2021 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Moving into Semifinalist Round

The 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition will be formally moving into the semifinalist round this Sunday, July 18. At stake is the $10,000 grand prize and five $525 runners-up prizes. Wow!

I’m on a few of the playwright boards online and on social media. Playwrights often express dissatisfaction over the rejection letter, which begins: “Unfortunately, bla bla bla…” Many playwrights will stop reading after the word “Unfortunately.” So, this year, I decided to do something different.

Here’s the letter that’s going out to the playwrights as we speak. I hope that they appreciate the attempt at something new. For some, it will be a congratulations letter. For some, it will be a rejection letter. But, by including an offer at the end, I hope some view it as a win-win. I try. It’s hard. But, more than anything, it’s important to keep the playwrights happy. The competition depends on their goodwill.

Here it is:

Hi [Playwright’s name],
Heads up the jurors are deep into their reading. On Sunday, July 18th, I will post their semifinalist nominations on the website:
I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for entering the competition. Nothing to me is more exciting than a theatre where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Together, we can realize new possibilities in theatre. Regardless of the outcome, I hope you will tell your friends about our playwriting opportunity. Word of mouth is everything. I’ve also launched year four of the competition with an even larger prize package. I hope you will consider entering next year, or in the years after. Each year we have different jurors. That means the same plays will perform differently each year. In risk theatre, the element of chance is strong.
One of my goals is to make my book–The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected–available to playwrights, students, and teachers all over the world. I would like to close my letter to you with a request and an offer. If your local public or academic library does not already stock my book, would you consider asking them to carry it? Libraries typically have a “Suggest a Book” webpage or link. It takes all but five minutes to fill out. If your library decides to make my book available, send me the link to the library’s catalog after it’s on the shelves (libraries typically take three months to purchase and catalogue titles), and I will send you $75 Canadian dollars (CDN) via PayPal.
If you do decide to help me out—and I hope you do—here’s the link for the details (ISBN number, publisher, etc.,) to fill out the “Suggest a Book” library link.
Good luck,
Edwin
Time will tell whether this innovation is successful. Risk and reward, risk and reward…
– – –
Dont’ forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Marionet Teatro
Theatre about Science Conference
University of Coimbra, Portugal
November 25-27, 2021
Edwin Wong

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s Othello

Thank you to the organizers for putting this wonderful event together and thank you everyone for coming. It’s great to be here. I’m Edwin Wong. I specialize in dramatic theory based on chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. My first book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, presents a new theory of tragedy where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. The book launched The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (risktheatre.com). Today, I’ve come all the way from Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, to talk about the intersection between theatre and probability theory in a play we all know and love: Shakespeare’s Othello.

Now, the first thing people ask when I say “theatre” and “probability theory” is: “How do you bring probability theory to theatre? How would you know the odds of something happening or not happening? —every event, even chance events, are purposefully written into the script by the playwright.” They ask: “Where is the probability in theatre?”

It’s there. Look at the language of probability in Othello. In Othello, Shakespeare talks of “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. The language of probability permeates the play.

The language of probability permeates Othello because, in this play, no one is as they seem. “I am not what I am,” right? Iago seems honest; he’s anything but. Othello seems a man for all seasons; he is, however, quite fragile. Desdemona seems unfaithful; she is, however, true. Emilia seems to have loose morals; she sticks to her morals, however, even when threatened with death. There’s a disjunction between seeming and being. Othello and Iago talk about it: “Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” Because seeming and being are at odds, you can guess what a person’s intentions are, but you may never know.

This brings us to the crux of the play: your best friend who you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in wars and who’s known for his honesty, is telling you your wife is getting it on with your lieutenant. You’re a little bit older, having “declined into the vale of years.” Your wife is young, as is your lieutenant. But, you love your wife very much and she seems constant. At the same time, you also trust your best friend. What do you do?

This is what Othello decides. If the allegations are true, he’ll kill Desdemona and Cassio. If they’re false, he’ll kill Iago. Someone will die. The problem is, how does he decide who dies? There’s no proof. Nor is proof forthcoming: Iago and Othello establish that Desdemona and Cassio, if they’re guilty, aren’t going to confess. And, because they’re subtle lovers, Othello’s not going to catch them in the act. In the real world, you could probably catch them, sooner or later. But that’s not the world of the play that Shakespeare’s created: in this play, there’s only seeming.

So, Othello will kill. Who he kills will be based on belief and probability. He can’t decide. But Iago helps him. He comes up with the test of the handkerchief. Now, the test of the handkerchief isn’t certain, but in the world of the play, nothing is certain; there’s only probability. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief. Iago suggests that, if the handkerchief makes its way into Cassio’s hands, then Othello can take this as proof. Conversely, if Iago cannot demonstrate this, Othello can take this as proof Iago is lying. Lives hand in balance.

In their rush to dinner, Othello and Desdemona accidentally drop the handkerchief. Emilia, by chance, finds it, and, knowing that Iago is always asking about it, gives it to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom where Cassio finds it and asks his ladyfriend Bianca to copy the design: the napkin is of an unusual provenance, “spotted with strawberries.” Bianca, however, thinking the handkerchief a gift from some new woman, gets jealous and squabbles with Cassio. Iago, meanwhile, has set things up so that Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief. Once he sees the handkerchief, he’s convinced: Cassio and Desdemona are getting it on.

Is Othello, jumping to this conclusion, being reasonable? The first great Othello critic, Thomas Rymer, found Othello’s actions laughable. He came up with a jingling couplet to express his distaste, saying: “Before the Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Most people, I believe, would agree with Rymer and say: “Othello, what are you doing?!?”

Enter probability theory. In probability theory, there’s a tool called Bayes’ theorem. It’s used to calculate conditional probabilities. With it, you can revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. This is exactly what happens in Othello: new evidence—the handkerchief—comes to light that makes Othello revise his initial probability estimate. In Iago’s words, the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs,” or the napkin “may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly.” How much does it thicken the other proofs? Let’s find out. We can throw some numbers figures into Bayes’ theorem, and it will tell us, in percent, how certain Othello is after he sees Cassio with the napkin.

We start off with what is called the prior probability. That is the initial probability before he receive new information. Now, before the test of the handkerchief, Othello says:

Othello. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [meaning Iago] art just, and think thou are not.

It seems that he views the odds that he has been cuckolded as 50:50. His mind is evenly divided. So, we enter this into the formula.

Next, we need to come up with a probability value that represents the chance that Cassio has the handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue between Othello and Iago suggests that we should assign a high percentage to this figure, which, while not 100%, must approach 100%. Call it 90%. We enter this into the formula.

The final probability value we require is the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests that lovers give away their tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. So, we can call the likelihood that Cassio has the napkin and nothing untoward has happened something low, in the order of magnitude of say 1%.

We plug all these values into Bayes’ theorem, and it gives us an answer: if Othello’s mind had been evenly divided on Desdemona’s guilt, once he sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, he can be 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. So, it would appear, contrary to Rymer, that the “Jealousie was Tragical because the proof is Mathematical.” A certainty test of 98.9% is certainly high. Modern statisticians use a 5% certainty test to establish moral certainty, or, the threshold at which one has the right to act. Othello is well within this 5% range.

We can also play with the numbers to arrive at different results. Some might say, for example, that a 50% initial probability that he is a cuckold is way too low. Look, if your best friend—who is known for honesty—and your wife’s father himself is telling you to watch out, then the initial probability you are a cuckold is likelier closer to 80%. If this is the case, then, after the napkin test, the chances you are a cuckold go up from 98.9 to 99.7%. That’s equivalent to the three-sigma test that physicists, up to recently, use to confirm that their experiments are the real deal, and not an artifact of chance. 99.7% is quite confidence inspiring, and shows that Othello, after seeing the napkin, could be quite sure.

Of course, everyone says Othello was too rash. He should not have killed Desdemona. I get this. But then, should he have killed Iago? Remember, the play is set up so that he has to kill someone, whether Desdemona or Iago. This is where probability gets interesting. The question the play asks is: how high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty also have to contend with the fact that he was wrong. Those who contend that Othello failed to achieve moral certainty have to wonder how today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matter of life and death on less stringent significance tests.

