Friday, 27 March 2015

On hipster beards and gender essentialism

The background: someone posted this Herald article, entitled “Hipster beards are just a way to get women – study”, on a feminist Facebook group that I follow. The first comment on it read “I would love to know what Daniel Copeland thinks of this.” I started to answer, and then found it was getting long enough to be a blog post, and hey, I haven’t got a blog post yet this week, so...

Well, since I’ve been asked for my opinion – the first thing I notice is the title. I used to work at a magazine, and I know what editors do to titles. “This will get people to click the link” always trumps “This actually has something to do with the content” (let alone “This summarizes the content non-misleadingly”, which seldom gets a look-in).

So it’s an evolutionary psychology study. There’s a solid core of good theory under evo psych, but there’s also a lot of poorly-evidenced studies around, especially in areas relating to gender. (Evo psych examines a much broader range of topics than just gender, but you’d never know it from the media coverage.) The science reporting in this instance is so bad that I can’t tell for sure whether this study is one of the good ones or one of the bad ones; my money’s on the latter. See, evo psych has a communication problem (quite apart from the number of poorly-evidenced studies it seems to generate). Actually, most biological sciences run into this problem at some point, but they’re particularly egregious in evo psych.

Friday, 20 March 2015

“Drives” and human behaviour

So I’ve been having a conversation with my friend Wolfboy in the comments to my recent post about Richard Dawkins – or rather, about the Drive Threshold Model that Dawkins discovered and what it teaches us about rape culture, i.e. that even if rapists are motivated by sex desire, “not dressing like a slut” still isn’t going to be an effective precaution against rape. And I was just on the point of writing another big reply as an addendum to my existing reply, when it occurred to me that the points I wanted to talk about could make their own blog post, which I’m accordingly writing now. Well, when I say “writing”, a lot of it is copypasted from that conversation.

In the original post I made a slightly misleading analogy:

It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if it’s been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If you’ve got children you’ll know how often they’re “only hungry for pudding”. But if you haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday I’ll wager you’ll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.

The misleading bit was where I linked one’s level of hunger to how long it’s been since they’ve had food. That is how hunger works, more or less, but it’s not how sexual desire works. I mean, OK, there is a sort of urgent edge of feeling that builds up over time like that, but it can be discharged by, shall we say, taking matters into one’s own hands. Your level of attraction to other people doesn’t drop down when you have sex and then steadily build up again.

Wolfboy made a cogent response:

I think the complicating factor with sex drives and rape as compared to hunger and food is that a) without food you’ll die, so the drive is a bit more fundamental and b) you don’t need to have any sort of relationship with your food while you do need to decide what sort of relationship you want with a sex partner.

Morally and rationally, Wolfboy is correct. The problem is, we’re talking about drives here.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Goodbye and thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett

I still own several Discworld books with the old “About the author” blurb that begins “Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and is still not dead.” That sentence is now only half true. Because of the International Date Line, it was Friday the 13th here when I found out he had died. This seemed appropriate.

I met him three times, if thirty seconds in a book-signing queue counts as “meeting”. The first time, I was fifteen, and the signing was at my high school. I remember hurrying to get to the auditorium in time for his talk, and very nearly bumping into him in the corridor – a small man, egg-bald, with a neatly trimmed grey beard, and eyes that looked like he had had some bad news earlier that day. That last impression stands out in my memory because it was so unusual for me to notice anything like that when I was fifteen. (Even today, I’m not fantastic at facial expressions.)

And now I’m sitting here trying to pick one thing or a few things out of his immense body of work, and tell you how it impacted on me. This is difficult. Even doing it chronologically is proving to be a problem, because it goes so far back that I honestly don’t remember what the first Pratchett book I read was. I’m almost sure it was either Wyrd Sisters or Moving Pictures. I do remember reading Reaper Man when it was new out, and that was the one after Moving Pictures. And I can tell you that Pratchett got me out of the endless loop of Tolkien that I got stuck in for a bit there in my teenage – not that there’s anything wrong with being a Tolkien fan, needless to say, but it’s better to read more than one author. Pratchett showed me that fantasy doesn’t have to be about battles and kings and the fate of the world. Ordinary people’s stories are worth reading too.

There was darkness under Pratchett’s good humour. When Robin Williams died last year a lot of people pointed out that comics tend to have honed their craft battling inner demons. Williams’ familiar demon was sadness; Pratchett’s, according to Neil Gaiman who knew him for nearly half his life, was anger. It’s no coincidence that his two most complex and fully realized protagonists, Granny Weatherwax and Commander Samuel Vimes, both wrestle perpetually to control pent-up inner fountains of rage. Rage at what? For their author, rage at the unfairness of the world; rage at how stupid people can be. I don’t mean the sneering “Why do I have to put up with you peasants?” kind of anger at stupidity – I mean that Pratchett saw how officialdom and pomposity and cant and petty-mindedness get people hurt. And he could never quite shrug it off with an “Oh well, life’s not fair, that’s how it is.” Pratchett always cared what happened to people. He stood for practicality and hard work like Kipling, and for social justice like Dickens.

