Posted on September 30th, 2010 18 comments
Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is a wonderful book. It documents the hijacking of the behavioral sciences by dogmatic ideologues with a reckless disregard for the truth. They established an oppressive orthodoxy that sought, not to debate its opponents, but to vilify and silence them. Pinker reviews the origins and development of their extreme “nurture versus nature” narrative, the political and ideological dogmas that inspired it, and presents a treasure trove of scientific evidence debunking those dogmas. Anyone who respects the truth and values the freedom of human thought owes him a debt of gratitude for what is, by and large, a masterful work. It is, however, not without its flaws and, uncharitable as it may seem, I will seek to point some of them out.
Perhaps the greatest is Pinker’s acceptance of the “big bang” myth of the demise of blank slate orthodoxy, according to which it began with the “seminal” books of E. O. Wilson, starting with Sociobiology, followed by On Human Nature. In fact, with all due respect to Wilson, a brilliant thinker whom I deeply admire, there was nothing significant about either book that was not old hat by the time they were published. Both of them suggested that innate traits had evolved in humans as well as other species that significantly affected our behavior. That hypothesis had been suggested by many other thinkers before Wilson, and Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey and others had presented copious evidence that it was true at least 15 years before the publication of Sociobiology. By the time Sociobiology appeared, the evidence for innate human behavior, obvious enough to everyone but philosophers since ancient times, had become sufficiently compelling to leave no doubt that the hypothesis was correct in the minds of anyone who had not shut themselves off from the truth in an ideological strait jacket.
Ardrey, in particular, had a remarkable influence on his times, especially in the educated lay community, with books like African Genesis (1961), The Territorial Imperative (1966), and The Social Contract (1970). All of these books convincingly debunked the very same ideologues that Pinker spends so much time refuting in The Blank Slate, and all elicited the same blind fury from the ideologues that he so deplores. Lorenz, co-winner of a Nobel Prize in 1973, presented similar ideas in On Aggression (1966), and had the honor of being vilified and ridiculed with Ardrey in Man and Aggression (1968), a collection of essays edited by blank slate high priest Ashley Montagu. Unfortunately, Lorenz couldn’t resist occasionally falling into the obscure style of German philosophers, a weakness particularly evident in Behind the Mirror (1973), a factor that weakened the impact of his popular science books.
Both Ardrey and Lorenz shared the same fundamental ideas: That innate genetic traits have a significant effect on human behavior, that our genetic programming could manifest itself in “good” ways, but also in destructive behavior such as aggression, and that it was essential to learn the truth about our nature in order to control the darker aspects of it so as to avoid self-destruction. In those most significant and fundamental aspects of their thought, they were right and the orthodox community of experts were wrong. They might have forgiven Lorenz, because he was one of their own tribe, but he was joined at the hip with Ardrey. Ardrey was an outsider, an upstart, and they could never forgive him for shaming them. He became, and remains, an unperson.
It is all the more remarkable that the two most influential opponents of the blank slate in the 60’s and early 70’s should be virtually absent from a book entitled “The Blank Slate.” The ideologues may be in retreat, but their anathema still stands, and Pinker still obeys the interdict of his tribe. A new narrative has arisen to replace the old. Lorenz and Ardrey are absent from the copious list of references at the end of the book. The only mention of Ardrey is on page 124. Here is what Pinker has to say:
The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology, Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory. The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies,” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)
And thus, with a wave of the hand, Pinker dismisses the two most influential opponents of the blank slate in the heyday of blank slate orthodoxy, and the ideological blinkers of his tribe slam into place. It is hard to believe that he has ever actually read any of the books of Ardrey or Lorenz, or even took more than a superficial glance at Man and Aggression, for that matter. If he had, he might have noticed that the blank slate essayists themselves did not share his condescending attitude. For example, from Geoffrey Gorer’s “Ardrey on Human Nature:”
Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.
…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.
If he had even taken the time to read the first page of Montagu’s introduction, Pinker would have noticed that William Golding was not somehow treated as a co-equal of Ardrey and Lorenz, nor was he of any significance as far as the book is concerned except as a red herring thrown out in a couple of the essays. As for the bit about “hydraulic pressure,” Lorenz simply used the analogy to illustrate his contention that not all behavior is a response to external stimuli, as claimed by the behaviorists. Their theory, ironically part and parcel of the Blank Slate orthodoxy itself, was that behavior is almost exclusively reactive, and therefore can be altered to an unlimited extent by learning. If Lorenz’ rejection of behaviorism is “archaic,” then it was pointless for Pinker to write his book. The Blank Slaters were right! As far as the notion that “evolution acts for the good of the species” is concerned, I can only surmise that Pinker took one of Ardrey’s more colorful phrases out of context. Both men’s view of evolution was entirely sober and orthodox. Again, if their ideas on the subject are somehow in conflict with some detail of the latest nuances of evolutionary theory, that is hardly a reason to dismiss their life’s work with contempt. Is the fact that Dawkins happened to throw a temper tantrum in The Selfish Gene and declare “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong,” supposed to constitute a reasonable argument against them? “Totally and utterly wrong” about what? The whole point of the books was that innate behavior is real and the blank slate is wrong. Does Pinker disagree? Then why did he bother to write his book? Has Dawkins now become as infallible as the pope, so that we’re forced to take him at his word and must use him as an authority, even if he utters blockheaded phrases like that? Here are some of the things Ardrey actually wrote in African Genesis in 1961:
Man is a fraction of the animal world… We are not so unique as we should like to believe.
The problem of man’s original nature imposes itself upon any human solution.
Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity. In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.
A certain justification has existed until now, in my opinion, for submission of the insurgent specialists to the censorship of scientific orthodoxy. Such higher bastions of philosophical orthodoxy as Jefferson, Marx, and Freud could scarcely be stormed by partial regiments. Until the anti-romantic (anti-blank slate) revolution could summon to arms what now exists, an overwhelming body of incontrovertible proof, then action had best be confined to a labyrinthine underground of unreadable journals, of museum back rooms, and of gossiping groups around African camp-fires.
If today we say that almost nothing is known about the much-observed chimpanzee, then what we mean is that almost nothing is known of his behavior in a state of nature.
The romantic fallacy (blank slate) may be defined as the central conviction of modern thought that all human behavior, with certain clearly stated exception, results from causes lying within the human experience… Contemporary thought may diverge wildly in it prescriptions for human salvation; but it stands firmly united in its systematic error.
“God made all things good,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Man meddles with them and they become evil.” …Stated so baldly, the Illusion of Original Goodness may bring a shudder to the contemporary spirit. But from Rousseau’s proposition a host of conclusions, all logical, all magical, came into being; that babies are born good; that in innoccence resides virtue; that primitive people retain a morality which civilized people tend to lose;
The contemporary revolution in the natural sciences points inexorably to the proposition that man’s soul is not unique. Man’s nature, like his body, is the product of evolution.
