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  • Mary McCarthy and McCarthyism: A Review of “The Group”

    Posted on April 9th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Not many people remember Mary McCarthy anymore, but she was a household name among the literati back in the 50’s and 60’s, as both a novelist and a political activist.  I’d never read any of her work, but noticed in an old review of her novel The Group that she was a Vassar grad.  I used to date a Vassar girl, as my alma mater was West Point, about 30 miles down the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, and the novel was about Vassar girls, so for no more substantial reason than that, I decided to have a look.  It was a good decision.  Given what I look for in novels, The Group was one of the best I’ve ever read.

    When it comes to literature, I agree with my favorite author, Stendhal.  He said that novels were artifacts of the time in which they were written, and were meant to appeal to the tastes of people who lived in those times.  I also agree with George Orwell, who held that novels are a way of expressing truths that the limitations of language make it difficult to express in any other way.  From both points of view, I found The Group superb.  It is full of the impressions left in the mind of a very intelligent woman by the life going on around her, in this case, in the 30’s, following her graduation from Vassar in 1933, told from the point of view of a “group” of her fellow graduates.  It is a perfect time capsule.

    What’s in the capsule?  Well, to begin, I found an artifact of the contemporary “progressives'” embrace of eugenics before Hitler ruined everything, as exemplified by the father of Kay Strong, one of “the group.”

    Dad, like all modern doctors, believed in birth control and was for sterilizing criminals and the unfit.

    How about a morality inversion?  Kay’s dad had sent her a check on the occasion of her marriage to a playwright by the name of Harald Peterson and she agreed with him that,

    It was a declaration of faith… And she and Harald did not intend to betray that faith by breeding children(!, ed.), when Harald had his name to make in the theatre.

    Which, of course, begs the question of why it is that anyone is predisposed to “make a name” for himself.  My readers should know the answer to that question.  I note in passing that McCarthy’s first husband was also named Harald.  Another thing documented in the novel is the fact that, at least for some, the sexual revolution happened a long time before the pill was ever heard of.  There are detailed descriptions of the prophylactic techniques of the day, including the diaphragm, sort of a trap door in the way of hopeful sperm that was carefully fitted to cover the opening of the cervix by a gynecologist.  This was used in tandem with the douchebag, containing a spermicidal concoction to finish off the more recalcitrant searchers for the holy grail.  According to the novel, women who were open to sexual adventures would announce the fact by hanging these on the back of their bathroom door.

    Perhaps the most useful insight one can glean from The Group is the prevalence and matter-of-fact acceptance of Communists in the 30’s.  Many magazines, some of which are still around today, were open advocates of Communism in those days.  Kay’s classmate, Libby MacAusland, an aspiring book reviewer, noticed this in the case of two titles still familiar today.  As she put it:

    At the Nation and the New Republic they said too that you had to run a gauntlet of Communists before getting in to see the book editor – all sorts of strange characters, tattooed sailors right off the docks and longshoremen and tramps and bearded cranks from the Village cafeterias, none of them having had a bath for weeks.

    Most of the action takes place in New York, and playwrights there noticed the same phenomenon.  For example, Kay’s playwright husband, Harald,

    …had been directing a play for a left-wing group downtown.  It was one of those profit-sharing things, co-operatives, but run really by Communists behind the scenes, as Harald found out in due course.  The play was about labor, and the audiences were mostly theatre parties got up by the trade unions.

    Another of the Vassar classmates, Polly Andrews, became the lover of Gus LeRoy, a book reviewer for one of the big New York Publishers.  He is described as a humdrum man whose embrace of Communism was described as something entirely commonplace and unremarkable:

    His liking for name brands was what had sold him on Communism years ago, when he graduated from Brown spank into the depression.  (George Bernard) Shaw had already converted him to socialism, but if you were going to be a socialist, his roommate argued, you ought to give your business to the biggest and best firm producing socialism, i.e., the Soviet Union.  So Gus switched to Communism, but only after he had gone to see for himself.  He and his roommate made a tour of the Soviet Union the summer after college and they were impresse3d by the dams and power plants and the collective farms and the Intourist girl Guide.  After that, Norman Thomas (longtime leader of the Socialist Party in the U.S., ed.) seemed pretty ineffectual.

    Polly’s father, who comes to live with her after divorcing his wife, preferred another flavor of Communism:

    And unlike the village cure in France, who had required him to take instruction before being “received,” the Trotskyites, apparently, had accepted him as he was.  He never understood the “dialectic” and was lax in attendance at meetings, but he made up for this by the zeal with which, wearing a red necktie and an ancient pair of spats, he sold the Socialist Appeal on the street outside Stalinist rallies.

