Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

I have a strange habit of looking for bargain books. Why is this a strange habit. Because it looks awfully like a false economy. After all, even if you don’t read a book through, just reading a few chapters might take you an afternoon, the full book a few days. So it’s looking pretty silly to economise on the buying price of the book – and save, say $20 when the constraint that matters is one’s endowment of time not money. Ben Franklin rightly said that time was money, but it doesn’t work the other way round.

In any event, the thing is, it’s not working out too badly. Normal bookshops peddle the latest thing at high prices for a few months, then it disappears. And in the remainders bookshops like the Book Grocer – where everything is $10 or a tad over $8 if you buy five at a time – while there are quite a lot of duds (lots of the biographies are dreadful) there are some real gems, often about a decade old but which are no longer cool and recent enough to make it into the higher margin bookshops.

Recent highlights from this style of buying include, Non-Zero, Building Jerusalem, Paul and Jesus, Roads to Modernity. All really interesting reads. But right now I’m reading a great book written in around 2000 called The Mating Mind.  It’s thesis is adequately summed up in this review:

Evolutionary psychology has been called the “new black” of science fashion, though at its most controversial, it more resembles the emperor’s new clothes. Geoffrey Miller is one of the Young Turks trying to give the phenomenon a better spin. In The Mating Mind, he takes Darwin’s “other” evolutionary theory – of sexual rather than natural selection – and uses it to build a theory about how the human mind has developed the sophistication of a peacock’s tail to encourage sexual choice and the refining of art, morality, music, and literature.

Where many evolutionary psychologists see the mind as a Swiss army knife, and cognitive science sees it as a computer, Miller compares it to an entertainment system, evolved to stimulate [attract] other brains.

As I was reading the first chapter outlining his approach - which I find very persuasive, and more to the point pregnant with insight into all manner of things, not least how impoverished much contemporary social science is, I found myself thinking of Nietzsche. the word Nietzsche is typically associated with mad ‘superman’ theories of history. But what I’m thinking of is Nietzsche’s conviction of the ponderousness and self-importance of much enlightenment thinking. The lack of irony and self-insight with which people imagine they are on a search for truth. Of course the idea that human intelligence and its cultural accoutrements are not adaptations to the wild, an increasingly clever Swiss Army Knife, but rather the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback – peahens picked fancy tails and women picked humour, musical and story-telling smarts as markers for fitness? Well that’s a bit of a comedown.

As Nietzsche puts it in the brilliant opening of Beyond Good and Evil:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?

Or as he put it in less allusive terms early in his career:  Continue reading

All that was implicit was made explicit

Wendy Bacon Wendy_Bacon
Talk about clamping down on Pub Servants’ social media reminds me of how as journos we used to interview them before access to info stopped
10/04/2014 10:09 am

This tweet reminds me of something I’ve pondered for some time. The modern craze for making the implicit explicit. Its everywhere. Firms and other organisations didn’t have mission statements for most of time, and then began acquiring them starting around the 1980s(?).

Were firms hopelessly adrift before then? We introduced Freedom of Information legislation (about a decade behind the US) in the Fraser years. Has freedom of information improved. Well it’s hard to say – one’s formal rights to information have improved vastly – we had barely any before legislation like the Fraser Government’s legislation and its more recent replacement. And yet journos could ring up public servants and find out what was happening. There would have been strong (implicit) codes of conduct. Public servants wouldn’t be ‘outed’. They would likely have expressed personal views without having to explicitly go ‘on’ and ‘off’ the record as they talked.

Yet we are in a world where government is endlessly performed. And in this world the performer finds the velvet glove of formal transparency requirements the perfect accoutrement to the iron fist inside – the instinct for concealment. Today in most organisations any contact with the media will go through communications people who are trained not to answer questions. And who can blame the organisations? For on the other end of the phone acknowledge little common interest with those they interview beyond the commonplace narcissism which they may share with, or project onto their interviewee. The journalist on the other end is after something to entertain – a ‘story’ – not an explanation of what’s happening.  As Malcolm Turnbull puts it engagingly, they’re the hounds, he’s the fox, their job is to find and kill him and his job is to stay alive.

