Posted on April 18th, 2012 2 comments
No human being is obligated to conform to someone else’s conception of the Good. Moral rules are expression of the subjective judgments of individuals. As such, they can never acquire objective legitimacy. It follows from this that virtuous indignation and moral outrage can never be objectively justified. They exist, not as rational responses to the breaking of objectively legitimate rules, but as subjective behavioral traits that are usually irritating and occasionally dangerous to others.
Does the above imply that we should not behave morally in our day to day interactions with other human beings? Of course not! There is no other plausible way to regulate those interactions so as to minimize conflict and maximize mutual benefit. We are certainly not intelligent enough to accomplish the same thing in real time using our meager powers of reason. Imagine the tedium of a conversation in which each party had to carefully reason about the potential outcome and impact of every word he spoke. It is to the advantage of all, or at least most of us, that moral rules exist, and that their violation be punished or otherwise prevented. It is, however, reasonable to insist that those rules conform to human nature, be as simple and efficient as possible, and not be motivated by the claims of any religion, whether spiritual or secular.
Posted on April 17th, 2012 10 comments
The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, is a huge, 192 beam laser system, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It was designed, as the name implies, to achieve thermonuclear ignition in the laboratory. “Ignition” is generally accepted to mean getting a greater energy output from fusion than the laser input energy. Unlike magnetic confinement fusion, the approach currently being pursued at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, now under construction in France, the goal of the NIF is to achieve ignition via inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, in which the fuel material is compressed and heated to the extreme conditions at which fusion occurs so quickly that it is held in place by its own inertia.
The NIF has been operational for over a year now, and a two year campaign is underway with the goal of achieving ignition by the end of this fiscal year. Recently, there has been a somewhat ominous silence from the facility, manifesting itself as a lack of publications in the major journals favored by fusion scientists. That doesn’t usually happen when there is anything interesting to report. Finally, however, some papers have turned up in the journal Physics of Plasmas, containing reports of significant progress.
To grasp the importance of the papers, it is necessary to understand what is supposed to occur within the NIF target chamber for fusion to occur. Of course, just as in magnetic fusion, the goal is to bring a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen, to the extreme conditions at which fusion takes place. In the ICF approach, this hydrogen “fuel” is contained in a tiny, BB-sized target. However, the lasers are not aimed directly at the fuel “capsule.” Instead, the capsule is suspended in the middle of a tiny cylinder made of a heavy metal like gold or uranium. The lasers are fired through holes on each end of the cylinder, striking the interior walls, where their energy is converted to x-rays. It is these x-rays that must actually bring the target to fusion conditions.
It was recognized many years ago that one couldn’t achieve fusion ignition by simply heating up the target. That would require a laser driver orders of magnitude bigger than the NIF. Instead, it is first necessary to compress, or implode, the fuel material to extremely high density. Obviously, it is harder to “squeeze” hot material than cold material to the necessary high densities, so the fuel must be kept as “cold” as possible during the implosion process. However, cold fuel won’t ignite, begging the question of how to heat it up once the necessary high densities have been achieved.
It turns out that the answer is shocks. When the laser generated x-rays hit the target surface, they do so with such force that it begins to implode faster than the speed of sound. Everyone knows that when a plane breaks the sound barrier, it, too, generates a shock, which can be heard as a sonic boom. The same thing happens in ICF fusion targets. When such a shock converges at the center of the target, the result is a small “hot spot” in the center of the fuel. If the temperature in the hot spot were high enough, fusion would occur. Each fusion reaction would release a high energy helium nucleus, or alpha particle, and a neutron. The alpha particles would be slammed to a stop in the surrounding cold fuel material, heating it, in turn, to fusion conditions. This would result in a fusion “burn wave” that would propagate out through the rest of the fuel, completing the fusion process.
The problem is that one shock isn’t enough to create such a “hot spot.” Four of them are required, all precisely timed by the carefully tailored NIF laser pulse to converge at the center of the target at exactly the same time. This is where real finesse is needed in laser fusion. The implosion must be extremely symmetric, or the shocks will not converge properly. The timing must be exact, and the laser pulse must deliver just the right amount of energy.
One problem in the work to date has been an inability to achieve high enough implosion velocities for the above scenario to work as planned. One of the Physics of Plasmas papers reports that, by increasing the laser energy and replacing some of the gold originally used in the wall of the cylinder, or “hohlraum,” in which the fuel capsule is mounted with depleted uranium, velocities of 99% of those required for ignition have been achieved. In view of the recent announcement that a shot on the NIF had exceeded its design energy of 1.8 megajoules, it appears the required velocity is within reach. Another of the Physics of Plasmas papers dealt with the degree to which implosion asymmetries were causing harmful mixing of the surrounding cold fuel material into the imploded core of the target. It, too, provided grounds for optimism.
In the end, I suspect the success or failure of the NIF will depend on whether the complex sequence of four shocks can really be made to work as advertised. That will depend on the accuracy of the physics algorithms in the computer codes that have been used to model the experiments. Time and again, earlier and less sophisticated codes have been wrong because they didn’t accurately account for all the relevant physics. There is no guarantee that critical phenomena have not been left out of the current versions as well. We may soon find out, if the critical series of experiments planned to achieve ignition before the end of the fiscal year are carried out as planned.
One can but hope they will succeed, if only because some of our finest scientists have dedicated their careers to the quest to achieve the elusive goal of controlled fusion. Even if they do, fusion based on the NIF approach is unlikely to become a viable source of energy, at least in the foreseeable future. Laser fusion may prove scientifically feasible, but getting useful energy out of it will be an engineering nightmare, dangerous because of the need to rely on highly volatile and radioactive tritium, and much too expensive to compete with potential alternatives. I know many of the faithful in the scientific community will beg to differ with me, but, trust me, laser fusion energy aint’ gonna happen.