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is one of the richest crossroads in research today. Not only can we talk about whether Othello should or shouldn’t have acted, we can compare Othello to, say Hamlet. Hamlet is told by the ghost that his uncle killed his dad. As Hamlet himself realizes, the ghost is much less trustworthy than a best friend. Next, just like in Othello, Hamlet stages the mousetrap, the play within the play, to determine, on a probabilistic basis, whether his uncle is guilty. Like the test of the napkin, Hamlet’s mousetrap isn’t perfect. But for some reason, we allow Hamlet to act. Why is that? These are all fascinating questions that arise when we examine theatre from the perspective of probability theory.

I’ve always believed that theory should service practice. How can probability theory add to the performance of drama? I saw an Othello this year, a fast-paced one, big-budget production. But watching it, I felt some lines were missing. It turns out, after checking the text, parts of the text were missing: the beginning of act one, scene three where the sailor gives conflicting accounts of the size and heading of the attacking Turkish fleet. I learned later that this section is quite often omitted from performances. What a shame: the scene illustrates how, so often in the most critical affairs, though we want certainty, we must act based on probability. This moment sets the scene for the entire play: Othello too wants certainty, but must act on probability. By bringing science to the theatre, I offer a powerful reason for including this scene in future productions: this scene unlocks the play.

If you would like learn more about chance in theatre, pick up a copy of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published by Friesen in 2019. This talk is based on a new book chapter that came out a few months ago called: “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” It’s in a book called: Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by Salem Press. Follow me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Thank you.

BAYES’ THEOREM

P(C) initial probability Othello is a cuckold 50%
P(~C) initial probability Othello is not a cuckold 50%
P(H C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is a cuckold 90%
P(H ∣ ~C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is not a cuckold 1%

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Dear Publisher: Please Publish My Book WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE

Risk Theatre Performing Arts Book Proposal

Four years ago, seventeen publishers shut the door on my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. After a year of aporia, FriesenPress, the self-publishing arm of the printing behemoth Friesens Corporation, released it. Today, my second book, When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays, is coming together. Let’s give the traditional publishers a knock on the door. Maybe the gatekeepers will be more receptive this time. This time, things are different. Before, risk theatre was unknown and untested. Now risk theatre is going from peak to peak. The name of the game is to keep going. Never stop.

Here’s the template of the pitch letter. It’s short (326 words). It gives them a reason to be excited (who doesn’t like a new arts movement?). It builds upon the successes of the previous book (it was a terrific stroke of luck for my little self-published book to get two glowing reviews in peer-reviewed theatre journals). Will it be enough?– Please…

Dear Publisher,

I curate The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). The competition, now in its fourth year, is based on my self-published book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (2019). It presents a new theory of drama by arguing that downside risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. Hundreds of playwrights (from sixteen countries, including some former Soviet republics) have entered the competition and the book has sold over 2700 copies. In the last two years, I have been invited to talk about risk theatre at the Kennedy Center, the National New Play Network, Working Title Playwrights (Atlanta), the Society of Classical Studies, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Marionet Teatro (Portugal), as well as many universities and theatres. Risk theatre is an exciting and growing twenty-first century arts movement.

To commemorate the fourth year of the playwriting competition, I have put together a compilation called: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays. Three finalist and winning playwrights have agreed to have their plays published. In addition, they will contribute new introductory essays discussing the significance of risk. The second half of the compilation consists of five essays I wrote applying risk theatre to the interpretation of plays from Aeschylus to Arthur Miller as well as to the novel.

Risk theatre is changing the way people look at the dramatic art form of tragedy. Would you be interested in participating in this exciting, bold, and important arts movement by publishing When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays?

Attached are reviews of my first book from the peer-reviewed journals Theatre History Studies and NJ Drama Australia Journal. You may also see enthusiastic customer reviews of my first book at Goodreads and Amazon (links below).

Don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions. I look forward to hearing from you.

All best,

Edwin Wong

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43999168-the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy

21.02.12theatrehistorystudiesREVIEW
NJ Drama Australia The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Gambling Drama and the Unexpected

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil

MAY 2021 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

IT’S A WRAP! THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is closed to entries (https://risktheatre.com). Your scripts are being carefully read by professional jurors (who will remain anonymous until they determine the grand prize winner late August). Stay tuned for the grand opening of the 4th annual 2022 competition–an announcement will come soon.

This year, 122 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). Here are the country breakouts:

USA 101

Australia 2

Canada 14

UK 5

Of the American entries, 73 are from the east and 28 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 22 are from New York and 14 from Los Angeles. Go New York and Los Angeles!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 75 men and 47 women. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 43 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 27,520 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2680 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, Westchester Community, University of Utah. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of THINKING, FAST AND SLOW – Daniel Kahneman

2011, Anchor, 499 pages

I predict time will be unkind to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking, important, and misguided book. Having heard so many positive reviews of Thinking, Fast and Slow, I had expected to enjoy reading it. But it turns out I am quite allergic this book. Not since reviewing Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values has a book frustrated me to this degree. Do you remember doing math quizzes in grade school? Sometimes you would have some diabolical teacher that would put trick questions on the exams. Invariably, you would get some of these wrong. Then, when reviewing the error, at first you would wonder whether the marker was incorrect. Then, looking closer, you would see that it was a trick question, designed to fool. In many cases, you could have done the math. But you were fooled by a diabolical question designed to trip up your brain in the heat of the moment. Well, Kahneman’s book is filled up with trick questions him and fellow accomplice Amos Tversky dreamt up over the years. He presents leading questions that point you towards the incorrect answer. When you get the answer wrong, then he tells you your brain is not reacting rationally.

That the brain is irrational is an argument I accept. E. O. Wilson makes that claim in On Human Nature, a most excellent book. But the way Kahneman demonstrates the fallibility of the brain I absolutely disagree with in the same way as I disagreed with math teachers who set snares for students with trick questions. Who likes being fooled?

Less is More

Take this example that asks volunteers to price out two dinnerware sets. Set A has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition
8 cups (6 in good condition and 2 broken)
8 saucers (1 in good condition and 7 broken)

Set B has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition

When participants could see both sets, they valued, on average, Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. When participants were only shown one set–either Set A or Set B–they priced Set A, on average at $33 and Set B at $23. Kahneman (and Christopher Hsee, who came up with this experiment) call this the less is more effect, and, to them, it shows how the brain fails to handle probability. Their explanation is that, when participants could see both sets, they could see that Set A contains more good condition pieces than Set B. Therefore, they made the correct call and valued Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. However, when participants could only see one set, they would determine the price of the set by what the average price of the pieces. The set with intact pieces, therefore nets $33 while the set with the broken pieces nets $23, because the average value of the dishes, some of which are broken, is perceived to be lower.

To Kahneman and Hsee, the less is more effect illustrates the fallibility of the brain: if the eight cups and saucers (which include 7 pieces that are in good condition) are removed from Set A, Set A becomes worth more. To me, however, if I were shown Set A only, I would have also valued it at around $23 and if I were shown Set B only, I would have also valued it at around $33, and not because my brain is fallible (which it is), but because if I am shown in isolation a set of dinnerware with broken pieces, it makes me doubt the quality of the intact pieces! If, however, I can examine both sets, I can quickly see what the researchers are asking, which, to me, is: how much extra would I pay for 6 cups and 1 saucer. So, to me, this is not a case of the less is more effect, but rather the effect of the purchaser having less confidence in the quality of Set A because, out of 40 pieces, 9 are broken! This to me is a rather rational way of looking at Set A.

The Linda Problem

Imagine you are told this description of Linda:

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

After hearing the description, you are then asked:

Which alternative is more likely?
a) Linda is a bank teller, or
b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement

When asked this question, 90% of undergraduates chose “b,” although by the laws of probability, it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller rather than a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement. The reason for this is that there are more bank tellers than bank tellers who are also feminists. Kahneman takes this as conclusive evidence of “of the role of heuristics in judgment and of their incompatibility with logic. I have a problem with this.

I get that there must be more bank tellers than bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement: bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement are a subset of the total number of bank tellers, which must be greater. But if, in the description of Linda, you tell me that she is “deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice,” I am–if I were a participant in this study–going to try to cooperate with the questioners in anticipating what answer they want me to give. In this case, I would, even though I know that there are more bank tellers than feminist bank tellers, answer “a.” That I answered “a” is not, to me, conclusive evidence that my heuristics are incompatible with logic, as Kahneman argues. I was merely trying to be “helpful” by anticipating how the questioner wanted me to respond. And I was right: the questioner was trying to get me to say, “a.” Only, the questioner was not on my side and was deliberately trying to deceive me. No fair.

