Friday, February 26, 2010

How bugs build

I have a feature in New Scientist on insect architecture and what we can learn from it, pegged to a very interesting conference that took place in Venice last September. My feature started its life at nigh on twice the length (as many sadly do), and looked at some of the algorithmic architecture discussed at the workshop. I’m going to put a pdf of this long version on my website shortly (it’ll be under the ‘Patterns’ papers).

There's a book in the pipeline from the conference participants (and others), probably to be called Collective Architecture. This lovely image, by the way – a plaster cast of the labyrinth inside a termite nest – was taken by Rupert Soar, mentioned in the article.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Told by an idiot

[I have a Muse on Nature News about the perils and benefits of recommender systems. Here’s the pre-edited  version.]

Automated recommender systems need to put some jokers in the pack, if we’re not going to end up with narrow-minded tastes.

Medieval monarchy might not have much to recommend it compared to liberal democracy, but here’s one: today our rulers have no Fools. Even if the tradition was honoured more in literature – Shakespeare’s King Lear – than in reality, how often now will a national leader employ someone to laugh at their folly and remind them of bitter truths? More often, cabinets and advisers seem picked for their readiness to confirm their leader’s judgements.

Some people fear that the information age encourages this tendency to spread to the rest of us. The Internet, they say, is a series of echo chambers: people join chat groups to hear others repeat their own opinions. Climate sceptics talk only to other climate sceptics (and accuse climate scientists of doing likewise, perhaps with some justification). will supply you with only the news you ask to hear, realising the vision of personalized news championed by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab. The ‘Daily Me’ is now often used in a pejorative sense to decry the insularity this inculcates.

Now it seems you can’t make an online purchase without being recommended other ‘similar’ items. Music browsers such as Search Inside the Music, developed at Sun Labs, find you songs that ‘sound similar’ to ones you like already. But who’s to say you wouldn’t be more interested in stuff unlike what you like already?

That’s the dilemma addressed in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Yi-Cheng Zhang, a physicist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and his coworkers [1]. They point out that most data-mining ‘recommender’ systems such as those used by focus on accuracy, measured by testing whether they can reproduce known user preferences. This emphasizes the similarity of recommendations to previous choices, and can lead to self-reinforcing cycles fixated on blockbuster items [2].

But, say the researchers, the most useful recommendations may not be the most similar, but ones that offer the unexpected by introducing diversity. Like Lear’s Fool, they challenge what you thought you knew. Zhang and colleagues show that a judicious blend of algorithms optimized for accuracy and for diversity can actually offer more diversity and accuracy than any of the component algorithms on their own.

The researchers compare this effect with the value of ‘weak ties’ in our friendship networks. While we tend to seek advice from close friends – typically people sharing similar views and preferences – it is often comments from people with whom we have a more limited connection that are the most helpful, because they offer a perspective outside our regular experience.

The same is true in scientific research: scientists from disciplines outside your own can spark new trains of thought, while your fellow specialists trudge along the same track. Without fertilization from outsiders, disciplines risk stultifying. (One recent study implies that astronomy could be in danger of that [3].)

But it seems we instinctively gravitate towards the echo chamber. Networks expert Mark Newman at the University of Michigan has uncovered the stark division in purchases of books on US politics through Amazon [4]. He studied a network of 105 recent books, linked if Amazon indicated that one book was often bought by those who purchased the other. Newman found a pretty clean split into communities containing only ‘liberal’ books and only ‘conservative’ ones, with just two small bridging groups that contained a mixture. There was a similar split in links between political blogs. This clear division, Newman says, ‘is perhaps testament not only to the widely noted polarization of the current political landscape in the United States but also to the cohesion of the two factions.’ Recommender systems that offer ‘more of the same’ can only encourage this Balkanization of the ever-growing universe of information, opinion and choice.

