Posted on November 21st, 2011 No comments
Stephen Hawking is in the news again as an advocate for space colonization. He raised the issue in a recent interview with the Canadian Press, and will apparently include it as a theme of his new TV series, Brave New World with Stephen Hawking, which debuts on Discovery World HD on Saturday. There are a number of interesting aspects to the story this time around. One that most people won’t even notice is Hawking’s reference to human nature. Here’s what he had to say.
Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.
The fact that Hawking can matter-of-factly assert something like that about innate behavior in humans as if it were a matter of common knowledge speaks volumes about the amazing transformation in public consciousness that’s taken place in just the last 10 or 15 years. If he’d said something like that about “selfish and aggressive instincts” 50 years ago, the entire community of experts in the behavioral sciences would have dismissed him as an ignoramus at best, and a fascist and right wing nut case at worst. It’s astounding, really. I’ve watched this whole story unfold in my lifetime. It’s just as stunning as the paradigm shift from an earth-centric to a heliocentric solar system, only this time around, Copernicus and Galileo are unpersons, swept under the rug by an academic and professional community too ashamed of their own past collective imbecility to mention their names. Look in any textbook on Sociology, Anthropology, or Evolutionary Psychology, and you’ll see what the sounds of silence look like in black and white. Aside from a few obscure references, the whole thing is treated as if it never happened. Be grateful, dear reader. At last we can say the obvious without being shouted down by the “experts.” There is such a thing as human nature.
Now look at the comments after the story in the Winnipeg Free Press I linked above. Here are some of them.
“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” If that is the case, perhaps we don’t deserve to survive. If we bring destruction to our planet, would it not be in the greater interest to destroy the virus, or simply let it expire, instead of spreading its virulence throughout the galaxy?
And who would decide who gets to go? Also, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” What a stupid thing to say: if we can’t survive ‘lurking’ on planet Earth then who’s to say humans wouldn’t ruin things off of planet Earth?
I will not go through any of this as I will be dead by then and gone to a better place as all those who remain and go through whatever happenings in the Future,will also do!
I’ve written a lot about morality on this blog. These comments speak to the reasons why getting it right about morality, why understanding its real nature, and why it exists, are important. All of them are morally loaded. As is the case with virtually all morally loaded comments, their authors couldn’t give you a coherent explanation of why they have those opinions. They just feel that way. I don’t doubt that they’re entirely sincere about what they say. The genetic programming that manifests itself as human moral behavior evolved many millennia ago in creatures who couldn’t conceive of themselves as members of a worldwide species, or imagine travel into space. What these comments demonstrate is something that’s really been obvious for a long time. In the environment that now exists, vastly different as it is from the one in which our moral predispositions evolved, they can manifest themselves in ways that are, by any reasonable definition of the word, pathological. In other words, they can manifest themselves in ways that no longer promote our survival, but rather the opposite.
As can be seen from the first comment, for example, thanks to our expanded consciousness of the world we live in, we can conceive of such an entity as “all mankind.” Our moral programming predisposes us to categorize our fellow creatures into ingroups and outgroups. In this case, “all mankind” has become an outgroup or, as the commenter puts it, a “virus.” The demise, not only of the individual commenter, but of all mankind, has become a positive Good. More or less the same thing can be said about the second comment. This commenter apparently believes that it would be better for humans to become extinct than to “mess things up.” For whom?
As for the third commenter, survival in this world is unimportant to him because he believes in eternal survival in a future imaginary world under the proprietership of an imaginary supernatural being. It is unlikely that this attitude is more conducive to our real genetic survival than those of the first two commenters. I submit that if these commenters had an accurate knowledge of the real nature of human morality in the first place, and were free of delusions about supernatural beings in the second, the tone of their comments would be rather different.
And what of my opinion on the matter? In my opinion, morality is the manifestation of genetically programmed traits that evolved because they happened to promote our survival. No doubt because I understand morality in this way, I have a subjective emotional tendency to perceive the Good as my own genetic survival, the survival of my species, and the survival of life as it has evolved on earth, not necessarily in that order. Objectively, my version of the Good is no more legitimate or objectively valid that those of the three commenters. In some sense, you might say it’s just a whim. I do, however, think that my subjective feelings on the matter are reasonable. I want to pursue as a “purpose” that which the evolution of morality happened to promote; survival. It seems to me that an evolved, conscious biological entity that doesn’t want to survive is dysfunctional – it is sick. I would find the realization that I am sick and dysfunctional distasteful. Therefore, I choose to survive. In fact, I am quite passionate about it. I believe that, if others finally grasp the truth about what morality really is, they are likely to share my point of view. If we agree, then we can help each other. That is why I write about it.
By all means, then, let us colonize space, and not just our solar system, but the stars. We can start now. We lack sources of energy capable of carrying humans to even the nearest stars, but we can send life, even if only single-celled life. Let us begin.
Posted on November 19th, 2011 2 comments
Konrad Lorenz was a great man. A careful observer of animal behavior, he noted the many similarities between the innate traits of some of the species he studied and the behavior of human beings. In view of the fact that we are the products of a similar process of evolution, and the improbability of the supposition that our ancestors had suddenly shed all these innate traits in the relatively short time it took them to evolve large brains, he came to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the ultimate cause of these analogous characteristics was to be found in the genetic programming of the brain. It was not, however, obvious to a great number of sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other professional ”experts” in human behavior, including the vast majority of them in the United States, over a period of many decades. They persisted stubbornly in the belief that no such innate traits existed, that all human behavior worth mentioning was a result of culture and education, and that the human mind at birth was actually a “blank slate.”
The absurdities of blank slate orthodoxy are sufficiently obvious that the ease of debunking them is akin to that of shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, there were numerous debunkers during the decade of the 60′s and early 70′s when the theory was still in vogue. Of these, Lorenz was the second most effective. The most effective was Robert Ardrey. As proof of this assertion, we have the testimony of the blank slaters themselves, conveniently assembled in an invaluable little book published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu entitled, Man and Aggression.
In the fullness of time, blank slate orthodoxy collapsed under its own weight and the pressure of advances in the relevant sciences. It is one of the more remarkable oddities of this field of study that has always had such an abundance of oddities that its demise was accompanied by the emergence of a whole new orthodoxy in the form of a fantastically imaginary account of its downfall. The whole, fanciful tale can be found in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, purportedly a “history” of the blank slate in which he manages to get through 528 pages in paperback with hardly a mention of its two most effective opponents. Lorenz is dismissed because of his “hydraulic theory,” an hypothesis that made only a minor appearance in his work and was utterly insignificant as far as his fundamental thought on human behavior is concerned. Ardrey, a brilliant man and the greatest debunker of them all, is waved out of existence with a single mention because, according to Richard Dawkins, no less, he was “completely and utterly wrong.” This concoction was apparently produced to cover the shame of the academic and professional experts in human behavior who had been so wrong for so long, in part by trotting out E.O. Wilson as the “real” father of opposition to the blank slate. His book, On Human Nature, was merely a repetition of the fundamental conclusions that had appeared in the work of Lorenz and Ardrey more than a decade earlier. No matter. He could plausibly be claimed by the experts as one of their own. Now, instead of being shamed by a mere playwright, they had actually cleaned their own house. To add oddity to oddity, it turns out that the reason that Dawkins claimed that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong,” was his support for the theory of group selection in his book, The Social Contract. The theory, still highly controversial, was subsequently embraced by none other than E.O. Wilson! And what of Lorenz? He may have been right about innate behavior, but, regrettably, he had linked it with some of the less savory human traits in On Aggression. For example, from that book,
To the humble seeker of biological truth there cannot be the slightest doubt that human militant enthusiasm evolved out of a communal defense response of our prehuman ancestors. The unthinking single-mindedness of the response must have been of high survival value even in a tribe of fully evolved human beings. It was necessary for the individual male to forget all his otgher allegiances in order to be able to dedicate himself, body and soul, to the cause of the communal battle.
Humanity is not enthusiastically combative because it is split into political parties, but it is divided into opposing camps because this is the adequate stimulus situation to arouse militant enthusiasm in a satisfying manner. “If ever a doctrine of universal salvation should gain ascendancy over the whole earth to the exclusion of all others,” writes Erich von Holst, “it would at once divide into two strongly opposing factions (one’s own true one and the other heretical one) and hostility and war would thrive as before, mankind being – unfortunately – what it is!”
This was a bit much for the orthodox “experts.” After all, they had been assuring each other for years that the pervasiveness of warfare in virtually all human societies since the beginning of recorded time was merely a regrettable coincidence. Take away war toys, adjust the “culture” here and there, and fine tune the educational system a bit and, viola!, it would be banished to mankind’s dark past, never to return again. If something in our genes actually did contribute to this remarkable “coincidence” of warfare, such dreams vanished like the morning fog, and with them all the Brave New Worlds of “human flourishing” that were being planned for a recalcitrant humanity. Having strained on the gnat of innate behavior, they found this added lump of “aggression” just too much to swallow. Lorenz had to go.
No matter, in the end, Pinker’s fairy tale doesn’t wash in any case. The truth will out. We have Ashley Montagu and his fellow blank slaters to thank for that. Pinker may have relegated Ardrey and Lorenz to the ranks of unpersons, but they were not quite so delusional. They knew who their most effective opponents were, and they set it all down in black and white in no uncertain terms in Man and Aggression. For anyone who cares to fact check Pinker’s “official history,” that invaluable little book is still available in paperback at Amazon for the bargain basement price of one cent.
In a word then, Lorenz deserves a lot more respect than he gets in Pinker’s yarn, or in the sanitized “histories” that are fed to unwitting undergraduates in the current crop of Evolutionary Psychology textbooks, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded for his work in 1973, two years before Wilson published On Human Nature. Why, then, do I find his philosophy “forgettable.” It seems to me that, just as Einstein should have stayed out of politics, a field in which he was easily manipulated by the unscrupulous ideologues of his day, Lorenz should have left the philosophizing to Kant and Hegel. Alas, he had drunk too deeply in those waters. Like Don Quixote, who, Cervantes tells us, read stirring tales of knight-errantry until he became a bold knight himself in his imagination, Lorenz thought to save the world with his philosophy. He could sling epistomologies, ontologies, and teleologies with as much panache as the best of them, and so he did in a number of his lesser known works.