As Kahneman himself writes, without the questioner’s diabolical deception, participants could get this question right. Take this question:

Which alternative is more probable?
a) Mark has hair
b) Mark has blond hair

Participants have no problem getting the answer right. The answer is “a.” What I find insulting about the Linda Problem is that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The participant is trying to be helpful, not knowing the diabolical intentions of the questioner. And when the questioner deceives the participant, the questioner takes this to be proof of an impaired logical system in the brain. This adds insult to injury.

Consider also this scenario. Let’s say I am the questioner and that I am twenty-five pounds overweight. I go up to the questioner and ask: “Do you think I should lose some weight?” Let’s say the participant says: “You look great. No need for diet.” Would a smarty-pants psychologist look at this answer as proof that there is something wrong with the participant’s eyesight? I think, if the psychologist thought along the lines of Kahneman, the psychologist would say say yes, clearly there is an issue with the participant’s eyesight. But what I would say is that the participant is trying to be a nice person by anticipating the socially correct answer. There is something rational about saying the socially correct rather than the objectively correct answer as well, and I think Kahneman gives this point less consideration than I would have had.

The Hot Hand in Sports

On basketball, Kahneman debunks the idea of the hot hand:

Some years later, Amos and his students Tom Gilovich and Robert Vallone caused a stir with their study of misperceptions of randomness in basketball. The “fact” that players occasionally acquire a hot hand is generally accepted by players, coaches, and fans. The inference is irresistible: a player sinks three or four baskets in a row and you cannot help forming the causal judgment that this player is now hot, with a temporarily increased propensity to score. Players on both teams adapt to this judgment–teammates are more likely to pass to the hot scorer and the defense is more likely to double-team. Analysis of thousands of sequences of shots led to a disappointing conclusion: there is no such thing as a hot hand in professional basketball.

Kahneman explains the fallacy of the hot hand by a belief in what he calls the “law of small numbers,” the error that ascribes the law of large numbers to small numbers as well.” What that means is that three or four shots is too small a sampling size to demonstrate the presence of the hot hand.

Famed Boston Celtics coach, when he heard of the study, said: “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I could care less.” I agree with him. Suppose you are coach of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. You are down two points with ten seconds on the clock. Michael Jordan has been on fire. Or at least he seems like he has the hot hand, having sunk his last five shots (some of which are high-percentage dunks). Dennis Rodman, on the other hand, is ice cold, having bricked his last five shots. Let’s say, to make this though experiment work, that Jordan and Rodman have the same field goal percentage. Who would you pass the ball to? Maybe “Team Psychology” would pass the ball to Rodman: he does not have the cold hand because such a thing does not exist. But the real-world team would pass the ball to Jordan. I think any coach who does not want to be fired or have the players revolt would pass the ball to Jordan. As they say, in theory there is nothing different between theory and practise, but in practise, there is.

Again, I understand what Kahneman is saying about small sample sizes. Small sample sizes can lead you awry. But what I have to say is this: in the absence of further data or more samples, you have to go with the data you have. That is the real world. In sports, you don’t have the luxury of looking at the player’s ten next shots to see if the player really has a hot hand. If the player seems to have a hot hand, you go with it.

Another objection I have to Kahneman’s debunking of the hot hand is that basketball players do, in real life, increase their field goal percentage. In his fourth year in the NBA, Shawne Williams, a player for the New York Knicks improved his 3-point field goal shooting percentage from 6 percent to 51 percent. If you knew him as a 6 percent shooter, and he hit three or four three-pointers in a row, and you dismissed his hot hand, well, you would be wrong: his field goal shooting percentage did actually move up from 6 percent to 51 percent! That year, he will seem to have had the hot hand and that hot hand is, statistically, real! As players hire shooting coaches and sports psychologists and move their shooting percentages higher, their hot hand will have been a real phenomenon. I don’t see how Kahneman and his friends could argue from a probabilistic and mathematical basis that sometimes players improve and, in the process of improvement, will have the hot hand.

Regression to the Mean

Air force cadets who do well one day will generally do worse the next day and cadets who do poorly one day will generally do better the next day. It is the same with golfers, claims Kahneman. This phenomenon is called the reversion or regression to the mean. Good performances will be balanced by poor performances so that, in the long term, the average is maintained.

Kahneman extends the phenomenon of the regression to the mean to companies: a business which did poorly last year, he claims, because of the regression to the mean, can be expected to do better the next year by the action of probability. Now, this idea can be tested in the stock market. There is a strategy called the “Dogs of the Dow” that works by arbitraging the regression to the mean. Each year, an investor buys the ten “dogs” or poorest performers in the thirty stock Dow Jones Industrials Index. At the beginning of each year, the investor sells the previous dogs and buys the dogs from the previous calendar year. If, as Kahneman claims, businesses obey the regression to the mean, by buying the poor performers, an investor should be able to do better than a buy-and-hold investor who holds all the stocks in the index.

This is not the case. With dividends reinvested, the twenty-year return in 2020 of the Dogs of the Dow strategy has returned 10.8%. Buying and holding all the Dow stocks for the same twenty year period would have also returned 10.8%. If Kahneman is correct about the regression to the mean, one would expect the Dogs of the Dow strategy to have produced a return in excess of 10.8%. It did not. There may be momentum effects at play where winners continue, despite probability, in producing outsized returns and losers, despite probability, produce diminished returns.

The regression to the mean is a real phenomenon. That I don’t doubt. But if Kahneman says it applies to businesses, it must be investable in real life. If it isn’t, then it’s just a fancy sounding term. You know, Kahneman might be right, that businesses revert to the mean. But he talks as though he is sure of the phenomenon without giving a real-world proof. Take the entire Japanese stock market, the Nikkei 225. It had a bad year in 1990. A very bad year. If I had listened to Kahneman, I would have backed up the truck to buy Japanese stocks in 1991. Now, almost thirty years later, the Nikkei is still below its 1991 levels. Regression to the mean?

Regression to the mean may be real, but not as easy as Kahneman puts it. There is a certain momentum in businesses and countries that defy regression to the mean for years, decades, and centuries. It strikes me that regression to the man works if you are looking backwards at the data. Say, after a century, you already know what the average is. You already have the data. Of course regression to the mean will work. But if you are looking forwards and do not have the data already, things change, trends emerge, industries fail: for example, when digital photography came into style, a company like Kodak is not going to revert to the mean! It will go bankrupt.

Prospect Theory

Prospect Theory is Kahneman’s feather in the cap. He won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory looks at how behaviour changes under the psychological loads of loss or gain. For example:

-In mixed gambles, where both a gain and a loss are possible, loss aversion causes extremely risk-averse choices.
-In bad choices, where a sure loss is compared to a larger loss that is merely probable, diminishing sensitivity causes risk seeking.

Prospect Theory explains why people buy insurance (even though it is an irrational practise that is money losing, in aggregate and in the long run), why people buy lottery tickets, why people pay lawyers too much to settle instead of fight it out in court (the large “structured settlements” industry), and the psychology that drove a con man like Bernie Madoff to seek more and more risk to avoid loss. To draw its conclusions, Kahneman would ask test participants questions such as:

Problem 1: Which do you choose?
Get $900 for sure OR 90% chance to get $1,000

Problem 2: Which do you choose?
Lose $900 for sure OR 90% chance to lose $1,000

His questions are designed to “tell us about the limits of human rationality. For one thing, it helps us see the logical consistency of Human preferences for what it is–a hopeless mirage.” I agree with Kahneman that human rationality is severely limited. Even free will, in my view, could be an illusion. E. O. Wilson, in a series of books including On Human Nature, has laid out an argument that convinces me of the limitations of the mind, which, Wilson argues, is a product of evolution conditioned to Stone Age rather than Space Age environments. Kahneman’s arguments fail to persuade me because his arguments presuppose that, should the participant confront the question in real life the participant would react in the same way as the participant answered the question, which, in the experiment, the participant knows is not real, is only a question in a study. That is a big jump that has been demonstrated conclusively to be false. There are, for example, ongoing litigations involving the “Know Your Client” (KYC) form that investment banks use. Financial advisors gauge their clients’ appetite or aversion to risk by asking them questions such as the ones Kahneman asks the participants in his studies. As it turns out, some clients said, on paper, that they had great appetite for risk. But when loss happened, they found that, in real life, this was not true. So they sued. Others said, on paper, that they had little risk tolerance. When, however, in real life, they saw how they missed the boat on outsized investment returns, they found out that they actually have a propensity for risk. And they sued. The Achilles’ heel of Prospect Theory is that Kahneman asks participants questions on paper and draws far-reaching conclusions on the assumption that this transfers over to real life. People do not behave the same way in real life as they do on paper. You cannot ask people paper questions and construct a real-world theory from their paper responses. No, no, no!