But the thing I always think of when I think of our mania for making things explicit is disability.  There are any number of ‘rights’ we’ve given the disabled. And we’ve done great things compared to what went before. We’ve made buildings, car parks, all manner of things more accessible to the disabled. We’ve passed laws to prevent discrimination against the disabled. But before all that, in a old world where there was no transparency,  the press engaged in a conspiracy of concealment – but one that was on behalf of the common good, of good government. Remarkably – it’s so far from our current circumstances I must say I can barely imagine it – in a world recognisably modern, in a world full of gutter journalism and dirty political tricks, no-one let on that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a paraplegic. Continue reading

Operation 2770: TACSI’s Family by Family expands to Mt Druitt

Family by Family about which Troppodillians have heard before is spreading its wings. We’ve started in Mt Druitt where we’ve scoped the program which means investigating how it should be changed to optimise it to the local community. Here’s the Scoping Report which I think makes interesting reading.

Anyway we launched the scoping report with the Minister who’d commissioned us to establish the program – Pru Goward. And here’s my speech at the function. One thing that got my attention was the fact that, according to the scoping report, quite a few people from the area have tattoos of the postcode. And the supporters of Greater Western Sydney take signs of their postcodes to fixtures against Sydney Football Club – which is now more explicitly the team from the leafy suburbs.

Here also is the audio of a recent interview on this by Alex Sloan.

Notes for a Speech by Nicholas Gruen, Chairman of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation at the launch of the Family by Family Scoping Report for Mt Druitt, 12th March, 2014


Welcome to our modest function at Postcode 2770

Still, I’m reliably informed that from little things big things grow.

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

This example is not from NSW, but it’s not such an extreme example for those who know the system. And this is after what must be a decade, perhaps two of talking about “citizen centric services”!


Family by Family is different.

Continue reading

What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?


1954: The no-spin zone

This doco is worth watching for its own sake. (Why are media organisations so dumb and unprepared to allow embedding of their videos – given that the vids themselves come with ads that are hard to avoid – but I digress …) What struck me is how different it would be today.

The film is for the Board of Works, which would have paid for its production and it functions as an ad for an elaborate process of city planning they’d been going through. In fact I think we do the actual planning a lot better today, with the involvement of the community handled much better. I could be wrong about this, but the impression created by the doco is that it was a very technocratic and top down process with people’s input being had via surveys etc. Today we hold lots more meetings, and get lots more people involved and so lots more energy in the process.

So, if that’s all good, what’s all bad is that today the corresponding bit of PR would be a product of the PR profession, which would ensure that the whole thing sounded like a smarmy pack of lies. It would be full of PR speak, hollowman speak. It would be obsessed with a feelgood factor and with staying “on message”. There’s none of that, rather lots of information, much of it just by the way, and then a strong call to action at the end – get involved and (please) get behind our plan. With a genuine call for civic mindedness and intergenerational generosity.

Postscript: graph supplied by John Walker below. 

Edicts from on high II: ethics committee edition

I was bemoaning ethics committees to someone the other day and they told me of this case in which Australian Hospitals refused a patient – a nurse who had done her homework – aggressive chemotherapy for her MS. The ethics committee knew better. So she had to toddle off to Russia and pay $100,000 odd for the trip and the treatment – which at least so far as stopped the progression of the MS dead and does so in most cases.