Marxian socialism represents the most stunning and cataclysmic triumph of the romantic fallacy over the minds of rational men… And an observer of the animal role in human affairs can only suggest that much of what we have experienced in the last terrifying half-century has been simply what happens, no more and no less, when human energies become preoccupied with the building of social institutions upon false assumptions concerning man’s inner nature.
It is the superb paradox of our time that in a single century we have proceeded from the first iron-clad warship to the first hydrogen bomb, and from the first telegraphic communication to the beginnings of the conquest of space; yet in the understanding of our own natures, we have proceeded almost nowhere.
Sound familiar? It should if you’ve read Pinker. Much of what Ardrey wrote about the “romantic fallacy” might have been taken directly from the pages of The Blank Slate. Notice anything about an “archaic hydraulic theory?” Neither did I. Does any of the above seem “totally and utterly wrong?” It doesn’t to me, either, nor does it to Pinker if we can believe what he wrote in his own book.
In a word, the narrative hasn’t died. It’s just assumed a new guise. Forget Pinker’s red herrings about “hydraulic theories.” The essential facts are that Ardrey and Lorenz defended the idea of innate behavior, and their opponents dismissed it. They got it right, and their opponents got it wrong. But Ardrey, you see, was a “mere playwright,” and the expert community could never forgive him for humbling them and for his flagrant lese majeste. It was essential that the truth be vindicated, not by an outsider, but by one of their own ingroup. In may be necessary for successful playwrights to have some expertise in human nature, but Consilience, a word that Pinker mouths repeatedly in his book, can only be carried so far. And so it was that a whole new mythology was created, and E. O. Wilson was anointed as a knight in shining armor who suddenly popped up 15 years after the publication of African Genesis and defeated the blank slate ideologues single-handed.
There are other problems with The Blank Slate, less severe but significant nevertheless. For example, Pinker shares the philosopher’s vice of creating neat Procrustean beds upon which the ideas of our greatest thinkers are distorted to make them fit into tidy patterns. According to such schemes, for example, philosopher A begat philosopher B, philosopher B begat Philosopher C, and philosopher C begat the Blank Slate. These tidy systems peel away the individual worth and integrity of our best minds and bowdlerize them into a simple stew so that pedants can make a pretence of understanding them. Thus a man as brilliant as John Stuart Mill, who had the misfortune to write about the human condition before the revolutionary ideas of Darwin could inform his thought, is reduced in The Blank Slate to a mere precursor of a hidebound ideologue like Ashley Montagu.
I’m sorry if some of my own animosities have surfaced here, but I am only human, too. That which is innate in us includes emotions that make it a matter of no small difficulty to step back and look at ourselves with cold scientific detachment. Pinker deserves our highest praise for The Blank Slate, because, as we press ahead with new discoveries, it is essential that we understand how entire branches of the behavioral sciences could have been so deranged and derailed by ideological dogmas. If the blemishes I imagine in his book are real, they can never serve as a pretext to dismiss his work with a wave of the hand, as he has so casually done to others.
Posted on September 29th, 2010 4 comments
Ideas are significant in defining human ingroups. Among intellectuals and academics, those ideas often relate to a common conception of “the good.” “The good” evolves and changes rather quickly, but, at any given time, it is perceived as an absolute. Such ideological constructs can be understood as secular religions. Traditional religions are characterized by belief in an imaginary god, and the secular religion is characterized by belief in an imaginary good. This good is perceived as a real thing, having an existence of its own transcending individual minds. See, for example, “The Moral Landscape,” by Sam Harris, one of the secular religion’s high priests.
It’s been interesting to watch the reactions of the secular true believers as the evidence for innate human behavior, including moral behavior, accumulated over the years until continued denial became untenable. At first, like the old behaviorists, they reacted with rage and fury, demonizing such ideas as heresies associated with racism, fascism, etc. When the intellectual dams finally began to break, acceptance of innate behavior was led by “liberal” clergymen of the secular religion, who assured the flock that it really didn’t challenge their most cherished beliefs at all. Why, the whole idea had been “invented” by E. O. Wilson and, after all, he was one of them.
Their rationalizations have been entirely similar to those of the liberal clergy of traditional religions, who have, for example, rationalized the contradiction between the Book of Genesis and scientific fact by claiming that the book is allegorical. According to their apologetics, the days in Genesis are really “eons” of time, the firmament is really the “sky,” etc. Similarly, the secular clergy hold forth about the exemplary behavior of bonobos and assure the flock that belief in “the good” isn’t threatened at all by the fact that morality is a manifestation of traits that evolved in the distant past.
In their way, the fundamentalist clergy are more rational than their liberal brethren. There can be no accommodation between scientific fact and religious faith. If there is a God, he would not have bamboozled his children with obscure allegories. If the Bible is not literally true and the inspired word of God, the basis for faith disappears. And in their way, the old behaviorists who fulminated against the original sin of innate morality were right, too. It is the iceberg against which the Titanic of secular religion has foundered. The academic apologists of the Steven Pinker school are merely rearranging the deck chairs. Like Christianity and Islam, the secular religion will continue to be with us as a force for obscurantism into the indefinite future. However, it has become every bit as irrational to believe in “the good” as it is to believe in “the god.”
Posted on September 27th, 2010 No comments
In a word, no. Anyone who wants to smuggle the key ingredients (highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium, otherwise known as special nuclear material, or SNM) needed to make a nuclear weapon into this country can easily do so, and the installation of any combination of the most sophisticated radiation dectection devices on the planet at our ports will do nothing to alter the fact. The idea that lots of expensive detection equipment at our ports, or any other ports, will significantly reduce the terrorist nuclear danger is based on a fallacy: that terrorists capable of securing enough SNM to build a bomb will be brain dead. They would have to be brain dead to try to sneak SNM past sophisticated detectors when there are a virtually unlimited number of ways one could get it into the country without taking that risk. It’s not necessary to smuggle a nuclear weapon in one piece. It could be brought in broken down into small components and assembled at the target. The SNM could be smuggled across our borders in pieces small enough to be virtually undetectable by backpackers, on commercially available mini-submarines, light aircraft, small pleasure boats, or what have you. The SNM could then be assembled and easily fabricated into any desired weapons configuration in place. The whole debate about defeating nuclear terrorism sounds like it’s being conducted in a lunatic asylum.
For example, The Daily Caller (hattip Instapundit) cites a GAO report to the effect that, ”
The nation’s ports and border crossings remain vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 despite a $4 billion investment since 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on a number of programs aimed at preventing nuclear smuggling around the world.
