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  • “Dangerous” by Milo Yiannopoulos; A Review

    Posted on July 16th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Back in February the legacy media was gloating over the demise of Milo Yiannopoulos.  Apparently the Left’s faux outrage machine had successfully smeared him over some unguarded comments he made about his sexual relationships as a young teenager.  These were construed as “support for pedophilia,” which they decidedly were not as anyone can see who listens to what he actually said.  No matter, Simon and Schuster cancelled his book deal, CPAC rescinded their speaking invitation, and even Breitbart caved, accepting his resignation as their technical editor.  It would seem Milo’s enemies gloated too soon.  He self-published his book, which currently sits at number two on the New York Times list of best sellers for combined ebook and print nonfiction.

    What to make of Milo, his book, and the public reaction to it?  When it comes to human behavior, the answer is always the same; go back to Darwin.  Forget the futile game of arguing about who is “good” and who is “evil.”  These categories exist only as subjective mental constructs, and are manifestations of emotions, not reason.  In short, they are figments of our imaginations.  Instead, look for the evolved emotional traits and predispositions that are driving the behavior.

    For starters, it’s always a good idea to look at ingroups and their associated outgroups.  They are a universal and fundamental aspect of human behavior, and they will always be there, along with all their associated loyalties and hatreds, as well as the dual system of morality human beings apply depending on whether they are speaking of one or the other.  They are also one of the most “dysfunctional” aspects of human behavior.  The innate traits responsible evolved at a time when the ingroup consisted of the relatively small group of hunter-gatherers to which one belonged, and the outgroup almost automatically became a similar group living in the next territory over.  At that time ingroup/outgroup behavior obviously increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, our brains became bigger, and we began associating in ever larger groups.  Our powers of imagination expanded with our brains, and we became capable of identifying our ingroups and outgroups based not merely on physical proximity, but on race, religion, class, ethnicity, ideology and a host of other criteria.  There is no reason to believe that such “modified” versions of the behavior will accomplish the same thing now that they did then.  In fact, there is good reason to believe they will accomplish exactly the opposite.

    In this case, Milo makes it easy for us to identify the relevant ingroups.  They are each identified in the title of a chapter of his book, and Milo has the honor of belonging squarely in the outgroup of every one of them.  They include feminists (chapter 4), Black Lives Matter (chapter 5), Muslims (chapter 9), and so on.  Many of them either overlap or have some affinity with the most significant of them all, the Progressive Left (chapter 1).  The Progressive Left is an ingroup that defines itself according to ideology.  In other words, the boundaries of its “territory” consist of a set of ideological shibboleths.  As set forth by a member of this ingroup in a review of Dangerous, these shibboleths are supposed to promote a “fair, multicultural, egalitarian society.”  A fundamental theme of Milo’s book is that, in fact, the Progressive Left is creating a profoundly unfair, divisive society that, far from being egalitarian, is based on a rigid hierarchy of identity groups.  In his words,

    We live in an age where one side of the political spectrum would like all debate, all challenge to their viewpoints, all diversity of thought to be snuffed out.  Why?  Because they’re scared.  Scared that their political, social and cultural consensus, carefully constructed and nurtured over the past few years, with its secular religions of feminism, enforced diversity, multiculturalism, and casual hatred for straight, white men, is built on a foundation of sand.

    The response of the Left to this assault on its ideology has been typical of ingroup responses that transcend species.  They have made a furious rush to defend their ideologically defined territory, filled with rage towards this presumptuous outgrouper, for all the world like a pack of howler monkeys defending its turf.  In a word, Milo is right.  They do hate him.  Leftist reviews of the book include such well-reasoned responses as,

    America now faces greater problems than the mean-spirited shitposts of a preening hack.

    Why any troll, racist, sexist, or teenager would pay for the version of Dangerous this draft presents when it exists on 4chan in endless supply is a mystery. At least the hatred there is more interesting.

    He’s a clickbait grifter who has made a name for himself spewing hate speech.

    Read them and you will find claims that the book is boring (it’s not), that it’s not selling (it sold out almost immediately on Amazon), that it discusses issues that are so yesterday (they aren’t yesterday for people who don’t happen to be obsessed with social media), and, of course, the de rigueur claims that the book is racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and so on.  What you won’t find, or at least I haven’t found so far, are well-reasoned arguments against any of the major themes of the book.  That’s not surprising.  The Left has now controlled the media, the academy, and the arts for so long that its ability to engage in rational argument has begun to atrophy.  Instead, it seeks to bully, vilify, and bludgeon its opponents into submission.  Conscious of its power, it has become increasingly authoritarian.  Hence its fury at the “deplorables” who dared to defy it in the recent election, and its determination to refuse legitimacy to the results of that defiance.

    Allow me to provide a brief tutorial on how such a rational argument might actually look.  In his book, Milo cites statistics according to which blacks are responsible for a disproportionate level of violence and crime in our society.  A rational response would be that the statistics are wrong, and that levels of violence and crime among blacks are comparable to those among other ethnic groups.  Concerning the gender pay gap Milo writes,

    Study after study show the wage gap shrinks to nonexistence when relevant, non-sexist factors like chosen career paths, chosen work hours and chosen career discontinuity are taken into account.  They key word is chosen… The wage gap is almost entirely explained by women’s choices.  Men prefer technical jobs; women prefer people-oriented professions.

    As Christina Hoff Sommers says, “Want to close the wage gap?  Step one:  Change your major from feminist dance therapy to electrical engineering.”

    A rational response would be to cite studies that demonstrate a systematic pay gap between men and women in identical jobs, or evidence of verifiable attempts to discourage women from choosing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.  Regarding Islam, Milo writes,

    Islam is not like other religions.  It’s more inherently prescriptive and it’s much more political.  That’s why I, a free speech fundamentalist, still support banning the burka and restricting Islamic immigration… Everywhere Islam exists you find political tyranny.  Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion, which is why limits on it are perfectly compatible with religious freedom and the First Amendment… Every noble principle the Left claims to uphold, from rights for women to gay liberation, even diversity itself, dies on the altar of its sycophantic defense of Islam.

    A rational response would be to demonstrate that the Muslim religion doesn’t inject itself into politics, that the states in which it prevails tend to be secular democracies, that Muslim theocracies are tolerant of gays, and they promote equal rights for women.  I have seen no such responses in any of the many attacks on Yiannopoulos and his book.  Instead, they tend to confirm his claim that,

    The practitioners of the new political correctness are not equipped for a world in which individuals can disagree with what is deemed appropriate thought.  They rely on silencing the opposition with hysterics, instead of winning with superior ideas… Purposefully or unwittingly, a generation of Americans now exists that is terrified of critical thinking.

