»  Taki's Magazine

April 26, 2010

  The Rest is Biology


British comedienne Catherine Tate did a very funny sketch with Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond actor. In the sketch she is a dimwitted, over-the-hill 36-year old who has hooked up with Craig through an internet dating service. The main joke is that Craig is besotted with her, and has moved in with her, while she is much cooler on him. ("I was hoping for someone slightly better looking, but …") The secondary joke is that she is so clueless, she doesn't know who Craig is. ("He says he's an actor, but I've never heard of him … I think he works at Carphone warehouse …"). You can see the sketch here.

After telling the "interviewer" how she and Craig first got in touch, the lexically-challenged Tate character adds: "The rest, as they say, is biology." Realising she has used the wrong school subject, she pauses to rethink, then corrects herself: "History."

The joke there is of course that we were with her the first time. If an initial encounter turns into a love affair, the rest is biology, or at least an important part of it is.

So is a lot of other stuff. The Tate-Craig sketch came to mind when I was reading this piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day.

In 1900, David Hilbert produced a set of 23 problems that established an agenda for research in mathematics over the ensuing decades.

So he did. The event is dear to my heart: I got a book out of one of those problems. But where's the Journal going with this?

Last Saturday, Harvard hosted a conference on "Hard Problems in Social Science," sponsored by the Indira Foundation, that was explicitly inspired by Hilbert's legacy. Twelve leading social scientists from a variety of fields and institutions were given 15 minutes each to present whatever hard problems they liked.

Seems like a neat idea. What'd they come up with?

I have to confess that my attention wandered somewhat here. Twelve 15-minute presentations makes three hours. That's a lot of lecturing to sit through when your college days are three or four decades behind you. Some of the topics are more accessible than others; some of the presenters are more watchable than others. What follows is therefore inexact and impressionistic. You can view the whole thing yourself here.

As a thumbnail (can you have a three-hour thumbnail?) sketch of the current state of the social sciences, this symposium was informative. Most informative of all, though, was to see how little biology was there, once Christakis was through. The Standard Social Science Model, a.k.a. the "blank slate," is still going strong.

Take Prof. Goldin's topic: Why do sex differences in economic outcomes exist? I liked her presentation, and I'm sure she's got a lot of the answer covered. Might not some of it, though, be a matter of women being less aggressive, less ambitious than men, for merely biochemical — hormonal — reasons? And why are economic outcomes the focus? After all, they're not life and death, like this "gender" difference.

Come on, social scientists. There are some good minds there, doing good quantitative work. When you've measured all the environmental variables, though, and crunched the numbers — ranked, sorted, histogrammed, and correlated them — and there's still an explanatory gap, what's left? The rest is biology.

Meanwhile, here's my hard problem in social science: Can a pure meritocracy be stable?