Moral intuitions & the evolution of cognition

Over at The American Scene Ross posts about the conundrum that many couples face when having to discard their excess embryos in the context of in vitro fertilization. He states:

Intuitions are unreliable and changeable, and they’re shaped by cultural factors as much as they shape them.

I have basically argued before that the axiomatic arguments made by both sides are a sham. I do not deny that pro-life individuals sincerley believe that life begins at conception, but, I do question why if abortion is a “genocide” equivalent to the “holocaust” they not take up arms in a just war against this murder? Yes, I know there are ways you can “reason” against such violence in the name of a good cause, but I find such reasoning as persuasive as “penumbras” which suggest a “right” to “privacy” in the American Constitution.

Ross is correct to note that couples do not view embryos as a “clump of cells,” but neither does this imply that such attachment is equivalent to that that they would feel toward a 3 year old child. I would argue that “pro-life” sentiment is roughly proportional to the degree of resemblence of the embryo/fetus to a conventional human physiognomy. And I do not believe that all such sentiment derives from socialization, much of it is hard-wired into us. Over the past generation cognitive science has suggested that there are powerful biases in our mental hardware which constrains and shapes how we perceive the world. For example, it seems clear that we have primed hardware geared toward facial recognition. And, this might have moral implications. I offer this research to illustrate the thrust of my point:

Over 10 weeks, the researchers placed a sign above the box. Each week, they alternated pictures of eyes with flowers. The eyes were male or female and had various expressions.

On average, people paid nearly three times as much for their drinks on the weeks when the poster featured eyes, the team reports in Wednesday’s issue of the journal Biology Letters.

“Our brains are programmed to respond to eyes and faces whether we are consciously aware of it or not,” the study’s lead author, Melissa Bateson, said in a release.

Two points:

  1. Eyes matter, it seems just as we have face recognition hardwire preloaded, we have an ability and competence to detect and process information in regards to eyes. You don’t have to be a cognitive psychologist to figure out why this is relevant to our day to day interactions with other human beings.

  2. To a great extent processing of information about eyes is not conscious, in other words, many individuals claimed to not have noticed the eyes, but it effected their behavior.

My rough argument is that unconscious intuitional inputs shape how people “reason” about moral questions. I am certain that pro-life activists can give you rational, cogent and axiomatically precise1 reasons for why they stand and protest outside clinics which they consider dens of murder as opposed to entering and tearing the doctors away from their death devices, by force if necessary. But, I believe that mental subprocesses in regards to analyzing and categorizing inputs as “human” or “non-human” have a strong role to play underlying the persuasiveness of a chain of reasoning. This argument can be inverted, there are obvious reasons then why pro-choice people flinch and are offended when they see photographs of aborted fetuses. They may intellectually assert that they were just a cluster of cells, but clearly they are made uncomfortable by the resemeblence between the fetus and a nenonate. By logic alone I would hold that pro-life individuals should kill all those who deal in death in the name of a greater good (the lives of innocents), while those who argue that fetuses are just a “clump of cells” should have no hesitation in using such tissue for dog food and the like.

Does this speak to Ross’ implication that we need to look beyond intuition and rely on reason? I guess I would say that in this case the reasoning is rather specious, insofar as a plain reading of personhood beginning at conception would imply rather drastic action which only a few pro-life individuals are willing to commit. The rhetoric and averred positions are, I believe, far more distinct than what you would excavate from their moral guts.

Addendum: It is well known that many pre-Christian European cultures practiced infanticide. This is a human universal, there is a tendency for genuine emotional attachment in cultures where infant mortality is high and infanticide not unknown to be delayed until a considerable time after birth and even into toddlerhood. Sometimes this is explicated in the idea that personhood only emerges at a fixed point after birth (e.g., at age 3). One might make an analogy to the common conventions of when individuals have free will and are responsible for their actions. In Mormonism that age is 7. Among many Muslims it is believed that small children are like angels and incapable of genuine sin because they know not what they do.

But in any case, my point is that Christianity banished infanticide. Or did it? In the 18th century many poor families in France sent their children to “orphanages.” The mortality rates at these “orphanages” by the age of 5 could be as high as 95% (source: ). So clearly, the Catholic French, no longer pagans, and in fact subjects of the most Christian King, believed that their children had souls and that their lives were sacred, so they did not kill them when they could not support them. The simply sent them to the orphanage where they would almost certainly die of neglect. My point is that Christian ideals were enforced while the brutish realities of human “rationality” continued.

Also, check out Ross debating Matthew Yglesias debating on abortion. Go 2/3 ahead, I liked that Yglesias didn’t concoct a fake a priori chain of reasoning. Though I think he would look more seemly with a shorter buzz cut.

1 – Please note that I mean mostly Catholics here. By the time evangelicals “noticed” the abortion issue the Catholics had elucidated most of the reasoned arguments against abortion so there was no need for them to generate their own. Please note in the book there is documentation of the fact that the evangelical flagship magazine, Christianity Today, an article was published in the late 1960s that was cautiously hopeful about the trend toward reproductive freedom in the United States. Remember, Ronald Reagan was the one who signed legislation which decriminalized abortion in California in the 1960s.

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Lynn Review

As of this morning the journal Intelligence has a positive review of Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence, from behavior geneticist John Loehlin. One issue raised earlier was the reliability of the numbers Lynn reports. Loehlin writes:

Are the numbers accurate? I checked a sample of 40 of the 615 rows in the IQ tables against their sources. . . Result: 14 of the 40, about 1 in 3, showed discrepancies, although mostly minor ones. For example, there were 9 with discrepancies in Ns, such as using an overall N from the study instead of the actual N on which the particular IQ was based. In a similar number of cases, the ages or age ranges were a bit off. . . my [IQ score] estimates and the values in the tables were typically within a couple of IQ points. I only came across one large discrepancy – an IQ 14 points too high (in Table 12.1, row 20; due, according to an e-mail from Lynn, to a clerical error in adding instead of subtracting a Flynn correction). The citations and references were, on the whole, accurate. In short: Yes, the general trends in the tables are probably dependable, if the assumptions regarding Flynn effects, etc., are correct, but it is prudent (as always) to check with original sources before quoting particular results.

Loehlin concludes in a manner similar to my review:

Is this book the final word on race differences in intelligence? Of course not. But Richard Lynn is a major player, and it is good to have his extensive work on this topic together in one place. Future workers who address these matters under this or any other label will find that Lynn has done a lot of spadework for them. And they will also find that there is plenty to ponder over within these pages.

Math = conservative, Verbal = liberal

I have a post on my other weblog where I’m asking about why mathematical disciplines tend to more conservative in academia. I know there are many references in JSTOR but I’m strapped for time, so could people please dump references into the comment box? I am especially interested in the psychometric finding (I’ve seen it!) that shows high IQ individuals stronger in math than verbal skills tend to be more conservative while the inverse are more liberal. Thanks ahead.

Donors Choose – Last Leg

Janet has the details, but we’re winding down. Three things:
1) Thanks to everyone who gave, I didn’t raise much myself, but something is way better than nothing and good is accomplished in small steps
2) Mad props to “DS” (you know who you are), as you donated twice, and at least once substantially
3) I’d really like to get some last minute pledges and make it to around $500
But thanks again to everyone who participated! Hopefully I’ll be doing things like this in the future.

Structural polymorphisms and SNPs

When looking for genes or alleles involved in a phenotype, especially “complex” phenotypes where many genetic factors are involved, the most powerful approach is often an association study– type a large number of variants in some cases and some controls (or just a bunch of people if you’re talking about a quantitive trait) and see if a certain variant is present more often in the cases than the controls.

As it’s currently impractical to sequence a large number of genomes (and thus genotype all the possible genetic variants in the genome), one has to pick and choose which sites to genotype. Nowadays, the markers that are used are Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). But even with chips that can now type 500,000 SNPs in parallel, there’s no way to genotype them all (there are an estimated 10 million SNPs in the genome). Plus, there are deletions, duplication, inversions, etc– there are plenty of ways that two genomes can differ.

Luckily, some SNPs are correlated with others, so that the genotype at one gives you information about the genotype at the other. So by typing 500,000 SNPs in a person, you could theoretically have information about the genotypes at millions of sites. The HapMap Project is an attempt to identify all the common SNPs in the genome and map the correlations between them.

But as I noted before, there are also stuctural polymorphisms in the genome. An important question is: are there correlations between SNPs and structural polymorphisms? If there aren’t, then doing an association study using only SNPs might miss a lot of the potential variation in the genome.

Previous studies have shown that common deletions and SNPs are correlated. This is encouraging. However, a new study takes a closer look at some areas where copy number polymorphisms (i.e. one person might have three copies of the region, another person only two) are common, and finds that the variation is not very closely correlated with SNPs. This is less encouraging, as it means that it would be possible to do a full-genome association scan without taking into account any copy number variation in the sample.

The authors present some possible reason for this lack of correlation, and I’m inclined to be optimistic– most of the copy number polymorphisms they identify are rare, while the SNPs in the HapMap (especially the first version, which they use) are generally common. The correlation coefficient being highly dependant on the frequencies of the variants, it’s possible that the newest version of the HapMap, or directed sequencing, could find better correlated SNPs.

That said, if it turns out that structural polymorphisms aren’t well-correlated with SNPs, it will be important to keep in mind– perhaps SNP-based studies could be supplemented with assays designed to detect structural polymorphism.

Math makes you more conservative

It is well known that academics tend to be on the political Left. Some people are angry about this, but I don’t particularly care. Members of Opus Dei tend to be on the Right, does that surprise? Nevertheless, I am curious about differences with disciplines in academia. So I found this study which classified political orientation by discipline. Excel below the fold….

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Closeup 1, 2006

Closeup 1 has revamped their website and is ramping up for their 2006 edition, though for a poetically inclined folk this introduction does translate somewhat manically into English:

Dreams & Talents
Confidence & Aspiration
Voice & The Microphone
A Nation & Its Youth
You, us and the youth of
Bangladesh – together we
created history with
Close Up 1 in 2005.

Of course, just like the first season of Survivor, the first season of Closeup 1 is special. The initial participants will go down in history….

Sex differences in mental abilities

Rikurzhen has pointed us to this paper in press at Intelligence by the Minnesota psychometrician Wendy Johnson and her colleagues. This is actually the latest in a series of technical papers analyzing the mental test scores of the twins, spouses, and siblings (biological and adoptive) who took part in the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (see here, here, here, and here).

I think the results of the first paper in the series are worth briefly highlighting. The Minnesota group administered three different IQ batteries to their sample. It turns out that the respective g factors extracted from all batteries are almost perfectly correlated. This is strong evidence that the g factor extracted from any large and diverse battery of mental tests is an estimate of a one true g.

A continuing theme of these papers is an attack on the Cattell-Horn-Carroll model of the structure of mental abilities. Rejecting the prominent distinction in this model between fluid and crystallized g, they favor a model first put forth by Sir Cyril Burt and Philip Vernon which posits a verbal-educational and spatial-mechnanical split in the stratum below g. I will try to sidestep this issue in my selective summary of their most recent paper. I do not think the background of this minor controversy is necessary to understand the topic of this post, which is sex differences.

Johnson and her colleagues extracted four dimensions of variation from their data: (1) a unipolar domain-general mental ability, that is, our old friend g; (2) a bipolar verbal-image rotation dimension; (3) a bipolar focus-diffusion dimension; and (4) a unipolar memory ability. By “bipolar” is meant a trade-off; for example, after controlling for g, individuals who tend to do well on verbal tests tend to do poorly on image rotation. “Focus-diffusion” refers to a trade-off between the ability to concentrate attention on a particular task and the ability to maintain holistic sensitivity to an overall gestalt. Males showed a small and insignificant advantage on g amounting to about 2 IQ points. Males tended toward the image rotation end of the second dimension, females toward the verbal end. Males tended toward the focus end of the third dimension, females toward the diffusion end. Females showed a significant advantage in memory.

I admit that I’m having trouble seeing how this factor structure is consistent with their overall model. For this reason I think the results are best conveyed by the sex differences in residual test scores after controlling for g. The following are some representative standardized sex differences in the residuals of the regressions on age and first principal component scores (an estimate of g factor scores) with positive values indicating a male advantage:

Spelling: -0.657
Arithmetic: 0.528
Information: 0.393
Word Fluency: -0.636
Associative Memory: -0.415
Coding: -0.826
Picture Completion: 0.807
Picture Arrangement: 0.396
Mechanical Ability: 1.431 (!)
Block Design: 0.478
Cubes: 0.752
Mental Rotation: 1.039

The WAIS tests (Arithmetic, Information, Coding, Picture Completion, Picture Arrangement, Block Design) are described in an earlier post.

The lower-order factors below g showed significant heritability. Effects of shared environment, on the other hand, were dropped without significant deterioriation of model fit. This is yet another item of evidence that the environmental causal agents distinguishing the sexes in mental abilities, if any, do not resemble those that are said to distinguish one family from another.