EDGE


EDGE 42 — June 13, 1998


DIGERATI

CODE
George Dyson & John Brockman: A Dialogue

"The metaphor we haven't quite got to yet will come from molecular biology, when we start to see the digital universe less as an electrical switching network or giant computer and more as an environment swimming with different levels of code."

CODE is an attempt to get at the big issues of the Microsoft-Justice Department situation. George has a biological approach and I have my own points to make. The original dialogue was recorded on May 10th while driving from Connecticut to New York in a rainstorm. No one from inside the Industry was in sight. George and I plan to continue the conversation.

THE REALITY CLUB

Judith Rich Harris on Frank Sulloway's "How Is Personality Formed?" (http://www.edg e.org/3rd_culture/sulloway/index.html)

In response to John Brockman's question about children without siblings, Sulloway hypothesizes that "only children ought to be intermediate on many personality traits" because "they are not being pushed by a younger sibling into being particularly conscientious or aggressive; and they are not being pushed by an elder sibling into being particularly daring or unconventional." But he also says that only children ought to be more variable because they "are free to occupy any niche." What Sulloway is trying to explain here is the embarrassing fact—embarrassing not just to him but to all believers in the nurture assumption—that only children do not differ in any systematic way from children with siblings.

Marc D. Hauser and Jaron Lanier on Geoffrey Miller's "Sexual Selection and the Mind" (http: //www.edge.org/3rd_culture/miller/index.html)

(Hauser) ...evolutionary psychologists need to know more about the brain, how it works, and the degree to which particular components of the brain allow for plasticity. Perhaps the most revolutionary findings within current neuroscience stem from work showing that even in adulthood, there is considerable plasticity (see, for example, the elegant work by Mike Merzenich on primates and rats, and the recent work by Ramachandran on brain damaged human patients or phantom limb victims).

(Lanier) Miller hopes to create dialogs where there have been divisions between disciplines. But there is a glaring chasm that he does not address. In a great many fields of inquiry, including biology, there has been a fascination for several decades with non-linear, chaotic systems, in which small changes cause effectively unpredictable results. And yet the human mind, which would seem to be the most apparent example of a such a system available to us, is still often stuffed into linear models by evolutionary psychologists.


(8,860 words)


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster

DIGERATI


"CODE"
George Dyson & John Brockman: A Dialogue

CODE is an attempt to get at the big issues of the Microsoft-Justice Department situation. George has a biological approach and I have my own points to make. The original dialogue was recorded on May 10th while driving from Connecticut to New York in a rainstorm. No one from inside the Industry was in sight. George and I plan to continue the conversation.

JB

GEORGE DYSON is a leading authority in the field of Aleut-Russian kayaks, and his work has been a subject of the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers. He is the author of Baidarka, and Darwin Among The Machines.


"CODE"
George Dyson & John Brockman: A Dialogue


GEORGE DYSON: Everybody is worrying about Microsoft, and I think they're more or less missing the point. It's not whether a monopoly is good or bad, or whether it's breaking some rules to merge the browser with the operating system. Turning this into a political issue—Government versus Microsoft—is diverting attention from something much more significant: the growth of multi-cellular forms of organization on the Net. You have the same code—Windows—running on all the chips, and when you merge the Browser with that you get the same code running on all the chips, but also in communication, the way the cells of a metazoan are in communication. I don't think it's something we can stop—nor is it necessarily something we should stop. Nobody complains about UNIX. The development of multi-cellular operating systems is a separate issue from the question of whether what Microsoft does is fair or legal in a business sense.

JB: Go back—first you mention the same code is running on all the chips...

DYSON: Not all, but we're talking 80-90 percent.

JB: Second you're talking about multi-cellular digital organisms. How did we get to where we are now?

DYSON: The analogy with biological organisms is highly tenuous—as EDGE readers will be flooding your inbox to point out. It's just the beginnings of something, in a faintly metazoan sense. The operating system used to be the system that operated a computer. Now it is becoming something else. This all started with one computer, whichever one you choose, whether it was ENIAC, or the computer at the Institute for Advanced Study, or the machine in Manchester—you had one of these machines and it turns out it can do very useful stuff.

JB: Was David Farber involved in ENIAC?

DYSON: No. But he's Alfred Moore professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where ENIAC was built. He's carrying on the tradition—it's like holding the Lucasian Chair.

