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  • The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, Conclusion

    Posted on August 30th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The resistance of orthodoxies, secular as well as religious, to freedom of thought and the advance of human knowledge did not end with the persecution of Galileo and Giordano Bruno. As a species, we are predisposed to react with hate and hostility to the “out-group,” the “others” whom we perceive to be different from and a potential threat to our own “in-group.” Now, however, we live in a radically different world from the one in which the wiring in our brains responsible for such behavioral traits evolved. The boundary between our own “in-group” and the “others” is now as likely to be defined by ideas as by geographical features that separate the next group of hunter-gatherers from our own. As a result, furious hatreds accompanied by violent warfare have been spawned by now long-forgotten differences over such things as the role of images in religious belief, or the details of the ritual associated with the sacrament of Communion. In fact, human history is incomprehensible unless one grasps the significance of this in-group/out-group behavior of ours, sometimes referred to as the Amity/Enmity Complex. It is one of the more interesting phenomena of our own day that recognition of this most obvious and most inconvenient of all truths itself became one of the defining markers of the “out-group,” and a threat to the belief system of an ideological in-group that had gained control of and managed to impose its own orthodoxies in psychology, anthropology, and several other fields of scientific inquiry.

    The hypothesis that innate mental traits or “human nature” plays a significant role in mediating human behavior has been around since long before the days of Darwin. However, beginning in the 1960’s with the popular works of thinkers like Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz and continuing with the publication of “Sociobiology” and “Human Nature” by E.O. Wilson in the 1970’s, recognition of the significance of innate behavior gained a much wider acceptance. Such ideas were, however, a direct threat to the ideological orthodoxies then prevailing in the academic and professional communities. Those communities reacted in the time-honored fashion of human “in-groups” in all ages to this challenge from the “others;” with hatred, irrational hostility, and demonization. I will discuss the manifestations thereof in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that, unlike differences of opinion over whether Christ was the real or adopted Son of God, controversies over the factors that impact human behavior can be informed by the observation of repeatable experiments. In a relatively short time, the ideological orthodoxy of the 60’s and 70’s regarding human nature was buried under a mountain of facts. In the resulting paradigm shift, culminating only in the last decade or so, the profound impact of the innate on human behavior has finally gained general acceptance.

    In a sense, however, the old defenders of the faith in “nurture, not nature” were right. The hypothesis of innate human behavior was a direct threat to their whole belief system. Then as now, by their own admission, the expert communities in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and related fields occupy ideological ground that is substantially left of center. They are predominantly, if not exclusively, characterized by an implicit or explicit belief in legitimate, objective good, more or less vaguely characterized by terms such as “human flourishing” and “human brotherhood,” and by a perception that they should play an active role in guiding the rest of us towards “the good.” However, once the significance of the innate on human behavior has been accepted, it follows that the evolutionary origins of these aspects of our nature must be accepted as well. It is quite obvious that they did not evolve because they had a “purpose,” and that “purpose” was to promote “human flourishing” in a world radically different from the one in which they evolved. It is also quite obvious that they evolved for reasons that had nothing to do with promoting the ideological goals of self-described “liberals” in the 21st century. Those facts have and will continue to have a highly corrosive effect on the belief system of the academic and professional experts who specialize in the study of human behavior, and particularly those who focus on that aspect of our behavior that comes under the general heading of morality.

    In previous posts I have discussed the impact of all this on the thought of nine representatives of this expert community who were the keynote speakers at a recent conference on “The New Science of Morality.” As we have seen, all of them, whether explicitly or not, recognize “the good” as a real, objective, thing in itself, independent of what goes on in the brain of any individual human being. As any good Christian or Moslem could tell them, there is no logical basis for this faith of theirs in “the good.” The fact that they believe in it anyway is a testimony to the power of the emotions associated innate human morality in creating the perception of something real where none exists.

    The result has been a kind of remarkable doublethink. The role of the innate on human morality is accepted, but it comes with the chimerical belief that, against all odds, those innate qualities of the human brain can be adjusted at will to achieve the kind of “human flourishing” that is the goal of latter day ideologues. The phenomenon was clearly in evidence at the Edge Conference. The keynote speakers all revealed their perception of “the good” as a real thing, and several of them spoke of morality as an adjustable tool for achieving “the good,” going so far as to speak of this form of toying with innate human behavioral traits as “moral progress.” There was an atheist who based his argument on the real existence of moral good on his own capacity for pious indignation, and a professor of psychology who asserted that morality exists to promote the better working of “the system” in the 21st century. A great deal of attention was paid to experimental evidence of innate human “kindness” and “niceness,” and commensurately little to the possibility that hatred, aggression, and demonization of “others” might also be behavioral traits with innate origins. It will be recalled by those who were around at the time that these were the aspects of human behavior that thinkers like Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, who were generally recognized by the professional community at the time as the most significant and articulate proponents of the importance of innate factors in human behavior through the 60’s and early 70’s, wanted to draw attention to. It turns out that, as far as innate influences on human behavior are concerned, they were right, and the professional community of experts was wrong. Under the circumstances, it would seem unwise, if not foolhardy, to dismiss their hypotheses about those aspects of human behavior that aren’t “nice” out of hand.

