Monday, November 11, 2019

The King, Part IV: The matter of cultural influence [Media Notes 16]

Now we know, from The Telegraph, that Michôd was quite deliberately playing off of and altering Shakespeare about young Hal/Harry/Henry V:
When asked about his interpretation of events at its London launch, Mr Michôd said: “Our version is very different to Shakespeare’s and it is very much about a young man being consumed by the institutions of power. There are various version of Henry V basically about a heroic king invading a country. To us, this story needed to be more complicated than that one.”
That article is about French reaction to the film, criticizing it as being not only anti-French nationalist preening, as was Shakespeare’s original tetralogy, but being particularly so in view of recent historical research. I can live with that – after all, I am not French. What interests me is simply the explicit assertion that, yes, Michôd was consciously revising Shakespeare and that he was doing so in the direction of, how you say, modern “complication”, complication that elides the, what, anachronistic? distinction between individual and state and leaves us only with personal power struggles among the elite.

But that’s not quite what I’m after in this note, which, I hope, will conclude my blogging about this film. As a side effect of an article I’m currently working on, I’m interested in the problem of influence, where influence is the cultural analog to inheritance in biology. Biology, on which, alas, I am not particularly well informed, presents three basic situations:
  1. Strict vertical inheritance, where an individual has two parents of the same species.
  2. Hybridity, where an individual has one parent from each of two neighboring species.
  3. Horizontal diversity (my term), where an individual can more or less freely acquire characteristics from other individuals; this is the case for single-celled species (which do not reproduce sexually).
In all cases, of course, the expression of inherited characteristics is subject to environmental guidance.

But there is nothing, so far as I know, in the biological world that is analogous to what happens in the case of creolization, where a new language emerges from the clash of two (or more?) languages brought into contact through interactions of peoples through, e.g. trade and/or conquest. The languages involved can be historically quite remote. But I’m not talking about languages here, I’m talking about literary works. Very specifically, I’m talking about Shakespeare plays.

There was a time when Shakespeare’s plays were re-written rather freely to suit them to contemporary sensibility. I am thinking, of course, of the likes of Nahum Tate from the 17th century and Thomas Bowdler from the 19th. That freedom has been extinguished, though I note that directors seem always to have been willing to truncate the plays to make them more suitable for performance. But what do we do with the rather wholesale transmogrification that produced Forbidden Planet from The Tempest and the rather less drastic transmogrification that produced The King from the second Henriad?

Would we describe any of that as influence? I think not; the connotations are wrong. Tate and Bowdler were simply altering Shakespeare to their liking. The creators of Forbidden Planet and The King simply used Shakespeare’s texts as source material as he had used, say, Robert Greene’s Pandosto as source material for The Winter’s Tale. Influence is only one kind of intertextuality. What other kinds are there?

Human minds find stuff and use stuff in many different ways. There is nothing like it in organismic development as it happens in the biological world, is there?

What’s AI? – @3QD [& the contrasting natures of symbolic and statistical semantics]

Some notes on computers, AI, the mind, and the sorry@$$ st8 of general understanding on these matters, that’s the title of my current piece at 3 Quarks Daily (minus the crossed out part). I’d wanted to include something more substantive on the difference between machine translation back in the era of so-called symbolic computing and the current technology and current technology, which is based on a varieyt of statistically based machine learning technology. But it was clear that I just couldn’t squeeze it in. Plus, I’m still thinking about that one. But here’s a first go.

About a decade ago the Association for Computational Linguistics presented Martin Kay with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He had been a first generation researcher in machine translation and remains academically active. In the address he makes upon acceptance of the award he offered a number of observations about the difference between symbolic language processing and statistical processing. This is the last of four such remarks (pp. 12-13):
This, I take it, is where statistics really come into their own. Symbolic language processing is highly nondeterministic and often delivers large numbers of alternative results because it has no means of resolving the ambiguities that characterize ordinary language. This is for the clear and obvious reason that the resolution of ambiguities is not a linguistic matter. After a responsible job has been done of linguistic analysis, what remain are questions about the world. They are questions of what would be a reasonable thing to say under the given circumstances, what it would be reasonable to believe, suspect, fear or desire in the given situation. If these questions are in the purview of any academic discipline, it is presumably artificial intelligence. But artificial intelligence has a lot on its plate and to attempt to fill the void that it leaves open, in whatever way comes to hand, is entirely reasonable and proper. But it is important to understand what we are doing when we do this and to calibrate our expectations accordingly. What we are doing is to allow statistics over words that occur very close to one another in a string to stand in for the world construed widely, so as to include myths, and beliefs, and cultures, and truths and lies and so forth. As a stop-gap for the time being, this may be as good as we can do, but we should clearly have only the most limited expectations of it because, for the purpose it is intended to serve, it is clearly pathetically inadequate. The statistics are standing in for a vast number of things for which we have no computer model. They are therefore what I call an “ignorance model”.
That last point is very important: “ stand in for the world construed widely...” YES! Back in the old days we – though I never worked on machine translation I include myself because I did work on computational semantics – certainly gave serious thought to creating computer models of semantics, broadly construed to cover common sense knowledge, myths and stories, and even scientific theories. We didn’t get very far, but, yes, we attempted to take the measure of the problem.