JB: Back in the '60s none of us had ever seen a computer. I remember leading a crew of artists to Harvard/MIT in '65—we went to see "the" computer. It wasn't about computers at all. It was about communications. Walter Rosenblith's field was sensory communications. Harold Edgerton was an electrical engineer; A.K. Soloman was a biophysicist. I don't recall meeting anyone who called himself a "computer scientist." Something important was lost when we started talking about hardware.

DYSON: So these things immediately started to communicate, by cards and paper tape and phone lines, nothing new or mysterious about that. But what's happening at Microsoft—and elsewhere—is a coalescence towards the complete communication of everything. As Farber would tell you—if you read his list, [IP, a mailing list that's a good way for someone outside the industry to keep up]—there are moves afoot to get the same code—Windows, or Windows CE, or Windows NT or whatever, not to mention underlying protocols—running everywhere. Running on your desktop, running on your network, running in your car, running in your toaster, running on the credit card you have in your wallet—it's all going to run this same code. And if it's not Windows it'll be something else. The thing is, it's happening. Which is very much what's gone on in the world of biology. In biology there is one operating system, and it's the one we're stuck with—the DNA/RNA operating system. All living organisms, with very rare exceptions, run that same system. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but...

JB: So can I call this conversation "Life as an Operating System"?

DYSON: Maybe, but then you'll offend the biologists who say, "Oh, but it's much more complicated than that."

JB: "Life as an Operating System, Sort Of."

DYSON: Or just "Operating System"—period. The power that Microsoft represents goes far beyond what we can ever imagine. Don't forget money—not the Microsoft Money program but real money—represented digitally, and incorporated into the operating system. It's inevitable. Most of the hard stuff is already in place. Money is cross-platform information, in a very powerful, fluid form. And a small percentage of it filters back to Redmond. It's like an ant hill or a termite nest. The ants collect crumbs, but the crumbs add up. You can take the view that it's dark and sinister, or you can say it's the coming of Utopia or whatever. I don't really advocate either position, I just think it needs to be treated as much more serious than the business of an oil monopoly or something like that.

JB: More important than most of the players in the industry or justice department realize. We become the tools we create. In 1965 John Cage handed me a book to read. It was Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. Then Marshall McLuhan turned me on to The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which began: "The word communication will be used here in a very broad sense to include all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another." For Cage, mind had become socialized. By inventing electric technology, we had externalized our central nervous systems, and he wanted to tap into this by creating "a global utilities network." (See Prologue to Digerati [http://ww w.edge.org/prologue.html].

DYSON: And that's exactly what happened. 1965 was the beginning of the time-
sharing revolution, when one computer could be shared by many users. Now we have time sharing turned inside out—when one user can be shared by many computers. Microsoft's "Digital_Nervous_System" isn't some cybernetic vision—it's a product with an advertising campaign.

JB: It's on the mark in a nineties kind of way. And the big issue has nothing whatsoever to do with business, or government regulation. It's about who we are and who we will become.

DYSON: The question is, who does it belong to? We are all going to end up owning computers, but will we all end up owning shares?

JB: Let's go back to ENIAC.

DYSON: OK. So you've got one computer alone that can be very powerful, but when they're in communication they become more powerful. It's the same way that a colony of cells with no nervous system at all can become a starfish or a sponge or something like that just simply by chemical communication.

JB: By communication you're talking about a network such as the Internet?

DYSON: Yes, but you have to have all sorts of other communication to make an organism happen: chemical, hormonal, mechanical. We are still immersed in the metaphor of fifty years ago, the computer as brain, the brain as electrical network, etc. The metaphor we haven't quite got to yet will come from molecular biology, when we start to see the digital universe less as an electrical switching network or giant computer and more as an environment swimming with different levels of code. How these increasingly complex one-dimensional strings of code actually do things, interacting with each other and with the three-dimensional world we live in, has more in common with the code-string and protein-folding world of molecular biology, where molecules interact with each other—and do things—by means of templates, rather than by reference to some fault-intolerant system of numerical address.

JB: There is no Internet—there is only a process. When you stop a process to name it, it becomes dead. What we think of as the Internet is only a measure of its effect.

DYSON: Look at it from the point of view of the code itself, not the end user sitting at a terminal, which is either a synapse to some other coded process, or the means to some formalizable end. In ancient (computer) times code would run, be executed, and be terminated, that was the end of it. On the Internet code can keep moving around; it may escape termination by the local CPU, and when it arrives at a terminal, that doesn't mean it stops.

JB: How do you define "code"?

