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  • Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams

    Posted on November 4th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Many modern writers on the subject of morality are aware of its connection with emotional traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Many of those also acknowledge that morality is a subjective phenomenon, and that good and evil have no existence independent of the minds that imagine them.  In a sense, these thinkers have managed to claw their way back to the simple truths Darwin alluded to in his The Descent of Man after they were eclipsed for many years by the Blank Slate debacle. Once they’ve done so, however, a funny thing happens. With the lone exception of Edvard Westermarck who began writing on the subject more than a century ago, none of them, or at least none that I am aware of, has managed to appreciate the seemingly obvious logical implications of these truths. Having glimpsed them, they shrink back, as if stunned by what they’ve seen.

    What are the logical implications I refer to? If morality exists by virtue of evolved emotional traits, then,

    1. The traits in question evolved because they happened to increase the odds that individuals carrying the genes that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce.
    2. As Darwin noted, evolution by natural selection is a random process. As a result, it is to be expected that the moral behavior that might evolve in intelligent species other than our own might potentially be quite different from ours.
    3. It follows that morality is subjective, and has no objective existence. Good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things. Rather, they are imagined in the minds of individuals.
    4. The responsible genes must have evolved at times radically different from the present, and even, at least in part, in species that were ancestral to our own.
    5. It follows that morality did not evolve to serve the “purpose” or “function” of promoting the happiness or flourishing of our species, however construed.
    6. There is no guarantee that the traits we associate with morality will have the same effect of enhancing the odds of survival of individuals in the environment we live in now as they did in the one in which the evolved.
    7. It is irrational to blindly rely on these traits to regulate the interactions between and within groups vastly larger and/or utterly different in kind from groups that existed when they evolved.
    8. It is irrational, not to mention potentially dangerous, to blindly rely on these traits to promote social goals that have no connection whatsoever with the reasons they exist to begin with.
    9. It is irrational to assume that the universal tendency to apply a radically different morality to outgroups to the one we apply to our ingroup will disappear if we ignore the former.
    10. It is no more rational to assume that the innate basis of human morality is uniform across all populations, than it is to assume that skin color will be the same across all populations. It is to be expected that there are similarities between different versions of morality, but also that there will be significant differences, which cannot be explained as mere artifacts of “culture.”

    A good number of modern moral philosophers accept the first four items in the above list.  Then, however, an odd thing happens. Far from accepting the seemingly obvious conclusions that follow from these four, as set forth in the rest of the list, they begin writing as if morality were an ideal vehicle for promoting whatever social goals they happen to favor. They begin speaking of things that they personally perceive as good or evil as if everyone else must necessarily also perceive them in the same way. In the end we find them speaking of these subjective goods and evils for all the world as if they were real, objective things. This powerful illusion, so characteristic of our species, reasserts itself, and the seemingly obvious implications of the evolved nature of morality are ignored.

    Why has it been so difficult for modern philosophers to jettison the illusion of objective morality? The answer can be found by examining their ingroup. Most of the public intellectuals and philosophers who write about morality do so in academia and other milieus currently dominated by the “progressive Left.” In other words, they belong to an ingroup that tends to be extremely moralistic, and is typically defined by ideology. Members of such ingroups tend to deem themselves “good,” and anyone who disagrees with the ideology of their ingroup “evil,” in accordance with the nature of human beings since time immemorial. There is no essential difference in this regard between them and a group of hunter/gatherers who deem themselves “good,” and their neighbors in an adjoining territory “evil,” other than the arbitrary features that happen to distinguish ingroup from outgroup. As we have seen so often in the recent past, any member of such ingroups who dares to seriously question any of the shibboleths that define the ideological box these people live in can expect to be ostracized and have their careers destroyed. In short, there is a very powerful incentive not to wander too far off the ideological reservation, and to occasionally virtue signal loyalty to the ingroup.

    Beyond that, those who imagine they possess the moral high ground also imagine that this gives them the right to dictate behavior to others.  In other words, morality rationalizes power and status, and the desire for these things has always been a very powerful motivator of human behavior. Those who possess them aren’t inclined to give them up without a struggle. Today not only moral philosophers but a host of others base their right to dictate behavior to the rest of us on the illusion that their version of morality is “true.” If the illusion disappears, their power disappears with it. Hence, regardless of what they claim to believe about the evolutionary roots of morality, we commonly find them busily propping up the illusion.

    Steve Stewart-Williams is an excellent example of the type referred to above.  He devotes a great deal of attention to the subject of morality in his Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life. On page 203 of my hard cover copy he even quotes E. O. Wilson’s argument “for the necessity of an evolutionary approach to morality.” On page 148 he says more or less  that same thing as I pointed out in the fourth item in the above list, although without referring specifically to morality:

    Our fear of snakes and spiders is an example of an aspect of human psychology that is poorly matched to modern living conditions, but which would have been useful in the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – the environment in which these fears evolved.