    Polly’s dad has some choice words for the New York Times’ prize, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in Moscow.  Chagrined at the refusal of his daughter’s Aunt Julia to include a small behest to the Trotskyists in her will he remarks:

    But Julia has been convinced by what she reads in the papers that we Trotskyites are counter-revolutionary agents bent on destroying the Soviet Union.  Walter Duranty and those fellows, you know, have made her believe in the trials (the Great Purge Trials of the old Bolsheviks, ed.).  If what they write wasn’t true, she says, it wouldn’t be in the New York Times, would it?

    In short, what the novel is documenting here is the fact that, among the “woke” elements in the population back in the 30’s, Communism was a commonplace.  Look at the entertainment and literary magazines of the day, and you’ll see that it was just as prevalent in Hollywood as it was in New York.  Which brings us back to the title of this post.  I refer, of course, to McCarthyism.

    McCarthyism lays fair claim to being the next to the biggest media scam of the 20th century, taking second place only to the Watergate coup d’état.  The news media were nearly as firmly in the grip of the ideological Left in Joe McCarthy’s day as they are now, and those who controlled the message were perfectly well aware that many of their friends and ideological soulmates had been party members or fellow travelers in the 30’s.  Once it became obvious that Walter Duranty and his pals had been purveying some of the most egregious “fake news” ever heard of, and the Communists and their collaborators actually had the blood of tens of millions on their hands, all these would be saviors of the proletariat were in a precarious position.  Then tail gunner Joe began seriously rocking the boat, “kicking ass and taking names,” as we used to say in the Army.  Something had to be done.  The result was the media-contrived charade we now know as McCarthyism.  Instead of feeling sympathy for the tens of millions of voiceless victims of Communism lying in mass graves starved and tortured to death or with bullet holes in their skulls, the American people were successfully bamboozled into wringing their hands over blighted careers of those who had gleefully collaborated in their murder.  McCarthy was cast in the role of one of the media’s greatest villains, an evil witch hunter.  The fact that the witches were actually there, and in great abundance, didn’t seem to matter.

    If you think Mary McCarthy was some right wing zealot who was trying to exonerate tail gunner Joe when The Group was published in 1954, guess again.  Indeed, as Alex might have said in A Clockwork Orange, “now comes the weepy part of the story, oh my brothers (and sisters).”  Mary McCarthy was actually a lesser, albeit smarter, version of Jane Fonda.  That’s right.  She, too, traveled to North Vietnam as the war was raging in the south and openly collaborated with the enemy.  She was a leftist activist of the first water.

    What can I say?  I still loved the book.  As it happens, not everyone agreed with me.  Stanley Kauffmann, a noted critic back in the day, wrote a scathing review of The Group when it was republished in 1964.  Kauffmann, too, was a leftist, and complained that McCarthy had been insufficiently zealous in portraying the oppression and victimization of his pet identity groups.  Beyond that, however, he criticized the disconnected story line and McCarthy’s lack of “style.”  To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the critics mean when they speak of “style,” and I could care less about it.  It appears my favorite Stendhal was also lacking in “style.”  It’s a matter of complete indifference to me.  What I look for in novels are such things as the accurate portrayal of the times in which they were written, insight into human nature, and bits that teach me a little bit something about my own quirks and follies.  I like Stendhal, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, and Kafka (because he’s so good at amplifying my worst nightmares).  I don’t like Dickens, I don’t like Joyce, and I don’t like Proust.  That’s not to say they aren’t great authors.  I don’t doubt that they are, because people whose opinions I respect have found much to like in them.  I just didn’t find what I like.  I did find it in The Group.  Have a look and see if you find it, too.  Don’t miss the bits about “advanced” methods of child rearing back in the 30’s.  I suspect they would make any modern pediatrician’s hair stand on end.  Meanwhile, I’ll be checking out some of McCarthy’s other stuff.

  • “Milo News,” Jerry Coyne, and Infant Euthanasia

    Posted on July 29th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Prof. Jerry Coyne recently posted an article on his Why Evolution is True website defending euthanasia for severely deformed or doomed infants.  This provoked a predictable enraged response from right wing and Christian websites.  Prof. Coyne responded to these attacks here.  There’s nothing surprising about any of this except for the fact that one of the attacks on Prof. Coyne was posted at Milo News, edited by Milos Yiannopoulos.  In view of Prof. Coyne’s consistent defense of Yiannopoulos’ freedom of speech, I found it particularly incongruous that one of the attacks should appear on his website. I left the following comment.