DYSON: Sequences of instructions, or data, that form either patterns in time or patterns in space. It's a very broad definition. For instance a sequence that when decoded by your machine turns into a song that you make copies of and thereby reproduce. When you write it to your disk it stops being a pattern in time and becomes a pattern in space. Computers transform patterns in time into patterns in space and back again, and they do it very fast—that's the whole Turing machine concept, the ability to make transformations between these two kinds of patterns, by formalizing a relationship between bit-to-bit (coding) on tape, and moment-to-moment (processing) in time. It's a symbiosis—the hardware doesn't make any sense without the code, and the code wouldn't exist without the hardware.

JB: Multi-cellular?

DYSON: Danny Hillis has a good explanation of that—from when he started to do massively parallel computing. There's two kinds—single instruction multiple data, and multiple instruction multiple data. What you have in biology is sort of single instruction—you have one seed, which is one string of code, and then it divides and becomes all these different cells that differentiate into things—from cells to individuals to species—and they are all running this original mother code, but doing different things with it. That's what Windows is trying to do, to become this one seed of code that allows you to do all these different things-balance your check book, play your games, do your income tax, and everything else. And of course it has become bloated by trying to do all that. But then code in biology is bloated as well—that's one thing we've learned. We thought DNA must be so efficiently coded; but it's actually full of all this redundancy, because molecules are cheap, and editing is expensive.

JB: So you say that this is not just a monopoly such as an oil monopoly?

DYSON: I think it's more serious. Because it is infiltrating everything.

JB: There is an essential feedback process in which a technology relays back signals telling us what to do/who we are. Government is out of this feedback loop. Until only very recently no democratic populace, no legislative body, ever voted for what kind of information it desires. We didn't vote for the telephone, for the automobile, for printing, for airplanes, for the birth control pill, for antibiotics, for television, for xerography, for transistors, for space travel, for electricity. Governments play catch-up in terms of legal code. The other role government plays is to muscle in on the action and shake down the successful technologists. That's what we're seeing happen today.

DYSON: It's puzzling to me, as a historian, that government suddenly feels left out. From the 1890 census (the origins of the punched card industry and IBM), through the 1940s and 50s and right up into the 1990s, most of the critical innovations in computing (time-sharing, packet switching, HTML, etc.) were instigated by the government, or at least incubated with government support.

JB: Right, and Buckminster Fuller and his colleague John McHale, rarely missed an opportunity to note that current military technology has a way of winding up in your dishwasher twenty years later.

But let's move on and talk about Jaron Lanier's thinking, i.e. that the architecture of the operating system is becoming embedded for a thousand years. Would you agree with that?

DYSON: Yes. The Year 3000 Problem! And the issue of monoculture vs. biodiversity in the software world. It has parallels with religion. Once established, they tend to last a very long time. We live in a world with many different religions, we've had some of the most vicious wars fought over issues of religion, and we've had no end of government involvement in religion. Yet we still have a world of diverse religions. With operating systems it looks like we may be losing that diversity.

JB: And there have been quite a few up to now—Unix, etc.

DYSON: But the growth now is favoring Windows and Windows NT. And in the next generation those two are going to merge. And perhaps become much larger than Microsoft is today.

JB: Is there something inherently sinister in this process? We both know a lot of people at Microsoft. They're not at all sinister.

DYSON: Which is why it's so wrong to treat this as simply a legal or business conflict—it isn't. It's the incorporation, by one corporation, of collective behavior that's moving at an unprecedented pace.

JB: What does it mean?

DYSON: I don't know. What's remarkable is that we're not going to have to wait that long to find out. It used to be that you'd say "I sure wish I'd be alive in a hundred years to see what happens"—if we live five more years we're going to see what happens.

JB: Is it going to be a good thing if and when there will be no Netscape? You will be limited to accessing the universe of information through Microsoft's eyes.

DYSON: At the beginning, the browser and the operating system were symbiotic bodies of code. But then one swallowed the other. That's probably how we have the modern living cell, with all its embedded subsystems, because free-living symbionts were absorbed into the cell. That's what's happening with the browser, it's gone from being an outside symbiotic body of code to something that's swallowed by the operating system and become the nucleus of it. It's a very sensible way to do it, just to be able to browse everything, whether it's on your disk or on somebody else's. The problem here is that Netscape got incorporated not by symbiosis but by imitation, and people sense that somehow this isn't fair. (And then you hear, "But who imitated Mosaic?")

JB: Any advice to the Justice Department?

DYSON: Lay off this question of whether you can merge your browser and your operating system and these other vague things—all they can possibly lead to is being argued about in court for ten years. Send a bunch of hard-nosed lawyers in there who understand business deals and can crack down on some of the details—any number of smaller cases where Microsoft has pushed their weight around—but not these big religious issues that can't be solved. Make sure they obey the absolute letter of the law.