    One finds grounds for optimism that the prevailing illusions about “moral progress” will not be supportable for long in the remarks of the three speakers whose remarks we have not yet discussed. For example, psychologist Paul Bloom discussed experiments designed to explore the emergence of innate “niceness” in very young children and even babies, before such behavior can be taught or acquired via culture or environment. Among other things, he described the ability to infants to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys” as early as six months of age. He notes work by others that points to the conclusion that “kindness” is “part of our hard-wired inheritance.” However, he is not quite so optimistic. As he puts it:

    Our minds have evolved through processes such as kin selection and reciprocal altruism. We should therefore be biased in favor of those who share our genes at the expense of those who don’t, and we should be biased in favor of those who we are in continued interaction with at the expense of strangers. Also, there is now a substantial amount of developmental evidence suggesting that this kindness that we see early on is parochial. It is narrow. It is applied to those that a baby is in immediate contact with, and does not extend more generally until quite late in development.

    After citing some experimental work in support of this conclusion, he continued:

    This shouldn’t surprise us. Maybe it’s even better than we could have expected. The dominant trend of humanity has been to view strangers – non-relatives, those from other tribes – with hatred, fear and disgust. Jared Diamond talks about the groups in Papua New Guinea that he encountered. And he points out, for an individual to leave his or her tribe and just walk into another, strange tribe would be tantamount to suicide.

    It is noteworthy that Diamond, who is nothing if not politically correct by the standards of the current time, could have so casually written something like this. If he’d said it 45 or 50 years ago, anathemas would have reigned down from him on all sides, and he would have been dismissed as a heretic. As for Bloom, he continues,

    So there’s a puzzle, then, because the niceness we see now in the world today, by at least some people in the world, seems to clash with our natural morality, which is nowhere near as nice. How did we end up bridging the gap? How have we gotten so much nicer? Note that I’ve been focusing here on questions of our kindness to strangers, but this question could be asked about other aspects of morality, such as the origin of new moral ideas, such as that slavery is wrong or that we shouldn’t be sexist or racist. These are deep puzzles.

    It seems a great deal less puzzling to me. It can only be puzzling if you ignore the obvious fact that, as human culture and human knowledge have expanded and these new kindnesses have emerged as the ancient, innate and virtually unchanged human emotions associated with moral behavior have found expression in the new environmental context, new hostilities have evolved right along with them. The kindness of the French revolutionary proponents of human rights came with the guillotine, and the kindness of the universal brotherhood of Communism came with the deaths of tens of millions of class enemies. Now we see the kindness Bloom seems to so admire in our own day associated with furious hatred and hostility directed by the political left at the members of the Tea Party movement, representing a substantial proportion of the citizens of the United States and openly expressed desires for the deaths of prominent political opponents like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.

    Psychologist David Pizzaro discusses the influence of emotions in shaping what may seem at first glance to be judgments based on reason, focusing on the role of disgust. As he put it:

    We’ve shown that disgust sensitivity, that is, people who are more likely to be disgusted, over time end up developing certain kinds of moral views. In particular, we’ve shown that not only are people more political conservative if they’re more disgust sensitive, but they specifically are more politically conservative in the following ways: they tend to adhere to a certain kind of moral view that the conservative party in recent years in the United States has endorsed, that’s characterized by being against homosexuality and against abortion.

    Pizzaro goes on to consider the emotional component of liberal as well as conservative beliefs, thereby obliquely undermining the notion that they are logically consistent and legitimate. As any medieval churchman could have told him, such thoughts lead to heresy. We must hope they will do so in the future as they have in the past.

    Philosopher Joshua Knobe begins his talk as if he’d been asleep for the last half century:

    So far we have been talking about questions in moral psychology. So we’ve been talking about the questions: How is it that people make moral judgments? Do they make moral judgments based on emotion or reason? Is it a capacity that’s just learned or is it something that’s innate?

    However, he goes on to describe recent work by philosophers that entailed leaving the ivory towers of pure reason and actually conducting experiments. The result:

    But what’s really exciting about this new work is not so much just the very idea of philosophers doing experiments but rather the particular things that these people ended up showing. When these people went out and started doing these experimental studies, they didn’t end up finding results that conformed to the traditional picture. They didn’t find that there was a kind of initial stage in which people just figured out, on a factual level, what was going on in a situation, followed by a subsequent stage in which they used that information in order to make a moral judgment. Rather they really seemed to be finding exactly the opposite.