His method, in my eyes, would be like an anthropologist who polls different tribes. So, instead of observing what a tribe actually does, this anthropologist would give the tribespeople a poll. For example, the anthropologist would ask:

Problem 1: One year, your crop yield goes down 25% Would you:
a) attack the neighbouring tribe or
b) increase hunting activities

Then, if the participants answer “a,” this anthropologist would conclude that “the tribe is aggressive” or some other far reaching conclusion. But if the participants answer “b,” the anthropologist would conclude that the tribe is pacifist. This would be ludicrous. But this seems to be what Prospect Theory is based upon.

As they say, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practise but in practise, there is.

Government Spending

During the year that we spent working together in Vancouver, Richard Thaler, Jack Knetsch, and I were drawn into a study of fairness in economic transactions, partly because we were interested in the topic but also because we had an opportunity as well as an obligation to make up a new questionnaire every week. The Canadian government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a program for unemployed professionals in Toronto, who were paid to administer telephone surveys. The large team of interviewers worked every night and new questions were constantly needed to keep operations going. Though Jack Knetsch, we agreed to generate a questionnaire every week, in four color-labeled versions. We could ask about anything; the only constraint was that the questionnaire should include at least one mention of fish, to make it pertinent to the mission of the department. This went on for many months, and we treated ourselves to an orgy of data collection.

That Kahneman mentions this I find disturbing. From what I gather, times are tough. There are many unemployed. So then the Canadian government hires three top-gun economists (because purse strings must be tight), two of which are American (because Canadian economists do not need the work) to conduct surveys which are meaningless to the participants, the government, and Canadian citizens. The government, however, markets this program as being relevant to Canada’s fishing industry: after all, each question must involve the mention of a fish. Of course, after the brilliant economists get the data they want for their pet experiments, they publish this in a book and throw the Canadian government under the bus: the survey, they say, really helped them and had nothing to do with fisheries and oceans. They had gamed the taxpayer money for their own benefit. This so smacks of elitism. It also strikes me as being deeply ironic: the study they were working on was “fairness in economic transactions.” Yikes.

That he printed this makes me wonder if he understands the real world. He talks of Davos, the party place of the billionaires. He goes through his book like some hero-psychologist, looking at everyone else’s blind spots. He talk about how he mentions one story at Davos, and someone overhearing says “it was worth the whole trip to Davos just to hear that,” and that this person who said this “was a major CEO.” Wow. It would have been good if someone in another book had said that about Kahneman. But for him to say this about himself in his own book?

Spider-sense Tingles “Danger”

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book I had wanted very much to like. I had hoped to learn more about mental biases that would have been of use in the new book I’m writing on a theory of comedy. The more I read Thinking, Fast and Slow, however, the more my spider-sense was tingling “danger.” I voiced my disapproval of the book to friends and to my book club. People said: “You don’t like the book because you probably weren’t smart enough to answer his questions.” Other people said: “But he has won a Nobel Prize. Who are you to disagree?” It makes me laugh a little bit that people will say that I am irrational while themselves using ad hominem attacks, the rationality of which itself is doubtful.

I remember a story about two other Nobel Prize winners, also, like Kahneman, in the economics category. In 1997, Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton won the Nobel Prize in Economics. A few years prior, they had started up one of the largest hedge funds in the world, Long-Term Capital Management. While they were winning the Nobel Prize, a journalist looked into the workings of their hedge fund. He called them out for being overleveraged: with 4 billion in their own and investors’ capital, they had borrowed in excess of 120 billion. The journalist called them out for “picking up pennies in front of a bulldozer.” Scholes and Merton shot back: “Who are you to question us, lowly journalist? We are Nobel Prize winners.” A year later, Long-Term Capital Management collapsed, taking the global economic system itself to the brink of collapse. How the mighty are fallen.

Kahneman comes across as the hero-psychologist pointing out others’ errors. But I wonder if he ever looked at the beam in his own eyes? I did a quick search on Google for the robustness of psychological experiments, the sort that are published in respected peer-reviewed journals. I found that less than half of such studies can be replicated. What sort of “science” is this? It’s like if you had a theory of gravitation that was published in a leading journal such as Science that predicted the moon would be at this place on this time. You “proved” it once and published it. But no one else can replicate it. And your theory is still accepted as canon, not to be questioned? I wonder, down the road, how robust many of Kahneman’s findings will be. Time will tell.

2015 Reproducibility Project study finds only 39 out of 100 psychology experiments able to be replicated, even after extensive consultation with original authors:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/science/many-social-science-findings-not-as-strong-as-claimed-study-says.html

2018 Reproducibility Project study finds that only 14 out of 28 classic psychology experiments are able to be replicated, even under ideal condition:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07474-y

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST – Oscar Wilde

1895, in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Penguin 2000

The same time I was reading Wilde’s comedy, I saw playwright Constance (Connie) Congdon speak at a Kennedy Center “Dramatist Guild Legacy Award Conversation.” She was talking to dramaturg Heather Helinsky about the craft of playwriting. She emphasized how playwriting is, like talking, a process. The more one engages with playwriting, the more fluid one’s playwriting becomes. This concept of the “fluidity of playwriting” immediately grabbed me, perhaps because I had been reading Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “Fluidity” is a fantastic description of Wilde’s writing that hits the nail right on the head.

Wilde is one of the most fluid writers I have come across. There is an effortless ease in his dialogue, in how each scene glide into the next. His writing reminds me of the music of Mozart or Fleetwood Mac. Effortless melody. Of course, as Mozart used to complain, although his melodies sound effortless, a great deal of effort has gone into putting them together. This effort, however, is not immediately apparent to the listener because it is put together so seamlessly.

Not all great music is so effortless. Take Beethoven, for instance. He is on the same level as Mozart, but his notes sound  laboured. They sound like they were incredibly difficult to write. The notes do not flow together; they seem to have been willed together by the titanic force of his will. In the same way, not all great drama is as effortless as Wilde. Aeschylus and O’Neill write great plays. But their plays are clunky, wooden, and laborious. Yet their plays represent another type of pinnacle. Aeschylus is, on some days, my all-time favourite.

Congdon and Helinsky’s talk got me thinking: why do some works appear so fluid? Why do some works appear so laboured? My first thoughts were that fluid playwrights relish being in the present. Whichever act and scene they find themselves in, they delight in making it come alive. Algy’s eating constantly in The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, delights in his eating at inopportune moments in the present. Fluidity is part of the Zen of the ever-present moment.

For the more laborious playwrights, however, each moment is part of the scaffolding that sets up the big reveal. Laborious playwrights take delight in the future moment rather than the present moment. To use an example from O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the incessant drinking Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmund engage in is not for the moment, but to set up that last moment where they see something that hits them so hard that they cannot have that last drink.

The Importance of Being Earnest

There are nine characters in the play. The subsidiary characters are: Rev. Canon Chasuble (the local priest), Merriman (Jack’s butler), Lane (Algy’s manservant), and Miss Prism (Cecily’s governess). The major characters are: John Worthing (Jack, JP, and, when in the city, Ernest Worthing), Algernon Moncrieff (Algy and, when in the country, Ernest Worthing), Lady Augusta Bracknell (Algy’s aunt), Gwendolen Fairfax (Lady Bracknell’s daughter and Algy’s niece), and Cecily Cardew (Jack’s ward). The major characters are major by virtue of their class and that they are, or will be, all related by blood or marriage by the play’s end.

The romantic action starts when, visiting Algy in the city, Jack–operating under the alias of his decadent and fictitious brother Ernest–proposes to Algy’s niece Gwendolen. Gwendolen, having always found the name “Ernest” to be most attractive, accepts. Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, on interviewing Jack and finding out that he is a foundling, is not so keen to bless their union.

