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  • The Politics of Genetic Determinism

    Posted on October 29th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Another article has just appeared on the website of the journal Evolutionary Psychology relating to the influence of our innate mental wiring on the likelihood that our political outlook will be conservative or liberal. Entitled, “Extending the Behavioral Immune System to Political Psychology: Are Political Conservatism and Disgust Sensitivity Really Related?” it isn’t fundamentally different from other papers that have appeared in behavioral science journals recently exploring the same theme.

    The conjecture that human beings have an innate tendency to identify with ideological points of view that are either to the right or the left of the political spectrum has been around for a very long time, and recent research seems to verify it. However, such work must necessarily be carried out in the context of human societies charged with the types of emotion it seeks to study. It is hardly as irrelevant to those emotions as, say, research into the behavior of some new type of amoeba. It should come as no surprise if the results of such studies are crudely distorted and transmogrified into propaganda weapons by one ideological faction or the other.

    Specifically, there is a danger that research in this area will be trivialized to “prove” determinist arguments the same way other research into innate aspects of human behavior has been used in the legal system to claim that criminals are not responsible for their behavior because “their genes made them do it.” An example of what I’m talking about turned up on the Foxnews website today. Referring to a different but related study, it carries the headline, “Researchers find the ‘Liberal Gene’”. This is immediately followed by the byline, “Don’t hold liberals responsible for their opinion – they can’t help themselves.” The rest of the piece is considerably more nuanced. For example, a bit further down we read,

    “The way openness is measured, it’s really about receptivity to different lifestyles, for example, or different norms or customs,” he (research paper author James Fowler) told FoxNews.com. “We hypothesize that individuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences [a measure of openness] will tend to be more liberal” — but only if they had a number of friends when growing up, Fowler cautioned.

    This isn’t a typical gene association study,” he said. “There’s a combination of genes and environment that matter.”

    No matter, as all good propagandists and students of the media are aware, a great number, if not most, readers never look beyond the headline and the byline. That’s where you should always look if you want to get the “message” straight up. That “message” is set forth a great deal more explicitly in an “opinion” piece that is linked directly under the main article entitled, “A ‘Liberal Gene’ You Say — Now That Explains It All, Doesn’t It?” The author, Martin Sieff, quickly hammers the nuanced scientific observations of the original article into a handy propaganda tool:

    Can there really be a liberal gene? They’ve got to be joking.

    But no here it is, straight from Fox News today: James Fowler, a professor medical genetics and political science (cool combination) says liberals can’t help being – liberal.

    Sieff goes on to “rearrange” the research paper to suit his own political point of view:

    Of course, what Fowler calls the “liberal gene” he also explains as being the “open minded” gene. And that might well apply to modern conservatives instead of liberals, because which of them is more open-minded?

    After all, Fowler defines his “liberals” as being open minded and open to new ideas and new solutions. But does that fit modern American liberals, who stick to disastrous failed ideas and policies in the face of all the evidence? Or does it apply to American conservatives, who are right now thrashing out a redefinition of conservative policies for the new century?

    So perhaps Fowler’s “liberals” were really open-minded conservatives all alike, and his “liberals”, while certainly not conservative, were just rigid, closed minded defenders of a disastrous, failed status quo all along.

    The deterministic message is again served up straight in the “zinger” lines at the end of the article:

    This means of course, that conservatives should show more tolerance the next time they hear President Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After all, they can’t help it, can they?

    It also means that so-called principled liberals, like Obama, are far more likely to run the country into the ground than cynical opportunists like President Bill Clinton did. Obama and Pelosi, by contrast are what they are, and they always will be. Not even national ruin will change them.

    My intention here is not to single out conservatives for criticism. Leftists can and will bowdlerize exactly the same research papers to create deterministic mythologies supporting their own points of view. In the process they will be just as adept as conservatives in transmuting nuanced predispositions into rigid instincts.   In fact, there is no single gene that determines an individual’s political point of view, nor is environment irrelevant to shaping that point of view, nor are our highly developed rational minds incapable of overriding ideological predispositions. Perhaps more importantly, the degree to which ideas are true or false is not altered by the degree to which they fall on one side or the other of the political spectrum. Researchers might do well to lay more stress on these facts in their research papers, and at the same time bear in mind the fact that they are not immune to the emotional behavior they are studying themselves.

  • Update from Germany

    Posted on October 28th, 2010 Helian 2 comments

    What is it about Germans?  Somehow I get the feeling that many of them would still complain if they were hung with a new rope.  The German economy is booming.  Unemployment has never been lower since 1992.  There are currently over 400,000 unfilled job openings in the country, and a shortage of workers, not jobs.  According to recent projections, the number of unemployed will drop from just under 3 million now to about 2 million in 2012.  The economy is currently expanding at a robust 3.4% per year, and Germany leads western industrialized countries in the speed of its recovery from the recession.  In spite of it all, the country isn’t exactly “dizzy with success.”  It seems that the Germans, or at least the German media, can see a dark cloud behind every silver lining. 

    The news magazine Focus, for example, agonizes about the “Dangerous Attraction of Prosperity,” in an article warning about increased government debt, in spite of tax receipts in excess of the rosiest projections, and a deficit in the noise compared to that of the United States.   In another article entitled “Five Risks to Prosperity,” we learn that, “A cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the good prognoses.  Experts don’t trust the good signals.”

    Der Spiegel, too, focuses on the negative.  In an article entitled, “Capitol City of the Unemployed,”  it describes the situation in the city of Demmin, passing on the lugubrious news that “Nowhere is unemployment so high as in the district in the northwest of the republic…  Those who can leave for the West, and those who stay experience the daily deterioration.”  The “pulse” of the city is “beating ever more slowly.”  Another Spiegel article highlights the visit of none other than our own Paul Krugman.  Under the headline “Crisis Oracle Krugman Fulminates against the Germans,” the Nobel laureate is quoted warning the Germans that “the crisis isn’t close to over.”  He condemns all the talk about a recovery, suggests that demand for German exports will soon collapse, and internal consumption is too low, and hints darkly about renewed pressure on the Euro.

    Not to be outdone, the magazine Stern begins an article about the unexpectedly robust German economic expansion reflected in the latest figures with the counterintuitive headline, “The Recovery Weakens,” because projected growth in 2011 is somewhat less.   In a word, to say that the Germans aren’t cocky about their recovery is an understatement.

    Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder:  It’s all about me

    In spite of all that, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder knows a good thing when he sees it.  In keeping with the old saying, “Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan,“ he is claiming that he should be credited with the current recovery, because “it’s a result of his policies.“  In an interview for a local newspaper, he suggests that, “(Chancellor) Angela Merkel should be thankful to him for his reforms.“  No doubt tears of gratitude are falling down her cheeks.  One can understand his glee, given the less happy fate of George W. Bush, who continues in the role of scapegoat of choice for all the failings of the Obama administration.

     German Greenpeace:  Fighting Global Warming with Coal

    Meanwhile, even as German coal-fired power plants belch millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and more are planned in the immediate future, German activists posing as “environmentalists” have occupied the roof of the headquarters of the center-right Christian Democrat party in what Der Spiegel calls a “spectacular action” to protest the party’s support for nuclear power.  Never mind that coal represents a significantly greater radioactive hazard than nuclear power, without even taking into account the tens of thousands that die each year from breathing the particulates from coal-fired plants, or the fact that such plants contribute mightily to global warming, which these same “environmentalists” have claimed is the number one threat facing the planet.  So powerful is the craving of these activists to strike pious poses as noble saviors of humanity that they’re incapable of even making the connection.  In their fevered imaginations, the nuclear plants they propose to shut down will all be replaced by non-polluting (and non-existent) “green” energy sources.  It’s very simple, really.  There are still coal plants in Germany, and there will continue to be coal plants in Germany into the indefinite future.  Each nuclear plant that is built or remains in operation can replace the need for a coal plant of comparable size.  Therefore, what the German “environmentalists” are really doing by opposing nuclear is promoting the continued burning of coal.  As usual,  the pose is everything and the reality is nothing.

  • The Case of Margaret Mead: Icon of the Blank Slate

    Posted on October 26th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Margaret Mead

    I wonder how many of the people who have been furious detractors or avid supporters of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa have actually read the book. Very few, if the comments I’ve seen about it are any guide. The book is supposed to be one of the holy Gospels of the Blank Slate, or the theory that there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as innate human nature, a palpably false notion that somehow managed to mesmerize the practitioners of the sciences of human behavior through much of the 20th century. How such a seemingly innocuous little book could have risen to such prominence and been accorded such ideological significance is a subject that may well busy future generations of psychologists.

    On the face of it, the book seems to be a collection of observations concerning the natives of Samoa written by a talented and intelligent young anthropologist who had visited the islands for a period of something under a year. A student of the noted psychologist Frank Boas, she was particularly interested in finding if the apparent stress and strain of adolescence for girls growing up in western societies was really unavoidable, or merely the reflection of a dysfunctional culture. I find no intent to deceive in the book, no excessive confirmation bias, and no evidence that Mead was a person easily duped by the individuals she was studying into believing something that she wanted to believe, but that was actually false.

    Boas did Mead no favor by writing in a foreword to the book:

    The results of the painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.

    The statement is both crudely unscientific (a brief study like Mead’s could “confirm” no such sweeping conclusion one way or the other), and self-contradictory (why would human beings “react to restraints” if it is not their nature to do so?). Such inflammatory nonsense amounted to putting a target on Mead’s back. I am not familiar enough with her work to know if she ever made such a sweeping claim herself in some other work, but nothing like it appears in Coming of Age. In Dilthey’s Dream, a collection of essays by Mead’s great foe, Derek Freeman, he makes the claim,

    In the thirteenth chapter of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead went even further, claiming on the basis of her enquiries into adolescence in Samoa, that explanations other than in terms of environmental factors could not be made.

    I have carefully parsed the chapter in question, and can only conclude that Freeman had a lively imagination. Mead did constantly stress the importance of culture in the book, but I find nothing, in the thirteenth chapter or elsewhere, that positively excludes other than cultural influences on human behavior. What she actually did say was consistent with a comment that appeared in a preface she wrote for the 1973 edition of the book:

    But the renascence of racism among some scientists and the pleas for a harsh, manipulative behavioralism among some psychologists make me wonder whether the modern world understands much more about the significance of culture – the interplay between individual endowment and cultural style, the limits set by biology and the way in which human imagination can transcend those limits – than was known in 1928.

    Here Mead is wearing her well-known political activism on her sleeve, but she clearly distances herself from the extreme versions of the Blank Slate that were prevalent in 1973 and explicitly acknowledges that there are “limits set by biology.” This statement, written near the end of her career, seems to position her closer to modern theories of human nature than to the extreme “nurture vs. nature” orthodoxy of the mid-20th century.

    Freeman isn’t the only one who has transformed Coming of Age to an ideological icon in his imagination, attributing extreme claims to it that one searches for in vain in the actual book. In rounding up the usual suspects, we find that Steven Pinker, that master chef of philosopher soup, has done the same thing. In his book The Blank Slate, he cites Coming of Age as a prime example of the “noble savage” fallacy, claiming in particular that Mead portrays Samoan society as egalitarian. She does no such thing. Her book is full of descriptions of the hierarchical traditions of the culture, and the consciousness and importance of rank and status. As far as the “noble savage” is concerned, Mead explicitly rejected some aspects of Samoan culture as inimical to those values of Western civilization that she believed should be preserved.

    As for Freeman, he was a strange bird. Like Sam Harris, he had the notion that his understanding of human nature was so acute that he could use it to cobble together a new morality. For example, again from Dilthey’s Dream:

    One of my main conclusions then is that there is a need for a critical anthropology of human values. Human cultures being value systems are “experiments in living,” and a critical anthropology would be concerned with assessing the consequences of these “experiments in living” in the hope that we might gradually learn to select our values with greater wisdom.

    He seems to have elevated Mead to the role of quintessential representative of the Blank Slate in his imagination, and was obsessed with the bizarre notion that, if he could only prove that her claims about sexuality in Samoan adolescents were wrong, he would not only debunk Mead, but single-handedly demolish the Blank Slate itself. In fact, whether adolescent Samoan girls in the 1920s were as chaste as the most straight-laced Victorians, or just as Mead described them, it would “prove” nothing at all about human nature. Factual or not, Mead’s version of Samoan sexuality was well within the parameters already observed in other societies by observers both modern and ancient.

    The question remains of whether Mead’s findings about the relative sexual freedom of women and girls in Samoan society were true or, as Freeman claimed, a figment of her imagination based on the claims of Samoan girls who told her what she seemed to want to hear as something of a practical joke. It happens that there is much of relevance to this question in a book entitled An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands by an Englishman who had lived among them for many years published in 1817. Thanks to Google books, this account, a wonderful anthropological study in its own right, can be read online. In includes a section on sexual behavior, noting that married women tended to be true to their husbands, but that marriage bonds were weak, and many of them were married multiple times. Unmarried women, on the other hand, enjoyed virtually untrammeled sexual freedom. Quoting from the book (page 173):

    If a man divorces his wife, which is attended with no other ceremony than just telling her that she may go, she becomes perfect mistress of her own conduct, and may marry again, which is often done a few days afterwards, without the least disparagement to her character: or if she chooses, she may remain single and admit a lover occasionally, or may cohabit with her lover for a time, and remain at his house without being considered his wife, having no particular charge of his domestic concerns, and may leave him when she pleases, and this she may also do without the least reproach or secrecy.

    …once divorced, they can remain single if they please, and enjoy all the liberty that the most libertine heart can desire.

    …As to those women who are not actually married, they may bestow their favours upon whomsoever they please, without any opprobrium.

    Remarkably, the author claimed that, in spite of this, the women were relatively chaste, if not compared to Europe, than at least compared to other island groups in the region, including Samoa, to which the natives occasionally traveled in their ocean-going canoes. In a review of the book that appeared in the April 1817 edition of the British Quarterly Review we learn, for example:

    The women are much less immodest than in the other islands, and maternal affection exists as strongly among them as among the nations where the instincts of nature are fostered and strengthened by the sense of duty.

    In a word, score one for Mead. It would seem that Freeman was the one who had his leg pulled.

    If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that, before becoming firmly convinced about what an author said, it is useful to actually read her book beforehand.  Paul Shankman has written an account of the Mead – Freeman controversy entitled The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. An interesting review of the book may be found here.

  • Criticism, Self-criticism, and Thoughtcrime

    Posted on October 24th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Certain psychological types seem to persist across cultures.  For example, here is Stalin in a letter to writer and journalist Maxim Gorky:

    We cannot do without self-criticism. We simply cannot, Alexei Maximovich. Without it, stagnation, corruption of the apparatus, growth of bureaucracy, sapping of the creative initiative of the working class, is inevitable. I know there are people in the ranks of the party who have no fondness for criticism in general, and for self-criticism in particular. Those people, whom I might call “skin-deep” communists… shrug their shoulders at self-criticism, as much as to say: … again this raking out of our shortcomings – can’t we be allowed to live in peace!

    Of course, there were limits on the Communists’ fondness for self-criticism.  When Gorky criticized them in his paper Novaia zhizn’ (New Life) for their brutal excesses immediately after their seizure of power, they shut him down, and he was lucky to get away with his life. 

    Here’s a similar bit from another variant of the worker’s paradise, Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution.  It’s from the book Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, and describes the author’s experiences in one of the “self-criticism” sessions the Communists used to terrorize both adults and children (the author was 12 years old at the time).  She had called one of her friends by a nickname, and been overheard by one of the school bullies, who appropriately belonged to the “Red Successors,” a younger version of the Red Guards.  He dressed her down as follows:

    It isn’t simply a matter of calling people by nicknames. It’s a matter of your looking down on working-class people… This is connected with your class standing Jiang Ji-li. You should reflect on your class origin and thoroughly remold your ideology… You’d better think seriously about your problems.

    Moving right along to our own time, we find Greg Sargent addressing some similarly charming comments to Juan Williams in a column that appeared in the Washington Post.  Williams, you may recall, was just fired by NPR for what George Orwell once called Thoughtcrime.  Quoting from Sargent’s article:

    The problem, though, is that in his initial comments he didn’t clarify that the instinctual feeling itself is irrational and ungrounded, and something folks need to battle against internally whenever it rears its head. And in his subsequent comments on Fox today, Williams again conspicuously failed to make that point.

    Maybe Williams does think those feelings are unacceptably irrational and need to be wrestled with, and perhaps someone should ask him more directly if he thinks that. But until he clearly states it to be the case, there’s no reason to assume he thinks we should battle those feelings and work to delegitimize them.

    Far be it for me to suggest that Sargent has anything at all in common with Stalin or Mao, or that his thought is otherwise anything but politically correct.  I merely suggest, based on admittedly anecdotal evidence, that there seem to be some psychological commonalities in human types that persist across cultures.  Apparently others have noticed the same thing.  Jim Treacher’s take in a piece he wrote for the Daily Caller was somewhat more emphatic:

    It’s true, I haven’t heard Juan Williams call for the abolition of all crimethink. Thank goodness we have Greg Sargent of the Washington Post to remind us what’s permissible to think. Not what’s permissible to act on, or even to say aloud, but to think. How can we all be free if people are allowed to think in unapproved ways?

    “Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime is death.”

  • More Thorium Silliness

    Posted on October 23rd, 2010 Helian 8 comments

    Thorium is a promising candidate as a future source of energy.  I just wonder what it is about the stuff that inspires so many people to write nonsense about it.  It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in physics to spot the mistakes.  Most of them should be obvious to anyone who’s taken the trouble to read a high school science book.  Another piece of misinformation has just turned up at the website of Popular Mechanics, dubiously titled The Truth about Thorium and Nuclear Power.

    The byline claims that, “Thorium has nearly 200 times the energy content of uranium,” a statement I will assume reflects the ignorance of the writer rather than any outright attempt to deceive. She cites physicist Carlo Rubbia as the source, but if he ever said anything of the sort, he was making some very “special” assumptions about the energy conversion process that she didn’t quite understand. I assume it must have had something to do with his insanely dangerous subcritical reactor scheme, in which case the necessary assumptions to get a factor of 200 would have necessarily been very “special” indeed. Thorium cannot sustain the nuclear chain reaction needed to produce energy on its own. It must first be transmuted to an isotope of uranium with the atomic weight of 233 (U233) by absorbing a neutron. Strictly speaking, then, the above statement is nonsense, because the “energy content” of thorium actually comes from a form of uranium, U233, which can sustain a chain reaction on its own. However, let’s be charitable and compare natural thorium and natural uranium as both come out of the ground when mined. 

    As I’ve already pointed out, thorium cannot be directly used in a nuclear reactor on its own.  Natural uranium actually can.  It consists mostly of an isotope of uranium with an atomic weight of 238 (U238), but also a bit over 0.7% of a lighter isotope with an atomic weight of 235 (U235).  U238, like thorium, is unable to support a nuclear chain reaction on its own, but U235, like U233, can.  Technically speaking, what that means is that, when the nucleus of an atom of U233 or U235 absorbs a neutron, enough energy is released to cause the nucleus to split, or fission.  When U238 or natural thorium (Th232) absorbs a neutron, energy is also released, but not enough to cause fission.  Instead, they become U239 and Th233, which eventually decay to produce U233 and plutonium 239 (Pu239) respectively. 

    Let’s try to compare apples and apples, and assume that enough neutrons are around to convert all the Th232 to U233, and all the U238 to Pu239.  In that case we are left with a lump of pure U233 derived from the natural thorium and a mixture of about 99.3% Pu239 and 0.7% U235 from the natural uranium.  In the first case, the fission of each atom of U233 will release, on average, 200.1 million electron volts (MeV) of energy that can potentially be converted to heat in a nuclear reactor.  In the second, each atom of U235 will release, on average, 202.5 Mev, and each atom of Pu239 211.5 Mev of energy.  In other words, the potential energy release from natural thorium is actually about equal to that of natural uranium. 

    Unfortunately, the “factor of 200″ isn’t the only glaring mistake in the paper.  The author repeats the familiar yarn about how uranium was chosen over thorium for power production because it produced plutonium needed for nuclear weapons as a byproduct.  In fact, uranium would have been the obvious choice even if weapons production had not been a factor.  As pointed out earlier, natural uranium can sustain a chain reaction in a reactor on its own, and thorium can’t.  Natural uranium can be enriched in U235 to make more efficient and smaller reactors.  Thorium can’t be “enriched” in that way at all.  Thorium breeders produce U232, a highly radioactive and dangerous isotope, which can’t be conveniently separated from U233, complicating the thorium fuel cycle.  Finally, the plutonium that comes out of nuclear reactors designed for power production, known as “reactor grade” plutonium, contains significant quantities of heavier isotopes of plutonium in addition to Pu239, making it unsuitable for weapons production.

    Apparently the author gleaned some further disinformation for  Seth Grae, CEO of Lightbridge, a Virginia-based company promoting thorium power.  He supposedly told her that U233 produced in thorium breeders “fissions almost instantaneously.”  In fact, the probability that it will fission is entirely comparable to that of U235 or Pu239, and it will not fission any more “instantaneously” than other isotopes.  Why Grae felt compelled to feed her this fable is beyond me, as “instantaneous” fission isn’t necessary to prevent diversion of U233 as a weapons material.  Unlike plutonium, it can be “denatured” by mixing it with U238, from which it cannot be chemically separated.

    It’s a mystery to me why so much nonsense is persistently associated with discussions of thorium, a potential source of energy that has a lot going for it.  It has several very significant advantages over the alternative uranium/plutonium breeder technology, such as not producing significant quantities of plutonium and other heavy actinides, less danger that materials produced in the fuel cycle will be diverted for weapons purposes if the technology is done right, and the ability to operate in a more easily controlled “thermal” neutron environment.  I can only suggest that people who write popular science articles about nuclear energy take the time to educate themselves about the subject.  Tried and true old textbooks like Introduction to Nuclear Engineering and Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory by John Lamarsh have been around for years, don’t require an advanced math background, and should be readable by any intelligent person with a high school education.

  • The Soul of Eugene Marais and the Origin of a “Revolutionary Theory”

    Posted on October 22nd, 2010 Helian 4 comments

    Eugene Marais

    How can one describe a man as brilliant as Eugene Marais? Perhaps accounts of such men are best left to the bards. Robert Ardrey, who wrote a lengthy introduction to Marais’ The Soul of the Ape, was a bard (or, more accurately, a playwright) for much of his career. I will leave the task to him:

    Eugene Marais was a human community in the person of one man. He was a poet, an advocate, a journalist, a story-teller, a drug addict, a psychologist, a natural scientist. He embraced the pains of many, the visions of the few, and perhaps the burden was too much for one man… As a scientist he was unique, supreme in his time, yet a worker in a science then unborn.

    A South African, Marais’ first book, The Soul of the White Ant, was a compilation of a series of articles about African termites originally published between 1923 and 1925 in his native Afrikaans (the same word is used for “soul” and “mind” in Afrikaans). His work was crudely plagiarized by Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911, in his Life of the White Ant. The incident is described in a preface to Marais’ book by his translator:

    About six years after these articles appeared, Maurice Maeterlinck published his book The Life of the White Ant, in which he described the organic unity of the termitary and compared it with the human body. The theory created great interest at the time and was generally accepted as an original one formulated by Maeterlinck. The fact that an unknown South African observer had developed the theory after many years of extensive labor was not generally known in Europe.

    Marais’ masterpiece, The Soul of the Ape, is the first prolonged scientific study of primates in the wild (in this case, the baboon) ever published. Although he had published vignettes of his life with baboons in a little volume called My Friends the Baboons, the unfinished manuscript of his great work was not discovered and published until over a quarter of a century after his death. Like The Soul of the White Ant, the work virtually sparkles with remarkable hypotheses. Some were wide of the mark. Others were of enduring brilliance, and one such has recently been reborn, unattributed and described as a “revolutionary theory.”

    Marais devised the terms “phyletic memory” and “causal memory” to describe his observations of animal behavior. The former referred to instinctive behavior. As Marais put it,

    There are many analogies between memory and instinct, and although these may not extend to fundamentals, they are still of such a nature that the term phyletic memory will always convey a clear understanding of the most characteristic attributes of instinct.

    By causal memory Marais meant the higher cognitive ability we usually associate with the term, or, as he described it, “the ability to memorize the relation of cause and effect.”  He believed that this type of memory had assumed a dominant evolutionary role in primates, giving them the ability to quickly adapt to rapidly changing environments.  As he noted in the case of his baboons, who quickly learned to avoid men with guns after their first encounter with them,

    Here we have behavior shaped entirely by the new memory. The animal is burdened by no ready-made hereditary memory useful only in meeting customary events in its environment and likely to become highly disadvantageous in the presence of new and unaccustomed conditions.

    As I alluded to earlier, Marais’ idea recently had a curtain call on an episode of Nova’s Becoming Human series, where it is described as a “radical new theory,” and attributed to paleoanthropologist Rick Potts.  To the best of my knowledge, Potts himself never made such a claim.  However, according to the account in Becoming Human, the brain size of human ancestors had “flat-lined” for around four million years after they had first begun walking on two legs.  Then, over a period of no more than half a million years, there had been a remarkable increase in brain capacity.  Asking the rhetorical question, “Why this sudden take off,” Nova goes on to describe research confirming “wild climate changes” in Africa during the period.  For example, core samples indicated that a massive lake had appeared, disappeared, and reappeared on the same spot many times under climactic conditions of constant flux, including radical changes over periods of as little as a thousand years.  Enter Rick Potts, who, in Nova’s account, had just formulated a “bold theory of human evolution,” according to which our ancestors had acquired large brains in the process of “adapting to change itself.”  Elaborating on this theme, once again touted as a “revolutionary idea,” Nova describes the process as an “adaptation to versatility,” by which our ancestors rapidly acquired big brains and high intelligence in response to these cataclysmic climate swings.

    I will let Marais himself answer this claim to “revolutionary ideas.”  In The Soul of the Ape, published in 1969, he writes:

    If now we picture the great continent of Africa with its extreme diversity of natural conditions – its high, cold, treeless plateaux; its impenetrable tropical forests; its great river systems; its inland seas; its deserts; its rain and droughts; its sudden climatic changes capable of altering the natural aspect of great tracts of country in a few years – all forming an apparently systemless chaos, and then picture its teeming masses of competing organic life, comprising more species, more numbers and of greater size than can be found on any other continent on earth, is it not at once evident how great would be the advantage if under such conditions a species could be liberated from the limiting force of hereditary memories? Would it not be conducive to preservation if under such circumstances a species could either suddenly change its habitat or meet any new natural conditions thrust upon it by means of immediate adaptation? Is it not self-evident that in a species far-wandering, whether on account of sudden natural changes, competitive pressure, or through inborn “wanderlust,” those individuals which could best and most quickly adapt themselves to the most varied conditions would be the ones most likely to survive and perpetuate the race, and that among species, one equipped for distant migrations would always have a better chance than a confined one? Are not all the elements present to bring about the natural selection of an attribute by means of which a species could thus meet and neutralise one of the most prolific causes of destruction?

    This is not advanced as a demonstrable theory. It is no more than an attempt to show that it is hardly possible to imagine conditions existing anywhere in nature at any time which would not in some degree tend towards the evolution of such an attribute. If these present conditions are self-evidently likely to select it, how much more likely, for instance, would not its birth and growth have been during the earlier history of the planet, during the Pleistocene period, when cataclysmic movements of its crust and great and repeated climatic changes still belonged to the usual and customary category of natural events.

    So much for Nova’s “revolutionary idea.” Perhaps we should not be surprised by this particular case of scientific amnesia.  After all, Marais’ name is closely associated with that of a man of similar talent and genius; Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey dedicated his first book, African Genesis to him, and, as noted earlier, wrote a lengthy and charming introduction to The Soul of the Ape.  Unfortunately, Ardrey smashed the singularly implausible notion of the Blank Slate rather earlier than was convenient to fit the narrative of the modern community of “experts” in human behavior, according to which that brilliant deed was only begun more than a decade after the appearance of African Genesis by E. O. Wilson with his Sociobiology.   As a result, Ardrey has become an unperson among them, and anyone associated with his memory is, no doubt, suspect as well. 

    No matter.  The genius of Marais speaks for itself.  Ardrey wrote a much better farewell to him than I could have done:

    Just as a remarkable guest, one of vision and many anecdotes and a remote madness, might spend an evening by our fire, then glance at his watch and rise, so Marais takes his leave. There is a suddenness that is part of our knowledge that we shall never see him again. And we watch through the curtains as our visitor from times past walks down the path, touching things with his cane. Beyond the gate he turns down the road to the right, swinging his cane more freely. He passes under a streetlamp and vanishes in the darkness beyond the trees. Whom else did he ever visit? Where else did he go?

  • Voltaire: A Homily on Scientific Certainty

    Posted on October 21st, 2010 Helian No comments

    In one of Voltaire’s tales he describes an incident in which the hero, Zadig, is injured in the eye by a band of ruffians. When an infected abscess develops, a great doctor is sent for to treat the wound.

    A messenger was sent as far as Memphis for Hermes, the famous physician, who came with a numerous train. He visited the sick man, and declared that he would lose the eye; he even foretold the day and the hour when this unfortunate event would happen.

    “If it had been the right eye,” he said, “I might have cured it, but injuries to the left eye are incurable.”

    All Babylon, while bewailing Zadig’s fate, admired the profound scientific research of Hermes. Two days afterwards, the abscess broke of itself, and Zadig was completely cured. Hermes wrote a book, in which he proved to him that he ought not to have been cured, but Zadig did not read it.

    Voltaire’s story might as well have been written to skewer the behavioral scientists of the 20th century as the medical doctors of the 18th. Their fine theories, too, ended up in a train wreck with reality. That reality is manifesting itself ever more clearly, as remarkable new discoveries seem to be coming in on an almost daily basis. Those discoveries are demolishing absurd certainties about human behavior in our own day as thoroughly as the wonderful geological discoveries in the middle of the 19th century demolished only marginally more absurd Biblical certainties about the age of the earth.

    Among the more interesting results of recent research has been the tracing of specific behavioral traits to the subtle variations in genes that are most important in their expression. For example, a paper that appeared in the journal Psychological Science describes a statistical method of associating changes in single letters of DNA chains, known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, with differences in sensation seeking behavior. As noted in a review of the paper in Science News, these “new methods are letting scientists look for more subtle associations between genes and all kinds of traits, including behavior and personality.”

    In the book Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean Carroll describes recent developments in the emerging field of evolutionary developmental biology, or “Evo Devo.” We are finding surprising similarities in the genes responsible for assembling complex features of our own bodies as we develop from a single fertilized egg with the analogs of those features in animals with which we have not shared a common ancestor for hundreds of millions of years. It would be very interesting to apply these new technologies to see if we share genes for the expression of related behavioral traits that go back a very long way as well.

    Many are still as fondly certain that our morality sharply distinguishes us from other animals as others before us were certain that we are the only animal capable of making and using tools. I suspect we will find that, on the contrary, many of the fundamental building blocks of our morality have also been around for many millions of years. It may well be that the seemingly unique complexity of our moral behavior does not result from any fundamental disconnect between the innate mental traits responsible for its expression in ourselves and other animals, but merely from the fact that those traits are mediated by our greatly superior intelligence.

  • Thanks to my Readers

    Posted on October 20th, 2010 Helian No comments

    You’re not a very loquacious lot, but my sitemeter informs me you’re stopping by in increasing numbers. Like all other authors, I have an incurably inflated ego, and I appreciate it.

  • E. O. Wilson, PBS, and the “Big Bang” Theory of Sociobiology

    Posted on October 20th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The “Blank Slate” is dead. As a dogma of the orthodoxy that passed for science among the academic and professional experts in human behavior, its final collapse is quite recent. Its epitaph was only written in 2002 in Steven Pinker’s book of that name. As often happens when an old dogma passes, a brand new one was concocted to take its place. According to the narrative now prevailing among the faithful, the Blank Slate reigned supreme until 1975. Then, E. O. Wilson said “Let there be light,” and a “Big Bang” occurred, marked by his publication of Sociobiology. Only after that epiphany did anyone have the slightest inkling that there was such a thing as human nature, and our mental wiring predisposes us to behave in certain ways, and not in others.

    This refurbished dogma is faithfully reflected in Pinker’s book. He managed to write over 400 pages about the Blank Slate with hardly a mention of the very authors who had been most influential in debunking the theory, and insuring its eventual demise. The two whom the true believers in the Blank Slate themselves considered most influential and significant were Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz. Pinker comically dismissed them as “totally and utterly wrong” even though every thought of any significance in his book might have been lifted from what they had written many years before. Anyone who takes the trouble to glance through the collection of essays written by proponents of the Blank Slate attacking the two in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression will quickly see they weren’t as “confused” as Pinker about what the real debate was all about, or about which of their opponents were striking the most telling blows.

    Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature were significant only as restatements of the basic theme of books they had published more than a decade earlier; that innate influences on human nature are real and important. With all due respect to Wilson, a great and brilliant man in his own right, nothing he wrote about innate behavior in humans was original. It happens, however, that he served as a perfect fig leaf for the expert community as it retreated from the Blank Slate. Saintly in appearance and otherwise impeccably politically correct, he was perfect candidate for enshrinement in the mythical role of “inventor” of innate human behavior.

    Wilson’s canonization can be seen firsthand in “Lord of the Ants,” an episode of PBS that appeared a couple of years ago and can be seen online here. At the beginning of the program we are informed with all due solemnity that only in a blue moon does something really great emerge on the stage of science; something that “transcends the narrow boundaries of a particular line of research and alters our perspective of the world.” That “transformational event,” it turns out, was the publication of Sociobiology. Apparently, it took awhile to have the salutary effect of “altering our perspective of the world,” at least as far as PBS is concerned, because that organization, eminently respectable defender of the true faith that it is, was stoutly defending Blank Slate orthodoxy as recently as a decade ago.

    As the program continues, we find that remarkably little time is required to inform us about that “really great something that transcends the boundaries of science.” We learn that nothing in evolutionary biology has caused such heated debate as the idea of innate behavior since the time of Charles Darwin, and that Wilson was “physically attacked” by Blank Slate zealots, who doused him with a pitcher of ice water, but that he nobly enduring all and prevailed in the end. With that, skirting unpleasantnesses about PBS’ former role as a huge supporter of the Blank Slate, and indelicate allusions to anything that might have happened before the “Big Bang,” Nova moves on to a glowing account of Wilson’s effort to preserve biodiversity, which takes up the lion’s share of the program.

    In a word, the narrative hasn’t gone anywhere. It just changes from time to time. Still, a most important point has been gained. Innate behavior can no longer be denied with impunity by anyone with a claim to scientific respectability, and research will continue in the field. Knowledge and understanding of human behavior, and human moral behavior in particular, will continue to expand as a result. Unfortunately, we will still have to bear with the annoyance of periodic infestations of a pathologically pious priesthood of “experts” on ethics and morality for the time being, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  • The Amity/Enmity Complex: The Chinese Data Point

    Posted on October 19th, 2010 Helian No comments

    I’ve written about the Amity/Enmity Complex in earlier posts. The term describes an innate behavioral trait that predisposes us to categorize other human beings into “in-groups,” which are associated with good, and “out-groups,” which are associated with evil. The moral rules one is expected to observe in interactions with members of one’s in-group are generally those we associate with moral good. Completely different rules apply to the out-group, whose members are generally viewed with hostility and can be treated accordingly. It is certainly up there with the most ubiquitous, obvious, and pervasive manifestations of innate human behavior, which probably explains why it wasn’t “discovered” by most of the experts in human behavior until around a decade ago. Its impact on our species has been profound, accounting for the irrational warfare that has been such a constant factor in our history as a species, crossing cultural, geographic, and ethnic divides, not to mention racism, anti-Semitism, and countless other similar examples of seemingly blind and senseless discrimination.

    Modern experts in human behavior have been forced by the weight of evidence to recognize the significance of innate factors on human behavior. When it comes to the Amity/Enmity Complex, however, they squeeze their eyes tightly shut. It doesn’t fit in their bogus narrative about how innate human behavior was suddenly discovered in 1975 when E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology, because it happens it was a central theme in the works of men like Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, whose “archaic” theories not only had the impertinence to be true, but who also anticipated Wilson by at least 15 years. It’s also a bad match for the experts’ latest harebrained theories about morality, according to which we merely have to “turn up the dial” to include all mankind in our in-groups, and “human flourishing” will suddenly break out all over.

    Occasionally I draw attention to the constant manifestations of the Complex, abundant as they are to anyone even faintly familiar with our history. One such data point of more than passing significance is the current ramping up of hatred of the Japanese occurring in China. There are countless others all over the world. The Complex isn’t going anywhere. It’s a fundamental part of what we are. Ardrey and Lorenz concentrated on describing such negative aspects of human behavior and proposed some tentative ideas for controlling them because they rightly concluded they have become an existential threat to everyone on the planet. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. We can learn to understand our own behavior and control it or continue to suffer the familiar consequences. The former course seems wiser in view of the fact that, in the future, the consequences will include nuclear weapons.