    What they seemed to be finding is that people’s moral judgments were influencing the process from the very beginning, so that people’s whole way of making sense of their world seemed to be suffused through and through with moral considerations. In this sense, our ordinary way of making sense of the world really seems to look very, very deeply different from a kind of scientific perspective on the world. It seems to be value-laden in this really fundamental sense.

    These, too, are conclusions that are fundamentally at odds with the notions of objective good and “moral progress.”

    It would seem, then, that based on the sample we have been considering, while comfortable orthodoxies still prevail in the world of “expert” opinion about morality, general acceptance of the fact that innate, emotional components play a very significant role in moral behavior must inevitably undermine those othodoxies as long as freedom of inquiry prevails. There is room for optimism. Heretics will appear, as they always do, and will start doing experiments and studies of brain function that will demonstrate and establish the less “kind” aspects of human moral behavior. It is to be hoped that this happens sooner rather than later, and when it does, the “experts” will realize that attempts to foster “human flourishing” by manipulating human moral behavior are not only doomed to failure, but will continue to be extremely dangerous, as they always have been in the past.  If we really want to flourish as a species we would do well to finally learn to understand ourselves.  After a long struggle with obscurantist ideologues, we have finally gained general acceptance of the significance of the innate in human nature, but we seem to balking at the next logical step.  We have a marked preference for studying the “nice” and “kind” in human behavior, and ignoring the “not so nice.”  It is time we pulled our heads out of the sand, because unless we thoroughly understand the darker side of our nature, we will have no chance of controlling it.  In a world full of nuclear weapons, the need seems rather obvious.  It’s hard to flourish if you’re dead.

  • The Novel Crime of being “Overwhelmingly White”

    Posted on August 29th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Insty notes the increasingly blatant racist narrative in the mainstream media.

    UPDATE: More of the “If you don’t agree with me and you have white skin you’re a racist” narrative from the NYT.

    UPDATE 2:  Another interesting take on “Teaparty racism.”  (hattip Erik at Non Pasaran, who recently penned another thoughtful article on the “birther” controversy.)

  • God Save us from the Fury of the Northmen…

    Posted on August 29th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The Danewirk (hattip Biopix)

    While we’ve been obsessing about Ahmadinejad, they’ve been busy.  Now the entire eastern seaboard of the US is within range of Danish missiles. Well, according a very modest statement by the guys at Copenhagen Suborbital about their amazing “amateur” rocket, tomorrow’s unmanned test launch is “only” supposed to reach an altitude of 30 km. Go, baby, go!

    There’s more cool news from Denmark.  Back in the day of Charlemagne, there was a wall across the base of their peninsula with only one gate in it.  Ten feet thick and 19 miles long, the Danevirke, or “Work of the Danes” is the largest earthwork in northern Europe.  According to Germany’s Spiegel, after seaching for it for a century, archeologist have now found the “gateway to the Viking empire.”

  • The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, V

    Posted on August 26th, 2010 Helian No comments

    I have discussed the Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality in previous posts (here, here, here and here). In our last episode, we discussed Sam Harris’ assertion that real good and real evil exist independently of the conscious minds of individuals, citing as proof his own virtuous indignation. We will now consider the impact of the very recent acceptance by the bulk of the expert community of the profound impact on human behavior of innate, hard-wired predispositions and behavioral tendencies, focusing on the general area of morality. In fact, it has been remarkably limited. The field is still dominated by the same WEIRD (from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies), primarily (by their own description) leftist academics and professionals who reigned during the heyday of the behaviorists and, once again, their ideology has severely constrained the discussion. In particular, the origins and reasons for the existence of moral behavior continue to be ignored, the implications of innate aspects of human behavior that are not considered “morally nice” are being glossed over, and “moral progress” is being discussed as if innate moral behavior evolved, not because it promoted genetic survival but because it was nature’s “purpose” for mankind to stride forward triumphantly to the current leftist version of a utopia characterized by “human flourishing.” Meanwhile, oddly enough, implicit belief in “real objective good” and “real objective evil” continues, free of any rational basis.

    All this should not be too surprising. The people we are talking about have always had a strong conviction of their own moral righteousness, and of the legitimacy of insisting that everyone else on the planet share their notions of good and evil. To give up such beliefs, irrational though they are, would mean abandoning their “in-group” and leaving the comfort of the ideological box they live in. That is not something human beings have an innate inclination to do.

    The next speaker at the conference, psychologist Roy Baumeister, provides us with an interesting data point on how the logical implications of innate moral behavior are suppressed in favor of a world view in which “progress” towards the Brave New World favored by the current generation of self-described liberals becomes “natural.”