The action intensifies when Algy finds out that Ernest is an assumed name and that Ernest is actually Jack when he is at home in the country. Algy finds Jack’s country address and proceeds to visit Jack in the Country while himself pretending to be Ernest, Jack’s fictitious brother. It turns out Jack had made up a fictitious brother for himself as an excuse to go to the city to play. Jack is furious when he sees that Algy has come to his country manor under the alias of his fictional brother Ernest. What makes Jack even more furious is that Algy proposes to his ward, Cecily. Cecily, like Gwendolen, is also captivated by the name Ernest. She accepts his marriage proposition. At this point, both Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. Ernest Worthing, of course, does not really exist: he is Jack’s alias in the city and Algy’s alias in the country.

The action reaches a peak when Gwendolen leaves the city and goes to the country to visit her new fiancé, Ernest Worthing. She meets Cecily there, who is also under the impression that she is also engaged to Ernest Worthing. To add more fun to the scene, the persnickety aristocrat Lady Bracknell also arrives in the country to take Gwendolen back home. After Gwendolen and Bracknell arrive, Jack and Algy’s covers are blown. It is quite an embarrassing moment.

After recovering from the unexpected appearance of the city guests, Algy and Jack renew their marriage proposals to Cecily and Gwendolen, who accept. Jack, however, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses to bless their union. It seems however, that he would bless it if Lady Bracknell would bless his union with Gwendolen. Bracknell, however, puts her foot down: she has climbed the class ladder for too long to let her daughter marry a foundling from the train station. An impasse results.

At that moment Miss Prism enters. Lady Bracknell recognizes Prism as the irresponsible servant who lost her sister’s baby many years ago. She recounts the story of losing the baby in a handbag in a train station, the very same train station where Jack had been found. Jack still has the handbag. He fetches it. Prism recognizes it: it is marked with her initials. This means that Jack is actually Algy’s brother (and not just pretending to be his brother!). What is more, they find out that the missing baby had been–drum roll-christened “Ernest.” So, Jack was always an Ernest. With this revelation, everyone gets married and the play ends with Jack saying: “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” A nice play on “Ernest” and “earnest.”

The Unexpected

Part of why Wilde can take delight in the dramatic present is because each moment gives him a chance to engage in wordplay. The wordplay sometimes consists of unexpected combinations of words, such as Lady Bracknell’s surprise when she finds out Jack is a foundling:

Jack: I have lost both my parents.

Lady Bracknell: Both? To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Her response starts off reasonably: it is a misfortune to lose one parent. Her conclusion, however, that to lose both “looks like carelessness” is unanticipated. What would have been expected is something more along the lines of “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both is tragedy.” But that lacks the desired effect. In performance, before the play was pulled over Wilde’s ruinous scandal, it is this line that elicited the most laughs. Children are not responsible for losing their parents. But in Bracknell’s view, they are. By turning expectation upside down, Bracknell’s observation tickles the brain. The brain sees that something does not fit. But a second later, the brain realizes what Wilde is telling us: that Lady Bracknell is, well, different. She is the higher class taken to its own logical conclusion where it becomes a caricature of itself. And when the brain is tickled like that, the biological reaction is laughter.

Similar is Algy’s remonstration of his servant Lane:

Algernon: Lane’s view of marriage seems somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

Algy voices what the upper class believes, but does not normally voice. To most of the upper classes, to voice their belief in noblesse oblige, the inferred responsibility of the privileged to act with nobility was the norm. Here Algy wants the privilege without noblesse oblige. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. The line mentally discombobulates the audience. When the audience realizes that Wilde does this to let them know Algy is a harmless but good for nothing aristocrat, the biological reaction to this brain tickle is, again, to erupt into laughter.

Comedy, like tragedy, dramatizes the unexpected. Unexpected witticisms and wordplay provoke laughter. And, like tragedy, the fulcrum of the action is an unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, the event is that Jack has hired Prism to be his ward’s governess–the same Prism who, unbeknownst to him, had left him at the train station when he was a babe. Improbability is such an important and ubiquitous element of comedy that characters can make metatheatrical remarks about it and expect to receive in compensation a good laugh from the audience. So remarks Algernon:

Algernon: Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable.

Improbability is the heart of comedy and comedy is the heart of laughter.

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of THE MODERN HUSBAND – Henry Fielding

1732, in She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies, edited by Nigel Wood, Oxford 2008

No cakes and ale for this disturbing comedy by English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding. On the strength of Fielding’s reputation, and as an artifact of the Georgian era–a time of rapid change, scandal, growing class division, and increasing prosperity which saw the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution–The Modern Husband continues to be read and studied. From a reading, however, it is easy to see why it is no longer produced. To today’s sensibilities, the play is offensive.

In The Modern Husband, there are the usual family connections. The bad guys are Mr and Mrs Modern and Lord Richly. The good guys are Mr and Mrs Bellamant and Mr Gaywit. Caught in between good and bad are Emilia (the Bellamants’ daughter), Captain Bellamant (the Bellamants’ son), and Lady Charlotte (Richly’s daughter). Mr Gaywit, in addition, is Lordy Richly’s nephew.

Each of the characters experiences a crisis. Mr and Mrs Modern are running out of funds to support their lifestyle. Lord Richly is looking to satisfy his libido. Mr and Mrs. Bellamant having lost twenty-thousand in an unsuccessful case before the House of Lords, also run into financial difficulties. Gaywit loves Emilia, but Richly has made it so that he must marry Charlotte to inherit his father’s estate. Captain Bellamant is getting his allowance cut back, as his parents have lost their court case. So stands the situation as the comedy begins.

To fill up their coffers, Mr Modern pimps out Mrs Modern. He turns a blind eye while Mrs Modern connects with Richly, Gaywit, and Mr Bellamant. Through the largesse of mainly Richly, the Moderns can sustain their card-playing and socializing city lifestyle. Richly, however, is visiting less often. He has his eye on Mrs Bellamant, the devout and caring wife of Mr Bellamant. Richly, to get alone with Mrs Bellamant, offers Mr Bellamant help in his court case and pays Mrs Modern to arrange a rendezvous between himself and Mrs Bellamant. Mr Bellamant, while believing that his wife will be true, gives Richly leave to tempt his wife. Mrs Modern, becoming desperate, accepts Richly’s offer and also looks to her two other lovers–Mr Bellamant and Gaywit–for help. She borrows a hundred-pound note from Mr Bellamant. Mr Modern, realizing that Richly is coming around less often to see his wife, also grows desperate. He arranges to catch his wife in flagrante delicto and to sue her lover for damages. This practice, at the time, was all the rage for degenerate aristocrats to make a quick buck.

The comedy turns on the unexpected: Mrs Modern loses the hundred-pound note Mr Bellamant gives her to Richly while gambling. Then, a little later, Richly loses the same note to Mrs Bellamant gambling. When Mr Bellamant asks his wife to borrow some money, she gives him back the note that he had given to Mrs Modern earlier. Finding out that his wife had gotten the note from Richly arouses his suspicion. He goes on a romp with Mrs Modern, and is caught by Mr Modern. Now he will have to pay adultery damages to Mr Modern. But no! He finds a way out. The good guys find out that Mr Modern had pimped out his wife all along to catch a lover in the act and make a buck in court. This is strictly forbidden. So, Mr Bellamant is off the hook. But there still is his wife, who is angry that he has been gallivanting around town. But oh! She decides to forgive him. Finally, Richly pays the price. The Bellamants’ son Captain Bellamant marries Charlotte, Richly’s daughter, behind his back. This frees up Gaywit, Richly’s nephew, to marry Emilia, the Bellamants’ daughter. Unlike real life, the good guys stand up to the bad guys. Or so the play argues.

I found the play cringeworthy. Why should Mrs Bellamant forgive Mr Bellamant? When she finds out her husband has been running around, she starts off quite mad. But then her anger softens. As it dawned on me that she might forgive him, I was thinking, “Don’t do it!” Then, in a space of ten or fifteen lines, she forgives him. Unbelievable. To me, that was as unsatisfying as it would have been if Nora had forgiven Torvald in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Of course, that does not happen in A Doll’s House, which is a superior play.

Now what happens if the Moderns or the Bellamants run out of money? Money is a big issue in this play. Well, it turns out that the worse that could happen to these families is that they would have to retire to their country manor! To them, that is very bad. But, to a modern audience, leaving the rat race behind to retire to a country manor would be a dream come true! So, I found this facet of the play out of touch with modern sensibilities.

