Posted on April 13th, 2013 2 comments
Supposedly Otto von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” The same could as well be said of science. However, for those who insist on watching the process, Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” is a must read. The book relates the author’s experiences as an anthropologist, a field long dominated by a particularly unsavory crew of sausage makers. Indeed, there is some question about whether they ever intended to make any real sausages at all. Instead, for many decades now, they have been busily engaged in concocting imaginary ones, which have the advantage of tasting much better than the real ones. In point of fact, they don’t invent sausages, but human beings, which, unlike the real ones, are never aggressive, and always nice. One might refer to them as Homo nihilum.
Chagnon was never cut out to be one of these fanciful anthropologists. He lacked imagination. On top of that, he was naive. In a word, he told the truth. Chagnon devoted his career to studying the Yanomamö, an indigenous people of South America. It was obvious to him from the start that they were not particularly nice, and were decidedly not invariably benign and unaggressive. He lacked the skills that are carefully acquired by most anthropologists, such as the ability, when one holds up four fingers in front of their face, to truly believe that they are seeing five. In a word, he had the bad taste to blurt out what he had seen in learned journals and academic conferences. This unwonted candor so shocked his fellow anthropologists that they actually began acting like Yanomamö themselves, confirming some of Chagnon’s hypotheses in the process; they reacted with furious hostility and aggression towards a perceived member of an outgroup. The shibboleth of human “niceness” that Chagnon had so clumsily demolished happened to be one of the main ideological props, not only of their ingroup, but of the ingroup of a whole host of related ideologues as well. In their alternative universe, humans are never, ever naturally aggressive. The somewhat discordant fact that warfare has been a ubiquitous feature of human existence since before the dawn of recorded time is explained away as merely the unfortunate artifact of some pathological derailing of human culture in the distant past. In order for us all to become “nice” again, all we need to do is eliminate these pernicious cultural engrams from our brains by such time-honored techniques as denying the obvious. Ironically, their furious and ruthless attacks on Chagnon provided a perfect example of the very behavior they were so determined to deny. They debunked their own myth. As Chagnon put it,
This virtual Noble Savage is a construct based on faith: in that respect anthropology has become more like a religion – where major truths are established by faith, not facts.
Despite the skepticism widely shared in the now politically correct anthropological profession, the ethnographic and archaeological evidence overwhelmingly indicates that warfare has been the most important single force shaping the evolution of political society in our species.
Having so egregiously upset the apple cart by observing that human beings are not necessarily all that “nice” after all, Chagnon could not leave well enough alone. Instead, he rubbed salt in the wound. As any good progressive can tell you, such human conflict as does exist must be caused by “greed” for money, property, and related appurtenences of the social means of production. Alas, it turns out that this notion, too, belongs in the realm of faith, not facts. In the author’s words,
Conflicts over the possession of nubile females have probably been the main reason for fights and killings throughout most of human history: the original human societal rules emerged, in all probability, to regulate male access to females and prevent the social chaos attendant on fighting over women.
I suggest that conflicts over the means of reproduction – women – dominated the political machinations of men during a vast span of human history and shaped human male psychology. It was only after polygyny became “expensive” that these conflicts shifted to material resources – the “gold and diamonds” my incredulous colleagues alluded to – and the material means of production. By that time, after the agricultural revolution, the accummulation of wealth – and its consequence, power – had become a prerequisite to having multiple mates.
Chagnon simply would not desist. Next, he went after another of the favorite sacred cows of the “progressives”; the notion of egalitarianism:
Pre-state societies – tribesmen like the Yanomamö – are described by many anthropologists as egalitarian: everyone is more or less interchangeable with any other person of the same age and same sex, so status differentials are essentially determined by age, sex, and occasionally the ephemeral characteristics of leaders. This is definitely not the case among the Yanomamö. If my teachers (and anthropology textbooks) got anything wrong, it was their misunderstanding of the notion of egalitarianism: they stubbornly insisted on tying it to “differential access to material resources.” Among the Yanomamö, tribesmen differ in their ability to command and order others around because of differing numbers of kinsmen they can deploy in their service, whether they are unokai (men who have killed or been involved in a killing), and other nonmaterial attributes.
The traditional anthropological view of egalitarianism is remarkably Eurocentric and ethnocentric, that is, the argument that tribesmen are egalitarian because nobody has “privileged” access to “strategic” material resources. Such a view erroneously projects our own political and economic views into the Stone Age.
Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all was Chagnon’s embrace of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology. As he put it,
Our training had emphasized the role that culture played in human social relationships while completely ignoring the evolution of human behavior. The view from anthropology was that psychologists studied human behavior and anthropologists studied culture. Ever since Durkheim, cultural anthropology was skeptical about not only psychology and biology, but any theory that emphasized the biological underpinnings of behavior.
He goes on to describe his own embrace of what is known to the layman as human nature, and the furious attacks such ideas drew from the ideological zealots of the “progressive” left, noting,
One of the pro-sociobiology participants that I frequently ran into at these debates, Robert Trivers, said to me at one of them: “I’ve finally figured out what they mean by a ‘balanced’ debate. For every clear demonstration of how effective a sociobiological explanation is of some phenomenon, it must be ‘balanced’ by a completely nonsensical appeal to B.S., emotions, and political correctness.
