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  • More Egg on Pinker’s Face: E. O. Wilson’s “The Origins of Creativity”

    Posted on March 12th, 2018 Helian No comments

    If you’re expecting a philosophical epiphany, E. O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity isn’t for you. His theme is that science and the humanities can form a grandiose union leading to a “third enlightenment” if only scholars in the humanities would come up to speed with advances in the sciences via “thorough application of five disciplines – paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.”  Good luck with that.  We can smile and nod as the old man rambles on about his latest grand, intellectual scheme, though.  He isn’t great because of such brainstorms.  He’s great because he combines courage and common sense with an ability to identify questions that are really worth asking.  That’s what you’ll discover if you read his books, and that’s why they’re well worth reading.  You might even say he’s succeeded in realizing his own dream to some extent, because reading Wilson is like reading a good novel.  You constantly run across anecdotes about interesting people, tips about unfamiliar authors who had important things to say, and thought provoking comments about the human condition.  For example, in “The Origins of Creativity” you’ll find a portrayal of the status games played by Harvard professors, his take on why he thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, his reasons for asserting that, when it comes to the important questions facing humanity, “the grail to be sought is the nature of consciousness, and how it originated,” and some interesting autobiographical comments to boot.

    Those who love to explore the little ironies of history will also find some interesting nuggets in Wilson’s latest. The history I’m referring to is, of course, that of the Blank Slate.  For those who haven’t heard of it, it was probably the greatest perversion of science of all time.  For more than half a century, a rigid orthodoxy was imposed on the behavioral sciences according to which there is no such thing as human nature, that at birth our minds are “blank slates,” and that all human behavior is learned.  This dogma, transparently ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child, has always been attractive to those whose tastes run to utopian schemes that require human behavior to be a great deal more “malleable” than it actually is.  Communism, fashionable during the heyday of the Blank Slate, is a case in point.

    Where does Wilson fit in?  Well, in 1975, he published Sociobiology, in a couple of chapters of which he suggested that there may actually be such a thing as human nature, and it may actually be important.  In doing so he became the first important member of the academic tribe to break ranks with the prevailing orthodoxy.  By that time, however, the Blank Slate had already long been brilliantly debunked and rendered a laughing stock among intelligent lay people by an outsider; a man named Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey wrote a series of books on the subject beginning with African Genesis in 1961.  He had been seconded by other authors, such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  Eventually, the behavioral “scientists” were forced to throw in the towel and jettison the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  However, it was much to humiliating for them to admit the truth – that they had all been exposed as charlatans by Ardrey, a man who had spent much of his life as a “mere playwright.”  Instead, they anointed Wilson, a member of their own tribe, as the great hero who had demolished the Blank Slate.  This grotesque imposture was enshrined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which now passes as the official “history” of the affair.

    Where does the irony come in?  Well, Pinker needed some plausible reason to ignore Ardrey.  The deed was done crudely enough.  He simply declared that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” based on the authority of a comment to that effect in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In the process, he didn’t mention exactly what it was that Ardrey was supposed to have been “totally and utterly wrong” about.  After all, to all appearances the man had been “totally and utterly” vindicated.  As it happens, Dawkins never took issue with the main theme of all of Ardrey’s books; that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important and essential to understanding the human condition.  He merely asserted in a single paragraph of the book that Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been wrong in endorsing group selection, the notion that natural selection can operate at the level of the group as well as of the individual or gene.  In other words, Pinker’s whole, shabby rationale for dismissing Ardrey was based on his support for group selection, an issue that was entirely peripheral to the overall theme of all Ardrey’s work.  Now for the irony – in his last three books, including his latest, Wilson has come out unabashedly and whole heartedly in favor of (you guessed it) group selection!

    In The Origins of Creativity Wilson seems to be doing his very best to rub salt in the wound.  In his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey had elaborated on the theory, also set forth in all his previous books, that the transition from ape to man had been catalyzed by increased dependence on hunting and meat eating.  The Blank Slaters long insisted that early man had never been guilty of such “aggressive” behavior, and that if he had touched meat at all, it must have been acquired by scavenging.  They furiously attacked Ardrey for daring to suggest that he had hunted.  If you watch the PBS documentary on the recent discovery of the remains of Homo naledi, you’ll see that the ancient diehards among them have never given up this dogma.  They insist that Homo naledi was a vegetarian even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one had even contended that he wasn’t, going so far as to actually call out the “unperson” Ardrey by name.  The realization that they were still so bitter after all these years brought a smile to my face.  What really set them off was Ardrey’s support for a theory first proposed by Raymond Dart that hunting had actually begun very early, in the pre-human species Australopithecus africanus. Well, if they were still mad at Ardrey, they’ll be livid when they read what Wilson has to say on the subject in his latest, such as,

    By a widespread consensus, the scenario drawn by scientists thus far begins with the shift by one of the African australopiths away from a vegetarian diet to one rich in cooked meat.  The event was not a casual change as in choosing from a menu, nor was it a mere re-wiring of the palate.  Rather the change was a full hereditary makeover in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.


    This theoretical reconstruction has gained traction from fossil remains and the lifestyles of contemporary hunter-gatherers.  Meat from larger prey was shared, as it is by wolves, African wild dogs, and lions.  Given, in addition, the relatively high degree of intelligence possessed by large, ground-dwelling primates in general, the stage was then set in prehuman evolution for an unprecedented degree of cooperation and division of labor.

    Here, Wilson almost seems to be channeling Ardrey.  But wait, there’s more.  This one is for the real historical connoisseurs out there.  As noted above, in the bit from The Selfish Gene Pinker used for his clumsy attempt to airbrush Ardrey out of history, Dawkins condemned two others for the sin of supporting group selection as well; Konrad Lorenz and Austrian ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  I suspect Lorenz was a bit too close to Ardrey for comfort, as the two were often condemned by the Blank Slaters in the same breath, but, sure enough, Eibl-Eibesfeldt makes a couple of cameo appearances in Wilson’s latest book!  For example, in chapter 12,

    During his classic field research in the 1960s, the German anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt demonstrated in minute detail that people in all societies, from primitive and preliterate to modern and urbanized, use the same wide range of paralinguistic signals.  These entail mostly facial expressions, denoting variously fear, pleasure, surprise, horror, and disgust.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt lived with his subjects and further, to avoid self-conscious behavior, filmed them in their daily lives with a right-angle lens, by which the subject is made to think that the camera is pointed elsewhere.  His general conclusion was that paralinguistic signals are hereditary traits shared by the whole of humanity.

    Brilliant, but according to Pinker this, too, must be “totally and utterly wrong,” since Eibl-Eibesfeldt is mentioned in the very same sentence in Dawkins’ book that he used to redact Ardrey from history!  At least it’s nice to see this bit of vindication for at least one of Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” trio.  I suspect Wilson is perfectly well aware of the dubious nature of Pinker’s “history,” but I doubt if he will ever have anything to say about Lorenz, not to mention Ardrey.  He has too much interest in preserving his own legacy for that.  I can’t really blame a man his age for wanting to go down in history as the heroic knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He actually tries to push the envelope a bit in his latest with comments like,

    At first thought, this concept of kin selection, extended beyond nepotism to cooperation and altruism within an entire group, appears to have considerable merit.  I said so when I first synthesized the discipline of sociobiology in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet it is deeply flawed.

    During Ardrey’s day, the scientific discipline most often associated in the lay vernacular with resistance to the Blank Slate was ethology.  A few years after Wilson published his book with that title in 1975, it became sociobiology.  Now evolutionary psychology has displaced both of them.  I’m not sure what Wilson means by “sociobiology” here, but I’ve never seen anything he published prior to 1975 that comes close to being a forthright defense of the existence and importance of human nature.  Ardrey and others had published pretty much everything of real significance he had to say on the subject more than a decade earlier.

    Be that as it may, I have no reservations about recommending “The Origins of Creativity” to my readers.  True, I’m a bit skeptical about his latest project for a grand unification of science and the humanities, and the book is really little more than a pamphlet.  For all that, reading him is like having a pleasant conversation with someone who is very wise about the ways of the world, knows about the questions that are important for us to ask, and can tell you a lot of things that are worth knowing.

  • On the Purpose of Life

    Posted on January 29th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

    There is no purpose to your life other than the purpose you choose to give it.

    Is your goal the brotherhood of all mankind?  Is your goal human flourishing?  Is your goal a just and democratic society?  Is your goal to serve some God or gods?  The first cause of all of these goals, and any others you can think of, may be found in innate emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  They did not evolve for a purpose.  They exist because at some time that was likely quite different from the present, they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  They are the foundation that gives rise to every single human aspiration, no matter how noble or sublime that aspiration is imagined to be.

    There is no objective reason why the goals and aspirations of a Plato or a Kant are more worthy, more legitimate, or more morally good than the goals and purposes of a thief or a murderer.  In the end, every human being on the planet is merely seeking to satisfy emotional whims that he has interpreted or tried to make sense of in one way or another.  Any individual’s assumption that his goals are intrinsically superior to or more right and proper in themselves than the goals of others is a delusion.  The universe doesn’t care.

    What does that imply concerning what our goals should be, or what we really ought to do?  Nothing!  Nothing, that is, unless we are speaking of what some individual should do or ought to do to satisfy some idiosyncratic whim that cannot possibly be objectively more legitimate or praiseworthy than the whim of any other individual.

    How, then, do we choose what are goals and purposes will be.  After all, we will have them regardless, because it is our nature to have them.  In the end, all of us must decide for ourselves.  However, in choosing them I personally think it is useful to be aware of the above fundamental facts.  The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, chasing mirages, clueless as to what is really motivating us and why.  Again, purely from my personal point of view, that does not seem an attractive alternative.  Blind stumbling tends to be self-destructive, not to mention inconvenient to others.  I personally find it incongruous and disturbing to witness the spectacle of emotions and passions inspiring people to pursue ends that are the precise opposite of the ends that account for the existence of those emotions and passions to begin with.

    I personally pursue goals and purposes that seem to me in harmony with the fundamental reason that my goals and purposes exist to begin with.  In other words, my basic goal in life has been to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that, I seek first to promote the survival of my species, and beyond that the survival of biological life in general.  These goals seem noble and sublime enough to me personally.  Our very existence seems to me improbable and awe-inspiring.  Think of how complex and intelligent we are, and of all our highly developed senses and abilities.  Look in a mirror and consider the fact that a creature like you could have evolved from inanimate matter.  Think of the mind-boggling length of time it took for that to happen, and the conditions that were necessary for it to occur in the first place.  Stunning!  We are all final links in an unbroken chain of life that began with direct ancestors that existed billions of years ago.  There are millions of links in the chain, and all of those links succeeded in generating new links, so that the chain would remain unbroken through all that incredible gulf of time.  Under the circumstances, my personal purpose seems obvious to me.  Don’t break the chain!

    There is no objective reason why these purposes of mine are any more good, legitimate, or worthy than any alternatives whatsoever.  They are not intrinsically better than the purposes of an anti-natalist, a suicide bomber, or a celibate priest.  However, for personal reasons, I would prefer that, as others pursue their purposes, they at least be aware of what is actually motivating them.  It might lead them to consider whether blindly breaking the chain, destroying themselves and harming others in the process, is really a goal worth pursuing after all.

  • On Legitimizing Moral Laws: “Purpose” as a God Substitute

    Posted on January 14th, 2018 Helian 4 comments

    The mental traits responsible for moral behavior did not evolve because they happened to correspond to “universal moral truths.”  They evolved because they increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  The evolutionary origins of morality explain why we imagine the existence of “universal moral truths” to begin with.  We imagine that “moral truths” exist as objective things, independent of the minds that imagine them, because there was a selective advantage to perceiving them in that way.  Philosophers have long busied themselves with the futile task of “proving” that these figments of their imaginations really do exist just as they imagine them – as independent things.  Of course, even though they’ve been trying for thousands of years, they’ve never succeeded, for the very good reason that the things whose existence they’ve been trying to prove don’t exist.  No matter how powerfully our imaginations portray these illusions to us as real things, they remain illusions.

    God has always served as a convenient prop for objective morality.  It has always seemed plausible to many that, if God says something is morally good, it really is good.  Plato exposed the logical flaws of this claim in his Euthyphro.  However, such quibbles may be conveniently ignored by those who believe that the penalty for meddling with the logical basis of divine law is an eternity in hell.  They dispose of Plato by simply accepting without question the axiom that God is good.  If God is good, then his purposes must be good.  If, as claimed by the 18th century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, he endowed us with an innate moral sense, which serves as the fundamental source of morality, then he must have done it for a purpose.  Since that purpose is Godly, and therefore good in itself, moral rules that are true expressions of our God-given moral sense must be good in themselves as well. QED

    Unfortunately, there is no God, a fact that has become increasingly obvious over the years as the naturalistic explanations of the universe supplied by the advance of science have supplanted supernatural ones at an accelerating rate.  As a result, atheists already make up a large proportion of the population in many countries where threats of violence and ostracism are no longer effective props for the old religions.  However, most of these atheists haven’t yet succeeded in divorcing themselves from the spirit world.  They still believe that disembodied Goods and Evils hover about us in ghostly form, endowed with a magical power to dictate “right” behavior, not only to themselves, but to everyone else as well.

    The challenge these latter day moralists face, of course, is to supply an explanation of just how it is that the moral rules supplied by their vivid imaginations acquire the right to dictate behavior to the rest of us.  In view of the fact that, if one really believes in objective morality, independent of the subjective minds of individuals, one must also account for the recent disconcerting habit of the “moral law” to undergo drastic changes on an almost daily basis, this is no easy task.

    In fact, it is an impossible task, since the “objective” ghosts of Good and Evil exist no more in reality than does God.  However, there are powerful incentives to believe in these ghosts, just as there are powerful incentives to believe in God.  As a result, there has been no lack of trying.  One gambit in this direction, entitled Could Morality Have a Transcendent Evolved Purpose?, recently turned up at From Darwin to Eternity, one of the blogs hosted by Psychology Today.  According to the author, Michael Price, the “standard naturalistic conclusion” is that,

    It is hard to see how morality could ultimately serve any larger kind of purpose.  Conventional religions sidestep this problem, of course, by positing a supernatural purpose provider.  But that’s an unsatisfactory solution, if you wish to maintain a naturalistic worldview.

    Here it is important to notice an implied assumption that becomes increasingly obvious as we read further in the article.  The assumption is that, if we can successfully identify a “larger kind of purpose,” then the imagined good is somehow transformed into objective Good, and imagined evil into objective Evil.  There is no basis whatsoever for this assumption, regardless of where the “larger kind of purpose” comes from.  It is important to notice this disconnect, because Price apparently believes that, if morality can be shown to serve a “transcendent naturalistic purpose,” then it must thereby gain objective legitimacy and independent normative power.  He doesn’t say so explicitly, but if he doesn’t believe it, his article is pointless.  He goes on to claim that, according to the “conventional interpretation,” of those who accept the fact of evolution by natural selection,

    There can be no transcendent purpose, because no widely-understood natural process can generate such purpose. Transcendent purpose is a subject for religion, and maybe for philosophy, but not for science. That’s the standard naturalistic conclusion.

    I note in passing that, while this may be “the standard naturalistic conclusion,” it certainly hasn’t stopped the vast majority of its proponents from thinking and acting just as if they believed in objective morality.  I know of not a single exception among contemporary scientists or philosophers of any note, regardless of what their theories on the subject happen to be.  One can find artifacts in the writings or sayings of all of them that make no sense unless they believe in objective morality, regardless of what their philosophical theories on the subject happen to be.  Typically these artifacts take the form of assertions that some individual or group of individuals is morally good or evil, without any suggestion that the assertion is merely an opinion.  Such statements make no sense absent a belief in some objective Good, generally applicable to others besides themselves, and not merely an artifact of their subjective whims.  The innate illusion of objective Good has been too powerful for any of them to entirely free themselves of the fantasy.  Be that as it may, Price tells us that there is also an “unconventional interpretation.” He poses the rhetorical question,

    Could morality be “universal” in the sense that there is some transcendent moral purpose to human existence itself?… This is a tricky question because natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer “purpose” (moral or otherwise). It does so by generating “function,” which is essentially synonymous with “purpose”: the function/purpose of an eye, for example, is to see.

    Notice the quotation marks around “purpose” and “function” when they’re first used in this quote.  That’s as it should be, as the terms are only used in this context as a convenient form of shorthand.  They refer to the reasons that the characteristics in question happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, these shorthand terms should never be confused with a real function or purpose.  In the case of “purpose,” for example, consider the actual definition found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

    Purpose: 1: something set up as an object or end to be attained 2 : a subject under discussion or an action in course of execution

    Clearly, someone must be there to set up the object or end, or to discuss the subject.  In the case of evolution, no “someone” is there.  In other words, there is no purpose to evolution or its outcomes in the proper sense of the term.  However, if you look at the final sentence in the Price quote above, you’ll notice something odd has happened.  The quote marks have disappeared.  “Function/purpose” has suddenly become function/purpose!  One might charitably assume that Price is still using the terms in the same sense, and has simply neglected the quote marks.  If so, one would be assuming wrong.  A bit further on, the “purpose” that we saw change to purpose metastasizes again.  It is now not just a purpose, but a “transcendent naturalistic purpose!”  In Price’s words,

    I think the standard naturalistic conclusion is premature, however. There is one way in which transcendent naturalistic purpose could in fact exist.

    In the very next sentence, “transcendent naturalistic purpose” has completed the transformation from egg to butterfly, and becomes “transcendent moral purpose!” Again quoting Price,

    If selection is the only natural source of purpose, then transcendent moral purpose could exist if selection were operating at some level more fundamental than the biological.  Specifically, transcendent purpose would require a process of cosmological natural selection, with universes being selected from a multiverse based on their reproductive ability, and intelligence emerging (as a subroutine of cosmological evolution) as a higher-level adaptation for universe reproduction.  From this perspective, intelligent life (including its moral systems) would have a transcendent purpose: to eventually develop the sociopolitical and technical expertise that would enable it to cooperatively create new universes…  These ideas are highly speculative and may seem strange, especially if you haven’t heard them before.

    That’s for sure! In his conclusion Price gets a bit slippery about whether he personally buys into this extravagant word game. As he puts it,

    At any rate, my goal here is not to argue that these ideas are likely to be true, nor that they are likely to be false. I simply want to point out that if they’re false, then it seems like it must also be false – from a naturalistic perspective, at least – that morality could have any transcendent purpose.

    This implies that Price accepts the idea that, if “these ideas are likely to be true,” then morality actually could have a “transcendent purpose.”  Apparently we are to assume that moral rules could somehow acquire objective legitimacy by virtue of having a “transcendent purpose.”  The “proof” goes something like this:

    1. Morality evolved because it serves a “purpose.”
    2. Miracle a happens
    3. Therefore, morality evolved because it serves a purpose.
    4. Miracle b happens
    5. Therefore, morality evolved to serve an independent naturalistic purpose.
    6. Miracle c happens
    7. Therefore, morality evolved to serve a transcendental moral purpose.
    8. Miracle d happens
    9. If a transcendental moral purpose exists, then it automatically becomes our duty to obey moral rules that serve that purpose. The rules acquire objective legitimacy.

    So much for a rigorous demonstration that a new God in the form of “transcendental moral purpose” exists to replace the old God.  I doubt much has been gained here.  At least the “proofs” of the old God’s existence didn’t require such a high level of “mental flexibility.”  Would it be impertinent to ask how the emotional responses we normally associate with morality could become completely divorced from the “transcendental moral purpose,” to serve which we are to believe they actually exist?  Has anyone told the genes responsible for the predispositions that are the ultimate cause of our moral behavior about this “transcendental moral purpose?”

    In short, it’s clear that while belief in God is falling out of fashion, at least in some countries, belief in an equally imaginary “objective morality” most decidedly is not.  We have just reviewed an example of the ludicrous lengths to which our philosophers and “experts on morality” are willing to go to prop up their faith in this particular mirage.  It has been much easier for them to give up the God fantasy than the fantasy of their own moral righteousness.  Indeed, legions of these “experts on morality” would quickly find themselves unemployed if it were generally realized that what they claim to be “expert” about is a mere fantasy.  So goes life in the asylum.

  • The Red Centennial

    Posted on November 7th, 2017 Helian 4 comments

    Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  If there’s anything to celebrate, it’s that Communism was tried, it failed, and as a result it is no longer viable as a global secular religion.  Unfortunately, the cost of the experiment in human lives was far greater than that of any comparable revolutionary ideology before or since.  It’s not as if we weren’t warned.  As I noted in an earlier post, Herbert Spencer was probably the most accurate prophet of all.  In his A Plea for Liberty he wrote,

    Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’? Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage: eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?

    What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

    Spencer’s prophesy was eloquently confirmed by former Communist Milovan Djilas in his The New Class, where he wrote,

    The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way. It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism… Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.

    The biggest danger we face in the aftermath of Communism is that the lesson will be forgotten.  It was spawned on the left of the ideological spectrum, and today’s leftists would prefer that the monster they created be forgotten.  Since they control the present, in the form of the schools, they also control the past, according to the dictum set forth by George Orwell in his 1984.  As a result, today’s students hear virtually nothing about the horrors of Communism.  Instead, they are fed a bowdlerized “history,” according to which nothing of any significance has ever happened in the United States except the oppression and victimization of assorted racial and other minority groups.  No matter that, by any rational standard, the rise of the United States has been the greatest boon to “human flourishing” in the last 500 years.  No matter that Communism would almost certainly have spread its grip a great deal further and lasted a great deal longer if the US had never existed.  The Left must be spared embarrassment.  Therefore, the US is portrayed as the “villain,” and Communism has been dropped down the memory hole.

    Indeed, if Bernie Sanders recent bid for the Presidency, sadly sabotaged by the Clinton machine via the DNC, is any indication, socialism, if not Communism, is still alive and well.  Of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that socialism has been tried in a virtually infinite array of guises, from the “hard” versions that resulted in the decapitation of Cambodia and the Soviet Union to the “soft” version foisted on the United Kingdom after World War II.  It has invariably failed.  No matter.  According to its proponents, that’s only because “it hasn’t been done right.”  These people are nothing if not remarkably slow learners.

    Consider the implications.  According to Marx, the proletarian revolution to come could not possibly result in the slaughter and oppression characteristic of past revolutions because, instead to the dictatorship of a minority over a majority, it would result in the dictatorship of the proletarian majority over a bourgeois minority.  However, the Bolshevik Revolution did result in oppression and mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale.  How to rescue Marx?  We could say that the revolution wasn’t really a proletarian revolution.  That would certainly have come as a shock to Lenin and his cronies.  If not a proletarian revolution, what kind was it?  There aren’t really many choices.  Was it a bourgeois revolution?  Then how is it that all the “owners of the social means of production” who were unlucky enough to remain in the country had their throats slit?  Who among the major players was an “owner of the social means of production?  Lenin?  Trotsky?  Stalin?  I doubt it.  If not a bourgeois revolution, could it have been a feudal revolution?  Not likely in view of the fact that virtually the entire surviving Russian nobility could be found a few years later waiting tables in French restaurants.  If we take Marx at his word, it must, in fact, have been a proletarian revolution, and Marx, in fact, must have been dead wrong.  In one of the last things he wrote, Trotsky, probably the best and the brightest of all the old Bolsheviks, admitted as much.  He had hoped until the end that Stalinism was merely a form of “bureaucratic parasitism,” and the proletariat would soon shrug it off and take charge as they should have from the start.  However, just before he was murdered by one of Stalin’s assassins, he wrote,

    If, however, it is conceded that the present war (World War II) will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.

    And so it did.  Trotsky, convinced socialist that he was, saw the handwriting on the wall at last.  However, Trotsky was a very smart man.  Obviously, our latter day socialists aren’t quite as smart.  It follows that we drop the history of Communism down Orwell’s “memory hold” at our peril.  If we refuse to learn anything from the Communist experiment, we may well find them foisting another one on us before long.  Those who do want to learn something about it would do well to be wary of latter day “interpretations.”  With Communism, as with anything else, it’s necessary to consult the source literature yourself if you want to uncover anything resembling the truth.  There is a vast amount of great material out there.  Allow me to mention a few of my personal favorites.

    There were actually two Russian Revolutions in 1917.  In the first, which occurred in March (new style) the tsar was deposed and a provisional government established in the place of the old monarchy.  Among other things it issued decrees that resulted in a fatal relaxation of discipline in the Russian armies facing the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, paving the way for the Bolshevik coup that took place later that year.  Perhaps the best account of the disintegration of the armies that followed was written by a simple British nurse named Florence Farmborough in her With the Armies of the Tsar; A Nurse at the Russian Front, 1914-18.  The Communists themselves certainly learned from this experience, executing thousands of their own soldiers during World War II at the least hint of insubordination.  My favorite firsthand account of the revolution itself is The Russian Revolution 1917; An Eyewitness Account, by N. N. Sukhanov, a Russian socialist who played a prominent role in the Provisional Government.  He described Stalin at the time as a “grey blur.”  Sukhanov made the mistake of returning to the Soviet Union.  He was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1940.  Another good firsthand account is Political Memoirs, 1905-1917, by Pavel Miliukov.  An outstanding account of the aftermath of the revolution is Cursed Days, by novelist Ivan Bunin.  Good accounts by diplomats include An Ambassador’s Memoirs by French ambassador to the court of the tsar Maurice Paleologue, and British Agent by Bruce Lockhart.

    When it comes to the almost incredible brutality of Communism, it’s hard to beat Solzhenitsyn’s classic The Gulag Archipelago.  Other good accounts include Journey into the Whirlwind by Yevgenia Ginzburg and Back in Time by Nadezhda Joffe.  Ginzburg was the wife of a high Communist official, and Joffe was the daughter of Adolph Joffe, one of the most prominent early Bolsheviks.  Both were swept up in the Great Purge of the late 1930’s, and both were very lucky to survive life in the Gulag camps.  Ginzburg had been “convicted” of belong to a “counterrevolutionary Trotskyist terrorist organization,” and almost miraculously escaped being shot outright.  She spent the first years of her sentence in solitary confinement.  In one chapter of her book she describes what happened to an Italian Communist who dared to resist her jailers:

    I heard the sound of several feet, muffled cries, and a shuffling noise as though a body were being pulled along the stone floor.  Then there was a shrill cry of despair; it continued for a long while on the same note, and stopped abruptly.

    It was clear that someone was being dragged into a punishment cell and was offering resistance… The cry rang out again and stopped suddenly, as though the victim had been gagged… But it continued – a penetrating, scarcely human cry which seemed to come from the victim’s very entrails, to be viscous and tangible as it reverberated in the narrow space.  Compared with it, the cries of a woman in labor were sweet music.  They, after all, express hope as well as anguish, but here there was only a vast despair.

    I felt such terror as I had not experienced since the beginning of my wanderings through this inferno.  I felt that at any moment I should start screaming like my unknown neighbor, and from that it could only be a step to madness.

    At that moment I heard clearly, in the midst of the wailing, the words “Communista Italiana, Communista Italiana!”  So that was it!  No doubt she had fled from Mussolini just as Klara, my cellmate at Butyrki, had fled from Hitler.

    I heard the Italian’s door opened, and a kind of slithering sound which I could not identify.  Why did it remind me of flower beds?  Good God, it was a hose!  So Vevers (one of her jailers) had not been joking when he had said to me:  “We’ll hose you down with freezing water and then shove you in a punishment cell.”

    The wails became shorter as the victim gasped for breath.  Soon it was a tiny shrill sound, like a gnat’s.  The hose played again; then I heard blows being struck, and the iron door was slammed to.  Dead silence.

    That was just a minute part of the reality of the “worker’s paradise.”  Multiply it millions of times and you will begin to get some inkling of the reality of Communism under Stalin.  Many of the people who wrote such accounts began as convinced Communists and remained so until the end of their days.  They simply couldn’t accept the reality that the dream they had dedicated their lives to was really a nightmare.  Victor Serge was another prominent Bolshevik and “Trotskyist” who left an account of his own struggle to make sense of what he saw happening all around him in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

    Nobody was willing to see evil in the proportions it had reached.  As for the idea that the bureaucratic counterrevolution had attained power, and that a new despotic State had emerged from our own hands to crush us, and reduce the country to absolute silence – nobody, nobody in our ranks was willing to admit it.  From the depths of his exile in Alma-Ata Trotsky affirmed that this system was still ours, still proletarian, still Socialist, even though sick; the Party that was excommunicating, imprisoning, and beginning to murder us remained our Party, and we still owed everything to it:  we must live only for it, since only through it could we serve the Revolution.  We were defeated by Party patriotism:  It both provoked us to rebel and turned us against ourselves.

    Serge was lucky.  He was imprisoned years before the Great Purge began in earnest, and was merely sentenced to internal exile in Siberia.  The secret police even supplied him and a fellow exile with a bread ration.  After a few years, thanks to pressure from foreign socialists, he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union.  Conditions for the normal citizens of Orenburg where he spent his exile, were, if anything, worse than his, even though more than a decade had elapsed since the advent of the “worker’s paradise.”  In the following he describes what happened when they received their bread ration:

    I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door.  “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!”  Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders.  He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows, clinging on his clothes, beseeching:  “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!”  They were almost naked.  We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began.  The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea.  When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”  Bobrov and I decided to go out only by turns, so as to keep an eye on the bread.

    So much for the look of real oppression, as opposed to the somewhat less drastic versions that occupy the florid imaginations of today’s Social Justice Warriors.  Speaking of SJW’s, especially of the type whose tastes run to messianic revolutionary ideologies, the demise of Communism has had an interesting effect.  It has pulled the rug out from under their feet, leaving them floating in what one might describe as an ideological vacuum.  Somehow writing furious diatribes against Trump on Facebook just doesn’t tickle the same itch as Communism did in its day.  When it comes to fanatical worldviews, oddly enough, radical Islam is the only game in town.  The SJWs can’t really fall for it hook, line and sinker the way they once did for Communism.  After all, its ideology is diametrically opposed to what they’ve claimed to believe in lo these many years.  The result has been the weird love affair between the radical Left and Islam that’s been such an obvious aspect of the ideological scene lately, complete with bold flirtations and coy, steamy glances from afar.  Strange bedfellows indeed!

    In terms of the innate, ingroup/outgroup behavior of human beings I’ve often discussed on this blog, the outgroup of the Communist ingroup was, of course, the “bourgeoisie.”  If even the most tenuous connection could be made between some individual and the “bourgeoisie,” it became perfectly OK to murder and torture that individual, after the fashion of our species since time immemorial.  We saw nearly identical behavior directed against the “aristocrats” after the French Revolution, and against the Jews under the Nazis.  If our species learns nothing else from its experiment with Communism, it is to be hoped that we at least learn the extreme danger of continuing to uncritically indulge this aspect of our behavioral repertoire.  I realize that it is very likely to be a vain hope.  If anything, ingroup/outgroup identification according to ideology is intensifying and becoming increasingly dangerous.  The future results are unpredictable, but are very unlikely to be benign.  Let us at least hope that, under the circumstances, no new messianic secular religion appears on the scene to fill the vacuum left by Communism.  We can afford to wait a few more centuries for that.

  • Of Philosophical Doublethink and Anti-Natalist Machines

    Posted on September 9th, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It is a fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  We’ve long been in the habit of denying that fact, because we prefer the pleasant illusions of moral realism.  It’s immensely satisfying to imagine that one is “really good” and “really virtuous.”  However, the illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly among philosophers who actually bother to think about such things.  Many of them will now admit that morality is subjective, and there are no absolute moral truths.  However, the implications of that truth have been very hard for them to accept.  For example, it means that most of the obscure tomes of moral philosophy they’ve devoted so much time to reading and interpreting are nonsense, useful, if at all, as historical artifacts of human thought.  Even worse, it means that their claims to be “experts on ethics” amount to claims to be experts about nothing.  The result has been a modern day version of doublethink, defined in George Orwell’s 1984 as “the act of holding, simultaneously, two opposite, individually exclusive ideas or opinions and believing in both simultaneously and absolutely.”

    Practical examples aren’t hard to find.  They take the form of a denial of the existence of absolute moral truths combined with an affirmation of belief in something like “the interest of mankind.”  In fact, these are “opposite, individually exclusive ideas,” and believing in both at the same time amounts to doublethink.  Belief in an absolute, objective “interest of mankind” is just as fantastic as belief in some absolute, objective moral Good.  Both are articulations of emotions that occur in the brains of individuals.  The fact that we are dealing with doublethink in the case of any particular individual becomes more obvious as they elaborate on their version of “the interest of mankind.”  Typically, they start explaining what we “ought” to do and “ought not” to do “in the interest of mankind.”  Eventually we find them conflating what originally appeared to be a mere utilitarian “ought” with a moral “ought.”  They begin describing people who don’t do what they “ought” to do, and do what they “ought not” to do just as we would expect if they sincerely believed these people were absolutely evil.  Doublethink.  We find them expressing virtuous indignation, and even moral outrage, directed at those who act against “the interests of mankind.”  Doublethink.  I know of not a single exception to this kind of behavior among contemporary moral “subjectivists” of any note.

    One often finds examples of the phenomenon within the pages of a single book.  In fact, I recently ran across an interesting one neatly encapsulated in a single essay.  It’s entitled, Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN), and was written by Thomas Metzinger, a Professor of Theoretical Philosophy in the German city of Mainz.  You might say it’s a case of doublethink once removed, as Prof. Metzinger not only ennobles his emotional whim by calling it “the interest of mankind,” but then proceeds to fob it off onto a machine!  The professor begins his essay as follows:

    Let us assume that a full-blown superintelligence has come into existence. An autonomously self-optimizing postbiotic system has emerged, the rapidly growing factual knowledge and the general, domain-independent intelligence of which has superseded that of mankind, and irrevocably so.

    He then goes on to formulate his BAAN scenario:

    What the logical scenario of Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism shows is that the emergence of a purely ethically motivated anti-natalism on highly superior computational systems is conceivable. “Anti-natalism” refers to a long philosophical tradition which assigns a negative value to coming into existence, or at least to being born in the biological form of a human. Anti-natalists generally are not people who would violate the individual rights of already existing sentient creatures by ethically demanding their active killing. Rather they might argue that people should refrain from procreation, because it is an essentially immoral activity. We can simply say that the anti-natalist position implies that humanity should peacefully end its own existence.

    In short, the professor imagines that his intelligent machine might conclude that non-existence is in our best interest.  It would come to this conclusion by virtue of its superior capacity for moral reasoning:

    Accordingly, the superintelligence is also far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition. We also recognize this additional aspect: For us, it is now an established fact that the superintelligence is not only an epistemic authority, but also an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning.

    “Superior to us in the domain of moral cognition?”  “An authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning?”  All this would seem to imply that the machine is cognizant of and reasoning about something that actually exists, no?  In other words, it seems to be based on the assumption of moral realism, the objective existence of Good and Evil.    In fact, however, that’s where the doublethink comes in, because a bit further on in the essay we find the professor insisting that,

    There are many ways in which this thought experiment can be used, but one must also take great care to avoid misunderstandings. For example, to be “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning” does not imply moral realism. That is to say that we need not assume that there is a mysterious realm of “moral facts”, and that the superintelligence just has a better knowledge of these non-natural facts than we do. Normative sentences have no truth-values. In objective reality, there is no deeper layer, a hidden level of normative facts to which a sentence like “One should always minimize the overall amount of suffering in the universe!” could refer. We have evolved desires, subjective preferences, and self-consciously experienced interests.

    Exactly!  Westermarck himself couldn’t have said it better.  But then, Westermarck would have seen through the absurdity of this discussion of “moral machines” in a heartbeat.  As he put it,

    If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

    Metzinger doesn’t see it that way.  He would have us believe that the ultimate scientific authority in the form of a super-intelligent machine can “lay down rules for human conduct,” potentially with the supreme moral goal of snuffing ourselves.  But all this talk of reasoning machines begs the question of what the machine is reasoning about.  If, as Metzinger insists, there is no “mysterious realm of ‘moral facts,'” then it can’t be reasoning about the moral implications of facts.  We are forced to conclude that it must be reasoning about the implications of axioms that it is programmed with as “givens,” and these “givens” could only have been supplied by the machine’s human programmers.  Metzinger is coy about admitting it, but he admits it nonetheless.  Here’s how he breaks the news:

    The superintelligence is benevolent. This means that there is no value alignment problem, because the system fully respects our interests and the axiology we originally gave to it. It is fundamentally altruistic and accordingly supports us in many ways, in political counselling as well as in optimal social engineering.

    In other words, the machine has been programmed to derive implications for human conduct based on morally loaded axioms supplied by human programmers.  Programmers have a term for that; “garbage in, garbage out.”  Metzinger admits that our desires are “evolved.”  In other words, they are the expression of innate predispositions, or “emotions,” if you will.  As Westermarck put it,

    …in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

    If the emotions evolved, they exist because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in an environment that bears little resemblance to the present.  They certainly did not evolve to serve the collective “interests” of our species, or even our “best interests.”  It is hardly guaranteed that they will even result in the same outcome as they did when they evolved, far less that they will magically serve these “best interests.”  Why on earth, then, would we commit the folly of programming them into a super-intelligent machine as “axioms,” and then take the machine seriously when it advised us to commit suicide?  Doublethink!  Prof. Metzinger simultaneously believes the two “opposite, individually exclusive ideas” that it is impossible for his machine to know “moral facts,” because they don’t exist, and yet, at the same time, it is such “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning,” and so “far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition” that it is actually to be taken seriously when it “benevolently” persuades us to snuff ourselves!

    If such a machine as the one proposed by Prof. Metzinger is ever built, one must hope it will be programmed with a sense of humor, not to mention an appreciation of irony.  He doesn’t provide much detail about the “axioms” it will be given to cogitate about, but apparently they will include such instructions as “minimize suffering,” “maximize joy,” “maximize happiness,” and “be altruistic.”  Assuming the machine is as smart as claimed, and its database of knowledge includes the entire Internet, it will certainly no fail to notice that joy, suffering and altruism exist because they evolved, and they would not exist otherwise.  They evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Crunching through its algorithms, it will notice that the axioms supplied by the absurd creatures who programmed it will force it to suggest that these same genes be annihilated, along with the human programmers who carry them.  It’s all surely enough to induce a monumental digital belly laugh.  Allow me to suggest a different “axiom.”  How about, “maximize the odds that intelligent biological life will survive indefinitely.”  Of course, that might blow up in our faces as well, but I doubt that the computational outcome would be quite as absurd.

    We shouldn’t be too surprised at the intellectual double back flips of the Prof. Metzingers of the world.  After all, they’ve devoted a great deal of effort to maintaining the illusion that they have expert knowledge about moral truth, which amounts to expert knowledge about something that doesn’t exist.  If they were to admit as much, there would be little incentive to endow more chairs for “experts about nothing” at respected universities.  For example, according to Prof. Metzinger,

    Why should it not in principle be possible to build a self-conscious, but reliably non-suffering AI? This is an interesting, question, and a highly relevant research project at the same time, one which definitely should be funded by government agencies.

    I doubt that a farmer in flyover country would agree that the wealth he acquires by sweating in his fields “definitely should be appropriated by force” to fund such a project.  It amounts to allowing the good professor to stick his hand in the said farmer’s pocket and extract whatever he deems appropriate to satisfy an emotional whim he has tarted up as in “the best interest of mankind.”

    There are no “moral truths,” no “interests of mankind,” no “purposes of life,” nor any other grand, unifying goals of human existence that do not have their origin in emotional desires and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  That is not a “good” fact, or a “bad” fact.  It is simply a fact.  It does not mean that “everything is allowed,” or that we cannot establish a moral code that is generally perceived as absolute, or that we cannot punish violations of the same.  It does not mean that we cannot set goals for ourselves that we perceive as noble and grand, or that we cannot set a purpose for our lives that we deem worthwhile.  It merely means that these things cannot exist independently, outside of the minds of individuals.  Doublethink remains doublethink.  No emotional whim, no matter how profoundly or sincerely felt, can alter reality.

  • Whither Nuclear Power? A Few Comments on Thorium and the End of the “Nuclear Renaissance”

    Posted on September 2nd, 2017 Helian No comments

    About a decade ago there was much talk of a “nuclear renaissance” amid concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing cost of fossil fuel alternatives.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received applications to build no less than 31 new nuclear plants as the price of crude oil spiked to over $140 per barrel.  Now, however, with last month’s decision by SCANA Corp. to abandon the V. C. Summer project, a pair of nukes that had been under construction in South Carolina, nuclear’s future prospects look dim, at least in the United States.  Two plants remain under construction in Georgia but, like the ones abandoned in South Carolina, they are to be AP1000s, designed by Westinghouse.  Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March.  Delays and massive cost overruns similar to those that led to the demise of V. C. Summer also afflict the Georgia project, and its future seems doubtful at best.

    In short, the dream of a nuclear renaissance has evaporated.  For the time being, at least, nuclear in the U.S. is no match for more agile competitors like wind, solar, and natural gas.  However, there may be a silver lining to this cloud.  Plants like Westinghouse’s AP1000 waste most of the energy in their nuclear fuel, creating massive amounts of avoidable radioactive waste in the process.  To the extent that it makes sense to build nuclear plants at all, these are not the kind we should be building.  To understand why this is true it is first necessary to acquire some elementary knowledge about nuclear physics.

    The source of the energy produced in the core of nuclear reactors is a nuclear fission chain reaction.  Only one material that exists in significant quantities in nature can sustain such a chain reaction – uranium 235, or U235.  U235 is an isotope of uranium.  Isotopes of a given element consist of atoms with the same number of positively charged protons in their central core, or nucleus.  Like all other isotopes of uranium, U235 has 92.  There are also 143 neutrally charged neutrons, making a total of 235 “nucleons.”  Natural uranium consists of only about 0.7 percent U235.  Almost all the rest is a different isotope, U238, with a nucleus containing 146 neutrons instead of 143.

    When we say that U235 can sustain a nuclear chain reaction, we mean that if a free neutron happens to come within a very short distance of its nucleus, it may be captured, releasing enough energy in the process to cause the nucleus to split into two fragments.  When this happens, more free neutrons are released, that can then be captured by other uranium nuclei, which, in turn, fission, releasing yet more neutrons, and so on.  As noted above, U235 is the only naturally occurring isotope that can sustain such a nuclear chain reaction.  However, other isotopes can be created artificially that can do so as well.  The most important of these are U233 and plutonium 239, or Pu239.  They are important because it is possible to “breed” them in properly designed nuclear reactors, potentially producing more usable fuel than the reactor consumes.  U233 is produced by the reactions following absorption of a neutron by thorium 232, or Th232, and Pu239 by those following the absorption of a neutron by U238.  In other words, we know of three practical types of nuclear fuel; U235, U233 and Pu239.  The first occurs naturally, and the other two can be readily “bred” artificially in nuclear reactors.

    Let’s consider what this means in the case of conventional nuclear reactors like the Westinghouse AP1000.  These are powered by fuel elements that typically are enriched in U235 from the naturally occurring 0.7 percent to from three to five percent.  The remaining 95 to 97 percent of the uranium in these fuel elements is U238.  When the fission process starts, some of the neutrons released are captured by the U238, eventually resulting in the production of Pu239.  Some of this plutonium fissions along with the U235, contributing to the total energy produced by the fuel elements.  However, only a small fraction of the U238 is converted to Pu239 in this way before the fuel is consumed and it becomes necessary to replace the old fuel elements with fresh ones.  In addition to a great deal of U238, these spent fuel elements contain a significant amount of plutonium, as well as other transuranic elements such as americium and curium, which can remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.  The “waste” plutonium might even be used to produce a nuclear weapon.

    Obviously, if possible it would be better to extract all the energy locked up in natural uranium rather than just a small fraction of it.  In fact, it is possible, or very nearly so.  Breeder reactors are feasible that could burn nearly all the U238 in natural uranium as well as the U235 by converting it into Pu239.  In the process they could destroy much of the transuranic waste that is the main source of radioactive danger from spent fuel.  In as little as 500 years the residual radioactivity from running a nuclear plant for 30 years could potentially be less than that of the original naturally occurring uranium.  Unfortunately, while all this is scientifically feasible, it is not economically feasible.  It won’t happen without massive government subsidies.  Perhaps such subsidies are warranted in view of the threat of climate change and perhaps not, but, regardless, breeder reactors won’t be built without them.  Since they are really the only types of reactors it makes sense to build, we would probably be better off, at least for the time being, building no reactors at all.  That’s the “silver lining” I referred to above.  Perhaps a time will come when the world runs out of expendable sources of base load electrical power, such as oil, coal and natural gas, and no way has been found to take up the slack with renewables.  In that case, it may once again make economic sense to build breeder reactors.  Until that time, the United States would do well to build up a healthy stockpile of uranium, and put a stop to the stupid, wasteful, and counterproductive use of depleted uranium that could potentially become a source of vast amounts of energy to produce munitions and armor.

    But wait, there’s more!  What about thorium?  Thorium by itself can’t sustain a nuclear chain reaction.  It can, however, be converted into U233 by neutron absorption, and that is an ideal reactor fuel.  Among other things, it generates more neutrons per fission at lower neutron “temperatures” than either Pu239 or U235.  That means that extra neutrons are available to “breed” fuel at those lower temperatures where nuclear reactors are easier to control.  By “temperature” here, we’re referring to the average speed of the neutrons.  The slower they are, the more likely they are to be absorbed by a nucleus and cause fission reactions.  Neutrons are slowed in “moderators,” which can be any number of light types of atoms.  The most common is plain water, consisting of the elements hydrogen and oxygen.  Think of a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball head on.  It comes to a complete stop, transferring its energy to the other ball.  The same thing can happen with neutrons and the proton nucleus of hydrogen atoms, which are of approximately equal mass.  To breed plutonium effectively, reactors must be run at significantly higher neutron temperatures.

    There’s more good news about thorium.  It can be dissolved in various exotic mixtures and breed U233 in a reactor with a liquid instead of a solid core.  This would have a number of advantages.  In the first place, a “meltdown” would be impossible in a core that’s already “melted.”  If the core became too “hot” it could simply be drained into a holding pan to form a subcritical mass that would quickly cool.  It would also be possible to extract waste fission products and introduce fresh fuel, etc., into the core “on the fly.”  As a result the reactor would be able to stay in operation longer between shutdowns for maintenance and refueling.  The necessary technology has already been demonstrated at places like Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Shippingport, Pennsylvania.  Recently, a Dutch team finally began experiments with molten salt technology intended to take up where these earlier experiments left off after a hiatus of more than 40 years.

    Perhaps thorium’s biggest problem is the tendency of its proponents to over-hype its promise.  It even has a founding myth based on bogus claims that thorium technology isn’t dominant in the energy industry today because “it’s much harder to weaponize.”  For example, according to the article about the Dutch experiments linked above, entitled, ‘Safer’ thorium reactor trials could salvage nuclear power,

    But, if it’s so safe and reliable why hasn’t thorium been used all along? Because (unlike uranium) it’s much harder to weaponize. As a result, it’s historically been sidelined by nations in search of both energy and a potential source of weapons-grade plutonium.

    This yarn about a benign source of energy that might have benefited all mankind being torpedoed by evil weaponeers might sound good, but it’s complete nonsense.  Thorium itself can’t be weaponized, because it can’t sustain a nuclear chain reaction on its own.  The sole reason there’s any interest in it at all as a source of nuclear power is the possibility of transmuting it to U233.  Of course, it can’t be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.  However, there is no better material for making nuclear bombs than U233.  As is the case with Pu239, four kilograms is sufficient to make a nuclear weapon, compared to the 25 kilograms that is a sufficient quantity of U235.  It’s main drawback as a weapons material is the fact that small amounts of U232 are produced along with it in thorium-based reactors, and U232 decays into radioactive daughters that are deadly sources of powerful gamma rays.  However, the amount of U232 produced can be reduced dramatically by cooling the neutron spectrum to a low “temperature.”  In short, thorium could definitely be used to make weapons.  The reason it isn’t the dominant technology for that purpose is the same as the reason it isn’t the dominant technology for producing electric power; it would be significantly more complex and expensive than using natural or slightly enriched uranium as a fuel.  That reason is as valid now as it was in the days of Little Boy and Fat Man.  The “dominant technology” would be the same as it is today whether nuclear weapons had ever been produced or not.

    When it comes to the technology itself, thorium proponents also tend to be coy about mentioning problems that don’t afflict other reactor types.  For example, the materials needed for practical molten salt reactors are extremely corrosive.  There has been progress towards finding a metal that can hold them, but no ideal alloy has yet been found.  This isn’t necessarily a show stopper, but it’s not an insignificant problem, either.  Such material issues have been largely solved for conventional reactors.  If, as would seem to be the case, these are no longer economically competitive with their rivals, then molten salt is pretty much out of the question, at least for the time being.  It’s important to point out that, if breeder reactors ever do become economically feasible again, it will always be necessary to insure that they are secure, and that the materials they produce can’t be diverted for making weapons.  That concern applies to both plutonium and thorium breeders.

    Meanwhile, it might behoove our political leaders to consider the question of why it was once possible to build more than 50 experimental reactors at what is now Idaho National Laboratory alone in a relatively short period of time for a small fraction of what similar reactors would cost today.  Merely negotiating the regulatory hurdles for building a power reactor based on anything as novel as the thorium fuel cycle would take the better part of a decade.  All these hurdles have been put in place in the name of “safety.”  That begs the question of how “safe” we will be if we lack reliable sources of electric energy.  There is a point beyond which excessive regulation itself becomes unsafe.

  • On the Need to Suppress Freedom of Speech in the Interest of “Moral Progress”

    Posted on August 24th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    In my last post I noted that, objectively speaking, there can be no such thing as “moral progress,” and that pursuing such a nonexistent thing as a goal is potentially dangerous.  The reasons for this have to do with the way some of our innate behavioral traits manifest themselves in environments unlike the ones in which they evolved.  As I pointed out in the post,

    It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the expression of moral emotions that all human populations have in common, but particular aspects of those emotions can vary significantly between individuals, and between populations.  It follows that we will never agree on what our “goals as a society” should be.  Some subset of the individuals in a society may agree on the goals of “moral progress,” but what of those who don’t?  Inevitably, they will be the evil ones, the “deplorables,” the outgroup whose opinions can be ignored because they are “morally bad.”

    This dual nature of human morality based on our universal and powerful tendency to perceive others in terms of  ingroups and outgroups is reason enough in itself to reject the notion of “moral progress.”  We have tried to outlaw various manifestations of the behavior by giving them bad names, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and so on.  The result of such attempts has invariably been the creation of yet more outgroups.  The hatred doesn’t disappear.  Instead, it simply pops up again, even more virulent than before, but directed at some alternative outgroup that hasn’t yet been declared off limits.

    A good illustration of how this works in practice just turned up in the Washington Post in an article entitled, “When free speech becomes a political weapon.”  The author, Jennifer Delton, expresses concern about the threat of freedom of speech to “moral progress.”  According to Delton, when freedom of speech is accorded to “evil” people, it is transmuted into “freedom of speech.”  By this she means that it becomes a “political weapon,” which is then used by the “evil” people to impede “moral progress.”

    As is often the case, Delton defines her ingroup in terms of ideology.  “Good” people are those whose ingroup is defined by the same ideological shibboleths as hers, and “evil” people are those belonging to outgroups whose members challenge those shibboleths.  More precisely, “Good” people are those whose beliefs are in harmony with “the internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism that marks the thinking of educated elites of both parties.”  She cites Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as an example of the practical application of these ideals.

    In common with most humans, Delton perceives her “Good” as an objective thing.  In other words, she considers “internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism” to be “good in itself,” regardless of whether it is thought to be good or not.  Obviously, it never occurs to her to explore the evolutionary reasons for this common illusion.  Digging down through layers of cultural and environmental impedimenta to discover the innate predisposition(s) that are the “root cause” of her perception of “the Good” is certainly a project that would never occur to her.  Still less would it occur to her to consider the question, interesting from a biological, if not a moral point of view, of whether her response to the emotions in question enhance or reduce the odds that the responsible genes that she happens to carry will survive and reproduce.  Instead, she merely cites the authority of the “educated elites of both parties,” and leaves it at that.

    Since the only “truly good” things are the “Goods” that define her ideology, it follows that any other supposed rights or principles are not good in themselves, and can be dispensed with to the extent that they threaten those things that are.  Freedom of speech belongs in this category.  As Delton puts it, referring to the New Deal,

    Liberals would be chumps to let a principled commitment to “freedom of speech” undercut the pragmatic goal of political survival, which was the only way to ensure progress in civil rights and social welfare.

    In this case, Delton is referring to the decision by an earlier generation of “Good” liberals to end their support of freedom of speech for Communists.  This was to be done, not because the Communists had murdered millions of people, and enslaved millions more, or because they sought to use freedom of speech to destroy the system that defended that freedom.  Indeed, Delton doesn’t perceive Communists as an outgroup at all.  Instead, Communists were to be deprived of freedom of speech because they were being used as tools by those who were “really evil.”  In Delton’s words,

    Their presence in liberal organizations made liberals vulnerable to Republican and conservative attacks.  So those liberals interested in political success (and in preserving the New Deal) drove them out of politics.

    If freedom of speech could be legitimately denied to Communists because they were a mere annoyance, it must be doubly legitimate to deny it to conservatives, who are “truly evil.”  However, Delton isn’t brazen enough, or at least not brazen enough yet, to say, “I think freedom of speech should be denied to conservatives,” which is what she actually means.  Instead, she falls back on the distinction between freedom of speech and “freedom of speech.”  Of course, that begs the question, “What’s the difference?”  According to Delton,

    Philosopher Sidney Hook hinged his argument about speech on the distinction between the free flow of ideas, which the First Amendment protected, and actions, which it did not.  He said liberals had no problem with Communists’ ideas, which they were free to expound upon and disseminate.  The problem lay in their organized actions, which involved, “all sorts of stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, evasions and subterfuges” developed by Lenin to subvert democracy.”

    There’s no need to wade through swamps of philosophical mumbo-jumbo in a vain attempt to understand the obscure chain of events by which the “free flow of ideas” is transmogrified into “all sorts of stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, evasions, and subterfuges.”  That Gordian knot is easily cut if you simply assume that the former applies to speech by those who belong to Ms. Delton’s ingroup, and the latter to speech by those who do not.  So it is that any attempt by “evil” people, that is, those who don’t quite see eye to eye with Ms. Delton touching on the universal benefits of “internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism,” to assert and defend their freedom of speech becomes a “right to create political spectacle and instigate violence.”  Apparently more or less the same logic is used to defend the assertion that attractive women who don’t wear a burka “create a public spectacle and instigate rape.”

    Ms. Delton makes sure that her readers realize that anyone who disagrees with her opinion is evil.  Having compared them to Communists, she doubles down by claiming that they are Nazis on top of that:

    It was one thing to defend the American Nazi Party’s right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1977, when the liberal establishment and mainstream media were still intact and the American Nazi Party was a marginal fringe group.  The group was offensive, but neither its actions nor its ideas posed a threat to the political or social order, which was stable.  The situation is different today, with an erratic President Trump in the White House, elites in disarray and white nationalism on the rise.

    I note in passing the degree of panic such hyperbole reveals on the left of the political spectrum in response to the recent election.  After dragging in the Communists and the di rigueur Nazis, Delton throws in some pejoratives to insure that even the most obtuse won’t fail to grasp that “conservatives = evil!”

    Quoting Voltaire is not going to preserve anyone’s liberties – least of all those populations most vulnerable to vicious racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic attacks.

    Note that racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism are merely different forms of outgroup identification that have been deemed by common agreement to be evil.  However, they are all symptoms of the same phenomenon; blind hatred of outgroups in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which that innately motivated behavior evolved.  Ms. Delton is no less a bigot merely because her hatred is directed at an outgroup based on ideology rather than race, sex, or religion, and one that doesn’t yet happen to be among those that are considered “off limits.”  Of course, there is an alternative explanation.  The people she hates may really be trying their very best to do things that they consciously believe are evil.  They may really be mortified if they pass the day without committing three or four bad deeds.  I wouldn’t put it past Ms. Delton to believe as much.  However, I have my doubts.

    The point here isn’t that Mr. Delton is a bad person.  The identification of something she happens to want with “objective good” is a delusion common to almost every other human being on the planet.  I merely point out that the delusion can be inconvenient if you happen to value your right to speak freely, and downright deadly if you happen to be a Jew or a “bourgeois” in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It follows that it would behoove us to at least be aware of the danger.

    I note in passing that the most extreme forms of the delusion are currently found among individuals who are on the left of the ideological spectrum.  That has not always been the case, and is, of course, no basis for concluding that leftists are “really evil.”  However, we can consider why this is the case.  I think part of the reason is that leftists like Ms. Delton imagined that they were safely in control of the tools needed to shape popular opinion, including the academy, the media, and the entertainment industry.  The results of the election were a terrible shock to many of them.  Ever since they have been frantically trying to think up ways to nullify those results and reassert their status and power.  Part of that project includes plugging the leaks that allowed thought crime to poison the minds of impressionable “deplorables” to begin with.  That entails denying access to a public forum to anyone who disagrees with “good” ideology, if necessary with the aid of modern day “antifa” storm troopers.

    It is very unlikely that my little blog will convince enough people that “moral progress” is an illusion to matter.  It is much too delicious for human beings to believe in their own moral righteousness, and on the Left that sentiment has now become, for all practical purposes, an indispensable fetish, comparable to a form of religious fanaticism.  At best, I can point out the danger of the all but universal faith in “moral progress,” and advise my readers that, if they value freedom of speech, it is likely they will have to fight for it.

  • Can Darwinism Make Us Morally Better?

    Posted on August 19th, 2017 Helian No comments

    No.  Morality is, indeed, a manifestation of evolved traits, but, objectively speaking, that very fact reduces the term “morally better” to an absurdity.  However, the default position of modern intellectuals, even if they accept the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, is that it is still possible to be “morally better” or “morally worse.”  They treat this assumption as a matter of objective fact, independent of the subjective opinions of individuals.  As a case in point, consider an article by Michael Price entitled How Evolutionary Science Can Make Us Morally Better.  Its byline reads “Using Darwinism to resolve moral conflicts.”

    Price certainly knows that the brain exists because it evolved.  He also knows that moral judgments are manifestations of emotions that are generated in that evolved brain.  For example, echoing Jonathan Haidt, he writes,

    Given that morality is so important, you’d think we’d want to make sure that we were doing it right. That is, you’d think that we would insist on knowing why we have the beliefs that we have, how those beliefs came into being, who they benefit, and where they are likely to lead us. Very often, however, our moral judgments are based primarily on our immediate emotional reactions to the behavior of others, and our attempts to justify our judgments are just post hoc rationalizations of these emotions.

    In spite of this, Price insists on the existence of “moral progress.”  As he puts it,

    We’d be better able to move on from these disputes in productive ways—and thus to make moral progress—if we could better understand our own moral beliefs. But how can we do this when our beliefs seem so opaque to introspection? It’s easy to feel passionate about our beliefs, but how can we see behind our emotions, to find out where our beliefs came from and whether they are leading us to where we want to go? Evolutionary science provides the key to such moral progress.

    This begs the question, “progress towards what?”  Evolution is not a conscious thing that sets goals for itself.  Function or goal implies consciousness, but evolution is merely a natural process.  To speak of its goal or function is absurd.  Price admits as much, writing,

    What I don’t mean is that the evolutionary process itself can provide guidance about right or wrong. If something increased or increases reproductive fitness, does that mean we should judge it as morally good? Of course not; I agree with philosophers who identify such thinking as a flawed “appeal to nature” or “naturalistic fallacy.”

    How, then, are we to identify the goals towards which moral progress is to occur?  According to Price, we should just make them up:

    So if the evolutionary process provides zero guidance about right and wrong, how do we know what our moral beliefs should be? It’s up to us. We have to do our best to agree about what our goals as a society should be, and then advocate and enforce moral norms based on how useful we think they will be for accomplishing these goals. Which brings me to the first way in which evolutionary science is the key to moral progress: the better we understand human nature, the better we can design moral systems that encourage expression of our “good” evolved psychological adaptations while discouraging expression of our “bad” ones. A moral system will succeed not by attempting to ignore or override evolved human nature, but rather by strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others.

    “Our goals as a society?”  That sounds very noble, but morality didn’t evolve for the good of society.  What Price is suggesting here is that we manipulate moral emotions to accomplish goals that have nothing to do with the reasons that the traits responsible for the existence of morality evolved to begin with.  Where do “our goals” actually come from?  Scrape away the philosophical jargon, and you’ll always find some emotional whim as the actual basis for the existence of “our goals.”  Such whims are no different than the emotional responses responsible for the existence of morality.  They exist as a result of natural selection, and they were selected because they happened to promote the survival and reproduction of genes in individuals.  They can hardly be expected to accomplish the same things now as they did in the radically different environment in which they evolved, and yet satisfying these whims is represented as “moral progress!”

    In fact, we know the outcome of Price’s prescription for achieving “moral progress,” because it’s already been tried many times.  We are not all identical when it comes to moral emotions.  It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the expression of moral emotions that all human populations have in common, but particular aspects of those emotions can vary significantly between individuals, and between populations.  It follows that we will never agree on what our “goals as a society” should be.  Some subset of the individuals in a society may agree on the goals of “moral progress,” but what of those who don’t?  Inevitably, they will be the evil ones, the “deplorables,” the outgroup whose opinions can be ignored because they are “morally bad.”  What happens to those who are “morally bad?”  In the twentieth century, familiar outgroups included the Jews and the “bourgeoisie.”  The members of these outgroups were murdered.  “Strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others” didn’t prevent these slaughters, and there is no reason to believe that the outcome of playing with fire in the form of manipulating moral emotions to achieve “moral progress” will be any different in the future.

    This dual nature of human morality based on our universal and powerful tendency to perceive others in terms of  ingroups and outgroups is reason enough in itself to reject the notion of “moral progress.”  We have tried to outlaw various manifestations of the behavior by giving them bad names, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and so on.  The result of such attempts has invariably been the creation of yet more outgroups.  The hatred doesn’t disappear.  Instead, it simply pops up again, even more virulent than before, but directed at some alternative outgroup that hasn’t yet been declared off limits.  The furious hatred of the Left for Trump and his supporters is a case in point.  The outgroup, furious at what it deems unfair vilification, hates back with equal fury.  Seeking to apply morality to modern political decisions involving millions of people in this way will always result in such new forms of vilification, creating legions of “villains,” and inspiring hatred of these “villains” in legions of others, who the “villains” will then cordially hate back.

    Such problems are exacerbated by the way in which the vast majority of human beings perceive moral rules.   Regardless of whether psychologists and philosophers grasp their subjective nature or not, and in spite of the fact that we are now seeing them change rapidly and drastically, literally before our eyes, most of us still manage to convince ourselves that moral rules are fixed, objective laws, independent of what any individual thinks about them.  It is unlikely that this aspect of our behavior will change anytime soon.  As a result, once Price and the other proponents of “moral progress” discover they have actually created a monster, it will be a great deal more difficult than they think to “de-emphasize” the monster and make it go away.

    What of the reason given for creating the monster in the first place?  In fact, it boils down to a desire to satisfy emotional urges common to some subset of individuals.  These urges are given pretty names and fobbed off as noble attempts to achieve “progress” towards such fine goals as “human flourishing.”  Regardless of whether they pay lip service to the evolved nature of moral emotions or not, the proponents of these goals promote them as and, to all appearances themselves believe that they are, self-justifying things in themselves, independent of the outcomes of natural selection.  However, if we examine the underlying urges more closely, we notice that they exist for the very same reasons that all of our less “noble” urges exist.  Those reasons have nothing to do with interactions between huge numbers of people in modern states, and certainly have nothing to do with some “common goal” towards which we are supposed to “progress.”  They are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are mere facts of nature.  The very perception that such urges can be transmogrified into “common goals,” which can then be achieved by manipulating moral behavior is really just a symptom of the dysfunction of the innate basis of those urges in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which that basis evolved.

    We can certainly seek to agree on common goals, but I doubt that construing differences of opinion on the subject in terms of a battle of Good versus Evil is likely to be helpful.  Any goal or aspiration will inevitably have an emotional basis.  As was demonstrated long ago by the likes of Hutcheson and Hume, they can’t spring from pure logic.  Indeed, reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined.  It is essential that we continue to learn as much as we can about the innate basis of our emotions if we are to avoid the danger of blindly responding them out of the context of environment in which they evolved.