In addition, I found the “good” characters–especially the Bellamants–to be insufferable. Mrs Bellamant is a goody two shoes. And Mr Bellamant has not aged well. He may have been considered good back in 1732, but times have changed! For example, Mr Bellamant’s wager with with Richly that Mrs Bellamant can resist his advances is reminiscent of God’s wager with Satan over Job’s goodness. Today such a wager is unconscionable. When such a wager is made today–as it was in the 1983 movie Trading Places–both the God and the Satan figures are played by bad guys. In Trading Places the wager is made by callous millionaires. So too, Mr Bellamant appears in a callous light by accepting Richly’s wager. Richly–the “bad” character–while bad, at least had no pretence of being good. At least his is honest in his badness.

The one saving feature in the play are the courtship scenes between Captain Bellamant–who comes in strong–and Lady Charlotte–who is ice cold. If the actors could get their chemistry between the characters right–and there obviously is a chemistry between them–the courtship scenes could be hilarious as they heap insult after insult on one another while working towards the larger prize of marriage.

All in all, Fielding’s The Modern Husband is too rooted in the preoccupations of its time to transcend them to be a work for all time.

– – –

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – Erich Maria Remarque

1928, 2013, Random House, translated by A. W. Wheen, 222 pages

One of the duties of Nobel Prize winners is to write a Nobel Lecture. When singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel in literature, he was on the road, on the “Never Ending Tour,” as he calls it. Musician and friend Patti Smith accepted the prize on his behalf in Stockholm where she also and sang his “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” It was not until June 2017 that Dylan had a chance to record his Nobel Lecture in a LA Studio accompanied by a piano in the distance. The recording is available on YouTube.

In his lecture, he talks about his songs and their relation to literature. He specifically brings up three pieces of literature: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Homer’s Odyssey, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I’ve read Moby Dick and the Odyssey. I had heard of All Quiet on the Western Front, but had never read it. Dylan’s endorsement piqued my curiosity. There is so much to read, however, and sometimes decades pass before books on the reading list get attended to. A few months ago, however, it was my turn for book club suggestions. I presented three choices, one of which was All Quiet on the Western Front. Book club went for Remarque’s book. Now was my chance to read it. I’m glad I did.

Remarque’s book stands out for its directness. A bunch of kids are in a war where the world they love is getting blown apart. The strange thing, to them, is that they are doing the blowing up. Now, in between things and people getting blown up, you see human nature at work. Officers may abuse soldiers in training, but on the front lines, the jungle rules. The soldiers and officers who have the most miserable jobs in civilian life are the most power hungry in military life. Childhood friend Kemmerich is dying: who will get his boots? The poplar trees and the butterflies are always beautiful, especially when viewed from the trenches. Nature seems to keep going without any sense of loss from all the mounting casualties in the trenches. War is very body oriented: the dead make gurgling sounds, soldiers learn to go to the washroom together, bombs blow body parts everywhere. In today’s saccharine world, this book stands out. The veil of hope has been lifted. While reading this book, I thought I could understand, for a moment, why a soldier would want leave to end so that he could go back to the front, go into the trenches, and dive on that grenade to save his friends. The book gives you flashes of another way of living, flashes of how adaptable the will is. It is eye opening. Remarque himself fought in WWI and spent a year in a military hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds.

Dylan mentions All Quiet on the Western Front because it has influenced his writing, and the writings of others. He finds a link between the world of Remarque’s novel and some of the songs of Charlie Poole (1892-1931), one of which has this refrain:

I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
You ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun.
You ain’t talkin’ to me.

On the novel itself, Dylan has this to say. To him, All Quiet on the Western Front has worked his way into many of his songs because:

All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.

To Dylan, it was not so much the message of All Quiet on the Western Front–he doesn’t believe that literature, or his songs, for that matter have a “message”–but the vernacular and the language that appeals to him. In other words, Remarque has put together the story and the words in a convincing way. It sounds good. And because it sounds, good, it has influenced Dylan and made its way into his songs.

Dylan concludes that art is alive. Books were meant to be read. Plays were meant to be seen. His songs were meant to be heard. Though good books, plays, and songs sound good, they don’t mean anything, not in the sense that a psychoanalytic or structuralist critic would have them mean. There is a rift between the naive power of the artist and the analytic power of the interpreter. The artist is not looking for meaning, the interpreter is. The artist, to Dylan, hears, reads, and sees artistic stimuli everywhere. Without knowing why, the artist incorporates these stimuli into art, not for the sake of meaning, but for the sake that it has a good jingle, is a good story, provokes a memorable impression. Like Plato’s investigation of art (through his character Socrates), artists find it hard to explain their works because, in great art, there’s nothing to explain.

While there’s nothing to explain, there is something to experience in art. Art tells a story that impacts us in powerful ways. How All Quiet on the Western Front impacted Dylan was that it made him never again want to pick up another war novel. And he hasn’t. Art must be experienced, otherwise it loses its vigour. Art studied and analyzed isn’t real art anymore, according to Dylan. It’s like that violin that sits in a glass case in a museum. Sad. Or, in another analogy that comes to mind, art interpreted rather than experienced is like a martial arts form that is no longer used for combat. Tai Chi used to be a system of self-defence. But nowadays, it’s an exercise or meditation. It cannot be used for self-defence anymore because it has separated from its roots. Theatre read or lyrics spoken outside of the bars, concert halls, and live venues becomes to audiences what Tai Chi has become to its practitioners: form divorced from practise. To Dylan, that would be a shame.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

APRIL 2021 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is open to entries (https://risktheatre.com). 60 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). 1 more month to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 49

Australia 1

Canada 8

UK 2

Of the American entries, 39 are from the east and 10 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 12 are from New York and 5 from Los Angeles. Go New York and Los Angeles!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 43 men and 17 women. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 27 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 26,185 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2658 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, Westchester Community, University of Utah. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

sine memoria nihil

Review of ON HUMAN NATURE – Edward O. Wilson

1978, 2004 (with new preface), Harvard University Press, 282 pages

This book fills me with awe. Reading it gives me the sense that everything is possible, not just in science, but in my own field of dramatic literary theory. All that it takes for success is an idea, the conviction to pursue the idea, and the daring to continue when the world misinterprets and turns against you. In the 1950s, Wilson discovered how the social insects communicate with one another with (through pheromones or smell). In the 1970s, Wilson took what he had learned from insect behaviour, and applied it to vertebrate animals, including humans. Behaviour, he argued, is genetically determined. He created a new field called sociobiology, sometimes known as evolutionary psychology. For this endeavour, he was called out in many quarters. In the 1990s, he attempted to unite science with the humanities through the concept of consilience. In 2021, he is 91 years old and still active. His life and work inspire me. He has the fire.

On Human Nature inspired two book chapters that are coming out later this year. Wilson’s work on tribalism directly informed my essay: “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s View of Patriotism.” Wilson’s work also indirectly influenced another essay: “Tragedy, Comedy, and Chance in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.” In this second essay, it was Wilson’s beautiful image of anastomosing paths and forks that inspired me. Wilson is as much a scientist as he is an artist. He writes with beauty.

Wilson’s book has also solved a long-standing mystery. I’ve been a fan of Nietzsche for a long time. One of the core ideas in his thinking is the “will to power.” To Nietzsche, the will to power is an unconscious drive that seeks to survive, and not only survive, but to assert control and dominion in the process of surviving. It is a life force. The feeling of strength. The fuse of life. In this post, I described it as a form of “appetite.” Jaspers, in his book-length critique of Nietzsche, threw me a sidewinder, however. Jaspers said that Nietzsche knew that he could not prove the will to power, and consequently abandoned his attempts to make it the centrepiece of a philosophical doctrine. Nietzsche had hypothesized that the will to power was the base human drive. Like other base human drives driving the other human drives, he could not demonstrate its existence. I was perplexed. After reading Wilson, I understood why: to demonstrate the will to power, Nietzsche needed a theory of sociobiology, a theory that said that human behaviours originated from something material such as the genes. The will to power, as a human behaviour, can, in the centuries to come, be demonstrated or falsified by science. It exists as a genetic imperative, or does not.

This insight filled me with tremendous awe. Even in my middle age, there are so many rudimentary ideas on things I have been thinking about my whole life I am only beginning to grasp. Amazing. This feeling of wonder and awe is what makes it all worthwhile.