    I’m also an atheist, like Prof. Coyne, but more to the right than average.  In fact, I recently defended Milo’s book on my blog:

    However, I also agree with Prof. Coyne’s view on euthanasia of infants.  Unlike the furious zealots of the left and the right, however, I don’t assume the right to stuff my views on morality down anyone else’s throat.  It’s odd that many of the commenters on this thread defend their pious hatred of Coyne in the name of Judeo-Christian morality.  There seems to be something of a disconnect between their rage and what is taught in the Bible, such as “judge not, lest ye be judged,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Blessed are the meek,” etc.  In view of the fact that Christians have used their religion to justify killing tens of millions in religious wars, a million witches, give or take, in the Middle Ages, hundreds of thousands of Jews in pogroms over the centuries, most notably whenever a body of troops left for the Crusades, and murdered tens of thousands more as “heretics,” it seems absurd for them to imagine they’re standing on the moral high ground as they foam at the mouth about Coyne’s views on euthanasia.

    As it happens, it’s particularly incongruous in view of Prof. Coyne’s consistent and effective defense of freedom of speech in general and Milo’s freedom of speech in particular.  See, for example,

    In Dangerous Milo places the University of Chicago at the top of the list of his college “heroes,” noting that the “Chicago Principles on Free Expression” are the “gold standard in the fight against campus censorship.”  Prof. Coyne has consistently and strongly defended those principles.  These are a few things to consider as you work yourselves up into orgasms of pious indignation.

    I would love to see Milo sit down and have a beer with Coyne sometime.  They are both individuals who can actually think.  The results of the exchange might be interesting.


    Prof. Coyne is certainly on the left of the ideological spectrum, but he is decidedly not a Social Justice Warrior, nor is he a regressive leftist of the authoritarian persuasion who is determined to stuff his version of morality down anyone’s throat, nor is he intolerant of opinions that differ from his own.  He will have nothing to do with the ludicrous love affair between the SJW left and radical Islam, in spite of the usual specious accusations of “Islamophobia.”  I find it unfortunate that in this “four legs good, two legs bad” world where so many have chosen to confine themselves in ideological strait jackets, there are so few who seem willing or able to make the distinction between someone like him and, say, a garden variety SJW whose tastes run to fascism.

    The comment quoted above still hasn’t made it out of moderation at Milo News, and may have been consigned to the memory hole there.  Be that as it may, I reiterate my support for Prof. Coyne’s position on infant euthanasia.  This is a case in which it’s very important to consider why your moral emotions are pushing you one way or the other on the issue, and what paying heed to them (or not) will actually accomplish.  I personally would prefer that the issue be regulated by law, with euthanasia allowed up to the age of, say, a week, with the decision left strictly to the parents.  After that the usual laws dealing with murder would apply.  I do not think my opinion is capable of rendering itself independent of the neurons that gave rise to it, clothing itself in the odor of sanctity, and then fobbing itself off as a “moral law” to my unsuspecting fellow citizens.  However, I do think it should be given as much weight as any other opinion, preferably in some rational process of deciding what “ought” or “ought not” to be done that has been made as free from blatant attempts to manipulate moral emotions as possible.

    As for Milo, I know he rejects the notion of apologizing for anything, and I don’t blame him.  However, according to his own principles as set forth in Dangerous, there is much “good” in Prof. Coyne.  It would be nice to see him recognize the fact instead of simply relegating him to the same circle of hell as, say, octogenarian establishment Republicans, hideous third-wave feminist scolds, and craven, back-stabbing book publishers.

  • The “Moral Progress” Delusion

    Posted on August 14th, 2016 Helian 7 comments

    “Moral progress” is impossible.  It is a concept that implies progress towards a goal that doesn’t exist.  We exist as a result of evolution by natural selection, a process that has simply happened.  Progress implies the existence of an entity sufficiently intelligent to formulate a goal or purpose towards which progress is made.  No such entity has directed the process, nor did one even exist over most of the period during which it occurred.  The emotional predispositions that are the root cause of what we understand by the term “morality” are as much an outcome of natural selection as our hands or feet.  Like our hands and feet, they exist solely because they have enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce.  There is increasing acceptance of the fact that morality owes its existence to evolution by natural selection among the “experts on ethics” among us.  However, as a rule they have been incapable of grasping the obvious implication of that fact; that the notion of “moral progress” is a chimera.  It is a truth that has been too inconvenient for them to bear.