That’s what’s been abandoned.

Let me offer a small example of computational semantics. This is from a model Brian Phillips had devised for recognizing tragic stories about drowning men:

Phillips capsize
The nodes (junctures) represent various kinds of entities (things, properties, events, what have you) while the arcs (lines, links) between them represent relationships between those entities. Notice the labels all over the place. They identify the relationships and the entities. The actual geometrical arrangement of those visual objects is of little consequence, except to the extent that it affects how us humans read the diagram. Where the specific nodes are is irrelevant. All that matters is what is connected to what and the labels on everything. There is a logic governing those relationships and entities, a logic expressed in terms of inferences guided by those labels. That logic is all that matters.

Where did that semantic structure come from? Phillips made it up. No, not out of thin air. There is justification in the psychological and linguistic literature for some aspects of the structure. And Phillips worked in the context of a research group, of which I was a member, convened by David Hays, another first generation researcher in machine translation (and who had hired Martin Kay to work with him at RAND back in the 1950s). That network represents what was then our best sense of a (very very small fragment) of the world knowledge Kay refers to.

AI in China, policy and regulation

Huw Roberts, Josh Cowls, Jessica Morley, Mariarosaria Taddeo, Vincent Wang, Luciano Floridi, The Chinese Approach to Artificial Intelligence: an Analysis of Policy and Regulation, September 1, 2019, SSRN: or
Abstract: In July 2017, China’s State Council released the country’s strategy for developing artificial intelligence (AI), entitled ‘New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’ (新一代人工智能发展规划). This strategy outlined China’s aims to become the world leader in AI by 2030, to monetise AI into a trillion-yuan ($150 billion) industry, and to emerge as the driving force in defining ethical norms and standards for AI. Several reports have analysed specific aspects of China’s AI policies or have assessed the country’s technical capabilities. Instead, in this article, we focus on the socio-political background and policy debates that are shaping China’s AI strategy. In particular, we analyse the main strategic areas in which China is investing in AI and the concurrent ethical debates that are delimiting its use. Through focusing on the policy backdrop, we seek to provide a more comprehensive understanding of China’s AI policy by bringing together debates and analyses of a wide array of policy documents.

Holding hands with a loved one reduces pain

Dana G Smith, Holding Hands Is Natural Pain Relief, Elemental, October 30, 2019.
Research presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago last week confirmed what parents worldwide have always known: Touching and empathizing with a loved one helps relieve feelings of pain. But something mom might not have known is that touch also synchronizes people’s brain waves in a way that may dull the pain.

“When we share the pain of others, basically we’re activating our brain in the same neural system that we activate when we feel firsthand experiences of pain,” says Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a psychology professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, who led the research.

Shamay-Tsoory’s team demonstrated this phenomenon in a series of experiments. First, they tested how the physical touch of either a stranger or a romantic partner affected people’s perception of pain. Holding hands with their partner helped people feel better when they received a heat stimulus to their arm that felt like a mild burn. The more empathy they received from their partner, the less intense they rated the pain. However, touch from a stranger was no better than being alone.