But perhaps because he lived with darkness, Pratchett also learned to embrace it. He made Death a sympathetic character, “not cruel, just terribly good at his job” (and how those words sting just now!): calm, friendly, professional, fond of little pleasures like good food and the company of cats, but perpetually bemused by the foibles of humanity. I don’t have figures on how much that one creative choice has helped people cope with the inevitable end of life. Apparently elderly readers used to write to him, hoping he’d got Death right. Other fantasy franchises seem to be adopting the idea, at least partly. Much of Supernatural is blatantly pinched from Pratchett, though their Death character is slightly sterner and quicker on the uptake. Harry Potter may not have a personified Death, but Rowling’s treatment of it – calm, courageous acceptance – has a distinctly Pratchettian feel.

I toyed with the idea of writing a short story for this post, where Pratchett himself meets Death, but there’ve been a couple of good ones already that I won’t try and better. Let me instead say farewell by echoing the final few entries on his Twitter:

At last, Sir Terry, we must walk together.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Richard Dawkins’ biggest contribution to feminism

No, it’s not “nothing”. Look, hear me out, OK? Yes, as a public figure Dawkins has said a lot of bigoted things in the last few years about women and sexual assault. In his books he discusses sexism every so often; it seems he thinks that prejudice about people’s gender is an equally big mistake regardless of which gender one is prejudiced against. Which is perhaps true purely in terms of whether your judgement of an individual person is likely to be right or wrong, but our society is heavily biased towards some kinds of gender prejudice and away from others, with moral and political consequences that can’t be ignored – except he does ignore them. (He also, disturbingly regularly, comments sympathetically on paedophilia. I devoutly hope the reason he gives in his autobiography is the real one: that he feels guilty about having been party to driving the teacher who molested him in boyhood to suicide.)

But before Dawkins was a public figure or a popular writer, he was a scientist. His research was on animal behaviour. And his big discovery, back in the late 1960s, is called the Drive Threshold Model. He tested it in chicks, which apparently show a definite colour preference when pecking at small objects: blue is preferred to red and red to green. Now you might think that this means a chick will always choose to peck a blue object when there’s one available, and a red one when there isn’t, and a green one only if there’s nothing else. But apparently not. Rather, when a chick’s drive to peck is low, it will only peck at blue objects; if it gets higher, it will peck randomly at either blue or red objects and ignore green; at the heights it will peck at any colour indiscriminately. Hence the term “drive threshold”.

If this only applied to chicks it would be pretty pointless me repeating it. But Dawkins applied the mathematics to a wide range of psychological studies on humans, measuring preferential behaviour towards flavours, colours, vegetables, handwriting styles, and composers. It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if it’s been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If you’ve got children you’ll know how often they’re “only hungry for pudding”. But if you haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday I’ll wager you’ll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.

Now here comes the point. Women want to keep themselves safe from rape. And lots of people, not all of them men, have a helpful suggestion: maybe women should not “dress like sluts”, especially when out after dark. And this, funnily enough, makes a lot of women angry, because it places the responsibility on women not to be raped instead of on men not to rape. To which those giving the warnings reply that it’s no different from warning people to keep their cars locked in areas prone to theft, which is hardly taking responsibility away from the thieves, is it? In fact it is different, as New Zealand discovered in 2013, when a man was acquitted of a sexual assault that he had confessed to committing, on the grounds that his two female victims were “foolish” to have been crossing a park at night while “dressed as they were”.

But setting aside the ethics of such precautions – do they work? Let’s suppose that most sexual assaults are committed by men trying to satisfy their own sexual desires (obviously in a predatory, totally objectifying way). Let’s also suppose that in general men have a sexual preference for some styles of dress over others. Both these suppositions seem plausible enough at first glance, but I don’t know what the actual evidence is for either one. Obviously if one of them is not true then the whole thing is moot, the precautions don’t work. The point is that you still can’t conclude that dressing down will make a woman safe, because of what happens above drive thresholds. If a man is prepared to sexually assault strangers at night to satisfy his sex drive, it’s a reasonable guess that he must have a high sex drive at the time – way over the threshold where his preferences about clothing make any difference. The Drive Threshold Model therefore predicts that his choice of victim will have nothing to do with the way she’s dressed.

From which I draw three conclusions. In ascending order of importance—

For social justice people: the findings of science are not biased, or at least not hopelessly biased, by the scientists’ ideology. Biology is not the enemy.

For evo psych buffs: feminism will usually turn out to be right. Go ahead and bet on it.

For everyone: stop freaking telling women not to dress like sluts and they’ll be safe from rape. It doesn’t work.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Ships that pass in the night

If I ever get my hands on a working time-machine, the first thing I shall do is organize a public debate between C. S. Lewis and Steven Pinker. Not (I’m sure they would both protest) that it would be an especially momentous encounter compared to what you could do with a time-machine. If all goes well, rest assured I will also talk to Shakespeare and Virgil and Homer and the author of Beowulf, document the Polynesian conquest of the Pacific and the first people in the Americas and Australia, film mammoths and indricotheres and dinosaurs in their natural habitat, witness the origin of life, and all that other guff. But the Lewis-Pinker debate will serve as a proof of concept.

Why those two in particular? Because they are so different and yet so similar. Both are fascinated by language, and by what it reveals about the mind. It seemed a little too good to be true, a few years ago, when a manuscript was discovered containing Lewis’s opening contribution to a planned collaborative work with J. R. R. Tolkien, to be entitled Language and Human Nature. Sadly, Seven magazine, which I gather printed the fragment, hasn’t uploaded it to the web. It was never completed because Tolkien was as bad at finishing things as I am, and also he was bogged down in The Lord of the Rings at the time the project began. But that tantalizing title could be the subtitle for most of Pinker’s popular works. On language, Pinker and Lewis nearly always agree.