It happens I have just waded through one of them, entitled The Waning of Humaneness, a somewhat rough approximation of the German title, Der Abbau des Menschlichen, which conveys more of the flavor of Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), a work which Lorenz often cites. Written in 1983 when Lorenz was 79 years old, the book is a mish-mash of stuff taken, sometimes word for word, from his earlier books, dubious claims about the origin of values, even more dubious prescriptions for restoring them so that humaneness stops waning, all in a melange of simplistic pontification about preserving the environment inspired, we are informed, by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
To enlist the help of others in restoring “humaneness,” it is first necessary to explain to them what it is. It turns out that humaneness is as similar to all the other noble causes that have disturbed the tranquility of mankind since time immemorial as one pea to all the others in a pod. In short, Humaneness is what Lorenz thinks is Good. It’s not very original as Goods go. In the Foreword we are informed that it consists of restoring the environment and reversing the cultural “decadence” with which its degradation goes hand in hand. This is to be done by restoring “true” morality and values. Of course, the rub, as with all such systems, lies in establishing the legitimacy of the Good. Why is the Good really good?
In the case of Lorenz, the task of establishing this legitimacy would seem particularly daunting. After all, he was a pioneer in establishing the innate, genetically programmed component of human morality. By no means does he renounce his earlier work. In fact, he actually cites it. For example, reiterating his earlier claims about the ancient wellsprings of the emotions that influence human behavior he writes,
Based on genetic programming are not only the apparatuses for sensory perception and for logical thinking that outline and fill in with color the picture we have of our world; also based on these programs are the complicated feelings that determine our interhuman behavior. Our social behavior especially is dominated by an immensely old heritage of species-specific action and reaction patterns; these are undoubtedly much, much older than the specific capacities of intelligence associated with our neocortex, that is, with the evolutionarily youngest part of our brain.
It is beyond doubt that a great number of qualitative emotions, recognizable and unmistakable, are common to all mankind, that is, are anchored in the genes of humans.
So far so good. However, these innate traits, as well as the various culturally transmitted modes of behavior to which they give rise haven’t kept up with the pace of technological and cultural change.
…many of the innate as well as traditional norms of humans that were still well-adapted programs of social and economic behavior just a short while ago today contribute to the waning of what is humane.
Again, if we can drop the “waning of humaneness” jargon and simply say that these behavioral traits have become maladaptive, Lorenz is merely reiterating truths that have, in the meantime, become obvious to all but the most diehard and ancient of blank slaters. But it is just here that Lorenz, along with so many others who have more or less accepted the facts as set forth above, run off the tracks.
It seems clear to me that, if the ultimate cause of human behavior (and moral behavior, however defined, is merely a subset thereof), lies in the evolved features of our brains, then there can be no possible legitimate basis for one human being to claim that what his subjective emotions portray to him as the Good must also be the Good for everyone else. This pervasive illusion, cause of so much human misery, should finally be recognized as such and jettisoned once and for all. But in spite of the demise of the Blank Slate, in spite of a tidal wave of papers in scholarly journals on innate behavior, and in spite of a continuing flood of books on themes such as hard-wired morality and the moral behavior of animals, that isn’t about to happen. The emotional high of feeling morally superior to lesser mortals is just too sweet and savory to dispense with. Orgasms of self-righteousness and virtuous indignation are almost as satisfying as the sexual kind, and they last a lot longer. But to experience them in all their glory, the Good must be justified.
Lorenz goes about the task without much virtuosity, but with a few idiosyncratic twists. In short, he admits that values are subjective, but claims that they are, nevertheless, real. As he puts it:
What must be made clear, and convincingly, is that our subjective experiential processes possess the same degree of reality as everything that can be expressed in the terminologies of the exact natural sciences. …Since all of the moral responsibilities of humans are determined by their perceptions of values, the epidemic delusion that only numerical and measurable reality has validity must be confronted and contradicted.
Certainly our subjective impressions are real and do actually exist in the sense that they result from observable and measurable physical phenomena in our brains. The non sequitur here is that, simply by virtue of the fact that they do actually exist in that fashion, they thereby acquire some sort of objective legitimacy. Some more or less similar leap of faith is always necessary to establish a moral system. Somehow, a subjective impression must be promoted to the Good, an objective thing in itself. Only in that form can it acquire the power of serving as an imperative for all mankind. It seems to have occurred to Lorenz that his claim of objective validity by virtue of subjective reality is a rather threadbare variant of this essential sleight of hand. To prop it up, he drags in Beauty.
For all the value perceptions of humans that have been discussed up to now, the assumption is justified that these sensibilities assist the individual in advantageous achievements and, therewith, the assumption is also justified that their programs as well, through selection of these achievements, have evolved in typical ways. But there is the beautiful, the genesis of which in a similar manner must be doubted, for which, in fact, an explication of origin by means of selection seems conspicuously contrived.
If Lorenz’ argument for the special status of Beauty gives you a faint sense of a televangelist arguing for the special status of divine creation, you’re not alone. Cutting to the chase, in the final chapter the author reveals himself as a theist. We finally detect the supernatural stiffening behind all this flimsy stuff about Beauty and Values. Nature is “really beautiful” and “true values” are really legitimate because God wants it that way.
Lorenz’ suggestions for turning the humaneness curve back in the right direction are paltry enough. Even in 1983 he was still feeling the afterglow of the 60′s youth fetish. (As a baby boomer myself, I cannot but feel a distinct relief that my generation, the object of all that obsession with “youth,” has finally reached retirement age). As usual, we were to redeem mankind from its horrible fate:
The predicament of young people today is especially critical. Forestalling the threatening apocalypse will devolve on their perceptions of value; their sensibilities of the beautiful and worthwhile must be aroused and renewed.