    Of course, there is always the incongruous fact that innate moral predispositions evolved at a time when Baumeister’s Brave New World was unheard of, at a time of social and cultural existence utterly different from the present. Baumeister dispenses with this inconvenience by calling it a bad name; “reductionism.” “Reductionism” is a pejorative term used among scientists and academics, as free of actual meaning as terms like “fascist” or “socialist” in the current world of politics. In this case, it means something like, “One who believes that innate predispositions are a ‘Theory of Everything,’ discounting culture, education, and environmental effects on human behavior.” It is not recorded that any serious thinker ever held such a belief. The first speaker, Jonathan Haidt, put together a whole string of similar jargon to establish his academic gravitas in his introduction:

    I just briefly want to say, I think it’s crucial, as long as you’re going to be a nativist and say, “oh, you know, evolution, it’s innate,” you also have to be a constructivist. I’m all in favor of reductionism, as long as it’s paired with emergentism.

    It is not recorded that the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project ever used the terms nativism, constructivism, reductionism, or emergentism. Remarkably, the atom bomb worked on the first try in spite of that.

    In any case, having dispensed with the effect of innate predispositions on moral behavior by calling it “reductionist,” Baumeister continues with a talk that sounds as if it was coming straight from the lips of a 1960’s “culture is everything” behaviorist. For example,

    I’m convinced that the distinctively human aspects of psychology, the human aspects of evolution were adaptations to enable us to have this new and better kind of social life, namely culture. Culture is our biological strategy. It’s a new and better way of relating to each other, based on shared information and division of labor, interlocking roles and things like that.

    Here, as he does repeatedly later in his talk, Baumeister alludes to the same phantom that appears in all the other talks. There can be no “better way” unless there is an objective standard for “better.” The objective good-in-itself has, once again, made its appearance. Meanwhile, Baumeister has replaced evolution in individual animals with a social Darwinist theory of “human evolution” that promotes, not the survival of individuals, but “a better kind of social life,” which can be relevant only to groups. Continuing with his quasi-behaviorist (or should I say “reductionist”) emphasis on culture, he writes,

    …morality is the set of rules to enable people to live together. It serves the purpose of making the culture work, as culture depends on cooperating with each other, there’s trust, shared assumptions, things like that.

    It’s getting fuzzier all the time, isn’t it? Suddenly, innate moral behavior has been “reduced” to a “set of rules.” It “serves a purpose.” A “purpose?” Who’s “purpose” would that be? In Baumeister’s remarks, as in those of all the other speakers, destructive manifestations of human behavior such as warfare are studiously ignored. Apparently we are to believe, with the behaviorists, that innate behavioral traits haven’t the slightest thing to do with it. It’s a mere cultural aberration, evidently caused by incorrect environmental influences.

    Why people have to do moral things in practice is because of concern with their reputation, and it’s based, therefore, on long-term relationships.

    Here Baumeister tips his hand, abandoning the very notion of hard-wired morality. We don’t act morally because of any innate predisposition to do so, but “because of concern for our reputations.” Once again, he uses the term “moral” in the sense of “objectively good.”

    Continuing with his social Darwinist notion of morality, he introduces the notion of the “moral muscle,” by which we exercise “self-control.”

    That is why we’ve called self-control the moral muscle. I’m going to unpack that and comment on both parts. It’s moral: self-control is moral in the sense that it enables you to do these morally good things, sometimes detrimental to self-interest… So that’s the moral part of the ‘moral muscle’, it’s a capacity to enable us to do these moral actions, which are good for the group, even though overcoming this short-term self-interest.
    Here, again, we find the “moral good” defined as a valid and legitimate thing in itself, which exists for “the good of the group.”

    Baumeister next proceeds to illustrate what he means by “the good of the group” for those too dense to “get it” without being beaten over the head.

    And perhaps even more, to get to what’s human, you have to have a third party saying no, you got more than this one and that’s not fair, and intervening to redistribute, as happens all over the world in human societies.

    Is it starting to dawn on you where we’re heading here? Let me spoon feed it to you:

    Morality is the full-fledged sense, and I’m going with the cultural materialist view that culture is a system that basically has to provide for the material and social needs of the individuals. And so it regulates behavior for that, and morality comes with it, in a full-fledged sense, comes with culture. Tells people what to do to override their self-interest, and at least their short-term, and to follow the system’s rules. The system works, and because of that we all live better, but we all have to cooperate to a significant degree in order for the system to work.