Not everyone agrees there’s a problem. In an essay on, David Weinberger disputed the notion of the Internet as an echo chamber [5]. He argues that some unspoken common assumptions – among liberals at that time, that George W. Bush was a bad president – allow online conversations to move on to more constructive matters, rather than becoming, say, a tedious litany of Bush-baiting. ‘If you want to see a real echo chamber’, said Weinberger, ‘open up your daily newspaper or turn on your TV.’

If people truly want more of the same, it’ll always be hard to make them hear the Fool’s wisdom. But most recommender systems do want to find what people will like, not just what they think they like. Throwing diversity into the mix is a good start, but the bigger challenge is to figure out how preferences are formed. What are the coordinates of ‘preference space’ and how do we negotiate them? There might, say, be something about the melodic contours or timbres in Beethoven’s music that a fan will find not in other early nineteenth-century composers but in twentieth-century modernists. Some music recommender systems are examining how we classify music according to non-traditional criteria, and using these as the compass directions for navigating music space. Understanding more about such preference-forming structures will not only improve the choices we’re offered but might also tell us something new about how the human brain partitions experience. And we could be in for some delicious surprises – just as when we used to browse through record stores.


1. Zhou, T. et al., Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA doi:10.1073/pnas.1000488107.
2. Fleder, D. & Hosanagar, K. Manag. Sci. 55, 697-712 (2009).
3. Guimerà, R., Uzzi, B., Spiro, J. & Amaral, L. A. N. Science 308, 697-702 (2005).
4. Newman, M. E. J., Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 8577-8582 (2006).

Monday, February 22, 2010

So what did Darwin get wrong?

I have written a review for the Sunday Times of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s new book What Darwin Got Wrong. There was an awful lot to talk about here, and it was a devil of a job fitting it into the space available and getting it down to the appropriate level. Here’s how the review started (more or less). There’s considerably more to be said, but I’ve got too much else on the go at the moment. Suffice to say, the book is well worth a read, though it is not always easy going.

What Darwin Got Wrong

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini
Profile, 2010
ISBN 978 1 84668 219 3
Hardback, 262 pages

Around 1.6 million years ago, our hairy ancestors began roaming further afield in search of food, and all that trekking got them hot and bothered. So they shed most of their hair evolved into us, the naked ape.

Thus runs one of countless stories of how evolution is driven by genetic adaptation to the environment: the conventional narrative of Neodarwinism. But according to cognitive scientists Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, they are all mistaken.

Despite their book’s unobjectionable title – of course there were things Darwin, who knew nothing of genes and DNA, got wrong – Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini don’t simply think he missed a few details. Although they agree, indeed insist, that all of today’s flora and fauna evolved from earlier species, they don’t think that Darwin’s natural selection from a pool of random mutations explains it.

The arguments warrant serious consideration, but let’s first be clear about one thing. An honest reading of this book offers not a shred of comfort to creationists, intelligent designers and other anti-evolutionary fantasists. That, as the authors must know, won’t prevent the book being misappropriated, nor will it save them from the opprobrium of their peers (Fodor has already had a spat with arch-Darwinist Daniel Dennett).

In Neodarwinian theory, genes mutate at random across generations, and those that bestow an advantageous physiological or behavioural trait (phenotype) spread through a population because they boost reproductive success. But there’s often no simple connection between genes and phenotype. A single gene may have several roles, for example, and genes tend to work in networks so tightly knit that evolution can’t necessarily tinker with them independently of one another.

Naïve accounts of natural selection tend to award it quasi-mystical omnipotence, whereby it can effect just about any change, and every change is interpreted as an adaptation. The Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Thompson rubbished this habit almost a century ago, but it hasn’t gone away. The palette of biology is surely constrained by other factors: perhaps, say, the reason we don’t have three arms or eyes is not that they are non-adaptive but that they are not within the repertoire of fundamental body-forming gene networks.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini also point out how ‘evidence’ for Darwinism is often conflated with evidence for evolution: ‘just look at the fossil record’. And post hoc adaptationist accounts of evolutionary change (such as the one I began with) risk being merely that: plausible but unscientific Just So stories. To the authors, that’s all they can ever be, because Darwinism is a tautology: organisms are ‘adapted’ to their environment because that’s where they live. How well adapted birds are to the air, and fish to the sea!