To find out how a loved one’s touch has this benefit, the researchers repeated the experiment using a new type of EEG technology that allowed them to measure brain signals from both partners simultaneously. They discovered that holding hands while one partner was in pain caused the two people’s brain waves to synchronize, with cells firing in the same pattern in the same location. This time, more synchrony between the two brains was related to more pain relief, as well as more empathy.
The second research article:  Pavel Goldstein, Irit Weissman-Fogel, Guillaume Dumas, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Mar 13; 115(11): E2528–E2537. Published online 2018 Feb 26. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1703643115, PMCID: PMC5856497.
SIGNIFICANCE: The mechanisms that underlie social touch analgesia are largely unknown. Here, we apply a hyperscanning approach with real-life interaction of dyads to examine the association between brain-to-brain coupling and pain relief. Our findings indicate that hand-holding during pain increases the brain-to-brain coupling network that correlates with the magnitude of the analgesia and the observer’s empathic accuracy. These findings make a unique contribution to our understanding of physiological mechanisms of touch-related analgesia.

ABSTRACT: The mechanisms underlying analgesia related to social touch are not clear. While recent research highlights the role of the empathy of the observer to pain relief in the target, the contribution of social interaction to analgesia is unknown. The current study examines brain-to-brain coupling during pain with interpersonal touch and tests the involvement of interbrain synchrony in pain alleviation. Romantic partners were assigned the roles of target (pain receiver) and observer (pain observer) under pain–no-pain and touch–no-touch conditions concurrent with EEG recording. Brain-to-brain coupling in alpha–mu band (8–12 Hz) was estimated by a three-step multilevel analysis procedure based on running window circular correlation coefficient and post hoc power of the findings was calculated using simulations. Our findings indicate that hand-holding during pain administration increases brain-to-brain coupling in a network that mainly involves the central regions of the pain target and the right hemisphere of the pain observer. Moreover, brain-to-brain coupling in this network was found to correlate with analgesia magnitude and observer’s empathic accuracy. These findings indicate that brain-to-brain coupling may be involved in touch-related analgesia.

From the vault, Newport, Jersey City, November 7, 2006, before 8AM [Canon PowerShot A75]

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Racial integration of the US Army during the Korean War

Abstract: The racial integration of the US Army during the Korean War (1950-1953) is one of the largest and swiftest desegregation episodes in American history. This paper argues that racial integration improved white survival rates at the expense of blacks, and resulted in less anti-black prejudice among white veterans decades after the war. Using a novel military casualty file, I construct a wartime similarity index to measure the extent of racial integration across military units and time. Using exogenous changes in racial integration, I show that integrated whites were 3% more likely to survive their injuries than segregated whites, whereas integrated blacks were 2% were less likely to survive their injuries than segregated blacks. Given that blacks were initially confined to noncombat support roles, the results reflect a convergence in hazardous combat assignments. To explore the long-term effects of racial integration, I link individual soldiers to post-war social security and cemetery data using an unsupervised learning algorithm. With these matched samples, I show that a standard deviation change in the wartime racial integration caused white veterans to live in more racially diverse neighborhoods and marry non-white spouses. In aggregate, these results are some of the first and only examples of large-scale interracial contact reducing prejudice on a long-term basis.

See my post, TO WAR! Part 1: War and America's National Psyche, where I briefly mention Klinkner and Smith, The Unsteady March (U. Chicago, 1999), who argue that African Americans have been able to move forward on civil rights only during periods where the nation faced an external threat - the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the major wars of the first half of the 20th century. When the external danger had subsided, gains were lost.

The (mis)use of social media as a means of social control

Aviram, Hadar, Progressive Punitivism: Notes on the Use of Punitive Social Control to Advance Social Justice Ends (June 14, 2019). Buffalo Law Review, Forthcoming; UC Hastings Research Paper No. 364. Available at SSRN: or
Abstract: This essay examines the emergence of an academic and popular discourse that advocates turning the cannons of the punitive machine against the powerful. I identify this discourse as “progressive punitivism”: a logic that wields the classic weapons of punitive law — shaming, stigmatization, harsh punishment, and denial of rehabilitation — in the service of promoting social equality. This logic has permeated much of the political conversation on the progressive left in the United States, and while it has gained some hold in academic discourse, particularly in the legal field, its core lies in the leftist social media arena, where it has enjoyed considerable popular appeal in the last few years. Progressive ire before, and especially after, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, has flared around issues such as police accountability for use of excessive force, especially against people of color; the proliferation of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, by the powerful, with too little accountability; and the too-lenient legal response to expressions of racism, xenophobia, corporate/political malfeasance, and other forms of discrimination, social hatred and exclusion.