Of course, this particular flavor of ideologically inspired obscurantism is known to aficionados as the Blank Slate episode in the behavioral sciences. It is interesting how his status as, in spite of his heresies, a member of the academic tribe, has shaped Chagnon’s consciousness of the affair. For example, he is unfamiliar with anything that happened before E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology in 1975, has apparently never read Robert Ardrey and is unaware of his significance, particularly in shaping the consciousness of a large audience outside of academia, and seems unaware that, for the time being at least, the Blank Slaters have lost control of the message outside of the ivory towers. For example, the “mainstream media” has embraced the basic premises of evolutionary psychology as if there had never been the least controversy about the subject. This was decidedly not the case in the 1980′s and 90′s. Furthermore, Chagnon seems to think that Blank Slate ideology was less pervasive in other branches of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology, than in cultural anthropology. This was certainly not the case in the United States, though it may have been true to some extent in Europe and elsewhere. In a word, he takes a very cultural anthropology-centric view of the affair. As a result he can certainly see clearly enough what’s going on in his own field. However, the impact of the Blank Slate orthodoxy transcends any one academic baliwick, and he may not see this big picture quite as well.
In any case, all these heresies goaded the ideologues who called the tune in anthropology into a frenzy. As usual, they were none too picky about the ways they chose to strike back. There were, of course, the usual accusations of racism and fascism, and the familiar bowdlerization of anything faintly smacking of evolutionary psychology as “genetic determinism.” A collection of slanders was published by a particularly vile reptile by the name of Patrick Tierney and, to its eternal shame, was uncritically received by the august members of the American Anthropological Association. Those interested in the details of this episode are encouraged to read, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association,” by Alice Dreger. The attacks continue unabated to this day. A typical example of the genre, full of the usual pious grandstanding, by one Lori Allen, another “expert” who was never there may be found here. By all means read her essay. After you reach the 99th ad hominem attack on Chagnon, it may start to dawn on you why I insist on the importance of understanding morality for what it really is. In general, people like Ms. Allen can no more justify the legitimacy of their copious striking of pious poses than the man in the moon.
In the end, Chagnon had the consolation of being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, at which one of his more persistent attackers, Martin Sahlins, resigned. Good riddance! May many more of Sahlins’ fellow obscurantists pursue the same course. It reminds me of the words from my favorite German version of Haydns Creation, after God says, “Let there be light!” (see Google translate. The original libretto was actually in English, but I like the German translation a lot better)
Erstarrt entflieht der Höllengeister Schar
In des Abgrunds Tiefen hinab
Zur ewigen Nacht.
Verzweiflung, Wut und Schrecken
Begleiten ihren Sturz,
Und eine neue Welt
Entspringt auf Gottes Wort.
I may be an atheist, but sometimes a good oratorio hits the spot. Other than that, I can only say I admire Chagnon for his courage, both in enduring the rage of his fellow “scientists,” and in working in conditions in which his life and safety were anything but secure for many years in the pursuit of knowledge. And, by all means, read the book.
UPDATE: Hattip to her ladyship for the hbd-chick-lanche.
Posted on March 26th, 2013 3 comments
New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.” According to Boehm,
In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.
Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.
All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.
Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.
However, something has gone terribly wrong. International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it. As Boehm puts it,
What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.
I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior. My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system? There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them. Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way. However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous. If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system. However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.
Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.
It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy. The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous. Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism? Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences? Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation. However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place. Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality. And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup. There is no Good without Evil. Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us. Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation? Hardly! One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.
I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions. I am, after all, human too. However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it. What’s that you say? It can’t happen here? You have a very short historical memory! By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful. However, let’s leave morality out of it. Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.” Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.
Posted on March 17th, 2013 No comments
History. You don’t know the half of it. Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own. A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists. Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys. They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless. The roles are periodically reversed. For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930′s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity Shlaes. Charles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.
Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be. In that case, they just disappear. Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia. Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades. According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant. The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense. In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact. They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since. It has been futile. Ardrey broke the spell. The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.
Enter Napoleon Chagnon. The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America. Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land. He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks. One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues. If so, however, one would think wrong. Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:
My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.
For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971. By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books. Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier. The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag. At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Chagnon continues,
I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle. What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.
Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology. Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related. More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology. Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).
So much for Robert Ardrey. His shade should smile. Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate. Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous. Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection. The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense. By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976. Why the dismissive attitude? Call it academic tribalism. The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow. It is a lasting insult to their amour propre. They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since. Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology. Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.” In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste. Surely the tribe can do better.
And what of Ardrey? He was certainly sensational enough. How could he not be? After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational. He was a man of many hypotheses. Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.” However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.
The fact that human nature exists and is important: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups: Ardrey 1, experts 0
Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate: Ardrey 1, experts 0
Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The list goes on. Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time. See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968. And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten. As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.” The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead. They have dropped him down the memory hole. Such is history. As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.
Posted on March 11th, 2013 2 comments
Yes, it’s true, there are a lot of leftover Blank Slaters around. They live on in the hermetically sealed halls of academia as sort of a light echo of the Marxist supernova. Still, I count myself lucky to have witnessed the smashing of the absurd orthodoxy they once imposed on the behavioral sciences. Few people pay any attention to them anymore outside of their own echo chambers. That makes it all the more refreshing to see shoots of new life sprouting in the once desiccated wasteland of cultural anthropology.
Consider, for example, the work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, currently a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia. As a young graduate student in 1995, Henrich landed in Peru and began studying the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live by hunting and small-scale farming. In the process, he turned up some very interesting data on the importance of culture in human affairs. As noted in an article entitled, We Aren’t the World, that appeared recently in the Pacific Standard,
While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.
The particular game that Henrich used was the Ultimatum Game (click on the hyperlink for a description), and as the data accumulated, it revealed some rather profound behavioral differences between the Machiguenga and the average North American or European. Again quoting from the Pacific Standard article,
To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
Obviously, “the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring” was not the most parsimonious explanation for this “anomaly.” It was, of course, culture. As Henrich and his collaborators continued their research,
…they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains.
As they say, read the whole thing. I find stories like this tremendously encouraging. Why? In none of Henrich’s papers that I have looked at to date is there any suggestion that anyone who disagrees with him is either a racist or a fascist. In none of them do I detect that he has an ideological ax to grind. In none of them do I detect an implicit rejection of anything smacking of evolutionary psychology. Quite the contrary! In a conversation with an interviewer from Edge.org, for example, Henrich explicitly embraces human nature, suggesting that its evolution was driven by culture. For example, from the interview,
Another area that we’ve worked on is social status. Early work on human status just took humans to have a kind of status that stems from non-human status. Chimps, other primates, have dominant status. The assumption for a long time was that status in humans was just a kind of human version of this dominant status, but if you apply this gene-culture co-evolutionary thinking, the idea that culture is one of the major selection pressures in human evolution, you come up with this idea that there might be a second kind of status. We call this status prestige.
A commitment to something like anti-nepotism norms is something that runs against our evolutionary inclinations and our inclinations to help kin and to invest in long-term close relationships, but it’s crucial for making a large-scale society run. Corruption, things like hiring your brother-in-law and feathering the nest of your close friends and relatives is what really tears down and makes complex societies not work very well. In this sense, the norms of modern societies that make modern societies run now are at odds with at least some of our evolved instincts.
I love that reference to “evolved instincts.” Back in the day the Blank Slaters used to dismiss anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with humans as a troglodyte. “Instincts” were for insects. Humans might (but almost certainly did not) have ”predispositions.” Politicians and debaters are familiar with the gambit. It’s basically a form of intellectual one-upmanship. Of course, neither then or now was anyone ever confused by the use of the term “instinct.” Everyone knew perfectly well in the heyday of the Blank Slate what those who used it were talking about, just as they do now in the context of Henrich’s interview. The pecksniffery associated with its use was more or less equivalent to a physicist striking intellectual poses because someone he disagreed with used the term “work” or “power” in a matter different from their definitions in scientific textbooks.
In short, the work published by Henrich et. al. does not appear to conform to some ideological party line in the interest of some future utopia. It’s intent does not appear to be the enabling of pious poses by the authors as “saviors” of indigenous people. One actually suspects they have written it because it is what they have observed and believe to be the truth!
This sort of work is not only very refreshing, but very necessary. Science advances by way of hypotheses, or what some have called “just so stories.” Truth is approached by the relentless criticism and testing of these ”just so stories.” The havoc wrought in the field of cultural anthropology and many of the other behavioral sciences by the zealots of failed secular religions destroyed their credibility, greatly impairing their usefulness as a source of criticism and testing for the hypotheses of evolutionary psychology, which have been proliferating in such abundance of late. Work like this may eventually restore some semblance of balance. It’s high time. There is no form of knowledge more important to our species than self-knowledge. It is not hyperbole to say that our survival may depend on it.
Posted on March 3rd, 2013 No comments
Back in 2002, Robert Kurzban, who writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, wrote a review of Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, by Steven and Hilary Rose. The Roses, ideological zealots and leftover Blank Slaters who have devoted their careers to scientific obscurantism, had regurgitated all the usual specious arguments against human nature, which had already become hackneyed by that time. Anyone with a passing interest in human behavior likely knows most of them by heart. They include the claim that the hypotheses of EP are unfalsifiable, that evolutionary explanations of human behavior serve evil political ends rather than science, etc. etc., usually topped off with that most ancient and threadbare red herring of them all, that anyone who dares to say anything nice about EP is a “genetic determinist.” In his review, entitled, “Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned,” Kurzban demolishes them all in turn, writing in his conclusion,
There are now a collection of dialogues in the popular press between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. The discussions all seem to have the same form: Critics assert that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what ought be. Evolutionary psychologists reply that they never made any of these claims, and document places where they claim precisely the reverse. The critics then reply that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what should be.
The contradictions between what evolutionary psychologists have said and what their critics have said they said are as clear as they are infuriating. All of the correctives that I have presented here have been discussed before, and all of them are in the pieces cited by the critics of evolutionary psychology. It is unfathomable how the Roses and the other contributors to Alas Poor Darwin could have come away from the primary literature with their impressions of genetic determinism, panglossian adaptationism, and so on.
I suspect that Kurzban fathomed the reasons well enough, even then. Such attacks on EP are not scientific refutations, but propaganda, designed to prop up pseudo-religious ideological shibboleths that happen to be badly out of step with reality. Even then, they already had all the familiar trappings of propaganda, including the “Big Lie”; endless repetition while studiously ignoring counter-arguments. Nothing has changed in the ensuing decade. “Genetic determinism” is still as much a fixture in the screeds of left-over Blank Slaters as ever. Pointing out the absurdity of the charge is as futile as trying to refute the charge of “fascism” by carefully explaining the theory of the corporate state. Razib Khan, who writes the Gene Expression blog for Discover magazine, notes that he was just denounced as a “genetic determinist” for daring to even question the scientific credentials of cultural anthropologists, in a couple of posts that didn’t so much as take up the question of the connection between genes and behavior.
All this points up a fact that is as true now as it was in the days of Galileo. “Science,” understood as a disinterested and cautious search for truth inspired by a spirit of skepticism, can still be as easily derailed by secular religious zealots as it was by the more traditional “spiritual” variety who intimidated Galileo and still fume against Darwin. The puerile myths of the Blank Slate represented the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral “sciences” for decades, propped up, not by a tolerant and open spirit of academic freedom, but by vilification and intimidation of anyone who dared to step out of line. Evolutionary psychologists are hardly the only victims, but they are probably the most prominent. They have the misfortune of representing an idea that happens to tread on far more ideological toes than most. Blank Slate orthodoxy is hardly unique in that regard.
For example, one of the common hypotheses of evolutionary psychology that there may be an innate component of human morality immediately elicits a “territorial defense” response from the legions of those who spend their time devising new moral systems for the edification of mankind. Most of them spend their time cobbling elaborate proofs of the existence of the Good just as their intellectual forebears once concocted proofs of the existence of God. Consider, for example, the case of the author of the Atheist Ethicist blog, who has demonstrated that, because a equals b and b equals c, it therefore follows that anyone who dares to claim that there is “an evolutionary basis for morality” is immoral. To make a long story short, the “ethicist” believes that those insidious evolutionary psychologists are not limiting themselves to studying the “is” of human moral behavior, but have a disquieting tendency to lap over into the “ought,” a territory which he has reserved for himself and his revolutionary moral system of “desire utilitarianism.” He does not actually name any specific examples of the most egregious of these evildoers, but no doubt we can trust him given his unique moral qualifications.
It isn’t difficult to find similar examples illustrating why the ideologically inspired find EP such a tempting target. However, the fact that it is is a stroke of very bad luck for our species. After all, EP is a field devoted to expanding our understanding of our selves, and there is no more critical knowledge than self-knowledge. For example, what if the greed of evil corporations, or the imperialist pretentions of certain uniquely evil races, or “frustration” don’t turn out to be completely adequate and all-encompassing explanations of human warfare after all? Is it really possible to know with absolute certainty that innate behavioral traits play no role whatsoever? If they do, the failure to discover and understand them may threaten our very survival. I happen to prefer survival to the alternative. For that reason, it seems to me that the time for refuting such charges as “genetic determinism” with patient, reasoned arguments is past. It is high time to begin fighting back against the ideological zealots with the same weapons they have long been using against their victims.
Posted on February 10th, 2013 No comments
Procopius was one of the greatest of the Roman historians (or slightly post-Roman if you insist that the Empire “fell” in 476 A.D.). He wrote during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. As he was the personal secretary of the brilliant general Belisarius, his works are full of first hand accounts of the great man’s many victories against the Persians, Vandals, and Goths. These include many fascinating and touching anecdotes, such as finding a young boy, obviously from a wealthy family because he was wearing a gold chain, abandoned by his mother on the side of the road just as the invading Persian armies were approaching; of a Hun in Belisarius’ little army of mercenary barbarians who became depressed, perhaps because he was so far from home, and one day rode out alone among the enemy Goths, killing many of them before being cut down himself; of Belisarius’ men’s consternation at his laughter when, besieged in Rome, the vast host of Goths outside sent massive seige towers against them that overtopped the walls. Belisarius merely let them come on until they were within range, drew back his bow, and shot down one of the oxen pulling the towers. After his men had finished off the rest, they realized why Belisarius had been laughing.
Some of the other stories Procopius recounts were picked up by hearsay, or from books, and many are little more than glorified fairy tales. Like the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, though, they often provide some insight into human nature. One of them is the story of the pearl, apparently well known among the Persians of the time. As the story goes, an oyster on the Persian coast produced a fabulous pearl, which it like to display between its open valves. A shark fell in love with the beautiful gem, and could only leave off looking at it when, at long intervals, it was forced by hunger to search for food. A fisherman saw what was going on, and reported the whole matter to the Persian king, Perozes. According to Procopius,
Now when Perozes heard his account, they say that a great longing for the pearl came over him, and he urged on this fisherman with many flatteries and hopes of reward. Unable to resist the importunities of the monarch, he is said to have addressed Perozes as follows: “My master, precious to a man is money, more precious is his life, but most prized of all are his children; and being naturally constrained by his love for them a man might perhaps dare anything. Now I intend to make trial of the monster, and hope to make thee master of the pearl. And if I succeed in this struggle, it is plain that henceforthf shall be ranked among those who are counted blessed. For it is not unlikely that thou, as King of Kings, wilt reward me with all good things; and for me it will be sufficient, even if it so fall out that I gain no reward, to have shewn myself a benefactor of my master. But if it must needs be that I become the prey of this monster, they task indeed it will be, O King, to requite my children for their father’s death. Thus even after my death I shall still be a wage-earner among those closest to me, and thou wilt win greater fame for thy goodness, – for in helping my children though wilt confer a boon upon me.
Predictably, the shark caught up with the poor fisherman, but not before he was able to throw the pearl to his companions on shore. If there’s any truth to the story, his children did very well. The Persian kings apparently took such matters very seriously. One of them, Isdigerdes, was named the guardian of the child of the Roman emperor Arcadius just before the latter’s death. The King of Kings took immediate charge of the child, and threatened immediate invasion and death to anyone who presumed to harm him or usurp his place.
Another interesting story turns up in the same book (Book I, History of the Wars) a few pages later. It seemed that certain persons had impugned the loyalty of the Armenian client king Arsaces to his Persian overlord Pacurius. The latter invited Arsaces to his capital, where he was made a prisoner. However, he was in a quandry as to whether the Armenian was really guilty or not, and solicited advice from his wisemen, the Magi. Again, letting Procopius pick up the tale,
Now the Magi deemed it by no means just to condemn men who denied their guilt and had not been explicitly found guilty, but they suggested to him an artifice by whicdh Arsaces himself might be compelled to become openly his own accuser. They bade him cover the floor of the royal tent with earth, one half from the land of Persia, and the other half from Armenia. This the king did as directed. Then the Magi, after putting the whole tent under a spell by means of some magic rites, bade the king take his walk there in company with Arsaces, reproaching him meanwhile with having violated the sworn agreement. They said, further, that they too must be present at the conversation, for in this way there would be witnesses of all that was said. Accordingly Pacurius straightway summoned Arsaces, and beganf to walk to and fro with him in the tent in the presence of the Magi; he enquired of the man why he had disregarded his sworn promises, and was setting about to harass the Persians and Armenians once more with grievous troubles. Now as long as the conversation too place on the ground which was covered with the earth from the land of Persia, Arsaces continued to make denial, and, pledging himself with the fearful oaths, insisted that he was a faithful subject of Pacurius. But when, in the midst of his speaking, he came to the center of the tent where they stepped upon Armenian earth, then, compelled by some unknown power, he suddenly changed the tone of his words to one of defiance, and from then on ceased not to threaten Pacurius and the Persians, announcing that he would have vengeance upon them for this insolence as soon as he should become his own master. These words of youthful folly he continued to utter as they walked all the way, until turning back, he came again to the earth from the Persian land. Thereupon, as if chanting a recantation, he was once more a suppliant, offering pitiable explanations to Pacurius. But when he came again to the Armenian earth, he returned to his threats.
As I mentioned in my last post, Razib Khan at Discover’s Gene Expression blog just wrote,
…cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.
I am not so pessimistic. I think they might yet recover if they read more ancient fairy tales, and stopped inventing new ones of their own.
Posted on February 8th, 2013 No comments
Razib Khan, who writes Discover Magazine’s Gene Expression blog, has been a bit testy lately about some unusually vile ad hominem attacks being directed at Jared Diamond by some of the usual suspects among the pathologically pious faction of cultural anthropologists and miscellaneous self-appointed saviors of indigenous peoples. It seems that Diamond, author of such bestsellers as Guns, Germs, and Steel, and by all accounts safely on the left of the ideological spectrum, has been unmasked as a closet colonialist, imperialist, admirer of Cecil Rhodes, and pawn of evil global corporations. Razib’s response to all this:
I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated.
I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology.
and, more poetically,
Many cultural anthropologists believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.
I wouldn’t go quite that far, and, in fact, the people at Survival International who were responsible for giving Razib the final nudge over the top don’t actually claim to be cultural anthropologists, but I must admit it’s a nice turn of phrase. You can read the rest of what he had to say here and here. While I, too, have taken a rather dim view of Diamond’s books, I can only heartily agree with Razib when he says,
Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies.
And with that lengthy preamble, let me finally get to the point of this post. It has to do with something else Razib wrote in the articles linked above, namely,
As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter.
To this, a commenter replied,
There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.
I side with Razib on this one. Appeasement has never worked against self-righteous ideological zealots of any stripe. To this, an insightful reader who’s been following my blog for a while might reply, “But how can you favor responding to morally based attacks with morally based attacks? You don’t believe in morality!” Of course, that’s not quite accurate. I do believe in morality as the expression of subjective emotions whose existence ultimately depends on evolved behavioral traits. I don’t believe in transcendental morality, e.g., the existence of Good and Evil as objects, or things in themselves. For that reason I see the morally loaded attacks on Diamond that Khan objects to for what they really are; a self-righteous and self-interested display of moral emotions that have become disconnected from the “purpose” those emotions evolved to serve; the propagation and survival of the genes of the phenotypes from which the attacks are emanating. Or, to put it in the vernacular, they are absurd. They are being mounted by people who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of something that doesn’t exist; objective Good. They are not mounted because they are really likely to save anyone, but because they give pleasure to those who pose as saviors.
In spite of that, they are potentially very effective, are demonstrably very destructive, and are certainly not to be defeated by calm, scientific refutation. One must fight fire with fire, or accept defeat. Call it doublethink if you will. Essentially, I am advocating the use of a weapon whose existence is based on the premise that there is such a thing as objective Good, when there quite clearly is not. However, we are a moral species, and these battles are carried out in the realm of moral emotions, not reason. Jonathan Haidt even goes so far as to suggest that our rational minds themselves only exist to serve as advocates for those emotions. This is not a question of moral “shoulds,” but of mere practicality. Those who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of the Good in itself are not to be dissuaded by calm logic. Let history judge. How often were the fanatical zealots of such spiritual religions as Christianity and Islam, or such secular religions as Communism and Nazism, persuaded they were wrong by patient, reasoned argument? All of them were extremely effective at exploiting moral emotions as a weapon. One can either pick up that weapon and fight back, or sit back and await the pleasure of one’s enemies.
Posted on February 6th, 2013 No comments
The importance of self-understanding seems self-evident. Our species is quite capable of committing suicide. If we can learn why it is we tend to behave in some ways and not in others, our chances of avoiding that fate will be much improved. That’s why it’s a matter of no small concern that the behavioral sciences were hijacked over a period of several decades by ideological zealots, who succeeded in imposing the false orthodoxy that human nature doesn’t matter; the so-called Blank Slate. In spite of the obvious significance of these events, very little effort has been devoted to understanding why and how they happened, and how they might be prevented from happening again. I can think of nothing more important for the behavioral sciences to study and understand than the reasons for their own ideologically induced collapse. So far, however, very little is happening along those lines. Anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists are cheerfully churning out books and papers about evolved human nature as if the whole episode never happened, in spite of the fact that much of it took place within living memory.
In fact, the manner in which the false orthodoxy was imposed had nothing to do with science. It was accomplished by people who were, for all practical purposes, religious zealots, using the time-tested methods that have always been used to impose orthodoxy; vilification, psychological terrorism, ad hominem attacks, and self-righteous posing. The only difference between the zealots of the Blank Slate and more traditional religious fanatics was the secular rather than spiritual nature of the gods they served.
I recently ran across an interesting example of genre fossilized on the Internet. It took the form of an attack on Robert Ardrey, bête noir of the Blank Slaters of his day, and the most effective and influential opponent they ever had to deal with. It was couched in the form of a book review written by one Carroll Quigley, a professor of history at Georgetown. The work in question was Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and all the usual gambits are there; the assumption of superior scientific gravitas, the dismissal of opponents as “pop psychologists,” the copious invention of strawmen, topped off with moralistic posing and denunciations of the “sins” of the unbelievers.
Quigley begins with his version of the “pop psychology” canard:
…in this book there is no more science than there is in a comic strip. As an entertainer, Ardrey is the Scheherazade of the present day, telling tales about strange animals, in far off places and in remote times, with every assurance that they are true, but, like the Arabian Nights, it is foolish to worry about how true they are, they are so unbelievable and so glib.
That would have been news to the people whose work Ardrey quoted. They were usually chosen from among the most well-known and respected researchers of their day, who described the behavior of animals that, far from being far off or remote, were often quite common. Geoffrey Gorer, himself a Blank Slater, but one who managed to preserve some semblance of common decency, observed that,
Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.
…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.
It’s not clear why Quigley thought he was qualified to lecture Ardrey on animal behavior in the first place. He certainly had no claim to expertise in the field. However, he so distorted what Ardrey had to say on the subject that his expertise was irrelevant in any case. For example, he writes,
It is true that Ardrey has read a great deal about animal behavior, but he never seems to grasp what it all means, and his biases prevent him from seeing what is really there. For example, he gives the impression that he is constantly exploring Africa, watching lions with George Schaller, or chatting with the world’s greatest experts about elephants. He tells us that he “made a general survey of predatory communities” in Africa in 1968, but his ignorance of lions is so great that he misunderstands most of what he sees, reads, or is told. For example, one afternoon, Ardrey and his wife roused a lioness “a few hundred yards” from a herd of browsing impala. Two of the impala came over to see the lioness as it sought another sleeping place, while the others “never for a moment stopped eating.” Ardrey was amazed at this, but decided that he could not say that the impala were “suicidal” since the lioness was so sleepy. Then he adds, “Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.”
This is typical of the ponderous way Ardrey covers his ignorance. Despite his claims of intimacy with Schaller, who studied lions in Africa over three years, 1966-1969, Ardrey apparently does not know that killing by a lion (1) is not motivated by “antagonism”; (2) almost never takes place in the middle of the day; (3) is never directed at an animal which is looking at the lion; and (4) the attack never is made from a distance of over 40 to 50 yards. Ardrey will find these rules stated by R. D. Estes in Natural History for February and March 1967 or by Schaller in National Geographic for April 1969. The latter says, “The lion must stalk to within a few feet of a potential victim before its rush has much chance of success. Prey animals are fully aware of the lion’s limitations. They have learned how near to a lion they may wander without danger of attack—usually to within about 120 feet. This leads to ludicrous situations . . . A visible lion is a safe lion.” Need I add that Ardrey’s “suicidal” impala were about 500 feet from danger.
To see that this critique is not only preposterous but a deliberate and malicious distortion of what Ardrey actually said, one need only read the passage in question. I found it on page 76 of my hard cover copy of The Social Contract, and it can be seen by clicking on the “Order and Disorder” chapter and scrolling down at the above link to book. It is worth quoting in full:
One afternoon we passed an all-male herd of twenty or twenty-five browsing impala, then a few hundred yards away came on a lioness sleeping under a tree. Approaching her too closely, we disturbed her. She rose, and for the first time was observed by the impala. We could hear the instant far off snort. Now the lioness moved away at deliberate pace toward another tree and another spot of shade. Immediately two impala detached themselves from their fellows and came running after her, sending back to the party repeated warning snorts. When she settled herself again, the two still lingered, watching tensely, giving their occasional snorts. Not until she had most evidently gone back to sleep did they trot away to rejoin their fellows, who never for a moment had stopped eating.
One cannot say that the two impala had accepted risks of a suicidal nature by following a lioness as sleepy as this one. Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.
The observant reader will notice that Ardrey never expressed “amazement,” did not take the possibility seriously that the impala were “suicidal,” obviously had no intent of using the term “antagonism” as a scientifically rigorous description of lion behavior, and nowhere stated the minimum distance between the impala and the lion was either 500 feet or any other distance. He is merely using a personal anecdote to illustrate a point, and nowhere makes any claims, express or implied, about the feeding behavior of lions that would in any way justify Quigley’s gratuitous blather on the subject.
A familiar tactic of the old Blank Slaters was the blowing of smokescreens with scientific jargon. For example, they furiously pounced on anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with human beings. “Instinct,” you see, was reserved for such programmed behavior as the building of nests by insects, and using to refer to open-ended predispositions became an inexcusable sin. Nowadays, of course, “instinct” is back in fashion as a vernacular term, and no one seems particularly confused when it is applied to humans. Here’s Quigley’s version of the smokescreen:
Moreover, this slovenly thinking, which ignores the distinction between animal societies and human societies, also ignores the distinction between social acts and biological actions. Thus he says that “the social life” of a leopard is “limited to a few occasional hours of copulation;” copulation is biological, not social, just as parturition is. The whole book is filled with his confusions of quite distinct things in this way.
I really doubt that anyone, except, perhaps, Quigley, was confused by Ardrey’s “unscientific” use of the term “social life” to describe copulation in leopards. Fortunately, the physicists have not seen fit to go around correcting everyone who doesn’t use terms like “work,” “energy,” “power,” etc., as they are defined in the scientific jargon. The substitution of jargon for the vernacular in this context would likely be similarly unhelpful.
Just as with the polemics exchanged between the iconoclasts and the iconodules, or the believers in Communion in both kinds with the believers in Communion in only one kind, such “reviews” usually conclude with the striking of moralistic poses and the raining down of anathemas on the object of the author’s ire. Quigley’s was no exception. Here is how “science” was enforced by the Blank Slaters:
Fundamentally, Ardrey is a racist, devoted to a belief in human inequality and unfreedom, an enemy of social “disorder” which must be suppressed by authority because man is a predatory, violent, aggressive creature, compelled by irresistible hereditary compulsion to war over territory. These are fascist ideas, and, in this book, Ardrey is doing for America what Treitschke, H. S. Chamberlain, Alfred Rosenberg, and others did for Germany: preparing an intellectual basis for fascist political action.
That Ardrey believed none of the things Quigley attributes to him in the above quote is a fact familiar to anyone who has actually read his books. He was, in fact, a liberal of the far left who nearly became a Communist himself at one point, or at least he was until he became familiar with the real nature of “progressive” ideologues in the school of hard knocks. None of this mattered to the “scientist” Quigley, who was intent on character assassination, not uncovering the truth. Comically enough, this ringing tribute to freedom of thought appeared a few paragraphs after Quigley piously observed that Ardrey seemed to think that the truth was being suppressed by the scientific establishment, and that,
The reasons for this conspiracy are not stated, but it seems to be partly because the established don’t want these brilliant young researchers, whom Ardrey has found, to eclipse them and show them up for the old fuddy-duddies that they are. Partly also for more secret political reasons related to Ardrey’s idea that there is a profoundly unscientific liberal establishment which is based on a number of lies like equality, democracy, and freedom (!) which makes it necessary for them to want to suppress the scientists that Ardrey is reporting on.
Not the least interesting bit in Quigley’s opus is the manner in which he actually slips in the knife, the ideological shibboleth of the Blank Slate cloaked in the mantle of science, quite unobtrusively midway through the review:
Ardrey tries to tell us what man is like. He insists that man is simply an animal (which implies that animals are simply men). This is, of course, contrary to general scientific belief, which holds that man evolved from an animal when his survival shifted from dependence upon inherited behavior to dependence upon learned behavior.
This, of course, is the actual point of all the browbeating and histrionic posing. Failing this “scientific fact” all the cherished utopias of the Blank Slaters collapse like a house of cards. Indeed, the most prominent of them, Communism, collapsed quite spectacularly, exposing Quigley’s “general scientific belief” as one of history’s most successful and damaging hoaxes in the process.
Posted on January 22nd, 2013 No comments
In the last couple of posts I’ve been looking at some of the more interesting responses to the “annual question” at Edge.org. This year’s question was, “What *Should” we be Worried About,” and answers were submitted by a select group of 155 public intellectuals, scientists, philosophers, etc. An answer that is interesting if only because it is counterintuitive was submitted by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological science and neurology at Stanford. In his response, entitled, “The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches,” we find that Sapolsky is worried that we will make wrong choices because we don’t have free will. In his words,
I don’t think that there is Free will. The conclusion first hit me in some sort of primordial ooze of insight when I was about 13-years old, and that conclusion has only become stronger since then. What worries me is that despite the fact that I think this without hesitation, there are times that it is simply too hard to feel as if there is no free will, to believe that, to act accordingly. What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will. And that this can have some pretty bad consequences.
But it is so difficult to really believe that there is no free will, when so many of the threads of causality are not yet known, or are as intellectually inaccessible as having to automatically think about the behavioral consequences of everything from the selective pressures of hominid evolution to what someone had for breakfast. This difficulty is something that we should all worry about.
To this, I can only answer, “Why?” Why be worried about things you can do absolutely nothing about? Why be worried that people won’t “truly act as if there is no free will” when it is perfectly obvious that, lacking free will, they can have no choice in the matter? Why be worried about how difficult it is to “really believe that there is no free will” if we have not the faintest control over what we believe? This is supposed to be a difficulty we all “should” worry about? Surely it must be obvious that “should” is a completely meaningless term in a world without free will. “Should” implies the freedom to choose between alternatives. Remove free will, and that freedom is removed with it. Remove free will and worry becomes absurd. Why worry about something you can do nothing about? It makes no more sense than poisoning your whole life by constantly worrying about the inevitability of death.
I by no means mean to imply that I am taking sides one way or the other on the question of whether we have free will. I am simply pointing out that the very suggestion that we worry about it implies that we do. If we have no free will then the question of whether we will worry about it or not is completely out of our control. In that case it turns out I am in that happy category of people who are not worried about it. If we do have free will, then the rationale for worrying about the lack of it is removed. In either case, I am happy to report, I have no worries.
Neither do I imply any disrespect of Prof. Sapolsky, a brilliant man whose work I admire regardless of whether I have any choice in the matter or not. See, for example, his work on the Toxo parasite, which strongly suggests that we must throw manipulation by other species into the mix along with genes and culture if we are ever to gain a complete understanding of human behavior. Work of this kind, by the way, is so critical to the human condition that it cries out for replication. There are only a few groups in the world doing similar work, and one must hope that they are not so intent on charging ahead with their own research that they neglect the scientific imperative of checking the work of their peers.
On the lighter side, readers of Prof. Sapolsky’s response will note that he throws in the disclaimer, “… lack of free will doesn’t remotely equal anything about genetic determinism.” The Blank Slaters must have gotten to him! In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is not nor has there ever been such a beast as a “genetic determinist.” They are as rare as unicorns. The term was invented by cultural determinists to use in ad hominem attacks on anyone who dared to suggest that our behavior might actually be influenced by something other than environment and learning. Their ideology requires them to blindly insist that “there is no evidence whatsoever” that anything but culture influences our behavior, just as the fundamentalist Christian must blindly insist that “there is not one iota of evidence for Darwinian evolution,” and the right wing ideologue must blindly insist that “there is not the faintest scrap of evidence for global warming.” Of course, Prof. Sapolsky has just supplied even more compelling evidence that they are wrong.
In closing, I will include a poetic statement of Prof. Sapolsky’s philosophy by Edward Fitzgerald, who cloaked his own world view in his whimsical “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:
With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,
And there of the last harvest sow’s the seed,
And the first morning of creation wrote,
what the last dawn of reckoning shall read.
Posted on January 21st, 2013 No comments
The 155 intellectuals chosen by Edge.org to answer their annual question, (What *Should” we be Worried About?), were worried about a number of other interesting things besides Geoffrey Miller’s Chinese eugenics, discussed in my last post. One of these, which turned up in the contribution of philosopher Helena Cronin was the continuing rejection of evolved human nature, a subject I’ve also often discussed. Her worry is not overblown. The Blank Slaters may be in retreat, but they have hardly disappeared. One still often finds them grumbling on the sidelines of evolutionary psychology. Cronin refers to the phenomenon as a scientific ”asymmetry,” which she describes as, “the discrepancy between the objective status of the science and its denigration by a clamorous crowd of latter-day Blakes.” (Painter and printmaker William Blake was a furious opponent of the Enlightenment whose famous print of Newton, shown below, depicts him as the embodiment of “desiccated rationality and soulless materialism.”) Her “worry” is worth quoting at length:
Generally, the public reception of a scientific theory concurs by and large with the judgement of the objective world of ideas. Not, however, in the case of the scientific understanding of our evolved human nature and, above all, male and female natures. If the arguments against the evolutionary science of human nature were conducted in the world of the objective content of ideas, there would be no contest; evolutionary theory would win hands down. But, as a sociological fact, in the public market-place it loses disastrously against its vociferous critics.
How? Because, in a complete reversal of the objective relationship between the science and these critics, all the asymmetries are reversed.
First, the burden of ‘proof’, the burden of argument, is transferred from the criticisms onto the science; it is Darwinism that’s on trial. Meanwhile, anti-Darwinian attitudes don’t have to defend themselves—they are accepted uncritically; the standards for judgement of these views involve all-too-ready credibility and suspensions of disbelief.
Second, adding insult to injury, a plethora of home-made alternatives is conjured up to fill the gap where the real science should be. This DIY-science includes: pseudo-methodological denunciations, where mere name-callings suffice—essentialist, reductivist, teleological, Panglossian (all very bad) and politically incorrect (very bad indeed); the immutable ‘entanglement’ of nature and nurture, which renders nature impenetrable—thereby freeing ‘pure nurture’ to be discussed at length; a cavalier disregard for hard-won empirical evidence—though with a penchant for bits of brains lighting up (no; I don’t know either); the magical potency of ‘stereotyping’ (bad) and ‘role models’ (good); a logic-defying power to work miracles on tabula-rasa psychologies, as in ‘socialisation’ (bad) and ‘empowerment’ (good); made-up mechanisms, even though discredited—multi-tasking, self-esteem, stereotype threat; complaints of ‘controversial’ and ‘tendentious’ – which are true sociologically but false scientifically (a case of raising the dust and then complaining they cannot see). The science-free policy that this generates is epitomised by the ‘women into science’ lobby, which is posited on a ‘bias and barriers’ assumption and an a priori rejection of—yes, the science of sex differences.
This mish-mash is low on scientific merit. But it is not treated as opinion versus science. On the contrary, psychologically and sociologically, it has a voice far more influential and persuasive than its objective status warrants.
This double standard applied to evolutionary psychology, or “asymmetry,” as Cronin puts it, is hardly a figment of her imagination. It’s obvious to anyone not wearing blinkers. See, for example, evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban’s blog, where he is constantly fending off just such “asymmetrical” attacks as Cronin describes. The obscurantist “not in our genes” orthodoxy the Blank Slaters managed to prop up for so many decades in the behavioral sciences may have been broken, but they are still around. I suspect we will continue to detect their stench from the sidelines for some time, along with that of the old Marxists who spawned them.
There were some related comments in the bit submitted by anthropologist John Tooby. Tooby is described by Edge, without batting an eye, as “the founder of the field of evolutionary psychology.” Apparently the ever-fluid “history” of the field has been revised again, and I didn’t even notice. One can only speculate that the last “founder of the field of evolutionary psychology,” E. O. Wilson, has been deposed because of his embrace of group selection. Be that as it may, in his contribution, embellished with the catchy title, “Unfriendly Physics, Monsters From The Id, And Self-Organizing Collective Delusions,” Tooby cites a number of existential threats to the survival of mankind, and suggests that we may be ill-equipped to deal with them because of the way we do science. As he puts it, scientists are no more immune than anyone else to “the self-organizing collective delusions that we all participate in, and mistake for reality.” Elaborating on this theme, he writes,
Because intellectuals are densely networked in self-selecting groups whose members’ prestige is linked (for example, in disciplines, departments, theoretical schools, universities, foundations, media, political/moral movements, and other guilds), we incubate endless, self-serving elite superstitions, with baleful effects: Biofuel initiatives starve millions of the planet’s poorest. Economies around the world still apply epically costly Keynesian remedies despite the decisive falsification of Keynesian theory by the post-war boom (government spending was cut by 2/3, 10 million veterans dumped into the labor force, while Samuelson predicted “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced”). I personally have been astonished over the last four decades by the fierce resistance of the social sciences to abandoning the blank slate model in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is false. As Feynman pithily put it, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
I heartily concur. Behavioral scientists, in particular, would do well to turn their gaze inward for a change, and explain to the rest of us how they could have been so wrong about something so critical to us all for so long as human nature.