Senators similarly admonished DHS in a recent Senate hearing for failing to uphold its end of the bargain with the American people.
“Terrorists have made clear their desire to secure a nuclear weapon,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said at the Sept. 15 hearing. “Given this stark reality, we must ask: what has the department done to defend against nuclear terrorism on American soil? The answer, unfortunately, is not enough… not nearly enough.”
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), responsible for the domestic aspect of DHS’s nuclear terror deterrence, received approximately half of the $4 billion investment, which it spent deploying over 1,400 radiation monitors at the nation’s seaports and border crossings in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But these radiation monitors have a serious flaw: they can only detect radiation from lightly shielded radiation sources.
The only problem is that spending billions more to fix this “flaw” won’t help, unless you happen to have invested your nest egg in detection equipment. The article continues,
The GAO report uncovered a bureaucratic nightmare involving DNDO and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which resulted in the failure to properly develop and deploy detection equipment that could detect radiation from heavily shielded sources.
DNDO began working shortly after its founding in April 2005 on what it called the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS) and the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) ̶ intended to automatically detect radiation from heavily shielded sources in a user-friendly fashion in order to screen cargo containers in the nation’s ports and border crossings.
In the first place, radiation detection equipment doesn’t come in just two flavors; “good for heavily shielded sources” and “not good for heavily shielded sources.” There are a great number of different types, all with their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of sensitivity, energy resolution, etc. In the second place, it doesn’t matter what kind are installed at the ports, because terrorists will simply bypass them. The whole port security paradigm is based on the premise that our opponents, in spite of their ability to acquire SNM in the first place, will be bone stupid. They won’t, and there are much more effective ways to spend all the money we are throwing down this particular rathole.
They are not subject to market forces and other controls, so they can screw up federal money,” DeHaven said. “There are not going to be any angry shareholders, and in most cases you are not going to lose your job, so the incentives for the federal government to efficiently and effectively procure goods … are poor.”
One wonders if he reallly gets paid to churn out such hackneyed stuff. Tell me, Tad, do you actually know anything about the people who work for DNDO? Did it ever occur to you that many of them might be ex-military, that they might be highly motivated and dedicated to their country’s welfare, and that it’s not out of the question that they care a great deal about working to “efficiently and effectively procure goods”? You might actually try meeting and talking to some of them. They work just down the street from you. Did it ever occur to you that the problem might not be their lack of patriotism and dedication, but the fact that they’ve been given an impossible task? And BTW, no, I don’t work for DNDO or DHS.
The article concludes in a somewhat more sober vein,
Heritage Foundation homeland security analyst Jena Baker-McNeill instead blames Congress for setting what she sees as an unrealistic goal of inspecting every container that passes through the nation’s ports and border crossings. Congress imposed the goal for political reasons without considering its practical implications, she said. Baker-McNeill believes more emphasis should have been placed on increased intelligence aimed at intercepting nuclear smugglers abroad due to the volume of cargo that enters the country and limited resources.
It seems to me Ms. Baker-McNeill might be on to something. If we’re going to spend money to defeat nuclear terrorism, I suspect it will be much better spent on finding ways to keep terrorists from getting their hands on SNM in the first place. Once they do, we can install the most efficient radiation detectors with the most clever software ever devised at all our ports, and it won’t deter them in the slightest. We will only have bought ourselves a dangerous sense of false security.
Posted on September 26th, 2010 2 comments
According to the Hunting Hypothesis, the evolutionary transition from ape to man, including the emergence of the physical, mental, and behavioral traits that characterize our species, was driven by the adoption of hunting as a significant food source. Whether it is true or not is a matter of great interest in its own right, but perhaps of even greater interest and significance has been the intellectual reaction to the idea. For several decades after it was first proposed, the hypothesis contradicted the ideology embraced by many intellectuals, including the community of experts in the behavioral sciences. This ideology, amounting to a secular religion, required the perfectibility of mankind so that he could play his assigned role in the utopias the zealots of the new religion were concocting for him. For this to happen, it was essential that human behavior be subject to complete control and manipulation by environment and learning, as noted by Steven Pinker in “The Blank Slate.”
The existence of innate human behavioral traits contradicted this essential dogma of the faith, and became anathema. Any suggestion that such traits existed was resisted with all the spite and venom that the zealots of earlier religions reserved for their own heresies. The result was a spectacular collapse of the behavioral sciences stretching over a period of many decades. An entire community of experts managed to bamboozle itself into believing behaviorist dogmas that any teenager with a modicum of common sense could have told them were ridiculous after observing her own behavior in a crowd for a few hours. It demonstrated that scientific progress is anything but inevitable in these supposedly enlightened times, and that ideological certitudes are as capable of trumping rational thought as they were in the heyday of the holy inquisition.
As for the Hunting Hypothesis, an interesting explanation of human evolution that was very plausible given our history and our easily observable behavioral characteristics, it was stillborn, although it has experienced a resurrection of sorts in recent years. Arch-heresy that it was, any rational examination of it according to the scientific method was out of the question. Its proponents were vilified, their work bowdlerized, and eventually many of them became scientific unpersons, their names no longer mentioned in the halls of the elect. Perhaps the first to come up with a coherent theory of the hunting transition was Carveth Read, a professor of logic and the mind at the University College London. His Wikipedia entry amounts to just two brief sentences. Experts in human behavior would have done well to pay more attention to him. Today they are “discovering” things he wrote about more than 90 years ago in a little book entitled, “The Origin of Man and of His Superstitions.”
Read made an unhappy choice for the name of his hunting ape; Lycopithecus, or “wolf ape.” It enabled his detractors to evoke strawman images of werewolves and violently aggressive, bloodthirsty beasts right out of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” What Read actually meant by his choice of names is entirely different. As he put it,
Moreover, when our ape first pursued game, especially big game (not being by ancient adaptation in structure and instinct a carnivore), he may have been, and probably was, incapable of killing enough prey single-handed; and, if so, he will have profited by becoming both social and cooperative as a hunter, like the wolves and dogs – in short, a sort of wolf-ape (Lycopithecus).
In other words, the name was suggested, not by the viciousness or aggressiveness of wolves, but by their cooperative behavior. Read went on to suggest that mankind’s erect gait evolved after, or concurrently with the increasing importance of meat in our diet:
…the less our ancestor in his new career trusted to trees the better for him. Such simple strategy (hunting from trees) could not make him a dominant animal throughout the world; nothing could do this but the gradual attainment of erect gait adapted to running down his prey.
