The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • All Quiet on the Fusion Front: Notes on ITER and the National Ignition Facility

    Posted on February 29th, 2012 Helian 1 comment

    It’s quiet out there – too quiet.  The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a giant, 192 beam laser facility, has been up and running for well over a year now.  In spite of that, there is a remarkable lack of the type of glowing journal articles with scores of authors one would expect to see if the facility had achieved any notable progress towards its goal of setting off fusion ignition in a tiny target with a mix of fuel in the form of tritium and deuterium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  Perhaps they will turn things around, but at the moment it doesn’t look good.

    The NIF was built primarily to study various aspects of nuclear weapons science, but it is potentially also of great significance to the energy future of mankind.  Fusion is the source of the sun’s energy.  Just as energy is released when big atoms, such as uranium, are split, it is also released when the central core, or nuclei, of light atoms are “fused” together.  This “fusion” happens when the nuclei are moved close enough together for the attraction of the “strong force,” a very powerful force but one with a range limited to the very short distances characteristic of atomic nuclei, to overwhelm the “Coulomb” repulsion, or electric force that tends to prevent two like charges, such as positively charged atomic nuclei, from approaching each other.  When that happens with deuterium, whose nucleus contains a neutron and a proton, and tritium, whose nucleus contains two neutrons and a proton, the result is a helium nucleus, containing two neutrons and two protons, and a free neutron that carries off a very large quantity of energy.

    The problem is that overcoming the Coulomb force is no easy matter.  It can only be done if you pump in a lot of energy to “light” the fusion fire.  On the sun, this is accomplished by the massive force of gravity.  Here on earth the necessary energy can be supplied by a fission explosion, the source of energy that “lights” thermonuclear bombs.  Mother Nature decided, no doubt very wisely, to make it very difficult to accomplish the same thing in a controlled manner on a laboratory scale.  Otherwise we probably would have committed suicide with pure fusion weapons by now.  At the moment, two major approaches are being pursued to reach this goal.  One is inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, as used on the NIF.  In inertial confinement fusion, the necessary energy is supplied in such a short period of time by massive lasers or other “drivers” that the fuel is held in place by its own inertia long enough for significant fusion to occur.  In the other approach, magnetic fusion, the fusion fuel is confined by powerful magnetic fields as it is heated to fusion temperatures.  This is the approach being pursued with ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently under construction in France.

    Based on computer models and the results of experiments on much smaller facilities, such as NOVA at Livermore, and OMEGA at the University of Rochester, it was expected that fusion could be accomplished with the nominal 1.8 megajoules of energy available from the 192 NIF laser beams.  It was to happen like this – carefully shaped laser pulses would implode the fusion fuel to extremely high densities.  Such implosions have already been demonstrated many times in the laboratory.  The problem is that, to achieve the necessary densities, one must compress the fuel while it is in a relatively “cold” state (it is much more difficult to “squeeze” something that is “hot” in that way).  Unfortunately, fusion doesn’t happen in cold material.  Once the necessary high densities have been achieved, it is somehow necessary to heat at least a small portion of the material to the extreme temperatures necessary for fusion to occur.  If that can be done, a “burn wave” will move out from this “hot spot,” igniting the rest of the cold fuel material.   Of course, this begs the question of how one is to produce the “hot spot” to begin with.

    On the NIF, the trick was to be accomplished by setting off a series of converging shocks in the fuel material during the implosion process.  Once the material had reached the necessary high density, these shocks would converge at a point in the center of the imploded target, creating a spot hot enough to set off the burn wave referred to above.  It would be a neat trick if it could be done.  Unfortunately, it was never demonstrated on a laboratory scale before the NIF was built.  Obviously, the “trick” is turning out to be harder than the scientists at Livermore expected.  There could be many reasons for this.  If the implosion isn’t almost perfectly symmetric, the hot and cold fuel materials will mix, quenching the fusion reaction.  If the timing of the shocks isn’t just right, or the velocity of the implosion is too slow, the resulting number of fusion reactions will not be enough to achieve ignition.  All kinds of complicated physical processes, such as the generation of huge magnetic and electric fields, so-called laser-plasma instabilities, and anomalies in the absorption of laser light, can happen that are extremely difficult to include in computer models.

    The game isn’t up yet, though.  There are some very bright folks at Livermore, and they may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat.  Even if the current “mainline” approach using central hot spot ignition doesn’t work, it may be possible to create a hot spot on the outer surface of the imploded target using a technique known as fast ignition.  Currently, “indirect drive” is being used on the NIF.  In other words, the laser beams are shot into a cylindrical can, or “hohlraum,” where their energy is converted to x-rays.  These x-rays then “indirectly” illuminate the target.  The NIF can also accommodate a “direct drive” approach, in which the laser beams are aimed directly at the target.  Perhaps it will work better.  One hopes so.  Some of the best old knights of science have been riding towards that El Dorado for a long time.  It would be great to see them finally reach it.  Alas, to judge by the deafening silence coming out of Livermore, it seems they are still a long way off.

    And what of ITER?  Let me put it this way.  Along with the International Space Station, the project is one of the two greatest scientific white elephants ever concocted by the mind of man.  The NIF is justified because it cost only a fraction of ITER, and it was never conceived as an energy project.  It was always intended as an above ground experimental facility that would enable us to maintain our nuclear arsenal in the absence of testing.  As such, it is part of an experimental capability unequalled in the rest of the world, and one which will give us a very significant advantage over any potential enemy as long the ban on testing continues.  ITER, on the other hand, can only be justified as an energy project.  The problem with that is that, while it may work scientifically, it will be an engineering nightmare.  As a result, it is virtually inconceivable that magnetic fusion reactors similar to ITER will ever produce energy economically any time in the next few hundred years.