And how was this arousal and renewal to be brought about?
It must still, in some way, be possible to provide even those children born and reared in large cities with some kind of opportunity for developing their capacities to perceive the harmony and disharmony of living systems – if only by means of an aquarium. Those children who are given a chance to tend to aquarium and to care for its inhabitants come to learn, through necessity, to comprehend a functioning entirety in its harmony and disharmony, an entirety bringing together and combining very many systems consisting of animals, plants, bacteria and an entire range of inorganic givens, systems that complement one another and systems that are antagonistic to one another. Children would learn how delicate the equilibrium of such an artificial ecological system is.
It may seem uncharitable to dismiss the aquarium idea. After all, we’ve tried pretty much everything else. However, I can assure the reader that, as a child, my teachers had me tend to both an aquarium and a beehive for good measure, and look how I turned out.
The Waning of Humaneness contains a good deal more of puerile stuff about corporate war profiteers, the evils of nuclear energy, canned homilies about saving the environment, the stupidity of Americans who live in suburban subdivisions, tiresomely repetitious warnings about the impending suicide of mankind, etc., but that can rest. Konrad Lorenz was, after all, a great man. Working in his own specialty, he struck a telling blow at the Blank Slate, one of the most pernicious pseudo-religions that ever claimed the name of science. Let us remember and honor him for that.
Posted on November 16th, 2011 No comments
The Edinburgh Review, that’s who. The liberal Edinburgh was one of the two great British political and literary journals of the first half of the 19th century. It’s conservative counterpart was the Quarterly Review, which enjoyed its heyday at about the same time. An article in the April, 1810 issue reviewed a Letter on the French Government that had just been published by an anonymous “American recently returned from Europe.” Unfortunately, we still don’t know who he was, but we gather from his letter that he was an anglophile, highly educated, and very well informed about the financial arrangements of the Napoleonic government in France. The Letter deals mostly with taxation and the other sources of revenue of France at the time, and includes estimates of the total income and disbursements of the Empire, the amount spent on the military, etc.
The British reviewer, also anonymous as usual at the time, threw in some interesting speculations of his own regarding the current political and military situation, likely reflecting the journal’s editorial point of view. It will be recalled that in 1810 Napoleon was at the zenith of his triumphant career, with an army of around 800,000 veterans. His power on the ground in Europe seemed unchallengable, at least as far as liberal opinion in Great Britain was concerned. The reviewer’s comments about Napoleon and France have an uncanny similarity to some of the “informed commentary” about Hitler and Germany that was appearing on both sides of the Atlantic after his stunning victories in 1940 and 1941. They also reveal, yet again, the pitfalls of attempting to predict even the immediate future. Political pundits take note.
Then, as in 1940, victory created a deceptive aura of invincibility. In both cases, Russia appeared to pose the only remaining credible challenge to the power of the autocrats on the European continent, and in both cases a remarkably large number of “well-informed” commentators dismissed her with a wave of the hand. Here’s what the Edinburgh’s reviewer had to say about her:
The states that border upon France are ruled either by the kinsmen, or by the vassals of Bonaparte; – all but the Spanish chiefs, who have only a little hour to strut and fret. The more remote empire of Russia is still in peace; and in peace she must remain, or be crushed without mercy, and without hope of restoration, for she seemed powerful only by the prudent reserve of Catherine. The succeeding governments, less sagacious, have experimentally shown us how much we overvalued the resources of that country.
Of course, we know in retrospect that both Napoleon and Hitler had a disastrous penchant for undervaluing the “resources of that country.” Both of them found it rather more difficult to “crush her without mercy” than they had expected. The rest of the reviewer’s comments about how to deal with the “hopeless” superiority of Bonaparte seem hopelessly naive to those of us who know “the rest of the story.” They are, however, interesting by virtue of their striking similarity to the advice of a class of writers that we now refer to as “appeasers.” In both cases, the proposed “solution” to the problem was to avoid offending the triumphant dictator. Here is what the Edinburgh’s man had to say:
We do think, then, that there is no chance of our being able to crush the power of France by direct hostility and aggression; but still we are of opinion, that, by skilful and cautious policy, we may reasonably hope to disable it. This, however, we must do by gradual and cautious means; …we ought not to disturb the quiet of the Continent. Every agitation that we can now excite there, is a fresh advantage to our enemy; …We should rather endeavour to keep the states of Europe so completely tranquil, that he shall have no cause or excuse for war – no resistance to fear, no plots to punish. If we could but behold the French forces inactive, we might hope to behold them subdued. …”What then?” it may be said – Are we to congratulate ourselves on the helplessness of all the states that might make head against France? Certainly; – if we are convinced, as it appears we should be, that nothing can be expected from their exertions, while every thing may be hoped from their repose.
Just as the appeasers of a later day, the reviewer’s sanguine hope was that, if England just stopped provoking the boogeyman, he would eventually go away. His people, informed of their folly by the burgeoning power of modern means of communication, would become restive, and his army would just “melt away”:
While the war continues, and especially while it is possible to impute its continuance to the restless hostility of England, the vanity and impetuosity of the French people may second the ambition of their ruler; but if they be ever allowed to settle into the habits and enjoyments of peace, all the natural interests and reflections which are generated by the very structure of modern society, will expand with tenfold vigour, and oppose a most formidable resistance to the tyranny which would again repress them for the purpose of its own extension.
