Posted on May 13th, 2013 No comments
Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published their now classic Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science almost two decades ago. The book described the flipping and flopping of the various species of self-appointed saviors of mankind on campus left high and dry by the collapse of Marxism. In the absence of that grand, unifying philosophy, the authors found them running about like so many chickens with their heads cut off, engaged in internecine warfare, and chasing after the various chimeras of postmodernism, eco-extremism, radical feminism, anti-racist racism, etc. For some reason, perhaps because they were scientists and they objected to their ox being gored, Gross and Levitt were willing to subject themselves to the incredible boredom of attending the conferences, following the journals, and reading the books emanating from these various swamps. Since they happened to be on the left of the ideological spectrum themselves, their book was also thoughtfully written and not just one of the usual rants from the right.
Unfortunately, no one with similar insight and tolerance for pain has published anything of similar stature in the ensuing years. We have been reduced to scrutinizing the data points that periodically bubble up through the froth to formulate some idea of how close we are to being saved. Based on the meager information at our disposal, we gather that no great new secular religion has sprung up in the meantime to take the place of Marxism. The only thing on hand to fill the vacuum left behind by its demise has been radical Islam. Since, in a sense, it’s the only game in town, we’ve been treated to the amusing spectacle of watching leftist “progressives” making eyes at the fanatical zealots of one of the most reactionary religious systems ever concocted by the mind of man, while the latter have been busily cannibalizing the revolutionary vernacular familiar from the heyday of Communism.
Other than that, it would seem that the scene today would be quite familiar to readers of Higher Superstition. Consider, for example, the recent “revolutionary action” that took place on the campus of Swarthmore. If we are to believe the somewhat overwrought account at National Review Online, it involved intimidation of the school administration and bullying of conservative students at what was advertised as an open Board of Managers meeting. The ostensible goal of the disruption was to get the administration to agree to the divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, apparently based on the rather dubious assumption that nothing disagreeable would happen if all mankind suddenly stopped using them. However, the divestment thing is hardly what is nearest and dearest to the hearts of the “academic left” at Swarthmore. What is nearest and dearest? According to NRO,
The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies.
I doubt that the gentry at NRO really understand what is going on here, because they lack the proper grounding in Marxist theory. As Trotsky might have put it, they just don’t understand the dialectic. What we are really seeing here is the emergence of a new exploiting class of gigantic proportions, cleverly attempting to obfuscate their true historical role behind a smokescreen of revolutionary jargon. These people are exploiters, not exploitees. Ensconced in their ivory towers, untouchable within their tenured cocoons, they are increasingly gaining a monopoly of the social means of education. Like the bourgeoisie of old, who used the social means of production to suck the blood of the exploited workers, they use their own monopoly to feast on the sweat of the academic proletariat – their students. They accumulate these useless “studies” courses for the same reasons that the capitalists accumulated money.
Little realizing that they are being reduced to debt-serfs, with lives sold out and mortgaged to maintain these academic vampires in their accustomed luxury, the student proletariat are kept docile with fairy tales about “saving the world.” Now, if Marx was right (and how could he possibly be wrong?) this “thesis” of the academic exploiters will soon run head on into the “antithesis” of the developing revolutionary consciousness of the student proletariat they have so cynically betrayed. At least the bourgeoisie used their monopoly to produce something useful. The new class of academic exploiters fobs off its victims with “studies” that they will find entirely useless in their struggle against the slavery that awaits them, unless they are among the happy few co-opted into the exploiting class. Where is this leading? How will the exploited academic proletariat react when they finally figure out, crushed under a mountain of debt, with heads full of “liberating” jargon and no prospect of employment that the “radical and emancipatory” blather they were being fed really leads to chains and slavery? I can but quote the ringing warning of Edwin Markham in his famous poem, Man with the Hoe:
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?
The pundits at NRO should relax. If I’ve interpreted the Marxist dialectic correctly, the revolutionary climax will be followed by a brief period of the dictatorship of the academic proletariat, followed by the gradual withering of academic administrations, and a new era of universal wisdom based on enlightened self-education.
And what of the academic exploiters? I think it goes without saying that it will be necessary to “expropriate the expropriators.” However, being by nature a kindly and sedate man, I can only hope that it doesn’t come to the “liquidation of the academic exploiters as a class.” On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of “right opportunism” and realize full well that “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”
Posted on May 5th, 2013 4 comments
I believe in keeping up interstellar appearances. If aliens from outer space ever do visit us, I don’t want to be embarrassed. For example, it would be nice if they concluded that, given the rather short time since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we are actually rather smart. As things now stand, that’s most unlikely. What is likely is that they’ll have a hearty laugh at our expense, especially when they discover that we refer to ourselves as “Man the Wise.” In the first place, a large majority of us still believe in imaginary super-beings who plan to boil us in hell for billions and trillions of years for the paltry sins they knew we were predestined to commit and couldn’t possibly avoid during our brief lives, or who are divided up into a complicated mélange of “spirit” and human-like sexual characteristics. In the second, they will notice that, even though we have known about evolution for more than a century and a half, we still ascribe all sorts of supernatural qualities to morality as well. Shameful! The snickers and knowing glances at interstellar cocktail parties will be unbearable.
It may be that a benign zoologist or two among them will observe what orgasmic pleasure we get out of striking self-righteous poses, and how addicted we are to imagining ourselves as “good” and the others as “evil,” and will frown at all this levity at our expense. Such delicious pleasures are easy to rationalize, and hard to part with. Besides, surely some of the very interstellar wags who laugh the loudest at our expense belong to species that commited follies in their “gilded youth” that were just as bad, if not worse. Still, I’m keeping a paper bag handy to put over my head at need if the time comes.
The God thing is bad enough, but, as the sympathetic zoologists might point out, at least it’s understandable. Our species has an inordinate fear of dying and, since we’ve also managed the whimsical trick of identifying our consciousness, an entirely secondary entity that exists because it promoted genetic survival, with our “selves,” we imagine there’s no way out. We either have to face the fact that we’re going to “depart from among men,” as the historian Procopius always put it, or – we have to invent an imaginary super-being to save us.
The morality thing is a different matter. We don’t keep up that charade to avoid death. We just do it because it’s fun. Members of our species love to imagine themselves as noble heroes in a never-ending battle against evil. It “promotes high self-esteem.” It enables us to do remarkably selfish things in the name of selflessness. It even diverts our attention from our impending end and, when combined with the God illusion, offers an illusory way of escaping it. Dealing with people who are enamored of their own righteousness is always an inconvenience. Occasionally it’s much worse than that. They become psychopathic, manage to convince others that they’re right, and commit mass murder as a way of eliminating the evil people. It turns out that the God nexus isn’t even necessary. Even people who avoid that first illusion usually fall victim to the second – that Good and Evil are real things, objects in themselves.
The rationalization of the illusion is always flimsy enough. In the case of religious believers, we have been provided with an example by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. It goes like this:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore, God exists.
This is a farrago of nonsense. What does the existence of a super-being have to do with objective morality? Certainly, he can fry us in hell for billions and trillions of years for daring to disagree with him, but in the end, his opinion of good and evil is just that – an opinion. His opinion is no more legitimate than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that he can either torture us forever on the one hand, or shack us up with 72 virgins on the other. In other words, there is no way in which moral values can become objects just because he wants it that way. The existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of objective moral values.
As for the second component of the syllogism, it is a statement of faith, not fact. If objective moral values really do exist, how is it that, after all these thousands of years, we are still waiting for one of the moralists to catch one in his butterfly net and show it to us, neatly mounted on a pin? As for the third component, it evaporates without the first two.
The attempts of the atheists are just as persistent, and just as absurd. They often take the form of conflating a utilitarian ought with a moral ought. A typical example that is actually offered as a “rebuttal” to the Christian syllogism above recently appeared at Secular Outpost. The author, Bradley Bowen, starts out reasonably enough, noting that,
One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2). If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.
Then, however, he begins wading into the swamp:
Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1). Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values. I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE (Craig) argument.
Religious people have a way of becoming very acute logicians when it comes to assessing the moral illusions of atheists. William Lane Craig is no exception. Bowen quotes him as follows:
I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists? I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction. Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.
Reasonable enough. Here, of course, it is obvious that Craig is referring to justice as an objective moral good. He also points out the simple and seemingly obvious fact, at least since the days of Darwin, that, absent a God, moral values are “properties of persons.” Well put! While human morality can manifest itself in countless varieties of rules, systems, and laws depending on time and circumstances, the ultimate reason for its existence is a “property of persons.” In all its variations, it represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits. Absent those ultimate causes, carried about in the genetic material of each “person,” morality as most people understand the term would disappear.
Bowen, however, kicks against the goads. For him, dispensing with “objective moral values” would be as hard as giving up chocolate, or even sex. It would take all the joy out of life. To preserve them, he comes up with a “proof” just as chimerical as Craig’s syllogism. In essence, it is just a crude and transparent attempt to ignore the word “objective.” According to Bowen,
Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR (Atheistic Moral Realism) believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see. Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true. It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.
It is not hard to see at all. If justice does not exist independently of humans or persons, then it is subjective, not objective. Bowen has simply decided to ignore the term “objective.” This becomes more clear in the following:
I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons. If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity. However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.
In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as “green.” No doubt if we were smart enough, we could dissect all the molecules, hormones, and atomic interactions that account for the impression ”green.” However, if there is really any distinction between subjective and objective at all, green remains subjective. In other words, it is the impression left on the mind of an individual by certain real things, in this case, photons. It is, however, not the things themselves. Bowen is left with the burden of demonstrating how justice and all the rest of his moral subjects are magically transformed into objects. That, after all, is the whole point of Craig’s use of the term “objective.” How does justice, as described by Bowen, acquire the ability to leap out of his skull, or of any other skull for that matter, and become an “object.” By what mysterious process does it acquire that legitimacy?
No, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have more bad news for you. Not only is there not a Santa Claus, but there is no God, and no objective morality. Don’t despair, though. Santa Claus was certainly a grievous loss, but we’d all be much better off without the other two. In the end, lies are liabilities. “God” motivates us to fly airplanes full of people into tall buildings, and “objective morality” convinces us that we are perfectly justified in murdering millions of people because they are Jews or “bourgeoisie.”
Well, in spite of these rather obvious drawbacks, just as we are certainly descended from apes, most of us are certainly still absurd enough to believe in Gods and “objective morality.” When it comes to potential interstellar visitors, I can but paraphrase Darwin’s apocryphal noble lady and hope that these absurdities don’t become generally known. I’m still keeping my paper bag handy, though.
Posted on April 22nd, 2013 No comments
A while back in an online discussion with a German “Green,” I pointed out that, if Germany shut down its nuclear plants, coal plants would have to remain in operation to take up the slack. He was stunned that I could be so obtuse. Didn’t I realize that the lost nuclear capacity would all be replaced by benign “green” energy technology? Well, it turns out things didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, the lost generating capacity is being replaced by – coal.
Germany is building new coal-fired power plants hand over fist, with 26 of them planned for the immediate future. According to Der Spiegel, the German news magazine that never misses a trick when it comes to bashing nuclear, that’s a feature, not a bug. A recent triumphant headline reads, “Export Boom: German Coal Electricity Floods Europe.” Expect more of the same from the home of Europe’s most pious environmentalists. Germany has also been rapidly expanding its solar and wind capacity recently thanks to heavy state subsidies, but the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, especially in Germany. Coal plants are required to fill in the gaps – lots of them. Of course, it would be unprofitable to let them sit idle when wind and solar are available, so they are kept going full blast. When the power isn’t needed in Germany, it is sold abroad, serving as a useful prop to Germany’s export fueled economy.
Remember the grotesque self-righteousness of Der Spiegel and the German “Greens” during the Kyoto Treaty debates at the end of the Clinton administration? Complying with the Kyoto provisions cost the Germans nothing. They had just shut down the heavily polluting and grossly unprofitable industries in the former East Germany, had brought large numbers of new gas-fired plants on line thanks to increasing gas supplies from the North Sea fields, and had topped it off with a lame economy in the 90′s compared to the booming U.S. Their greenhouse gas emissions had dropped accordingly. Achieving similar reductions in the U.S. wouldn’t have been a similar “freebie.” It would have cost tens of thousands of jobs. The German “Greens” didn’t have the slightest problem with this. They weren’t interested in achieving a fair agreement that would benefit all. They were only interested in striking pious poses.
Well, guess what? Times have changed. Last year U.S. carbon emissions were at their lowest level since 1994, and down 3.7% from 2011. Our emissions are down 7.7% since 2006, the largest drop among major industrial states on the planet. German emissions were up at least 1.5% last year, and probably more like 2%. Mention this to a German “Green,” and he’s likely to mumble something about Germany still being within the Kyoto limits. That’s quite true. Germany is still riding the shutdown of what news magazine Focus calls “dilapidated, filthy, communist East German industry after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” to maintain the facade of environmental “purity.”
That’s small comfort to her eastern European neighbors. Downwind from Germany’s coal-fired plants, their “benefit” from her “green” policies is acid rain, nitrous oxide laced smog, deadly particulates that kill and sicken thousands and, last but not least, a rich harvest of radioactive fallout. That’s right, Germany didn’t decrease the radioactive hazard to her neighbors by shutting down her nuclear plants. She vastly increased it. Coal contains several parts per million each of radioactive uranium and thorium. These elements are harmless enough – if kept outside the body. The energetic alpha particles they emit are easily stopped by a normal layer of skin. When that happens, they dump the energy they carry in a very short distance, but, since skin is dead, it doesn’t matter. It’s an entirely different matter when they dump those several million electron volts of energy into a living cell – such as a lung cell. Among other things, that can easily derange the reproductive equipment of the cell, causing cancer. How can they reach the lungs? Very easily if the uranium and thorium that emit them are carried in the ash from a coal-fired plant. A typical coal-fired plant releases about 5 tons of uranium and 12 tons of thorium every year. The German “Greens” have no problem with this, even though they’re constantly bitching about the relatively miniscule release of uranium from U.S. depleted uranium munitions. Think scrubber technology helps? Guess again! The uranium and thorium are concentrated in the ash, whether it ends up in the air or not. They can easily leach into surrounding cropland and water supplies.
