j)<n−j, do not provide a predictable relationship between j and D. Changing n can change the bounds on ϕ(n), and if D(j) is at its lower bound, then the dynamics are affected by n.

On and on this paper goes, manipulating symbols this way and that, qualifying every situation with exceptions, ending with a final dramatic letdown:

Our detailed analysis of the two-population case without selection illustrates how complex the relationship between migration and conformist transmission can be. If the conformity coefficients are the same in both populations, two polymorphic equilibria other than (12,12), as well as the fixation states (0,0) and (1,1), can be stable if the migration rate is less than 18 and the conformity coefficient is large enough (Eq. 64). However, if this coefficient is small enough, only the fixation states are stable.

Thus the claim that “conformist transmission generates a population-level process that creates and maintains group boundaries and cultural differences through time” (ref. 4, p. 231) is not always true.

Any Predictions Here?

Does their model make any predictions? No. Is it falsifiable? No. Did it advance human understanding in any measurable way? Certainly not. In fact, it undermined earlier models that tried to do the same thing by noting more exceptions and omissions. Whatever it is trying to model is critically dependent on unprovable assumptions and false premises, namely, that humans are mere animals. It is hard to find any redeeming value in this exercise, and yet the NAS printed it gleefully, because it is Darwinian.

There’s a stronger reason for dismissing this paper. As Nancy Pearcey has shown on ID the Future, Darwinians almost always fail to apply their own models to themselves. If these four authors really believed their own assumptions, the act of writing the paper was a consequence of natural selection, too. They didn’t mean any of it. They were not searching for unbiased truth. They merely wanted to boost their own fitness, and the best way to do it was to take the “conformist” position on Darwinism. One could go further and say their minds were not even involved; the words on the page came about by “selection pressure.”

What You Are Reading Is Not Real

Another article in PNAS is downright scary. In an article on Science and Culture (sound familiar?), David Adam advocates spinning fictions by scientists. The title is, “Science and Culture: ‘Design fiction’ skirts reality to provoke discussion and debate.” By “design fiction,” he means that researchers are learning how to create fake realities, in order to watch how humans react. He starts with an example:

In October 2015, researchers presented an unusual paper at a computer science conference in London. The paper described the promising results of a pilot project in which a local community used surveillance drones to enforce car parking restrictions and to identify dog owners who failed to clean up after their pets. Controlled by four elderly retirees, the drones buzzed around the city and directed council officials on the ground.

The paper and its accompanying video generated lively discussion about the ethics and regulation of drone use among delegates at the CHI PLAY conference. But there was a catch: The paper, the video, and the pilot scheme were fictional, as the researchers admitted at the end of both the paper and the presentation.

David Adam doesn’t appear to have any ethical qualms about misleading people in this way. It “generated lively discussion,” that’s all. The ethical qualms were about drone use — not about the fictional scheme, and fibbing for science. The experiment was “provocative by design.” 

Design fiction is one of a number of overlapping terms that have emerged in the last decade or so to describe the process by which designers, researchers, artists, engineers, and technologists devise — and sometimes present or publish — scenarios to provoke debate. 

Is that not like evidence that Russians are trying to divide Americans by provoking discord from both sides of the aisle? The popular YouTube channel Smarter Every Day spoke with the leading social media giants to show how the Internet is filled with bots using high tech to manipulate public opinion. What if science journals did that? What if they decided never to reveal that their “design fiction” research was all fictional? Who could trust any research ever again?

Circling around, why not just dismiss the PNAS paper about the “evolution of conformity” and call it design fiction? If it is fine for the researchers to dissemble, it is fine for their readers to dismiss it as Darwinian fiction. We’re onto them. We are human beings. We don’t get pushed around by blind, unguided processes like natural selection. We use our minds. If they respond with the claim that “natural selection nudged you into the anticonformist position,” we can counter with, “And natural selection nudged you to write this paper.”

Photo: Football fans do “The Wave” at the University of Michigan, by Ken Lund from Reno, Nevada, USA / CC BY-SA.