What had seemed obvious to Read was quickly dismissed and forgotten, until, in recent years, it was “discovered,” in the guise of persistence hunting, suggested as the hunting strategy of Homo erectus. Read the article and you’ll notice that, according to the current paradigm, a hunting lifestyle “suddenly” burst on the scene with the emergence of Homo erectus, a species that appeared on the scene about 1.8 million years ago, but that the earlier Australopithecines were still “scavengers.” It’s amusing, really. The proponents of the bankrupt “scavenger” theories still can’t bring themselves to admit that Raymond Dart was right about his early research into cave taphonomy, and Australopithecines were hunters too. Somewhere a chimpanzee must be smiling smugly as he munches on a piece of colobus monkey. Read had no such delusions. As he puts it,
In course of time they brought cudgels and stones to the encounter (little did he realize that chimpanzees do just that), and after many ages began to alter such means of offence into weapons that might be called artifacts.
Remarkably, it seems that Read was somehow aware that chimpanzees occasionally eat meat, although the “experts” assured us through the middle decades of the 20th century that they were vegetarian. In his words,
We must remember that, on the one hand, the chimpanzee is not exclusively frugivorous, and that, on the other hand, it is not likely that Man has been at any time exclusively carnivorous… Primates are known to seize and devour birds, lizards and even small mammals when chance offers an easy opportunity.
One wonders when and how this “knowledge of the ancients” about the eating habits of our nearest ape relatives was lost. Read’s book includes interesting speculation on how the transition might originally have occurred:
It is generally admitted that our ancestor was a large anthropoid – possibly more gregarious than others, possibly more apt to live upon the ground; but neither of these suppositions is requisite. He was adapted to his life, as the chimpanzee and gorilla are to theirs: in which, probably, they have gone on with little change for ages. But into his life a disturbing factor entered – the impulse to attack, hunt and eat animals, which extensively replaced his former peaceable, frugivorous habit. The cause of this change may have been a failure in the supply of his usual diet, or an “accidental variation” of appetite. Not a great number need have shared in the hunting impulse; it is enough that a few should have felt it, or even one… Is it not likely to have occurred often, and with many failures? Similarly, of the resulting changes: the differentiation of our hands and feet is only an advance upon what you see in the gorilla; as for our ground-life, can the adult male gorilla be fairly called arboreal? Several primates use unwrought weapons; most of them lead a gregarious life, to which our own is a return; they are cooperative at least in defence; like many other animals, they communicate by gestures and inarticulate vocal cries. Cooperative hunting, indeed seems to be new in our order; but since wolves and dogs, or their ancestors, fell in with it some time or other, why should it be beyond the capacity of apes?
Apparently primates’ use of unwrought weapons was another bit of “ancient knowledge” that was somehow lost in the decades after Read published his book. How much more plausible does his hypothesis now seem with what we have learned (or, perhaps, “rediscovered”) about cooperative hunting and the use of weapons in chimpanzees?
Read did not share the collective delusion of the blank slate, already in full career in his day;
That hunting came first is a true intuition: and, to understand the development of human nature, we need only refer the hunting-life back to the very origin of the human stock… So I point our (a) that man, in character, is more like a wolf or dog than he is like any other animal; and (b) that for the forming of a pack there was a clear ground in the advantage to be obtained by cooperative hunting.
To civilisation we are, for the most part, merely accommodated by experience, education, tradition and social pressure. A few people seem to be adapted to civilized life from their birth, and others to the slavish life; but all inherit, more or less manifestly, the nature of the hunter and warrior. This is a necessary basis of general and social psychology.
According to the high priests of the blank slate, wolves could no more have had a “character” than man. For recent research that not only they, but many other animals have a “character,” including traits analogous to moral behavior in human beings, see, for example, “Wild Justice; the Moral Lives of Animals,” by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.
Far from entertaining the crude, “nature red in tooth and claw” ideas attributed to him, Read suggested that the transition to the hunting lifestyle was responsible for many of the traits we associate with moral behavior;
We are left to speculate about the earliest growth of magnanimity, friendliness, compassion, general benevolence and other virtues… Several further considerations may be offered to account for the growth of what we call humanity… Friendliness and the disposition to mutual aid are so useful to a hunting-pack that is not merely seasonal but permanent (as I take ours to have been), both to individuals and to the pack as a whole,… that we may suppose natural selection to have favored the growth of effective sympathy… But since in individuals our complex nature varies in all directions, and amongst the rest in the direction of benevolence; and since any organ or quality that varies is apt to continue to do so, and may go on varying even beyond the limits of biological utility; why in human life may not this happen with benevolence?
In retrospect, Read’s hypotheses about Lycopithecus seem a great deal more plausible than the infantile dogmas of the behaviorists. It is interesting to note that, writing as a logician, he also had some surprisingly modern ideas about what we now call “confirmation bias”:
Every desire fixes attention upon beliefs favorable to it, and upon any evidence favorable to them, and diverts attention from conflicting beliefs and considerations. Thus every desire readily forms about itself a relatively isolated mass of beliefs, which resists comparison and, therefore…, does not recognize the principle of contradiction.
Such were the thoughts of a man now forgotten, who wrote just before the lights finally flickered out and died in the behavioral sciences. His career and ideas are a cautionary tale to anyone who believes in the inevitability of scientific progress. Meanwhile, the dogmatists haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve merely been forced out of one of their favorite redoubts. Their busy redefining reality even as we speak. It may no longer be anathema to speak of innate human behavior, but, according to the new paradigm now emerging, our behavioral traits can still be manipulated to create a world of universal goodness, in accordance with the most up-to-date definitions of “good,” ushering in a future of “human flourishing.” Anyone who objects that this rosy vision might not be entirely plausible in view of what we know about the innate in human behavior is dismissed as a “reductionist,” a pejorative term that has been introduced to replace its cruder precursors such as “racist” or “fascist.” Those who don’t necessarily fancy “flourishing” as defined by today’s crop of leftist ideologues would do well to remember Carveth Read. Secular religions can be quite as effective as their more traditional cousins at suppressing the truth. They did it in the recent past, and they can easily do it again.
Posted on September 25th, 2010 No comments
The Sage of Baltimore has been honored with a new edition of the complete set of his “Prejudices.” The best review I’ve found so far is by Damon Root at Reason. He must have looked beyond the pages of Prejudices, because he knows of Mencken the editor as well as Mencken the writer. It was in that role, primarily for his “American Mercury,” that he did the country a service he is little honored or remembered for today. As Root puts it,
Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of “Klu Kluxry” and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. Indeed, White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing.”