Makes your blood boil. But there should be criminal sanctions against the behaviour of whomever was responsible for bundling Lauren Kish out of Canberra Hospital, mid course in the chemo because the ‘ethics committee’ had got cold feet about it. Some committee. Some ethics. What more dramatic illustration of whose interests are really served on such bodies, or as I said in an earlier post on ‘Red Tape, Political Correctness and Edicts from On-high‘ concerning the vast list of things one was not permitted to talk about when interviewing students for places:

One might write this off as just a pity, a small silly excess to which we have gone, but it is an example of a larger phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident and unfortunate – the domination of daily life with edicts from on high. In this case, an issue arises. Those at the top of the hierarchical system then get into ‘something must be done’ mode. It is time to issue instructions. So instructions are issued. The problem is that the issue may be one of considerable subtlety. . . .[T]the real energy in the system is not really deployed trying to engage with the issue and minimise the kinds of [evil identified].  The energy is directed towards minimising the organisation’s exposure to risk. And once this is the frame, the actual issue pretty much disappears, indeed the edict is precisely to make it disappear in all the organisation’s official conduct. So much for engaging with the issue and trying to do something about it. We’re just covering our arses here.

 What better and more grandly immoral example than the one above? 60 Minutes fired the questions below at the Canberra Hospital. It is like shooting fish in a barrell. But like Orwellians from central casting, the response was blanded-out pusillanimity by press release here and then another one here. Annihilation by platitude.

Here are 60 Minutes’ questions.

1. You say this treatment (stem cell transplant) is “not widely accepted for this use, with limited data on the efficacy and outcomes of this treatment from studies undertaken to date.” Are you aware of multiple peer-reviewed studies by Dr Richard Burt, Dr Nikolai Pfender, Dr Riccardo Saccardi and others, published in journals such as the Lancet, JAMA and Current Treatment Options in Neurology, confirming the treatment “is able to completely halt disease activity in the majority of patients”? Continue reading

Happy little optimisers we

Maslow's hierarchy Not

I know I took the notion of optimising to heart as I learned it – implicitly – from my economist Dad. And there are those who might argue that the idea in economics came from the society around economists as the discipline came into being.

But now it seems optimising as the heart of life seems to have become ubiquitous. I just ran into a tweet which proudly displays the graphic to the left.

I also know that the advice, such as it is, embodied in the accompanying graphic is fair enough. A bit of prudence about life. One could do a lot worse. (Then again, is it not pretty obvious? Graphics induce a kind of ‘fake’ aha I’ve found – something I confess to exploiting in my own rhetorical tricks during presentations) But at the level of advice there’s also something strangely anodyne and sad about it as an embodiment of aspiration.

Traditional notions of how one might decide on one’s path in life or one’s career – at least since the rise of modern times and the idea of the self as a self-creation, it’s been pretty de rigueur to at least pay some lip service to following one’s heart or more recently, and more crassly, one’s dream. More dourly, Protestant ethics teach a kind of surrender to one’s ‘calling’. Each of these has the texture of life as an adventure and a story in which basic values are the foundation – one build’s on the rock to invoke Christian imagery – including bearing the burden of suffering in pursuit of one’s goal.

Even Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that, though one pays most attention to ‘the basics’, truth to oneself involves working up to ‘higher’ things. (I’ve always thought it wide of the mark by the way as things at the top of the hierarchy seem to turn up very early in human history and in many ways were more powerful influences in civilisations in which the vast bulk of people were pretty much at subsistence – but I digress).

In any event today alongside the hashtags “#Brand” and “#You” the tweet which brandished this insight into life, we lean in and regard our ultimate task as having it all. Even in the anodyne graphic, I’d have liked to see doing what one loves as being more important than being paid well, but there you go, though I’m all for it being important.


PPPs 2.0: the presentation

Above is my presentation to the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society – the background blurb of which is here. You’ll find the first half of the presentation on the fractal ecology of public and private goods is effectively the same content as the first half of this presentation from late last year. However where the first presentation takes the introductory framework as a basis for talking about social capital, the same framework is used as a basis for sketching out a terrain for public-private partnerships. Anyway, I mention this to save you time. I’m not much of a fan of watching videos, as it’s more efficient to read something but in case you’re OK with them – here’s another. But if you want to read the ideas presented you can read them in very summary form in the column here. But I’ve also completed a draft paper on the whole thing. If you’re interested, please email me at ngruen AT gmail and I’ll send you a copy on which I’d be grateful to receive comments and suggestions for improvement.