What do Pleistocene hunters have to do with poker anyway? Absolutely nothing, Mr. McManus.

I wanted a light read for a few days, so I picked up James McManus’ Cowboys Full expecting a history of poker.  But little did I know that first I would have to submit to a painfully twisted Darwinian fairy tale in which the writer attempts to show how his version of standard modern behavior in complex society began in prehistoric days and/or our genetic code. 

Let’s let McManus speak for himself:

Our urge to compete and take chances developed along the following lines.  Pleistocene hunters risked life and limb for the best opportunities to slaughter ferocious but protein-rich animals.  The closer they got with a chipped-stone spearhead to a scared, angry buffalo, the more likely they were to be trampled or gored, but the better chance they had of actually killing the beast.  Courage and aggressiveness counted.  Hanging back from the fray may have helped a risk-averse male survive the day’s hunt, but it wouldn’t have served him well otherwise.  Hunters who took down fresh meat were lionized within the tribe.  They received larger portions of protein and more opportunities to mate with nubile females.  Meanwhile, the females were competing among themselves-painting their faces, displaying their breasts and genitalia-for the chance to mate with the best food providers.  Once copulation took place, protection became even more vital to the families who might become pregnant, so the sexual bounty was even more lavish for the hunters-turned-warriors who killed the most enemy tribesmen.  By this means and others, a taste for bold risk taking was efficiently bred into our species.  Perhaps the most obvious example today occurs when the prettiest cheerleader dates the star of the varsity team.

When constructing these Darwinian fantasies or fairy tales, in virtually every case the behavior that the writer wants to validate is part of the package of traditional Victorian values.  In the past few months I’ve pointed a number of examples of Darwinian fairy tales, all of which uphold traditional ideas about men and women; for example, see the blogs for November 17 and September 1.

In the McManus book, he is trying to connect good hunters getting the best women in the caveman days with varsity stars getting the prettiest cheerleaders today. 

But it’s all made up out of the very thinnest of air; maybe it’s made of phlogiston, that imaginary stuff in the air that Lavoisier proved did not exist.  It does not even exist in popular mythology much:  The classic movie plot is for the cheerleader to start with the star and then mature to the point that she ends up with the dancer, singer, political activist or hood.  And as I remember reality, the prettiest cheerleader usually dated a college man. 

My point is that McManus is trying to impose a personal observation on us as social reality and uses a fairy tale he either mistakenly or cynically calls scientific to do so.  The fact that this excursion into Darwinian fairy-telling was extraneous to the rest of the book, which is supposed to be about poker, makes it all the more irritating.   Let’s hope he takes it out of the paperback edition.

Every time I critique a Darwinian fairy tale, I make sure I write that I believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, I just don’t buy into these elaborate explanations based on little or no evidence.

Blaming the 70s for Child Rape

Conflation is when you confuse or equate two things that are not equal or do not have similar characteristics.   In the article titled “In Polanski Case, ‘70s Culture Collides With Changed World” on the front page of today’s New York Times, Michael Cieply uses conflation to try and demonstrate that back in the 70s, sex with those under 18 was considered okay, not taboo as it is in today’s more righteous times. 

But the only piece of evidence Cieply gives us is that in the 70s there was once a fictional movie in which a 17-year-old girl has consensual sex with a man in his 40s (Manhattan, 1979).

There are two conflations at work here:

  1. The conflation of a fictional plot with an actual event: The two are not the same.  You can cite a number of fictional works to support the assertion of a trend, but you can’t use one fiction as your sole proof.
  2. The conflation of consensual sex with a 17-year-old with the rape of a 13-year-old:  In both the 1970s and today, the attitude of people towards a 17-year-old getting it on with someone older was/is lot different from their attitude towards raping a 13-year-old.  Virtually everyone in the 70s and virtually everyone today agreed/agree that rape of a 13-year-old is wrong and should be punished.  But both in the 70s and today, the range of opinion related to consensual sex with someone a few months under the age of consent has varied, with many wanting to know the specific conditions and circumstances before passing judgment. 

The premise of the article—that people in the 70s were more forgiving of child rape than people today—is wrong, wrong, wrong, which is why it remains unproven in the body of the article.

Cieply fills the article with bits of opinion by some self-proclaimed experts, none of it backed by any facts.  Here’s the most specious example:

Joelle Casteix, the southwest regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, traced the changes in attitude toward sex with minors, among other things, to a change in the movies.

“The kids of the ’70s were raised with films — ‘The Omen,’ ‘The Demon Seed’ — that put adult sensibilities into children,” said Ms. Casteix, whose group last week called for continued pursuit of Mr. Polanski at a demonstration in Los Angeles. “But a lot of changes in the ’80s, the Reagan era, made people look at their kids a little more and realize they were children.”

The expert is saying that the films of the 70s made children more adult-like, until Ronny Reagan rode in wearing a white hat to save the day.  How does that explain “An Education” (2009), “Tadpole” (2002) or “The Opposite of Sex” (1998)?  How does it explain “Wicked Little Things” (2006), “Them” (2006), “The Ring” (2002), “Whisper” (2002) or “Pet Sematary” (1989)?

Goofus and Gallant at the G-20

A few more demonstrations took place at the G-20 conference in Pittsburgh after my post of September 25. Most significantly, there was a peaceful march from Oakland to downtown (where I saw it) and then to the Northside, organized by seven or so groups and drawing from 2,000 to 4,000 people.

The contrast in coverage both locally and nationally between this peaceful display and the September 24 protests, the ones without permit which eventually led to 110 arrests and a dozen or so broken windows, created its own kind of ideological statement. As soon as the peaceful demonstration started to unfold, every news-gathering operation spun a cautionary contrast, a kind of “Goofus and Gallant” moment: Bad demonstrators in the marches without permits; good demonstrators at the large permitted parade. Some reports actually did a point by point comparison of the good and bad behavior, just as writer Garry Cleveland Myers and illustrator would do with Goofus and Gallant in the old Highlights magazine. (I understand that this series, dedicated to teaching social cues to children, still runs, and has graduated from black and white to computer graphics.)

The fly in this ointment, of course, is the fact that the Goofusards of the Pittsburgh G-20 didn’t do that much damage, virtually all of which was caused by one guy, and that the police in fact did arrest a few too many people at the unpermitted protests. Which is not to say I applaud the damage—in fact, I have always been a “gallant” proponent of nonviolent, non-destructive protest.

Some uncatalogued final G-20 thoughts:

  • The people who broke the windows of local operations of national chains are as uneducated to the facts as those who want a “public health insurance option” to compete with commercial insurers. In the case of many of the people who want a public option because they hate the commercial insurers, they don’t realize that it will likely create more business for the commercial insurers, because the government will almost assuredly contract with the commercials to provide the administrative and claims processing services for the public option. In the case of the people breaking windows of local Wendy’s and McDonald’s locations, they don’t realize that the owners of the establishments are not multinational corporations, but franchisees who are typically small business owners.
  • As I said, for the most part law enforcement officials did a good job, but it was definitely not necessary to line Grant Street with muzzled, but vicious-looking police dogs every eight feet or so during the “good” downtown demonstration. It was also a mistake to deploy forces to patrol this demonstration in such a way that it led to a shutdown of all downtown bus service for a period of several hours.