All of this is good stuff, and convincingly calls time on simplistic Neodarwinism. But as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini admit, many biologists today will say ‘Oh, I’m not that kind of Darwinist’: they know (even if they rarely say it publicly) that evolution is much more complicated. They agree that there is more to life than Darwin.

But Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini seem to want to banish him entirely, claiming that natural selection is logically flawed because it can’t possibly identify what exactly is selected for. Their argument is opaque, however. Are frogs selected to eat flies, or to eat buzzing black things which just happen invariably to be flies? The authors don’t explain why the simple answer – find out in an experiment with frogs and faux-flies – won’t do. Their objection seems to be that evolution can’t do the experiment, because it is non-intentional and can’t know what it is looking for (they say Darwin’s reliance on stock- and pigeon-breeding therefore involved a false analogy for evolution). And they worry that we can’t distinguish adaptations from genetic changes that ‘free-ride’ on them.

But blind natural selection does work in principle, as computer models unambiguously show. These models are highly, perhaps excessively simplified. But if the same thing doesn’t happen as a rule in real populations, vague logical arguments won’t tell us why not. And if we struggle to work out precisely what trait has ‘adapted’, surely that’s our problem, not nature’s.

In any event, the authors admit that at least some of the many ‘textbook paradigms of adaptationist explanation’ might be perfectly correct. Some certainly are: superbugs have acquired antibiotic-busting genes, which is about as direct an adaptation as you can get. The authors don’t wholly exclude natural selection, then, but say it may simply fine-tune other mechanisms of evolutionary change (whatever they are). Specific adaptations, they say, are historical contingencies, not examples of a general law. In the same way, there may be good specific explanations for why your bus was late this morning, and also last Thursday, but they don’t in themselves to amount to a natural law that buses are late. Fair enough, but then to say whether adaptation is the exception or the default we need statistics. The authors are silent on this.

So they don’t quite achieve a coherent story, neither are they able (or perhaps willing) to convey it at a non-specialist level. Even so, they make a persuasive case that the role of natural selection in evolution is ripe for reassessment. To say so should not be seen as scientific heresy or capitulation to the forces of unreason – it’s a brave and welcome challenge.

Monday, February 15, 2010

In which I become a Rock Legend

… or in which my past comes back to amuse me. In the course of a little research to prepare for my talk on The Music Instinct, I discover that buried within the Classic Rock Sequence played by BBC6 last Saturday is yours truly on keyboards. Now there’s a thing. Some day I might show you the photos. (No, that’s not me posing next to Dave Brock, but you know, it almost could have been.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Music Instinct - the story so far

There are some reviews of The Music Instinct in the Sunday Times, the Independent, the Guardian, the Economist and Metro. Most are nice, but Steven Poole in the Guardian, while sending out some good vibes, has some big reservations too. When I first read his review, it struck me as basically friendly, with some intelligent criticisms with which I mostly disagreed. That interpretation just about survives a second reading, but there are some very odd things here.

Most of all, as someone who has long deplored the scientism-ist (you know what I mean) approach to art that denounces anything which doesn’t meet ‘scientific’ criteria (I’ve gently derided that kind of thing in print before), I was disappointed that Poole seemed so determined to impose this reading on the book. I hope anyone who reads it will recognize that the suggestion that I go through music’s repertoire dishing out gold stars or finger-wagging according to whether composers have obeyed or contravened the ‘laws of music cognition’ is a misrepresentation bordering on the grotesque.