    In the following passage on page 291, Stewart-Williams seems to come out very explicitly in favor of the subjective nature of morality:

    The second way that Darwin’s theory could undermine morality is that it could undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths – truths that exist independently of human minds, emotions and conventions. In the remaining pages of this book, I’m going to argue that evolutionary theory does indeed undermine this idea, and that morality is, in some sense, a human invention (or, more precisely, a joint project of human beings and natural selection). In other words, in the final analysis, nothing is right and nothing is wrong. This perspective is quite counterintuitive to most people (myself included).

    It turns out that, as far as Stewart-Williams is concerned, this perspective is very counterintuitive indeed. Instead of drawing the seemingly obvious conclusions listed above that follow from the evolutionary roots of morality and its subjective nature, he spends much of the rest of the book alternately insisting that he believes in subjective morality, and then contradicting himself with comments that make no sense unless there is an objective moral law. Not surprisingly, this “objective moral law” turns out to be a vanilla version of the one that is currently fashionable in academia. Stewart-Williams realizes that the academic ingroup he belongs to is currently highly moralistic, and is likely to take a very dim view of anyone who seriously challenges the shibboleths that define its territorial boundaries.  To placate the “public opinion” of his ingroup, he begins delivering himself of statements that really are “counterintuitive” if he believes in subjective morality as he claims. For starters, he starts dreaming up ways to hop over Hume’s is/ought barrier:

    Hume’s law seems to show that facts about evolution can have no bearing on ethical issues, and that factual and ethical reasoning are completely independent domains of discourse. But it does not have this implication at all. The importance of the is-ought fallacy has been drastically overstated. Consider this argument again:

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick or poor.

    Clearly, the argument is not deductively valid. This could easily be remedied, however, by including an additional premise that would justify the leap from is to ought. After all, it is possible in principle to construct a valid argument from any premise to any conclusion, given the appropriate intervening premise.

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    We ought not to go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick, or poor.

    The argument is now deductively valid, and thus if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true also.

    Right. It kind of reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon, in which one mathematician is proudly displaying his proof of some obscure hypothesis to another mathematician. The second replies that he doesn’t quite follow the step in the proof labeled “Miracle happens.” If, as Stewart-Williams claims, morality is subjective, then the reason you can’t just hop over the is/ought barrier is because there is no ought to hop to on the other side.  One cannot speak of an unqualified ought as he does above at all, because every ought is simply the expression of some individual’s emotionally motivated subjective opinion. Once you admit it is such an opinion, “valid arguments” of the type given above become entirely superfluous. The only “fact” involved is the experience of a subjective feeling which itself exists by virtue of an natural evolutionary process which has no function or purpose whatsoever. “Moral reasoning” is what happens when individuals attempt to interpret what they imagine these subjective feelings are trying to tell them.

    Having justified himself in advance by virtue of this ineffectual quibbling about the is/ought barrier, Stewart-Williams rattles off a whole series of “oughts,” for all the world as if they were unquestionable, objective facts.  For example, on page 255,

    I think we can agree that preparing for the future generations is a highly desirable value to cultivate.

    If morality is subjective, there cannot possibly be any “values,” whether “highly desirable” or not, to cultivate. He could say, “I think everyone else in the world shares my subjective opinion that we ought to prepare for future generations,” but, aside from being clearly false, that statement is entirely different from what he has actually written, implying the existence of “values” as objective things. On page 274, after making it quite clear that he personally considers the “moral dividing line” between humans and animals “is arbitrary,” and that he is opposed to “speciesism,” he writes,

    So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is unjustified.

    The above makes sense only if morality is objective. If, as Stewart-Williams claimed earlier, it is actually subjective, it is impossible for anything to be either justified or unjustified, unless one qualifies the statement by admitting that it is merely an expression of personal opinion based on nothing more substantial than feelings that exist by virtue of natural selection. The statement, “So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is justified,” is every bit as valid as the one given above, by virtue of the fact that the validity of both is zero. Consider what we’re dealing with here; a bag of behavioral traits that exist purely because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. I doubt that he is arguing that allocation of equal moral status to other animals will accomplish the same thing today. It’s likely to accomplish the exact opposite. As it stands, the statement is fundamentally irrational. All he is really saying is that he arbitrarily interprets certain emotional feelings to mean that humans and other animals must have equal moral status, and insists that everyone else must interpret their emotional feelings in the same way.  A bit later, he doubles down, writing,

    However, if we opt for a morality based on a brute human/non-human distinction, we know we’re getting it wrong – some animals will definitely be treated worse than they should be.