Progressive punitivism operates within the criminal justice system, in the context of a call to hold people perceived as belonging to powerful groups accountable for their actions. However, it also operates throughout the realm of social media and public opinion, often compensating for the perceived lack of formal consequences against the powerful with intense bursts of informal social control, such as online shaming and excoriation. These two realms — formal and informal social control — frequently cross paths in progressive punitivism in complex ways, often yielding informal, democratized punitive power to those perceived as powerless within the formal apparatus.

In this paper I attempt to sketch the main features, origins, and consequences, of the progressive punitive perspective. I start with an overview of the main characteristics of progressive punitivism: turning the existing punitive machine on the powerful, focusing on identity and group politics as an epistemological resource for identifying perpetrators, the concept of “ratcheting up” punishment, the preoccupation with victim voices, and the idea of punishment as a catalyst for social change. I then review the three key areas in which ideas of progressive punitivism have gained visible popularity in recent times: police abuse of force, sexual assault (carceral feminism and the #metoo movement) and hate crimes. I also engage in a brief discussion of the interplay between the call for formal consequences for lawbreaking and the engagement in intense punitive expressions of informal social control, particularly via shaming campaigns on social media. I then expand the theoretical framework by interrogating the intellectual and cultural sources of progressive punitivism, examining radical and critical criminology, second-wave feminism, and Communist China as a surprising intellectual parallel. I conclude that the most plausible source of progressive punitivism is conservative punitivism; Americans of all political stripes, I explain, have been steeped for decades in a framework that sees criminal justice as the quintessential solution for moral problems and victims of crime as the premier moral interlocutors. American criminal justice in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has had a deep impact on the national psyche, and progressive punitivism is, upon reflection, an application of this mentality, rather than a deviation or revolutionary reinterpretation of it. The essay ends with a discussion of the discontents of progressive punitivism and the dangers of cottoning to it as a viable strategy for social justice reform.

Evolution: Survival of the cooperative?

Douglas Rushkoff, Evolution Made Us Cooperative, Not Competitive, from Team Human, on Medium:
Nature is a collaborative act. If humans are the most evolved species, it is only because we have developed the most advanced ways of working and playing together.

We’ve been conditioned to believe in the myth that evolution is about competition: the survival of the fittest. In this view, each creature struggles against all the others for scarce resources. Only the strongest ones survive to pass on their superior genes, while the weak deserve to lose and die out.

But evolution is every bit as much about cooperation as competition. Our very cells are the result of an alliance billions of years ago between mitochondria and their hosts. Individuals and species flourish by evolving ways of supporting mutual survival. A bird develops a beak which lets it feed on some part of a plant that other birds can’t reach. This introduces diversity into the population’s diet, reducing the strain on a particular food supply and leading to more for all. What of the poor plant, you ask? The birds, much like bees, are helping the plant by spreading its seeds after eating its fruit.

Survival of the fittest is a convenient way to justify the cutthroat ethos of a competitive marketplace, political landscape, and culture. But this perspective misconstrues the theories of Darwin as well as his successors. By viewing evolution though a strictly competitive lens, we miss the bigger story of our own social development and have trouble understanding humanity as one big, interconnected team.

The most successful of biology’s creatures coexist in mutually beneficial ecosystems. It’s hard for us to recognize such widespread cooperation. We tend to look at life forms as isolated from one another: a tree is a tree and a cow is a cow. But a tree is not a singular tree at all; it is the tip of a forest. Pull back far enough to see the whole, and one tree’s struggle for survival merges with the more relevant story of its role in sustaining the larger system.

Ginkos at mid-day on Saturday in Hoboken

Saturday, November 9, 2019

I’ve STILL got a lot goin’ on! – Literature, AI, progress, talent search, Human Swarm, the hallucinated city

The last time I did this was October 18, and many of the items that were on my list then are still on it. So let’s start with that list (items preceded by an asterisk).


*Heart of Darkness

What I was thinking about: I’ve thinking about a post that provisionally ‘solves’ the problem of ring composition in that text.

Still on deck: I’m also thinking to submit a book proposal to the Dead Letter Office at Punctum Books.



What I was thinking about: What is it? I think about this from time to time. The notion that “intelligence is what intelligence tests say it is” is not as empty as it seems–I’ve been through this before on the five factor personality model.

I think that’s become transformed into a piece I’m going to do for 3 Quarks Daily this coming Monday. I’ll cover the five factor model and a few more things, some of which I’ve recently blogged about: common sense knowledge, calculation and computation, speech to text (over at Facebook), and philosophical arguments about the computational mind. I'll be adding some topics, such as machine translation, and one or two other things most likely.