Indeed, Mencken did more for social justice at that crucial time than any of his contemporaries, not because he pitied African Americans or because he loved to imagine himself as their noble savior, but because he admired the work of black writers and considered it worthy of being published. He gave them a much greater gift than condescending patronage. He gave them respect. The Mercury set the tone for many of the intellectuals of the day, and they, too, learned to recognize and respect the talent Mencken set before them. As Root points out, he hated the Klan and everything it stood for, and fought it with scorn and ridicule in every issue of his journal. In spite of all this, he has actually been called a “racist” because he spoke of blacks as he spoke of everyone else in his world, without the fine sense of political correctness expected of writers in the 21st century. No good deed goes unpunished.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is not so complimentary as Root in the review he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. For example,
But the vast majority of the pieces in “Prejudices” are tedious and ephemeral, even terrible at times.
Anyone seeking the reasons for Mencken’s high reputation would do better by turning to Huntington Cairns’s “The American Scene” (1965), an anthology that judiciously selects from Mencken’s autobiographical works, his writings on the American language and his various superb efforts at reportage, including his famous account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which fundamentalist religion famously butted heads with evolutionary theory.
There are no dates included in the Library of America volumes and no contextual introductions to the pieces offered. Much of the time we have no idea what Mencken is shouting about. He comes off as a gasbag.
Mencken continued such rewrites and regurgitations for an additional four “Prejudices.” He is at his worst when he writes on what he considers important topics: the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character.
I understand what Tyrrell is talking about. Mencken was scornful of his enemies, and he wrote about them in a style that was repetitive to the point that it could become tiresome. Perhaps he does come off as a gasbag in some of the worst of the Prejudices. However, if you’re interested in learning something about the human condition, the Prejudices are not ephemeral, nor is it difficult to gather what he is shouting about if you take the time to learn a little of the history of the time. I suspect the reviewer’s blanket judgment that the sage is “at his worst” when writing about the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character,” is more a reflection of his own opinions than of Mencken. He occasionally had strong praise for southerners and southern letters, and as far as the national letters are concerned, I owe the discovery of several authors I greatly admire to his reviews. He had a fine eye for literary talent, and put it to good use in the Mercury. His first encounter with Sinclair Lewis is a case in point. He was put off by Lewis typical antics, wonderfully described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.” However, when he got around to reading Lewis’ work, it didn’t matter. He knew he had found a first rate talent. He did not dislike farmers because they farmed, but because they were the source of political power for his bete noires such as William Jennings Bryan and “dry boss” Wayne B. Wheeler. Tyrrell comes closer to the truth when he writes,
He flourished in the first quarter of the century, but I doubt there would be room in America for him now. His prose style aside, he was an independent mind. There are only two camps today, and he would be in neither.
That’s exactly what I admire about him, and why it’s well worth the effort to read his Prejudices, in spite of their blemishes. There have never been many like him in any age, and in our own, they are almost non-existent. Most of the stuff one reads today is so predictable, so orthodox in its conformity to some ideological dogma, so processed like the food we eat, so often regurgitated in blogs and the “news,” that one despairs of finding anything original enough to be worth thinking about. Mencken is constantly holding little baubles of insights in front of your nose, turning them this way and that, shoving your imagination out of familiar ruts, even if they are sometimes in the rough, just as he dug them up.
Katherine Powers wrote another review for Barnes and Noble. She bowdlerizes Mencken as an original “east coast intellectual:”
H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices is an extended Bronx cheer from the smarty-boots side of the culture war and the first full-bore expression of the animus of East coast intellectuals toward the South and fly-over country.
If you prefer feeding your confirmation bias about east coast intellectuals over according Mencken the respect he deserves as an individual, you will certainly find many tidbits that will serve the purpose before reaching the end of Prejudices. However, the main problem with this pigeon-hole version of Mencken is that it isn’t true. Anyone who takes the time to read his work will notice that he found a great deal to admire and respect in “the South and fly-over country.” The rest of Powers’ review is more of the same wooden caricature. For example,
In “The Cult of Hope” (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a “messianic delusion”; on the contrary, its object is destruction.
If Powers’ object here is to give the reader an example of one of Mencken’s bombastic phrases, well and good. If, on the other hand, she sets any value on informing her readers who and what Mencken was as a critic, its a complete distortion. Mencken had a fine eye for separating the wheat from the chaff, and while he may not have been charitable to the chaff, he often had enthusiastic (and constructive) praise for authors he liked, many times before their reputation had already been established elsewhere. Other than that, Powers can’t resist the urge to draw our attention to the fact that her personal piety meets the most up-to-date standards by means of the politically correct peck-sniffery familiar to modern readers. This sort of thing may be forgivable as an inherited weakness in her case, as we learn that her “great-grandfather was an ardent supporter of William Jennings Bryan.”
It’s hard to capture a writer as original and thought-provoking as Mencken by trying to mount him on a pin in a review limited to a couple of webpages. The most you can hope to do is pique the readers interest enough to get them to look for themselves. Mencken is worth the effort.
Posted on September 25th, 2010 No comments
Now they’re demanding a triple kowtow from one of our allies. Turkey has noticed the same thing. They’re demanding an apology from another of our allies for daring to react to a deliberate Turkish provocation. I’m surprised they bother with our allies. Why not just demand an apology directly from the US government? After all, we are without peers when it comes to groveling before our enemies. Vietnam would do well to take heed as China bullies her in the South China Sea. If she leans on us for support, she will be leaning on a weak reed. She should have learned that from her own history.
Posted on September 24th, 2010 No comments
I give the movie Avatar two thumbs up. It was spectacular in 3-D, and had an entertaining plot featuring noble good guys (native Na’vi, stewards of the environment dedicated to serving the life spirit of their home, the moon Pandora) and evil bad guys (minions of a greedy corporation bent on interstellar vandalism in the search for the precious mineral, unobtainium.) As fiction, it’s great, but if this article about uranium mining in Arizona is any indication, one of the BBC’s reporters saw the movie one too many times. It’s more a reflection of the prevailing ideological narrative at the “objective” BBC than of the real world.
The article, entitled “’Uranium Rush’ Prompts Grand Canyon Fears,” with the signature BBC quotation marks around “Uranium Rush,” is about the possible resumption of uranium mining in Arizona. It would have been more appropriate to put the quotation marks around “Grand Canyon.” According to the article, which appears beneath a lovely picture of the canyon itself,
The Grand Canyon region in the US state of Arizona holds one of the nation’s largest concentrations of high grade uranium, the fuel for nuclear power.
In fact, there is no imminent threat that mining for uranium or any other mineral will occur within the Grand Canyon watershed, because, as the BBC article fails to mention, the entire area was removed from mineral entry by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. In fact, over 55.6% of the total area of the State of Arizona is already withdrawn from mineral exploration and mining.