    It’s not difficult to understand why.  Their social gravitas and often their very livelihood depend on propping up the illusion.  This is particularly true of the “experts” in academia, who often lack marketable skills other than their “expertise” in something that doesn’t exist.  Their modus operandi consists of hoodwinking the rest of us into believing that satisfying some whim that happens to be fashionable within their tribe represents “moral progress.”  Such “progress” has no more intrinsic value than a five year old’s progress towards acquiring a lollipop.  Often it can be reasonably expected to lead to outcomes that are the opposite of those that account for the existence of the whim to begin with, resulting in what I have referred to in earlier posts as a morality inversion.  Propping up the illusion in spite of recognition of the evolutionary roots of morality in a milieu that long ago dispensed with the luxury of a God with a big club to serve as the final arbiter of what is “really good” and “really evil” is no mean task.  Among other things it requires some often amusing intellectual contortions as well as the concoction of an arcane jargon to serve as a smokescreen.

    Consider, for example, a paper by Professors Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell entitled Toward a Naturalistic Theory of Moral ProgressIt turned up in the journal Ethics, that ever reliable guide to academic fashion touching on the question of “human flourishing.”  Far from denying the existence of human nature after the fashion of the Blank Slaters of old, the authors positively embrace it.  They cheerfully admit its relevance to morality, noting in particular the existence of a predisposition in our species to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups; what Robert Ardrey used to call the Amity/Enmity Complex.  Now, if these things are true, and absent the miraculous discovery of any other contributing “root cause” for morality other than evolution by natural selection, whether in this world or the realm of spirits, it follows logically that “progress” is a term that can no more apply to morality than it does to evolution by natural selection itself.  It further follows that objective Good and objective Evil are purely imaginary categories.  In other words, unless one is merely referring to the scientific investigation of evolved behavioral traits, “experts on ethics” are experts about nothing.  Their claim to possess a philosopher’s stone pointing the way to how we should act is a chimera.  For the last several thousand years they have been involved in a sterile game of bamboozling the rest of us, and themselves to boot.

    Predictly, the embarrassment and loss of gravitas, not to mention the loss of a regular paycheck, implied by such a straightforward admission of the obvious has been more than the “experts” could bear.  They’ve simply gone about their business as if nothing had happened, and no one had ever heard of a man named Darwin.  It’s actually been quite easy for them in this puritanical and politically correct age, in which the intellectual life and self-esteem of so many depends on maintaining a constant state of virtuous indignation and moral outrage.  Virtuous indignation and moral outrage are absurd absent the existence of an objective moral standard.  Since nothing of the sort exists, it is simply invented, and everyone stays outraged and happy.

    In view of this pressing need to prop up the moral fashions of the day, then, it follows that no great demands are placed on the rigor of modern techniques for concocting real Good and real Evil.  Consider, for example, the paper referred to above.  The authors go to a great deal of trouble to assure their readers that their theory of “moral progress” really is “naturalistic.”  In this enlightened age, they tell us, they will finally be able to steer clear of the flaws that plagued earlier attempts to develop secular moralities.  These were all based on false assumptions “based on folk psychology, flawed attempts to develop empirically based psychological theories, a priori speculation, and reflections on history hampered both by a lack of information and inadequate methodology.”  “For the first time,” they tell us, “we are beginning to develop genuinely scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through the development of empirical psychological theories that take evolutionary biology seriously.”  This begs the question, of course, of how we’ve managed to avoid acquiring “scientific knowledge about human nature” and “taking evolutionary biology seriously” for so long.  But I digress.  The important question is, how do the authors manage to establish a rational basis for their “naturalistic theory of moral progress” while avoiding the Scylla of “folk psychology” on the one hand and the Charybdis of “a priori speculation” on the other?  It turns out that the “basis” in question hardly demands any complex mental gymnastics.  It is simply assumed!

    Here’s the money passage in the paper:

    A general theory of moral progress could take a more a less ambitious form.  The more ambitious form would be to ground an account of which sorts of changes are morally progressive in a normative ethical theory that is compatible with a defensible metaethics… In what follows we take the more modest path:  we set aside metaethical challenges to the notion of moral progress, we make no attempt to ground the claim that certain moralities are in fact better than others, and we do not defend any particular account of what it is for one morality to be better than another.  Instead, we assume that the emergence of certain types of moral inclusivity are significant instances of moral progress and then use these as test cases for exploring the feasibility of a naturalized account of moral progress.