On the other hand, if ignition is achieved, the NIF will be invaluable to the country, not as a source of energy, but for the reason it was funded in the first place – to insure that our nation has an unmatched suite of experimental facilities to study the physics of nuclear weapons in a era free of nuclear testing. As long as we have unique access to facilities like the NIF, which can approach the extreme physical conditions within exploding nukes, we will have a significant leg up on the competition as long as the test ban remains in place. For that, if for no other reason, we should keep our fingers crossed that the NIF team can finally clear the last technical hurdles and reach the goal they have been working towards for so long.
Posted on April 15th, 2012 No comments
Group selection isn’t the only hornet’s nest E. O. Wilson poked a stick into in his latest book. The interstellar travel fans at the Tau Zero Foundation are bound to take exception to this:
The same cosmic myopia exists today a fortiori in the dreams of colonizing other star systems. It is an expecially dangerous delusion if we see emigration into space as a solution to be taken when we have used up this planet.
Another principle that I believe can be justified by scientific evidence so far is that nobody is going to emigrate from this planet, not ever.
In my humble opinion, Wilson is wrong about interstellar travel. I hereby predict that we will colonize planets in other star systems. Our survival depends on it, and our species has a strong inclination to survive. I suspect his opinion is motivated less by a sober assessment of the technological possibility of interstellar travel than by ideological concerns about the environment. For example,
Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have. The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principle cause, is now overwhelming.
I suspect a certain rather irascible Czech physicist may take exception to that comment. In any case, while I admit to having a personal preference that the planet not be destroyed, but I would certainly not presume to elevate such idiosyncratic whims to the level of a “moral precept.” Here, like so many other modern thinkers who should know better, Wilson is treating moral precepts as objective things. In this case, he is suggesting that not destroying the planet can be legitimized as a “good-in-itself” by virtue of everyone agreeing on it. Otherwise, his comment becomes pointless. He probably wouldn’t agree, because he writes elsewhere,
There is a principle to be learned by studying the biological origins of moral reasoning… If such greater understanding amounts to the “moral relativism so fervently despised by the doctrinally righteous, so be it.
I can certainly sympathize with Wilson’s aversion to the doctrinally righteous or, as I would call them, the pathologically pious. However, virtually in the same breath, he falls back into the same old fallacy, writing,
It is that outside the clearest ethical precepts, such as the condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide, which all will agree should be opposed everywhere without exception, there is a larger gray domain inherently difficult to navigate.
Here we have the familiar “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” justification of the legitimacy of moral precepts. Wilson’s comment begs the question of what qualitative difference exists between “clear ethical precepts,” and all the rest that lie in the gray area. If, as he asserts, the origins of moral reasoning are biological or, in a word, evolved, in what way is it at all reasonable to claim that condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide can have an objective existence as ethical precepts at all? Presumably, the thought that there even was such a thing as “genocide” never occurred to those of our forebears among whom the “biological origins of moral reasoning” evolved. Wilson’s implicit acceptance of an objective morality is evident elsewhere in the book. For example,
For scientific as well as for moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake insted of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.
On what, exactly, are we to base the legitimacy of these “moral reasons”? In what sense was the “promotion of human biological diversity” relevant to the australopithecines? Wilson has some other comments on the origin of moral precepts that are bound to make the detractors of group selection see red, such as,
An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.
At the risk of committing lèse-majesté, I must admit that I find such sweeping generalizations somewhat over the top. Turning to less controversial subjects, Wilson mentions the concept of a superorganism in several places, such as,
The queen and her offspring are often called superorganisms…
This circumstance lends credence to the view that the colony can be viewed as an individual organism or, more precisely, an individual superorganism.
In this sense, I have argued, the primitive colony is a superorganism.
It would have been nice if Wilson had mentioned the great South African, Eugene Marais, who first proposed the idea of a superorganism in the context of his studies of termites, in the course of these discussions. Readers of today will find some remarkably modern insights in books such as The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape. To say Marais was ahead of his time is an understatement.
In any case, I hope all the controversy Wilson’s latest is bound to inspire won’t have the unfortunate effect of toppling him from his exalted state as the “father of evolutionary psychology.” The field has enough unpersons as it is. Regardless, some rewriting of textbooks will likely be in order. For example, in David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology he refers to the “bulk of the theoretical tools” in Wilson’s Sociobiology as “inclusive fitness theory, parental investment theory, parent-offspring conflict theory, and reciprocal altuism theory.” Might it not, perhaps, be best, to avoid “confusing” young undergraduates, to just let Wilson’s group selection faux pas pass in silence? If not, and his head must indeed roll, I hereby nominate Charles Darwin as the new “father of evolutionary psychology.” At least he will be a safe choice.
Posted on April 12th, 2012 No comments
I often mention Robert Ardrey on this blog. It’s not because I’m a hero worshipper, although I consider him an exceptionally brilliant man. Rather, I’m disturbed by the marked tendency of scientists and academics in disciplines relevant to his work to ignore him. The reason, I think, has much to do with the fact that Ardrey was right about the central theme of all his work, which was decidedly not the “Killer Ape Theory,” that favorite hobby of his detractors. Rather, that theme was the significant impact of innate, evolved behavioral traits, or “human nature,” on human behavior. He was the most important representative of that point of view at a time when virtually the entire academic and professional community of experts in the behavioral sciences was wrong. For the most part, they promoted the “Blank Slate” orthodoxy of the day, according to which, if human nature exists at all, its effect on or behavior is insignificant. In the meantime, many of them have accepted the truth of many of the central themes of Ardrey’s work, but they have not accepted Ardrey.
