Small Is Beautiful—Or At Least, Weird

… among small groups there will be greater variation …
—Howard Wainer and Harris Zwerling.
The central concept of allopatric speciation is that new species can arise only when a small local population becomes isolated at the margin of the geographic range of its parent species.
—Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge.
If you flipped a coin a thousand times, you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times.
—Michael Lewis. 

No humanist intellectual today is a “reductionist.” To Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé for example, when the great biologist E.O. Wilson speculated—in 1998’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge—that “someday … even the disciplines of literary criticism and art history will find their true foundation in physics and chemistry,” Wilson’s claim was (Bérubé wrote) “almost self-parodic.” Nevertheless, despite the withering disdain of English professors and such, examples of reductionism abound: in 2002, journalist Malcolm Gladwell noticed that a then-recent book—Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies—argued that French Impressionism, German Idealism, and Chinese neo-Confucianism, among other artistic and philosophic movements, could all be understood by the psychological principle that “clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own.” Collins’ claim, of course, is sure to call down the scorn of professors of the humanities like Bérubé for ignoring what literary critic Victor Shklovsky might have called the “stoniness of the stone”; i.e., the specificity of each movement’s work in its context, and so on. Yet from a political point of view (and despite both the bombastic claims of certain “leftist” professors of the humanities and their supposed political opponents) the real issue with Collins’ (and Gladwell’s) “reductionism” is not that they attempt to reduce complex artistic and philosophic movements to psychology—nor even, as I will show, to biology. Instead, the difficulty is that Collins (and Gladwell) do not reduce them to mathematics.  

Yet, to say that neo-Confucianism (or, to cite one of Gladwell’s examples, Saturday Night Live) can be reduced to mathematics first begs the question of what it means to “reduce” one sort of discourse to another—a question still largely governed, Kenneth Schaffner wrote in 2012, by Ernest Nagel’s “largely unchanging and immensely influential analysis of reduction.” According to Nagel’s 1961 The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation, a “reduction is effected when the experimental laws of the secondary science … are shown to be the logical consequences of the theoretical assumptions … of the primary science.” Gladwell for example, discussing “the Lunar Society”—which included Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles), James Watt (inventor of the steam engine), Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery maker), and Joseph Priestly (who isolated oxygen)—says that this group’s activities bears all “the hallmarks of group distortion”: someone proposes “an ambitious plan for canals, and someone else tries to top that [with] a really big soap factory, and in that feverish atmosphere someone else decides to top them all with the idea that what they should really be doing is fighting slavery.” In other words, to Gladwell the group’s activities can be explained not by reference to the intricacies of thermodynamics or chemistry, nor even the political difficulties of the British abolitionist movement—or even the process of heating clay. Instead, the actions of the Lunar Society can be understood in somewhat the same fashion that, in bicycle racing, the peloton (which is not as limited by wind resistance) can reach speeds no single rider could by himself. 

Yet, if it is so that the principle of group psychology explains, for instance, the rise of chemistry as a discipline, it‘s hard to see why Gladwell should stop there. Where Gladwell uses a psychological law to explain the “Blues Brothers” or “Coneheads,” in other words, the late Harvard professor of paleontology Stephen Jay Gould might have cited a law of biology: specifically, the theory of “punctuated equilibrium”—a theory that Gould, along with his colleague Niles Eldredge, first advanced in 1972. The theory that the two proposed in “Punctuated Equilibria: an Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism” could, thereby, be used to explain the rise of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players as equally well as the psychological theory Gladwell advances.    

In that early 1970s paper, the two biologists attacked the reigning idea of how new species begin: what they called the “picture of phyletic gradualism.” In the view of that theory, Eldredge and Gould  wrote, new “species arise by the transformation of an ancestral population into its modified descendants.” Phyletic gradualism thusly answers the question of why dinosaurs went extinct by replying that they didn’t: dinosaurs are just birds now. More technically, under this theory the change from one species to another is a transformation that “is even and slow”; engages “usually the entire ancestral population”; and “occurs over all or a large part of the ancestral species’ geographic range.” For nearly a century after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, this was how biologists understood the creation of new species. To Gould and Eldredge however that view simply was not in accordance with how speciation usually occurs. 

Instead of ancestor species gradually becoming descendant species, they argued that new species are created by a process they called “the allopatric theory of speciation”—a theory that might explain how Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right and Chevy Chase’s imitation of Gerald Ford could be produced by the same phenomena. Like Gladwell’s use of group psychology (which depends on the competition within a set of people who all know each other), where “phyletic gradualism” thinks that speciation occurs over a wide area to a large population, the allopatric theory thinks that speciation occurs in a narrow range to a small population: “The central concept of allopatric speciation,” Gould and Eldredge wrote, “is that new species can arise only when a small local population becomes isolated at the margin of the geographic range of its parent species.” Gould described this process for a non-professional audience in his essay, “The Golden Rule: A Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis,” from his 1982 book, Eight Little Piggies: Reflections on Natural History—a book that perhaps demonstrates just how considerations of biological laws might show why John Belushi’s “Samurai Chef,” or Gilda Radner’s “Roseanne Rosannadanna” succeeded. 

The Pinaleno Mountains, in New Mexico, house a population of squirrel called the Mount Graham Red Squirrel, which “is isolated from all other populations and forms the southernmost extreme of the species’s range.” The Mount Graham subspecies can survive in those mountains despite being so far south of the rest of its species because the Pinalenos are “‘sky islands,’” as Gould calls them: “patches of more northern microclimate surrounded by southern desert.” It’s in such isolated places, the theory of allopatric speciation holds, that new species develop: because the Pinalenos are “a junction of two biogeographic provinces” (the Nearctic “by way of the Colorado Plateau“ and the Neotropical “via the Mexican Plateau”), they are a space where new kinds of selection pressures can work upon a subpopulation than are available on the home range, and therefore places where subspecies can make the kinds of evolutionary “leaps” that can allow such new populations, after success in such “nurseries,” to return to the original species’ home range and replace the ancestral species. Such a replacement, of course, does not involve the entire previous population, nor does it occur over the entire ancestral range, nor is it even and slow, as the phyletic gradualist theory would suggest.

The application to the phenomena considered by Gladwell then is fairly simple. What was happening at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City in the autumn of 1975 might not have been an example of “group psychology” at work, but instead an instance where a small population worked at the margins of two older comedic provinces: the new improvisational space created by such troupes as Chicago’s Second City, and the older tradition of live television created by such shows as I Love Lucy and Your Show of Shows. The features of the new form thereby forged under the influence of these pressures led, ultimately, to the extinction of older forms of television comedy like the standard three-camera situation comedy, and the eventual rise of single-camera shows like Seinfeld and The Office. Or so, at least, it can be imagined that the story might be told, rather than in the form of Gladwell’s idea of group psychology. 

Yet, it isn’t simply possible to explain a comedic phenomenon or a painting movement in terms of group psychology, instead of the terms familiar to scholars of the humanities—or even, one step downwards in the explanatory hierarchy, in terms of biology instead of psychology. That’s because, as the work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky suggests, there is something odd, mathematically, about small groups like subspecies—or comedy troupes. That “something odd” is this: they’re small. Being small has (the two pointed out in their 1971 paper, “Belief in the Law of Large Numbers”) certain mathematical consequences—and, perhaps oddly, those consequences may help to explain something about the success of Saturday Night Live. 

That’s anyway the point the two psychologists explored in their 1971 paper, “Belief in the Law of Large Numbers”—a paper whose message would, perhaps oddly, later be usefully summarized by Gould in a 1983 essay, “Glow, Big Glowworm”: “Random arrays always include some clumping … just as we will flip several heads in a row quite often so long as we can make enough tosses.” Or—as James Forbes of Edinburgh University noted in 1850—it would be absurd to expect to find “on 1000 throws [of a fair coin] there should be exactly 500 heads and 500 tails.” (In fact, as Forbes went on to remark, there’s less than a 3 percent chance of getting such a result.) But human beings do not usually realize that reality: in “Belief,” Kahneman and Tversky reported G.S. Tune’s 1964 study that found that when people “are instructed to generate a random sequence of hypothetical tosses of a fair coin … they produce sequences where the proportion of heads in any short segment stays far closer to .50 than the laws of chance would predict.” “We assume”—as Atul Gawande summarized the point of “Belief” for the New Yorker in 1998—“that a sequence of R-R-R-R-R-R is somehow less random than, say, R-R-B-R-B-B,” while in reality “the two sequences are equally likely.” Human beings find it difficult to understand true randomness—which may be why it may be so difficult to see how this law of probability might apply to, say, the Blues Brothers.

Yet, what the two psychologists were addressing in “Belief” was the idea expressed by statisticians Howard Wainer and Harris Zwerling in a 2006 article later cited by Kahneman in his recent bestseller, Thinking: Fast and Slow: the statistical law that “among small groups there will be greater variation.” In their 2006 piece, Wainer and Zwerling illustrated the point by observing that, for example, the lowest-population counties in the United States tend to have the highest kidney cancer rates per capita, or the smallest schools disproportionately appear on lists of the best-performing schools. What they mean is that a “county with, say, 100 inhabitants that has no cancer deaths would be in the lowest category” of kidney cancer rates—but “if it has one cancer death it would be among the highest”—while similarly, examining the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment for 2001-02 found “that, of the 50 top-scoring schools (the top 3%), six of them were among the 50 smallest schools (the smallest 3%),” which is “an overrepresentation by a factor of four.” “When the population is small,” they concluded, “there is wide variation”—but when “populations are large … there is very little variation.” Or, it may not be that small groups push each member to achieve more, it’s that small groups of people tend to have high amounts of variation, and (every so often) one of those groups varies so much that somebody invents the discipline of chemistry—or invent the Festrunk Brothers.

The $64,000 question, from this point of view, isn’t the groups that created a new way of painting—but instead all of the groups that nobody has ever heard of that tried, but failed, to invent something new. Yet as a humanist intellectual like Bérubé would surely point out, to investigate this question in this way is to miss nearly everything about Impressionism (or the Land Shark) that makes it interesting. Which, perhaps, is so—but then again, isn’t the fact that such widely scattered actions and organisms can be united under one theoretical lens interesting? Taken far enough, what matters to Bérubé is the individual peculiarities of everything in existence—an idea that recalls what Jorge Luis Borges once described as John Locke’s notion of “an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name.” To think of Bill Murray in the same frame as a New Mexican squirrel is, admittedly, to miss the smell of New York City at dawn on a Sunday morning after a show the night before—but it also involves a gain, and one that is applicable to many other situations besides the appreciation of the hard work of comedic actors. Although many in the humanities then like to attack what they call reductionism for its “anti-intellectual” tendencies, it’s well-known that a large enough group of trees constitutes more than a collection of individual plants. There is, I seem to recall, some kind of saying about it.  


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