    This is indeed a strange approach to being “naturalistic.”  After excoriating the legions of thinkers before them for their faulty mode of hunting the philosopher’s stone of “moral progress,” they simply assume it exists.  It exists in spite of the elementary chain of logic leading inexorably to the conclusion that it can’t possibly exist if their own claims about the origins of morality in human nature are true.  In what must count as a remarkable coincidence, it exists in the form of “inclusivity,” currently in high fashion as one of the shibboleths defining the ideological box within which most of today’s “experts on ethics” happen to dwell.  Those who trouble themselves to read the paper will find that, in what follows, it is hardly treated as a mere modest assumption, but as an established, objective fact.  “Moral progress” is alluded to over and over again as if, by virtue this original, “modest assumption,” the real thing somehow magically popped into existence in the guise of “inclusivity.”

    Suppose we refrain from questioning the plot, and go along with the charade.  If inclusivity is really to count as moral progress, than it must not only be desirable in certain precincts of academia, but actually feasible.  However if, as the authors agree, humans are predisposed to perceive others of their species in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the feasibility of inclusivity is at least in question.  As the authors put it,

    Attempts to draw connections between contemporary evolutionary theories of morality and the possibility of inclusivist moral progress begin with the standard evolutionary psychological assertion that the main contours of human moral capacities emerged through a process of natural selection on hunter-gatherer groups in the Pleistocene – in the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA)… The crucial claim, which leads some thinkers to draw a pessimistic inference about the possibility of inclusivist moral progress, is that selection pressures in the EEA favored exclusivist moralisties.  These are moralities that feature robust moral commitments among group members but either deny moral standing to outsiders altogether, relegate out-group members to a substantially inferior status, or assign moral standing to outsiders contingent on strategic (self-serving) considerations.

    No matter, according to the authors, this flaw in our evolved moral repertoire can be easily fixed.  All we have to do is lift ourselves out of the EEA, achieve universal prosperity so great and pervasive that competition becomes unnecessary, and the predispositions in question will simply fade away, more or less like the state under Communism.  Invoking that wonderful term “plasticity,” which seems to pop up with every new attempt to finesse human behavioral traits out of existence, they write,

    According to an account of exclusivist morality as a conditionally expressed (adaptively plastic) trait, the suite of attitudes and behaviors associated with exclusivist tendencies develop only when cues that were in the past highly correlated with out-group threat are detected.

    In other words, it is the fond hope of the authors that, if only we can make the environment in which inconvenient behavioral predispositions evolved disappear, the traits themselves will disappear as well!  They go on to claim that this has actually happened, and that,

    …exclusivist moral tendencies are attenuated in populations inhabiting environments in which cues of out-group threat are absent.

    Clearly we have seen a vast expansion in the number of human beings that can be perceived as ingroup since the Pleistocene, and the inclusion as ingroup of racial and religious categories that once defined outgroups.  There is certainly plasticity in how ingroups and outgroups are actually defined and perceived, as one might expect of traits evolved during times of rapid environmental change in the nature of the “others” one happened to be in contact with or aware of at any given time.  However, this hardly “proves” that the fundamental tendency to distinguish between ingroups and outgroups itself will disappear or is likely to disappear in response to any environmental change whatever.  Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to refer to the paper itself.

    Clearly the authors imagine themselves to be “inclusive,” but is that really the case?  Hardly!  It turns out they have a very robust perception of outgroup.  They’ve merely fallen victim to the fallacy that it “doesn’t count” because it’s defined in ideological rather than racial or religious terms.  Their outgroup may be broadly defined as “conservatives.”  These “conservatives” are mentioned over and over again in the paper, always in the guise of the bad guys who are supposed to reject inclusivism and resist “moral progress.”  To cite a few examples,

    We show that although current evolutionary psychological understandings of human morality do not, contrary to the contentions of some authors, support conservative ethical and political conclusions, they do paint a picture of human morality that challenges traditional liberal accounts of moral progress.

    …there is no good reason to believe conservative claims that the shift toward greater inclusiveness has reached its limit or is unsustainable.

    These “evoconservatives,” as we have labeled them, infer from evolutionary explanations of morality that inclusivist moralities are not psychologically feasible for human beings.

    At the same time, there is strong evidence that the development of exclusivist moral tendencies – or what evolutionary psychologists refer to as “in-group assortative sociality,” which is associated with ethnocentric, xenophobic, authoritarian, and conservative psychological orientations – is sensitive to environmental cues…

    and so on, and so on.  In a word, although the good professors are fond of pointing with pride to their vastly expanded ingroup, they have rather more difficulty seeing their vastly expanded outgroup as well, more or less like the difficulty we have seeing the nose at the end of our face.  The fact that the conservative outgroup is perceived with as much fury, disgust, and hatred as ever a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan felt for blacks or Catholics can be confirmed by simply reading through the comment section of any popular website of the ideological Left.  Unless professors employed by philosophy departments live under circumstances more reminiscent of the Pleistocene than I had imagined this bodes ill for their theory of “moral progress” based on “inclusivity.”  More evidence that this is the case is easily available to anyone who cares to look for “diversity” in the philosophy department of the local university in the form of a professor who can be described as conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

    I note in passing another passage in the paper that demonstrates the fanaticism with which the chimera of “moral progress” is pursued in some circles.  Again quoting the authors,

    Some moral philosophers whom we have elsewhere called “evoliberals,” have tacitly affirmed the evo-conservative view in arguing that biomedical interventions that enhance human moral capacities are likely to be crucial for major moral progress due to evolved constraints on human moral nature.