*The Human Swarm

What I was thinking about: I’ve got to keep reading and blogging my way through Mark Moffett’s The Human Swarm, which takes a broad view of the nature of society. The idea is to write a formal review (for 3 Quarks Daily) when I’m done and then package the whole set as a working paper.

What I’ve done: I’ve now posted six installments and I’m not even halfway through the book. This is going to take another month and I don’t know how many installments plus the review.

*Visualizing Form and Evolution in Literary History: A response to Nan Z. Da and to Moretti and Sobchuk

What I was thinking about: That’s the working title for a longish article I’m working on. It will be of a methodological and theoretical nature. I’ve posted a working paper of draft material for the second part of the article, On the direction of literary history: How should we interpret that 3300 node graph in Macroanalysis, Version 2. I’ve sent that to a few folks and gotten useful feedback [...]

The first part of the article will about the cultural analog to phylogeny in biological evolution, which Moretti and Sobchuk touched on. The crucial distinction is between a tree-like structure and a network structure. [...]

What I’ve done: I’ve started working on draft material for this first part. I looks like I’ve got to introduce the human mind into the argument and say more about cultural evolution than I’d originally planned to. I’d like to get this done in the coming week.

*Talent Search

What I was thinking about: I’ve got a bunch of posts on searching for talent that I want to gather into a working paper. I suppose I’ve got two notions.

What I’ve done: Gathered the posts into a document, and done a bit of formatting. But I still need to write the introduction in which I explain what it all means.


*Progress, painful but real

What I was thinking about: Here I just want to provide a setting for two papers by David Hays. “On the Painfulness of Progress” is in memory of his friend Raoul Naroll, who argued “that progress causes ... pain during periods of transition but alleviates this and other kinds of pain over the long term.” In “Relativism and Progress” Hays examines worldwide statistics on health, wealth, and social life and includes an appendix with 32 scatter plots depicting the data.

What I’ve done: Nothing.


The Hallucinated City

This is a photo project. I’m working toward an exhibit. when and where I don’t know. Right now I’m just trying to figure out what. My theme – The Hallucinated City. The idea is to group photos into sets around that theme, with distinctly different kinds of photos in head set. Some will just be photos of cityscapes; but others will be graffiti shots, abstract patterns of light, interiors of Wayquay’s junktique store, and who knows what else.

So far I’ve posted four (potential) sets in the series, plus some photos of Midtown Manhattan, Herald Square to the Theater District. I’ve got two most sets organized but not posted. I figure I need to do at least ten sets before I have some idea of what I’m up to.

More later.

More photos from the BAPC camping trip [to balance out yesterday's Manhattan flix]

How the word "tea" spread throughout the world from China

"The term cha (茶) is 'Sinitic,' meaning it is common to many varieties of Chinese," writes Sonnad. "It began in China and made its way through central Asia, eventually becoming 'chay' (چای) in Persian. That is no doubt due to the trade routes of the Silk Road, along which, according to a recent discovery, tea was traded over 2,000 years ago." The te form "used in coastal-Chinese languages spread to Europe via the Dutch, who became the primary traders of tea between Europe and Asia in the 17th century, as explained in the World Atlas of Language Structures. The main Dutch ports in east Asia were in Fujian and Taiwan, both places where people used the te pronunciation. The Dutch East India Company’s expansive tea importation into Europe gave us the French thé, the German Tee, and the English tea."

Friday, November 8, 2019

Reading the Human Swarm 6: The Great Chain of Being

In his fourteenth chapter Moffett covers one of my hobby horses, though I’m sure that’s not why he did it: The Great Chain of Being. What’s that:
We see our society and those of other people as falling into a hierarchy along with other living things, a notion codified in the Middle Ages as the Great Chain of Being. Typically the royal We surmounts the chain (surpassed only by God and the angels). Other humans follow in a descending order, some of them, Aristotle announced, “as much inferior to their beasts are to men.” This hierarchy continues its plumet through the natural world, with “some animals,” as Orwell wryly wrote in Animal Farm, “more equal than others.”