    A big part of the problem is that such reactors will require a tritium economy.  Each of them will burn on the order of 50 kilograms of tritium per year.  Tritium is highly radioactive, with a half-life of 12.3 years, is as difficult to contain as any other form of hydrogen, and does not occur naturally.  In other words, failing some outside source, each reactor will have to produce as much tritium as it consumes.  Each fusion reaction produces a single neutron, and neutrons can interact with an isotope of lithium to produce tritium.  However, some of the neutrons will inevitably be lost, so it will be necessary to multiply their number.  This trick can be accomplished with the element beryllium.  In other words, in order to build a workable reactor, it will be necessary to have a layer of some extremely durable material containing the plasma, thick enough to resist radiation embrittlement and corrosion for some reasonable period of time, followed by a layer of highly toxic beryllium thick enough to generate enough neutrons, followed by a layer of highly reactive lithium thick enough to produce enough tritium to keep the reaction going.  But wait, there’s more!  It will then be necessary to somehow quickly extract the lithium and return it to the reaction chamber without losing any of it.  Tritium?  Lithium?  Beryllium?  Forget about it!  I’m sure there are any number of reactor design studies that all “prove” that all of the above can be done economically.  I’m also sure none of them are worth the paper they are printed on.  We have other options that don’t suffer from the drawbacks of a tritium economy and are far more likely to produce the energy we need at a fraction of the cost.

    Meanwhile, ITER crawls ahead, sucking enormous amounts of research money from a host of more worthy projects.  A classic welfare project for smart guys in white coats, there are no plans to even fuel it with tritium before the year 2028!  I’m sure that at this point many European scientists are asking a simple question; Can’t we please stop this thing?

    Fusion is immensely promising as a potential future source of energy.  However, we should not be seduced by that promise into throwing good money after bad, funding a white elephant that has virtually no chance of ever fulfilling that promise.  I suspect that one of these days we will “finesse” Mother Nature, and devise a clever way to overcome the Coulomb barrier without gigantic superconducting magnets or massive arrays of lasers.  Scientists around the world are currently working on many novel and speculative approaches to fusion.  Few of them are likely to succeed, but it just takes one.  We would be much better off funding some of the more promising of these approaches with a fraction of the money currently being wasted on ITER, and devoting the rest to developing other technologies that have at least a fighting chance of eventually producing energy economically.

    Meanwhile, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the NIF crew at Livermore.  It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and she’s still a long way off.

  • On the Politics of Evolutionary Psychology

    Posted on February 24th, 2012 Helian 3 comments

    Robert Kurzban, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology.  Every few posts one finds him responding to some critic of the field.  For example, in a recent piece entitled Could Evolutionary Psychology’s Critics Pass Evolutionary Psychology’s Midterms? he writes,

    Back in October of last year, Larry Moran wrote a critique of an article about domestic abuse, which I subsequently responded to, pointing out an error in Moran’s post. Moran later responded in turn on his blog, writing, in part:

    “Robert Kurzban was upset by my critique of science journalism and evolutionary psychology [Evolutionary Psychology Crap in New Scientist]. You might recall that my criticism is based on many common features of evolutionary psychology but the most important are the unwarranted assumptions that: (1) a particular specific behavior has a strong genetic component. (2) that the behavior is adaptive, and (3) that we know how our ancestors behaved.”

    Kurzban responds to this rather obvious stuff, stock and trade of the critics of the field since the antediluvian days, now lost in a fog of myths, before Sociology was more than a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, and before it even went by the name of Evolutionary Psychology, with the similarly obvious observation that it’s nonsense.  He goes on to describe how even beginning students of EP were able to demolish Moran’s claim about “unwarranted assumptions” in a midterm exam, and concludes with the observation,

    The broader point is that Moran is only one instance of a larger phenomenon, and critics of evolutionary psychology frequently demonstrate innocence of the field’s basic assumptions and theoretical commitments. As I’ve said in the past, an interesting question is why critics feel comfortable voicing such strong objections to the field, given their lack of background, even to the point, as in this case, of accusations of the discipline not being a science. I don’t pretend to understand the motives, but it’s an area that merits closer study. I’m afraid that we can be confident that there will be plenty of additional data along the same lines from our voluble critics of evolutionary psychology.

    I suspect Prof. Kurzban has been around long enough to understand the “motives” perfectly well.  Perhaps his sense of academic gravitas prevents him from calling a spade a spade or, more precisely, propaganda.  In fact, as he points out in his post, Moran’s objections are ridiculous from any rational point of view.  But hackneyed and threadbare though they are, they’ve been around a long time for a reason.  They’re excellent as propaganda.  As another expert in a different field of psychology once noted, people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it. 

    But, to return to Prof. Kurzban’s question, what could Moran’s motive be for bleating such nonsense with the rest of the sheep?  It’s always been obvious enough.  It’s the same motive that convinced an earlier generation of benighted graduate students that they would be serving the greater good of mankind by physically attacking someone as benign as E. O. Wilson for suggesting there actually is such a thing as human nature.  It springs from the fact that evolutionary psychology and what was once upon a time a secular religion known as socialism are mutually exclusive.  True, the secular religion is no more; its god went bankrupt.  Artifacts of its demise, however, persist, especially in the more obscurantist recesses of university campuses, like the afterglow of a great supernova.

