Posted on May 26th, 2012 5 comments
The history of the behavioral sciences in the 20th century cannot be other than an embarrassment to the current practitioners in the field. Truth was sacrificed to the ideologically motivated dogma now referred to as the Blank Slate. This dogma, according to which the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior is insignificant, crippled the advance of scientific understanding in fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology for many years. Eventually, the dogma collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity. Perhaps because of the innate human nature that they once pretended didn’t exist, today’s crop of experts has lacked the courage to admit how wrong they were for so long. To admit the truth – that they had been completely wrong about something absolutely fundamental to even a rudimentary understanding of human behavior – would be to sacrifice their academic and professional gravitas. It would be the equivalent of saying, “Yes, we were complete ninnies for the better part of a century even as we bamboozled the general public into believing we knew what we were talking about, but, trust us, now we’ve got it right.”
As a result, it was necessary to give history a makeover. A new version of the past was created that glossed over the true scale and significance of the debacle. The Blank Slate was described as “archaic” science, as if it had happened in the days of Galileo instead of a few short years ago. New heroes were created as the knights in shining armor who had defeated the Blank Slate dragon, chosen from the ranks of the experts themselves, and suitable to their sense of amour propre. Their noble deeds supposedly all began with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975. This reinvented version of the past has certainly helped propped up the academic gravitas of today’s crop of experts. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in some collateral damage. Among other things, it ignores the contributions of those who actually did play the most significant role in the overthrow of the Blank Slate.
There were not a few of them who debunked the Blank Slate long before the appearance of Sociobiology. One of the more interesting examples was the Austrian ethologist, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. There’s actually an interesting association between him and Robert Ardrey. It happens that Ardrey, and not E. O. Wilson, actually was the most significant and effective opponent of the Blank Slaters. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Steven Pinker managed to write a whole book entitled The Blank Slate, now accepted as the standard “text” on the subject, that ignored the role of Ardrey and that of Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, in spite of the fact that these two were recognized by the Blank Slaters themselves as their two most influential and effective opponents. Anyone doubting the fact need only consult the invaluable little historical document Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu. No matter, the two just didn’t fit in the new “standard version” of history. Pinker dismissed them with a bare couple of lines, declaring that they had been “totally and utterly wrong.”
As it happens, his “authority” for this assertion, remarkable as it is in view of the fact that the two had been the most effective opponents of a dogma that really was “totally and utterly wrong,” was none other than Richard Dawkins, who asserted as much in The Selfish Gene. His reason for this rather sweeping assertion was their supposed support of the theory of group selection. What’s interesting about all this as far as Eibl-Eibesfeldt is concerned is that Dawkins lumped him and Konrad Lorenz together with Ardrey in the same denunciation. Referring to group selection in The Selfish Gene, he wrote,
These are 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).
For the record, here’s the bit in Pinker’s The Blank Slate that relies on Dawkins’ “authority” to dismiss the work of Ardrey and Lorenz:
Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)
Basta! So much for Ardrey and Lorenz! To the best of my knowledge, Ardrey never even mention the “hydraulic” theory, and Lorenz only brought it up in one of his later papers. It was of virtually no significance to his overall contribution to the behavioral sciences. Dismissing Ardrey and Lorenz because of group selection is like dismissing Einstein because of his remarks on quantum theory. It completely misses the actual theme of their work, which was their insistence on the significance of innate behavioral traits. The same is true of Eibl-Eibesfeldt. He wrote a great deal about group behavior in Love and Hate, but there is little if any basis in the book for the claim that he thought these traits existed as a result of group selection. If anyone can find a passage to justify such a claim, I would be glad to know about it.
In fact, group selection theory was no more an essential to the work of Eibl-Eibesfeld than it was to that of Lorenz or Ardrey. Its only real significance as far as they are concerned has been to serve as a red herring to justify relegating their work to the dustbin. The main theme in the work of all three was their insistence that innate predispositions have a significant influence on human behavior. Books are currently rolling off the presses in a continuous stream confirming that theme. In a sane world, the three would be lionized as heroes who stood up against a popular lie in the teeth of a vicious campaign of vilification by the ideologues who promoted that lie. This is not a sane world. No matter how great their real significance, those who published before 1975 had “jumped the gun” as far as the new official history is concerned. It was necessary to drop them down the memory hole.
Eibl-Eibesfeldt jumped the gun. His Love and Hate, which was probably his most effective critique of the Blank Slate, appeared in 1970. He wrote the book in part to complement Lorenz’ On Aggression, debunking the notion that Lorenz’s book promoted genetic determinism, e.g., the idea that human behavior is genetically predetermined, and is little influenced by culture or environment. Indeed, while their opposites, the Blank Slaters, who insisted that human behavior was, for all practical purposes, completely malleable, and influenced little if at all by human nature, certainly existed in great numbers, I doubt that there has ever really been such a thing as a genetic determinist, or at least none with any pretense of scientific respectability. Eibl-Eibesfeldt himself apparently thought Ardrey was one, writing, for example,
“Cain rules the world. If anyone doubts it let him read the history of the world.” wrote Leopold Szondi in 1969. In his view a murderous inclination is inherent in all men and he speaks of a “Cain-tendency,” a drive factor with which we are born. Robert Ardrey has sketched a similar portrait of mankind.
One can but surmise that he swallowed the disinformation thrown out by Ardrey’s enemies, and, like many of his other critics, never bothered to actually read his work. If he had, he would have found that nothing was further from the truth. In fact, Ardrey constantly insisted on the influence of both innate predisposition and culture on human behavior. The whole point of his work was that there is no such thing as an irresistible “Cain-tendency.” On the contrary, as he constantly reiterated in every one of his books, he believed that the human predispositions that have contributed to our long history of aggression and violence can be controlled and, perhaps, redirected towards positive ends, but only if we understand them. At the time that his books appeared, the main threat to acquiring that understanding was the ideology of the Blank Slate. Eibl-Eibesfeldt was well aware of the quasi-religious nature of that ideology. For example, from Love and Hate,
Marxists base all their efforts on the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature, in the sense of innate dispositions, and that man is shaped by his social environment alone. Now there is no doubt that the social environment shapes man to a significant extent – it is in man’s malleability that our hope lies – but innate dispositions are equally demonstrable. If only these can be taken into consideration then society might be spared a number of fruitless experiments.
In other words, like Ardrey, Eibl-Eibesfeldt did not agree that the best way to solve our problems was to collectively bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the behavioral traits that give rise to them don’t exist. Elaborating on this theme, he wrote,
Our biological investigation of human behavior has first of all shown that the aggressive drive that is innate in us has its own natural antidotes… Just as medicine developed successfully as an empirical science, so we shall be able to evolve ways to cure the crises of society only from a biological understanding of human behavior… Good or evil? This disposition toward intolerance and aggression is certainly innate in us, but we carry no mark of Cain upon our brows. The thesis of man’s killer nature cannot seriously be upheld; on the contrary investigation shows that by nature we are also extremely friendly beings.
Many interesting examples of cross-cultural commonalities in human behavior, many of them derived from the author’s own extensive work in the field, are cited in Love and Hate. They remind one of the similar examples cited in an earlier work by another famous author. That author was Charles Darwin, and the book in question was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The importance of innate behavioral traits in human beings and their relevance to morality were no secret to Darwin, as anyone who reads his book can see. Unfortunately, few people have read it, or, for that matter, even heard of it. Given the troubled history of the field, that should come as no surprise.
Posted on May 8th, 2012 1 comment
Theodosius Dobzhansky was in important early proponent of what is now generally referred to as evolutionary psychology. Although his last book appeared as recently as 1983, he is generally forgotten today, at least in the fanciful and largely imaginery “histories” of the field that appear in college textbooks. Unfortunately, he was indelicate enough to jump the gun, joining contemporaries like Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz in writing down the essential ideas of evolutionary psychology, particularly as applied to humans, long before the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.
That event was subsequently arbitrarily anointed by the gatekeepers of the chronicles of the science as the official “beginning” of evolutionary psychology. In fact, the reason Sociobiology gained such wide notoriety was Wilson’s insistence that what is commonly referred to as human nature actually does exist. As I have noted elsewhere, neither that claim nor the controversy surrounding it began with Wilson. Far from it. The “Blank Slate” opponents of Wilson’s ideas had long recognized Robert Ardrey as their most significant and effective opponent, with Konrad Lorenz a close second. Dobzhansky’s Mankind Evolving also presented similar hypotheses, well-documented with copious experimental evidence which, if textbooks such as David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology are to be believed, didn’t exist at the time. Anyone who reads Mankind Evolving, published in 1962, a year after Ardrey’s African Genesis, will quickly realize from the many counter-examples noted in the book that Buss’ claim that the early ethologists and their collaborators, “…did not develop rigorous criteria for discovering adaptations,” is a myth. Alas, Dobzhansky was premature. He wrote too early to fit neatly into the “history” of evolutionary psychology concocted later.
It’s unfortunate that Dobzhansky has been swept under the rug with the rest, because he had some interesting ideas that don’t appear in many other works. He also wrote from the point of view of a geneticist, which enabled him to explain the mechanics of evolution with unusual clarity.
Latter day critics of evolutionary psychology commonly claim that it minimizes the significance of culture. Not only is that not true today, but it has never been true. Thinkers like Ardrey, Lorenz and Eibes-Eiblfeldt never denied the importance of culture. They merely insisted that the extreme cultural determinism of the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in their day was wrong, and that innate, evolved traits also had a significant effect on human behavior. Dobzhansky was very explicit about it, citing numerous instances in which culture and learning played a dominant role, and others more reliant on innate predispositions. As he put it,
In principle any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.
He went so far as to propose a theory of superorganisms:
In producing the genetic basis for culture, biological evolution has transcended itself – it has produced the superorganic.
…and constantly stressed the interdependence of innate predispositions and culture. For example,
Why do so many people insist that biological and cultural evolution are absolutely independent? I suggest that this is due in large part to a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of heredity… Biological heredity, which is the basis of biological evolution, doesn not transmit cultural, or for that matter physical, traits ready-made; what it does is determine the response of the developing organism to the environment in which the development takes place.
The dichotomy of hereditary and environmental traits is untenable: in principle, any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.
In higher animals and most of all in man instinctual behavior is intertwined with, overlaid by, and serves merely as a backdrop to learned behavior. Yet it would be rash to treat this backdrop as unimportant.
…the old fashioned nature-nurture debates were meaningless. The dichotomy of environment vs. genetic traits is invalid; what we really want to know are the relative magnitudes of the genetic and environmental components in the variance observed in a given trait, a certain population, at a particular time.
It has a surprisingly modern ring to it for something written in 1962, doesn’t it? Dobzhansky was as well aware as Ardrey of the reasons for the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in the behavioral sciences when he wrote Mankind Evolving, and that is now being so assiduously ignored, as if the ideological derailment and insistence on doctrines so bogus they could have been immediately recognized as such by a child over a period of decades in such “sciences” as anthropology, sociology and psychology, was a matter of no concern. Citing Ashley Montagu, editor of that invaluable little document of the times, Mankind and Aggression, as a modern proponent of such ideas, he writes,
Some philosophes who were perhaps bothered by questions of this sort (whether human nature was really good or not) concluded that human nature is, to begin with, actually a void, an untenanted territory. The “tabula rasa” theory was apparently first stated clearly by John Locke (1632-1704). The mind of a newborn infant is, Locke thought, a blank page.
Patore (1949) compared the sociopolitical views of twenty-four psychologists, biologists, and sociologists with their opinions concerning the nature-nurture problem. Among the twelve classified as “liberals or radicals,” eleven were environmentalists and one an hereditarian; among the twelve “conservatives,” eleven were hereditarians and one an environmentalist. This is disconcerting! If the solution of a scientific problem can be twisted to fit one’s biases and predilections, the field of science concerned must be in a most unsatisfactory state.
That is certainly the greatest understatement in Dobzhansky’s book. In fact, for a period of decades in the United States, major branches of the behavioral sciences functioned, not as sciences, but as ideological faiths posing as such. The modern tendency to sweep that inconvenient truth under the rug is dangerous in the extreme. It is based on the apparent assumption that such a thing can never happen again. It not only will happen again, but is happening even as I write this. It will happen a great deal more frequently as long as we continue to refuse to learn from our mistakes.
Posted on May 7th, 2012 No comments
Jakob Augstein is the quintessential European version of what would be referred to in the US as a latte Liberal. Heir to what one surmises was a significant fortune from his adopted father, the Amerika-hating founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, he nevertheless imagines himself the champion of the poor and downtrodden. His writing is certainly not original, but he is at least a good specimen of the type for anyone interested in European ideological trends. His reaction to the recent election in France is a good example.
As those who occasionally read a European headline are aware, that election resulted in the victory of socialist Francois Hollande over his austerity-promoting opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy. While certainly noteworthy, such transitions are hardly unprecedented. No matter, the ideological good guys won as far as Augstein is concerned. He greets Hollande’s seemingly unremarkable victory with peals of the Marseillaise and Liberty leading the people:
It is not just a piece of political folklore that France is the land of the revolution. No other European country has such a lively tradition of protest. La lutte permanente, the constant struggle, is part and parcel of the French civilization. In France, the centralized state historically formed an alliance with the people against feudalism. Now the time has come for that to happen again. The fact that the French picked this particular time to vote a socialist into the Elysee Palace is no coincidence. A revolutionary signal will now go forth from France to all of Europe. The new feudal lords who must be resisted are the banks.
Great shades of 1789! Break out Madame Guillotine. What can account for such an outburst of revolutionary zeal in response to what is ostensibly just another garden variety shift from the right to the left in European politics? It is, of course, “austerity,” the course of belt-tightening prescribed by Sarkozy and his pal, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Greece and some of the other more profligate spendthrifts in the European Union. Has austerity worked? Augstein’s answer is an unqualified “No.”
…Can one overcome a recession by saving? The answer is: No. those who save during a recession deepen the recession.
I personally rather doubt that anyone knows whether austerity “works” in a recession or not. Modern economies are too complex to simplistically attribute their success or failure to one such overriding factor and, in any case, serious austerity measures haven’t been in effect long enough to allow a confident judgment one way or the other. Certainly the opposites of austerity, such as the recent “stimulus” experiment in the US, haven’t been unqualified successes either, and have the disadvantage of leaving the states that try them mired in debt.
No matter, Augstein goes on to teach us some of the other “lessons” we should learn from the events in France. It turns out that some of these apply to Augsteins’s own country, Germany. The German taxpayers have forked over large sums to keep the economies of Greece and some of the other weak sisters in Europe afloat. Germany’s robust economy has served as an engine to pull the rest of Europe along. German’s should be patting themselves on the back for their European spirit, no?
Not according to Augstein! As he tells it, what Germans should really be doing is hanging their heads in shame.
The Germans are poster boys of the market economy. Never have interest rates been more favorable for Germany. It’s a gift of the market at the expense of the rest of Europe. She (Merkel) isn’t concerned about the European political legacy of Adenauer and Kohl. Those are such western ideas, that mean little to the woman from the east. Driven by cheap money from the international finance markets, the German export industry has scuttled European integration – and Merkel lets them get away with it.
Ah, yes, the socialists of the world have no country. We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? If you’re successful, you must be evil. The proper response is guilt. Poor Germans! They just can’t ever seem to catch a break. Somehow they always end up in the role of villain.
According to Augstein, without the support of France, Germany and her “saving politics” are now isolated in Europe. What’s that supposed to mean? That Germans are now supposed to fork over even greater funds, this time with no strings attached in the name of “European integration?” If I were a German taxpayer, I know what my response would be: “Let the other Europeans spend and spend to their heart’s content, just as long as they don’t reach into my pocket to do it.”
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how this flight back to socialism turns out. Who am I to say? I’m no economist. There’s an election in Germany next year. If the socialists return to power there as well, things might really get interesting. We’ll finally find out just how European socialists plan to go about ending austerity after they’ve run out of other people’s money to spend.
Posted on May 6th, 2012 9 comments
Nuclear power is an attractive candidate for meeting our future energy needs. Nuclear plants do not release greenhouse gases. They release significantly less radiation into the environment than coal plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium. They require far less space and are far more reliable than alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. In spite of some of the worst accidents imaginable due to human error and natural disasters, we have not lost any cities or suffered any mass casualties, and the horrific “China Syndrome” scenarios invented by the self-appointed saviors of mankind have proven to be fantasies. That is not to say nuclear power is benign. It is just more benign than any of the currently available alternatives. The main problem with nuclear is not that it is unsafe, but that it is being ill-used. In this case, government could actually be helpful. Leadership and political will could put nuclear on a better track.
To understand why, it is necessary to know a few things about nuclear fuel, and how it “burns.” Bear with me while I present a brief tutorial in nuclear engineering. Nuclear energy is released by nuclear fission, or the splitting of heavy elements into two or more lighter ones. This doesn’t usually happen spontaneously. Before a heavy element can undergo fission, an amount of energy above a certain threshold must first be delivered to its nucleus. How does this happen? Imagine a deep well. If you drop a bowling ball into the well, it will cause a large splash when it hits the water. It does so because it has been accelerated by the force of gravity. A heavy nucleus is something like a well, but things don’t fall into it because of gravity. Instead, it relies on the strong force, which is very short range, but vastly more powerful than gravity. The role of “bowling ball” can be played by a neutron. If one happens along and gets close enough to fall into the strong force ”well,” it will also cause a “splash,” releasing energy as it is bound to the heavy element’s nucleus, just as the real bowling ball is “bound” in the water well until someone fishes it out. This “splash,” or release of energy, causes the heavy nucleus to “jiggle,” much like an unstable drop of water. In one naturally occurring isotope – uranium with an atomic weight of 235 – this “jiggle” is so violent that it can cause the “drop of water” to split apart, or fission.
There are other isotopes of uranium. All of them have 92 protons in their nucleus, but can have varying numbers of neutrons. The nucleus of uranium 235, or U235, has 92 protons and 143 protons, adding up to a total of 235. Unfortunately, U235 is only 0.7% of natural uranium. Almost all the rest is U238, which has 92 protons and 146 neutrons. When a neutron falls into the U238 “well,” the “splash” isn’t big enough to cause fission, or at least not unless the neutron had a lot of energy to begin with, as if the “bowling ball” had been shot from a cannon. As a result, U238 can’t act as the fuel in a nuclear reactor. Almost all the nuclear reactors in operation today simply burn that 0.7% of U235 and store what’s left over as radioactive waste. Unfortunately, that’s an extremely inefficient and wasteful use of the available fuel resources.
To understand why, it’s necessary to understand something about what happens to the neutrons in a reactor that keep the nuclear chain reaction going. First of all, where do they come from? Well, each fission releases more neutrons. The exact number depends on how fast the neutron that caused the fission was going, and what isotope underwent fission. If enough are released to cause, on average, one more fission, then the resulting chain reaction will continue until the fuel is used up. Actually, two neutrons, give or take, are released in each fission. However, not all of them cause another fission. Some escape the fuel region and are lost. Others are absorbed in the fuel material. That’s where things get interesting.
Recall that, normally, most of the fuel in a reactor isn’t U235, but the more common isotope, U238. When U238 absorbs a neutron, it forms U239, which quickly decays to neptunium 239 and then plutonium 239. Now it just so happens that plutonium 239, or Pu239, will also fission if a neutron “falls into its well,” just like U235. In other words, if enough neutrons were available, the reactor could actually produce more fuel, in the form of Pu239, than it consumes, potentially burning up most of the U238 as well as the U235. This is referred to as the “breeding” of nuclear fuel. Instead of just lighting the U235 “match” and letting it burn out, it would be used to light and burn the entire U238 “log.” Unfortunately, there are not enough neutrons in normal nuclear reactors to breed more fuel than is consumed. Such reactors have, however, been built, both in the United States and other countries, and have been safely operated for periods of many years.
Plutonium breeders aren’t the only feasible type. In addition to U235 and Pu239, another isotope will also fission if a neutron falls into its “well” - uranium 233. Like Pu239, U233 doesn’t occur in nature. However, it can be “bred,” just like Pu239, from another element that does occur in nature, and is actually more common than uranium – thorium. I’ve had a few critical things to say about some of the popular science articles I’ve seen on thorium lately, but my criticisms were directed at inaccuracies in the articles, not at thorium technology itself. Thorium breeders actually have some important advantages over plutonium. When U233 fissions, it produces more neutrons than Pu239, and it does so in a “cooler” neutron spectrum, where the average neutron energy is much lower, making the reactor significantly easier to control. These extra neutrons could not only breed more fuel. They could also be used to burn up the transuranic elements – those beyond uranium on the table of the elements – that are produced in conventional nuclear reactors, and account for the lion’s share of the long-lived radioactive waste. This would be a huge advantage. Destroy the transuranics, and the residual radioactivity from a reactor would be less than that of the original ore, potentially in a few hundred years, rather than many thousands.
Thorium breeders have other potentially important advantages. The fuel material could be circulated through the core in the form of a liquid, suspended in a special “salt” material. Of course, this would eliminate the danger of a fuel meltdown. In the event of an accident like the one at Fukushima, the fuel would simply be allowed to run into a holding basin, where it would be sub-critical and cool quickly. Perhaps more importantly, the United States has the biggest proven reserves of thorium on the planet.
Breeders aren’t the only reactor types that hold great promise for meeting our future energy needs. High temperature gas cooled reactors would produce gas heated to high temperature in addition to electricity. This could be used to produce hydrogen gas via electrolysis, which is much more efficient at such high temperatures. When hydrogen burns, it produces only water. Such reactors could also be built over the massive oil shale deposits in the western United States. The hot gas could then be used to efficiently extract oil from the shale “in situ” without the need to mine it. It is estimated that the amount of oil that could be economically recovered in this way from the Green River Basin deposits in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado alone is three times greater than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.
Will any of this happen without government support and leadership? Not any time soon. The people who build nuclear reactors expect to make a profit, and the easiest way to make a profit is to build more conventional reactors of the type we already have. Raise the points I’ve mentioned above, and they’ll simply tell you that there’s plenty of cheap uranium around and therefore no need to breed more fuel, the radioactive danger of transuranics has been much exaggerated, etc., etc. All these meretricious arguments make sense if your goal is to make a profit in the short run. They make no sense at all if you have any concern for the energy security and welfare of future generations.
Unless the proponents of controlled fusion or solar and other forms of alternative energy manage to pull a rabbit out of their collective hats, I suspect we will eventually adopt breeder technology. The question is when. After we have finally burnt our last reserves of fossil fuel? After we have used up all our precious reserves of U238 by scattering it hither and yon in the form of “depleted uranium” munitions? The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it will become to develop a breeder economy. It would be well if, in this unusual case, government stepped in and did what it is theoretically supposed to do; lead.