Ardrey, after all, was a “mere playwright.” His sin of being right when all the self-anointed experts were wrong was an unpardonable affront to their dignity. As a result, while many of the books on innate human behavior that have been rolling off the presses lately read like Ardrey retreads, the man himself has become an unperson. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, one of the most remarkable instances of the phenomenon is Steven Pinker’s book on the Blank Slate, entitled, appropriately enough, The Blank Slate. In that book, running to more than 400 pages in my paperback copy, he somehow managed to avoid any mention of Ardrey except for a single sentence, in which he dismissed him as “totally and utterly wrong.” And the reason? Because Pinker had it on Richard Dawkins’ authority, as set forth in The Selfish Gene, that Ardrey’s comments on group selection, a topic hardly central to his work in one of his lesser known books, were inaccurate. Well, as readers of my post on E. O. Wilson’s latest book will have noticed, some very influential scientists are not quite as convinced as Dawkins that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection after all.
Pinker’s omission of Ardrey’s contribution to the demise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy may have been excusable if his role had been insignificant, but it was hardly that. In fact, Ardrey was the most significant opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday. As I have pointed out before, that is not just my opinion, but was that of the Blank Slaters themselves. Some of the most influential of them published a book entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968 and is still available used for a nominal price at Amazon. The book was a polemic directed mainly against Ardrey, with a few potshots at fellow heretic Konrad Lorenz as well. In the essay by one of the contributors, Geoffrey Gorer, a noted psychologist of the day, one finds the following:
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 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. His wide readership has been earned, at least in part, by his mastery of the writer’s crafts.
Anyone who doubts the accuracy of Gorer’s remarks need only browse the popular newspapers and magazines of the day, which often carried stories on Ardrey’s work.
Why should anyone be concerned about the suppression of Ardrey today? It seems to me that, if an entire academic and professional community could have been “totally and utterly wrong” about something as obviously bogus as the Blank Slate, at a time when a “mere playwright” dared to face them down in a series of very popular books and tell them they were wrong, it’s worthwhile knowing the reason why, whether it injures the amour-propre of latter day experts in the behavioral sciences or not. Unless we know and understand how it is that an entire community of experts could have gone so disastrously off the tracks in support of an orthodoxy that, as Ardrey and a few others were insisting, was palpably false, we are more than likely to see recurrences of the same phenomenon in the future.
I think one can begin to see the reasons in some of the essays in Man and Aggression. For example, again from Gorer,
His categories and preferences are bound to give comfort and provide ammunition for the Radical Right, for the Birchites and Empire Loyalists and their analogues elsewhere; there is, however, no evidence to show that Ardrey himself holds or advocates any such political views.
from naturalist Sally Carrighar,
Nothing could more effectively prolong man’s fighting behavior that a belief that aggression is in our genes. An unwelcome cultural inheritance can be eradicated fairly quickly and easily, but the incentive to do it is lacking while people believe that aggression is innate and instinctive with us, as both Ardrey and Lorenz declare.
and from editor Ashley Montagu,
Such ideas were not merely taken to explain, but were actually used to justify, violence and war.
Montagu, in particular, was a veritable font of disinformation. Some of his best thigh-slappers from the book include,
Mr. Ardrey needs the concept of “open instincts,” of innate factors, to support his theorizing. But that requirement constitutes the fatal flaw in his theory, the rift in the playwright’s lute, for man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.
The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrisson on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human ancestors were in any way different.
It seems to me unwise to assume that today’s scientists are so much smarter, so much more free of ideological bias, and so much more infallible than the contributors to Man and Aggression that they will ever be immune to tomorrow’s incarnation of the Blank Slate, and yet they prefer to sweep the whole affair under the rug, referring to it as “archaic science,” or ignoring it completely. It is anything but “archaic.” It is still alive in the dark recesses of many university campuses, although its breathing has become increasingly labored of late, and was still fobbed off as received wisdom in the public media as recently as 15 years ago. Instead of sweeping the Blank Slate under the rug, a new generation of scientists would do better to learn from it so they don’t repeat the same mistake again, and to insist that their students know the details to insure that they are well aware of the potential impact ideology can have in distorting scientific truth, to the point of deluding and befuddling a whole generation of “experts.” In particular, evolutionary psychology, the modern incarnation of the ideas Ardrey represented, cannot afford to suppress and distort its past. It will always need to deal with the contradiction between what we want ourselves to be and what we are.
One could cite many instances of potential conflict on the interface between science and ideology. The clash between the theory of evolution and religious dogma is a familiar example. However, the evolution of the brain is an area with the distinction of having potential conflicts with both religious and secular sacred cows. In the case of the latter, contradictions arise because of the ideologically motivated insistence that all human groups not only be treated equally and have equal standing under the law, but actually are equal, for example, in “intelligence,” or brain function. The potential such ideas might have for inhibiting free inquiry regarding the evolution of the brain were well reflected in an article that appeared in the New York Times a few years back.
The article, entitled Brain May Still Be Evolving, Studies Hint, discussed the finding by Bruce T. Lahn and his colleagues at the University of Chicago that “two genes involved in determining the size of the human brain have undergone substantial evolution in the last 60,000 years, …leading to the surprising suggestion that the brain is still undergoing rapid evolution. Here are some extracts from the article:
New versions of the genes, or alleles as geneticists call them, appear to have spread because they enhanced brain function in some way, the report suggests, and they are more common in some populations than others.
But several experts strongly criticized this aspect of the finding, saying it was far from clear that the new alleles conferred any cognitive advantage or had spread for that reason. Many genes have more than one role in the body, and the new alleles could have been favored for some other reason, these experts said, such as if they increased resistance to disease.
“I do think this kind of study is a harbinger for what might become a rather controversial issue in human population research,” Dr. Lahn said. But he said his data and other such findings “do not necessarily lead to prejudice for or against any particular population.”
A greater degree of concern was expressed by Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr. Collins said that even if the alleles were indeed under selection, it was still far from clear why they had risen to high frequency, and that “one should resist strongly the conclusion that it has to do with brain size, because the selection could be operating on any other not yet defined feature.” He said he was worried about the way these papers will be interpreted.
Commenting on critics’ suggestions that the alleles could have spread for reasons other than the effects on the brain, Dr. Lahn said he thought such objections were in part scientifically based and in part because of a reluctance to acknowledge that selection could affect a trait as controversial as brain function.
You get the gist. Any suggestion that there are differences in brain function between human groups raises immediate ideological hackles. Scientists who are ignorant of the profound impact ideology has had in the past in distorting and, in some cases, falsifying, scientific results are likely to be blindsided by their critics if their own work happens to impinge on such forbidden zones. A typical result is mystification at why their work is suddenly being subjected to hostile criticism, amounting to an apparently gross double standard that, strangely enough, doesn’t seem to apply to workers in more benign fields.
Scientists are probably more that usually vulnerable to such attacks because of their tendency to focus exclusively on some narrow specialty. I suspect the impact would be a great deal less startling if young graduate students in the behavioral sciences in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular, were required to learn at least some rudiments of the history of their field, focusing not on the achievements of star performers, but on phenomena like the Blank Slate that have stifled and misdirected scientific progress in the past, turning whole branches into something more akin to religious sects than scientific disciplines. The learning process would, of course, be facilitated if some of the most significant events and personalities in that history were no longer ignored.
Posted on April 11th, 2012 7 comments
The Grand Old Man of evolutionary psychology won’t be going out with a whimper. He just threw down the gauntlet to the “selfish gene” orthodoxy in no uncertain terms. Here are a couple of excerpts from his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth:
For almost half a century, it has been popular among serious scientists seeking a naturalistic explanation for the origin of humanity, I among them, to invoke kin selection as a key dynamical force of human evolution… Unfortunately for this perception, the foundations of the general theory of inclusive fitness based on the assumptions of kin selection have crumbled, while evidence for it has grown equivocal at best. The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed.
The selfish-gene approach may seem to be entirely reasonable. In fact, most evolutionary biologists had accepted it as a virtual dogma – at least until 2010. In that year Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that inclusive-fitness theory, often called kin selection theory, is both mathematically and biologically incorrect.
Great shades of V. C. Wynne-Edwards! Group selection has risen from the grave! Whatever flavor of selection you happen to favor, this is a fascinating story. First, Richard Dawkins “debunked” Robert Ardrey in The Selfish Gene because he had favorable things to say about group selection in The Social Contract, one of his lesser known books. For example, quoting from the first chapter of Dawkins’ book,
These are the claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).
This is the theory of “group selection,” long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards and popularized by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract.
It would seem Dawkins burnt his bridges at little too soon. Fast forward to 2002, and Steven Pinker publishes a thick tome about the Blank Slate, the prevailing orthodoxy of the mid-20th century in the behavioral sciences according to which what is referred to as “human nature” in common parlance had, at best, an insignificant effect on human behavior. In the process he manages the remarkable intellectual feat of avoiding all mention of the most significant opponent of the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey. Well, not quite all mention. He does refer to him once, and then only to dismiss him with a wave of the hand. And the reason? Why, he just took Dawkins word for it that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection, even though group selection was hardly the main theme of his work. Those of you too young to have heard of Ardrey don’t need to take my word for it regarding his significance to the Blank Slate controversy. It’s all nicely documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in an invaluable little work entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968. The last time I looked, you could still pick up a used copy at Amazon for less than a buck. For example, quoting Geoffrey Gorer, one of the contributors and a famous psychologist at the time,
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.
The entire book is a polemic directed mainly at Ardrey. Unfortunately, Ardrey subsequently became an unperson for being right about the actual theme of all his work, the important role of innate human behavioral traits, at a time when virtually the entire community of academic and professional “experts” in anthropology, sociology and psychology had been wrong. He had “risen above his station,” because, you see, he was a mere playwright.
Ardrey had committed the unforgivable sin of insulting the gravitas of the academic community. It was, therefore, necessary to drop him and his works, as Orwell might have put it, down the memory hole. A new, properly credentialed hero was required to serve as the dragon slayer of the Blank Slate. The choice by acclamation was none other than E. O. Wilson! And now, Wilson has come full circle, throwing down the gauntlet to the entire expert community in his turn, over group selection, no less, the sham reason that served as the main pretext for “debunking” Ardrey! It’s delicious! This has to be one of the best practical jokes history has ever played on the self-anointed experts of science.
Posted on April 9th, 2012 No comments
Sex and War by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden is the icon of a paradigm shift. Perhaps better than any other recent work, it marks academia’s final abandonment of the Blank Slate, final tossing away of ideological blinders, final acceptance of the abundantly obvious fact that we are predisposed to act in some ways but not in others by our genes, acceptance of the equally obvious fact that these predispositions are not all rosy and benign, but have been a major contributing factor to our species’ long history of warfare and violence, and recognition, at long last, that there are such things and ingroups and outgroups, and our behavior towards individuals is profoundly different, depending on whether they appear to us to belong to the one or the other. In the author’s words,
We suggest that the predisposition to form aggressive coalitions is so deep-seated within us that all humanity is compelled to live by two profoundly contradictory moral systems. We have the morals of the troop, expressed by “Thou shalt not kill,” and the morals of the aggressive male coalition, also explicitly spelled out in the Old Testament, “And when the Lord they God has delivered (a city) into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword… Whether we want to or not, we all distinguish between our ingroup and various outgroups.
This pretentious “suggestion,” of course, amounts to nothing more than a belated acceptance by the authors that writers who said the same thing decades ago were right after all. For example, from Sir Arthur Keith, writing in the 1930′s,
Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.
Somewhat later, Robert Ardrey wrote about the same behavioral traits a great deal more clearly, in a much pleasanter style, and with a much better grasp of their implications for the future of our species. He referred to them as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and devoted a chapter with that title to the subject in The Territorial Imperative. Of course, Ardrey was a mere playwright who, lacking the academic gravitas of such worthies as Potts and Hayden, “rose above his station” in insisting on such a palpably obvious aspect of our nature at a time when the orthodox in anthropology were still bedazzled by the Blank Slate. As readers of this blog are aware, his reward for such pretentiousness has been the gross distortion of his legacy and consignment to oblivion. And as for Keith, comically enough, the authors actually do mention him, but in a context that has nothing to do with his writings on ingroup/outgroup behavior. Apparently they were loath to be upstaged. But I digress.
Actually, one should cheer on reading a book like this. It represents the victory of an obvious truth over the quasi-religious dogmas posing as “science” that prevailed for decades in the behavioral sciences, according to which human nature was either nonexistent or insignificant. Alas, I could only sigh. It’s a bittersweet book for anyone who’s actually been paying attention to what’s been happening in the field now referred to as evolutionary psychology for the last 50 years. Fifteen years ago, Potts and Hayden would have been almost universally vilified as fascists and demons of the right for publishing such a book, just as Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz and E.O. Wilson were in their day. Now, instead of chanting “four legs good, two legs bad,” the academic sheep are chanting “four legs good, two legs better,” just like in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Ironically, Potts and Hayden belong to the very milieu of the academic left that would have been foremost in hurling down righteous anathemas on their heads 15 years ago. Apparently all unawares, they still live in the ideological box of that most obscurantist and dogmatic of ingroups. It’s delicious, really. They give a perfect description their own ingroup in the book without even realizing it.
Allow me to illustrate with a few quotations from the book. Of course, every good ingroup must have its outgroup or, in the vernacular, bad guys. For Potts and Hayden, these are the usual stock villains of the academic left; conservative Republicans, Israel, evangelical Christians, evil white people against pure and innocent Indians, etc. For example,
On May 26, 1637, during the war with the Pequot Indians in New England Connecticut Colony, a Puritan army commanded by John Mason surrounded a small wooden fort in which “six or seven hundred” Pequot Indians were sheltering. Mason ordered the wooden palisade surrounding the fort set on fire. Only seven Indians escaped alive.
This bit of “history,” in all likelihood unbeknownst to Professors Potts and Hayden, is such a vicious and outrageous lie that it’s worth addressing it at length. From a work entitled “History of the Indian Wars,” published in 1846 by Henry Trumble, who was anything but an inveterate hater of Indians, we read,
In June, 1634, they (the Pequots) treacherously murdered Capt. Stone and Capt. Norton, who had been long in the habit of visiting them occasionally to trade. In August, 1635, they inhumanly murdered a Mr. Weeks and his whole family, consisting of a wife and six children, and soon after murdered the wife and children of a Mr. Williams, residing near Hartford.
In spite of many such outrages, the colonists signed a treaty of peace with the Pequots. Trumbull continues,
Soon after the conclusion of peace with the Pequots, the English, to put their fair promises to the test, sent a small boat into the river, on the borders of which they resided, with the pretence of trade; but so great was the treachery of the natives, that, after succeeding by fair promises in enticing the crew of the boat on shore, they were inhumanly murdered… A few families were at this time settled at or near Weathersfield, Ct. the whole of whom were carried away captives. Two girls, daughters of Mr. Gibbons of Hartford, were in the most brutal manner put to death. After gashing their flesh with their knives, the Indians filled their wounds with hot embers, in the mean time mimicking their dying groans.
The colonists had no illusion about their fate if they were defeated by the Pequots. As it was they could hardly hunt or cultivate their fields and were in danger of starvation. If they suffered a serious defeat they and their families would likely be butchered. The “army” Potts and Hayden referred to consisted of less than 100 men, the entire effective fighting force of the Connecticut colony. It was accompanied by several hundred Indian allies who, at the moment of crisis, stayed in the rear and watched as noncombatants. It did not surround the Pequot palisade and coolly set it on fire, an act that would have been impossible with such a tiny band facing an effective force of several hundred Indian warriors inside. Here is how Trumbull describes the action:
When within a few rods of (the palisade), Capt. Mason sent for Uncas and Wequash (leaders of the Indian allies), desiring them in their Indian manner to harangue and prepare their men for combat. They replied, that their men were much afraid, and could not be prevailed on to advance any farther. “Go then,” said Capt. Mason, “and request them not to retire, but to surround the fort at any distance they please, and see what courage Englishmen can display!” They day was now dawning, and no time was to be lost. The fort was soon in view. The soldiers pressed forward, animated by the reflection that it was not for themselves alone that they were to fight, but for their parents, wives, children, and countrymen! As they approached the fort within a short distance, they were discovered by a Pequot sentinel, who roared out, Owanux! Owanux! (Englishmen, Englishmen.) The troops pressed on, and as the Indians were rallying, poured in upon them the contents of their muskets, and instantly hastened to the principal entrance to the fort, rushed in, sword in hand. An important moment, this; for, notwithstanding the blaze and thunder of the fire-arms, the Pequots made a powerful resistance. Sheltered by their wigwams, and rallied by their sachems and squaws, they defended themselves, and, in some instances, attacked the English with a resolution that would have done honor to the Romans. After a bloody and desperate conflict of near two hours, in which hundreds of the Indians were slain, and many of the English killed and wounded, victory still hung in suspense. In this critical state of the action, Capt. Mason had recourse to a successful expedient. Rushing into a wigwam within the fort, he seized a brand of fire, and in the mean time crying out to his men, “We must burn them!” communicated it to the mats with which the wigwams were covered, by which means the whole fort was soon wrapt in flames. As the fire increased, the English retired and formed a circle around the fort. The Mohegans and Narragansets, who remained idle spectators to the bloody carnage, mustered courage sufficient to form another circle in the rear of them. The enemy were now in a deplorable situation. Death inevitably was their portion. Sallying forth from their burning cells, they were shot or cut in pieces by the English; many, perceiving it impossible to escape the vigilance of the troops, threw themselves into the flames.
So much for Potts’ and Hayden’s tall tale about the “army” that coolly burned the inoffensive Indians in cold blood. The little band of 90 men knew that if they failed on that day, nothing would protect their wives and children from the Pequots who had demonstrated their ruthlessness on many previous occasions. If the authors or anyone else know of any source material disputing Trumbull’s account, I hereby challenge them to bring it forward.
Forgive me for going on at such length, but I get really tired of the “noble savage” schtick. Moving right along to Israel and the Republicans, we find them, too, consigned to the outer darkness reserved for outgroups, far from the enlightened halls of the wise, the good, and the just inhabited by the author’s academic ingroup:
We cannot remind ourselves too often of the ubiquitous nature of our Stone Age behaviors. On the same day in 2006, President Bush announced he would veto a Senate Bill loosening restrictions on stem cell research and permit the export of bombs to Israel to use it its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, where collateral killing of civilians was certain. When I was a laboratory researcher, I needed a powerful microscope to even see a bunch of stem cells, and personally I would have been much less troubled by flushing stems cells down the sink than dropping a bomb on a house full of women and children. Yet our ingrained ability to dehumanize others is so strong, and our ability to “justify” war so facile, that intelligent and well-intentioned people spend more time worrying about embryos than children or adults – provided of course that those children and adults live somewhere else and are not part of out ingroup.
And so the good professors self-identify their own ingroup. I need hardly mention there’s another side to this story. Anyone worthy of the name of “scientist” should have been aware of the fact and mentioned it, whether they personally agree with it or not. Instead, Potts and Hayden are content to merely condemn their Republican and Israeli outgroups for “Stone Age behavior.” Here’s another example of “Stone Age behavior” that, coincidentally enough, once again relates to two other iconic “bad guys” of the ideological left, evangelical Christians and the military:
Michael Drosnin, who wrote The Bible Code, implying extraterrestrial forces embedded a secret code in the Bible only modern computers can unravel, was invited to brief “top military intelligence officials” in the Pentagon following 9/11. Whatever the original evolutionary benefit of blind faith in such patently ridiculous explanations of the world may have been, its application to modern international relations is clearly and wildly maladaptive.
This version of the Drosnin affair is more or less an urban myth, but it fits the narrative, so Potts and Hayden simply swallowed it, apparently without even bothering to do a little fact checking on Google. Apparently they found their version in the New York Times, which should have been an obvious tipoff as to its ideological provenance, but no doubt the Grey Lady is the soul of objectivity as far as the authors are concerned. The evangelical Christian outgroup comes in for a good deal more abuse, counter-intuitively, it would seem, as Muslims have been responsible for most of the deliberate religiously motivated mayhem against civilians. Remember, though, that we are in the realm of ideological narrative, not facts. For example, referring to the latest Gulf war,
Blair did not wear religion on his sleeve while in office, but Bush paraded his faith enthusiastically. His religious outlook resonated with many American fundamentalist Christians, whose contrived interpretations of the rambling Book of Revelation have sinister implications for war and violence. In one strain, a belief has emerged that the Temple of Solomon has to be rebuilt in Jerusalem in order for the Second Coming to take place – and that “keeping” Jerusalem Jewish is a necessary step on the way. Beyond being poor theology, this interpretation encourages foolish military action in order to hasten the coming of the end times, but still finds a receptive audience in the United States.
It struck me that this yarn about the sinister Christians lurking behind every bush in the United States had an unmistakable British ring to it, and, sure enough, Potts originally came from merry old England. If you’re interested in “comparative religion,” read Sex and War alongside Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, which is larded with lots of similar horror stories about the “American Taliban.” I think you’ll find the tone of the two books remarkably similar. As an American atheist, it seems to me our cousins from the old country have a marked tendency to lay it on a bit too thick when it comes to American Christian fundamentalism.
In short, what we have here is a chimera, a couple of professors who come from the same milieu from which the fiercest Blank Slaters used to emanate writing about ingroups and outgroups as if they were devoted disciples of Robert Ardrey, all ensconced in a thick, hoary crust of ante-deluvian leftist ideological shibboleths. One of the more interesting aspects of the book has to do with the relevance of its theme to moral behavior. Intellectually, the authors know, or at least pay lip service to the fact that there is no such thing as an objective, transcendental morality. For example,
Most people, however, still think of moral sentiments and religious convictions as transcendental things that come from outside of us, either reflecting some eternal truth, emanating from a supernatural power, or as instructions from a God who created us and who will reward or punish us according to how we restrain aggression or enhance empathy. History shows that this understanding of morality has not worked terribly well as a means to ending war. Our survival as a species will not depend on divine intervention but on understanding our Stone Age behaviors. Once we do that, controlling them should become an achievable goal.
And yet they simply cannot dispense with the cherished belief of all people who share the ideological box they dwell in that they represent the good, the true and the just, as opposed to members of the outgroups cited above who are slaves of the basest human behavioral predispositions. Of course, they cannot have a monopoly on truth and justice unless these things have an objective, transcendental existence of their own, so we have what Marx might have called a “contradiction.” As a result, a certain amount of doublethink is necessary. For example,
Before we look more closely at how we can rein in our warring impulses, we have first to understand the nature of what it is we are confronting. In English, we have one simple word that expresses it perfectly: evil.
In what sense does the term “evil” have any meaning if it has no objective existence? In fact the authors make it quite clear that, in their heart of hearts, they perceive morality as an objective thing-in-itself. It is not a product of evolution, but an entity having an independent existence of its own, often in conflict with evolution. For example,
…evolution is not only remorselessly amoral: it is also not nearly as efficient as we might like in pruning branches that come to bear toxic, destructive fruit.
Evolution doesn’t make morality obsolete, any more than being hungry excuses a violent mugging.
Remember that evolution cares not a whit for morality, it has provided human males at the bottom of the social pile ample reason to risk everything, including violent death, rather than live a passive, sexless life without passing on their genes.
Such statements are complete gibberish, absent morality as a thing-in-itself. Evolution may not “care” about morality, but morality does not have any existence whatsoever other than as a subjective subset of the human behavioral repertoire which is itself a product of evolution. It has no independent existence other than as an evolved behavioral trait. When you say that evolution does not make morality obsolete, my dear professors, pray tell me what morality you are talking about. Well, we can excuse this particular instance of doublethink. After all, without virtuous indignation and a smug feeling of moral superiority, life would hold little joy for the average ideologue of the left. Apparently the realization that they had just sawed off the limb that they and their moral superiority were sitting on was a bit much for Professors Potts and Hayden to bear.
In any case, the two find grounds for optimism. As they inform us,
Now we are finding ways to extend ingroup morality beyond national boundaries to embrace all humanity.
How, exactly, they plan to do that after roundly denouncing that vast bloc of humanity unfortunate enough to have landed in one of the familiar outgroups of the left is beyond me. Do they plan to invite them all to the University of California at Berkeley for a seminar on anger management? Perhaps they will be good enough to let us know in their next book.
No matter. We, too, can be optimistic, dear reader, for while Sex and War may be a tedious ideological tract, it is also one more data point confirming that we have finally landed safely on the far side of a paradigm shift. It and many other works of its kind emanating from the hoariest and most obscurantist caverns of academia serve as announcements that, yes, the Blank Slate really is stone, cold dead. We have finally gained acknowledgement that such a thing as human nature really does exist, and that is no small thing.
Posted on April 7th, 2012 No comments
The memoirs of N. N. Sukhanov are probably the best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, or, more accurately, revolutions. The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 (old style) was preceded by the revolution that actually overthrew the czarist regime in February of that year. Sukhanov not only lived through and described it all, but, as a member of the Executive Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet, he played a significant role in the unfolding events. He had a knack for turning up at key moments, such as the arrival of Lenin after his ride through Germany on the famous “sealed train,” the debut of Trotsky as a speaker before the Soviet, and in the Smolny headquarters of the Bolsheviks on the very day they launched their revolution. He was well known to Lenin and Trotsky, on friendly terms with such other Bolshevik luminaries as Kamenev and Lunacharsky, and occasionally slept at the home of Kerensky. More importantly as far as the subject of this post is concerned, he was a convinced left wing socialist of the type Eric Hoffer described in “The True Believer,” a religious zealot of the greatest secular religion the world has ever known.
In describing his own actions and thoughts during all these dramatic events, Sukhanov gives us an excellent close-up of the type. Like most convinced Marxists, he suffered from the delusion that the religious dogmas he devoted so much of his time to studying and pondering were really a “science.” By virtue of the “truth” this “science” revealed to him, he had become cocksure that he was superior to those who didn’t share his faith, possessed of an all-encompassing knowledge that was hidden from them. The unbelievers became, in his eyes, at best, ignorant ”philistines” and, at worst, willing minions of that great outgroup of the Marxists, the bourgeoisie. A revealing instance of this attitude is his description of the conversation of two female co-workers in the czarist Ministry of Agriculture, where he held a job in spite of his illegal status (he had been banished from the city for revolutionary activities) in the days immediately preceding the February revolution:
I was sitting in my office in the Turkestan section. Behind a partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse. “D’you know,” suddenly declared one of these young ladies, “if you ask me, it’s the beginning of the revolution!”
…in those days, sitting over my irrigations systems and aqueducts, over my articles and pamphlets, my Letopis (a periodical edited by Maxim Gorky, ed.) manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed. These philistine girls whose tongues and typewriters were rattling away behind the partition didn’t know what a revolution was.
As far as Sukhanov was concerned, the Russia of his day was inhabited mainly by such philistines, people who, by virtue of their ignorance of the true faith, were merely an inert mass, incapable of playing an active role in the revolutionary upheavals to come. Among them were the great “grey masses” of the soldiery, suspect because of their peasant origins, and relegated to the “petty bourgeoisie,” that great Marxist catchall for “others” who didn’t happen to actually possess any of the “social means of production.”
The great exception was, of course, the proletariat. As a true believer in the Marxist religion, Sukhanov ascribed all kinds of wonderful and fantastic qualities to the demigods of that religion, the workers. They appeared to him as the beloved to her lover, paragons of every good quality. For example, in describing the scene at a meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets on the eave of the October Revolution he wrote,
It was not until 11 o’clock that bells began to ring for the meeting. The hall was already full, still with the same grey mob from the heart of the country. An enormous difference leaped to the eye: the Petersburg Soviet, that is, its Workers’ Section in particular, which consisted of average Petersburg proletarians in comparison with the masses of the Second Congress looked like the Roman Senate that the ancient Carthaginians took for an assembly of gods.
This deification of the proletariat was a reflection of the socialist true believer’s inability to see the rest of humanity as other than Marxist classes. All motives, all political goals, all human aspirations, must necessarily be forced into the Procrustean bed of some class interest. Thus, workers who opposed the Bolsheviks were transmogrified into “petty bourgeoisie,” and noblemen from wealthy families like Lenin were magically transformed into the vanguard of the working masses. So it was that Hitler’s Nazi regime and fascism in general were simply hand-waved away as “the final stage of capitalism.” Understanding human nature and the non-economic motivations it might inspire was never Communism’s strong suit. In fact, the ideology required denial of the very existence of human nature. Creatures with hard-wired behavioral predispositions could not be quickly “re-educated” to become the New Soviet Men and Women ideally suited for the worker’s paradise that was being prepared for them. In the end, of course, human nature had the last word. As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”
Sukhanov suffered from another delusion common to the socialist faithful – the notion that mass organizations were spontaneous emanations of the masses themselves, called forth by historical developments. This particular fantasy was probably the most devastating of all the delusions engendered by Marxist ideology. It paralyzed any resistance to the Bolshevik coup d’etat from intelligent people who should have known better. On the contrary, many of them fought resistance by others, reasoning that, even if they didn’t agree with the Bolsheviks themselves, the party was an authentic manifestation of the popular will, instead of a tiny minority that happened to be highly effective at manipulating the popular will. Thus, to become the vanguard of the ”expression of the popular will,” it was only necessary for the Bolsheviks, far superior to any potential opponent in the field in their grasp of mass psychology, to ply a highly volatile population with propaganda slogans that pandered to the mood of the moment, regardless of whether they knew them to be false themselves or not. They did so with a virtuosity that has seldom been equalled, their task facilitated by Kerensky’s ineffectual provisional government. As Sukhanov put it, “Agitation and the influence of ideas were an incomparably more reliable prop of Smolny (e.g., the Bolsheviks) than military operations.” In the end, far from being the source of a revolutionary upheaval that they had been during the February revolution, the masses became mere willing tools for the tiny minority who actually did make the revolution. Meanwhile, the more “advanced” socialists of other parties stood idly by, convinced that the Bolshevik coup was “theoretically” wrong, but represented the will of the masses, nevertheless.
So it was that Sukhanov, even though he opposed what the Bolsheviks were doing, not only failed to act against them himself, but denounced those who did try to act as “counter-revolutionaries.” His mind muddled by the dogmas of a new religion he took for “science,” he was incapable of perceiving the Bolsheviks as anything but the true representatives of the “democracy!” He suffered from this delusion to the point that he seriously believed his party could have formed a “united front” with this “democracy,” and even considered his failure to do so his “greatest crime.” After the Mensheviks and other left socialists, led by the left Menshevik Julius Martov, had decided to walk out of the Second Congress of Soviets which the Bolsheviks controlled and used as the legal facade for their coup, thus abandoning the “democracy,” he wrote,
So the thing was done. We had left, not knowing where or why, after breaking with the Soviet, getting ourselves mixed up with counter-revolutionary elements, discrediting and debasing ourselves in the eyes of the masses, and ruining the entire future of our organization and our principles. And that was the least of it: in leaving we completely untied the Bolsheviks’ hands, making them masters of the entire situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the revolution.
A struggle at the Congress for a united democratic front might have had some success. For the Bolsheviks as such, for Lenin and Trotsky, it was more odious than the possible Committees of Public Safety or another Kornilov march on Petersburg. The exit of the “pure in heart” freed the Bolsheviks from this danger. By quitting the Congress and leaving the Bolsheviks with only the Left SR (Socialist Revolutionary) youngsters and the feeble little Novaya Zhizn (paper edited by Gorky, ed.) group, we gave the Bolsheviks with our own hands a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution. By our own irrational decision we ensured the victory of Lenin’s whole “line.”
I personally committed not a few blunders and errors in the revolution. But I consider my greatest and most indelible crime the fact that I failed to break with the Martov group immediately after our fraction voted to leave, and didn’t stay on at the Congress. To this day I have not ceased regretting this October 25th crime of mine.
All this, of course, was a complete chimera. Once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power, they had not the least intention of sharing it with anyone. The idea that walking out on the Bolshevik “democracy” had “freed their hands” was the purest fantasy.
The socialist religion was the great hope of the 19th century, and the great disaster of the 20th. In the end it demonstrated once again, as the spiritual religions that preceded it had done many times before, that belief in things that are false can lead to very unpleasant results including, as we have seen only too frequently of late, self-destruction in the hope of an illusory paradise to come. So it was with Sukhanov and the other Bolshevik fellow travelers as well. Sukhanov was lucky. He was merely arrested and disappeared into the Gulag, where he apparently survived longer than most. In general, Stalin was in the habit of shooting these “intellectuals” who had done so much to facilitate his rise to power.