Napoleon’s mighty army would simply fall apart of its own accord,
…degenerating, by disuse, toward the level of a new and inexpert militia.
Of course, as we now know, Napoleon’s mighty army, and later Hitler’s, did not “degenerate by disuse.” Rather, their “degeneration” resulted from their attempts to “crush without mercy” a foe both they and the respective “experts” of the day had underestimated.
I suspect that the pundits of our own day will have no more luck in their attempts to predict the future than those of earlier ages. However, the psychological type of the appeaser is as familiar today as it was in 1810 or 1940, as is that of their more bellicose and militant counterparts, who once wrote for the Quarterly Review. In fact, neither type has had much success in predicting events. It’s a great deal easier to predict how they will react to those events when they happen, though.
Posted on November 14th, 2011 No comments
According to an article I just ran across on the World Science website, scientists have just “discovered” that “Human prejudice may date back 25 million years or more.” On closer reading, one finds that what they have just “discovered” has been obvious since the days of Darwin; that we humans group others of our species into ingroups and outgroups. Sir Arthur Keith summarized earlier work on the subject and put it on a firm theoretical basis well over half a century ago. As Robert Ardrey, who called it the Amity/Enmity Complex, wrote of it a couple of decades later, it was, “the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside (by the “Blank Slaters”, ed.) under the pretense it does not exist.” Ardrey went on to say, “What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.”
In this “enlightened” age, when an increasing stream of books like Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Bekoff and Pierce and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal et. al., are rolling off the presses, one would think that brilliant thinkers like Ardrey and Keith, triumphantly vindicated, would receive the tardy recognition they deserve. If so, one would be very mistaken. You see, Ardrey was a mere playwright, guilty of the unpardonable lèse-majesté of challenging the entire establishment of behavioral scientists of his day and proving them wrong, and Keith was presumptuous in writing down such ideas before the official “beginning” of Evolutionary Psychology as set forth in the mythical histories of the science set forth in the modern textbooks on the subject.
Posted on November 13th, 2011 No comments
Before I leave the topic of Orwell, I’ll throw out a few more observations from his essays, not necessarily related or in any particular order. First on the list; his take on Gandhi. It was rather less flattering than the modern consensus. For example,
As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British Government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.
If you throw in a touch of oriental mysticism and Buchmanite raptures over Gandhi, you have everything that an disaffected intellectual needs. The life of an English gentleman and the moral attitudes of a saint can be enjoyed simultaneously.
Now, I do not know whether or not Gandhi will be a “flaming inspiration” in years to come. When one thinks of the creatures who are venerated by humanity it does not seem particularly unlikely.
The people at MI5 would have done well to read Orwell’s essays. It might have spared them from being caught flat-footed by the likes of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and the rest of the British spies who worked for the Soviet Union for “idealistic” reasons. The psychological type was familiar to Orwell. For example,
In the last twenty years western civilisation has given the intellectual security without responsibility, and in England, in particular, it has educated him in scepticism while anchoring him almost immovably in the privileged class. He has been in the position of a young man living on an allowance from a father whom he hates. The result is a deep feeling of guilt and resentment, not combined with any genuine desire to escape. But some psychological escape, some form of self-justification there must be, and one of the most satisfactory is transferred nationalism. During the nineteen-thirties the normal transference was to Soviet Russia.
The type sounds familiar in our own day, doesn’t it? Another, similar bit:
The English left-wing intelligentsia worship Stalin because they have lost their patriotism and their religious belief without losing the need for a god and a fatherland.
The middle-class Communists, however, are a different proposition. They include most of the official and unofficial leaders of the party, and with them must be lumped the greater part of the younger literary intelligentsia, especially in the universities. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the “Communism” of these people amounts simply to nationalism and leader-worship in their most vulgar forms, transferred to the USSR.
Anti-Americanism has ebbed and flowed over time, but it has been a European fixture for many years. For whatever psychological reasons, we apparently make a much more satisfying outgroup for them than they do for us. It is hard to imagine any equivalent of the recent “bloom” in anti-American hate in Europe from about the last years of the Clinton Administration to the middle of the Bush Administration happening here. Orwell provides us with a few vignettes of the phenomenon in England during the first years of World War II.
Up till about 1930 nearly all “cultivated” people loathed the USA, which was regarded as the vulgariser of England and Europe. …But our new alliance has simply brought out the immense amount of anti-American feeling that exists in the ordinary lowbrow middle class.
People now blame the USA for every reactionary move, more even than is justified.
Sentimentally, the majority of people in this country would far rather be in a tie-up with Russia than with America, and it is possible to imagine situations in which the popular cause would become the anti-American cause.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Finally, we find some interesting presentiments of Orwell’s later work in Animal Farm and 1984 in his wartime essays.
The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs – and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.
Readers of 1984 will recall the iconic lines, “he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.” Similar themes appear in Animal Farm.
The war hits one a succession of blows in unexpected places. For a long time razor blades were unobtainable, now it is boot polish.
Recall that in 1984, Winston was looking for equally unobtainable razor blades when he discovered the curiosity shop that he and Julia made their love nest. Of course, it turned out to be a trap set by the “Thought Police.”