The scale wasn’t fashioned in an ancient Greek ivory tower; people intuited the universe this way before words were scratched on parchment. More than likely it’s a basic feature of our psychology. Researcher shows that children think of people as superior to animals, and of outsiders as closer than their own group to animals. Furthermore the proneness of hunter-gatherers and tribal peoples to describe themselves as human suggests this type of thinking is typical even among societies that are small and have much in common with their neighbors (far more in common than you, with your wider knowledge of the world, likely share with a Tibetan yak herder today). Their use of epithets meaning nonhuman or animal also suggests those people felt entitled to treat at least some outsiders categorically as other species, an outlook that would naturally affect their relationships. [pp. 185-186]
Moffett is correct, the Great Chain IS fundamental to our way of conceptualizing the world and there is a significant literature on the subject [1].

What’s important here, and it seems obvious now that Moffett has pointed it out, is that the Great Chain is linked to the psychological systems that organize social behavior. We think of the social Other as some kind of creature lower on the chain than we are, something Moffett discusses on the following pages. Earlier Moffett had observed it only takes a tenth of a second for us assess a person’s face in terms of “emotional state, sex, race, and ... ethnicity and society, too” (p. 170. Psychologists have recently shown that people make a determination about whether or not something is animate or inanimate – a basic ‘break point’ on the Great chain – in only 250 milliseconds [2]. So, we use the Great Chain to make a quick and dirty assessment of other beings and we use it, at greater leisure, as a way of organizing the world.

Moffett goes on to observe, “Male macaques readily associate troop members with fruit and foreign monkeys with spiders in a simian version of the Implicit Association Test”, thus suggesting: “our ranking of societies and ethnic groups in the Great Chain emerged out of the dominance hierarchy that organizes the relationships of individuals within the societies of many animals” (p. 191). I can offer some suggestively similar examples from the behavior of chimpanzees raised among humans.

Consider Vicki, perhaps the first chimpanzee to be raised among humans. As a youngster she was given the task of sorting photographs into two piles, “human” and “animal.” She placed her own photograph in the human pile while she put her chimpanzee father’s picture went into the animal pile (Eugene Linden, Apes, Men, and Language, 1974, p. 50). Was she expressing aggression against her father? Possibly, but not likely. Her father was a chimpanzee and so she placed his picture in the pile for animals, where it belonged. He looked like other animals, more or less. But why did she think her picture belonged in the pile with humans? After all, she didn’t look like humans, and least not as humans judge these things.

Lucy is another chimpanzee who was raised among humans (Temerlin, “My Daughter Lucy”, Psychology Today 9, 1975: 103). When she reached puberty she made sexual advances toward traveling salesmen and masturbated while looking at pictures of nude men in Playgirl, showing particular interest in their penises. Washoe, raised by Allen and Beatrice Gardner and taught the rudiments of Ameslan (American Sign Language), referred to other chimpanzees as “black bugs” when she first came in contact with conspecifics after years of life among humans (Linden, p. 10).

These chimpanzees, in a sense, “thought” of themselves as people. They were used to social interaction with human beings, not with other chimpanzees. Thus we might interpret Vicki’s two piles of photographs as “appropriate social other” and “inappropriate social other” rather than as “human” and “animal.” The fact that the physical resemblance between chimpanzee and chimpanzee is greater than that between human and chimpanzee is overridden by the fact that, for these apes, there is no social resemblance between themselves and other chimpanzees while such social resemblance does hold with humans. Social structure trumps physical appearances as a way of organizing the world.

More later.


[1] I’ve got a post that lays this out, The Great Chain of Being as Conceptual Structure (August 10, 2011), with references:

I’ve got a good many posts on the general topic of ontological cognition:

I’ve collected a number of those into a working paper, Ontological Cognition, a Working Paper, November 12, 39 pp.:

[2] See my post, Quick takes: detect animate vs. inanimate in 250 msec, November 29, 2019,

* * * * *

Reading the Human Swarm, a sporadic series about Mark W. Moffett. The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall. Basic Books 2019.

A mid-19th Century Japanese history of America

Why the West is WEIRD – The nuclear family and the medieval Catholoic Church

WEIRD = W.E.I.R.D = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – which, as you may know, has been a term of art in the human sciences since 2010. Drew Pendergrass in Harvard Magazine:
During the past 10 years, social scientists have wrestled with a powerful criticism of their research: their favorite subjects, American college students, are often outliers compared to the global population. Economists and psychologists run studies on their students, and then sometimes use those results to make broad claims about human tolerance for risk, moral reasoning, or even the way people perceive lines on a page. But they often are just describing a W.E.I.R.D. subgroup of humanity—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—as an influential study calls them. That subgroup represents only 12 percent of the world’s population, but a whopping 96 percent of subjects in psychological studies.

Joseph Henrich, professor of human evolutionary biology (HEB), was lead author on a 2010 paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that proposed the WEIRD problem in social science. It has since received more than 5,000 citations, rocking the academic world. Henrich and his colleagues, all then at the University of British Columbia, describe in painstaking detail how WEIRD subjects differ from the global population, arguing for example that risk-averse behavior concerning money might be a recent development local to industrialized areas, rather than intrinsic to human nature. But he avoided any speculation as to why the West had such an unusual psychological makeup.

A paper published today in Science, coauthored by Henrich with Jonathan Schulz and Jonathan Beauchamp, both economists at George Mason University, and Duman Bahrami-Rad, a postdoctoral fellow in HEB’s culture, cognition, and coevolution lab, attempts to explain how Europeans came to be so atypical. In an argument fusing methods from anthropology, psychology, and history, the authors claim that the unusual levels of individualism seen in the West come in part from the emergence of the nuclear family—which is vanishingly rare outside of Europe.

Henrich had long been thinking about how families change the ways that people think. “I was influenced by my ongoing anthropological fieldwork at one of the outer islands of Fiji, where social life is still governed by strong norms of kinship, which endow everyone with a set of responsibilities, obligations, and privileges,” said Henrich in a news conference. “It seemed plausible that kinship systems, or what we call kin-based institutions, might have a big effect on people’s psychology.”

The authors’ argument goes like this. The emergence of agriculture 12,000 years ago favored societies that could work together on big projects, like growing crops. This kind of collaboration required people to be members of tightly bound social networks, strengthened by individuals who showed solidarity with one another. Families in farming societies fostered intense connection among people, because their survival depended on it: extended relatives lived under one roof, polygamy was often allowed, and people married within their own communities and families. Practices like ancestor worship and shared ownership further strengthened these bonds, both in Europe and in many farming societies around the agricultural world.

When the Catholic Church emerged, everything changed. The medieval church in western Europe promulgated unusually strict rules about families: newlyweds were often required to move to a new house, polygamy was weeded out, arranged marriages were discouraged, remarriage was banned, and legal adoption was stopped. Above all, the church harshly condemned incest. People were forbidden to marry their sixth cousins or anyone closer, as well as in-laws and “spiritual relatives” like godparents. Priests and elders would do background checks before the ceremony to uncover any hidden overlap in family trees. The motivations for these new rules are somewhat unclear, but church fathers like Ambrose and Augustine condemned incest in their writings, and various early councils saw it as an affront to God.
And so forth and so on.

Here's the research article, which appears to be open access: Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, Joseph Henrich, The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation, Science 08 Nov 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6466, eaau5141 DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5141
Abstract: Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of many Western populations. We propose that part of this variation can be traced back to the action and diffusion of the Western Church, the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, we propose that the Western Church’s transformation of European kinship, by promoting small, nuclear households, weak family ties, and residential mobility, fostered greater individualism, less conformity, and more impersonal prosociality. By combining data on 24 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both Church exposure and kinship, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions, and among individuals from different cultural backgrounds.

There's another aspect to this story which I addressed briefly in Beethoven's Anvil, 247-247, where I argue that plainsong (aka Gregorian chant) created a mental space. This is from an excerpt I've uploaded to New Savanna:
The various tribes, cities, and states of Medieval Europe were all, in some measure, under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, and thus of its plainsong-based ritual. Europe was dotted with communities of chanting religious, and congregations would hear chanting at church services. Plainsong thus has geopolitical implications. While Europe’s various cultures each had their own local musics, they all had plainsong as a common musical practice.

European tribes first began to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world as Christians. As such they deemed themselves superior to all infidels—such as the Arabs, who showed their inferiority by studying mathematics and drinking coffee rather than alcohol. It wasn’t until the 17th century, after the Western Church had been split by the Reformation, that the secular concept of Europe replaced the sacred concept of Christendom as a touchstone of identity.

Just as humankind originated through music-making somewhere in Africa, so Europe begins to unify through the sacred music-making of the chanting religious. As that body of music begins to differentiate and develop, it moves into secular contexts and mingles with vernacular musics.
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Some pushback against Schulz et al.:

Reply to critics: