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 August 5th, 2012 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.
Posted on July 30th, 2012 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.
Posted on June 20th, 2012 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.
Posted on May 8th, 2012 1 comment
Theodosius Dobzhansky was in important early proponent of what is now generally referred to as evolutionary psychology. Although his last book appeared as recently as 1983, he is generally forgotten today, at least in the fanciful and largely imaginery “histories” of the field that appear in college textbooks. Unfortunately, he was indelicate enough to jump the gun, joining contemporaries like Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz in writing down the essential ideas of evolutionary psychology, particularly as applied to humans, long before the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.
That event was subsequently arbitrarily anointed by the gatekeepers of the chronicles of the science as the official “beginning” of evolutionary psychology. In fact, the reason Sociobiology gained such wide notoriety was Wilson’s insistence that what is commonly referred to as human nature actually does exist. As I have noted elsewhere, neither that claim nor the controversy surrounding it began with Wilson. Far from it. The “Blank Slate” opponents of Wilson’s ideas had long recognized Robert Ardrey as their most significant and effective opponent, with Konrad Lorenz a close second. Dobzhansky’s Mankind Evolving also presented similar hypotheses, well-documented with copious experimental evidence which, if textbooks such as David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology are to be believed, didn’t exist at the time. Anyone who reads Mankind Evolving, published in 1962, a year after Ardrey’s African Genesis, will quickly realize from the many counter-examples noted in the book that Buss’ claim that the early ethologists and their collaborators, “…did not develop rigorous criteria for discovering adaptations,” is a myth. Alas, Dobzhansky was premature. He wrote too early to fit neatly into the “history” of evolutionary psychology concocted later.
It’s unfortunate that Dobzhansky has been swept under the rug with the rest, because he had some interesting ideas that don’t appear in many other works. He also wrote from the point of view of a geneticist, which enabled him to explain the mechanics of evolution with unusual clarity.
Latter day critics of evolutionary psychology commonly claim that it minimizes the significance of culture. Not only is that not true today, but it has never been true. Thinkers like Ardrey, Lorenz and Eibes-Eiblfeldt never denied the importance of culture. They merely insisted that the extreme cultural determinism of the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in their day was wrong, and that innate, evolved traits also had a significant effect on human behavior. Dobzhansky was very explicit about it, citing numerous instances in which culture and learning played a dominant role, and others more reliant on innate predispositions. As he put it,
In principle any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.
He went so far as to propose a theory of superorganisms:
In producing the genetic basis for culture, biological evolution has transcended itself – it has produced the superorganic.
…and constantly stressed the interdependence of innate predispositions and culture. For example,
Why do so many people insist that biological and cultural evolution are absolutely independent? I suggest that this is due in large part to a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of heredity… Biological heredity, which is the basis of biological evolution, doesn not transmit cultural, or for that matter physical, traits ready-made; what it does is determine the response of the developing organism to the environment in which the development takes place.
The dichotomy of hereditary and environmental traits is untenable: in principle, any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.
In higher animals and most of all in man instinctual behavior is intertwined with, overlaid by, and serves merely as a backdrop to learned behavior. Yet it would be rash to treat this backdrop as unimportant.
…the old fashioned nature-nurture debates were meaningless. The dichotomy of environment vs. genetic traits is invalid; what we really want to know are the relative magnitudes of the genetic and environmental components in the variance observed in a given trait, a certain population, at a particular time.
It has a surprisingly modern ring to it for something written in 1962, doesn’t it? Dobzhansky was as well aware as Ardrey of the reasons for the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in the behavioral sciences when he wrote Mankind Evolving, and that is now being so assiduously ignored, as if the ideological derailment and insistence on doctrines so bogus they could have been immediately recognized as such by a child over a period of decades in such “sciences” as anthropology, sociology and psychology, was a matter of no concern. Citing Ashley Montagu, editor of that invaluable little document of the times, Mankind and Aggression, as a modern proponent of such ideas, he writes,
Some philosophes who were perhaps bothered by questions of this sort (whether human nature was really good or not) concluded that human nature is, to begin with, actually a void, an untenanted territory. The “tabula rasa” theory was apparently first stated clearly by John Locke (1632-1704). The mind of a newborn infant is, Locke thought, a blank page.
Patore (1949) compared the sociopolitical views of twenty-four psychologists, biologists, and sociologists with their opinions concerning the nature-nurture problem. Among the twelve classified as “liberals or radicals,” eleven were environmentalists and one an hereditarian; among the twelve “conservatives,” eleven were hereditarians and one an environmentalist. This is disconcerting! If the solution of a scientific problem can be twisted to fit one’s biases and predilections, the field of science concerned must be in a most unsatisfactory state.
That is certainly the greatest understatement in Dobzhansky’s book. In fact, for a period of decades in the United States, major branches of the behavioral sciences functioned, not as sciences, but as ideological faiths posing as such. The modern tendency to sweep that inconvenient truth under the rug is dangerous in the extreme. It is based on the apparent assumption that such a thing can never happen again. It not only will happen again, but is happening even as I write this. It will happen a great deal more frequently as long as we continue to refuse to learn from our mistakes.
Posted on November 30th, 2010 1 comment
The Smithsonian’s “A Fire in my Belly” video exhibit, which depicts Jesus on the cross being eaten by ants, at least has the virtue of accurately reflecting what the Institution has become and the nature of the people who run it. Bill Quick’s take at Daily Pundit:
You think you’re so “transgressive,” so “daring,” so “cutting edge,” you cheap-ass poseur pieces of shit?
I’ll show you daring. I’ll show you cutting edge.
Switch out your ant-drenched Jesus for an ant-riddled Mohammed.
Go ahead, you gutless, cowardly pussies calling yourselves artists. I dare you.
I’d say that’s about right, although expressed in somewhat intemperate language.
Posted on November 20th, 2010 No commentsYou might want to have a look at the novel Stoner by John Williams. It’s the real article. It’s not really a well known work. I found it somehow by clicking around on Amazon. Someone had written an interesting review, and aroused my curiosity. A lot of great literature is preserved that way. Someone reads it, understands, and spreads the word. Investigate a little and you’ll find that’s been happening with Stoner since it appeared in 1965. A recent (2007) example is Morris Dickfield’s review in the New York Times.
What’s great about Stoner? The same thing that’s great about any great novel. It gives you an intimate glimpse into the mind of another human being, telling you what they experienced, and how they reacted to it. In the process, you always recognize yourself; your own thoughts and feelings.
Works like this are written with a simple clarity that’s often missing from the works of philosophy and psychology with which they have much in common. There’s nothing obscure about them, because the author is unconcerned about impressing you with how smart he is. Rather, he has an intense desire to make you understand. Stoner is not only clear, but beautiful. Many passages in the book read like poetry.
Look and spread the word.
Posted on October 26th, 2010 No comments
I wonder how many of the people who have been furious detractors or avid supporters of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa have actually read the book. Very few, if the comments I’ve seen about it are any guide. The book is supposed to be one of the holy Gospels of the Blank Slate, or the theory that there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as innate human nature, a palpably false notion that somehow managed to mesmerize the practitioners of the sciences of human behavior through much of the 20th century. How such a seemingly innocuous little book could have risen to such prominence and been accorded such ideological significance is a subject that may well busy future generations of psychologists.
On the face of it, the book seems to be a collection of observations concerning the natives of Samoa written by a talented and intelligent young anthropologist who had visited the islands for a period of something under a year. A student of the noted psychologist Frank Boas, she was particularly interested in finding if the apparent stress and strain of adolescence for girls growing up in western societies was really unavoidable, or merely the reflection of a dysfunctional culture. I find no intent to deceive in the book, no excessive confirmation bias, and no evidence that Mead was a person easily duped by the individuals she was studying into believing something that she wanted to believe, but that was actually false.
Boas did Mead no favor by writing in a foreword to the book:
The results of the painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.
The statement is both crudely unscientific (a brief study like Mead’s could “confirm” no such sweeping conclusion one way or the other), and self-contradictory (why would human beings “react to restraints” if it is not their nature to do so?). Such inflammatory nonsense amounted to putting a target on Mead’s back. I am not familiar enough with her work to know if she ever made such a sweeping claim herself in some other work, but nothing like it appears in Coming of Age. In Dilthey’s Dream, a collection of essays by Mead’s great foe, Derek Freeman, he makes the claim,
In the thirteenth chapter of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead went even further, claiming on the basis of her enquiries into adolescence in Samoa, that explanations other than in terms of environmental factors could not be made.
I have carefully parsed the chapter in question, and can only conclude that Freeman had a lively imagination. Mead did constantly stress the importance of culture in the book, but I find nothing, in the thirteenth chapter or elsewhere, that positively excludes other than cultural influences on human behavior. What she actually did say was consistent with a comment that appeared in a preface she wrote for the 1973 edition of the book:
But the renascence of racism among some scientists and the pleas for a harsh, manipulative behavioralism among some psychologists make me wonder whether the modern world understands much more about the significance of culture – the interplay between individual endowment and cultural style, the limits set by biology and the way in which human imagination can transcend those limits – than was known in 1928.
Here Mead is wearing her well-known political activism on her sleeve, but she clearly distances herself from the extreme versions of the Blank Slate that were prevalent in 1973 and explicitly acknowledges that there are “limits set by biology.” This statement, written near the end of her career, seems to position her closer to modern theories of human nature than to the extreme “nurture vs. nature” orthodoxy of the mid-20th century.
Freeman isn’t the only one who has transformed Coming of Age to an ideological icon in his imagination, attributing extreme claims to it that one searches for in vain in the actual book. In rounding up the usual suspects, we find that Steven Pinker, that master chef of philosopher soup, has done the same thing. In his book The Blank Slate, he cites Coming of Age as a prime example of the “noble savage” fallacy, claiming in particular that Mead portrays Samoan society as egalitarian. She does no such thing. Her book is full of descriptions of the hierarchical traditions of the culture, and the consciousness and importance of rank and status. As far as the “noble savage” is concerned, Mead explicitly rejected some aspects of Samoan culture as inimical to those values of Western civilization that she believed should be preserved.
As for Freeman, he was a strange bird. Like Sam Harris, he had the notion that his understanding of human nature was so acute that he could use it to cobble together a new morality. For example, again from Dilthey’s Dream:
One of my main conclusions then is that there is a need for a critical anthropology of human values. Human cultures being value systems are “experiments in living,” and a critical anthropology would be concerned with assessing the consequences of these “experiments in living” in the hope that we might gradually learn to select our values with greater wisdom.
He seems to have elevated Mead to the role of quintessential representative of the Blank Slate in his imagination, and was obsessed with the bizarre notion that, if he could only prove that her claims about sexuality in Samoan adolescents were wrong, he would not only debunk Mead, but single-handedly demolish the Blank Slate itself. In fact, whether adolescent Samoan girls in the 1920s were as chaste as the most straight-laced Victorians, or just as Mead described them, it would “prove” nothing at all about human nature. Factual or not, Mead’s version of Samoan sexuality was well within the parameters already observed in other societies by observers both modern and ancient.
The question remains of whether Mead’s findings about the relative sexual freedom of women and girls in Samoan society were true or, as Freeman claimed, a figment of her imagination based on the claims of Samoan girls who told her what she seemed to want to hear as something of a practical joke. It happens that there is much of relevance to this question in a book entitled An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands by an Englishman who had lived among them for many years published in 1817. Thanks to Google books, this account, a wonderful anthropological study in its own right, can be read online. In includes a section on sexual behavior, noting that married women tended to be true to their husbands, but that marriage bonds were weak, and many of them were married multiple times. Unmarried women, on the other hand, enjoyed virtually untrammeled sexual freedom. Quoting from the book (page 173):
If a man divorces his wife, which is attended with no other ceremony than just telling her that she may go, she becomes perfect mistress of her own conduct, and may marry again, which is often done a few days afterwards, without the least disparagement to her character: or if she chooses, she may remain single and admit a lover occasionally, or may cohabit with her lover for a time, and remain at his house without being considered his wife, having no particular charge of his domestic concerns, and may leave him when she pleases, and this she may also do without the least reproach or secrecy.
…once divorced, they can remain single if they please, and enjoy all the liberty that the most libertine heart can desire.
…As to those women who are not actually married, they may bestow their favours upon whomsoever they please, without any opprobrium.
Remarkably, the author claimed that, in spite of this, the women were relatively chaste, if not compared to Europe, than at least compared to other island groups in the region, including Samoa, to which the natives occasionally traveled in their ocean-going canoes. In a review of the book that appeared in the April 1817 edition of the British Quarterly Review we learn, for example:
The women are much less immodest than in the other islands, and maternal affection exists as strongly among them as among the nations where the instincts of nature are fostered and strengthened by the sense of duty.
In a word, score one for Mead. It would seem that Freeman was the one who had his leg pulled.
If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that, before becoming firmly convinced about what an author said, it is useful to actually read her book beforehand. Paul Shankman has written an account of the Mead – Freeman controversy entitled The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. An interesting review of the book may be found here.
Posted on September 25th, 2010 No comments
The Sage of Baltimore has been honored with a new edition of the complete set of his “Prejudices.” The best review I’ve found so far is by Damon Root at Reason. He must have looked beyond the pages of Prejudices, because he knows of Mencken the editor as well as Mencken the writer. It was in that role, primarily for his “American Mercury,” that he did the country a service he is little honored or remembered for today. As Root puts it,
Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of “Klu Kluxry” and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. Indeed, White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing.”
Indeed, Mencken did more for social justice at that crucial time than any of his contemporaries, not because he pitied African Americans or because he loved to imagine himself as their noble savior, but because he admired the work of black writers and considered it worthy of being published. He gave them a much greater gift than condescending patronage. He gave them respect. The Mercury set the tone for many of the intellectuals of the day, and they, too, learned to recognize and respect the talent Mencken set before them. As Root points out, he hated the Klan and everything it stood for, and fought it with scorn and ridicule in every issue of his journal. In spite of all this, he has actually been called a “racist” because he spoke of blacks as he spoke of everyone else in his world, without the fine sense of political correctness expected of writers in the 21st century. No good deed goes unpunished.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is not so complimentary as Root in the review he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. For example,
But the vast majority of the pieces in “Prejudices” are tedious and ephemeral, even terrible at times.
Anyone seeking the reasons for Mencken’s high reputation would do better by turning to Huntington Cairns’s “The American Scene” (1965), an anthology that judiciously selects from Mencken’s autobiographical works, his writings on the American language and his various superb efforts at reportage, including his famous account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which fundamentalist religion famously butted heads with evolutionary theory.
There are no dates included in the Library of America volumes and no contextual introductions to the pieces offered. Much of the time we have no idea what Mencken is shouting about. He comes off as a gasbag.
Mencken continued such rewrites and regurgitations for an additional four “Prejudices.” He is at his worst when he writes on what he considers important topics: the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character.
I understand what Tyrrell is talking about. Mencken was scornful of his enemies, and he wrote about them in a style that was repetitive to the point that it could become tiresome. Perhaps he does come off as a gasbag in some of the worst of the Prejudices. However, if you’re interested in learning something about the human condition, the Prejudices are not ephemeral, nor is it difficult to gather what he is shouting about if you take the time to learn a little of the history of the time. I suspect the reviewer’s blanket judgment that the sage is “at his worst” when writing about the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character,” is more a reflection of his own opinions than of Mencken. He occasionally had strong praise for southerners and southern letters, and as far as the national letters are concerned, I owe the discovery of several authors I greatly admire to his reviews. He had a fine eye for literary talent, and put it to good use in the Mercury. His first encounter with Sinclair Lewis is a case in point. He was put off by Lewis typical antics, wonderfully described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.” However, when he got around to reading Lewis’ work, it didn’t matter. He knew he had found a first rate talent. He did not dislike farmers because they farmed, but because they were the source of political power for his bete noires such as William Jennings Bryan and “dry boss” Wayne B. Wheeler. Tyrrell comes closer to the truth when he writes,
He flourished in the first quarter of the century, but I doubt there would be room in America for him now. His prose style aside, he was an independent mind. There are only two camps today, and he would be in neither.
That’s exactly what I admire about him, and why it’s well worth the effort to read his Prejudices, in spite of their blemishes. There have never been many like him in any age, and in our own, they are almost non-existent. Most of the stuff one reads today is so predictable, so orthodox in its conformity to some ideological dogma, so processed like the food we eat, so often regurgitated in blogs and the “news,” that one despairs of finding anything original enough to be worth thinking about. Mencken is constantly holding little baubles of insights in front of your nose, turning them this way and that, shoving your imagination out of familiar ruts, even if they are sometimes in the rough, just as he dug them up.
Katherine Powers wrote another review for Barnes and Noble. She bowdlerizes Mencken as an original “east coast intellectual:”
H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices is an extended Bronx cheer from the smarty-boots side of the culture war and the first full-bore expression of the animus of East coast intellectuals toward the South and fly-over country.
If you prefer feeding your confirmation bias about east coast intellectuals over according Mencken the respect he deserves as an individual, you will certainly find many tidbits that will serve the purpose before reaching the end of Prejudices. However, the main problem with this pigeon-hole version of Mencken is that it isn’t true. Anyone who takes the time to read his work will notice that he found a great deal to admire and respect in “the South and fly-over country.” The rest of Powers’ review is more of the same wooden caricature. For example,
In “The Cult of Hope” (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a “messianic delusion”; on the contrary, its object is destruction.
If Powers’ object here is to give the reader an example of one of Mencken’s bombastic phrases, well and good. If, on the other hand, she sets any value on informing her readers who and what Mencken was as a critic, its a complete distortion. Mencken had a fine eye for separating the wheat from the chaff, and while he may not have been charitable to the chaff, he often had enthusiastic (and constructive) praise for authors he liked, many times before their reputation had already been established elsewhere. Other than that, Powers can’t resist the urge to draw our attention to the fact that her personal piety meets the most up-to-date standards by means of the politically correct peck-sniffery familiar to modern readers. This sort of thing may be forgivable as an inherited weakness in her case, as we learn that her “great-grandfather was an ardent supporter of William Jennings Bryan.”
It’s hard to capture a writer as original and thought-provoking as Mencken by trying to mount him on a pin in a review limited to a couple of webpages. The most you can hope to do is pique the readers interest enough to get them to look for themselves. Mencken is worth the effort.
Posted on May 31st, 2010 No comments
In his little book, Racine and Shakespeare, Stendhal defined romanticism and classicism as follows:
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.
To which Victor Hugo replied,
…he is profoundly unaware of what the classical genre is or what the romantic genre is.
Perhaps. Stendhal’s definitions aren’t like anything I’ve ever heard in an English class. On the other hand, they’re as clear and understandable now as they were when he wrote them down nearly 200 years ago. I suspect they’re also a great deal more useful for actually communicating an idea than anything Hugo might have come up with. For example, as Stendhal put it,
It requires courage to be a romantic (his definition), because one must take a chance. The prudent classicist, on the contrary, never takes a step without being supported secretly, by a line from Homer or by a philosophical comment made by Cicero in his treatise De Senectate.
If you look at what passes for “culture” in Europe in our time, it’s obvious that not many artists are taking chances. They’re mostly content with repackaging the work that pleased their great-grandfathers.