He seems uncomfortable with anything that strays beyond the bounds of the physiology and acoustic physics of sound – that’s to say, with ideas about how we interpret music as a coherent sonic entity, why it moves us, what roles factors such as tonality play in our perception – in short, with most of the field of music psychology. Which is naturally a bit of a problem. Of course, some will prefer to leave all that stuff to the realm of the ineffable, but it’s abundantly clear that this would involve a denial of the evidence.

I agree that it’s crucial to maintain a distinction between understanding how the brain processes music and using that to define ‘scientific’ criteria of what is ‘good’ in music. So I’m frankly baffled as to why Poole thinks I am ‘judging’ music. On the contrary, one of my aims is to suggest ways that might make all kinds of music more accessible. The only instance where I might be considered to be using cognitive principles as a tool for criticism is in the case of total serialism (not simply all serialism – I took great pains to make the distinction). I do point out that Schoenberg was wrong to consider tonality as merely an obsolete convention – it is an aid to music cognition. But as I clearly say, being able to make sense of music doesn’t by any means stand or fall on the issue of whether the pitches as a whole have audible hierarchical organization, and so eliminating tonality doesn’t mean one is doomed to write incoherent music. I don’t even criticise total serialism as such, but only those proponents of it who suggest that audiences’ difficulty with it is simply due to their lack of musical education, thereby failing to understand that this technique tends systematically to undermine our natural modes of organizing sound. Their condescension is misplaced.

Speaking of condescension, Poole seems to detect it in the way I illustrate how cognitive principles can be discerned in the way many composers have organized their music. If one wanted to insist that anyone was being condescended to here (and I can’t for the life of me see why that’s necessary), it would more obviously have to be the music psychologists, given a pat of the back for finally figuring out 300 years later the aids to cognition that Baroque musicians had been codifying and using in their rules for polyphonic composition.

Mozart and Berg reduced to a series of arithmetical tricks: huh? Says who? Compare Bee Wilson in the Sunday Times: ‘Ball never presumes that music can be reduced to some kind of scientific formula’. Well, you can decide for yourself. In any case, what has arithmetic to do with it?

Now, one could certainly read some of the music psychology literature and come away with the impression that indeed all there is to Mozart is a graph of tension and release. But I criticise that view, and point out that not only is it problematic in its own terms but it clearly leaves out something important about music’s affective power that no one has even begun to quantify. Marek Kohn’s comment that I insist on taking the science no further than is warranted directly contradicts Poole’s accusation of scientism.

On performance: I can think of few less controversial statements about music than that performance technique can bring a piece to life or kill it stone dead. To interpret this as saying that the performer does all the work and the composer has next to nothing to do with the way a piece of music is perceived (to what Poole calls ‘superstitions about the supremacy of performance and improvisation’), seems wilfully perverse (not to mention being contradicted by just about everything else I say in the book). But this reflects the dismayingly adversarial way in which Poole seems to have read the whole book. It is science vs art, logic vs intuition, tonal vs atonal, composer vs performer, notated vs non-notated music. And he seems to feel that to praise one side of such dualisms is to condemn the other. I find such dichotomies pointless and unhelpful.

On ‘originality’ of melodies: I don’t ‘praise’ composers for scoring well in this measure, but on the contrary say explicitly that ‘originality’ in this sense bears no relation to musical quality.

On notation: Having played in a big band, I know very well that some jazz forms use and even depend on scored music. Poole is right to point out that my wording seems to suggest otherwise (especially to someone with absolutist tendencies). Must put that right. When I said that notated music can’t evolve (or more accurately, it can only do so within very narrow parameters), I didn’t mean to imply that all music should evolve. I meant only that some forms (such as ‘traditional’, or what tends to be called folk) are best served by reserving that freedom, and therefore by using only very sketchy forms of notation as aides-memoire where it is needed at all. (If my statement here struck Poole as ludicrous, didn’t it occur to him that he might have misconstrued it? Still, I’ll spell this out in the paperback edition too.) As for notation in pop music, I mean ‘pop music’ in the sense in which it is generally used: the popular music coeval with and dependent on the democratization of recording technology and radio, starting roughly in the 1950s, and not ‘popular music’ of the prewar era.

Blimey, all this sounds a bit aggrieved. I’ve no desire to start an argument, especially with someone whose reviews I always read avidly, and especially especially with someone who so recently had kind words for another of my books. But I’m genuinely puzzled about what is going on in this review, and simply want to make my position plain. It is no surprise that some people will recoil at the idea of ‘analysing’ music with scientific methods, but Poole is extremely technically savvy and not in the slightest a scientophobe. I wonder if there is some over-compensation going on here from technophile (something I sometimes suspect in myself.) And if you saw a double entendre in that, you’re right: Poole’s suggestion that techno is a good place to explore for examples of rhythmic violations and the significance of timbre is an excellent one – wish I’d thought of it.

Postscript: I've now had a constructive exchange with Steven. While we don't agree on everything, we're not so divergent in our views either, and I now have a better appreciation of the points of misunderstanding.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sharks and Virgin Births

Brian Worley, who runs the entertaining ‘lapsed Christian’ site (I hope that is not an impolite way to describe it) called exminister, has asked if I might comment on a story about ‘virgin births’ in sharks. Brian wondered whether there was a possibility that Christians might be prompted by this report to say ‘look, virgin births are a proven scientific fact…’. It would be a very unwise Christian who did so, since this sort of asexual parthenogenetic reproduction has been known for a very long time in a variety of creatures, including vertebrates such as lizards and fish (it’s not even a new discovery in sharks). To say that it must therefore be possible in humans would be much the same as to say that humans might grow a new limb after amputation, or that they might lay eggs or breathe underwater. Now, far be it for me to underestimate people’s capacity to say some peculiar things, but I think even the most committed fundamentalist might have to admit this one is a bit of a non-starter.

Besides, if anyone did want to use parthenogenesis as a scientific defence of the Virgin Birth, they would also then have to deal with the tricky issue that it would make Jesus a clone of Mary, not to mention the treacherous theology of the nature of Jesus’s flesh and embryogenesis.

All the same, Brian is by no means out on a limb here. When parthenogenesis was first induced artificially, and thus proven as scientific fact, the Virgin Birth was most certainly invoked. This happened in the 1890s, through the work of the German biologist Jacques Loeb at the research centre for marine biology in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He caused an unfertilized sea-urchin egg to divide by treating it with a mixture of simple salts such as sodium chloride and magnesium chloride – in essence, with a kind of reformulated sea water. In organisms that reproduce sexually, the development of an egg into a new organism generally proceeds only when it has united its genetic material with that of a spermatozoa. But Loeb’s discovery revealed that in some species this was strictly optional. It is not the provision of genes that constitutes the sperm’s role in triggering growth of an embryo, but some other function – one that can be carried out by other means. When an egg is thus provoked to commence parthenogenesis, the resulting organism is thus, as I say, a clone of the egg’s parent organism, with identical genetic constitution. Loeb had not so much created life as invented cloning.

In 1899, the Boston Herald reported on this work with the headline ‘Creation of Life. Startling Discovery of Prof. Loeb. Lower Animals Produced by Chemical Means. Process May Apply to Human Species. Immaculate Conception Explained.’ That might sound like hysterical over-extrapolation of the sort that makes scientists roll their eyes in despair. But in this case it seems fair enough, for look at what Loeb had written in his account of the discovery:
“The development of the unfertilized egg, that is an assured fact. I believe an immaculate conception may be a natural result of unusual but natural causes. The less a scientist says about that now the better. It is a wonderful subject, and in many ways an awful one. That the human species may be made artificially to reproduce itself by the withdrawal of chemical restraint by other than natural means is a matter we do not like to contemplate. But we have drawn a great step nearer to the chemical theory of life and may already see ahead of us the day when a scientist, experimenting with chemicals in a test tube, may see them unite and form a substance which shall live and move and reproduce itself.”

Loeb’s discovery was no chance affair. He had been experimenting for some years on the control and manipulation of sea-urchin development using salts, at first under the instruction of the American biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan (whose supporters later accused Loeb of stealing his ideas) at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. But the breakthrough put Loeb in the limelight, a position that he seemed rather to enjoy. Despite early scepticism, his work was widely lauded, and in 1901 he narrowly missed out on being awarded a Nobel prize.

The work was soon followed up by others, and in 1910 the French scientist Eugene Battaillon in Dijon discovered that frog eggs could be induced to start developing into embryos by being pricked with a needle. The embryologist Frank Rattray Lillie, then at the University of Chicago and later founder of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was particularly interested in whether the trick would work for humans, and hinted that this should be possible. (It is not, apparently – human development differs in some important ways from that of sea urchins and frogs.)

Loeb and other biologists viewed the prospect of human parthenogenesis triggered by salt with somewhat uneasy humour, joking that ‘maiden ladies’ might feel compelled to stop bathing in the sea. More telling was the notion that Loeb had revealed males to be redundant. He apparently received letters from women asking him to induce artificial parthenogenesis in their own ova, while the French embryologist Yves Delage, who worked on the problem, was sent letters congratulating him from freeing women from ‘the shameful bondage of needing a man to become a mother.’ These are prescient themes: artificial means of conceiving a baby, however hypothetical, are now seen both as removing women’s control of their own reproductive destiny (and placing it under the favour of male scientists) and as liberating them to take control unilaterally. Equally telling as a taste of what was to come, another report speculated about the possibility of raising ‘domestic animals and children born without help of a male through an operation which would be regulated scientifically and almost commercially, similar to raising the fry of trout.’ Aldous Huxley waits in the wings.

If you want to know more about this stuff, you’ll be able to get it in my next book Unnatural: The History of the Heretical Idea of Making People, which will be published by Bodley Head some time next year.

Listen up

The sound files (and podcasts) for my book The Music Instinct are now live. Hope they’re useful to anyone reading the book. And I discuss the book in a podcast for Blackwell’s by George Miller.

Morals don't come from God

[I have a written a Muse for Nature News on a paper probing the origins of morality (and by extension, of religion). Here it is. This stuff is always provocative, but the most stimulating aspect for me was discovering Jesse Bering’s paper
 ‘The folk psychology of souls’.]

‘Religion’, novelist Mary McCarthy wrote, ‘is only good for good people.’ Weigh the Inquisition against Martin Luther King, homicidal fanatics against Oxfam, and you have to suspect that religion supplies a context for justifying or motivating moral choices rather than a reason for them.

Into this bitterly contested arena comes a new paper by psychologists Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the University of Helsinki and Marc Hauser at Harvard [1]. They point out that individuals presented with unfamiliar moral dilemmas show no difference in their responses if they have a religious background or not.

They draw on tests of moral judgements using the web-based Moral Sense Test that Hauser and others have developed at Harvard [2-6], or variants thereof. These present dilemmas ranging from how to handle freeloaders at ‘bring a dish’ dinner parties to the propriety of killing someone to save others. Few if any of the answers can be looked up in holy books.

Thousands of people, with diverse backgrounds, age, education, religious affiliation and ethnicity, have taken the tests. Pyysiäinen and Hauser say the results (mostly still in the publication pipeline) indicate that ‘moral intuitions operate independently of religious background’, although religion may influence responses in a few highly specific cases.

This may speak to the origins of religion. Some have suggested it is an adaptation that promotes cooperation between unrelated individuals [7,8] – for example, discouraging cheating with the notion that ‘God is watching’. Others say that religious behaviour is not specifically selected for, but arises as a by-product of other cognitive functions and capacities [9,10]: for example, religion may have appropriated underlying psychological reasons for a belief in souls and an afterlife.

Since religion has little influence on moral judgements, say Pyysiäinen and Hauser, the latter hypothesis appears more likely. They argue that human populations evolved moral intuitions about behavioural norms – which themselves promoted group cooperation – before they became encoded in religious systems. The researchers suggest we may possess an innate ‘moral grammar’ that guides these intuitions.

The paper plays to a wider issue than this point of largely anthropological interest, for it challenges the assertion commonly made in defence of religion: that it inculcates a moral awareness [11]. If we follow the authors’ line of thinking, religious people are no more moral than atheists.

Pyysiäinen and Hauser do not wholly deny that religion is adaptive. They think that natural selection may have fine-tuned it, from an existing array of moral-determining cognitive functions, to optimize its benefits for cooperation. There is some evidence that religion promotes in-group altruism and self-sacrifice beyond what non-believers display [12].

Their paper may annoy both religious and atheistic zealots (which is usually a good sign). By taking it as given that religion is an evolved social behaviour rather than a matter of divine revelation, it tacitly adopts an atheistic framework. Yet at the same time it assumes that religiosity is a fundamental aspect of human psychology, thereby undermining those who see it as culturally imposed folly that can be erased with a cold shower of rationality.

It’s debatable, however, whether these moral tests are probing religion or culture as a moral-forming agency, since non-believers in a predominantly religious culture are likely to acquire the moral predispositions of the majority. Western culture, say, has long been shaped by Christian morality, as much as it has by the festivals and vocabulary of the church.

All the same, the tests show that neither culture nor religion matter very much: some other factors – presumed to be inherited – dictate our judgements.

That would explain why religious moral doctrine sometimes displays such illogic that one must suspect the judgement itself precedes it. Take, for example, the Catholic church’s early opposition to in vitro fertilization, which sat alongside a fierce prohibition against any other hindrance to procreation. And most religions have the same set of core moral principles about lying, thieving and murder, all with evident adaptive benefits to a group, beyond which the details (Christian original sin, say) are a question of historical contingency (Augustine was a powerful bishop, Pelagius an obscure monk).

But to uncover religion’s roots, is morality necessarily the place to look? It seems hard to credit that the immense cultural investment in religion was made merely to strengthen and fine-tune existing moral circuits. Some place more emphasis on the adaptive rationale for religious symbols and mystical beliefs, rather than morals [10]. And let’s not forget that religion is more than an expression of personal convictions: it is generally institutional, with a status structure.

Yet attempting to explain the origins of such a rich cultural phenomenon as religion is doomed to some extent to be a thankless task. For to ‘explain’ Chartres Cathedral and Bach’s B Minor Mass in terms of non-kin cooperation is obviously to have explained nothing.


1. Pyysiäinen, I. & Hauser, M. Trends Cogn. Sci. 10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007.
2. Huebner, B. et al. Mind & Lang. (in press).
3. Huebner, B. & Hauser, M. D. Philos. Psychol. (in press).
4. Hauser, M. D. et al., Mind & Lang. 22, 1-21 (2007).
5. Banerjee, K. et al., J. Cogn. Cult. (in press).
6. Abarbanell, L. & Hauser, M. D. Cognition (in press).
7. Johnson, D. & Bering, J. Evol. Psych. 4, 219-233 (2006).
8. Johnson, D. & Krüger, O. Polit. Theol. 5, 159-176 (2004).
9. Boyer, P. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994).
10. Bering, J. M. Behav. Brain Sci. 29, 453-462 (2006).
11. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. Morality Without God (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009).
12. Bulbulia, J. & Mahoney, A. J. Cogn. Cult. 8, 295-320 (2008).

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Music Instinct

If you catch this within a week (or so?) of posting, there’s a little trailer here for my new book The Music Instinct on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves. It was the usual story, even on the delightfully thoughtful Nightwaves, i.e. barely time to garble the most basic of messages. But the music is nice. If you’re interested in more and are in striking distance of London, I’m speaking on this subject at the Royal Institution on 16th Feb. (There’s a list of other speaking dates on my web site.)