    Socialism requires what evolutionary psychology precludes; that human behavior be infinitely malleable.  And why?  Prof. Kurzban asked for data points, so I will give him one.  In fact, I already mentioned it in an earlier post.  It turned up in an essay by Geoffrey Gorer, a world-renowned psychologist in the middle decades of the 20th century.  Gorer was a friend and correspondent of George Orwell, and gave him a leg up in finding publishers for his first books.  Both were convinced socialists.  In an essay published in 1956 entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, Gorer wrote,

    One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

    Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

    If Prof. Kurzban is looking for smoking guns regarding the “motives” of Evolutionary Psychology’s detractors, it seems to me this is a good one. But wait, there’s more!  It happens that Gorer contributed another essay to a remarkable little book entitled Man and Aggression, an invaluable piece of source material for anyone interested in the history of evolutionary psychology edited by Ashley Montagu that appeared in 1968.  Its contributors were a collection of academic and professional worthies, all of whom denied that there was any such thing as innate human nature, at least of any significance.  They were the sort of people one might refer to today as “Blank Slaters.”  The book, still available at Amazon for about a dollar, was basically a polemic aimed at the two most influential proponents at the time of what later became Evolutionary Psychology.  Most of them included some version of at least one of Moran’s “critiques” of Evolutionary Psychology.  Most of them also alluded to the moral turpitude of the defenders of innate human nature in matters of politics.  Gorer’s essay happened to include the following remarkable passage about one of the book’s two human targets:

    Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

    …he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

    I daresay Prof. Kurzban is as innocent of any knowledge of the existence of a man named Robert Ardrey as a typical Soviet apparatchik was innocent of any knowledge of a man named Leon Trotsky during the last years of Stalin. And yet I have seen him refer to Richard Lewontin, a man who was “completely and utterly wrong,” to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, about the blank slate, a convinced Marxist who still spouts blather about the “dialectic” (what great fun it would be to hear him try to give a “dialectic” account of the class nature of the Russian Revolution), and author of a book as inane as “Not in our Genes,” as a revered and highly respected authority.

    Odd, isn’t it, that experts in the field of evolutionary psychology should be performing triple kowtows before Richard Lewontin even as they astutely ignore a man who, easily within living memory, was known as, “the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.” Odd, too, that Steven Pinker could have written a whole tome about the Blank Slate that contained a grand total of only one mention of the man acknowledged by the Blank Slaters themselves to be their most influential and skilled opponent, and then only to dismiss him as having been, again paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, “completely and utterly wrong.” It occurs to me that evolutionary psychologists would be a good deal more effective at resisting politically motivated obscurantists like Moran if they would refrain from distorting their own history.

    Robert Ardrey

  • The Theology of Rick Santorum

    Posted on February 20th, 2012 Helian No comments

    Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus.  Here’s what he said:

    It’s not about you.  It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.  But no less a theology.

    The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect.  The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context.  This time the Right has it right.  For example, from Foxnews,

    Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning  whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology”  over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the  stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.

    “I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a  Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum  said.

    “I was talking about the radical environmentalist,”  he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the  Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And  I think that is a phony ideal.

    I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:

    I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.

    I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.

    In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.

    Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date.  While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever.  Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge.  They were elitists in the truest sense of the word.  Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true.  They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above.  Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.

    That was their Achilles heal.  The future eventually becomes the present.  The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie.  Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light.  They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims.  Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them.  Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals.  For that we can all be grateful.

    In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist.  The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion.  I think not.  True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there.  For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us.  The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible.  It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty.  Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.

    An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion.  They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.”  Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup.  It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion.  Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.

    However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion.  For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise.  The environmental movement has nothing of the sort.  So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.

    In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions.  He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.


  • …and Finally, Touching on Religion, Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence

    Posted on February 17th, 2012 Helian No comments

    There are enough rational arguments to convince anyone approaching the subject with an open mind that belief in magical supernatural beings is something we need to relegate to the childhood of our species and move on.  Far from preventing illness, it is the illness.  It is an illness because it is false, and the Twin Towers will ever be an icon of what happens when people base their actions on that which is false.

    One wonders why, if the big man in the sky is really so worried about the behavior of creatures infinitely further below him than amoeba are to us that he devotes his time to continually monitoring the interactions of all seven billion of us, and is so subject to human emotions that he flies into a rage and tortures them with fire for quadrillions and quintillions of years if they don’t do what he wants, in spite of their ignorance, and yet is merciful and compassionate, and genuinely wants us to do good, he doesn’t just step out from behind the curtain, manifest himself to us in a way that could leave no doubt about his existence, and explain to us all clearly what he wants.  Surely he’s capable of such an act, and, assuming he exists, it would be the obvious and reasonable thing to do.  The problem is that he doesn’t exist, and the fact that he never has stepped out from behind the curtain in the manner described is an obvious demonstration of that fact for anyone willing and able to think rationally.

    Of course, the religious have had hundreds of years to think up all sorts of specious replies to this and all of the other obvious arguments against the existence of their magical superheroes.  You can find lots of them against the argument I’ve given above by typing in a few obvious search terms on Google.  The problem is that none of them make the slightest sense to anyone who isn’t wearing religious blinders because they’re afraid of dying, is afraid life will have no “purpose” unless they believe in a pack of lies, agree with Victor Davis Hanson that societies become “ill” unless their citizens are all delusional, or is just simply too intellectual lazy to do other than blindly accept the “truths” he was indoctrinated with as a child.