The last time there was an attempt to move radioactive waste to the Gorleben storage facility within Germany, the “Greens” could be found striking heroic poses as saviors of the environment all along the line, demonstrating, tearing up tracks, and setting police vehicles on fire. Their “heroic” actions forced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants. The “gift” (German for “poison”) of their “heroic” actions to Germany’s neighbors came in the form of acid rain, smog, and airborne radiation. By any reasonable standard, coal-fired plants are vastly more dangerous and damaging to the environment than the nuclear facilities they replaced.
It doesn’t matter to Germany’s “Greens.” The acid rain, the radiation, the danger of global warming they always pretend to be so concerned about? It doesn’t matter. For them, as for the vast majority of other environmental zealots worldwide, the pose is everything. The reality is nothing.
Posted on April 16th, 2013 No comments
Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal. Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths. In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays. Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years. As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.
For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:
The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency. Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.
In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:
The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste. The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.
The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people. The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets. The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship. Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day. Strange: it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.
However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable: at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.” Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion. The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.
Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate. For example,
Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.
His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.” Times change, and so do ideological dogmas. Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”
Posted on April 15th, 2013 7 comments
Anyone with a passing interest in evolutionary biology has heard of Dr. Robert Trivers. He is a giant in the field, and the seminal papers he published in the 1970′s on reciprocal altruism, parental investment theory, and gene-level thinking inspired the work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Well, I happened to look up a link for a reference to him in another post, and found to my surprise that he has been driven off the campus of Rutgers University! He has been involved in a controversy lately over his accusation that one of his graduate students committed fraud in a scientific paper. Apparently he was banned from campus because a colleague who supports the alleged fraudster claimed Trivers had “frightened him in his office.”
Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of any details of the case, but it does seem a bit rich that a university that tolerated a violent homophobe as basketball coach for three years would ban and humiliate an honored scientist with no history of violent or aggressive behavior because someone claimed he “frightened him.” Amazingly, there’s almost nothing about this case on the Internet. Here is Trivers’ side of the story:
I was involved in a case of academic fraud at Rutgers University concerning a very striking paper published in one of the top science journals of the world (Nature, 2005). I was a co-author on that paper and the head of the project in which the work took place. I was then a co-author of a short book proving that the prior paper was completely fraudulent. Indeed the chance that it was not fraudulent was less than one in ten billion.
But a colleague who wished to preserve the results (Dr Cronk) took the opposite view. I was creating the illusion of fraud beyond one in a billion but there was actually no fraud at all. When the dust settled, I was ejected from campus, not permitted back to any of it except in the company of an armed police officer for almost five months, deprived of any contact with my two classes, then 90% complete, deprived of my research space for 20 months and found to be in violation of the University’s anti-violence policy (which can lead to suspension without pay) having done nothing more violent than call a man who had slandered and defamed me multiple times, a “punk”.
If this is true, it is certainly a high-handed abuse of authority by the Rutgers administration. I would certainly like to hear Rutgers’ version of what happened, but can find nothing on the web. All this didn’t happen yesterday. Where are all the scientific heavyweights who have heaped praise on Trivers over the years? Are their reputations too delicate for them to get involved? They certainly don’t need to rush to judgment one way or the other, but at the very least they could insist that the public be given some rudimentary information about what’s going on. I don’t doubt that Trivers rubs many people the wrong way. He represents the exact opposite of the Blank Slater narrative according to which evolutionary biologists and psychologists are really all closet fascists and racists. He was close friends with Huey Newton, former Chairman of the Black Panthers, who served as godfather for one of his children, and is a bitter enemy of Israel and supporter of the Palestinians. However, his take on the reasons behind his punishment has the ring of truth. In his words,
As I later learned, my case showed many of the classic features of such cases in academia. Chiefly, there is no upside to fraud—at least not to admitting to it—the university in which the work takes place has no interest in revealing the fraud that occurs within its boundaries, nor does the journal that published the fraud.
The scientific journal claims to promote and publish the truth, but when presented with strong contrary evidence to work it has already published, it does not act at once to retract the results nor even call attention to their untrustworthiness—in fact, it often does nothing at all. Thus, a paper (Brown et al 2005 [PDF]) may easily survive un-rebutted in the literature for over seven years, accruing 127 citations, in spite of a small book (Trivers et al 2009 [PDF]) proving the fraud far beyond a reasonable doubt, yet to this day Nature refuses to publish even a reference to the book. For an account of Cronk’s early behavior regarding the fraud problem, see Chapter 12 of Trivers et al (The Anatomy of a Fraud [PDF]).
Since the work was supported by Federal funds (NSF), the rule is that when fraud is alleged concerning such work, the Institution that received the money must investigate and report back to the Federal government—otherwise the Federal government is happy to cut off ALL federally supported research until compliance is achieved. In short, Rutgers had no choice and its 27-month investigation duly confirmed that fraud was committed (RAB report 2012 [PDF]) exactly as alleged in our 2009 book. Although Rutgers refuses to release the report publicly, I do so here because I am permitted to share copies of the report with whomever I choose. I was co-principal investigator and co-author on the fraud itself and I was co-author on a book proving the fraud. Rutgers’ official investigation merely bore out what our book showed.
Does Rutgers have a different version? By all means let’s hear it. Whether one agrees with his political opinions or not, Dr. Trivers has made mighty contributions to the advance of human knowledge. If he has really deserved the punishment and humiliation meted out to him by the Rutgers officialdom, the public certainly has a right to know the reasons why.
UPDATE: Richard Dawkins has apparently taken notice. I also found a post by leftover Blank Slater John Horgan about a response from Trivers to one of his rants against evolutionary psychology. According to Horgan, Trivers called it “shallow,” and accused him of “acting out the old Scientific American‘s long-standing inability to look at human sociobiology objectively.” This at least demonstrates that Trivers hasn’t lost his originality, and ability to think outside of an ideological box. Why? Because in spite of the fact that he stands on the left of the political spectrum himself, it’s apparently clear to him that Scientific American is much better described as a political tract than a science journal. He also isn’t afraid to offend the Horgan clones who still manage to maintain the ancient orthodoxy that there is no such thing as human nature in some of the more sequestered echo chambers of academia. Perhaps this explains why it has been necessary for him, so far at least, to fight this battle alone.
Posted on April 15th, 2013 2 comments
As Herman Melville might have put it, the precious metals are spouting black blood and floating fin up. No doubt the astute readers of this blog are all short gold on the commodity exchanges, but I shudder to think of the gloom among the goldbugs today.
Gold spot close last Monday: $1574
Gold spot close today: $1335
The reason given for today’s drop of over $140 an ounce was “weakness in the Chinese markets.” Lame. The guys who come up with that stuff are just one step above editorial writers.
Posted on April 14th, 2013 No comments
Leon Trotsky was the best and the brightest of the old Bolsheviks. A brilliant revolutionary and military leader, he played seminal roles in organizing both the 1905 and 1917 Bolshevik revolutions in Russia, and without him the Whites may well have won the Russian Civil War. A few years after he defeated the last of the White generals, Stalin ousted him from power. He gave his last public speech in 1927 at the funeral of fellow “left oppositionist” Adolf Joffe, was exiled in 1929, and finally murdered by one of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico in 1940. While in exile, he was kept well-informed about events in the Soviet Union, including the slaughter of the Kulaks, the mass death in the Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, the unabated hunger and misery of the survivors, and the persistent mass terror with its hundreds of thousands of executions and rapid expansion of the Gulag system. He treated with scorn the breathless praise of Stalin by the ”friends” of the Soviet Union, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, etc. And yet, in spite of it all, he continued defending the Bolshevik Revolution to the end. How could such an intelligent man continue to defend something so vile and destructive?
In fact, it isn’t so hard to understand. Human beings aren’t really particularly intelligent, except in comparison to other animals, and they have a strong tendency to believe what they want to believe. Trotsky was a convinced Marxist, and had a powerful incentive to believe that the revolution he had done so much to prepare and execute really was the path to a bright new future rather than the most bloody and destructive debacle in human history, as now seems clear in retrospect. No one likes to face the fact that their life’s work has been in vain, and based on an illusion. Trotsky’s rationalizations were probably similar to those of a great many other supporters of the Stalin regime in the 1930′s, including the “friends” he so despised.
The most concise summary of those rationalizations is probably his, The Revolution Betrayed, which was published in 1936. Here are some of the key quotes:
…by concentrating the means of production in the hands of the state, the revolution made it possible to apply new and incomparably more effective industrial methods. Only thanks to a planned directive was it possible in so brief a span to restore what had been destroyed by the imperialist and civil wars, to create gigantic new enterprises, to introduce new kinds of production and establish new branches of industry.
The vast scope of industrialization in the Soviet Union, as against a background of stagnation and decline in almost the whole capitalist world, appears unanswerably in the following gross indices. Industrial production in Germany, thanks solely to feverish war preparations, is now returning to the level of 1929. Production in Great Britain, holding to the apron strings of protectionism, has raised itself three or four percent during these six years. Industrial production in the United States has declined approximately 25 per cent; in France, more than 30 per cent. First place among capitalist countries is occupied by Japan, who is furiously arming herself and robbing her neighbors. Her production has risen almost 40 percent! But even this exceptional index fades before the dynamic of development in the Soviet Union. Her industrial production has increased during this same period approximately 3.5 times, or 250 percent. The heavy industries have increased their production during the last decade (1925 to 1935) more than ten times.
Gigantic achievements in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and a building of new ones, a rapid increase of the number of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands – such are the indubitable results of the October revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization. With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.
This also ends the quarrel with the reformists in the workers’ movement. Can we compare for one moment their mouselike fussing with the titanic work accomplished by this people aroused to a new life by revolution?
As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, “So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despair.” At the time Trotsky wrote these words, there was nothing deceptive about them. All of the above seemed to be quite factual. As it happens, he was actually well aware of some of the blemishes to this pretty picture that, in the end, resulted in the demise of Communism. For example,
But this same feverish growth has also had its negative side. There is no correspondence between the different elements of industry; men lag behind technique; the leadership is not equal to its tasks. Altogether this expresses itself in extremely high production costs and poor quality of product.
The tractor is the pride of Soviet industry. But the coefficient of effective use of tractors is very low. During the last industrial year, it was necessary to subject 81 percent of the tractors to capital repairs. A considerable number of them, moreover, got out of order again at the very height of the tilling season… Things are still worse in the sphere of auto transport. In America a truck travels sixty to eighty, or even one hundred thousand kilometers a year; in the Soviet Union only twenty thousand – that is, a third or a fourth as much.
A unique law of Soviet industry may be formulated this; commodities are as a general rule worse the nearer they stand to the consumer.
To the low productivity of labor corresponds a low national income, and consequently a low standard of life for the masses of the people.
In a word, Trotsky saw the Achilles heel. He just couldn’t convince himself it would be fatal. If a man as brilliant as him could still support the regime in spite of all these reservations, and in spite of his clear vision of the ongoing and escalating brutality, is it any wonder that millions of dupes in the West, not as well versed in economics and quick to take at face value the soothing assurances of Stalinist toadies like Walter Duranty that the starvation, executions, and Gulag were all an illusion, should support it as well, in the honest belief that it really did represent a portal to human progress and the workers’ paradise to come? One can grasp the psychology of the useful idiots, the parlor pinks like the Webbs who hadn’t advanced intellectually beyond the stage of seeing in Stalin nothing more threatening than a loving uncle, and reacted furiously to any suggestion that the real picture wasn’t quite so warm and fuzzy as the delusion they’d created for themselves. But what of a man like Trotsky? Again, it’s all there in The Revolution Betrayed.
9 Thermidor is a critical date in history for Marxists the world over. It has assumed a sort of mystical quality, supposedly representing the inevitable fate of all revolutions. It is the date that Robespierre was deposed as leader of the French Revolution, the terror that he promoted was ended, and a period of so-called “reaction” set in. For Marxists, Thermidor represents the victory of the counter-revolution. For Trotsky, the victory of Stalin was the Thermidor of the Russian revolution. No matter that the rise of Stalin didn’t end the terror, but vastly magnified it, and that, far from being “reactionary,” he ended the flirting with capitalism represented by the New Economic Policy of 1921, and collectivized agriculture, policies that had actually long been advocated by Trotsky and his “left opposition.” For a mind steeped in Marxist dogma, nothing was easier than to see the rise of Stalin as the “counter-revolution” in spite of all this. Indeed, chapter 5 of The Revolution is Betrayed is entitled “The Soviet Thermidor – Why Stalin Triumphed.” According to Trotsky, the “counter-revolutionaries” were the caste of bureaucrats, opportunist and careerist parasites who preached that, after the shock and exhaustion of revolution and civil war, the proletariat deserved a rest. Alas, the wearied workers were only too ready to listen to this siren song. As Trotsky put it,
The Opposition was isolated. The bureaucracy struck while the iron was hot, exploiting the bewilderment and passivity of the workers, setting their more backward strata against the advanced, and relying more and more boldly upon the kulak and the petty bourgeois ally in general. In the course of a few years, the bureaucracy thus shattered the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.
To a Marxist like Trotsky, there had to be a class explanation for everything. Thus, Stalin was not a clever and unscrupulous manipulator who had gradually and insidiously gathered the threads of power into his own hands. Rather, he was a secondary figure who just happened to have the good fortune to be chosen by the “new class” of bureaucrats as its tool. Again quoting Trotsky:
It would be naive to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings full armed with a complete strategical plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorean bureaucracy, as first in its midst.
And what was to be the solution to this unfortunate ascendency of the reaction? After all the misery, starvation, and death, did Trotsky have second thoughts about the wisdom of “proletarian revolutions”? Hardly! He wanted to double down! The gains of the October revolution were to be saved by a new revolution of the resurgent workers that would sweep the bureaucracy aside. This new revolution was to be led by Trotsky’s fourth International, led, of course, by himself.
At the very end, Trotsky began to doubt this fine vision of a victorious proletariat. In In Defense of Marxism, a collection of essays and letters that was the last of his books to appear before his murder, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war 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.
In the end, of course, the “proletariat” did not fulfill its “mission.” After the war, new Communist revolutions spawned new exploiting bureaucracies, just as had happened in Russia. In none of the new Communist regimes did the state ever show even the faintest sign of “fading away,” as predicted by Marx. But in 1936, all this was still more than a decade off, and the revolutionary hubris was still strong. Millions of parlor pinks and fellow travelers the world over were blinded by the “gigantic achievements” of the Soviet Union, lacked Trotsky’s ability to see the downside, and were convinced that the Great Depression signaled the “inevitable” demise of capitalism, and so, in vast number, became Communists. It is only remarkable that, in the United States, at least, the numbers remained so small. We must be grateful for the fact that we have always been so “politically backward” when it comes to accepting the “scientific” claims of socialist theoreticians. It remained for another one-time Communist, the brilliant Montenegrin Milovan Djilas, to confirm Trotsky’s worst fears, and describe the essential nature of the new exploiters in his The New Class, which appeared in 1957.
The fact that a man as intelligent as Trotsky could have deceived himself so completely for so long in spite of his respect for the truth and his clear perception of the fact that things were not quite going exactly as Marx had predicted does not encourage much hope regarding the collective wisdom of the rest of mankind. It seems that, unless we find a way to become smarter, we will probably eventually find a way to destroy ourselves. In the case of Communism, we have been given a respite. The God of this greatest of all secular religions failed after claiming a mere 100 million human lives. Let us hope we have learned something from the experience. If not, the next great messianic dogma to come along is likely to claim considerably more victims.
Posted on April 13th, 2013 2 comments
Supposedly Otto von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” The same could as well be said of science. However, for those who insist on watching the process, Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” is a must read. The book relates the author’s experiences as an anthropologist, a field long dominated by a particularly unsavory crew of sausage makers. Indeed, there is some question about whether they ever intended to make any real sausages at all. Instead, for many decades now, they have been busily engaged in concocting imaginary ones, which have the advantage of tasting much better than the real ones. In point of fact, they don’t invent sausages, but human beings, which, unlike the real ones, are never aggressive, and always nice. One might refer to them as Homo nihilum.
Chagnon was never cut out to be one of these fanciful anthropologists. He lacked imagination. On top of that, he was naive. In a word, he told the truth. Chagnon devoted his career to studying the Yanomamö, an indigenous people of South America. It was obvious to him from the start that they were not particularly nice, and were decidedly not invariably benign and unaggressive. He lacked the skills that are carefully acquired by most anthropologists, such as the ability, when one holds up four fingers in front of their face, to truly believe that they are seeing five. In a word, he had the bad taste to blurt out what he had seen in learned journals and academic conferences. This unwonted candor so shocked his fellow anthropologists that they actually began acting like Yanomamö themselves, confirming some of Chagnon’s hypotheses in the process; they reacted with furious hostility and aggression towards a perceived member of an outgroup. The shibboleth of human “niceness” that Chagnon had so clumsily demolished happened to be one of the main ideological props, not only of their ingroup, but of the ingroup of a whole host of related ideologues as well. In their alternative universe, humans are never, ever naturally aggressive. The somewhat discordant fact that warfare has been a ubiquitous feature of human existence since before the dawn of recorded time is explained away as merely the unfortunate artifact of some pathological derailing of human culture in the distant past. In order for us all to become “nice” again, all we need to do is eliminate these pernicious cultural engrams from our brains by such time-honored techniques as denying the obvious. Ironically, their furious and ruthless attacks on Chagnon provided a perfect example of the very behavior they were so determined to deny. They debunked their own myth. As Chagnon put it,
This virtual Noble Savage is a construct based on faith: in that respect anthropology has become more like a religion – where major truths are established by faith, not facts.
Despite the skepticism widely shared in the now politically correct anthropological profession, the ethnographic and archaeological evidence overwhelmingly indicates that warfare has been the most important single force shaping the evolution of political society in our species.
Having so egregiously upset the apple cart by observing that human beings are not necessarily all that “nice” after all, Chagnon could not leave well enough alone. Instead, he rubbed salt in the wound. As any good progressive can tell you, such human conflict as does exist must be caused by “greed” for money, property, and related appurtenences of the social means of production. Alas, it turns out that this notion, too, belongs in the realm of faith, not facts. In the author’s words,
Conflicts over the possession of nubile females have probably been the main reason for fights and killings throughout most of human history: the original human societal rules emerged, in all probability, to regulate male access to females and prevent the social chaos attendant on fighting over women.
I suggest that conflicts over the means of reproduction – women – dominated the political machinations of men during a vast span of human history and shaped human male psychology. It was only after polygyny became “expensive” that these conflicts shifted to material resources – the “gold and diamonds” my incredulous colleagues alluded to – and the material means of production. By that time, after the agricultural revolution, the accummulation of wealth – and its consequence, power – had become a prerequisite to having multiple mates.
Chagnon simply would not desist. Next, he went after another of the favorite sacred cows of the “progressives”; the notion of egalitarianism:
Pre-state societies – tribesmen like the Yanomamö – are described by many anthropologists as egalitarian: everyone is more or less interchangeable with any other person of the same age and same sex, so status differentials are essentially determined by age, sex, and occasionally the ephemeral characteristics of leaders. This is definitely not the case among the Yanomamö. If my teachers (and anthropology textbooks) got anything wrong, it was their misunderstanding of the notion of egalitarianism: they stubbornly insisted on tying it to “differential access to material resources.” Among the Yanomamö, tribesmen differ in their ability to command and order others around because of differing numbers of kinsmen they can deploy in their service, whether they are unokai (men who have killed or been involved in a killing), and other nonmaterial attributes.