…and finally, the history behind the sudden transference of the citizens of Oceania’s hatred from Eurasia to Eastasia in 1984:
The peculiarity of the totalitarian state is that though it controls thought, it does not fix it. It sets up unquestionable dogmas, and it alters them from day to day. It needs the dogmas, because it needs absolute obedience from its subjects, but it cannot avoid the changes, which are dictated by the needs of power politics. It declares itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth. To take a crude, obvious example, every German up to September, 1939, had to regard Russian Bolshevism with horror and aversion, and since September, 1939, he has had to regard it with admiration and affection. If Russia and Germany go to war, as they may well do within the next few years, another equally violent change will have to take place. The German’s emotional life, his loves and hatreds, are expected, when necessary, to reverse themselves overnight.
Of course, 1984 has come and gone, and Orwell’s nightmare didn’t happen after all. Still, it may have been a much nearer thing than any of us imagine.
Posted on November 12th, 2011 No comments
Orwell despised pacifism, and wrote some very interesting critiques of pacifist ideology during World War II. On reading them, one notes a striking similarity between the pacifist ideology of Orwell’s time and the different variants thereof that existed in the United States during the Vietnam era and thereafter. A particularly interesting example appeared in the US literary and political journal Partisan Review entitled A Controversy. The piece included an attack on Orwell and elaboration of their own ideas by several pacifists, and Orwell’s reply. The bit by the pacifists actually amounts to an excellent piece of self-analysis. The reply exposes the gross self-deception that has always been inherent in pacifist thought, and points out the equally obvious fact that pacifists during wartime are, objectively, enemy collaborators in whatever country they happen to be active.
A remarkable similarity between the Vietnam-era pacifists and those of Orwell’s day is their tendency, against all odds, to perceive their own side as the moral equivalent of the enemy. Occasionally their own side is recognized as an outgroup, as for example by Jane Fonda who struck a heroic pose on a Communist anti-aircraft gun as her countrymen fought them further south. By that time Gulag Archipelago had been published, and a torrent of details was available about the mass slaughter, misery and torture that was a common feature of Communist regimes. As for Orwell’s British pacifists, the murderous nature of Hitler’s regime was already abundantly clear by 1940. It didn’t matter. In both cases, the facts were simply ignored. D.S. Savage, one of the pacifists writing against Orwell in the Partisan Review, provides us with what could well be described as a self-caricature:
It is fashionable nowadays to equate Fascism with Germany. We must fight Fascism, therefore we must fight Germany. Answer: Fascism is not a force confined to any one nation. We can just as soon get it here as anywhere else. The characteristic markings of Fascism are: curtailment of individual and minority liberties; abolition of private life and private values and substitution of State life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevalence of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendencies of present-day Britain. The pacifist opposes every one of these, and might therefore be called the only genuine opponent of Fascism.
Don’t let us be misled by names. Fascism is quite capable of calling itself democracy or even Socialism. It’s the reality under the name that matters. War demands totalitarian organisation of society. Germany organised herself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.
…we regard the war as a disaster to humanity. Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?
…and so on from one of Hitlers most valuable “useful idiots.” The striking similarity between these puerile arguments, as transparently specious to Orwell then as they are to us now, and those of the Vietnam-era pacifists must be apparent to anyone who lived through those times. Orwell points out the disconnect with reality, seemingly obvious to any child, in his rebuttal:
Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, “he that is not with me is against me”. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr. Savage remarks that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British’.” But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of feedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.
If Mr. Savage and others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.
I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself.
As one who listened to the chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho chi Minh, NLF is going to win” back in the Vietnam era, I know exactly what Orwell is talking about. As students of the Civil War will know, there were pacifists in those days with precisely similar arguments. Just as Orwell’s pacifists were objectively pro-Nazi and tended to sympathize with the Nazis, and the Vietnam-era pacifists were objectively pro-Communist, and tended to sympathize with the Communists, the Civil War pacifists were objectively pro-slavery, and tended to sympathize with the slavers.
In a word, when it comes to pacifism, we have left the realm of rational argument. As Orwell points out, we are dealing with a psychological type, very similar across populations and across long stretches of time. The pacifist equates peace with “the Good,” and war with “evil.” Identification of “the Good” represents, not a logical, but an emotional process. If peace is “the Good,” one becomes “good” and defends “the Good” by supporting “peace,” regardless of any real situation or consequences, no matter how obvious to anyone whose mind has not been artificially closed in the same fashion.
One should not become too smug in judging the pacifists. After all, we are all human, and we all have a similar tendency to form emotional attachments to “the Good,” whether it be pacifism or any other ideological tendency. As a Monday morning quarterback, it seems to me I can detect similar phenomena, associated with other “Goods,” going on in Orwell’s own mind. For him, socialism was “the Good,” so, for a long time, he had the fixed idea that Britain must try the highly dubious experiment of attempting a socialist revolution if she was to win the war. For him, the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was “the Good,” as well. After all, he had nearly been killed fighting for that side. As a result, one finds highly exaggerated predictions of the disastrous results that would “inevitably” follow because the Allies had allowed Franco to win. In retrospect, with Franco safely in the grave and Spain a democratic state, Orwell’s prediction that she would remain a totalitarian dictatorship until the fascists were overthrown by force didn’t exactly pan out.
I have any number of similar emotional attachments of my own. Perhaps the example of a man as brilliant as Orwell will help me to detect and compensate for some of them. It would seem to me that it would behoove us all to make the attempt, assuming we really value the truth.