JB: What's a religious issue?

DYSON: Well, the issue of whether Microsoft is a monopoly or not, or where you draw the line between applications and operating systems. Those are tough things to legally decide. And can you really do anything if you decide them?

JB: Are you saying that there's no point in breaking up Microsoft and having an operating system company and an applications company that compete?

DYSON: Right, because the only way you can break it up is by forcing some larger government administrative structure upon it, so the cure is worse than the disease. One thing we know about regulation is that it's very, very slow, and it's usually about ten years behind. Microsoft may exercise its power unwisely, but government inefficiency may be worse.

JB: The Justice department's involvement on the technological level is off the mark. There are issues to consider that are more important than Microsoft, Netscape, "the consumers", or today's economy. We don't need Justice, Congress, the lawyers for this.

DYSON: We need biologists. Molecular biologists and field biologists. Entomologists. Immunologists. Viral geneticists—they can tell you how to write (or evolve) robust code. As far as I know, there's almost no biologists at Microsoft. Lots of physicists, and four-dimensional topologists even, and of course Nathan's work with dinosaurs, but not much else. Maybe they're keeping it quiet. It reminds me of Von Neumann's computer group at the Institute in the 1950s—Charney's meteorology group was a convenient smoke screen for all the calculations being done on thermonuclear bombs. But the bombs were sort of an open secret. There was a much deeper secret, however: Nils Barricelli's numerical symbioorganisms. No one dared draw attention to that.

JB: Have you discussed this with Microsoft?

DYSON: I was invited to visit Microsoft—and gave my pitch for software evolution as a somewhat haphazard symbiogenetic process, and some of the programmers seemed to take this as a criticism of their work. Programmers write code, code doesn't self-evolve.

JB: What was your pitch?

DYSON: In nature, every possible variation of code is tried sooner or later and nature selects what works. You throw code at the universe and see what grows. That in a very crude sense is what I see happening at Microsoft. There are 13,000 people, many of them writing code. Whole divisions write code for a year and if it doesn't work and the market doesn't buy it, it's dead—if it's something that works, if something's successful, it grows. You throw money like grass seed in a park and watch where the paths form. There are some very clever programmers but can anyone predict ahead of time what's going to work? I think it's much more an element of chance. It's not random— you see the successful things because they're the ones that get to market, but it doesn't take thousands of people to write—even to write an operating system.

JB: How does it happen?

DYSON: Systems grow by symbiosis. Remember the System Development Corporation, which was started in the early 1950s as a small subdivision of RAND, to write operating systems for air defense. By the mid-1950s it had grown to twice the size of the rest of RAND. Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety says that effective control systems have to be at least as complex as the systems they control. So you have to use components--and hierarchical languages. No one could engineer something as complicated as Windows 95 from scratch; it has to be built up from other autonomous things that are known to work. The code has a life of its own—it has to go out in the world like biological code and do something, and then the response goes back to the source and if it's successful it gets reproduced—or imitated, which gives digital evolution a faintly Lamarckian quality that's absent in the natural world.

JB: Have you had this discussion with Charles Simonyi?

DYSON: Only in snippets. His project on intentional programming is way ahead of the curve. He's a mathematician, and he can think in more than two or three dimensions. There's always a higher dimension than the one in which you are writing the code. There's always another level—the language above the language—and this IP—Intentional Programming [http://ww w.edge.org/digerati/simonyi/simonyi_p1.html]—project is a way of opening a doorway so that something successful at one level can be extended to the other levels without this incredibly laborious process. It becomes less brittle. But it's not just another language. Languages form layers, whereas IP, as I understand it, has depth.

JB: Software is the only business today.

DYSON: In the 1930s it took a visionary to see this coming. Turing (and Goedel) said that everything can be coded—people laughed and said, oh, those romantic mathematicians are imagining this unreal stuff. In the 1940s it started to happen.

JB: A notion that descended directly to the logic of By The Late John Brockman [http:/ /www.edge.org/btljb/cover.html]. Everything's being coded. And now, it's going to be coded through Windows.

DYSON: Exactly. That's the amazing thing—technically Windows is just a number. One very long number. You buy Windows, it's on a compact disk, it's just one long string of bits. If you tried to type it out as a book, you would be typing for a very long time. In Turing's day this all seemed ridiculously abstract—the idea that you could have some kind of universal number, and here Windows is the idea of a universal number, carried to reality and shrink-wrapped . If you took somebody 50 years ago and tried to tell them this is going to happen in 50 years they wouldn't believe it.

