We are who we say we are

This is a good article on literary darwinism, or at least one that agrees with my preconceived notions of it. I was smitten from the line, “[Evolutionary psychology] is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.”

Evolutionary Psychology is usually just BS that sounds vaguely correct; some of it is good, but it is usually in more of an evolutionary biology sense than psychology sense. [Via]

I also found this article on how language shapes who we are to be fairly interesting. For example:

Even basic aspects of time perception can be affected by language. For example, English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length (e.g., “That was a short talk,” “The meeting didn’t take long”), while Spanish and Greek speakers prefer to talk about time in terms of amount, relying more on words like “much” “big”, and “little” rather than “short” and “long” Our research into such basic cognitive abilities as estimating duration shows that speakers of different languages differ in ways predicted by the patterns of metaphors in their language. (For example, when asked to estimate duration, English speakers are more likely to be confused by distance information, estimating that a line of greater length remains on the test screen for a longer period of time, whereas Greek speakers are more likely to be confused by amount, estimating that a container that is fuller remains longer on the screen.)

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2 thoughts on “We are who we say we are

  1. I would be interested in knowing why you don’t like Malcolm Gladwell. Have you read any of his work? Anything by Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Charles Darwin, or even Steven Pinker who has a very famous book, the Language Instinct, that speaks about the ideas you are writing about. If not, who is your ideal intellectual? Tolstoy, Marx, Chomsky? Al Gore?

  2. I have indeed read Gladwell; I read Blink and the Tipping Point, as well as plenty of his New Yorker articles. I’ve also read Steven Pinker (though not the Language Instinct), and a few of Dawkin’s books, though I will admit I haven’t actually read anything by Darwin – I hear it’s dreadfully boring. I’ve never heard of Robert Wright though?

    I have two problems with Gladwell. The first is that he has no sense of subtlety or of the complications to his ideas. Everything is presented as very straightforward, with no alternative explanations offered. Of course, he’s trying to popularize, which is great, but he offers his evidence as unambiguous and without qualifications. The world is a much more complicated place than he ever makes it out to be.

    The bigger problem with his work is more pernicious: he proves by anecdote or irrelevant statistic. He uses anecdotes to great effect – he’s clearly a compelling writer and storyteller – but they usually don’t do a great job of providing real evidence. I find that his ideas are very interesting, unless you already have a rigorous knowledge of what he’s talking about, in which case you find them to be somewhat bogus.

    But who is my ideal intellectual? That’s a good question, and not something I’ve thought about in a long time. I certainly always liked Dostoevsky more than Tolstoy, but I’m not sure I’d call him ‘ideal’ as an intellectual (though certainly as a writer!). I find writers like Chomsky as too ideological and not open enough to opposing viewpoints – but again, I haven’t read Chomsky since early college.

    I don’t think I have an ideal intellectual; everyone has their faults. I do like Dostoevsky, Sontag, Kant, I dunno, plenty of other philosophers and scientists. I’m going to have to think on this.

    I think I’ve rambled on enough. One final point: my biggest problem with evolutionary psychology, as commonly promulgated, is that it is little more than storytime. I can come up with plenty of stories about how x evolved because of y, but none of them are proven. Sure, they may sound plausible, but that’s not science! I need more than plausibility. Which is not to say there’s not good evolutionary psychology around, just that most of it is lacking.

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