    In other words, the Progressive Left seldom meets the arguments of Yiannopoulos or anyone else head on.  Instead they rely on the illusion that they occupy the moral high ground, and seek to vilify and anathematize their opponents.  Unfortunately, outside of the subjective consciousness of individuals, there is no such thing as a moral high ground.  Claims to moral superiority can never be objectively legitimate.  They exist in a realm of fantasy where good and evil exist as independent things.

    In spite of the Left’s anathemas, Dangerous is well worth reading.  Yiannopoulos is a very intelligent man, and his book reflects the fact.  He is well aware of the role of innate emotions and predispositions as drivers of human behavior.  In particular, he is aware of the fundamental importance of ingroup/outgroup behavior, or what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”  As he writes in Dangerous,

    Since the 1970s, social psychologists have been aware that emphasizing differences between groups leads to mistrust and hostility.  In a series of landmark experiments, the psychologist Henri Tajfel found that even wearing different-colored shirts was enough for groups to begin displaying signs of mistrust.  So guess what happens when you tell everyone that their worth, their ability, their right to speak on certain subjects and – shudder – their “privilege” is, like original sin, based on what they were born with, rather than any choices they’ve made or who they are?

    Like the men’s health gap, the black murder gap is very real, and simply isn’t discussed by black activists.  I suspect it’s a matter of tribalism, or ingroup/outgroup psychology, a common occurrence in politics.  Like feminists who blame their everyday grievances on an invisible “patriarchy,” or Wi-Fi enabled Waffen-SS wannabes who think Jews are responsible for everything bad, or Democrats who blame the Russians for Hillary losing the election to Daddy.  It’s very easy to dodge responsibility if you have a boogeyman to lump the blame on.

    These quotes reflect a level of awareness that most leftists never reach.  They also allude to the reason that the utopias they are in the habit of concocting for us have never worked.  An ingroup can be as egalitarian as it pleases, but the assumption that the identity groups they invite to inhabit their multicultural world will necessarily be similarly altruistic is delusional.  Ingroups and outgroups will always exist, and they will always hate each other, as demonstrated by the bitter hatreds leftists themselves tend to wear on their sleeves.  Until the innate behavioral traits responsible for ingroup/outgroup behavior and the dual morality inevitably associated with it are understood, accepted, and a way is found to effectively control them, they will continue to be as dangerous as ever.

    The book is an interesting read for many other reasons.  Its detractors dismiss discussions of such controversies as Gamergate as water under the bridge, but they should be of interest to readers who aren’t obsessed with the very latest twists and turns in the culture wars.  Such readers may also have heard little or nothing of the many contemporary thinkers mentioned in the book who, like Yiannopoulos, are challenging the dogmas of his opponents.  Their work is seldom found in newspaper columns, and the book is a useful guide on where to look for them in contemporary social media.  Other than that it includes some thought provoking comments on Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream from culture,” the reasons for the counterintuitive nexus between the Progressive Left and radical Islam, the remarkable cultural similarity between current “conservative” and “liberal” elites outside of superficial political differences revealed to the surprise of many in the recent election, the many contradictions between the avowed ideals of the Progressive Left and the other “haters” called out in the book and the various forms of racism, sexism and bigotry they practice in the real world, and so on.

    Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is something it has in common with virtually every other similar work you’re likely to find, whether it comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.  It tries to counter claims of moral superiority with claims of its own moral superiority.  One can “win” such a contest by being more effective at manipulating moral emotions than ones opponents, but in the end it is an irrational, dangerous, and futile game.  Consider what is actually being manipulated – innate emotions and predispositions that have no intrinsic purpose or function, but exist merely because they happened to improve the odds that certain genes would survive and reproduce.  There is certainly no guarantee that they will even accomplish the same thing in an environment so radically different from the one in which they evolved as the one we live in today.  On top of that, those who seek to manipulate them often do so in pursuit of goals that have little if any connection to the reasons they exist to begin with.

    The only way our species will ever manage to get off of this merry-go-round is by finally learning to understand the fundamental drivers of behavior, moral and otherwise.  An individual who is fully conscious of the nature of the emotions that are the motivators for all the goals and aspirations he sets for himself in life will also be an individual who is capable of discarding the illusion of objective moral laws as a rationalization for those goals and aspirations.  I don’t oppose the Progressive Left because it’s immoral.  In the end, I oppose it for the same reasons that are actually motivating Milo.  I don’t like to be bullied by people who assume they have some imaginary “moral authority” to tell me how I should behave and think.  We could “win” by beating the leftists at their own game, and seizing the “moral high ground.”  It would be a hollow victory, though.  As has happened so often in the past, we would end up by becoming clones of the monster we had just slain.  We need to stop playing the game.  There has to be a better way.

  • On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate

    Posted on March 22nd, 2015 Helian 17 comments

    Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider the Blank Slate affair the greatest debacle in the history of science.  Perhaps you haven’t heard of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Those who are the most capable of writing its history are often also those who are most motivated to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  In any case, in the context of this post the Blank Slate refers to a dogma that prevailed in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century according to which there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as human nature.  I consider it the greatest scientific debacle of all time because, for more than half a century, it blocked the path of our species to self-knowledge.  As we gradually approach the technological ability to commit collective suicide, self-knowledge may well be critical to our survival.

    Such histories of the affair as do exist are often carefully and minutely researched by historians familiar with the scientific issues involved.  In general, they’ve personally lived through at least some phase of it, and they’ve often been personally acquainted with some of the most important players.  In spite of that, their accounts have a disconcerting tendency to wildly contradict each other.  Occasionally one finds different versions of the facts themselves, but more often its a question of the careful winnowing of the facts to select and record only those that support a preferred narrative.