The article continues,
The US government is currently weighing the costs and benefits of mining, with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva proposing a ban on mining near the Grand Canyon.
Again, the Beeb is playing fast and loose with the truth. The key word here is “near.” At issue is mining in the Arizona strip near the northern border of the state. The “evil corporation” is the Denison Mines Corporation of Canada, operator of the Arizona 1 mine about 45 miles southwest of the city of Fredonia. You can see exactly what is meant by “near” by starting at this satellite view of the mine location and zooming out until you see the canyon to the south. The “Na’vi” are the Native Americans in the region. According to the article,
…Native American populations living near uranium mines fear exploration could contaminate their drinking water.
Unsurprisingly, the article fails to mention any credible basis for this fear. In fact, as noted in this report, the uranium deposits in the area are in breccia pipes a few hundred feet below the surface and generally about 1,000 feet above the local aquifer. The deposits and the aquifer are separated by the impermeable Supai formation. Hence there is little chance of the water being contaminated. There is little danger of runoff, because the region is in a desert, and the mining property is contained in a lined pond.
The article continues,
On a recent trip into the mine, none of the miners wore masks, and their hands and face were caked with uranium ore. “It washes off,” miner Cody Behuden, 28, told the BBC while licking his ore-caked lips.
Vice-president of US operations Harold Roberts said the miners were under no danger from ingesting uranium.
The implication here, of course, is that there really is a danger from ingesting uranium, and the “evil corporation” doesn’t care. In fact, there is credible evidence that uranium miners can suffer a high incidence of lung cancer from inhaling radon gas. There is very little that demonstrates a correlation between “ingesting” the ore and cancer or any other illness. I am certainly willing to believe that conditions in the mine are dangerous if any credible evidence to that effect is forthcoming. If the BBC has something more convincing than innuendo to make the case, let’s see it. The article continues,
Dr Lee Grier, a biologist at University of California at Riverside, said exposure to uranium can be harmful, and the Navajo Native American reservation nearby is still is grappling with contamination from previous uranium mining and milling done by other companies. Those companies now no longer exist.
“The danger with long term exposure is that people breathe it, ingest it or it seeps through the skin,” he said. “These particles start bombarding tissues and cause wild uncontrolled cell growth like cancer.”
In fact, the local Indians are under no danger of contamination, because the ore will be removed and taken out of state to be milled. However, let’s assume the “evil corporation” ignores our environmental laws and allows some uranium to escape into the environment in Utah where the milling operations will actually take place. What would the radioactive hazard be compared to the alternative? In the US, the alternative is coal, and the radioactive hazard of burning it, without even taking the risk of global warming and cancer causing particulates into account, is vastly greater than the risk of mining uranium. Every year a typical coal plant releases several tons of uranium and thorium, which are natural contaminants of coal, into the atmosphere in the form of particulates, highly dangerous because they are breathed in, coming directly into contact with sensitive lung tissue. Special scrubbers can be used to remove some of this, but in that case the captured ash will be radioactive, just like the uranium mill tailings, and will represent a comparable hazard. Are we to prefer solar or wind energy? They come with their own environmental hazards, such as heavy metal contamination and destruction of the fragile desert environments that would be ideal locations for them. They also don’t work if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. How are we to make up the slack when they are off line?
The article continues:
The waste from the milling process is 80% more radioactive than yellow cake and has a half-life of 4.7 billion years. Thousands of tonnes of waste are buried in containers lined with 60mm (2.4in) of plastic.
Here, the author simply has no clue what she is talking about. 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? But isn’t yellow cake a uranium compound, and isn’t the ore radioactive to begin with because of the presence of a fraction of one percent of uranium? Yellow cake is more than half pure uranium by weight, and most of the uranium will have been extracted from the waste. How, then, could it conceivably be 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? Presumably by 4.7 billion years she means the half life of uranium 238, which is actually somewhat less than that, but if she’s talking about uranium, how could it be 80% more radioactive than uranium? The sentence is incomprehensible as it stands.
Of course, there is always a “theoretical risk” of anything one could name, and, sure enough,
“Theoretically uranium could get into the water supply,” said Andrea Alpine, senior adviser on the USGS uranium project.
It’s not only “theoretical,” but a fact that natural uranium gets into our food and water regardless, and we each ingest a microgram or two of the stuff every day. What the article fails to describe is a credible explanation of how significant amounts of uranium over and above this natural average would contaminate anyone’s water supply from the Denison mine, and what the risk of such a thing happening really is. The article continues,
When uranium comes into contact with oxygen it becomes soluble in water, which increases the chance of contamination. Radioactive dust can also be blown away by the wind or washed away by rain. This is what Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai Indian tribe fears most. The Havasupai live on the bottom of the Grand Canyon and derive water from the rim.
What the author means by this is anybody’s guess. Uranium mined in Arizona usually comes in the form of U3O8, an oxide of uranium which has a very low solubility in water, and does not become more soluble on exposure to air. Possibly she’s talking about leaching operations, in which uranium compounds can be made more soluble by introducing oxygen into the leaching liquid. It really makes very little difference. Anti-nuclear ideologues often emphasize the solubility of uranium if it’s a question of telling scary stories about ground water contamination, but can make it insoluble with a wave of their magic wands if they prefer scary stories that require it to stay in place, as in contamination of small geographic locations or organs in the body. Once again, of course, the mine is not in the Grand Canyon watershed. We are not enlightened about why the Havasupai should, nevertheless, be afraid of water washing over the rim.
The article concludes with a perfect “Avatar” ending,
“Mining companies are pursuing uranium for their own profit,” she said. “But the only benefit that we are going to get is a source of contamination. We are concerned about the future of our children, that’s why we fight this.”
Apparently the Beeb is no longer worried that the future of our children is threatened by the emission of greenhouse gases that happen not to come from nuclear plants. I will await with interest their explanation of why they have become global warming deniers.
Posted on September 23rd, 2010 No comments
There’s no doubt the federal government of the United States is bloated beyond anything the Founding Fathers ever intended. For example, Benjamin Franklin wrote in response to a scornful letter from some Englishmen, who were our enemies at the time,
The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.
James Madison, a major architect of the Constitution, rejected the broad interpretation of the General Welfare clause that later became an essential rationalization for the cancerous growth of government. As noted in Wikipedia,
Madison vetoed on states’ rights grounds a bill for “internal improvements,” including roads, bridges, and canals:Having considered the bill … I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States…. The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified … in the … Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.
Madison rejected the view of Congress that the General Welfare provision of the Taxing and Spending Clause justified the bill, stating:Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms “common defense and general welfare” embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.
As noted at OffMyFrontPorch, he also wrote the the Federalist Paper, #45,
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite……The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.
Jefferson was of like mind with respect to the meaning of the Taxing and Spending Clause, writing in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798,
Resolved, That the construction applied by the General Government (as is evidenced by sundry of their proceedings) to those parts of the Constitution of the United States which delegate to Congress a power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imports, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” and “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution, the powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof,” goes to the destruction of all limits prescribed to their powers by the Constitution: that words meant by the instrument to be subsidiary only to the execution of limited powers, ought not to be so construed as themselves to give unlimited powers, nor a part to be so taken as to destroy the whole residue of that instrument…
Even arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton wrote,
The State governments possess inherent advantages, which will ever give them an influence and ascendancy over the National Government, and will forever preclude the possibility of federal encroachments. That their liberties, indeed, can be subverted by the federal head, is repugnant to every rule of political calculation. (Speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, June 17, 1788)
But as the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, EXCLUSIVELY delegated to the United States. (Federalist No. 32, January 3, 1788)
That and much more like it can be found in the writings of the men who actually drafted the Constitution, and nothing that supports the creation of a centralized state of the kind the United States has become today. Such ideas are now labeled “extremist,” as is anyone who objects to the radical redefinition of government in the United States that has taken place since the New Deal. The Taxing and Spending Clause became the key to the massive growth of a centralized state after all, and the Tenth Amendment has become a nullity. To remedy the situation, some are now calling for a Constitutional Convention to reign in the power of the federal government. It won’t happen, or at least not anytime soon. Franklin Roosevelt managed to stay in power through almost four terms, in spite of his dismal performance in managing the economy until he was rescued by the start of World War II, by passing out benefits to favored blocs of voters, who could then be counted on to defend their own interests on election day, normally conflating them with the interests of the country. Federal power will continue to expand for the same reason, and all the Tea Parties in the world won’t stop it.
Posted on September 20th, 2010 1 comment
Back in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century, the “experts” in human behavior were making some remarkable noises. For example, from Ashley Montagu,
…for man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.
…the fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.
and Kenneth Boulding,
It is, indeed, the existence of large excess capacity in the human nervous system which it seems to me vitiates the arguments of those who seek to find in “instinct” any explanation whatever of human behavior beyond the most elementary and primitive acts of the newly born.
In a word, they claimed that there was no innate wiring in our brains that predisposed us to behave one way or another, or, if there were, it played an insignificant role compared to culture and learning. In particular, all of our social behavior was purely the product of environment and experience. No matter that any reasonably intelligent teenager could have observed her own behavior for an hour or two and respectfully pointed out to them that they were sucking canal water. The ideological narratives fashionable at the time required them to maintain the façade with a bold face, and so they kept oohing and aahing about the emperor’s new clothes for decades before the truth finally caught up with them. His outfit included some particularly gaudy and colorful stuff about human origins.
It turns out, you see, that not everyone had swallowed the behaviorist dogmas. A number of writers had the effrontery to insist that the role of the innate on human behavior was both real and important. In making their case, they pointed to commonalities between human behavior and that of other animals, and observed that our own behavioral idiosyncrasies had likely undergone evolutionary change during the transition from ape to human along with our brains. In particular, they suggested that certain of the behavioral traits we observe in our species today may have come about as a result of our increased reliance on animal food, the so-called Hunting Hypothesis.
Unfortunately, these ideas were decidedly politically incorrect as far as the ingroup of “experts” were concerned. Their ideological dogmas required that we be evolved from saintly ancestral hominids who were uniformly kind, unaggressive, and, other than occasionally sucking the marrow out of bones left around by careless hyenas, vegetarian. They responded by behaving precisely as their opponents might have predicted; they exhibited all the traits that characterize human behavior towards outgroups, demonizing and heaping scorn on those who disagreed with them. The Hunting Hypothesis became the object of their particular animus.
Decades passed, and they kept defending the party line at all hazards, insisting that we had evolved from kind, unaggressive, vegetarian ancestors that were “just like chimpanzees.” Alas, the chimpanzees didn’t play along. Eventually, Jane Goodall took the time to conduct a long term study of chimpanzees in their natural environment, and had some unsettling news for the “experts.” Chimpanzees hunted, they ate meat, they engaged in brutal attacks against neighboring groups, using sticks as weapons, and they were anything but “unaggressive.” They tried to shout her down, ridiculing her as a “mere secretary,” and a “waitress,” but their time was running out. Meanwhile, fire-hardened hunting spears had been found in association with Homo Erectus remains, and it did not seem entirely plausible that they had been used as toothpicks.
Eventually, towards the end of the 1990’s, the weight of evidence began to tell. In a relatively short time, the remnants of behaviorist dogma collapsed, and a remarkable paradigm shift occurred. Interesting manifestations of the change, stunning in its scope, can be found in the “before” and “after” programs about prehistoric man presented by the Public Broadcasting Network.
For example, here is the “scientific truth,” about Homo erectus, circa 1997, as it was set forth in the series, “In Search of Human Origins.” It turns out he did have a taste for meat, but wouldn’t dream of harming a flea. You see, he was a scavenger:
Propelled by a need for meat, Homo erectus with his big brain and powerful body was now on an even playing field with other carnivores. He was an intelligent and active scavenger.
In a situation where timing counts, another scavenger could be here in seconds. Homo erectus was well-served with an effective butchery tool. With tools like these and the ability to cover ground quickly, Homo erectus was better off than earlier ancestors, but survival still depended on the luck of getting their first.
Even with their ability to scavenge well, Homo erectus parents must have been pushed to the limit to provide for themselves and their offspring.
You can say that again! Little more than a decade later, PBS was singing an entirely different tune. Suddenly, the “scavenger” narrative is nowhere to be seen. No matter that Robert Ardrey published “The Hunting Hypothesis” in 1977, and Carveth Read had published a similar view of human origins as early as 1920. If we are to believe PBS, it was triumphantly discovered some time after 1997 that Homo erectus was a hunter after all. In the “Becoming Human” series that began airing in 2009, we learn,
Homo erectus probably hunted with close-quarters weapons, with spears that were thrown at animals from a short distance, clubs, thrown rocks, weapons like that. They weren’t using long distance projectile weapons that we know of.
The Homo erectus hunt was simple but effective. It fed not just their larger brains, but the growing complexity of that early human society.
Surprise, surprise! Nowhere in any of the program is there any mention of the fact PBS had imposed on the credulity of its viewers with an entirely different version little more than a decade earlier. I had to smile in spite of myself at this bit:
Humans have this wonderfully calm temperament compared to chimpanzees, say. Where did it come from? We were drawn to a common place, the fireplace.
What!? Compared to chimpanzees? How could that be? As Ashley Montagu had told us with a completely straight face in the not too distant past,
The field studies of… Goodall on the chimpanzee… as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive.
Just wait a bit, Dr. Montagu. Dr. Goodall will have some unpleasant news for you about the “amiable” chimpanzees.
The 1997 program had also quoted Robert Brain to the effect that South African anthropologist Raymond Dart had been wrong to suggest, based on one of the earliest published examples of cave taphonomy, that australopithecines may also have been hunters. Without ever addressing Darts statistical arguments, Brain suggested that the real culprits for the assemblage of bones in Dart’s Sterkfontein cave sites were actually leopards and porcupines:
Yes, you know, there’s no question that this kind of shallow scoop marks on a bone is normally only caused by porcupine gnawing.
and, referring to puncture wounds in the skull of an australopithecine child,
Well, interestingly enough, the spacing of those two holes is matched almost exactly by the spacing of the lower canines of a fossil leopard from the same part of the cave.
Brain would have done better to listen to old man Dart. Today we find him in full row back mode, trying to salvage his professional credibility. For example, from the abstract of a paper in which his name appears at the end of the list of authors,
The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.
In other words, for a period stretching over several decades, regardless of whether one accepts the behavioral implications of Ardrey’s hunting hypothesis or not, the “experts” were wrong, and the people they had worked so hard to vilify and demonize were right. Is it really asking too much to suggest that, instead of pressing ahead as if nothing had happened, they recognize the fact, and explain to the rest of us how they propose to insure that it doesn’t happen again?
Posted on September 19th, 2010 No comments
The editors of Der Spiegel have never been behindhand when it comes to peddling anti-American hate. Among the first to discover how lucrative it could be in Germany following the demise of Communism, they began publishing quasi-racist diatribes against Amerika that would have made Walter Ulbricht blush. Occasionally their website would be so saturated with such stuff that it was difficult to find any news about Germany. Germans lapped it up. It was a case study in the sort of tribalism their brilliant countryman, Konrad Lorenz, tried to warn them about, but, like the rest of the world, they weren’t listening. One would think that, given their history in the 20th century, they, of all people, might have learned that hatred of outgroups is a bad thing. Apparently all they did learn is that, if you happen to hate Jews, you should keep it under your hat, but open hatred of Americans is OK.
Eventually a few German blogs began pushing back, and increasing numbers of Americans began to notice. The editors realized they couldn’t keep it up without losing “respectability,” even among other journalists. As a result, blatant anti-Americanism in Der Spiegel had become a shadow of its former self by the final years of the Bush Administration. Occasionally it still leaks out around the edges, though. Of course, racists love their stereotypes, and one of Der Spiegel’s all time favorites is that Americans are “prudish.” Trust me, we could all be screwing in the streets, and they would still describe us as “prudish.” Sure enough, the meme turned up again in an article about Masters and Johnson a few days ago. The byline reads, “The prudish Americans were once enlightened by sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. A biography exposes the shocking life of the couple.”
Of course, the editors of Der Spiegel are nothing if not “professional.” They have a finely tuned sense of nuance, and realize that the level of scorn that Germans expect to find in “objective news” about anything foreign just wouldn’t do in pieces written for non-German audiences. A nice example of the sort of “nuance” I’m talking about turned up in a recent article about the victory of Christine O’Donnell in the Republican Senate primary in Delaware. Here’s the English version, and here’s the German. The biggest “nuance” in the German version was (you guessed it), the care taken to feed German confirmation bias about “American prudishness.” It’s all about this crazy woman who has a hangup with masturbation. According to the byline, “She once called masturbation a sin, and the fight against AIDS a waste of tax money.” The first paragraph continues the meme, throwing in the “Americans are religious nuts” stereotype for good measure;
“According to the Bible, lust is the same thing as adultery. One can’t masturbate without experiencing lust.” Christine O’Donnell fixes her gaze on the camera. She patiently explains the world to the MTV moderator. “There is god-given sexual desire,” she says. However, sex outside of marriage is fundamentally wrong. It violates the sixth commandment.
As Spiegel’s sage German readers shake their heads about the poor, perverted American religious fanatics, they’re fed another helping of the same:
In 1997, Christine O’Donnell said that the government was spending too much money for fighting AIDS. That America was wasting a bundle on pornographic condoms. That cancer was an “Act of God,” but, on the other hand, AIDS was a punishment for individual behavior. That one could eradicate venereal disease within a generation if all Americans kept in mind their Christian values.
Moving right along, Spiegel keeps spanking the monkey:
Masturbation opponent O’Donnell could come up short in the election for Congress.
After winning the primary, she celebrated with as much gusto as she did in her 1996 anti-masturbation campaign.
Got that? You didn’t miss that masturbation thing, did you? Oddly enough, the English version only mentions the unmentionable sin once, and that merely as an afterthought;
The Tea Party movement has won a succession of Republican primaries, with its conservative, anti-establishment candidates. O’Donnell is known for her pro-gun, anti-abortion stance, as well as her belief that masturbation is a sin.
Apparently Spiegel wants to spare the sensitivities of its American readers, who will surely know that masturbation makes you blind and sterile. Other than that, the English version is the soul of non-partisan objectivity. For example, in the above, the Tea Party movement is “conservative.” Later on we learn that it is a “grass roots” movement whose “popularity is widely attributed to dissatisfaction with US President Barack Obama and frustration with the lackluster US economy.” The English version concludes with a selection of similarly bland comments about O’Donnell and the Tea Party movement that have appeared in the German media recently.
The German version adds a little more “context” and “detail.” In the opening section we learn that O’Donnell is not merely “conservative,” but an “arch-conservative,” and the Tea Party movement is an “arch-conservative group.” Predictably, the editors throw in the “extremist” meme, familiar to readers of lefty blogs in the U.S.
In year one after the world economic crisis, there are poisonous political discussions in America about a political drift to the liberal left. The political camps are becoming polarized. Many would say: They are becoming radicalized.
If you happen to be planning a trip to Germany, you’re more than likely to learn firsthand that the home-brewed picture of Amerika that German’s are fed by their media is somewhat different from the “English version.” Either wear Lederhosen and try to blend in, or brace yourself for the attentions of any number of earnest Teutons, who will eagerly do you the favor of explaining your own country to you. As for the editors of Der Spiegel, don’t take it personally. They’re just as “non-partisan” when they’re reporting about events in Germany. No matter that the German economy is booming, unemployment is less than it was before the economic crisis began, and employers are having an increasingly difficult time finding skilled help. They still bitch about Chancellor Angela Merkel as if she were, well, as if she were Barack Obama. After all, she, too, is an “arch conservative.”