Preface, 2004

On Human Nature offers a naturalistic view of human nature to compete with two views prevalent in the 1970s. The first competing view was from religion, which saw human nature as a creation of God, to be understood through the words of the prophets. The second competing view was from the behaviorists, who saw the mind as a blank slate to be molded by culture. Culture in turn is the learned response to environment. Wilson creates the field of sociobiology–also called evolutionary psychology–to test the hypothesis that the brain is biological in origin and structured by evolution through natural selection.

If Wilson is correct, human nature, instinct, and social behaviour have a biological basis grounded on thousands of millennia of evolution. Genetics and evolutionary theory, rather than learning, can explain behaviour:

In spite of the phylogenetic remoteness of vertebrates and insects and the basic distinction between their respective personal and impersonal systems of communication, these two groups of animals have evolved social behaviors that are similar in degree of complexity and convergent in many important details.

Sociobiology looks at how human behaviour is related to the social behaviours of all known social organisms, from bacteria and coelenterates through insects and vertebrates.

Preface

The point of this book is to demonstrate, writes Wilson, that the same principles that govern social insects can govern vertebrate animals. One theory can govern animal behaviour from termite colonies to troops of rhesus monkeys and human beings.

Chapter 1: Dilemma

To philosopher David Hume, the question of how the mind works, why it works one way and not another, and, from these considerations, the question of man’s ultimate nature is the question of questions. If mind is a biological device, then it is the process of natural selection that drives us to select religious or esthetic choices. Our ultimate nature is to promote the survival of our genes. First dilemma is that our biological nature directs our goals, dreams, and ambitions. Religions and secular religions such as Marxism are enabling mechanisms for survival. They are a legislated escape from the consequences of human nature but are energized by the will to self-aggrandizement. Result of the first dilemma: once we solve the problems of our age, then what? Ennui follows.

Second dilemma is that our ethical premises are based on innate censors and motivators in our brain. Morality evolved as an instinct. Philosophers make definitive statements without this evolutionary perspective: this is a mistake. Science can encroach on the humanities. Take John Rawls and A Theory of Justice. He understands that the liberties of equal citizenship are settled. The function of the state is to ensure the equal distribution of resources. Then look at Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He begins as well by asserting human liberties. But then he suggests a meritocracy: the function of the state is minimal, only to enforce law and order. Unequal distribution is alright. Who is right? Without an understanding of the biological basis of human nature, it is hard to decide. Philosophy must be combined with biology.

Each discipline is antidiscipline to another discipline. Chemistry is antidiscipline to biology. Chemists view that biology must be reducible to the laws of chemistry while biologists view their investigations as too complex to be reduced to an atomic viewpoint. In the struggle for supremacy between discipline and antidiscipline, scientific materialism progresses.

The scientific viewpoint is not completely reductionist, however. In more complex interactions, emergent phenomena take place that cannot be explained by the underlying antidiscipline. Take haplodiploidy. In haplodiploidy, females choose the sex of the offspring. Because of this selection process, the insects which engage in haplodiploidy–wasps, bees, and ants–evolved the emergent phenomenon of complex social structures. Science, therefore, is not a danger to the humanities, but another tool to be used by the humanities in grappling with the question of human nature.

Chapter 2: Heredity

To develop and justify ways to structure human life, philosophers and social scientists have conducted thought experiments to see how man behaved without the trappings of culture. Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have all developed social models based on their mental reconstructions of hunter-gatherer life. Their models are mistaken because they did not take science into account.

Take incest taboos, for example. Anthropologists have built theories that find incest taboos exist because, without them, the integrity of the family unit would be broken. Other anthropologists, following Claude Lévi-Strauss, find that incest taboos facilitate the exchange of women between social groups. Sociobiology, grounded on science, finds that incest taboos exist because it is a behaviour bred into the genes of human behaviour. Incest produces inferior offspring. Humans who did not have the incest taboo were less successful at passing on their genes as humans who did have the incest taboo. That the incest taboo is an inherited behaviour can be seen in the kibbutz arrangement of living: despite a lack of pressure from parents, children who have grown up together up to the age of six will not marry one another.

Sociobiology is defined by Wilson as a meeting between ethology, psychology, and biology. It considers behaviour to be encoded into the genes. As a result, humans, in the building of culture, are not unique. We are much like colony forming invertebrates (e.g. coral, bryozoans), social insects (termites, wasps, bees, ants), and social fish, birds, and mammals. Sociobiologists look at humanity as through a telescope and consider behaviour to arise from the interaction between genes and the environment. Human behaviour is shaped by natural selection and is not unique. It is no longer possible to say only human behaviour is symbolic behaviour; chimpanzees can also use symbolic language.

While proponents of culture argue that, for the last 5000 years (since the rise of civilization), culture rather than genetics has determined human behaviour, Wilson points out culture can only bend biology so far. Things would go badly quickly, for example, if culture prescribed that humans lived like apes or ants. Humans, for example, have the following characteristics that are irrevocable: “Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, etc.,” while ants exhibit the following behaviours: “Age-grading, antennal rites, body licking, calendar, cannibalism, caste determination, caste laws, colony-foundation rules, communal nurseries, etc.,” Wilson’s bottom line is that culture moves between the parameters set by genetics. Culture can prescribe unhuman behaviour, but it will be short lived. Biology is destiny.

Chapter 3: Development

In the debunked theory of humorism, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between the four humours of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. In sociobiology, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between more than 250 thousand pairs of genes. Genetic determinism is the new phrase of sociobiology.

Geneticist Conrad H. Waddington has an image of how genes develop into behavior. Each human trait, whether mental or physical, is like a boulder rolling down from the highlands to the sea. On the way down are many anastomosing channels that fork. Genes make some of the channels deeper, others narrower. Some channels are available, others are not. The final outcome of where the boulder or ball lands is only statistically predictable.

We like to think of human learning as infinite. Biology, however, tells us that our learning potential is programmed by the structure of the brain: we are allowed to learn some things, but not other things. An example: when a chick is given an electric shock on the beak and shown a flash of light, the chick will avoid the flash of light in the future. When a chick, however, is given an electric shock on the beak and hears a clicking sound at the same time, the chick will not avoid the clicking sound in the future. This same chick, if given an electric shock on the foot and a clicking sound, will avoid the clicking sound in the future. But, if given an electric shock on the foot and a flash of light, will not avoid the flash of light in the future. The chick’s brain tells the chick: learn the things that you can see that affect your head and the things that you can hear that affect your feet. Humans are more advanced than chicks, but our ability is not limitless.

Chapter 4: Emergence

Free will may be delusion. A honeybee, in a life of 50 days, thinks it has free will by learning the time of day, the location of the hive, the location of up to five fields, and the odour of its nestmates. But in doing all these things, it is only carrying out its genetic imperative. The human brain, even though “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern,” can only do what it has been programmed to do. In future years, the paradox of freedom and free will will be solved as an empirical problem by biologists and physicists.

Wilson uses the failure of slavery to demonstrate the triumph of human biology. In insect societies–such as the red Polyergus ants–slavery is a permanent fixture. Humans, however, resist slavery so that slave societies always come to an end. Unlike the ants, humans lack a biological basis for slavery. Slavery is imposed on human beings as part of culture. Culture, however, can only overcome biology for so long before biology reasserts itself.

Further evidence of a biological basis for culture can be seen in the rise of the different civilizations: Rome, Sumer, Mesoamerica, etc., All civilizations follow a template of development from ad hoc ritual, and local group autonomy through to craft specialization and elite endogamy to codified law and taxation. Wilson suggests the template of development is due to culture and civilization refining biology through a process of an intense hypertrophy biologically meaningful institutions of hunter-gatherer bands.

Chapter 5: Aggression

This is the first of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens. Wilson finds that theoreticians who find that culture–and not the genes–is to blame for aggression are mistaken. By looking at human beings through the principles of animal ecology, a form of studies usually reserved for lower animals, it appears that the best way to human aggression as a mix of chemicals preexisting in the human mind that, mixed with the appropriate spark, will burn. This sociobiological view of aggression differs from other models of aggression such as the “drive-discharge” model of Freud and Lorenz or the “learned anger” model of blank-slate behaviourists.