The traditional anthropological view of egalitarianism is remarkably Eurocentric and ethnocentric, that is, the argument that tribesmen are egalitarian because nobody has “privileged” access to “strategic” material resources. Such a view erroneously projects our own political and economic views into the Stone Age.
Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all was Chagnon’s embrace of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology. As he put it,
Our training had emphasized the role that culture played in human social relationships while completely ignoring the evolution of human behavior. The view from anthropology was that psychologists studied human behavior and anthropologists studied culture. Ever since Durkheim, cultural anthropology was skeptical about not only psychology and biology, but any theory that emphasized the biological underpinnings of behavior.
He goes on to describe his own embrace of what is known to the layman as human nature, and the furious attacks such ideas drew from the ideological zealots of the “progressive” left, noting,
One of the pro-sociobiology participants that I frequently ran into at these debates, Robert Trivers, said to me at one of them: “I’ve finally figured out what they mean by a ‘balanced’ debate. For every clear demonstration of how effective a sociobiological explanation is of some phenomenon, it must be ‘balanced’ by a completely nonsensical appeal to B.S., emotions, and political correctness.
Of course, this particular flavor of ideologically inspired obscurantism is known to aficionados as the Blank Slate episode in the behavioral sciences. It is interesting how his status as, in spite of his heresies, a member of the academic tribe, has shaped Chagnon’s consciousness of the affair. For example, he is unfamiliar with anything that happened before E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology in 1975, has apparently never read Robert Ardrey and is unaware of his significance, particularly in shaping the consciousness of a large audience outside of academia, and seems unaware that, for the time being at least, the Blank Slaters have lost control of the message outside of the ivory towers. For example, the “mainstream media” has embraced the basic premises of evolutionary psychology as if there had never been the least controversy about the subject. This was decidedly not the case in the 1980′s and 90′s. Furthermore, Chagnon seems to think that Blank Slate ideology was less pervasive in other branches of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology, than in cultural anthropology. This was certainly not the case in the United States, though it may have been true to some extent in Europe and elsewhere. In a word, he takes a very cultural anthropology-centric view of the affair. As a result he can certainly see clearly enough what’s going on in his own field. However, the impact of the Blank Slate orthodoxy transcends any one academic baliwick, and he may not see this big picture quite as well.
In any case, all these heresies goaded the ideologues who called the tune in anthropology into a frenzy. As usual, they were none too picky about the ways they chose to strike back. There were, of course, the usual accusations of racism and fascism, and the familiar bowdlerization of anything faintly smacking of evolutionary psychology as “genetic determinism.” A collection of slanders was published by a particularly vile reptile by the name of Patrick Tierney and, to its eternal shame, was uncritically received by the august members of the American Anthropological Association. Those interested in the details of this episode are encouraged to read, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association,” by Alice Dreger. The attacks continue unabated to this day. A typical example of the genre, full of the usual pious grandstanding, by one Lori Allen, another “expert” who was never there may be found here. By all means read her essay. After you reach the 99th ad hominem attack on Chagnon, it may start to dawn on you why I insist on the importance of understanding morality for what it really is. In general, people like Ms. Allen can no more justify the legitimacy of their copious striking of pious poses than the man in the moon.
In the end, Chagnon had the consolation of being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, at which one of his more persistent attackers, Martin Sahlins, resigned. Good riddance! May many more of Sahlins’ fellow obscurantists pursue the same course. It reminds me of the words from my favorite German version of Haydns Creation, after God says, “Let there be light!” (see Google translate. The original libretto was actually in English, but I like the German translation a lot better)
Erstarrt entflieht der Höllengeister Schar
In des Abgrunds Tiefen hinab
Zur ewigen Nacht.
Verzweiflung, Wut und Schrecken
Begleiten ihren Sturz,
Und eine neue Welt
Entspringt auf Gottes Wort.
I may be an atheist, but sometimes a good oratorio hits the spot. Other than that, I can only say I admire Chagnon for his courage, both in enduring the rage of his fellow “scientists,” and in working in conditions in which his life and safety were anything but secure for many years in the pursuit of knowledge. And, by all means, read the book.
UPDATE: Hattip to her ladyship for the hbd-chick-lanche.
Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on March 26th, 2013 3 comments
New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.” According to Boehm,
In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.
Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.
All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.
Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.
However, something has gone terribly wrong. International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it. As Boehm puts it,
What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.
I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior. My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system? There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them. Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way. However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous. If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system. However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.
Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.
It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy. The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous. Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism? Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences? Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation. However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place. Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality. And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup. There is no Good without Evil. Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us. Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation? Hardly! One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.
I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions. I am, after all, human too. However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it. What’s that you say? It can’t happen here? You have a very short historical memory! By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful. However, let’s leave morality out of it. Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.” Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.