    Again, absent objective morality, this statement is nonsense. If morality is subjective, it is impossible to make truth statements about it one way or the other. We cannot possibly “know” we are getting something wrong unless an objective criteria exists upon which to base that conclusion. On page 289 he tells us,

    When we look at large-scale surveys of everyday believers, we find that in many ways atheists are actually more moral than believers. On average, they are less prejudiced, less racist, and less homophobic; more tolerant and compassionate; and more law-abiding. Admittedly, whether this means atheists are more moral depends on your personal convictions; if you think homophobia is a virtue, for instance, then you’d have to conclude that a greater number of religious than non-religious people possess this particular virtue. Nonetheless, a convincing case can be made that non-religious moral codes are often superior to those traditionally linked with theism. Consider Peter Singer’s Top Three ethical recommendations: do something for the poor of the world; do something for non-human animals; and do something for the environment. This is the ethic of an atheist, a man who accepts that life evolved and has no ultimate meaning or purpose. To my mind, it is vastly superior to moral systems emphasizing trivial issues (or non-issues) such as premarital sex, blasphemy, and the like. Morality is not just about deciding what’s right and wrong, good or bad. it involves getting your moral priorities straight.

    Seldom does one find such a jumble of contradictions in one passage. Stewart-Williams tells us that, on the one hand, morality is subjective, and depends on “your personal convictions,” but, on the other hand, non-religious moral codes are superior to traditional ones linked with theism, and, if you don’t agree with the author, you “don’t have your moral priorities straight.” In other words, morality is subjective and objective at the same time. As an atheist, I’m flattered that he thinks I’m “more moral” than believers, but unfortunately there can be no rational basis for such a conclusion. What he is telling us is that we “ought to” jury rig moral emotions to accomplish ends that have no discernable connection with the reasons that those emotions exist to begin with. He calls this “getting our moral priorities straight.” Is it not abundantly obvious by now that exploiting moral emotions to accomplish social goal that could profoundly affect the lives of millions of people is not only counterproductive, but extremely dangerous? Have we really learned nothing from our experiences with Nazism and Communism? If we seek to stuff Singers three ethical recommendations down everyone’s throats as “good,” then everyone who disagrees with them automatically becomes “evil.” They are consigned to the outgroup. They become the Jews, or the “bourgeoisie.” Are we not yet sufficiently familiar with the often violent fate of outgroups in human history? Does he think he can simply wish away that aspect of human nature?

    Perhaps the above passage is best interpreted as Stewart-Williams’ triple kowtow to the gatekeepers of his ideologically/morally defined ingroup. In the end, it is apparent that he has been no more capable of freeing himself of the illusion of objective morality than the rest of his academic tribe.  He concludes the book with a bombastic passage that confirms this conclusion:

    Of course, nothing can be said to argue that people are morally obliged to accept this ethic, for to do so would be inconsistent with the ideas that inspired it in the first place. It is an ethic that will be adopted – if at all – by those who find a certain stark beauty in kindness without reward, joy without purpose, and progress without lasting achievement.

    No, I’m sorry. You can’t have your moral cake and eat it too. The only thing we can say with certainty about people who “adopt such an ethic” is that they are seriously delusional. They believe that the solution of all the complex social issues facing mankind is a mere matter of “correctly” tweaking a volatile mix of emotions whose origins have nothing whatever to do with the issues in question, and then just letting those emotions run wild to do their thing. As noted above, their thing” invariably involves dictating behavior to others, lending power and status to the would be dictators in the process.

    Allow me to suggest a different version of “getting our moral priorities straight.” In my personal opinion, we ought to limit the sphere of influence of human morality to the bare essentials, namely the regulation of the day to day interactions of human beings that it would be impractical to regulate in any other way because of our limited intelligence. When it comes to matters such as Singers “three ethical recommendations,” or any other social issues involving large numbers of people, let us leave morality strictly out of it to the extent possible for such emotional creatures as ourselves, and lay our cards on the table. No matter what we happen to desire, in the end the fundamental reason we desire it is to satisfy innate feelings and emotions that exist because they evolved. By “laying our cards on the table,” I mean citing the particular emotions we wish to satisfy, making it perfectly clear in the process whether the manner in which those emotions are to be satisfied will have anything to do with the reasons the emotions evolved to begin with or not. It strikes me that something of the sort would be a great deal more rational and less dangerous than continuing to pursue our current approach of allowing such matters to be decided by whatever faction proves most effective at manipulating our moral emotions.

  • Darwin and Morality

    Posted on September 10th, 2018 Helian No comments

    It’s not necessary to read all of Darwin’s books and manuscripts to learn what he had to say about morality.  Just read Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man.  If you haven’t seen those pages yet, they may be a revelation to you, because later generations of behavioral “scientists” have been very coy about mentioning them.  They are decidedly out of step with the socialist and egalitarian ideologies that it became the goal of the 20th century behavioral “sciences” to “prove” as corollaries of the Blank Slate.  As such they represent a high point in mankind’s search for truth and self-understanding.  When it comes to morality, that search was quickly derailed by a combination of ideologically corrupted “science” and sellers of philosophical snake oil.  Nearly a century and a half later, it remains derailed.  There is little reason to hope that it will recover anytime soon.

    The things Darwin had to say about morality were remarkably bold, given that he lived in Victorian England, and was married to an extremely pious Christian wife.  Indeed, the first sentences of the chapter in question can be seen as reflection of this less than ideal environment:

    I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.  This sense, as (Sir James) Mackintosh remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance.

    Later authors have attempted to use this passage to prop up their artificial taboo against “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, it is best understood as a brief genuflection to the prevailing “moral landscape.”  In this heavily cherry-picked chapter, it’s best to read the whole thing. Darwin was anything but a carbon copy of the “co-discoverer” of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who believed in evolution below the neck, but substituted spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo for the origin of the human mind and conscience.  Darwin considered the human brain, mind, and moral sense as much the result of natural evolution as the rest of us.  He realized that the same emotions responsible for the moral sense in humans exists in other animals as well. We are exceptional only in our ability to think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and our ability to use language to communicate our thoughts to others.  Darwin hardly considered this an unbridgeable gap, and thought it entirely possible that similarly advanced minds could evolve in other animals.  As he put it,

    The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

    So much for human exceptionalism!

    For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways.

    In the above we find Darwin clearly distinguishing between the fixed instincts of, for example, insects, and the more “malleable” behavioral predispositions existing in humans and other social mammals. In other words, here Darwin is preemptively debunking the favorite mantra of later generations of Blank Slaters that acceptance of evolved behavioral traits amounts to “genetic determinism.”

    But these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association… We have now seen that actions are regarded by savages, and were probably so regarded by primeval man, as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe, – not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe. This conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community.

    In other words, there are ingroups and outgroups, a fact that it took nearly half a century for Sir Arthur Keith to resurrect and state as a coherent hypothesis. Modern philosophers and behavioral scientists alike have fallen into the extremely dangerous habit of ignoring this aspect of human moral behavior, preferring to emphasize our “altruism” instead.

    Secondly, as soon as the mental faculties had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual; and that feeling of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly recalled.

    In other words, instead of being some unique human trait that suddenly evolved out of nothing, morality exists in nascent form in many other animals.  The “unique” features of human morality are merely artifacts of these preexisting traits in creatures with unusually high intelligence.

    It may well be first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.

    How can one read such passages without admiring the genius of Darwin?  No one else in his time even came close to writing anything of such brilliance and insight.  Consider what is packed into the last of these short passages alone: 1) A blunt denial of human exceptionalism, 2) A debunking of objective morality, and 3) Dismissal of theories that existed then as now that “objective moral truth” somehow manages to “track” morality rooted in mental traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Darwin goes on to cite many examples of analogs of human moral behavior in other animals, noting that,

    Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with (Louis) Agassiz that dogs possess something very like a conscience.

    As if in answer to later generations of behaviorists clutching their box mazes with their theories of “conditioning” he writes,

    In many instances, however, it is probable that instincts are persistently followed from the mere force of inheritance, without the stimulus of either pleasure or pain.  A young pointer, when it first scents game, apparently cannot help pointing. A squirrel in a cage who pats the nuts which it cannot eat as if to bury them in the ground, can hardly be thought to act thus, either from pleasure or pain. Hence the common assumption that men must be impelled to every action by experiencing some pleasure or pain may be erroneous.

    Far from believing that evolution by natural selection would result in a universal moral sense, identical in all races, Darwin concluded that the obvious differences in human moral behavior confirmed his theory.  As he put it,

    Except through the principle of the transmission of moral tendencies, we cannot understand the differences believed to exist in this respect between the various races of mankind.

    There is much more in this short chapter bearing on the evolution of human morality. It is truly a must read for anyone interested in the subject.  In addition to what he wrote about evolved behavioral traits in man and animals in The Descent of Man, Darwin also wrote a chapter on the subject intended for publication in The Origin of Species.  Unfortunately, the full manuscript did not appear in that book.  However, Darwin passed it along with much other related material accumulated during the course of his life to his young collaborator, George Romanes.  Romanes published the full chapter, along with much of the other material he had received from Darwin, in his Mental Evolution in Animals, which appeared shortly after Darwin’s death. The book is available online, and may be found by clicking the link on the title.

    Many authors published theories of morality, supposedly based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, beginning shortly after publication of The Origin of Species.  Almost all of them promoted some theory of objective morality, and either ignored or completely failed to grasp the significance of what Darwin had written on the subject.  Edvard Westermarck appeared like a ray of light in the fog, publishing his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906.  Among major philosophers, he alone appeared to grasp the implications of what Darwin had written about morality.  Like the fourth chapter of The Descent of Man, his book was forgotten, and no philosopher or scientist has appeared in the century plus since then who appears to grasp not only what Darwin wrote about the evolved roots of morality, but also the implications of what he wrote regarding the question of objective morality.  The lucubrations of some of these “evolutionary moralists” are interesting in their own right, but I must leave them for a later post.

  • Frans de Waal on Animal Smartness and the Rehabilitation of Konrad Lorenz

    Posted on June 5th, 2016 Helian 17 comments

    It’s heartening to learn that there is a serious basis for recent speculation to the effect that the science of animal cognition may gradually advance to a level long familiar to any child with a pet dog.  Frans de Waal breaks the news in his latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?  In answer to his own question, de Waal writes,

    The short answer is “Yes, but you’d never have guessed.”  For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals.  Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve “folk” nonsense.  We, the scientists, knew better!  We never went in for any of this “my dog is jealous” stuff, or “my cat knows what she wants,” let alone anything more complicated, such as that animals might reflect on the past or feel one another’s pain… The two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.  While each school fought the other and deemed it too narrow, they shared a fundamentally mechanistic outlook:  there was no need to worry about the internal lives of animals, and anyone who did was anthropomorphic, romantic and unscientific.

    Did we have to go through this bleak period?  In earlier days, the thinking was noticeably more liberal.  Charles Darwin wrote extensively about human and animal emotions, and many a scientist in the nineteenth century was eager to find higher intelligence in animals.  It remains a mystery why these efforts were temporarily suspended, and why we voluntarily hung a millstone around the neck of biology.

    Here I must beg to differ with de Waal.  It is by no means a “mystery.”  This “mechanization” of animals in the sciences was more or less contemporaneous with the Blank Slate debacle, and was motivated by more or less the same ideological imperatives.  I invite readers interested in the subject to consult the first few chapters of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published as far back as 1961.  Noting a blurb in Scientific American by Marshall Sahlins, more familiar to later readers as a collaborator in the slander of Napoleon Chagnon, to the effect that,

    There is a quantum difference, at points a complete opposition, between even the most rudimentary human society and the most advanced subhuman primate one.  The discontinuity implies that the emergence of human society required some suppression, rather than direct expression, of man’s primate nature.  Human social life is culturally, not biologically determined.

    Ardrey, that greatest of all debunkers of the Blank Slate, continues,

    Dr. Sahlins’ conclusion is startling to no one but himself.  It is a scientific restatement, 1960-style, of the philosophical conclusion of an eighteenth-century Neapolitan monk (Giambattista Vico, ed.):  Society is the work of man.  It is just another prop, fashioned in the shop of science’s orthodoxies from the lumber of Zuckerman’s myth, to support the fallacy of human uniqueness.

    The Zuckerman Ardrey refers to is anthropologist Solly Zuckerman.  I invite anyone who doubts the fanaticism with which “science” once insisted on the notion of human uniqueness alluded to in de Waal’s book to read some of Zuckerman’s papers.  For example, in The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, he writes,

    It is now generally recognized that anthropomorphic preoccupations do not help the critical development of knowledge, either in fields of physical or biological inquiry.

    He exulted in the great “advances” science had made in correcting the “mistakes” of Darwin:

    The Darwinian period, in which animal behavior as a distinct study was born, was one in which anthropomorphic interpretation flourished.  Anecdotes were regarded in the most generous light, and it was believed that many animals were highly rational creatures, possessed of exalted ethical codes of social behavior.

    According to Zuckerman, “science” had now discovered that the very notion of animal “intelligence” was absurd.  As he put it,

    Until 1890, the study of the social behavior of mammals developed hand in hand with the study of their “intelligence,” and both subjects were usually treated in the same books.

    Such comments, which are ubiquitous in the literature of the Blank Slate era, make it hard to understand how de Waal can still be “mystified” about the motivation for the “scientific” denial of animal intelligence.  Be that as it may, he presents a wealth of data derived from recent experiments and field studies debunking all the lingering rationale for claims of human uniqueness one by one, whether it be the ability to experience emotion, a “theory of mind,” social problem solving ability, ability to contemplate the past and future, or even consciousness.  In the process he documents the methods “science” used to hermetically seal itself off from reality, such as the invention of pejorative terms like “anthropomorphism” to denounce and dismiss anyone who dared to challenge the human uniqueness orthodoxy, and the rejection of all evidence not supplied by members of the club as mere “anecdotes.”  In the process he notes,

    Needing a new term to make my point, I invented anthropodenial, which is the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us.

    It’s hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that “science” consists of fanatically rejecting similarities between human and animal behavior that are obvious to everyone but “scientists” as “anthropomorphism” and “anecdotes” and assuming a priori that they’re of no significance until it can be absolutely proven that everyone else was right all along.  This does not strike me as a “parsimonious” approach.

    Not the least interesting feature of de Waal’s latest is his “rehabilitation” of several important debunkers of the Blank Slate who were unfortunate enough to publish before the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  According to the fairy tale that currently passes for the “history” of the Blank Slate, before 1975 “darkness was on the face of the deep.”  Only then did Wilson appear on the scene as the heroic slayer of the Blank Slate dragon.  A man named Robert Ardrey was never heard of, and anyone mentioned in his books as an opponent of the Blank Slate before the Wilson “singularity” is to be ignored.  The most prominent of them all, a man on whom the anathemas of the Blank Slaters often fell, literally in the same breath as Ardrey, was Konrad Lorenz.  Sure enough, in Steven Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate, Lorenz is dismissed, in the same paragraph with Ardrey, no less, as “totally and utterly wrong,” and a delusional believer in “archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure.”  De Waal’s response must be somewhat discomfiting to the promoters of Pinker’s official “history.”  He simply ignores it!

    Astoundingly enough, de Waal speaks of Lorenz as one of the great founding fathers of the modern sciences of animal behavior and cognition.  In other words, he tells the truth, as if it had never been disputed in any bowdlerized “history.”  Already at the end of the prologue we find the matter-of-fact observation that,

    …behavior is, as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it, the liveliest aspect of all that lives.

    Reading on, we find that this mention of Lorenz wasn’t just an anomaly designed to wake up drowsy readers.  In the first chapter we find de Waal referring to the field of phylogeny,

    …when we trace traits across the evolutionary tree to determine whether similarities are due to common descent, the way Lorenz had done so beautifully for waterfowl.

    A few pages later he writes,

    The maestro of observation, Konrad Lorenz, believed that one could not investigate animals effectively without an intuitive understanding grounded in love and respect.

    and notes, referring to the behaviorists, that,

    The power of conditioning is not in doubt, but the early investigators had totally overlooked a crucial piece of information.  They had not, as recommended by Lorenz, considered the whole organism.

    And finally, in a passage that seems to scoff at Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” nonsense, he writes,

    Given that the facial musculature of humans and chimpanzees is nearly identical, the laughing, grinning, and pouting of both species likely goes back to a common ancestor.  Recognition of the parallel between anatomy and behavior was a great leap forward, which is nowadays taken for granted.  We all now believe in behavioral evolution, which makes us Lorenzians.

    Stunning, really for anyone who’s followed what’s been going on in the behavioral and animal sciences for any length of time.  And that’s not all.  Other Blank Slate debunkers who published long before Wilson, like Niko Tinbergen and Desmond Morris, are mentioned with a respect that belies the fact that they, too, were once denounced by the Blank Slaters as right wing fascists and racists in the same breath with Lorenz.  I have a hard time believing that someone as obviously well read as de Waal has never seen Pinker’s The Blank Slate.  I honestly don’t know what to make of the fact that he can so blatantly contradict Pinker, and yet never trouble himself to mention even the bare existence of such a remarkable disconnect.  Is he afraid of Pinker?  Does he simply want to avoid hurting the feelings of another member of the academic tribe?  I must leave it up to the reader to decide.

    And what of Ardrey, who brilliantly described both “anthropodenial” and the reasons that it was by no means a “mystery” more than half a century before the appearance of de Waal’s latest book?  Will he be rehabilitated, too?  Don’t hold your breath.  Unlike Lorenz, Tinbergen and Morris, he didn’t belong to the academic tribe.  The fact that it took an outsider to smash the Blank Slate and give a few academics the courage to finally stick their noses out of the hole they’d dug for themselves will likely remain deep in the memory hole. It happens to be a fact  that is just too humiliating and embarrassing for them to ever admit.  It would seem the history of the affair can be adjusted, but it will probably never be corrected.

  • Panksepp, Animal Rights, and the Blank Slate

    Posted on August 23rd, 2015 Helian 4 comments

    So who is Jaak Panksepp?  Have a look at his YouTube talk on emotions at the bottom of this post, for starters.  A commenter recommended him, and I discovered the advice was well worth taking.  Panksepp’s The Archaeology of Mind, which he co-authored with Lucy Biven, was a revelation to me.  The book describes a set of basic emotional systems that exist in all, or virtually all, mammals, including humans.  In the words of the authors:

    …the ancient subcortical regions of mammalian brains contain at least seven emotional, or affective, systems:  SEEKING (expectancy), FEAR (anxiety), RAGE (anger), LUST (sexual excitement), CARE (nurturance), PANIC/GRIEF (sadness), and PLAY (social joy).  Each of these systems controls distinct but specific types of behaviors associated with many overlapping physiological changes.

    This is not just another laundry list of “instincts” of the type often proposed by psychologists at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  Panksepp is a neuroscientist, and has verified experimentally the unique signatures of these emotional systems in the ancient regions of the brain shared by humans and other mammals.  Again quoting from the book,

    As far as we know right now, primal emotional systems are made up of neuroanatomies and neurochemistries that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species.  This suggests that these systems evolved a very long time ago and that at a basic emotional and motivational level, all mammals are more similar than they are different.  Deep in the ancient affective recesses of our brains, we remain evolutionarily kin.

    If you are an astute student of the Blank Slate phenomenon, dear reader, no doubt you are already aware of the heretical nature of this passage.  That’s right!  The Blank Slaters were prone to instantly condemn any suggestion that there were similarities between humans and other animals as “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, if you read the book you will find that their reaction to Panksepp and others doing similar research has been every bit as allergic as their reaction to anyone suggesting the existence of human nature.  However, in the field of animal behavior, they are anything but a quaint artifact of the past.  Diehard disciples of the behaviorist John B. Watson and his latter day follower B. F. Skinner, Blank Slaters of the first water, still haunt the halls of academia in significant numbers, and still control the message in any number of “scientific” journals.  There they have been following their usual “scholarly” pursuit of ignoring and/or vilifying anyone who dares to disagree with them ever since the heyday of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin.  In the process they have managed to suppress or distort a great deal of valuable research bearing directly on the wellsprings of human behavior.

    We learn from the book that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been as damaging for other animals as it has been for us.  Among other things, it has served as the justification for indifference to or denial of the feelings and consciousness of animals.  The possibility that this attitude has contributed to some rather gross instances of animal abuse has been drawing increasing attention from those who are concerned about their welfare.  See for example, the website of Panksepp admirer Temple Grandin.  According to Panksepp & Bevin,

    Another of Descartes’ big errors was the idea that animals are without consciousness, without experiences, because they lack the subtle nonmaterial stuff from which the human mind is made.  This notion lingers on today in the belief that animals do not think about nor even feel their emotional responses.

    Many emotion researchers as well as neuroscience colleagues make a sharp distinction between affect and emotion, seeing emotion as purely behavioral and physiological responses that are devoid of affective experience.  They see emotional arousal as merely a set of physiological responses that include emotion-associated behaviors and a variety of visceral (hormonal/autonomic) responses, without actually experiencing anything – many researchers believe that other animals may not feel their emotional arousals.  We disagree.

    Some justify this rather counter-intuitive belief by suggesting that it is impossible to really experience or be conscious of emotions (affects) without language.  Panksepp & Bevins’ response:

    Words cannot describe the experience of seeing the color red to someone who is blind.  Words do not describe affects either.  One cannot explain what it feels like to be angry, frightened, lustful, tender, lonely, playful, or excited, except indirectly in metaphors.  Words are only labels for affective experiences that we have all had – primary affective experiences that we universally recognize.  But because they are hidden in our minds, arising from ancient prelinguistic capacities of our brains, we have found no way to talk about them coherently.

    With such excuses, and the fact that they could not “see” feelings and emotions in their experiments with “reinforcement” and “conditioning,” the behaviorists concluded that the feelings of the animals they were using in their experiments didn’t matter.  It was outside the realm of “science.”  Again from the book,

    Much as we admire the scientific finesses of these conditioning experiments, we part company with (Joseph) LeDoux and many of the others who conduct this kind of work when it comes to understanding what emotional feelings really are.  This is because they studiously ignore the feelings of their animals, and they often claim that the existence or nonexistence of the animals’ feelings is a nonscientific issue (although there are some signs of changing sentiments on these momentous issues).  In any event…, LeDoux has specifically endorsed the read-out theory – to the effect that affects are created by neocortical working-memory functions, uniquely expanded in human brains.  In other words, he see affects as a higher-order cognitive construct (perhaps only elaborated in humans), and thereby he envisions the striking FEAR responses of his animals to be purely physiological effects with no experiential consequences.

    …And when we analyze the punishing properties of electrical stimulation here in animals, we get the strongest aversive responses imaginable at the lowest levels of brain stimulation, and humans experience the most fearful states of mind imaginable.  Such issues of affective experience should haunt fear-conditioners much more than they apparently do.

    The evidence strongly indicates that there are primary-process emotional networks in the brain that help generate phenomenal affective experiences in all mammals, and perhaps in many other vertebrates and invertebrates.

    It’s stunning, really.  Anyone who has ever owned a dog is aware of how similar their emotional responses can often be to those of humans, and how well they remember them.  Like humans, they are mammals.  Like humans, their brains include a cortex.  It would hardly be “parsimonious” to simply assume that humans represent some kind of a radical departure when it comes to the ability to experience and remember emotions, and that other animals lack this ability, in defiance of centuries of such “common sense” observations that they can.  All this mass of evidence apparently isn’t “scientific,” and therefore doesn’t count, because these latter day Blank Slaters can’t observe in their mazes and shock boxes what appears obvious to everyone else in the world.  “Anthropomorphism!”  From such profound reasoning we are apparently to conclude that pain in animals doesn’t matter.

    Why the Blank Slate’s furious opposition to “anthropomorphism?”  In a sense, it’s actually an anachronism.  Recall that the fundamental dogma of the Blank Slate was the denial of human nature.  Obviously other mammals have a “nature.”  Clearly, the claim that dogs and cats must “learn” all their behavior from their “culture” was never going to fly.  Not so human beings.  Once upon a time the Blank Slaters claimed that everything in the human behavioral repertoire, with the possible exception of breathing, urinating, and defecating, was learned.  They even went so far as to include sex.  Even orgasms had to be “learned.”  It follows that the gulf between humans and animals had to be made as wide as possible.

    Fast forward to about the year 2000.  As far as their denial of human nature was concerned, the Blank Slaters had lost control of the popular media.  To an increasing extent, they were also losing control of the message in academia.  Books and articles about innate human behavior began pouring from the presses, and people began speaking of human nature as a given.  The Blank Slaters had lost that battle.  The main reason for their “anthropomorphism” phobia had disappeared.  In the more sequestered field of “animal nature,” however, they could carry on as if nothing had happened without making laughing stocks of themselves.  No one was paying any attention except a few animal rights activists.  And carry on they did, with the same “scientific” methods they had used in the past.  Allow me to quote from Panksepp & Biven again to give you a taste of what I’m talking about:

    It is noteworthy that Walter Hess, who first discovered the RAGE system in the cat brain in the mid-1930s (he won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949), using localized stimulation of the hypothalamus, was among the first to suggest that the behavior was “sham rage.”  He confessed, however, in writings published after his retirement (as noted in Chapter 2:  e.g., The Biology of Mind [1964]), that he had always believed that the animals actually experienced true anger.  He admitted to having shared sentiments he did not himself believe.  Why?  He simply did not want to have his work marginalized by the then-dominant behaviorists who had no tolerance for talk about emotional experiences.  As a result, we still do not know much about how the RAGE system interacts with other cognitive and affective systems of the brain.

    In an earlier chapter on The Evolution of Affective Consciousness they added,

    In his retirement he admitted regrets about having been too timid, not true to his convictions, to claim that his animals had indeed felt real anger.  He confessed that he did this because he feared that such talk would lead to attacks by the powerful American behaviorists, who might thereby also marginalize his more concrete scientific discoveries.  To a modest extent, he tried to rectify his “mistake” in his last book, The Biology of Mind, but this work had little influence.

    So much for the “self-correcting” nature of science.  It is anything but that when poisoned by ideological dogmas.  Panksepp and Biven conclude,

    But now, thankfully, in our enlightened age, the ban has been lifted.  Or has it?  In fact, after the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s, the behaviorist bias has largely been retained but more implicitly by most, and it is still the prevailing view among many who study animal behavior.  It seems the educated public is not aware of that fact.  We hope the present book will change that and expose this residue of behaviorist fundamentalism for what it is:  an anachronism that only makes sense to people who have been schooled within a particular tradition, not something that makes any intrinsic sense in itself!  It is currently still blocking a rich discourse concerning the psychological, especially the affective, functions of animal brains and human minds.

    This passage is particularly interesting because it demonstrates, as can be seen from the passage about “the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s,” that the authors were perfectly well aware of the larger battle with the Blank Slate orthodoxy over human nature.  However, that rather opaque allusion is about as close as they came to referring to it in the book.  One can hardly blame them for deciding to fight one battle at a time.  There is one interesting connection that I will point out for the cognoscenti.  In Chapter 6, Beyond Instincts, they write,

    The genetically ingrained emotional systems of the brain reflect ancestral memories – adaptive affective functions of such universal importance for survival that they were built into the brain, rather than having to be learned afresh by each generation of individuals.  These genetically ingrained memories (instincts) serve as a solid platform for further developments in the emergence of both learning and higher-order reflective consciousness.

    Compare this with a passage from the work of the brilliant South African naturalist Eugene Marais, which appeared in his The Soul of the Ape, written well before his death in 1936, but only published in 1969:

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

    As it happens, the very charming and insightful introduction to The Soul of the Ape when it was finally published in 1969 was written by none other than Robert Ardrey!  He had an uncanny ability to find and appreciate the significance of the work of brilliant but little-known researchers like Marais.

    As for Panksepp, I can only apologize for taking so long to discover him.  If nothing else, his work and teachings reveal that this is no time for complacency.  True, the Blank Slaters have been staggered, but they haven’t been defeated quite yet.  They’ve merely abandoned the battlefield and retreated to what would seem to be their last citadel; the field of animal behavior.  Unfortunately there is no Robert Ardrey around to pitch them headlong out of that last refuge, but they face a different challenge now.  They can no longer pretend to hold the moral high ground.  Their denial that animals can experience and remember their emotions in the same way as humans leaves the door wide open for the abuse of animals, both inside and outside the laboratory.  It is to be hoped that more animal rights activists like Temple Grandin will start paying attention.  I may not agree with them about eating red meat, but the maltreatment of animals, justified by reference to a bogus ideological dogma, is something that can definitely excite my own RAGE emotions.  I will have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder with them in this fight.