Why did the human brain evolve its large size? An answer from ecology and culture. While the need for the brain to accommodate complex social interactions has long been an explanation with intuitive appeal, the authors here argue, using quantitative models, that social cooperation actually decreases the need for a large brain (computation can be shared among peers); instead, a combination of ecological and social challenges leads to increased brain size in their model. It’s fairly well established at this point that early humans inhabited a world of changing climate; the ability to understand, predict, and accommodate a high variability environment was certainly crucial for the survival of our species. It’s nice to see explicit modeling being used here; in evolutionary history, it’s far too easy to come up with multiple, often conflicting, explanations for phenomena using dreaded ‘Just So‘ stories.
Does economics matter? I just recently had a conversation along these lines, about how depressing following politics is when you start to understand how the economy works; basically nobody in political power ever talks about any economic issues seriously, ever. But perhaps, as is argued here, this is somewhat of a category mistake. Politics is almost never about policy; it’s about identity, community, morality, who deserves to be raised and lowered in status, etc. For whatever reason, politicians often feel the need to wrap economic language around these topics. Immigration policy, for example, is often framed as an American jobs protection issue, despite the preponderance of evidence that immigration is good for local economies; people are somewhat reluctant to come out and say what they really mean (though Trump is changing that), and using more ‘neutral’ economic language gives them some cover (whether consciously or not).
Adding to the pile of articles on neoliberalism is this one: ‘Neo- and Other Liberalisms‘. A sample:
So the notion that “neoliberalism” has any definite meaning is as misguided as the notion that “liberalism” has any definite meaning. “Neoliberalism” now serves primarily as a term of abuse for leftists to impugn the motives of their ideological and political opponents in exactly the same way that right-wingers use “liberal” as a term of abuse — there are so many of course — with which to dismiss and denigrate their ideological and political opponents.
But despite my disclaimer that there is no fixed, essential, meaning of “liberalism,” I want to suggest that it is possible to find some common thread that unites many, if not all, of the disparate strands of liberalism. I think it’s important to do so, because it wasn’t so long ago that even conservatives were able to speak approvingly about the “liberal democratic” international order that was created, largely thanks to American leadership, in the post-World War II era. That time is now unfortunately past, but it’s still worth remembering that it once was possible to agree that “liberal” did correspond to an admirable political ideal.
As a related aside, I’ve just begun reading Jacob T. Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, and plan to be actively working through it here in the near future. It’s a work of political theory that aims to draw out the two strands of liberalism, which as you might guess he deems ‘rationalism’ and ‘pluralism’.
An interesting long read from Politico: How the ‘Watergate Babies’ Broke American Politics. I think an underappreciated political dynamic is the structure of power within the Congress. Often our mental model of politics focuses on getting the ‘right’ person elected, and it then follows that if enough of the ‘right’ people are in a room together, they’ll do the ‘right’ thing. But the structure of how those decisions are made matter just as much, because they add an additional layer of incentives to the politician’s decision. And as we learn in economics, you cannot deduce a person’s preferences from their actions, because no decision is made in a vacuum. The thesis here is that the post Watergate generation changed the internal rules of Congress in such a manner that increased partisanship was more rewarding for politicians, setting in motion the bitter political polarization that began in earnest in the 90s.
Global genetic differentiation of complex traits shaped by natural selection in humans: In any story where a trait in a human subpopulation is to be explained by natural selection, we should always ask ourselves whether selective pressure could be strong enough to explain that trait. There is always the possibility of founder effects, genetic drift, and so on, that could be just as plausible as an adaptive response. This paper claims to show that, at least for two complex traits (height and propensity for schizophrenia), natural selection does better explain the genetic evidence than other hypotheses.
Imperialism and the Final Stage of ‘Capitalism’: Argues that blaming ‘capitalism’ for historical injustices like colonialism. imperialism, and slavery is a mostly incoherent critique. Not only is ‘capitalism’ often undefined in these critiques (and, as with neoliberalism, used more as a term of abuse than as a a signifier of a particular state of affairs), but such claims lack any sort of causal mechanism or counterfactual.
What of the supposed natural connection between “capitalism” and colonialism or imperialism? I will not deny that there is a connection between the Great Enrichment and European imperialism, but it is of an utterly different character than the connection described by Marxists. The idea that imperialism was a natural part of the internal “logic of capitalism” was made famous by J. A. Hobson and translated into the language of Marxism by Vladimir Lenin, and continues to be influential among leftist theorists and historians today. Against this, I will argue that the connection is entirely contingent. If the spread of the Great Enrichment had been wider or simply different, if the specific advances in technology and medicine had occurred with different timing, 19th century imperialism may have been far less dramatic than it in fact was. Unlike the old “logic of capitalism” arguments, in other words, I will argue that it was a matter of circumstances rather than logical necessity.
It’s time for liberals to get over Citizens United: I’ve felt for a long time Americans on the left have put way too much stock into the impact of Citizens United, and this article does a good job of making the argument that 1) Citizens really wasn’t that big a shift in the law 2) Transparency of money flows is far more important than magnitudes, and 3) the American left should engage with the law as it exists to reform public participation in campaigns. I don’t know that I agree with the author’s specific proposals, but I do appreciate the starting point.