    So, you see, if you fight against the “system,” impairing its ability to “redistribute,” you are objectively “immoral.”  From the expression of emotions associated with innate behavioral traits, morality has been transmogrified into a “set of rules,” interpreted rationally with the aid of “self-control,” thereby better adapting us to serve a “system” in which “third parties” take resources from us and give them to those they consider “more deserving,” for what they have decided without consulting us is our own “good” in the interests of “human flourishing.”  Is it really necessary for me to point out that evolved emotional traits that predispose us to behave in certain ways have nothing whatsoever to do with such an arbitrary and artificial “set of rules?”  Those innate traits are what they are and will remain what they are regardless of anyone’s opinion, no matter how enlightened, concerning what they “should” be in order to make the “system” work better.  That is not “reductionism,” nor does it imply in any way, shape or form that our destiny is dictated by our genes.  If morality really is the expression of innate mental traits, it is merely pointing out the obvious.  I have no problem with the possibility and potential advisability of devising and adhering to sets of rules that, by general agreement, promote the common welfare.  Other than recognizing that it exists, and that its effect on human behavior must be taken into account, however, morality should not be conflated with these rules assuming we really want to reach the goals they are devised to promote.

    In a word, dear reader, we are far from being out of the woods yet. We have made great progress, finally gaining general acceptance of the reality of hard-wired behavior in human beings, but the academic experts and professionals are still very effective gatekeepers in this field of study so critical to the fate of us all, and they continue to blind themselves (and us) with notions of objective good and morality as a tool for social control to make sure we “progress” towards that objective good. Meanwhile, I see no Konrad Lorenz or Robert Ardrey on the horizon ready to throw a salutary bomb in the mix. Let us hope for the best and press on.

  • About that Right-wing Islamophobe…

    Posted on August 26th, 2010 Helian No comments

    It turns out that the truth is somewhat more nuanced than the media narrative about a dastardly attack on a Moslem by an evil, right-wing opponent of the Ground Zero Mosque and, therefore, “freedom of religion.” Quoting from Don Surber;

    The attacker apparently supports building the mosque 560 feet away from Ground Zero.

    The blood is on the hands of a lefty.

    From Ben Smith at Politico: “But as often at the intersection of politics and violent crime, the story doesn’t appear to fit any easy stereotype: The alleged assailant, Michael Enright, is — according to his Facebook profile and the website of the left-leaning media organization Intersections International — a student at the School of Visual Arts and a volunteer for Intersections, which recently produced a statement of support for the Park51 project and is funded by the mainstream, liberal Collegiate Church of New York.”

    Even after that, Little Green Footballs made excuses: “At Politico, Ben Smith notes that Enright’s films were apparently sponsored by a left-leaning group called Intersections: Alleged anti-Muslim attacker works at pro-Park51 group. Smith’s headline is a bit misleading, however, because Intersections is involved in many different projects, not just in supporting Park51. Enright was a volunteer filmmaker for Intersections, and there’s no reason to believe he was involved with or sympathetic to their support for Park51.”

    Other than the group just supported the Victory Mosque.

    Sheesh.

    It was a vicious crime by a 21-year-old coward.

    It is attempted murder. I don’t care about this coward’s politics. But connecting this inexplicable act of violence on peaceful protesters is ignorant.

    And so far, despite all the wishes of the left, the violence comes and hot rhetoric comes from the left. Need I remind readers of the beating of Kenneth Gladney?

    No matter, CNN is still running with the same old narrative. Their headline: “Slashed cab driver to call for end to anti-Muslim rhetoric.” Of course, the editors there have long given up the “objectivity” charade, and realize they’re preaching to the choir. As Stalin said when one of his associates suggested that a piece of propaganda was so absurd that even his fellow traveler dupes in the West might gag on it, “Don’t worry, they’ll swallow it.”

  • The “Territorial Imperative” and its Critics

    Posted on August 26th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Robert Ardrey is the most famous unperson of the 20th century. He was a successful professional playwright with some scientific and mathematic background who later in life developed a passionate interest in ethology and its implications for human behavior. In the 60’s and 70’s he wrote a series of books describing the work of hundreds of scientists in related fields, and setting forth his own conclusions and hypotheses. The fundamental message in all Ardrey’s books was that human behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions hard-wired in the brain. This conclusion was denied by the professional experts of the time in psychology, anthropology, sociology and related fields, most of whom claimed that human behavior was almost totally determined by culture and learning. In this fundamental dispute, critical to our understanding of ourselves, Ardrey was right, and the experts were wrong. The experts have never forgiven him.