Just because a trait fails to develop in a specific environment does not mean the trait is not intrinsic to a species. In other words, that a handful of tribes are pacifist does not mean that human beings are not innately aggressive. The right environmental trigger must be present to activate human aggression, which can take many forms. Wilson uses the simpler example of the rattlesnake to demonstrate different types of rattlesnake aggression that only occur when triggered by the environment. Rattlesnakes, when going after prey, will bite them and kill them. But when male rattlesnakes compete with one another over a female, they will wrestle, but not bite one another, even though their venom would be lethal. At other times, when the rattlesnake may be in danger, it will take on a different form of aggression by moving its head to the centre of the coil in striking position, and shaking its rattle. Then again, when a rattlesnake encounters a king snake or another predator that specializes in killing snakes, the rattlesnake will coil, cover its head, and bat the intruder with one of its coils. Human beings are the same, writes Wilson. They will become aggressive when confronted with the appropriate situation.

Wilson goes on to examine a particular aspect of human aggression associated with territorial behaviour. He finds that, if humans inhabit an arid land where game and plant food are poor, society will remain nomadic. No bands or villages form. No concept of land ownership develops. Territorial aggression is absent. The Western Shoshoni living in the Great Basin is an example of this. In contrast, however, the Owens Valley Paiute occupied a fertile land full of game and plant food. Here, the territory is worth defending, and the people living here organized into villages and bands. Social and religious sanctions rose up to justify territorial aggression.

Wilson finds that, although the genes encode aggression, the conscious mind never experiences the raw biological process. In territorial aggression, for example, the conscious mind does not process interference competition, density dependence, or human and animal demography. The raw biological process, however, manifests itself through the creation of social and religious customs which justify the raw biological drive of aggression.

Chapter 6: Sex

This is the second of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens.  Why has sex evolved if it can be made private, direct, safe, energetically cheap, and selfish? Nature’s point of sex, argues Wilson, is to create diversity and a division of labour. Diversity is achieved through sex because each offspring only shares half of the genes of each of the creating organisms. Division of labour is achieved when one of the sexes specializes in producing sperm and the other the egg. Wilson speculates that, from this primal division of labour, secondary traits emerged such as sexual bonding and family stability which gave homo sapiens a Darwinian advantage. Secondary or tertiary divisions of labour may be seen in both modern societies and living hunter-gatherer societies. As typical, Wilson emphasizes the biological and evolutionary differences in sex over cultural differences: in sociobiological theory, culture may only move between the imperatives laid down by biology.

Wilson cites evidence of genetic differences in male and female behaviour in contemporary society while admitting that such differences (though he believes unlikely) may be cultural. His strongest argument is the evidence from the accidental birth of hormone-induced hermaphrodites in the 1950s. In the 1950s, women were often given progestins, a substance that mimics male hormones, to prevent miscarriage. The hermaphrodites born to some of these women are genetically female with female internal sex organs. These hermaphrodites were also raised in the normal manner that girls were raised. Subsequent studies of these progestin-altered girls reveal that they often displayed dissatisfaction with being assigned a female role and preferred toy guns to dolls. Wilson takes this as the best evidence he can find that male and female behaviour have a biological rather than a cultural origin.

Wilson finds that human beings are connoisseurs of sexual pleasure not for the sake of reproduction, but for the sake of bonding. Bonding, to Wilson, is a trait that gives humans an evolutionary leg up. Natural-law theory and the church, which see sex as strictly a tool of procreation, is incorrect. To argue that sex is for the sake of bonding, Wilson presents a “kin-selection” hypothesis to explain homosexuality in the context of sociobiology. He postulates that the behaviour of homosexuality has a biological basis as it is practised by insects to mammals, with 4 percent of men identifying as exclusively homosexual and 13 percent of men being predominantly homosexual for a portion of their lives. Homosexuality, argues Wilson, is a type of bonding that favours the surrounding kin. Homosexuals expend their energies supporting their kin group. Shamans, seers, artists, and similar have been observed to perform this role. Kin groups, therefore, with homosexual individuals had an evolutionary advantage over kin groups without homosexual specialists. Wilson notes that this kin-selection hypothesis is quite radical.

Chapter 7: Altruism

Altruism or compassion is Wilson’s third chapter on the sociobiological basis of human emotions. Robins, chimpanzees, and other animals display the behaviour of altruism that is the glue of society. Only insects, however, will perform heroic feats of altruistic suicide that is often performed by soldiers in war. While the form and content of human altruism is largely determined by culture, the underlying emotion is evolved through genes. Wilson proposes two types of altruism: “hard-core” altruism which is irrational, directed towards the kin group, and expects nothing in return and “soft-core” altruism which is calculating, expects a return, and, ultimately, selfish.

In honey bees and termites, hard-core altruism prevails. But, if hard-core altruism were to prevail in human societies, civilization could not develop: people would favour kin and tribe to too large a degree. Hard-core altruism is inimical to larger society. For social harmony and homeostasis, soft-core altruism is required. Wilson argues that the closest we can come to a controlled experiment on where human altruism lies on the spectrum between hard- and soft-core is by observing immigrating ethnic groups under stress. Studies of Chinese and Jewish immigrations suggest that: 1) when historical circumstances bring race, class, and ethnic membership into conflict, the individual manoeuvres to achieve the least amount of conflict, 2) during these conflicts, an individual considers his own interests over others, and 3) kin, racial, or ethnic interests may prevail temporarily, but in the long run it is socioeconomic interests that dictate action.

The behaviour of altruism, concludes Wilson, though linked to morality and inscribed into moral codes, is a genetic phenomenon. Though culture can prescribe higher ethical values, culture is on the long rein of biology. Altruism, at bottom, is part of a circuitous process created by evolution to keep genetic material intact and to pass genetic material on to new generations. “Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function,” says Wilson as he ends the chapter.

Chapter 8: Religion

Religion is Wilson’s fourth chapter on the sociological basis of human behaviours. Religion to Wilson is an ineradicable part of human behaviour. Even though religion loses out in its confrontations with the enlightenment and scientific materialism, it offers a hope in immortality and an everlasting kingdom that nothing else can offer. From at least 60,000 years ago to the first Neanderthal burial rites, humans have created in the order of 100,000 different religions.

That religion is a sociobiological phenomenon may be seen in Nietzsche’s quote that people would rather believe in the void than be void of purpose. Groups predisposed to religious belief may have a better chance of survival as religion is the process whereby an individual is persuaded to subordinate self for group interest. Religious ceremonies such as the potlatch are conspicuous displays in which leaders can advertise wealth and mobilize kin groups.

Humans today are still ruled by myth. The three primary myths in conflict in this day and age, writes Wilson are: traditional religion, scientific materialism, and Marxism. Although Marxism sees itself as a branch of scientific materialism, sociobiology would disagree. The Marxist perception of history as a class struggle whereby lightly governed workers would control the means of production is supposed to be based on a subtle understanding of the pure economic process. It is incorrect. It is based on a mistaken view of human nature. Wilson declares that Marxism is sociobiology without the biology. Although Marxism was founded to combat ignorance and superstition, in denying the biological basis of human nature and asserting too much credit to culture, Marxism is itself, in the end, a form of superstition. Wilson finds that, on account of this, traditional religion will outlast Marxism.

Chapter 9: Hope

Biology, neurobiology, and sociobiology are the antidisciplines to the social sciences. The failure of social sciences great models (Marxism, rationalist economics, etc.,) is because they had an insufficient knowledge of human nature. The way to understand human nature is through biology. The great myth of scientific materialism is evolution and the pinnacle of evolution is the human brain.

Human values must be understood through their phylogenetic development through evolution.  What we may value as our highest ideals may not be the ideals of other organisms: ants, for example, would view individual freedom as a great evil.

Since behaviour is based in genetics, with the unlocking of genetics, it will be possible one day to change human nature itself. We will be able to become more or less smart, more or less caring, more or less artistic, more or less selfish. So far, natural evolution keeps human nature in a homeostasis. Soon we can evolve our own human natures. Will we continue to build space age cultures from stone age behavious? Or will we give ourselves new space age behaviours to suit space age society? These are all the worthwhile questions to ask.

Book Blurb

In his new preface, E. O. Wilson reflects on how he came to write this book, how The Insect Societies led him to write Sociobiology, and how the political and religious uproar that engulfed that book persuaded him to write another book that would better explain the relevance of biology to the understanding of human behavior.

Author Blurb

Edward O. Wilson is Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard University. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (one of which he shares with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson has won many scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of many books, including Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus.

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil