Saturday, October 27, 2007

Do You Believe in Sociobiology and Law? -- Chapter 3; "Immediate Deadly Intent" and Paul Ekman's System of Facial Coding

Ian Hacking, How Shall We Repaint the Kitchen?, London Review of Books (November 1, 2007) (reviewing Cognitive Variations: Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind by G.E.R. Lloyd):
Once the cognitive revolution wrought by Chomsky was under way, nurture came tumbling down. The present imperative to find genes for absolutely everything reinforces the imbalance. Evolutionary psychology now propounds imaginative explanations of things that we do as adaptations acquired in our prehistoric past, while Chomsky has become an old fogey, complaining that we do not know enough about the brain, or about early human beings and their environment, to speculate on evolutionary pressures. (I agree.) But the turn to innate cognitive structures as opposed to socially acquired habits owes more to him than anyone else.


... Now universal emotions have returned with a vengeance. Paul Ekman led the charge, in parallel to but independently of Chomsky’s cognitive revolution. After doing clinical work on emotions and the body, and a stint as a US army psychologist, he travelled to New Guinea to see for himself, and made observations opposite to those of his predecessors. His conclusions are much like Darwin’s. They are now being enormously bolstered by brain research. At least this much is known for sure: one of the oldest parts of the human brain, the amygdala, is activated by immediate fear, and that is a fact about nature, not nurture, for everyone on the planet.

This is not an academic issue. ... The War on Terror supports research to design computer programs based on Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System, which will pick out in passenger queues the faces of people planning to blow up planes; Ekman’s personal website lists a project aimed at detecting expressions of IDI – Immediate Deadly Intent. He also plans to process pixels in order to expose a demeanour that betrays ‘lies about the intent to commit a harmful act’. Very roughly speaking, much of the cognitive science community thinks this approach is right on, even if IDI is taking things too far. Some anthropologists think it is nuts, megalomaniac.

Nurture did not stay tumbled down for long. All sorts of pressing criticisms of nature began to emerge. The debate now infects every branch of the human sciences. Nature may still be winning, for the moment, almost everywhere, but much less is settled than one might have expected. ...

P. Tillers on Ekman:
If you look at me crossly -- animal-like, as it were --, I will infer hostile intent. I may even arrest and imprison you -- to prevent a deadly attack. And I have a facial chart in my hip pocket to back me up.
I must confess that this sort of stuff -- stuff like Paul Ekman's IDI, that is -- strikes me as absurd; it strikes me as not much better than phrenology. See P. Tillers, Unnatural Lie Detectors (Feb. 5, 2006). It would strike me as even more absurd (and frightening) to find that people in Homeland Security really take this sort of stuff seriously. (Rewrites, or updating, of 1984 and Brave New World seem to be called for -- this time with a narrative that emphasizes the dangers of government reliance on shoddy science.)
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