JB: But it's just a string of bits.

DYSON: Yes, it is. But let me remind you of something "which might interest biologists more than artificial intelligencers," as logician John Myhill put it in 1964. "The possibility of producing an infinite sequence of varieties of descendants from a single program... suggests the possibility of encoding a potentially infinite number of directions to posterity on a finitely long chromosomal tape."

JB: Who owns the tape?

DYSON: Good question.



THE REALITY CLUB

Judith Rich Harris on Frank Sulloway's "How Is Personality Formed?" (http://www.edg e.org/3rd_culture/sulloway/index.html)


From: Judith Rich Harris
Submitted: 6.1.98

Comments on the Interview with Frank Sulloway, "How Is Personality Formed?"

Frank Sulloway is right when he says that a younger sibling would be ill advised to punch his older brother in the nose: the punch might be returned, and older kids punch harder than younger ones. But the same younger sibling who learns through hard experience to stay his hand at home may nonetheless become the bully of the playground, if he happens to be larger or stronger than other children of his age. As I show in my forthcoming book The Nurture Assumption, the strategies children work out at home for getting along with their parents and siblings are likely to be useless in the world outside their home. That is why children's behavior differs systematically in different social contexts. And that is why psychologists looking for birth order effects in modern populations have again and again failed to find them.

It was different in the old days. In former times, children spent most of the day in the company of their siblings, so a younger sibling might spend his entire childhood in the shadow of an older brother. And the rule of primogeniture meant that a child's birth order determined his status not only within his family but in the society as a whole, from the cradle to the grave.

Today, children interact with their siblings mainly at home. Outside the home they spend most of their time in the company of same-age peers. Developmental psychologists have looked for, and have not found, a carryover of behavior from sibling relationships to relationships with peers. Children who fight like cats and dogs with their siblings are not more likely to have troubled peer relationships. A child who submits to an older sibling at home may be a leader in her nursery school classroom. Sure, children learn things at home. But they learn new things, different things, when they go out. And it's what they learn Out There that they carry with them to adulthood, because Out There is where they are destined to spend the rest of their lives.

The idea that birth order has important and persistent effects on personality has been repeatedly debunked by careful reviewers of the data -- reviewers without a theoretical ax of their own to grind. And yet people go on believing in the power of birth order. I attribute the persistence of this belief to what I call "the nurture assumption": the assumption that what makes children turn out the way they do, aside from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up. Since it is clear that parents do not treat all their children alike, and equally clear that firstborns are treated differently from laterborns (the oldest is given more responsibility, the youngest more affection), the nurture assumption predicts that order of birth should leave permanent marks on the children's personalities. Only it doesn't -- at least not in modern populations. Or if it does, the effects are so small and unreliable that they are of no practical importance. Birth order effects cannot, for example, explain the fact that children reared in the same family do not turn out alike: at most they can account for only a tiny fraction of the environmentally derived variation in personality.

Sulloway is right that birth order is a "systematic source of differences in family environments"; he is right that siblings have a tendency to diversify. They may get interested in different things and choose different careers. Their birth order unquestionably affects their relationships with each other and with their parents; it affects the way they behave at home. What it does not affect is their adult personality, measured outside the home or judged by people who are not members of the family.

In his Edge interview, Sulloway gives the impression that self-report personality tests -- the kind where people answer questions about themselves -- are worthless and that the psychologists who construct them are naive enough to take the subjects' statements about themselves at face value. The truth is that personality tests are sophisticated devices that have been honed and improved over time. They are examined for internal consistency and checked against other sources of information; test items that don't work are eliminated. No single item on the test can do the job unaided; the scorers of these tests are looking for *patterns* of responses. The "Big Five personality dimensions" that Sulloway talks about are a product of the same tests that he dismisses when they produce results not to his liking.

Sulloway asks but one question of his historical subjects: Do they or don't they believe in evolutionary theory, or phrenology, or the Protestant Reformation? It's a test consisting of a single item. How well can we judge someone's personality by his answer to a single question?

But Sulloway has more than historical data: he has modern data from a variety of personality tests and measures. The data he uses for this purpose were all collected before 1981: they are from studies reviewed in a 1983 book by the Swiss psychologists Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst (that's right, Ernst and Angst -- I'm not making this up). Ernst & Angst concluded that most of the studies they reviewed were worthless because the researchers had failed to control for family size and/or socioeconomic class (variables that are themselves correlated). They threw out the worthless studies, looked closely at the ones that remained, and concluded that birth order was a crock. "This may signify," they said, "that most of our opinions in the field of dynamic psychology may have to be revised."

Sulloway reexamined the same studies that Ernst & Angst reviewed -- the ones that used the proper controls -- and came to different conclusions. There are a number of problems, however, with his reexamination; I discuss them in detail in Appendix 1 of The Nurture Assumption (due out in September). For example, how many studies did Sulloway include in his reanalysis? Five times in his book Born to Rebel, and three times in his Edge interview, he gives the number of properly controlled studies as 196, but I spent days combing through Ernst & Angst's book and found nowhere near that number. The explanation of this discrepancy is contained in a note underneath a table in Born to Rebel: "Each reported finding constitutes a `study.'" Thus, if a researcher reported that the firstborns in a particular sample of subjects were more conventional, conscientious, assertive, and neurotic than the laterborns, Sulloway's definition allowed him to count these four findings as four "studies." Only by counting some studies more than once could Sulloway have obtained his total of 196. Although multiple findings generated from the same sample of subjects are not statistically independent, Sulloway nonetheless tested his data with a statistic based on the assumption that each outcome is independent.

"Unfortunately," Sulloway says in his Edge interview, "most psychologists -- to this day -- do not appreciate the issue of statistical power." He is objecting to attempts to test his claims with samples of only 200 to 400 subjects. Well, if birth order effects were as big and important as Sulloway implies, 200 to 400 subjects should be plenty to demonstrate them. In any case, he has given the impression that bigger studies are more likely than smaller ones to turn up significant birth order effects, which is what you'd expect if birth order effects were real but small. Just the opposite is true, however. Of the research reviewed by Ernst & Angst, only 19 percent of the findings from the largest studies (more than 400 subjects) were favorable to Sulloway's theory, versus 38 percent of the findings from the smallest ones (fewer than 200). Sulloway calls his reanalysis a "meta-analysis," but that term is usually used to describe a procedure that takes into account the size of the included studies and the magnitude of their effects. Neither sample size nor effect size was taken into account in Sulloway's analysis.

The largest study I know of on birth order is the one carried out by Ernst and Angst themselves. Not content to survey the work of others, they decided to check up on their conclusions by running a massive study of their own: 7,582 college-age residents of Zurich served as subjects. Ernst & Angst used all the proper controls and measured (with a self-report questionnaire) twelve different aspects of personality, including Sulloway's favorite, openness. They found no significant birth order effects at all among subjects from two-child families -- no differences in personality between the firstborn and the secondborn. Among subjects from larger families there was one significant effect: the lastborn tested slightly lower in masculinity. This study was reported in the same 1983 book that produced the data for Sulloway's reanalysis, but he does not mention it either in Born to Rebel or in his interview on Edge.

Perhaps he discounted it because it used the self-report method. Studies that use family members -- parents or siblings -- to assess the subjects' personality are far more likely to produce findings favorable to Sulloway's theory. Several such studies were included in Ernst & Angst's survey and most of them yielded multiple findings. But are the findings valid? Ernst & Angst didn't think so. When you ask people to assess the personality of their children or siblings, what you get is a description of how the subjects behave at home -- how they behave with their parents and siblings. This doesn't tell you much about how they behave at other times and in other places. Parents' descriptions of their kids agree poorly with teachers' judgments. (I imagine that teachers must get tired of hearing parents ask, "Are you sure you're talking about MY kid?") A method Sulloway advocates in his Edge interview is to have subjects compare themselves to their siblings, but what that would give you is a picture of how the siblings behave vis-a-vis each other -- how they behave when they're together, because they don't know how their sibling behaves when they're apart. I have no doubt that such a procedure would generate birth order effects.

In response to John Brockman's question about children without siblings, Sulloway hypothesizes that "only children ought to be intermediate on many personality traits" because "they are not being pushed by a younger sibling into being particularly conscientious or aggressive; and they are not being pushed by an elder sibling into being particularly daring or unconventional." But he also says that only children ought to be more variable because they "are free to occupy any niche." What Sulloway is trying to explain here is the embarrassing fact -- embarrassing not just to him but to all believers in the nurture assumption -- that only children do not differ in any systematic way from children with siblings. These children have missed out on the experiences that play such an important role in Sulloway's theory: they haven't had to compete with their siblings for parental attention, and they haven't had to learn how to get along (or not get along) with a bossy older sister or a pesky younger brother. And yet their personalities are indistinguishable from those of children with siblings.