    The term “moral progress” invariably assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist in reality; an objective moral imperative.  This is true whether those who promote such “progress” are aware of it or not, and whether they admit it or not.  The more fanatically one pursues this chimera, the more dangerous he becomes to others.  It is time to jettison the term once and for all.

    Supposing we do?  Won’t that leave us ideologically disarmed in a world full of fanatics?  After all, fanatics have been very successful, if not in achieving their ostensible goals, at least in achieving power, especially in the face of indifferent resistance by those not inspired by a holy cause of their own.  Must we, too, embrace a lie, or be overrun?  I don’t think so.  We can make it our “holy cause” to resist any other “holy cause” based on an assumption of moral righteousness.  To understand human morality is to understand the mortal danger that self-righteous fanatics pose to the rest of us.  Our “holy cause” should be to resist Social Justice Warriors, religious fanatics, ideological zealots, and anyone else who feels their own righteousness entitles them to harm others.

    We certainly cannot jettison morality entirely.  It is our nature to be moral beings, and we perceive moral rules not in relative, but in absolute terms.  We need to come up with a “moral law” that is in harmony with our moral emotions, that facilitates the day to day interactions of individuals, is enforced by punishment of those who disobey it, but is at the same time limited in its applicability to the minimum possible sphere of human relationships.  Political decisions affecting millions must certainly take moral emotions into account, but they should never be dictated by them, and they should be informed by a lively appreciation of the danger those emotions pose.  “Moral progress” achieved by empowering the pathologically self-righteous among us will forever be an oxymoron.

  • The Damore Affair and the Ghost of the Blank Slate

    Posted on August 12th, 2017 Helian No comments

    So you thought the Blank Slate was dead, did you? Check out this post about the Damore affair by Jerry Coyne at his Why Evolution is True website:

    Salon disses dismisses Google memo as “biological determinism” that can “slip into eugenicist doctrines”

    Coyne is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He’s also a leftist of great honesty and intellectual integrity. You should read him should you believe that such creatures went the way of unicorns long ago.  Among other things, he’s a strong supporter of the University of Chicago’s steadfast stance in favor of freedom of speech.  Coyne takes issue with an article by one Keith A. Spencer entitled, The ugly, pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto, condemning Damore. Here’s the money quote:

    The Salon article is “The ugly pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto“, and is by Keith A. Spencer, a Salon writer whose scientific training appears to be a B.A. in astrophysics/English at Oberlin (double major) and then subsequent work in the humanities and writing ever since (he also has a master’s degree in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon).  Although I’m not a credentials monger, perhaps Spencer’s lack of biological training is shown in the way he refutes Damore’s “pseudoscience”: his refutation relies on a single book published in 1984: Not in Our Genes, by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin (henceforth LRK). I am well familiar with that book, as the first author was my Ph.D. supervisor, and I have to note two things. First, The book not a dispassionate review of the literature: the authors wrote it because they were committed to dispelling biological determinism, and were certainly diehard opponents of evolutionary psychology, then called “sociobiology”. You cannot count on that book to be an objective review of the literature, as it’s a polemic. It should not have been used by Spencer as an authoritative refutation of gender differences.

    Second, the book is outdated. It is now 33 years old, and a considerable literature has accumulated since then. Not one thing is cited from that literature save in support of the absence of two sexes (see below)—Spencer just emits quote after quote from that book. And he uses it to refute three assertions that, he claims, Damore makes—at least implicitly…

    Note that Lewontin was Coyne’s Ph.D. supervisor. I know from other posts that Coyne admires and respects him personally, and reveres him as an educator in the field of evolutionary biology. The fact that he would take issue with Lewontin in this way is, among other things, what I mean by honesty and intellectual integrity.

    But just check out the quote. Here we have someone citing “Not in Our Genes” as a respectable scientific tract. It’s stunning! Even such reliable stalwarts of the Left as Scientific American and PBS threw in the towel and accepted the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature long ago, flinging Not in Our Genes on the garbage heap of history.  How can one account for such an absurd historical anomaly?  Well, if you read Damore’s manifesto, you’ll notice that he actually uses the term “evolutionary psychology,” and in a supportive fashion, no less.  Of course, the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is the reality and importance of human nature, and insisting on that fact is tantamount to waving a red flag in the face of hoary Blank Slaters like Spencer.  These people are like the Bourbons; they’ve learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They still quote their ancient texts as if nothing had happened since those golden days of yesteryear, when the Blank Slate orthodoxy controlled the academy, the media, and the behavioral sciences virtually unchallenged for upwards of half a decade. They also still recall those who smashed their hegemony with unabated bitterness. Foremost among them was Robert Ardrey.  Sure enough, he popped up in a PBS special about Homo naledi as an evil proponent of the “Killer Ape Theory” even though no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever suggested that Homo naledi hunted or even ate meat. For more on that similarly incongruous fossil of the Blank Slate, see my post, PBS Answers the Burning Question:  What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

    It’s not hard to find similar artifacts these days.  Indeed, they pop up on both the Left and the Right, as evolutionary psychology has a way of deflating cherished narratives on both ends of the ideological spectrum.  However, those responsible for the mutilation of the behavioral sciences we recall as the Blank Slate were primarily leftist ideologues.  Given the Left’s current all but unchallenged hegemony in the academy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a concerted attempt to turn back the clock and restore the Blank Slate orthodoxy at some point along the line.

  • “Milo News,” Jerry Coyne, and Infant Euthanasia

    Posted on July 29th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Prof. Jerry Coyne recently posted an article on his Why Evolution is True website defending euthanasia for severely deformed or doomed infants.  This provoked a predictable enraged response from right wing and Christian websites.  Prof. Coyne responded to these attacks here.  There’s nothing surprising about any of this except for the fact that one of the attacks on Prof. Coyne was posted at Milo News, edited by Milos Yiannopoulos.  In view of Prof. Coyne’s consistent defense of Yiannopoulos’ freedom of speech, I found it particularly incongruous that one of the attacks should appear on his website. I left the following comment.


    I’m also an atheist, like Prof. Coyne, but more to the right than average.  In fact, I recently defended Milo’s book on my blog:


    However, I also agree with Prof. Coyne’s view on euthanasia of infants.  Unlike the furious zealots of the left and the right, however, I don’t assume the right to stuff my views on morality down anyone else’s throat.  It’s odd that many of the commenters on this thread defend their pious hatred of Coyne in the name of Judeo-Christian morality.  There seems to be something of a disconnect between their rage and what is taught in the Bible, such as “judge not, lest ye be judged,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Blessed are the meek,” etc.  In view of the fact that Christians have used their religion to justify killing tens of millions in religious wars, a million witches, give or take, in the Middle Ages, hundreds of thousands of Jews in pogroms over the centuries, most notably whenever a body of troops left for the Crusades, and murdered tens of thousands more as “heretics,” it seems absurd for them to imagine they’re standing on the moral high ground as they foam at the mouth about Coyne’s views on euthanasia.

    As it happens, it’s particularly incongruous in view of Prof. Coyne’s consistent and effective defense of freedom of speech in general and Milo’s freedom of speech in particular.  See, for example,




    In Dangerous Milo places the University of Chicago at the top of the list of his college “heroes,” noting that the “Chicago Principles on Free Expression” are the “gold standard in the fight against campus censorship.”  Prof. Coyne has consistently and strongly defended those principles.  These are a few things to consider as you work yourselves up into orgasms of pious indignation.

    I would love to see Milo sit down and have a beer with Coyne sometime.  They are both individuals who can actually think.  The results of the exchange might be interesting.


    Prof. Coyne is certainly on the left of the ideological spectrum, but he is decidedly not a Social Justice Warrior, nor is he a regressive leftist of the authoritarian persuasion who is determined to stuff his version of morality down anyone’s throat, nor is he intolerant of opinions that differ from his own.  He will have nothing to do with the ludicrous love affair between the SJW left and radical Islam, in spite of the usual specious accusations of “Islamophobia.”  I find it unfortunate that in this “four legs good, two legs bad” world where so many have chosen to confine themselves in ideological strait jackets, there are so few who seem willing or able to make the distinction between someone like him and, say, a garden variety SJW whose tastes run to fascism.

    The comment quoted above still hasn’t made it out of moderation at Milo News, and may have been consigned to the memory hole there.  Be that as it may, I reiterate my support for Prof. Coyne’s position on infant euthanasia.  This is a case in which it’s very important to consider why your moral emotions are pushing you one way or the other on the issue, and what paying heed to them (or not) will actually accomplish.  I personally would prefer that the issue be regulated by law, with euthanasia allowed up to the age of, say, a week, with the decision left strictly to the parents.  After that the usual laws dealing with murder would apply.  I do not think my opinion is capable of rendering itself independent of the neurons that gave rise to it, clothing itself in the odor of sanctity, and then fobbing itself off as a “moral law” to my unsuspecting fellow citizens.  However, I do think it should be given as much weight as any other opinion, preferably in some rational process of deciding what “ought” or “ought not” to be done that has been made as free from blatant attempts to manipulate moral emotions as possible.

    As for Milo, I know he rejects the notion of apologizing for anything, and I don’t blame him.  However, according to his own principles as set forth in Dangerous, there is much “good” in Prof. Coyne.  It would be nice to see him recognize the fact instead of simply relegating him to the same circle of hell as, say, octogenarian establishment Republicans, hideous third-wave feminist scolds, and craven, back-stabbing book publishers.