    In a word, the delusion of moral progress is not necessarily just a harmless toy for the entertainment of professors of philosophy, at least as far as those who might have some objection to “biomedical interventions” carried out be self-appointed “experts on ethics” are concerned.

    What’s the point?  The point is that we are unlikely to make progress of any kind without first accepting the truth about our own nature, and the elementary logical implications of that truth.  Darwin saw them, Westermarck saw them, and they are far more obvious today than they were then.  We continue to ignore them at our peril.

  • More Ardreyania, with Pinker and CRISPR

    Posted on August 11th, 2015 Helian No comments

    Robert Ardrey is the one man the “men of science” in the behavioral disciplines would most like to see drop down the memory hole for good.  Mere playwright that he was, he was presumptuous enough to be right about the existence of human nature when all of them were wrong, and influential enough to make them a laughing stock among educated laypeople for denying it.  They’ve gone to great lengths to make him disappear ever since, even to the extreme of creating an entire faux “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  I, however, having lived through the events in question, and still possessed of a vestigial respect for the truth, will continue to do my meager best to set the record straight.  Indeed, dear reader, I descended into the very depths to glean material for this post, so you won’t have to.  In fine, I unearthed an intriguing Ardrey interview in the February 1971 issue of Penthouse.

    The interview was conducted in New York by Harvey H. Segal, who had served on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1968 to 1969, and was an expert on corporate economics.  The introductory blurb noted the obvious to anyone who wasn’t asleep at the time; that the main theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature.

    Equipped only with common sense, curiosity, and a practiced pen, Robert Ardrey shouldered his way into the study of human nature and has given a new direction to man’s thinking about man.


    An impact on this scale is remarkable for any writer, but in Ardrey’s case it has the added quality of being achieved in a second career.

    As usual, in this interview as in every other contemporary article and review of his work that I’ve come across, there is no mention of his opinion on group selection.  It will be recalled that Ardrey’s favorable take on this entirely ancillary subject in his book The Social Contract was seized on by Steven Pinker as the specious reason he eventually selected to announce that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong.”  There is much of interest in the interview but, as it happens, Ardrey’s final few remarks bear on the subject of my last post; artificial manipulation of human DNA.

    In case you haven’t read it, that post discussed some remarks on the ethical implications of human gene manipulation by none other than – Steven Pinker.  According to Pinker the moral imperative for the bioethicists who were agonizing over possible applications of such DNA-altering tools as CRISPR-Cas9 was quite blunt; “Get out of the way.”  Their moral pecksniffery should not be allowed to derail the potential of these revolutionary tools for curing or alleviating a great number of genetically caused diseases and disorders or its promise of “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing.”  Pinker dismisses concerns about the possible misuse of the technology as follows:

    A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

    That smacks a bit of what the German would call “Verharmlosung” – insisting that something is harmless when it really isn’t.  Tools like CRISPR certainly have the potential for altering DNA in ways not necessarily intended to merely cure disease.  For example, many intelligence related genes have already been found, and new ones are being found on a regular basis.  Alterations in genes that influence human behavior are also possible.  Ardrey had a somewhat more sober take on the subject in the interview referred to above.  For example,

    Segal:  What about the possibility of altering the brain and human instincts through new advances in genetics, DNA and the like?

    Ardrey:  I don’t have much faith.  Altering of the human being is something to approach with the greatest apprehension because it depends on what kind of human being you want.  It is not so long since H. J. Muller, one of the greatest American geneticists and one of the first eugenicists, was saying that we have to eliminate aggression.  But now there is (Konrad) Lorenz who says that aggression is the basis of almost all life.  Reconstruction of the human being by human beings is too close to domestication, like control of the breeding of animals.  Muller’s plan for the human future was dealing with sheep.  I happen to be one who works best at being something other than a sheep, and I think most people do.

    and a bit later, on the prospect of curing disease:

    I see some important things that might be done with DNA on a very simple scale, such as repairing an error in, say, a hemophiliac – one of those genetic errors that appear at random every so often.  But that is making a thing normal.  It is not impossible that some genetically-caused disease, particularly if it has a one-gene basis, might be fixed.  But genes are like a club or political party with all sorts of jostling and jockeying between them.  You change one and a bell rings at the other end of the line.

    I tend to agree with Ardrey that there is a strong possibility that CRISPR and similar tools will be misused.  However, I also agree with Pinker that the bioethicists are only likely to succeed in stalling the truly beneficial applications, and the most “moral” course for them will be to step aside.  The dangers are there, but they are dangers the bioethicists are most unlikely to have the power to do anything about.

    At the individual level, parents interested in enhancing the intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks of their offspring will seize the opportunity to do so, taking the moralists with a grain of salt in the process, and if the technology is there, the opportunity to create “designer babies” will be there as well for those rich enough to afford it.  Even more worrisome is the potential misuse of the technology by state actors.  As Ardrey pointed out, they may well take a much greater interest in the ancient bits of the brain that control our feelings, moods and behavior than in the more recently added cortical enhancements responsible for our relatively high intelligence.

    In a word, what we face is less a choice than a fait accompli.  Like nuclear weapons, the technology will eventually be applied in ways the bioethicists are likely to find very disturbing.  It’s not a question of if, but when.  The end result of this new era of artificially accelerated evolution will certainly be interesting for those lucky enough to be around to witness it.

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey

  • 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.


  • Danish Progress in Suppressing Thoughtcrime

    Posted on November 20th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    According to the ever-vigilant hbd*chick, the Danish kangaroo court for scientists that goes by the moniker of the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty is once again enforcing the Law of the Suspects in that unhappy land.  Readers may recall its earlier adventures in suppressing the heretical writings of Bjorn Lomborg, who dared to offend the righteous by exposing real dishonesty in the environmental sciences.  This time we find it hurling its pious anathemas at the head of Helmuth Nyborg, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Aarhus University.  It seems that Prof. Nyborg has been courageous or foolhardy enough to publish papers on eugenics, a field which has long been under the interdict of the pathologically pious.  Once a favorite playground of what Nyborg refers to as the Academic Left, those worthies abandoned it long ago after discovering its value as a prop for their favorite sport of striking self-righteous poses.

    It’s remarkable that there never seems to be a lack of candidates shameless enough to serve as inquisitors on this Danish version of the Court of Star Chamber.  New ones keep turning up all the time.  Apparently they live in such a hermetically sealed echo chamber that they’re unaware of the rather harsh judgment of history on their antecedents in the Halls of Justice.  Such names as Torquemada, Roland Freisler, and Andrey Vishinsky come to mind.  Apropos Vishinsky, according to hbd*chick, Jens Mammen, one of the three defenders of scientific righteousness responsible for bringing the Nyborg case to the baleful attention of the Danish inquisitors, was actually a Communist himself for 14 years until 1988, when all the Marxist rats began scurrying off the sinking ship.  The other two include Morten Kjeldgaard, who has set up a creepy website devoted to hounding Nyborg, and Jens Kvorning, a “teaching lecturer” in Aalborg University’s Department of Communication and Psychology, an area of expertise which would seem to leave him singularly unqualified to challenge scientific results in the field of eugenics.

    As far as the merits of this particular case are concerned, I can but echo hbd*chick’s quote from Steven Pinker’s letter to the Danish Thought Police:

    I am writing to protest the shocking and disgraceful treatment of Dr. Helmuth Nyborg following publication of his report on possible gender differences in average IQ scores.  Dr. Nyborg may be mistaken, but the issue he is addressing is a factual one, and can only be evaluated by an open examination of the evidence.  To ‘investigate’ him, shut down his research, or otherwise harass him because his findings are politically incorrect is unworthy of an institution dedicated to the understanding of reality.  It is reminiscent of the persecution of Galileo, the crippling of Soviet science and agriculture under Lysenko, and the attempt of the American religious right wing to inhibit the teaching of evolution in the schools.

    No one has the right to legislate the truth.  It can only be discovered by free inquiry, and that includes investigations that may make people uncomfortable.  This is the foundation of liberal society, and it is threatened by attempts to interfere with Dr. Nyborg and his research.  If he is incorrect, that will be established by a community of scholars who examine his evidence and arguments and criticize them in open forums of debate, not by the exercise of force to prevent him from pursuing his research.  These are the tactics of a police state, and bring shame on any institution that uses them.