    Obviously, I can’t cover all the relevant literature in a single blog post.  Instead, to illustrate my point, I will focus on a single work whose author, Hamilton Cravens, devotes most of his attention to events in the first half of the 20th century, describing the sea change in the behavioral sciences that signaled the onset of the Blank Slate.  As it happens, that’s not quite what he intended.  What we see today as the darkness descending was for him the light of science bursting forth.  Indeed, his book is entitled, somewhat optimistically in retrospect, The Triumph of Evolution:  The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941.  It first appeared in 1978, more or less still in the heyday of the Blank Slate, although murmurings against it could already be detected among academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences after the appearance of a series of devastating critiques in the popular literature in the 60’s by Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others, topped off by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

    Ostensibly, the “triumph” Cravens’ title refers to is the demise of what he calls the “extreme hereditarian” interpretations of human behavior that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century in favor of a more “balanced” approach that recognized the importance of culture, as revealed by a systematic application of the scientific method.  One certainly can’t fault him for being superficial.  He introduces us to most of the key movers and shakers in the behavioral sciences in the period in question.  There are minutiae about the contents of papers in old scientific journals, comments gleaned from personal correspondence, who said what at long forgotten scientific conferences, which colleges and universities had strong programs in psychology, sociology and anthropology more than 100 years ago, and who supported them, etc., etc.  He guides us into his narrative so gently that we hardly realize we’re being led by the nose.  Gradually, however, the picture comes into focus.

    It goes something like this.  In bygone days before the “triumph of evolution,” the existence of human “instincts” was taken for granted.  Their importance seemed even more obvious in light of the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.  As Cravens put it,

    While it would be inaccurate to say that most American experimentalists concluded as  the result of the general acceptance of Mendelism by 1910 or so that heredity was all powerful and environment of no consequence, it was nevertheless true that heredity occupied a much more prominent place than environment in their writings.

    This sort of “subtlety” is characteristic of Cravens’ writing.  Here, he doesn’t accuse the scientists he’s referring to of being outright genetic determinists.  They just have an “undue” tendency to overemphasize heredity.  It is only gradually, and by dint of occasional reading between the lines that we learn the “true” nature of these believers in human “instinct.”  Without ever seeing anything as blatant as a mention of Marxism, we learn that their “science” was really just a reflection of their “class.”  For example,

    But there were other reasons why so many American psychologists emphasized heredity over environment.  They shared the same general ethnocultural and class background as did the biologists.  Like the biologists, they grew up in middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes, in a subculture where the individual was the focal point of social explanation and comment.

    As we read on, we find Cravens is obsessed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, noting that the “wrong” kind of scientists belong to that “class” scores of times.  Among other things, they dominate the eugenics movement, and are innocently referred to as Social Darwinists, as if these terms had never been used in a pejorative sense.  In general they are supposed to oppose immigration from other than “Nordic” countries, and tend to support “neo-Lamarckian” doctrines, and believe blindly that intelligence test results are independent of “social circumstances and milieu.”  As we read further into Section I of the book, we are introduced to a whole swarm of these instinct-believing WASPs.

    In Section II, however, we begin to see the first glimmerings of a new, critical and truly scientific approach to the question of human instincts.  Men like Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, and Alfred Kroeber, began to insist on the importance of culture.  Furthermore, they believed that their “culture idea” could be studied in isolation in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, insisting on sharp, “territorial” boundaries that would protect their favored disciplines from the defiling influence of instincts.  As one might expect,

    The Boasians were separated from WASP culture; several were immigrants, of Jewish background, or both.

    A bit later they were joined by joined by John Watson and his behaviorists who, after performing some experiments on animals and human infants, apparently experienced an epiphany.  As Cravens puts it,

    To his amazement, Watson concluded that the James-McDougall human instinct theory had no demonstrable experimental basis.  He found the instinct theorists had greatly overestimated the number of original emotional reactions in infants.  For all practical purposes, he realized that there were no human instincts determining the behavior of adults or even of children.

    Perhaps more amazing is the fact that Cravens suspected not a hint of a tendency to replace science with dogma in all this.  As Leibniz might have put it, everything was for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Everything pointed to the “triumph of evolution.”  According to Cravens, the “triumph” came with astonishing speed:

    By the early 1920s the controversy was over.  Subsequently, psychologists and sociologists joined hands to work out a new interdisciplinary model of the sources of human conduct and emotion stressing the interaction of heredity and environment, of innate and acquired characters – in short, the balance of man’s nature and his culture.

    Alas, my dear Cravens, the controversy was just beginning.  In what follows, he allows us a glimpse at just what kind of “balance” he’s referring to.  As we read on into Section 3 of the book, he finally gets around to setting the hook:

    Within two years of the Nazi collapse in Europe Science published an article symptomatic of a profound theoretical reorientation in the American natural and social sciences.  In that article Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist, and M. F. Ashley-Montagu, an anthropologist, summarized and synthesized what the last quarter century’s work in their respective fields implied for extreme hereditarian explanations of human nature and conduct.  Their overarching thesis was that man was the product of biological and social evolution.  Even though man in his biological aspects was as subject to natural processes as any other species, in certain critical respects he was unique in nature, for the specific system of genes that created an identifiably human mentality also permitted man to experience cultural evolution… Dobzhansky and Ashley-Montagu continued, “Instead of having his responses genetically fixed as in other animal species, man is a species that invents its own responses, and it is out of this unique ability to invent…  his responses that his cultures are born.”

    and, finally, in the conclusions, after assuring us that,

    By the early 1940s the nature-nurture controversy had run its course.

    Cravens leaves us with some closing sentences that epitomize his “triumph of evolution:”

    The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

    At this point, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently Cravens, who has just supplied us with arcane details about who said what at obscure scientific conferences half a century and more before he published his book was completely unawares of exactly what Ashley Montagu, his herald of the new world order, meant when he referred to “extreme hereditarian explanations,” in spite of the fact that he spelled it out ten years earlier in an invaluable little pocket guide for the followers of the “new science” entitled Man and Aggression.  There Montagu describes the sort of “balance of man’s nature and his culture” he intended as follows:

    Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.


    There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “phylogenetically adapted instinctive” behavior of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive-forces of human behavior.  The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

    So much for Cravens’ “balance.”  He spills a great deal of ink in his book assuring us that the Blank Slate orthodoxy he defends was the product of “science,” little influenced by any political or ideological bias.  Apparently he also didn’t notice that, not only in Man and Aggression, but ubiquitously in the Blank Slate literature, the “new science” is defended over and over and over again with the “argument” that anyone who opposes it is a racist and a fascist, not to mention far right wing.

    As it turns out, Cravens didn’t completely lapse into a coma following the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1947 pronunciamiento in Science.  In his “Conclusion” we discover that, after all, he had a vague presentiment of the avalanche that would soon make a shambles of his “new evolutionary science.”  In his words,

    Of course in recent years something approximating at least a minor revival of the old nature-nurture controversy seems to have arisen in American science and politics.  It is certainly quite possible that this will lead to a full scale nature-nurture controversy in time, not simply because of the potential for a new model of nature that would permit a new debate, but also, as one historian has pointed out, because our own time, like the 1920s, has been a period of racial and ethnic polarization.  Obviously any further comment would be premature.

    Obviously, my dear Cravens.  What’s the moral of the story, dear reader?   Well, among other things, that if you really want to learn something about the Blank Slate, you’d better not be shy of wading through the source literature yourself.  It’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.  One particularly rich source of historical nuggets is H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which Ron Unz has been so kind as to post online.  Mencken took a personal interest in the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, and took care to publish articles by heavy hitters on both sides.  For a rather different take than Cravens on the motivations of the early Blank Slaters, see for example, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley.  Parshley was an interesting character who took on no less an opponent than Clarence Darrow in a debate over eugenics, and later translated Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex into English.


  • Contra Stendhal and Other Whimsies of Massimo d’Azeglio

    Posted on March 23rd, 2014 Helian No comments

    Massimo d’Azeglio was a 19th century Italian patriot.  He occasionally turns up on the Internet as “Massimo Taparelli” as well.  I happened to run across his memoirs in the random walk that accounts for most of what I read.  Sometimes you get lucky.  So it was with d’Azeglio, who turned out to be a highly original thinker, and whose Recollections are full of all kinds of whimsical bon mots.

    It turns out that there’s a lot about d’Azeglio that reminds me of my favorite novelist, Stendhal.  He had a highly developed sense of personal honor and dignity.  He admired the fine arts, and dabbled in painting himself as a young man, as did Stendhal in acting.  Both were profoundly influenced by their experiences in Milan, and Stendhal, who experienced a love affair there that turned out tragically, at least for a Frenchman, because the lady refused to give in, went so far as to call himself “Milanese” on his gravestone.  Both were dismayed by foreign domination of their native lands.  And finally, both were filled with hope, fear, and anxiety about whether the readers of the future, the people Stendhal dreamed of as “The Happy Few,” would notice them.  All of which makes it all the more interesting that d’Azeglio’s take on Napoleon’s occupation of Italy was exactly the opposite of Stendhal’s.

    Stendhal, of course, worshipped the great man, as anyone who has read The Red and the Black is well aware.  To hear him tell it, the only ones in Italy who opposed the French occupation were a few ultramontane priests and reactionary aristocrats.  For example, from The Charterhouse of Parma,

     On the 15th of May, 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan… A whole people discovered that everything that until then it had respected was supremely ridiculous, if not actually hateful.  People saw that in order to be really happy after centuries of cloying sensations, it was necessary to love one’s country with a real love and to seek out heroic actions… These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long; they were all under 25 years of age, and their Commander in Chief, who had reached twenty-seven, was reckoned the oldest man in his army.  The gaiety, this youthfulness, this irresponsibility, furnished a jocular reply to the furious preachings of the monks, who, for six months, had been announcing from the pulpit that the French were monsters, obliged, upon pain of death, to burn down everything and to cut off everyone’s head… At the most it would have been possible to point to a few families belonging to the higher ranks of the nobility, who had retired to their palaces in the country, as though in a sullen revolt against the prevailing high spirits and the expansion of every heart.

    After the French were temporarily driven out in Napoleon’s absence,

    These gentlemen, quite worthy people when they were not in a state of panic, but who were always trembling, succeeded in getting round the Austrian General:  a good enough man at heart, he let himself be persuaded that severity was the best policy, and ordered the arrest of one hundred and fifty patriots:  quite the best men to be found in Italy at the time.

    Which brings us to some essential differences between the two men.  Whereas d’Azeglio adored his father, Stendhal loathed his, and always blamed him for the loss of his mother, whom he madly adored, at the age of four.  And whereas Stendhal always envied the aristocracy he portrayed with such spite, d’Azeglio actually belonged to it.  His father might easily have passed for one of “these gentlemen,” although by his son’s account he was a brave soldier who wasn’t given to trembling, and was neither harsh nor greedy.  So it was that, though both men were romantic patriots, and both were in some sense products of and profoundly influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, d’Azeglio’s recollection of the occupation was not so rosy.  In his words,

     I have already said that to the minds of his contemporaries Napoleon appeared as an irresistible Fate; and this is true.  Imagine, then, the bewilderment of all those who, though crushed under that enormous weight, and without hope of rescue, continued to chafe under injustice and disgrace, when the first ray of a possible redemption gleamed forth, – when came the earliest tidings of the report, borne almost on the wind, Napoleon is vanquished!  Napoleon is retreating!

    At last, one blessed day, came the glad tidings that Napoleon was no longer our master, and that we were, or were about to become, free and independent once more.  He who was not at Turin on that day can form no idea of the delirious joy of a whole population at its utmost height.

    Quite a difference for two men who were fundamentally quite alike.  No doubt a good Marxist would just apply his cookie cutter and come up with a smug class interpretation.  I doubt it’s quite that simple.  Family loyalties and clashing national patriotisms undoubtedly played a role as well.  In any case, d’Azeglio had no illusions about the kind of men who came back to take Napoleon’s place.  He was in full agreement with Stendhal on that score:

    I felt the reaction – I know its effects; and although even it has not made me regret Napoleon and French dominion in Italy, it is none the less true that we lost a government which, sooner or later, would have secured the triumph of those principles which are the life of human society, to revert to a government of ignorant and imbecile men, full of vanity and prejudice.

    Neither the Romans nor Europe could then foresee that the sovereigns, and the ministers representing the re-constituted governments, would be so blind as not to perceive how different were the men of 1814 from those of 1789, and not to know that they would certainly be most unwilling to give up that portion of good to which the great genius of Napoleon and the changes wrought by time had accustomed them.  The princes and their ministers who returned from exile found it convenient to accept the heritage of Napoleon sub conditione; they retained the police and the bureaucracy, the taxes, enormous standing armies, and so forth; but the good system of judicial and civil administration, the impulse given to science and personal merit, equalization of classes, improvement and increase of communication, liberty of conscience, and many other excellent features in the government of the great conqueror, were all ruthlessly flung aside.

    In a word, in spite of his reflexive loathing for Napoleon, not to mention his aristocratic father and a beloved brother who became a fanatical Jesuit cleric, d’Azeglio was much too intelligent to blind himself to the great man’s virtues.  Stendhal would have smiled.

    Here are a few more d’Azeglio-isms for the delectation of my readers:

    War exercises over nations a more salutary influence than a long peace.  Fidelity to a difficult and perilous duty educates men, and makes them fit to perform more peaceful tasks well and worthily… A singular conclusion might be drawn from all this, – viz. that a nation, in order to preserve those virtues which save it from decay, is necessarily obliged to kill a certain number of its neighbors every now and then.  I leave the reader to meditate on this question, and intend to study it myself one day.  Meanwhile, let us proceed.

    It is not in our natures to believe more than the priests themselves; and facts have always shown that the priests of Rome believe very little.  The Italians, therefore, have never considered dogmatic questions very seriously.

    Both parents had too much good sense to fall into the error so common in those parents who undertake the education of their children, viz. that of studying their own vanity or convenience instead of the good of their pupils.  I was never subjected to any of those domestic tortures to which, through maternal vanity, those unhappy children intended to act the laborious part of enfants prodiges are so often condemned… Adulation and incitement to pride and vanity, though they may be a mistaken form of parental affection, are in fact the worst of lessons for the child, and the most baneful in their results.

    But my education was governed by the Jesuit system, and the problem it has always so admirably solved is this – to keep a young man till he is twenty constantly employed in studies which are of little or no value in forming his character, his intelligence, and his judgment.

    In factious times, past and present, we fall into the habit of calling the men of our own party good, and our adversaries bad; as if it were possible that a country should be divided into two distinct bodies; five millions of honest men, for instance, on one side, and five millions of rascals on the other.  Men who profess these ideas are, as is natural, often bamboozled, or worse, by a scoundrel, whom they believe honest for no other reason than that he belongs to their own party.  To avoid this, let us forbear from selecting friends and confidants only on account of their political opinions; and let us remember that, if two different opinion professed by two opposite parties cannot be equally true, logical, and good, two men belonging to the said opposite parties are just as likely to be two arrant knaves as two honest men.

    It would seem the evolutionary psychologists weren’t the first ones to notice the existence of ingroups and outgroups.  The Recollections contain many other interesting and amusing sentiments that you’re not likely to run across on Foxnews or CNN.  As they say, read the whole thing.  D’Azeglio would have been pleased.


    Massimo d'Azeglio

    Massimo d’Azeglio

  • Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”: Literature Making a Comeback?

    Posted on March 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    The great French (or Italian, if you believe his gravestone.  To make a long story short, he fell madly in love with a Milanese woman, who never said “yes”) novelist, Stendhal, had his own definitions of romanticism and classicism.  As he wrote in his Racine and Shakespeare,

    Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

    Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

    His definition of culture was equally idiosyncratic.  For him, genuine culture, whether music, art, poetry or prose, was a reflection of some aspect of the here and now.  It was a reflection of the artist’s observation and experience of his own world.  Classicists might entertain by resurrecting the cultural artifacts of bygone times, but, at least according to Stendhal, they were not creating culture in the process.  Neither were artists like Sir Walter Scott, whose work represented for Stendhal a daydream about the past rather than a reflection of the present.  In The Charterhouse of Parma, for example, the stifling reactionaries in post-Napoleonic Italy who were responsible for educating his hero, Fabrice, would allow him to read only the Bible, one or two official newspapers, and the works of Sir Walter Scott.

    While I am not particularly enamored about the idea of attempting to return to bygone times, I am not particularly happy with the present, either.  As a result, I have found little in what Stendhal would have considered the genuine culture of our time that I enjoy or appreciate.  In general, some random poem from a dog-eared magazine of the 20’s or 30’s is more likely to bring a smile to my face than any of the contemporary stuff I’ve read for the last year or two.  The same goes for serious fiction.

    However, I keep searching.  In fact, I just finished a book by a contemporary novelist that I actually liked.  It’s Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan.  I’ll even go so far as to say that I agree with some of the reviewer’s comments on the cover.  For example, from The New York Review of Books, “[McEwan] is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled.”  That’s no exaggeration.  I found myself constantly smiling (and feeling envious) over McEwan’s skill in the use of words.  However, I didn’t really connect with the characters or plot.  McEwan is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and I probably would have liked the story better in a movie rather than a serious novel.  The “enduring love” referred to is actually a rare, psychotic malady know as de Clerambault’s Syndrome, and things happen that are possible, but are nothing that an average human is likely to experience in the course of a lifetime.  I don’t doubt that the characters are accurate representations of people McEwan has run across, but they are alien to me.  I prefer characters in my novels that I can recognize immediately.  Stendhal may have written a long time ago, but I stumble across many of them in his work, and I actually turn up myself occasionally.  No doubt that’s why Nietzsche spoke of him as “the last great psychologist.”

    However, there are some brilliant insights and uncanny reflections of the present in Enduring Love. For example, my jaw dropped when I read things like,

     And what, in fact, were the typical products of the twentieth-century scientific or pseudo-scientific mind?  Anthropology, psychoanalysis-fabulation run riot.  Using the highesst methods of storytelling and all the arts of priesthood, Freud had staked his claim on the veracity, though not the falsifiability of science.  And what of those behaviorists and sociologist of the 1920’s?  It was as though an army of white-coated Balzacs had stormed the university departments and labs. (Italics mine)


     I had set aside this day to start on a long piece about the smile.  A whole issue of an American science magazine was to be dedicated to what the editor was calling an intellectual revolution.  Biologists and evolutionary psychologists were reshaping the social sciences.  The postwar consensus, the standard social-science model, was falling apart, and human nature was up for reexamination.

    Hows that for an example of Stendhal’s genuine culture as a reflection of contemporary reality?  Great shades of Arrowsmith!  I found myself scratching my head and wondering how many readers of a novel with a title like Enduring Love would have so much as an inkling of what the writer was talking about.  You really have to have some serious insight into what’s been going on in the behavioral sciences to write things like that.

    How about this one:

     We (the two main characters) were having one of our late-night kitchen table sessions.  I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats.  A genius, no doubt, but an obscurantist, too, who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder when the opposite was the case.

    I couldn’t agree more.  And last but not least, there’s this, about the metamorphosis of literature from the 19th to now:

    Most educated people read contemporary novels.  Storytelling was deep in the 19th century soul. Then two things happened.  Science became more difficult, and it became professionalized.  It moved into the universities; parsonical narratives gave way to hard-edged theories that could survive intact without experimental support and that had their own formal aesthetic. At the same time, in literature and in other arts, a newfangled modernism celebrated formal, structural qualities, inner coherence, and self-reference.  A priesthood guarded the temples of this difficult art against the trespasses of the common man.

    Sounds plausible to me.  Maybe that’s why contemporary literature and poetry seem so foreign to me.  We could use another guy who has the nerve to pull down the temples.  Meanwhile, it appears the book has been made into a film.  I’ll have to check it out.

    Stendhal Gravestone

  • Science vs. Ideology in Genetics, in which Richard Dawkins and Professor Ceiling Cat Admonish David Dobbs

    Posted on December 8th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    Cultural determinism is like the Paris fashions.  It defies ridicule.  The idea is so useful that it won’t drown, despite the torrent of contradictory facts it has been submerged under lately.  The cobbling of utopias is great fun, and utopia is ever so much more plausible if only everything can be changed to the heart’s desire by culture and environment.  One of the more flamboyant examples of the phenomenon recently turned up in Aeon Magazine in the form of an article penned by science journalist David Dobbs.

    The title of the article, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, is provocative enough.  The Selfish Gene, of course, was the subject of a book with that title by Richard Dawkins.  Rubbing salt in the wound, Dobbs adds the byline, “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”  All this irritated Dawkins’ friend Jerry Coyne, to the point that he not only read the rather lengthy article, but penned a pair of rebuttals on his Why Evolution is True website.  It wasn’t hard.

    Dobbs’ claim that Dawkins’ selfish gene version of evolution is wrong was based on his embrace of the idea of genetic accommodation.  Coyne (known to his students as Professor Ceiling Cat, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who visits his blog) described the idea in his second rebuttal as follows;

    Today’s discussion is on what Dobbs and some of the heroes of his piece (especially Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard) see as the truly novel and non-Darwinian refutation of the selfish gene idea: the idea of genetic accommodation.  “Genetic accommodation” has other names: it’s also been called “The Baldwin Effect” and “genetic assimilation.”  But all of these names refer to a single mechanism: instead of existing genetic variation being subject to natural selection in an existing or changing environment, the environment itself evokes phenotypic (not genetic) variation, which is then somehow fixed in the species’ genome.

    Dobbs’ version of this idea leads him to some rather startling assertions.  For example, he writes,

    Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another.  We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps.  Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals – what biologists call our phenotype, which is essentially the recognizable thing a genotype builds.  This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult.  The writing varies – but hardly as much as the reading.

    Great shades of Trofim Lysenko!  One can almost see the great Soviet con man in one of his Siberian laboratories, turning out a race of centaurs by astutely tweaking the “reading” of the genes of a zebra.  Where is Dobbs going with this?  Let’s cut to the chase and have a look at his thumbnail sketch of genetic accommodation:

    There lies the quick beating heart of her (Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s) argument: the gene follows. And one of the ways the gene follows is through this process called genetic accommodation. Genetic accommodation is a clunky term for a graceful process. It takes a moment to explain. But bear with me a moment, and you’ll understand how you, dear reader, could evolve into a fast and deadly predator.

    Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.

    First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form — its phenotype — by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.

    For example, suppose you’re a predator. You live with others of your ilk in dense forest. Your kind hunts by stealth: you hide among trees, then jump out and snag your meat. You needn’t be fast, just quick and sneaky.

    You get faster. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did.

    Then a big event — maybe a forest fire, or a plague that kills all your normal prey — forces you into a new environment. This new place is more open, which nixes your jump-and-grab tactic, but it contains plump, juicy animals, the slowest of which you can outrun if you sprint hard. You start running down these critters. As you do, certain genes ramp up expression to build more muscle and fire the muscles more quickly. You get faster. You’re becoming a different animal. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs. By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.

    Then a mutation occurs in one grandkid. This mutation happens to create stronger, faster muscle fibres. This grandchild of yours can naturally and easily run faster than her fastest siblings and cousins. She flies. Her children inherit the gene, and because their speed wows their mating prospects, they mate early and often, and bear lots of kids. Through the generations, this sprinter’s gene thus spreads through the population.

    Now the thing is complete. Your descendants have a new gene that helps secure the adaptive trait you originally developed through gene expression alone. But the new gene didn’t create the new trait. It just made it easier to keep a trait that a change in the environment made valuable. The gene didn’t drive the train; it merely hopped aboard.

    In fact, all this is so banal, and so lacking in any serious departure from anything Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, that Coyne apparently assumed that he’d missed something, and accused Dobbs of Lamarckism.  After all, if he wasn’t at least implying Lamarckism between the lines, there isn’t the shadow of a hook in this scenario on which to hang the claim that such “genetic accommodation” is in any way revolutionary, non-Darwinian, or non-Dawkinsian.  In fact, if you read the passage closely, you’ll see there’s nothing Lamarckian about it at all.  The kids and grandkids don’t get faster and stronger by inheritance or acquired characteristics, but merely by hanging out with their parental role models.  Evidently Dawkins himself noticed, because at this point he chimed in and wrote his own rebuttal, patiently Fisking Dobbs article, and quite reasonably pointing out that there was nothing in all this that contradicted Darwin or himself in any substantial way at all.

    Coyne and Dawkins concluded from all this that Dobbs was merely grandstanding.  As Dawkins put it, his article was,

    …infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.

    True enough, but as scientists often do, Dawkins sees the basic absurdity of the article clearly enough, but fails to see that it is absurd, not because it is bad science, but because it is an ideological morality tale.  Let’s allow Dobbs to explain the moral of the story in his own words:

    The gene does not lead, it follows.

    And ‘evolution is not about single genes’ (West-Eberhard) says.  It’s about genes working together.

    It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome.  It’s a social genome.

    Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

    And so, thanks to the environment, the collective once again triumphs over the “selfish” individual.  If you don’t get the ideological point, dear reader, I’m not going to spell it out for you.  I’ll let the ideologues do that for themselves.  See, for example, Drugged Individualism, in the November 1934 issue of the American Mercury, or The Myth of Individuality (by Theodore Dreiser, no less) in the March issue of the same year.  The hive mind hasn’t changed much in 80 years.


  • Not All Cultural Anthropologists are Evil!

    Posted on March 11th, 2013 Helian 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, 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.



  • Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”: Take Two

    Posted on August 5th, 2012 Helian 1 comment

    If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law.  It’s the best book on morality I know of.  Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow.  Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature.  Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”.  He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions.  He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.  According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions.  Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights.  It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette.  It should be read in full.

    I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality.  I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations.  It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature.  Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality.  Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.

    There is good news and bad news in the book.  The bad news starts early.  In the introduction, Haidt writes,

    I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.

    I’m afraid he’s right.  I’m certainly no exception to the rule.  The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating.  It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason.  If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears.  In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd.  However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point.  He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right.  It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.

    Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse.  I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward.  Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows.  I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.

    I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do.  However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it.  Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate.  He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it.  Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth.  For example, in chapter 4 he writes,

    Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.  We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.  The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology).  They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings.  Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law.  Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing:  summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart.  But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that  some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.  This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

    Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply.  I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason.  Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth.  We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments.  Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon.  None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood.  The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless.  There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.

  • War and the Fantasy World of the Blank Slate

    Posted on July 30th, 2012 Helian No comments

    In the introduction to his book The Origin of War, published in 1995, Johan van der Dennen writes,

    When I embarked upon the enterprise of collecting literature on human primitive war some 15 years ago – with the objective to understand the origin of this puzzling and frightening phenomenon of intrahuman, intergroup killing – little did I suspect that some ten years later that subject would be very much alive and kicking in disciplines as diverse as cultural anthropology, ethology, evolutionary biology and sociobiology, and the socio-ecological branch of primatology, generating an abundance of novel and intriguing theories, engendering new waves of empirical (cross-cultural) research, and lots and lots of controversies.

    At that time, the question of the origin and evolution (if any) of human warfare was a totally marginal and neglected domain of investigation. Among polemologists (or peace researchers as they are known in the Anglosaxon language area), there seemed to be an unshakable consensus that war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago (It actually was, and still is, a curious blend of the credos of the Margaret Mead school of anthropology, the simplistic dogmas of behaviorist psychology, and a historicist sociology – all consenting to the tabula rasa model of human behavior, i.e., the assumption of infinite plasticity and sociocultural determinism – inexplicably mixed with assumptions of a static Human Nature derived from the Realist school of political science). Such a conception precluded any evolutionary questions:  war had a history and development, but no evolution in the Darwinian sense.

    He’s right, as anyone who was around at the time and happened to take an interest in the behavioral sciences is aware.  It seems almost incredible that whole branches of what were charitably referred to as “sciences” could have listened to the doctrine that “war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago” without breaking out into peals of laughter, but so it was.  They not only listened to it without cracking a smile, but most of them actually believed it.  One would think the idea that a phenomenon that has been ubiquitous across human cultures on every continent since time immemorial was just a “cultural invention” must seem palpably stupid to any ten year old.  It was, nevertheless swallowed without a murmur by the high priests of the behavioral sciences, just as the dogmas of the trinity and transubstantiation in the Eucharist are swallowed by the high priests of more traditional religions.

    The Blank Slate is now dead, or at least hibernating, and the behavioral sciences have made the startling discovery that there is such a thing as human nature, but there is still a remarkable reticence to talk about warfare.  It’s not surprising, given the political proclivities of the average university professor, but dangerous, nonetheless.  In a world full of nuclear weapons, it seems that a serious investigation into the innate origins of warfare might be a profitable use of their time.  With self-understanding might come insight into how we might give ourselves a fighting chance of avoiding the worst.  Instead, the learned doctors feed us bromides about the gradual decline of violence.  A general nuclear exchange is likely to provide them with a data point that will somewhat disarrange their theories.

    Perhaps it would be best if they started by taking a good look in the mirror, and then explaining to us how so many so-called experts could have been delusional for so long.  What were the actual mechanisms that allowed secular religious dogmas to hijack the behavioral sciences?  The Blank Slate is not “archaic science.”  It was alive and well less than two decades ago.  Why is it that we are now supposed to trust as “scientists” people who were so wrong for so long, shouting down anyone who disagreed with them with vile ad hominem attacks?  Instead of seeking to understand this past debacle and thereby at least reducing the chances of stumbling into similar debacles in the future, they invent a few self-serving yarns about it, and just keep plodding on as if nothing had happened.

    Perhaps we should be counting our blessings.  After all, the idea that war is a mere “cultural innovation” is no longer in fashion.  Occasionally, it is actually mentioned as a manifestation of certain unfortunate innate predispositions, usually along with comforting words about the decline in violence noted above, expanding our “ingroups” to include all mankind, etc.  Given the ferocity with which the spokespersons of the “progressive” end of the political spectrum generally favored by professors of the behavioral sciences attack anyone who disagrees with them, I personally am not particularly sanguine about that possibility.

    Well, perhaps if a nuclear war does come, they will finally get serious and come up with some sound advice for avoiding the next one.  Unfortunately, finding publishers to spread the good news might be a problem at that point.

  • Yevgeny Zamyatin and “We”

    Posted on June 20th, 2012 Helian 2 comments

    To give you an idea of how up to speed I am on science fiction, I had never heard of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, or at least not until I ran across an old review of the book among George Orwell’s essays.  In the review, which appeared in early 1946, he writes,

    Several years after hearing of its existence, I have a last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age… So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.

    The book was obviously rare and difficult to find at the time Orwell wrote.  Here’s how he describes the plot:

    In the twenty-sixth century… the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers.  They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the “Guardians”, to supervise them more easily.  They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as “a number” or “a unif” (uniform)… The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous.

    Orwell was sure the book had inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although Huxley denied it.  Be that as it may, it certainly inspired Orwell’s own 1984.  For example, the glass houses (telescreens), Guardians (though police), and Benefactor (Big Brother) are all there, and there are many similarities in the plot, including the ending.  That’s not to imply that 1984 wasn’t original.  Far from it.  The central theme of 1984 was the nature of totalitarianism, and what Orwell believed was a very credible totalitarian future, not in centuries, but in a few decades.  In We, on the other hand, as Orwell put it,

    There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind.  Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure.

    I would also agree with Orwell that We isn’t first rate as a novel, although it may just be because I’m put off by the abrupt, expressionist style.

    Still, there are an astounding number of themes in the book that have appeared and continue to appear in later works of science fiction to this day.  For example, the loss of individuality in future dystopia’s,

    You see, even in our thoughts.  No one is ever ‘one,’ but always ‘one of.’  We are so identical…

    to be original means to somehow stand out from others.  Consequently, being original is to violate equality.

    The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this:  humility is a virtue and pride is a vice, “WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic… Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?

    The totalitarian ruler and his enforcers,

    And to expel the offending cog, we have the skillful, severe hand of the Benefactor and we have the experienced eye of the Guardians…

    They (the ancients) however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one – one with a very precise visual appearance.

    …and so on. And what became of this prescient but scarce book? As science fiction aficionados are surely aware, it is scarce no longer. It has been reprinted many times since Orwell’s time, and I had a much easier time acquiring a copy than he. I was intrigued to find that Zamyatin was an old Bolshevik. Obviously, after the Russian Revolution, he quickly discovered he was a “cog” who didn’t quite fit. We had the honor of becoming the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board in 1921. According to Wiki,

    In 1931, Zamyatin appealed directly to Joseph Stalin, requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union. In his letter, Zamyatin wrote, “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics”. With the encouragement of Maxim Gorky, Stalin decided to grant Zamyatin’s request.

    By this time, Zamyatin had managed to smuggle We out of the Soviet Union and have it published abroad.  He was very lucky, after having pushed his luck so far, to escape the clutches of the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.  Fortunately, Gorky was still around to help him.  That great man, although a convinced socialist himself, probably saved hundreds from the executioner with similar appeals.  Zamyatin died in poverty in Paris in 1937.

    Yevgeny Zamyatin

  • Evolutionary Psychology in the Dark Ages: The Legacy of Theodosius Dobzhansky

    Posted on May 8th, 2012 Helian 1 comment

    Theodosius Dobzhansky was in important early proponent of what is now generally referred to as evolutionary psychology.  Although his last book appeared as recently as 1983, he is generally forgotten today, at least in the fanciful and largely imaginery “histories” of the field that appear in college textbooks.  Unfortunately, he was indelicate enough to jump the gun, joining contemporaries like Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz in writing down the essential ideas of evolutionary psychology, particularly as applied to humans, long before the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

    That event was subsequently arbitrarily anointed by the gatekeepers of the chronicles of the science as the official “beginning” of evolutionary psychology.  In fact, the reason Sociobiology gained such wide notoriety was Wilson’s insistence that what is commonly referred to as human nature actually does exist.  As I have noted elsewhere, neither that claim nor the controversy surrounding it began with Wilson.  Far from it.  The “Blank Slate” opponents of Wilson’s ideas had long recognized Robert Ardrey as their most significant and effective opponent, with Konrad Lorenz a close second.  Dobzhansky’s Mankind Evolving also presented similar hypotheses, well-documented with copious experimental evidence which, if textbooks such as David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology are to be believed, didn’t exist at the time.  Anyone who reads Mankind Evolving, published in 1962, a year after Ardrey’s African Genesis, will quickly realize from the many counter-examples noted in the book that Buss’ claim that the early ethologists and their collaborators, “…did not develop rigorous criteria for discovering adaptations,” is a myth.  Alas, Dobzhansky was premature.  He wrote too early to fit neatly into the “history” of evolutionary psychology concocted later.

    It’s unfortunate that Dobzhansky has been swept under the rug with the rest, because he had some interesting ideas that don’t appear in many other works.  He also wrote from the point of view of a geneticist, which enabled him to explain the mechanics of evolution with unusual clarity.

    Latter day critics of evolutionary psychology commonly claim that it minimizes the significance of culture.  Not only is that not true today, but it has never been true.  Thinkers like Ardrey, Lorenz and Eibes-Eiblfeldt never denied the importance of culture.  They merely insisted that the extreme cultural determinism of the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in their day was wrong, and that innate, evolved traits also had a significant effect on human behavior.  Dobzhansky was very explicit about it, citing numerous instances in which culture and learning played a dominant role, and others more reliant on innate predispositions.  As he put it,

    In principle any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.

    He went so far as to propose a theory of superorganisms:

    In producing the genetic basis for culture, biological evolution has transcended itself – it has produced the superorganic.

    …and constantly stressed the interdependence of innate predispositions and culture. For example,

    Why do so many people insist that biological and cultural evolution are absolutely independent?  I suggest that this is due in large part to a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of heredity… Biological heredity, which is the basis of biological evolution, doesn not transmit cultural, or for that matter physical, traits ready-made; what it does is determine the response of the developing organism to the environment in which the development takes place.

    The dichotomy of hereditary and environmental traits is untenable:  in principle, any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.

    In higher animals and most of all in man instinctual behavior is intertwined with, overlaid by, and serves merely as a backdrop to learned behavior. Yet it would be rash to treat this backdrop as unimportant.

    …the old fashioned nature-nurture debates were meaningless.  The dichotomy of environment vs. genetic traits is invalid; what we really want to know are the relative magnitudes of the genetic and environmental components in the variance observed in a given trait, a certain population, at a particular time.

    It has a surprisingly modern ring to it for something written in 1962, doesn’t it?  Dobzhansky was as well aware as Ardrey of the reasons for the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in the behavioral sciences when he wrote Mankind Evolving, and that is now being so assiduously ignored, as if the ideological derailment and insistence on doctrines so bogus they could have been immediately recognized as such by a child over a period of decades in such “sciences” as anthropology, sociology and psychology, was a matter of no concern.  Citing Ashley Montagu, editor of that invaluable little document of the times, Mankind and Aggression, as a modern proponent of such ideas, he writes,

    Some philosophes who were perhaps bothered by questions of this sort (whether human nature was really good or not) concluded that human nature is, to begin with, actually a void, an untenanted territory.  The “tabula rasa” theory was apparently first stated clearly by John Locke (1632-1704).  The mind of a newborn infant is, Locke thought, a blank page.

    Patore (1949) compared the sociopolitical views of twenty-four psychologists, biologists, and sociologists with their opinions concerning the nature-nurture problem.  Among the twelve classified as “liberals or radicals,” eleven were environmentalists and one an hereditarian; among the twelve “conservatives,” eleven were hereditarians and one an environmentalist.  This is disconcerting!  If the solution of a scientific problem can be twisted to fit one’s biases and predilections, the field of science concerned must be in a most unsatisfactory state.

    That is certainly the greatest understatement in Dobzhansky’s book.  In fact, for a period of decades in the United States, major branches of the behavioral sciences functioned, not as sciences, but as ideological faiths posing as such.  The modern tendency to sweep that inconvenient truth under the rug is dangerous in the extreme.  It is based on the apparent assumption that such a thing can never happen again.  It not only will happen again, but is happening even as I write this.  It will happen a great deal more frequently as long as we continue to refuse to learn from our mistakes.