    Of course, it’s particularly difficult for people on the right of the political spectrum in the US today to give up their religious illusions because, on top of the reasons cited above, those illusions also happen to be an important board in the ideological box they live in.  Sometimes the results are comical.  For example, one constantly finds them harping on the mention of God in our Declaration of Independence.  The only problem is that the God in the Declaration of  Independence isn’t their God.  It’s the God of its author, Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist, as was Voltaire, Thomas Paine and so many of the other great names of the 18th century Enlightenment.  No matter, they just strap Jefferson down on the Procrustean bed of their faith and rack him and squeeze him until he becomes the best of Christians.  I once ran into one of these worthies on another blog, who cited a bit from one of Jefferson’s letters approving of some of the teachings of Christ, rather than the faith itself, as “proof” that he was a Christian.  Here is my reply:

    Allow me to also remind you of some of the other things Jefferson said.

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians. (letter to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789. Richard Price had written to TJ on Oct. 26. about the harm done by religion and wrote “Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?”)”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.”

    Thomas Jefferson also said,

    “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.”

    Does that sound like a “Christian” doctrine to you? Even his famous quote on the Jefferson memorial was taken from an attack on the Christian clergy of Philadelphia:

    “The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me. . .”

    He was a great man indeed.  Would that we could find leaders like him today.

  • …and One More Thing about Religion.

    Posted on February 15th, 2012 Helian No comments

    In my last post concerning Prof. Hanson’s pronouncements on religion in an article about the decline of Europe, I mentioned in passing that the truth actually matters.  It’s worth elaborating on this point.  Notice that nowhere in his article does Hanson explicitly claim that the Christian religion is true.  Rather, he merely asserts that societies become ill in its absence.  Let’s set aside for a moment the extremely dubious nature of this assertion, in view of the numerous historical incidents in which Christianity has been directly responsible for mass slaughter, gross exploitation, and other forms of social malaise that one doesn’t normally describe as “healthy.”  Rather, let’s focus on his practice of putting the cart before the horse by claiming that Christianity is valuable as a tonic against social “illness” without first bothering to explain why he actually considers it to be true.  Of course, the Christians aren’t the only ones guilty of this.  Regardless of who is making such arguments, though, they’re all more or less beside the point.

    Suppose, for example, that Christianity really is true.  In that case, what use is it to ascertain whether it promotes healthy societies as well or not?  After all, even if we do live in an “ill” society, in that case we will only have to endure it for a trivial amount of time.  If, however, we annoy a God who, as the Christians assure us, has in common with humans the emotional behavioral trait we refer to as vengefulness, in spite of presumably having neither an amygdala, orbital cingulate cortex, or any other of the bits of gray matter responsible for expression of the trait in mere mortals, then, unless we don’t at least make a convincing show of pretending to do what he wants, we stand to burn in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years to satisfy the requirements of divine justice.  Under the circumstances, it would seem that the effects on society, one way or the other, are trivial to the point of irrelevance by comparison.

    The essential question to answer, then, is not what effects Christianity, and all the other systems of belief in supernatural beings, for that matter, have on social wellness, but whether they are true.  It seems to me that any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to use his gray matter as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull and undertakes to investigate the matter with diligence and an open mind instead of simply following the usual path of least resistance and blindly accepting some hand-me-down opinion on the subject and then rationalizing it after the fact will conclude that they most certainly aren’t true.  One might start by reading the recent books on the subject by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  However, the authors tend to go off on tangents of sanctimonious moralizing without troubling to explain to the reader what branch they happen to be sitting on to support the same that they haven’t already sawed off.  Dawkins book is also blemished by the gross anti-Americanism that was fashionable among European intellectuals at the time it was published.

    I personally prefer the Testament of the brilliant French cleric, Jean Meslier, who had no such ax to grind, and thoroughly demolished any basis for belief in supernatural beings a century and a quarter before Darwin’s Origin of Species. If your tastes run to poetry, try Edward Fitzgerald’s so-called “translation” of the Rubaiyat, which is actually a deconstruction of Islam, but serves as well for other religions.  Add to that the wonderful works of Bart Ehrman, such as Jesus Interrupted, in case you seriously believe the Bible isn’t full of gross contradictions, and his Misquoting Jesus, which documents the literally tens of thousands of textual variations in the most authoritative manuscripts of the Bible if you really believe every jot, tittle, and typographical error therein is the inspired word of God, and you’ll have at least a fighting chance of coming to your senses in matters of religious belief.  (By the way, any cleric worth his salt who’s been to a reputable seminary knows that what Ehrman says is true.  They just don’t usually bother to tell their flocks, for obvious reasons.)

    Do all of the above quickly, if possible.  After all, what if the UFO fanciers are right, and we are soon to experience a visit by some race of extraterrestrials?  Think of how embarrassing it will be for all of us if they discover that 90 percent of us still believe in imaginary beings with magical powers.  We’ll never live it down.

  • On the Bigotry of Victor Davis Hanson

    Posted on February 14th, 2012 Helian No comments

    When it comes to inclination, or emotion if you will, I tend to be more conservative than liberal.  There are some things about the right in the US today that rub me the wrong way, though.  For example, they’re constantly harping about their love of Liberty, but they don’t define the term quite the same way as Webster.  When it comes to religion, for example, it means you’re free to think just like them.  Beyond that, there are certain constraints on your “liberty.”  According to their idiosyncratic definition of the term, you are endowed with freedom “of” religion, but not freedom “from” religion.  If, like me, you are unfortunate enough not to believe in supernatural beings, as far as your liberty is concerned, “certain restrictions apply.”  In spite of the fact that you can no more voluntarily decide to change your mind in matters of religion than you can voluntarily change you skin color or ethnicity, you can no longer be considered a citizen in the full sense of the term.  As an atheist, you are relegated to one of the last remaining officially approved outgroups, and are, at best tolerated.

    Some artifacts of this attitude recently turned up in an article by the conservative essayist, Victor Davis Hanson.  The article in question, entitled “Europe in the Rearview Mirror,” deals with the familiar theme of European malaise, and includes the following observations on religion:

    Yes, I know Europe is sick, ill with loud secular agnosticism and atheism, aging and shrinking, wedded to an unworkable redistributive socialism.


    We seem to have forgotten that what is admirable in the U.S. is not just the result of the vast American landscape, a natural selection of the more audacious and risk-taking immigrants, frontier life, and the resulting rugged individualism, but because the Founders were nursed on the European Enlightenment, Christianity was imported from Europe, and Anglo-Saxon law was built upon in a new continent.

    I wonder, what are my chances of enjoying anything like genuine liberty among people who consider my religious opinions an “illness?”  Let’s consider the implications of these statements by Davis.  The possibilities are,

    a)  Mr. Hanson is a prophet.  In other words, God has fluttered down from on high and spoken to him personally, giving him detailed instructions about how all of us are to live our lives in order that our societies may not become “ill.”  Surely he would not dare presume to declare that some millions of his fellow citizens were a “sickness” on his own authority.  After all, has he not spent a good portion of his career railing against just such people – those he and the rest of the right call self-appointed “elites?”  Surely he would not willingly join such an elite himself.  After all his anathemas specifically directed at such gentry, it would be the grossest hypocrisy.  If, on the other hand, Hanson really has been endowed with the authority to declare millions of his fellow citizens a “sickness” directly from God, by all means let him announce it to the world.

    b)  Hanson is not a prophet, but is merely personally convinced of the truth of Christianity.  However, rejecting the taint of elitism, he does not presume to dictate to the rest of us what we should believe in matters of religion.  In that case, it logically follows that his argument is essentially utilitarian.  In other words, he is of the opinion that we should all pretend to be Christians whether we actually are or not because otherwise our society will become ill.  If so, then we must conclude that, as far as Hanson is concerned, the question of whether what we believe, or at least pretend to believe, is true or not is irrelevant.  It is the duty of every citizen, regardless of their actual convictions, to pretend to believe that which is most conducive to the health of society.

    Unfortunately, I suspect I will always be ill-suited for life in a society which requires me to base my actions on premises that are untrue.  However, if the criterion for acceptance of these premises is their promotion of the health of society, and avoidance of social “ills,” then Christianity is a most unlikely candidate.  After all, admitting that the country our forefathers left us was, indeed, admirable, are we really to attribute the fact to the coincidence that many of them happened to be Christians?  Were not the founders of the countries currently occupying central and South America Christians as well?  Would Hanson be so bold as to claim that, thanks to their Christian faith, these countries have never been sick a day in their lives?  What about two of the greatest success stories of western civilization, Greece and Rome?  Presumably, based on his writings, Hanson knows something about them.  Were the Greek city states Christian?  Was Rome Christian except in the decades of her decline and fall?  What of the Crusades?  Were the Christian states they established all free of “illness?”  Was the murder of the the citizens of Jerusalem after its conquest, not to mention 50,000 “witches,” a sign of health?  From the senile stupidity of the Papal States to the suicidal proclivity of scores of monarchs by “divine right” to hold their subjects in a state of abject ignorance, I could cite thousands of other historical data points that demonstrate that, far from promoting the “health” of society, Christianity has been the source of its most virulent diseases.

    Certainly, if we are an “illness,” Hanson must question the patriotism of American atheists.  Well, I’m an American atheist.  I also attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and volunteered to serve, and actually did serve, in the armed forces of my country in Vietnam, at a time when serving ones country in that way was hardly a popular thing to do.  I was there from 1971 to 1972, at a time when Hanson was just of an age to be a soldier.  My question to him is, “Where were you?”  You, who reserve to yourself the right to decide who among us are patriots and who, on the other hand, will make our country “ill,” you, who have always been full of such fulsome and unctuous praise for our nation’s armed forces, where were you?

  • On the Afterglow of Historical Fairy Tales

    Posted on February 13th, 2012 Helian No comments

    We are fortunate to be living in an age in which historical source material is becoming increasingly abundant and difficult to destroy, because we are also living in an age that has been prolific in the rearrangement of historical fact to suit ideological ends.  I just ran across yet another data point demonstrating the process whereby the myths created in the process are transmogrified into “historical fact.”  It turned up on Atomic Insights, a blog penned by nuclear power advocate Rod Adams.

    The reason this particular “historical fact” turned up in one of Rod’s articles is neither here nor there.  As far as I know he’s perfectly sound politically, and has no ax to grind outside of his nuclear advocacy.  It was apparently reproduced without any malice or intent to deceive as a “well known fact” in an article about the mutual hostility of the U.S. and Iran.  According to Rod,

    On the other side of the issue, Iranians date their hostility to America to 1953, when the United States CIA took actions to stimulate the overthrow of the democratically elected leader named Mohammad Mosaddeqh. Our main beef with him was the fact that he had decided that the oil and gas under his country actually belonged to the people, not to the companies that had arranged some sweet deals during a colonial era. When he moved to nationalize the oil reserves, the UK and the US took action to install a dictator who was more compliant with our “interests.”  That part of the controversy is pretty well known and discussed.

    In fact, that part of the controversy isn’t discussed nearly enough.  If it were, this version of “history” would have been relegated to the garbage heap long ago.  I wrote a series of articles debunking it some time ago that can be read here, here and here.  The “official” version of this particular historical fairy tale, entitled All the Shah’s Men, was written by New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer, apparently in the proud tradition of Walter Duranty’s glowing accounts of Stalin’s Russia.  Kinzer’s “history” was based largely on a CIA source document, which is available to anyone on the web.  Evidently he assumed no one would actually bother to read it and the other easily available source material, because the idea that they “prove” the great Mossadegh Coup myth is palpably absurd.  The CIA activities described were so dilettantish they wouldn’t have seriously undermined the flimsiest of banana republics, not to mention Iran.  On the very day that the coup happened the supposedly miraculously effective CIA plotters in Tehran, convinced that the coup had failed, sat meekly on the sidelines, taking no significant role in directing events whatsoever.  To believe the claim that their actions were undertaken solely to mollify evil US and UK oil and gas cartels it is necessary to willfully blind ones self to the possibility that Communist aggression ever actually existed or that the US government ever honestly believed that it was a threat at the time.  Of course, I cannot prove that I am any less prone to historical distortions than Mr. Kinzer et. al.  However, I can suggest that anyone interested in the facts read the source material.  It speaks for itself.  I suspect that anyone reading it with an open mind will conclude that his yarn about the mind boggling effectiveness of the great CIA plot and the reasons it happened are baloney.

    That hasn’t prevented these myths from gelling into historical “facts.”  Rob’s blog is hardly the only place you’ll find similar disinformation.  The more a given myth serves ideological ends, the faster the gelling process proceeds.  In this case it was doubly effective.  It stroked the egos of the CIA supersleuths who had no trouble convincing themselves that they really had “killed seven at one blow,” and it also had just the right “anti-imperialist” touch for the ideologues of the left.  But heaven forefend that you should take my word for it.  Look for yourself.

    One could cite many other similar instances of rearranging history.  For example, there’s the old southern schoolmarm’s yarn about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the anti-nuclear activists’ yarn about how the atomic bomb had nothing to do with ending World War II, the Nazi yarn about how the German army lost World War I because it was “stabbed in the back” by revolutionaries on the home front, and so on and so on.  One often hears the old bromide that “history is written by the victors” from the creators of these fantasies.  That may be, but in all the cases cited above, and many more like them, there is no lack of source material out there for anyone interested enough to dig it up and read it.  In the case of the Civil War, for example, it reveals that common people in the north thought it was about slavery, common people in the south thought it was about slavery, foreign observers uniformly concurred it was about slavery, and southern politicians made no bones whatsoever about the fact that it was about slavery in their declarations of secession.  Under the circumstances, based on the unanimous testimony of the people who actually experienced it, I tend to believe the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery.  If you make the effort to “go to the source” with an open mind, you’re liable to find a lot more fossilized historical “facts” that aren’t quite what they seem.

  • On the Proper Sphere of Morality

    Posted on February 12th, 2012 Helian No comments

    In earlier posts I have argued against allowing morality to play a role in the interactions of states, or in politics within states, or, in general, in any situation in which it is reasonably possible to think and make rational decisions.   I have done so because I consider morality a fundamentally emotional phenomenon.  It would not exist absent emotional responses that themselves exist because they evolved.  If so, they must have evolved at a time bearing no resemblance to the present because they were useful in regulating interactions within groups and between small groups bearing no resemblance to modern states, political organizations, or other large groups of human beings.  There is no reason to assume that they will function as well in regulating the interactions between the large human organizations that are a very recent phenomenon, at least as far as evolution is concerned.  There is good reason, based on ample historical precedent, for the claim that attempting to apply them in that way is downright dangerous.

    The above does not in any way imply, however, that we should strive to be amoral, or Machiavellian schemers, or moral relativists in our day to day interactions with other individuals.  You might say that, at that level, morality is the only game in town.  We simply lack the intelligence to to come up with reason-based solutions to all the complex problems that arise in our relationships with others on the fly.  To the extent that we make rational decisions at that level at all (or at least feel like we are making rational decisions if you believe Jonathan Haidt), they are generally decisions that implement what our moral emotions prompt us to do.  In a word, as far as interactions between individuals are concerned, morality wins by default.  The best we can do is attempt to come up with a system of morality that is as simple as possible, enables us to get along with each other reasonably well, and accommodates our behavioral predispositions as they really are rather than as we want them to be.

    And what of the moral relativists?  I suspect the number of us who really fit that description is vanishingly small.  We’re not programmed to act that way.  If anyone did, they would probably regret it.  Mother Nature would have been remiss if she had come up with moral beings lacking an acute ability to detect and deal with cheaters.

  • Germans Reconsidering Nuclear Power?

    Posted on February 11th, 2012 Helian No comments

    I don’t think so!  Less than a century after H. L. Mencken wrote that the Uplift was a purely American phenomenon, there may now be even more of the pathologically pious in Germany per capita than in the U.S.  They all think they’re far smarter than the average human being, they all see a savior of mankind when they look in the mirror, and almost all of them are cocksure that nuclear power is one of the Evils they need to save us from.  Just last November tens of thousands of them turned out in force to block the progress of a spent fuel castor from France to the German radioactive waste storage site at Gorleben.  The affair turned into a regular Uplift feeding frenzy, complete with pitched battles between the police and the peaceful protesters, who were armed with clubs and pyrotechnics, tearing up of railroad tracks, etc.  It’s no wonder the German government finally threw in the towel and announced the country would shut down its nuclear power plants.

    At least the decision took the wind out of their sails for a while.  As Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “nothing fails like success” for the Saviors of Mankind.  Success tends to leave them high and dry.  At best they have to go to the trouble of finding another holy cause to fight for.  At worst, as in the aftermath of their fine victory in establishing a Worker’s Paradise in Russia, they’re all shot.

    It would seem the “bitter dregs of success” were evident in a recent article on the website of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, entitled “Electricity is Becoming Scarce in Germany.”  Der Spiegel has always been in the van of the pack of baying anti-nuclear hounds in Germany, so I was somewhat surprised by the somber byline, which reads as follows:

    The nuclear power shutdown has been a burden for Germany’s electric power suppliers in any case.  Now the cold wave is making matters worse.  The net operators have already had to fall back on emergency reserves for the second time this winter, and buy additional electricity from Austria.

    That’ s quite an admission coming from the Der Spiegel, where anti-nuclear polemics are usually the order of the day.  Even the resolutely Green Washington Post editorialized against the German shutdown, noting, among other things,

    THE INTERNATIONAL Energy Agency reported on Monday that global energy-related carbon emissions last year were the highest ever, and that the world is far off track if it wants to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, after which the results could be very dangerous.


    So what does Germany’s government decide to do? Shut down terawatts of low-carbon electric capacity in the middle of Europe. Bowing to misguided political pressure from Germany’s Green Party, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed a plan to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.


    European financial analysts (estimate) that Germany’s move will result in about 400 million tons of extra carbon emissions by 2020, as the country relies more on fossil fuels. Nor is Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, who ominously announced that Germany has put coal-fired power “back on the agenda” — good for his coal-rich nation directly to Germany’s east but terrible for the environment and public health.

    …and so on.  Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the German Greens optimistic plans to replace nuclear with solar in a cloudy country that gets cold in the winter and lies on the wrong side of the 50th parallel of latitude.  Poland’s prime minister is right to worry about being downwind of Germany.  In spite of the cheery assurances of the Greens, she currently plans to build 26 new coal-fired power plants.  It’s funny how environmental zealots forget all about the terrible threat of global warming if its a question of opposing nuclear power.  But Poland has a lot more to worry about than Germany’s carbon footprint.

    It’s estimated that 25,000 people die from breathing coal particulates in the U.S. alone every year.  The per capita death rate in Poland, directly downwind from the German plants, will likely be significantly higher.  Then there’s the radiation problem.  That’s right, coal typically contains several parts per million of radioactive uranium and thorium.    A good-sized plant will release 5 tons of uranium and 10 tons of thorium into the environment each year.  Estimated releases in 1982  from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium.  China currently burns that much coal by herself.  The radiation from uranium and thorium is primarily in the form of alpha particles, or helium nuclei.  Such radiation typically has a very short range in matter, because it slows down quickly and then dumps all of its remaining energy in a very limited distance, the so-called Bragg peak.  On the one hand that means that a piece of paper is enough to stop most alpha radiation.  On the other it means that if you breath it in, the radiation will be slammed to a stop in your sensitive lung tissue, dealing tremendous damage in the process.  Have you ever heard of people dying of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their lives?  If you’re looking for a reason, look no further.

    No matter.  As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy.  One million is a statistic.  Germany’s Greens will continue to ignore such dry statistics, and they will continue to strike noble poses as they fight the nuclear demon, forgetting all about global warming in the process.  For them, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

  • Geoffrey Gorer and the Blank Slate

    Posted on February 7th, 2012 Helian 3 comments

    Geoffrey Gorer was a British anthropologist, essayist, long-time friend of George Orwell, and, at least in my estimation, a very intelligent man.  He was also a Blank Slater.  In other words, he was a proponent of the orthodox dogma that prevailed among psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and other experts in the behavioral sciences during much of the 20th century according to which there was no such thing as human nature or, if it existed at all, its impact on human behavior was insignificant.  He defended that orthodoxy, among other places, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu, and an invaluable piece of source material for students of the Blank Slate phenomenon.

    Now, of course, after one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of mankind, the Blank Slate has gone the way of Aristotelian cosmology, and books roll off the presses in an uninterrupted stream discussing innate human behavior as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  How, one might ask, if Geoffrey Gorer really was such an intelligent man, could he ever have taken the Blank Slate ideology seriously?  Well, I speak of intelligence in relative terms.  Taken as a whole, we humans aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are and, as Julius Caesar once said, we have a marked tendency to belief what we want to believe.

    And why did Gorer “want” to believe in the Blank Slate?  I submit it was for the same reason that so many of his contemporaries defended the theory; their faith in socialism.  I do not use the term socialism in any kind of a pejorative sense.  Rather, I speak of it as the social phenomenon it was; for all practical purposes a secular religion posing as a science.  It is scarcely possible for people today to grasp the power and pervasiveness of socialist ideology in its heyday.  We have the advantage of hindsight and have watched socialist systems, ranging from the Communist authoritarian versions to the benign, democratic variant of the type tried in Great Britain after the war, fail over and over again.  Earlier generations did not have that advantage.

    More or less modern socialist theories were prevalent in England long before Marx.  By 1917 they had taken such root in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia that Maxim Gorky could write that he couldn’t imagine a democratic state that wasn’t socialist.  A couple of decades later, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that,

    In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.

    Anyone doubting the influence of similar ideas in the United States at the time need only go back and read the New Republic, The Nation, The American Mercury, and some of the other intellectual and political journals of the mid-30’s.  In a word, then, socialism was once accepted as an unquestionable truth by large numbers of very influential intellectuals.  It seemed perfectly obvious that capitalism was gasping its last, and the only question left seemed to be how the transition to socialism would take place, and how the socialist states of the future should be run.

    There was just one problem with this as far as the social and behavioral sciences were concerned.  Socialism and human nature were mutually exclusive.  The firmest defenders of genetically programmed behavioral predispositions in human beings have never denied the myriad possible variations in human societies that are attributable to culture and environment.  Socialism, however, required more than that.  It required human behavior to be infinitely malleable which, if innate behavioral predispositions exist, it most decidedly is not.

    Which brings us back to Geoffrey Gorer.  In an essay entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, written in 1956, we can follow the intellectual threads that show how all this came together in the mind of a mid-20th century anthropologist.  I will let Gorer speak for himself.

    One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

    Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

    In Gorer’s opinion the problem wasn’t human nature.  It couldn’t be, or socialism wouldn’t work.  The problem was that we simply hadn’t been using the right technique.  For example, we hadn’t been relying on proper role models.  Gorer had somehow convinced himself that female school teachers had played a decisive role in altering the character of immigrants to American, “transforming them within a generation into good citizens of their countries of adoption, with changed values, habits and expectations… In our original thinking, this role of the school-teacher, and the derivatives of this situation, were idiosyncratic to the culture of the United States.”  According to Gorer, the introduction of police in England had had a similar magical effect.  By serving as role models, they had, almost sole-handedly, brought about “the great modifications in the behavior of the English urban working classes in the nineteenth century from violence and lawlessness to gentleness and law-abiding.”  They had, “…provided an exemplar of self-control which the mass of the population could emulate and use as a model.”  If the phrase “just so story” popped into your mind, you’re not alone.  Of course, one man’s “just so story” is another man’s “scientific hypothesis.”  It all depends on whether it happens to be politically convenient or not.

    Proper role models, then, were one of the ingredients that Gorer discovered were needed to “change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.”  He discovered no less than four more in the process of reading Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old, which he described as “account of a society which has transformed itself within twenty-five years.”  The society in question was that of the Manus, inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands, which lie just north of New Guinea.  And sure enough, their society did change drastically in a generation and, if we are to believe Mead, for the good.  This change had been greatly facilitated by one Paliau, a charismatic leader of the Manu who luckily happened along at the time.  Gorer admitted this was a fortuitous accident, but he saw, or at least imagined he saw, several other ingredients for radical change which could be applied by properly qualified experts.  In his words,

    The availability of a man of Paliau’s genius is obviously an unpredictable accident which cannot be generalized; but the other four conditions – readiness for change, the presentation of a model for study and observation, the sudden and complete break with the past, nurture and support during the first years of the new life – would seem to provide a paradigm of the way in which men may be changed in a single generation.

    Human societies certainly may change radically within a very short time.  It is an adaptive trait that accounts for the fact that we managed, not only to survive, but to thrive during times of rapid environmental change.  The brilliant South African, Eugene Marais, was the first to make the connection.  In his words,

    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.

    These astounding insights occurred to a man, working mainly alone in South Africa, in the early years of the 20th century.  Marais was indeed a genius.  Unfortunately, at least from Gorer’s point of view, while his theories accounted for mankind’s extreme adaptability, they in no way implied that that adaptability would enable well-meaning ideologues to reinvent human character at will to convert us into suitable inmates for whatever utopia du jour they were cooking up for us.  It would seem that’s what Gorer overlooked in his sanguine conclusions about the Manu.  Their society had indeed adapted, but it had done so on its own, and not as programmed by some inspired anthropologist.  He concludes his essay as follows:

    The great merit of New Lives for Old is that it opens up a whole new field for observation, experiment and speculation, a field of the greatest relevance to our present preoccupations.

    The “present preoccupation” which required the “remaking of man” was, of course, our happy transformation to a socialism.  Unfortunately, the wishful thinking of a generation of Gorers made no impression on the genetic programming responsible for our behavioral predispositions.  It remained stubbornly in place, spoiling who knows how many of the splendid Brave New Worlds that noble idealists the world over were preparing for us.

    In retrospect, socialism ended, as the old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky suggested it might in 1939, just before Stalin had him murdered, in a utopia.  It was a secular religion that inspired a highly speculative and mindless faith in a collection of untested theories in the minds of a host of otherwise highly intelligent and perfectly sane people like Gorer, who all managed to somehow convince themselves that the socialist mirage was a “science.”  As E. O. Wilson so succinctly summed it up, “Great theory, wrong species.”  And that, perhaps, is the reason that the Blank Slate was defended so fiercely for so long, in the teeth of increasingly weighty scientific evidence refuting it, not to mention common sense, until its conflict with reality became too heavy to bear, and it finally collapsed.  It was an indispensible prop for a God that failed.


    Geoffrey Gorer