Nicholas Christakis: The Science of Social Connections (HeadCon '13 Part V)


Nicholas A. Christakis



Event Date: 

[ Mon. Nov. 11. 2013 ]

The part of human nature that I'd like to talk about today is that part of our human nature that is relevant to our interactions with others. There's been a phenomenal amount of work taking place in the last ten years, certainly, and even in the last year or two that seeks to understand how we interact with each other and how we assemble ourselves into social networks.

Robert Kurzban: P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis (HeadCon '13 Part IV)


Robert Kurzban



Event Date: 

[ Mon. Nov. 11. 2013 ]

P Hacking and the Replication Crisis

The first three talks this morning have been optimistic. We've heard about the promise of big data, we've heard about advances in emotions, and we've just heard from Fiery, who very cleverly managed to find a way to leave before I gave my remarks about how we're understanding something deep about human nature. There's a risk that my remarks are going to be understood as pessimistic but they're really not. My optimism is embodied in the notion that what we're doing here is important and we can do it better.

I really wanted to take this opportunity to have a chance to speak to the people here about what's been going on in some corners of psychology, mostly in areas like social psychology and decision-making. In fact, Danny Kahneman has chimed in on this discussion, which is really what some people thought about as a crisis in certain parts of psychology, which is that insofar as replication is a hallmark of what science is about, there's not a lot of it and what there is shows that things we thought were true maybe aren't; that's really bad. This is a great setting in which to talk about these things, and I want to talk about it in part from my experience in this because I started to come into contact with this in a way that I'll describe right now. 

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania specializing in evolutionary psychology: Author, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.

June Gruber: The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion (HeadCon '13 Part II)


June Gruber



Event Date: 

[ Mon. Nov. 11. 2013 ]

The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion

What I'm really interested in is the science of human emotion. In particular, what's captivated my field and my interest the most is trying to understand positive emotions. Not only the ways in which perhaps we think they're beneficial for us or confer some sort of adaptive value, but actually the ways in which they may signal dysfunction and may not actually, in all circumstances and in all intensities, be good for us.

I thought I'd first start briefly with a tale of positive emotion. It's a really interesting state because in many ways it's one of the most powerful things that evolution has built for us. If we look at early writings of Charles Darwin, he prominently features these feelings of love, admiration, laughter. So early on we see observations of them, and have some sense that they're really critical for our survival, but when you look at the subsequent scientific study of emotion, it lagged far behind. Indeed, most of the research in human emotion really began with studying negative emotions, trying to build taxonomies, understand cognitive appraisals, physiological signatures, and things like anger, and fear, and disgust. For good reason, we wanted to understand human suffering and hopefully try to ameliorate it.
June Gruber is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Director, Positive Emotion & Psychopatology Lab, Yale University. 

Sendhil Mullainathan: What Big Data Means For Social Science (HeadCon '13 Part I)


Sendhil Mullainathan



Event Date: 

[ Mon. Nov. 11. 2013 ]

I'm going to talk to you today about a project that I've started in the last year or two. This type of thinking, this type of work, is going to be one of the challenges social science faces in the coming three, four, five, ten years. It's work exclusively with Jon Kleinberg. For those of you who don't know him, Jon is a computer scientist, one of the preeminent computer scientists. He's probably the smart one of the two of us, but I'm the pretty one so it's better that I'm being taped.

SCIENCE IS NOT YOUR ENEMY: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians

Steven Pinker

[ED.NOTE: In a brilliant and imporant essay "Science Is Not Your Enemy", published today in The New Republic, Steven Pinker, one our most important public intellectuals, points out that "Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science. They are commonly misinformed that scientists no longer care about truth but merely chase the fashions of shifting paradigms. A demonization campaign anachronistically impugns science for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide." ...

 ... "One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in BookforumThe Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post,The Nation, National Review OnlineThe New Atlantis, The New York Times, and Standpoint. ...

Read on. — JB]

SCIENCE IS NOT YOUR ENEMY: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians
by Steven Pinker

"The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

"These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it? ...




Imagine the following scenario: You have two different tribes, your collectivist tribe over here—where everything's in common, and your individualist tribe over there. Imagine these tribes not only have different ways of cooperating, but they rally around different gods, different leaders, different holy texts that tell them how they should live—that you're not allowed to sing on Wednesdays in this group, and in this group over here, women are allowed to be herders, but in this group over there, they're not; different ways of life; different ways of organizing society.


