We should indeed be wary of Just-So Stories when it comes to the evolution of traits, but not exactly in the way John expresses here:
The study itself, in fact, purports to find a correlation between the murder rates in primitive societies and the incidence of lefthandedness among their populations. Still, we should be wary of this sort of explanation. Too often, they come down to the assertion that we know that natural selection favored some trait because we see that the trait exists.
That a trait exists very much is evidence it was selected for. If you get more precise and quantitative about it, you can even tell about when it happened, with ancient DNA. It is the why that is very hard to explain, because we don't always know what it really was that selected a given trait.
The Origins of Bad Behavior
Regular readers of this space will know that I try to be as non-partisan as possible. However, even I have been moved to ask this question in the months since the November election: why have so many prominent Democrats been going out of their way to look like a horse's ass? What were they trying to accomplish when they forced Congress to debate the validity of the Electoral College votes from Ohio? More recently, what did Senator Kennedy think he was doing last week when he declared the Iraq War a failure and demanded that the US begin to withdraw immediately after Sunday's election? Confronted with this kind of behavior, I am inclined to attribute it to some profound deformation of the political system. Mickey Kaus of The Kausfiles, however, offered a much simpler explanation yesterday:
It used to be that at this stage, opposition party leaders would be making conciliatory noises in an attempt to please voters, and conservative or centrist noises in an attempt to please business lobbyists and PACs. But maybe the amount of money that can be raised over the Internet from Democratic true believers is now more important than PAC money. And if you want to draw a Dean-like share of this Web loot, you have to be ruthless in bashing Bush.
I find this theory strangely comforting.
* * *
Those of us with lefthanded friends, or who are lefthanded ourselves, have often asked how people who don't seem altogether at ease in ordinary three-dimensional space manage to reach adulthood. A recent study attempts to answer the question: Why has lefthandedness survived among humans?
That has long puzzled anthropologists, for lefties face worse disadvantages in life other than struggling with tin openers, guitars, scissors and golf clubs designed for the righthanded majority...French anthropologists believe they have the answer: lefthandedness, far from being a disadvantage, is an evolutionary boon.
Their theory is that lefthanders survived -- and in some cultures thrived -- because they were better at fighting, having a built-in advantage in combat with a righthanded opponent....The idea behind their theory — published on Wednesday in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, Britain's de-facto Academy of Science — comes from sport, where the southpaw technique often gets the better of confused righthanders.
This explanation is tempting. It would explain the widespread conceptual linkage between the "sinister" (Latin for lefthanded) and evil. The study itself, in fact, purports to find a correlation between the murder rates in primitive societies and the incidence of lefthandedness among their populations. Still, we should be wary of this sort of explanation. Too often, they come down to the assertion that we know that natural selection favored some trait because we see that the trait exists.
* * *
And speaking of sinister behavior, we see that the Wicked Spengler at Asia Times had the temerity to publish a column entitled: The dotage of Iraq's democracy:
Genuine births never are in doubt. Either the baby is alive and crying, or not. But in the case of Iraq, democracy was born already in its dotage, hooked up to intravenous devices and breathing tubes...[T]ake any country, and assume that 1) almost all public and private revenues derive from oil, 2) oil is owned entirely by the state, 3) the unemployment rate is above 40%, and 4) everyone depends on state subsidies for basic needs. Then tell people that they have to write down the names of the representatives who will control these revenues and pay out state subsidies. Will they turn up to vote or not?
The evolution of democracy in the West was quite different, the calumniator reminds us:
The [18th-century] democrats were keen to manage their own business, in good part, because they had business to manage.
In the Middle East, today, matters are quite otherwise:
Recall Bernard Lewis' marvelous summation of Middle Eastern economics, namely that the whole Arab world exports (net of oil) less than Finland.
The democracy that can exist in such a context is an inferior sort of animal:
There is a subtler effect when only one political good dominates the whole economy (oil in Iraq, donor aid in Palestine). Distribution of largesse from a central treasury does not threaten traditional social relations...[T]o represent what just occurred in Iraq as a precedent of any kind for anyone else requires better ideological reflexes than this writer possesses.
These bilious remarks echo the critique that Fareed Zakaria makes in his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. To quote my own review:
Several Middle Eastern countries have average incomes well about the magic $6000 level [at which liberal government is usually secure], but are still far from being liberal democracies. The problem with the oil states is that they lack the stuffing of liberty. Wealth is not created by society, so the government need not bargain with the governed for the means to support itself. Rather, the government distributes a portion of the oil wealth in order to pacify the people. The rest tends to be stolen.
The short answer to this argument is that Australia and Canada got where they are today by exporting commodities. There are states in the world that are little more than than conveniences for export industries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Emirates fall into this class. Iraq never has.
But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Iraqi state really was just a patronage distribution system. Is it really such a small matter whether the patronage is distributed by gangsters or by elected officials? And are there really so few other patronage states that might look to Iraq as a model?
Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly