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Comments on Behavioral Genetics Lecture

These are my comments on the first 49 minutes of Behavioral Genetics II, a 2010 lecture from Robert Sapolsky at Stanford.

Around 30 seconds in, the foxes thing is wrong. He says fox breeding shows evolution moving really fast. But it's not evolution of new traits, it's just adjusting the parameters for traits which evolved in the past. Dawkins made the same mistake. See:


The takeaway is the video lecturer and Dawkins are not philosophers and they routinely get things wrong when they stray into philosophy issues without realizing it. To understand knowledge creation correctly you have to study epistemology. Evolution itself is a theory of epistemology, and many people trying to talk about it don't even know what field it belongs to. The application of evolution to biology and genes is just one implication of the more general epistemological theory.

Also, regarding fox comparisons: humans are fundamentally different than animals because humans have intelligence software (universal knowledge creation software) and animals don't.

Around 12min, the lecturer talks about genetic markers. Note those are correlations. At 14min he says people carefully checked their statistics to decide how certain they were because things like terminating pregnancies was at stake. But no amount of statistics can ever turn correlations into causations. Before advising a single person to terminate pregnancy, you must have discussions, with arguments and criticism, that try to understand the causality. The video doesn't attempt to discuss how to do this well, or mention the necessity of it. Again this is running into a philosophical issue (how to have a productive debate to seek the truth) and these people aren't philosophers and don't know what they're doing (they don't even realize when they stray out of their field, into a different field they are bad at).

Around 21min the lecturer suggests that genes can control human behavior, with no awareness that memetic evolution and intelligent decision making are the dominant issues for human behavior. He brings up extrapolating from animal genes to humans, including in the case of behavior, without realizing this huge difference. (Extrapolations from animals like that can be reasonable guesses for non-behavior issues like hair color.)

So far the lecturer hasn't said a word about gene-environment interactions or about memes. But once memes existed, they evolved faster than genes and therefore outraced genes to meet lots of selection pressures and therefore there are memes instead of genes for lots of human behaviors.

At 24:15 he brags about how a paper was in a "very prestigious" journal. He's interested in social status instead of truth. The study he talks about is just a correlation study, so who cares? And he didn't name it and they didn't bother putting a citation for it in the YouTube description. Then he talks about a second study, and it's the same thing: he just summarizes the conclusions and expects people to accept these claims without any arguments that they are true. He's just completely ignoring the gene-environment interaction issue, and memes, and it makes what he's saying misleading and unproductive.

At 26min he talks about the amygdala having to do with fear and anxiety. He buys into the standard belief about specialized brain regions for different functions. That is contradicted by the universality view. How can such a disagreement be settled? By debate. David Deutsch, myself and others have debated anyone who was willing to have a serious discussion for many years. And we've sought out people and asked if they had any criticisms of our arguments. There is no one from the other side who is able to win this debate against us. This is partly because, again, they aren't philosophers and knowing how to judge ideas in a debate is a philosophy skill. They don't know how to argue well, which is why they've accepted the wrong ideas and are unwilling to deal with criticism.

Where's the "behavioral memetics" lecture? It's not on the playlist.

I have nothing against this particular lecturer. Everything he said is standard and normal. That doesn't prevent it from containing major errors, which are known, and which a lot of people don't want to hear about. I will debate this lecturer, or whoever else, in writing, with no time limits, in a serious, scholarly way. I will continue the discussion to a conclusion instead of giving up and trying to "agree to disagree" and refusing to answer further criticisms and questions. But he won't do it.

At 40min the lecturer brings up heritability. He correctly says that people misunderstand heritability. That's typical. Experts in the field often do know what "heritability" means (they defined "heritability" totally differently than the regular word so that it'd be easier to study), but then the media misreports all the heritability studies. A great source on heritability is Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ. It has important points that the lecture leaves out.

Around 46:45 the lecturer uses the word "explained" to mean "correlated with". That's so typical and bad.

Elliot Temple on October 5, 2017


What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)