A Conversation with
Scott Atran


Science, then, may never replace religion in the lives of most people and in any society that hopes to survive for very long. But neither can religion replace science if humankind hopes to unlock nature's material secrets. And parodies of science, like the so-called "theory" of intelligent design, only cripple science education.

SCOTT ATRAN is an anthropologist, Director of Research for ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling; Research Director in Anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also Visiting Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the University of Michigan and Rresidential Scholar in Sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City.

Scott Atran's Edge Bio Page



[SCOTT ATRAN:] In recent days President Bush has echoed conservative religious calls to give belief in intelligent design equal time with evolutionary theory in public schools. If heeded, this would debase both religion and science by muddling and weakening their different missions.

Science is not particularly well-suited to deal with problems of human existence that have no enduring logical and or factual solution, such as avoiding death, preventing deception, anticipating catastrophes, overcoming loneliness, finding love or ensuring justice. Science cannot tell us what we ought to do or what should be, only what we can do and what is. Religion endures and thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral needs. No society has ever endured more than a few generations without an unquestioningly true, but rationally inscrutable moral foundation.

In the competition for moral allegiance, secular ideologies are at a disadvantage. For if some better ideology is likely to be available down the line, then reasoning by backward induction, there is no more justified reason to accept the current ideology than convenience. And if people come to believe that all apparent commitment is self-interested convenience or worse, manipulation for the interest of others, then commitment withers and dies. Especially in times of vulnerability and stress, social deception and defection in pursuit of self- preservation is therefore more likely to occur, as the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun noted centuries ago. Religion passionately rouses hearts and minds to break out of this viciously rational cycle of self-interest, and to adopt group interests that can benefit individuals in the long run. In the narrowest case, a couple bound in devotion more easily overcomes personal ups and downs. In the broadest case, mutual faith in an omniscient and omnipotent agent (the supreme deity of Abrahamic religions) mitigates cheating and the mentality of "every man for himself."


Joshua D. Greene

Imagine the following scenario: You have two different tribes, your collectivist tribe over here—where everything's in common, and your individualist tribe over there. Imagine these tribes not only have different ways of cooperating, but they rally around different gods, different leaders, different holy texts that tell them how they should live—that you're not allowed to sing on Wednesdays in this group, and in this group over here, women are allowed to be herders, but in this group over there, they're not; different ways of life; different ways of organizing society. Imagine these societies existing separately, separated by a forest that burns down. The rains come, and then suddenly you have a nice lovely pasture, and both tribes move in.

Now the question is: How are they going to do this? We have different tribes that are cooperative in different ways. Are they going to be individualistic? Are they going to be collectivists? Are they going to pray to this god? Are they going to pray to that god? Are they going to be allowed to have assault weapons or not allowed to have assault weapons? That's the fundamental problem of the modern world—that basic morality solves the tragedy of the commons, but it doesn't solve what I call the "tragedy of common sense morality." Each moral tribe has its own sense of what's right or wrong—a sense of how people ought to get along with each other and treat each other—but the common senses of the different tribes are different. That's the fundamental and moral problem.

JOSHUA D. GREENE is the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and the director of the Moral Cognition Laboratory in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University. He studies the psychology and neuroscience of morality, focusing on the interplay between emotion and reasoning in moral decision-making. His broader interests cluster around the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. He is the author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and ThemJoshua D. Greene's Edge Bio Page


An Edge Special Event
Napoleon Chagnon, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, David Haig

(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman

"Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist ..." — Richard Dawkins, from the Introduction

Thanks to Steven Pinker for initiating and facilitating this Edge Special Event with Napoleon Chagnon, the last of the great ethnographers. 

THE REALITY CLUBLionel Tiger, Paul Seabright, Dominic Johnson, Azar Gat, Daniel Everett

By Richard Dawkins

Chagnon's extraordinary body of work will long be mined, not just by anthropologists but by psychologists, humanists, litterateurs, scientists of all kinds: mined for . . .  who knows what insights into the deep roots of our humanity?

Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist, he is brave on two fronts. As a field worker in the Amazon forest he has lived, intimately and under conditions of great privation, with The Fierce People at considerable physical danger to himself. But the wooden clubs and poison-tipped arrows of the Yanomamö were matched by the verbal clubs and toxic barbs of his anthropologist colleagues in the journal pages and conference halls of the United States. And it is not hard to guess which armamentarium was the more disagreeable to him.

Chagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea—even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all—can come close to career suicide.

In Chagnon's case the animosity spilled over from mere academic disagreement to personal slander, which was not merely untrue but diametrically opposite to the truth about this ethnographer and his decent and humane relationship with his subjects and friends. The episode serves as a dark lesson in what can happen when ideology is allowed to poison the well of academic study. While it is thankfully in the past, it blighted Chagnon's career, and I don't know whether the lesson for social science has been adequately learned.

Chagnon came along at just the right time for the Yanomamö and for scientific anthropology. Encroaching civilisation was about to close the last window on a tribal world that embodied vanishing clues to our own prehistory: a world of forest "gardens", of kin-groups fissioning into genetically salient sub-groups, of male combat over women and trans-generational revenge, complex alliances and enmities; webs of calculated obligation, debt, grudge and gratitude that might underlie much of our social psychology and even law, ethics and economics. Chagnon's extraordinary body of work will long be mined, not just by anthropologists but by psychologists, humanists, litterateurs, scientists of all kinds: mined for . . .  who knows what insights into the deep roots of our humanity?

In his unique role as salon-host and impresario for science, John Brockman has performed what will come to be seen as an enduring service, by bringing Napoleon Chagnon together with four of today's leading Third Culture intellectuals: Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and David Haig. Separately and in teams, these penetrating minds, combining deep scholarship with a rare ability to communicate and entertain, converse with Napoleon Chagnon and shed and reflect light on the life-work of a great anthropologist and a brave man.

                                                                                —Richard Dawkins

RICHARD DAWKINS, evolutionary biologist, is Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth; The Selfish Gene. He was recently ranked #1 in Prospect Magazine's poll of "World Thinkers 2013."


I first walked into the Yanomamö village thinking I was going to do the perfunctory one-year field research or maybe less, go back to my university, write my doctoral dissertation, publish a book maybe, after two or three years of thinking about it, then return to the tribe ten years later and do the expected thing about,  "Woe is me, what has the world and technology done to my people?" But the minute I walked into my first Yanomamö village I realized that I was witnessing a really precious thing, and I knew I would have to come back again and again. And I did.



The Yanomamö are very valuable now as a commodity. They are the largest most interesting and romanticized tribe in the entire Amazon basin, maybe in the world. They live in an area that is threatened by ecological destruction, so there are people who are interested in saving the rain forest, and people who are interested in saving the natives. And these groups collaborate with each other. Everybody wants the Yanomamö in their portfolio. 



What I've discovered is that life was very much filled with terror of your neighbors, constantly in a position—sort of like Hobbes’ argument—foul weather is not a shower or two but a tendency thereto for months on end. So you always have your eye open to the frontier and try to make sure that the guys out there are on the other side of the moat.


Continue to Part Two


Big villages lord over small villages. So if you're seeking an ally who will protect you from the buggers up the hill who are bigger than you, you're at a disadvantage because in order to get allies, you've got to give women to them. It’s an economics game where the smaller village has to pay up front for the privileges of the alliance, and the bigger village tends to default on many of its agreements. So big villages tend to exploit small villages. It's always a good idea to live in a big village; however, it's like living in a powder keg.


Continue to Part Two Discussion

NAPOLEON CHAGNON is a renowned anthropologist who is most widely recognized for his study of the Yanomamö tribes in the Amazon. He is a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri; Author, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.

STEVEN PINKER, psychologist, is Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

RICHARD WRANGHAM is Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at Harvard University; Author, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; (coauthor) Demonic Males: Apes, and the Origins Of Human Violence.

DANIEL C. DENNETT is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, & Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking; Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.

DAVID HAIG, evolutionary geneticist/theorist, is Associate Professor of Biology in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, with an interest in conflicts and conflict resolution within the genome, and genomic imprinting and relations between parents and offspring; Author, Genomic Imprinting and Kinship.


Subscribe to RSS - CULTURE