Posted on November 10th, 2011 1 comment
Morality is a subjective mental construct, fundamentally emotional in nature, and no more capable of existing as a “thing in itself,” discoverable by reason, than hunger, sexual desire, or physical pain. Its ultimate cause as a collection of behavioral traits inherent in our brains in the form of predispositions whose expression can vary depending on cultural and environmental factors, but is broadly similar among human populations. The mental traits responsible for the expression of morality evolved. They did not suddenly pop into existence thanks to some miraculous mutation simultaneously with the appearance of homo sapiens. Rather, those traits in humans represent incremental adaptations of similar traits that have existed in our animal ancestors for tens of millions of years, if not longer. They are entirely similar in that respect to most of our other distinguishing characteristics as a species, as demonstrated by the wonderful advances in the field of evolutionary development in recent years. They did not evolve because they served the greater good, or because they were in accord with some imaginary, objective “good-in-itself,” or because they promoted ”human flourishing,” as it is variously defined. They evolved because they increased the probability that the individual packets of genetic material that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce. They did not evolve to serve any purpose, nor did they evolve because they promoted the “good of the species.” They evolved at a time in which the conditions of human existence were utterly dissimilar to those existing today. As a result, the assumption that they will continue to promote the survival of the packets of genetic material that give rise to them under these vastly altered conditions is unwarranted.
I cannot assert that all of the above statements are certainly true, any more than I can assert that anything at all is certainly true. I can, however, point out that all of them are supported by compelling and rapidly increasing bodies of evidence. Most of the scientists working in the relevant fields of study are aware of the existence of that evidence. As a result, most of them will now admit that, at least to some degree, human morality, not to mention our other behavioral traits, are dependent for their existence on features programmed in our brains by our genes. Few of them would have made such an admission, at least in the behavioral sciences, as recently as two decades ago. In spite of the fact that thinkers since the days of Darwin and before have insisted on the decisive role of innate predispositions, or “human nature” in shaping human behavior, the quite recent general acceptance of that fact that can be traced in both the scientific and popular literature represents a genuine paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences.
It should hardly be surprising that the behavioral expression of morality in conscious animals with highly developed brains can be complex and vary significantly in detail across human populations. The fact remains that the mental traits responsible for what we refer to as “moral” behavior, under its various definitions, are a subset of the mental traits that are the ultimate cause of what is loosely referred to as “human nature,” more or less arbitrarily set apart from the rest. It follows that, absent those evolved mental traits, morality as we know it would cease to exist. It does exist because it promoted the survival of packets of genetic material carried by individual human beings. Attempts to alienate it from those origins by assigning some ”purpose” to it, whether that purpose be the service of some imaginary supernatural being, the greater good of some “master race,” promotion of “human flourishing,” or what have you, are irrational. There is no “objective good.” There is no legitimate basis for one animal of a particular species insisting that all the other animals of that species “should” conform to and adopt his particular version of “the good” given the fact that his ability to imagine such a fundamentally emotional construct as “the good” exists because of mental traits that evolved because, at least at some time in the past, they happened to promote the survival of the packet of genes he happens to be carrying around. If our species were anywhere near as intelligent as we give ourselves credit for being, it would seem that recognition of the above facts would follow immediately on recognition of the fundamental nature of morality. It is a tribute to the power of the emotional traits that give rise to moral behavior that nothing of the sort has happened. The deontologists, consequentialists, and various other tribes of moral and ethical philosophers have continued their speculations about what we “really ought” to do as if nothing had happened, like the sages of yore who debated over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
I suggest to the fellow members of my species that, given the paradigm shift referred to above, it is high time that we refrain from such unproductive debates, and accept the logical consequences of what we have discovered about morality. It would be useful, at least from my point of view, for a number of reasons. For example, for reasons I have set forth elsewhere, continued attempts to establish moral systems threaten the survival of our species. The desire to avoid extinction may be just another emotional whim, but I suspect that it is one that I share with many others of my species. As such, it is a goal towards which we might agree to work together.
Posted on November 8th, 2011 No comments
With Animal Farm, an allegorical tale of the Russian Revolution, and 1984, a fictional analysis of the totalitarian state, George Orwell may well have done more to smash Marxist ideology than any other writer before or since. He is considered by many the great nemesis of socialism. As it happens, he was a convinced socialist himself. Anyone doubting the fact need only read Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his service in the Spanish Civil War. If he ever felt any sympathy for the Stalinist variant of the totalitarian state, that experience cured him of it. Not so his dedication to the socialist idea. Orwell was, in fact, a revolutionary socialist. For example, during World War II he wrote,
The difference between Socialism and capitalism is not primarily a difference of technique. One cannot simply change from one system to the other as one might install a new piece of machinery in a factory, and then carry on as before, with the same people in positions of control. Obviously there is also needed a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas – in the true sense of the word, a revolution.
(Writing in 1940) The English revolution started several years ago, and it began to gather momentum when the troops came back from Dunkirk. Like all else in England, it happens in a sleepy, unwilling way, but it is happening. The war has speeded it up, but it has also increased, and desperately, the necessity for speed. …since a classless, ownerless society is generally spoken of as “Socialism”, we can give that name to the society towards which we are now moving. The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century. The past is fighting the future and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins.
We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war. …The fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy. The inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe. Its injustice has been proved in the East End of London. …If it can be made clear that defeating Hitler means wiping out class privilege, the great mass of middling people, …will probably be on our side.