Occasionally a study does turn up a difference between only children and children with siblings, or between firstborns and laterborns, or between first- and lastborns and middle children. Such results are a testimony to the persistence with which researchers look for them and their refusal to take no for an answer. The fun part comes in thinking up an explanation for each significant effect that is found, because each study that produces a publishable result tends to produce a different one. Sulloway mentions, for example, a study that found that middle children were less likely than first- or lastborns to identify themselves with a family label, presumably because they were more closely identified with their peers. Sulloway's explanation is that "middle children are at a disadvantage -- they don't have the benefit of being first, which leads to greater parental investment because firstborns are closer to the age of reproduction. The lastborn has the benefit of being the last child the parents are going to have, so parents will tend to invest heavily in this child so that it will not die in childhood." Ernst & Angst had something to say about this kind of post-hoc reasoning and I think it's worth quoting here. The italics are theirs.

Birth order research seems very simple, since position in a
sibship and sibship size are easily defined. The computer is
fed some ordinal numbers, and then it is easy to find a
plausible post hoc explanation for any significant difference
in the related variables. If, for example, lastborn children
report more anxiety than other birth ranks, it is because for
many years they were the weakest in the family. If firstborns
are found to be the most timid, it is because of incoherent
treatment by an inexperienced mother. If, on the other hand,
middle children show the greatest anxiety, it is because they
have been neglected by their parents, being neither the first-
nor the lastborn. With some imagination it is even possible to
find explanations for greatest anxiety in a second girl of
four, and so on, ad infinitum. This kind of research is a
sheer waste of time and money
.

JUDITH RICH HARRIS is a writer and developmental psychologist; co-author of The Child: A Contemporary View Of Development; winner of the 1997 George A. Miller Award for an outstanding article in general psychology, and author of the forthcoming The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do.



Marc D. Hauser and Jaron Lanier on Geoffrey Miller's "Sexual Selection and the Mind" (http: //www.edge.org/3rd_culture/miller/index.html)


From: Marc D. Hauser
Submitted: 5.28.98

I would like to make just a few comments on the issues raised in your interview and discussion with Geoffrey Miller. First, I am completely sympathetic to the idea that there should be a marriage between behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology. Steve Pinker is already doing this, using some of the intuitions derived from his account of language and its funcitonal design features, together with twin studies. Second, although there is an important historical distinction to be drawn between natural selection and sexual selection, and many behavioral ecologists continue to draw on this distinction, once you break the problem down into one focused on characters leading to fitness advantages (i.e., gene replication), the distinction really fades away. One looks at variation, heritability and fitnesses consequences. Third, although I am compelled by the arguments from evolutionary psychology, there are two areas of research that would, I believe, help in formulating hypotheses that are more atuned to mechanistic constraints. In particular, evolutionary psychologists need to know more about the brain, how it works, and the degree to which particular components of the brain allow for plasticity. Perhaps the most revolutionary findings within current neuroscience stem from work showing that even in adulthood, there is considerable plasticity (see, for example, the elegant work by Mike Merzenich on primates and rats, and the recent work by Ramachandran on brain damaged human patients or phantom limb victims). In addition, given the interest in a strong nativist stance, the recent explosion of work on hox genes seems extremely relevant. Given the fact that many genes for segmentation are highly conserved, we must be very cautious when we assess problems of homology and homoplasy, issues that would appear to lie at the heart of the evolutionary psychologist's claims for an EEA.

Marc

MARC D. HAUSER is an Evolutionary psychologist; Professor of psychology, anthropology and program in neuroscience at Harvard University; author of The Evolution of Communication; and What The Serpent Said: How Animals Think And What They Think About (forthcoming).


From: Jaron Lanier
Submitted: 5.28.98

Let me first respond as a musician. Darwin did not invent the idea that attracting mates must have had something to do with the origins of music. Listen to the "locker room" talk of musicians and you'll frequently hear that theory articulated with hearty enthusiasm- and you can go back to a variety of ancient sources (Hindu, Chinese, and many others) and find approximations of the same.

Since it's very hard to define what is and is not music, I fear it's not an easily tested premise, but it is a welcome one. I am usually among the first to be offended by excessive reductionism in evolutionary theories of human nature, but this is the sort of idea that sits well. Of course music is in part a "spin off" of sex! I notice my own playing improve when women are listening. I suspect that effect is measurable and repeatable, and might provide one avenue for experimentation.

As I read Miller's interview, the difference I find with him is that he hopes to understand both music and sexual selection as more linear, contained, and measurable phenomena than I believe them to be.

Miller hopes to create dialogs where there have been divisions between disciplines. But there is a glaring chasm that he does not address. In a great many fields of inquiry, including biology, there has been a fascination for several decades with non-linear, chaotic systems, in which small changes cause effectively unpredictable results. And yet the human mind, which would seem to be the most apparent example of a such a system available to us, is still often stuffed into linear models by evolutionary psychologists.

Miller chooses the quality of intelligence to exemplify the practice of evolutionary psychology, so I will also use it to illustrate some room for difference in interpretation.

I fear there is an almost inevitable confusion of genetic traits (which are initial conditions for a brain) and capabilities (which are non-linear outcomes) in evolutionary psychology theories. I usually explain this with a metaphor to movie reviews.

It would be easy to come up with parameters to characterize and compare movies. One could speak of their budgets, the number of days in filming, the number of people involved in the production, and so forth. One could also find legitimate correspondences between these values. A movie production that makes use of a huge staff is likely to also require more days of shooting, for instance. It also possible to statistically link these parameters very approximately to the financial success of a movie. Analysts find that the most expensive and cheap movies are in general more likely to turn a profit, while mid-range budget movies are more likely to lose money.

So far so good. But these and other available measurements (such as focus groups) don't help much in predicting the success of an individual movie. "Titanic" was expected to be a flop, while "Godzilla" has turned out to be something of a disappointment. When it comes to judging the quality of a movie, as opposed to its market success, we can also find some general correlation between the various critics. If Siskel and Ebert both hate a movie, it's more likely the New Yorker reviewer will also hate it. But what is important is that in judging the overall quality of a movie, reviewers only suggest values with very low precision. Siskel and Ebert provide 2 bits of information (thumbs-up, thumbs-down), while other reviewers might offer a 4 or 5 star system, or, rarely, a ten star system. The measurements that can be made of a movie's production are much more precise than the evaluations of the "desirability" of the outcome, and can only be imprecisely correlated with precisely measurable outcomes, like profitability.

This all seems intuitive, yet when it comes to the human mind, an object of greater complexity, subtlety, and mystery than a movie, theorists are liable to confuse themselves by creating specious accuracy and correspondence.

There is a "G factor", and it is rather like the correspondence between a movies budget and its staff size and the number of screens on which it will open. This is a value that can be known to significant precision. There is also "intelligence" in the word's common usage and it is rather like a movie review rating. What I suspect, though, is that there is not a measure of overall quality of intellect or intelligence that is as accurate as G, and yet somehow psychologists uncritically assume that there is. Even worse, educators, employers, and parents are given no warning that there might be an illusion of specious accuracy in a testing system that directly effects the outcomes of individual lives.

Movie investors, and all of us, repeatedly fall prey to the illusion of linearity in non-linear systems. We still believe we can say someone with 110 IQ is ten points smarter than someone else with a 120 IQ, and studios still believe they can predict how much money a movie will make. Without this madness it is possible that movies would not be made, but science and parenting should try to rise above illusion.

(By the way, while I'm sure I have a G factor, I don't have an IQ- I have refused the tests since I was a child- filling them in randomly when forced to take them.)

While it is essential to explore the biological origins and constraints of human nature, it is ever more important to reaffirm that people cannot be entirely understood by those constraints.

The easiest way to demonstrate this is to point out that the advent of writing and civilization occurred during a period of practical genetic stasis. The human brain is clearly genetically capable of achievements which could not have been foreseen by the process of sexual selection, or any form of evolutionary pressure. Human traits have played out in unpredictable ways. This is almost too obvious a thing to state in so many words, and yet I feel a need to repeat it when I read the works of contemporary evolutionary psychology.

This is also the reason why it DOES make sense for Gould and others to treat humans as a special case, to some degree.

The joy of music is that it becomes more than we can account for, just like a brain or a movie. Yes, "Music is a system of basic elements, notes, that are combined according to certain principals of rhythm, tonality", but musical behavior is capable of extraordinary, non-linear flights of ecstasy and genius.

The illusion of linearity is demonstrated when Miller says, "It's going to be difficult for people to cope with ideas that there are just a few measures that can describe-not just their intelligence but their personalities." Indeed it should be difficult.

There is such a terrible danger of people confusing the squalid measurements of their parts with the demonstrated, non-linear grandeur of the potential of their whole.

I teach sometimes, and I will always consider it to be malpractice if I "relax" as Miller suggests, and ignore the possibility that genius might yet emerge from a "low G" student. I have seen it happen, and it is why I teach.

JARON LANIER, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and founder and former CEO of VPL.



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