    A book of essays entitled “Man and Aggression” edited by behaviorist anthropologist Ashley Montagu representing the opinions of the expert community and specifically disputing the ideas of Ardrey and ethologist Konrad Lorenz appeared in 1968. It should be required reading for today’s nascent experts, along with Lorenz’ “On Aggression” and Ardrey’s “The Territorial Imperative.” One of the learned essayists, Marshall Sahlins, was sufficiently arrogant and stupid to write a “play” ridiculing Ardrey and his ideas. Most of the others attempted more reasoned responses, in many cases substantially more nuanced than the rigid behaviorism of Montagu. I will have more to say on “Man and Aggression” in later posts. However, today I will limit myself to highlighting one of the more interesting disconnects between “expert” opinion then and now; the existence of territorial behavior in the large apes.

    Here are some of the “well known facts” about ape behavior in “Man and Aggression,” the product, according to Montagu, of “40 years of anthropological research and discovery in the field and in the laboratory;”

    …the more carefully (the large apes) are observed, the more remarkably revealing do their unquarrelsomeness and cooperativeness become. Montagu

    But there are many animals that do not exhibit (territorial) behavior… the Hominoidea, the orangutan, the chimpanzee, and the gorilla. Montagu

    Chimpanzees, says Dr. (John Hurrell) Crook, vary the size of their parties. As a rule, individual and small groups wander over large home ranges and “territorial behavior appears to be absent.” Sally Carrighar

    Our immediate forebears, the apes, seem to have reached something like a summit in nonaggressiveness, since they do not fight either — not as individuals or as clans. Carrighar

    Chimpanzees live in “open groups” with considerable interchange of membership and all appear to utilize a common range of sizeable extent. Crook

    It is fortunate that a later generation of animal behaviorists did not treat these results of “40 years of anthropological research and discovery in the field and in the laboratory” with undue reverence.  Some of their observations;

    Chimpanzees are well known for their territorial behaviour. They are among the few animals that engage in between-group coalition aggression that results in fatalities. Encounters between communities typically take place during boundary patrols. Communities defend an area within the forest known as a territory. This differs from the home range of an individual, which is not defended but remains within the territory of the community in which the individual lives. Males will form border patrols and walk the perimeter of their communty’s territory looking for neighbouring community members who might try to invade their territory. The Jane Goodall Institute

    Chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, engage in war-like behavior to gain territory, new research finds. The findings, published in the latest issue of Current Biology, explain why chimpanzees sometimes brutally kill their neighbors. The killings are most often done by patrolling packs of male chimps that are “quiet and move with stealth,” according to lead author John Mitani of the University of Michigan. To the victors go similar spoils of early human wars: land, often-improved security and strength, extra food and resources, and even better access to females. Jennifer Viegas, writing for Discovery News

    Although orangutans are generally passive, aggression toward other orangutans is very common; they are solitary animals and can be fiercely territorial. Immature males will try to mate with any female, and may succeed in forcibly copulating with her if she is also immature and not strong enough to fend him off. Mature females easily fend off their immature suitors, preferring to mate with a mature male. Multiple sources, Wikipedia

    Given the apparent relevance of these behavioral characteristics of our nearest animal relatives to our own, it would seem germane to ask, how could the “experts” have gotten it so wrong for so many years?

    Robert Ardrey

  • The Case of the Contraband Uranium

    Posted on August 24th, 2010 Helian No comments

    It appears that authorities in Moldova seized about four pounds of contraband uranium and arrested several suspects. The material in question turned out to be the isotope uranium 238 (U238), meaning that, unlike the fissile isotope U235, it couldn’t be used to make a bomb. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that whenever I have personal knowledge of what happened in an incident that makes the news, or expertise regarding its subject, the mainstream media, with their layers of editors and fact checkers, manage to botch the story. For example, CNN uncritically quotes Kirill Motspan, a spokesman for Moldova’s Interior Ministry as saying that, “…it was his understanding that 1 kilo of uranium costs $6.3 million on the black market and that is what the smugglers were expecting to get.” I seriously doubt that Motspan meant just any uranium, and especially not U238. If that were the case, the guys who fly A10 Warthog ground support planes armed with Gatling guns that pump out rounds that contain just under a pound each of the stuff at 4,200 rounds per minute must be using caddies to recover them. He was probably referring to uranium highly enriched in isotope 235, which can be used to make a bomb. In other words, the smugglers were intending to snooker their customers. Anyone can Google the fact that natural uranium, which contains at least a little (about 0.71%) U235, is currently selling for just under $50 per pound.

    Not to be outdone, the Telegraph reports that the material seized was “enriched uranium.”  Since the caption of the figure that appears in the article notes that the material was U238, commonly referred to as depleted uranium, none of their “fact checkers” apparently has a clue what they’re talking about.

    BTW, have you noticed that whenever contraband radioactive and special nuclear material is seized, its usually due to good old fashioned police work, and not to those snazzy new radiation detectors that are being installed hand over fist at ports and border crossings?  That’s not a coincidence.

  • Censorship in Philadelphia

    Posted on August 24th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The Internet has no equal as an enabler of Freedom of Speech. It provides access to public media to rich and poor alike, regardless of whether some publisher thinks he can make a profit from their work or not. Or at least it does outside of Philadelphia. The benevolent government there has decided to tax Freedom of Speech out of existence, or at least the Freedom of Speech of the little people who can’t afford it. You see, if you have any of those little display ads on your site, you’re in a “business for profit.” No matter that it costs money to maintain a website, and not one in a thousand of the sites that hosts the ads rakes in more than a fraction of that cost as “profit.” You still have to pay a “business privilege license” fee of $300. And, oh, by the way, you also have to bear the cost of documenting every penny of your income and expenses, because otherwise the city will just assume your income is pure profit, and tax that, too. It’s kind of like the “Fairness Doctrine,” but on a smaller scale and without the charade.

  • Contaminated Food…

    Posted on August 24th, 2010 Helian No comments

    First eggs, and now meat. I have a suggestion; could I and some of the other more reckless and foolhardy members of society be given access to irradiated foods? Far be it for me to suggest that everyone’s food be irradiated. The self-appointed protectors of society would pour out of the woodwork with mounds of studies “proving” the harmful effect of irradiation, more or less the same way they “proved” that childhood vaccines cause autism. Just access. That’s all I ask. Where’s the harm? If I kill myself by eating those terrible irradiated foods, young taxpayers will have one less mouth to feed.

  • The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, IV

    Posted on August 23rd, 2010 Helian No comments

    Morality is the behavioral expression of innate and fundamentally emotional traits hard-wired in the human brain. The variety and complexity of moral behavior is increasing with extreme rapidity, at least in terms of evolutionary times scales, as the physical characteristics of the brain responsible for the emotions relevant to morality, which have changed little if at all in the last 10,000 years, interact with the vast cultural and environmental changes associated with, among other things, the spread of mass education, instant international communication, and the emergence of modern states and other mass social groups in creatures, such as ourselves, with a sufficiently high intelligence to actually think about moral behavior. This has resulted in the remarkable variety of behaviors and beliefs associated with morality we see today, including the arousal of furious passions over “goods” and “evils” attributed to a variety of social groups, beliefs, and ideologies that didn’t exist and were, therefore, utterly irrelevant at the time that the traits associated with morality evolved.

    The fundamental nature of morality, including the fact that evolved, innate traits are responsible for its expression, and that they quite as capable of evoking hatred, rage, and aggression as they are of inspiring empathy, self-sacrifice, and love, has been evident to our best thinkers almost since the days of Darwin. However, it is a testimony to the extreme difficulty we have in reasoning about things as much a part of us as our emotions that the communities of scientific and academic experts in the fields such a psychology, anthropology, and sociology that are most closely associated with the study of questions related to morality have been unable to keep up. For the most part, they subscribe to secular or spiritual religions and ideologies that are defined by pronounced judgments about distinctions of “good” and “evil,” even though those categories can have no real existence as other than subjective mental constructs. As a result, acceptance of a fact as obvious as the association of morality with innate mental traits and predispositions was furiously resisted and successfully repressed for decades by orthodoxies such as behaviorism that better accommodated those ideologies. General acceptance of the fact that morality is the expression of hard-wired mental traits has only occurred in the last decade or so, but only after being forced on the grudging community of “experts” by the rapid accumulation of new evidence from a variety of fields that was too compelling to be ignored.

    One would think it rather obvious that, if morality is the expression of mental traits evolved eons ago at a time when our consciousness and social existence were radically different from what they are today, and if those mental traits only exist because they promoted genetic survival in those long bygone days, rational beings would dismiss the idea of “updating” it and applying it willy-nilly to modern realities out of hand as doomed to failure and, in view of disastrous outcomes of applying such “updated” moralities observed in the 20th century in the cases of Nazism and Communism, potentially self-destructive. We are, however, not rational beings, and our faith in our own intelligence is highly exaggerated. As a result, we have not seen the advent of a new Age of Reason. Rather, old moral certainties have merely been superficially updated to accommodate new realities.

    The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality has presented us with a case study of how this has worked out in practice in the case of experts who are members of what have been termed WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies. As we have seen in the cases of three of the nine keynote speakers we have looked at so far, none of them are in the least bit dubious about applying morality, touched up here and there around the edges, to deal with modern realities, they believe in the notion of “moral progress,” and they have an implicit belief in good and evil as valid, legitimate things in themselves, somehow existing on their own, independently of the consciousness of individual human beings. In a word, when it comes to morality, we are far from being out of the woods.

    In examining the remarks of some of the other speakers, we will see the same phenomenon repeated, including the most explicit attempt by any of the nine to justify faith in “legitimate” versions of good and evil, and an interesting example of how the behavioral traits associated with morality are “adjusted” to fit the Procrustean bed of new “goods” and “evils” required by WEIRD ideology.

    First on the list today is fellow atheist Sam Harris. Sam doesn’t limit himself to merely implicit acceptance of WEIRD morality. He positively embraces it, proclaiming a fervent belief in a “moral truth” that he suggests is discoverable using the latest scientific technique. According to Sam, we must “think about moral truth in the context of science,” in order to “maximize human well-being.” He deems it “obvious” that “we need some universal conception of right and wrong.” However, as he sees it, there is an “impediment” in the way of our search for “moral truth.” In his words,

    …most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.

    It’s hard for me to understand the basis for such a preposterous claim. Consider, for example, the following statement by another speaker, Jonathan Haidt:

    The problem is especially serious in moral psychology, where we all care so deeply and personally about what is right and wrong, and where we are almost all politically liberal. I don’t know of any Conservatives.

    This, based on my experience, accurately represents the true state of affairs. Whatever their conclusions about the “intellectual basis” for good and evil, almost all of the people Harris is referring to are convinced ideologues, and moralists to the core. Furthermore, they see eye to eye with him about what good and evil “really” are. Read any history of the United States that has come out of these circles in the last 20 years. Does it contain no moral judgments? Can anyone point out one of these “right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people” whose work isn’t larded with morally loaded “shoulds?” Have the neuroscientists suddenly discovered that no emotional response can be detected in their brains to the names “Sarah Palin” and “Rush Limbaugh?” Journalists? Are you kidding me? Has any one of them of any note recorded in the history of the last 100 years been so much as capable of writing a book not characterized by a determined effort to make sure the reader can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys?” Are not such “public intellectuals” as Harris’ fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens passionately devoted to their own versions of good and evil? I personally would certainly agree that there is no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil, but, at least in terms of drawing any actual consequences from that conclusion, it seems to me that if I were thrown into a bag with a random assortment of “scientists, public intellectuals, and journalists,” I would be a distinct anomaly in that respect.

    Be that as it may, Harris assures us that he is prepared to defend claims to “moral truth in the context of science.” And how are we to recognize “scientific moral truth?” By the fact that it promotes genetic survival, which is, after all, the only reason that morality exists to begin with? No, unsurprisingly, Harris is in full agreement with the other speakers regarding what is “really good.” It is that which “maximizes human well-being,” and “human flourishing,” as understood by self-described political liberals in the early 21st century.

    We soon find out what kind of scientific proofs Harris has in mind to establish the verity of his moral truths. They amount to evoking morally linked emotions in a group of ideologically similar individuals and daring any of them to step outside the ideological box they live in by denying they feel those emotions or that they are not elicited by the kinds of evils Harris evokes. Some examples of his scientific technique:

    In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

    Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.

    I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery.

    And so on. In other words, Harris’ “proof” of the legitimacy of “moral truth” amounts to demonstrating that he can elicit similar moral emotions in a group of like-minded individuals. This is less than compelling evidence of what he proposes to prove.

    In closing, Harris plays a clever game with the word “value:”

    The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. (not, at least, if Harris is gatekeeper) I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to cut the heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.

    Here, Harris evokes emotion as before, in this case in response to the beheading of adulterers, and then conflates two different definitions of the word “value.” In one case, it is the utilitarian value of doing good science to accomplish some desired end. For example, the technique used to create the atomic bomb was “valuable” in that sense, because the goal was achieved; the bomb went off. Emotion had nothing to do with that fact. It would have gone off whether its creators had strong emotional feelings about the utilitarian “values” they used to create it or not. In the second case, the “value” referred to is an emotional value. In its origins, it has not the slightest thing to do with “human flourishing.” Such emotional values, innate in their origins, are not infinitely malleable to promote “human flourishing” or whatever other utilitarian goal Harris might have in mind, and they come inextricably linked to another “value” – hatred directed at those who prefer, or seem to prefer, some other value. In other words, Harris would have us believe there is no difference between the means that are rationally chosen to achieve some goal and innate human emotional responses that have proven time after time after time to be incredibly bad means of achieving the social goals he has in mind. It’s as if Nazism and Communism never happened, as if precisely the same sort of desire for “human flourishing” didn’t give rise to them, and as if all that’s needed in the future to avoid their incredibly destructive outcomes is merely to tweak our method of discovering “moral truth” a bit. I have an alternative suggestion. Next time we want to promote “human flourishing,” let’s leave morality and all its associated passions out of it.

    In our next installment, we will examine the remarks of the remaining speakers to see what rather remarkable adjustments to morality are required to promote human flourishing in the 21st century. Earlier posts on the Edge Conference can be found here, here, and here.