From the moment that all productive goods have been declared the property of the State, the common people will feel, as they cannot feel now, that the State is themselves.
One can predict the future in the form of an “either-or”: either we introduce Socialism, or we lose the war. (Published November, 1942)
and so on. One can find much more in the same vein in Orwell’s writings. In retrospect, it all seems a bit delusional, but Orwell was no fool. He was a surpassingly brilliant man, with a deep respect for the truth. He was no ideologue, and his analyses of the great events happening around him were often remarkably accurate and profound. If anything, his example should teach us humility. If one of the greatest thinkers our species has ever produced could have been so wide of the mark in his predictions of things to come, it might behoove us to be somewhat reticent about attempting the same thing ourselves. Black swans have a habit of turning up at embarrassing times.
For that matter, Orwell was hardly an anomaly in the first half of the twentieth century. A great number of intellectuals accepted it almost as a commonplace that socialism in some form was not only desirable, but inevitable. Many agreed with Maxim Gorky’s conclusion that democracy and socialism were inseparable. One could not exist without the other. The hard times of the 1930′s seemed to sweep away any lingering doubts that the capitalist system was at the end of its tether. The stampede to socialism was hardly just a European phenomenon. Anyone doubting that thinkers in the United States were just as susceptible to the collective delusion need only visit the stacks of a university library and look through the pages of such intellectual and political journals as the Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury for the year 1934. Orwell was merely one of many who saw the “obvious”: the demise of capitalism was coming sooner rather than later. The only question left was how to manage the transition to socialism as elegantly as possible.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we now know that capitalism was rather more tenacious than Orwell and the rest suspected. However, we would do well not to become too complacent. Technological developments like the Internet greatly enhance our access to all kinds of information, but they also tend to reinforce groupthink on both the left and the right with a power that is exponentially greater than the pamphlets and journals of the 1930′s. Our own collective delusions about the future of mankind will likely seem even more quaint half a century hence.
Orwell’s classless society may have been the stuff of dreams, but several regimes have come and gone since his death that came close to realizing the nightmare world of 1984. As we shall see, he was remarkably prescient about a good number of other things as well.
Posted on November 2nd, 2011 No comments
In a recent article that appeared in Der Spiegel we find that the editors are ”shocked, shocked,” about Halloween portrayals of Obama as a zombie with a bullet wound in the head. The piece is a classic of its kind, and follows a familiar MO. Spiegel headlines are often scurrilous misrepresentations of the truth, especially in matters touching on the US. The editors then “correct” the disinformation somewhere in the body of the article that follows, well aware that many visitors to their site never look beyond the headlines.
In this case, the headline blames the entire Republican Party for the pic: “Republicans Portray Obama as Zombie with a Head Wound.” Those patient enough to glance at the byline discover the news is rather less sensational. Only the Republicans in the State of Virginia are to blame: “Republicans in the US State of Virginia issued an invitation portraying Barack Obama as a zombie with a head wound.” But wait, there’s more! Those curious enough to actually read the article find that only the Republicans in a single one of the thousands of US counties are to blame: “In the race for the White House, the Republicans of Loudoun County in the US State of Virginia seem to have overshot the target.” The article never does quite get to the real truth: that the zombie portrayal was the bright idea of a single imbecile, who has since resigned after being denounced by the rest of the Republicans in the Loudoun County Committee.
No matter, the editors shake their heads sadly over the regrettable affair, noting that it has,
…inspired great outrage. “Repulsive” and “disgusting” are only a few of the comments about the picture of the President.
They should know. They’re experienced in such matters. Here’s a portrayal of another US President that appeared on the cover of Der Spiegel a few years back.
Posted on November 1st, 2011 No comments
The move away from nuclear power in Europe is becoming a stampede. According to Reuters, the Belgians are now on the bandwagon, with plans for shutting down the country’s last reactors in 2025. The news comes as no surprise, as the anti-nukers in Belgium have had the upper hand for some time. However, the agreement reached by the country’s political parties has been made ”conditional” on whether the energy deficit can be made up by renewable sources. Since Belgium currently gets about 55 percent of its power from nuclear, the chances of that appear slim. It’ s more likely that baseload power deficits will be made up with coal and gas plants that emit tons of carbon and, in the case of coal, represent a greater radioactive hazard than nuclear because of the uranium and thorium they spew into the atmosphere. No matter. Since Fukushima global warming hysteria is passé and anti-nuclear hysteria is back in fashion again for the professional saviors of the world.
It will be interesting to see how all this turns out in the long run. In the short term it will certainly be a boon to China and India. They will continue to expand their nuclear capacity and their lead in advanced nuclear technology, with a windfall of cheaper fuel thanks to Western anti-nuclear activism. By the time the Europeans come back to the real world and finally realize that renewables aren’t going to cover all their energy needs, they will likely be forced to fall back on increasingly expensive and heavily polluting fossil fuels. Germany is already building significant new coal-fired capacity.
Of course, we may be dealt a wild card if one of the longshot schemes for taming fusion on the cheap actually works. The odds look long at the moment, though. We’re hearing nothing but a stoney silence from the National Ignition Facility, which bodes ill for what seems to be the world’s last best hope to perfect inertial confinement fusion. Things don’t look much better at ITER, the flagship facility for magnetic fusion, the other mainstream approach. There are no plans to even fuel the facility before 2028.