    I don’t always agree with Pinker, but you have to hand it to the man.  At least he has the right enemies.  As for eugenics, the name may have fallen into disfavor, but the science has always carried on under different names.  The main difference between Nyborg and the other practitioners is that he is courageous enough to call his specialty by its proper name.  The main premise of the field is that there are significant genetic differences among both individual humans and human groups that influence the level of mental and physical performance that individuals can achieve in like circumstances.  That premise would seem to be true, as demonstrated by the fact that evolution happened.  The alternative view favored by the Danish inquisitors of the world, that no such human biodiversity exists, requires that all human groups, no matter how great the spatial separation, arrived at precisely equal capabilities, particularly as concerns intelligence, around 50,000 years ago, at which point our evolution came to a screeching halt, with the possible exception of certain traits such as lactose tolerance, that have been scrutinized by the Thought Police and found to be innocent of conflicts with the approved dogmas of political correctness.  All this seems rather implausible, unless it is recalled that here we are speaking more of the narrative of a secular religion than anything recognizable as “science.”

    Be that as it may, I must add that I am in sympathy with those who would prefer that modern states refrain from further attempts to use the science to “improve” their inmates.  Such attempts in the past have been less that successful at enhancing “human flourishing.”  As for individuals, we have been practicing eugenics, along with the birds, the bees, and the rest of the mammals, through our choice of mates since time immemorial.  If we learn new truths and acquire new technologies that enable individuals to make similar choices in the future with more predictable results, so much the better for us.  It’s only to be expected that the Danish inquisitors among us will always seek to deprive us of the right to make such choices.  However, I doubt that they’ll ever be able to control “science” in every country as effectively as they do in Denmark.  Just as they always have in the past, people will vote with their feet.

  • Of Race and Intelligence

    Posted on October 20th, 2013 Helian 6 comments

    An interesting article on intelligence recently turned up in Scott Barry Kaufman’s Beautiful Minds, one of the Scientific American blogs.  Entitled The Heritability of Intelligence:  Not What You Think, it described a recent study of the correlation of different types of cognitive ability with IQ, and the implications regarding the importance of culture to the development of those abilities.  In other words, it’s a nature versus nurture paper.  Indeed, it went so far as to allude to the significance of the study concerning the issue of racial IQ differences.  Can you guess, dear reader, the conclusion of the article, or at least its basic gist?  Of course!  The chances that the relentlessly politically correct Scientific American or any of its blogs would ever contain such a statement as, “There are significant racial differences in IQ, and genetic heritability accounts for a large component of those differences,” are about as likely as the chance that the Pope’s staff will suddenly sprout leaves.  Indeed, I sometimes suspect that Scientific American subscribes to the quantum entanglement theory of intelligence, according to which, if a really smart member of one race dies, an equally smart member of every other race dies at precisely the same moment, regardless of their spatial separation, to maintain exact parity between the IQ of the races.

    And, true to form, the entirely predictable burden of the article was that culture accounts for the apparent IQ differences between blacks and whites.  That made the following bit from the article all the more surprising:

    To be clear: these findings do not mean that differences in intelligence are entirely determined by culture. Numerous researchers have found that the structure of cognitive abilities is strongly influenced by genes (although we haven’t the foggiest idea which genes are reliably important). What these findings do suggest is that there is a much greater role of culture, education, and experience in the development of intelligence than mainstream theories of intelligence have assumed. Behavioral genetics researchers– who parse out genetic and environmental sources of variation– have often operated on the assumption that genotype and environment are independent and do not covary. These findings suggests they very much do.

    There’s one more really important implication of these findings, which I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention.

    Black-White Differences in IQ Test Scores

    In his analysis of the US Army data, the British psychometrician Charles Spearman noticed that the more a test correlated with IQ, the larger the black-white difference on that test. Years later, Arthur Jensen came up with a full-fledged theory he referred to as “Spearman’s hypothesis: the magnitude of the black-white differences on tests of cognitive ability are directly proportional to the test’s correlation with IQ. In a controversial paper in 2005, Jensen teamed up with J. Philippe Rushton to make the case that this proves that black-white differences must be genetic in origin.

    But these recent findings by Kees-Jan Kan and colleagues suggest just the opposite: The bigger the difference in cognitive ability between blacks and whites, the more the difference is determined by cultural influences.

    Of course, as anyone who has actually read Jensen’s work is aware, he explicitly supported a correlation between culture and IQ.  And, of course, the author is evoking stark, nature-nurture divides where none exist in a fashion that would certainly bring a scowl to the face of orthodox evolutionary psychologists.  But beyond all that, what’s really stunning here is the author’s suggestion that the heritably of black/white intelligence differences is somehow the “orthodox” or mainstream point of view.  Doesn’t he actually read Scientific American himself?

    After all, when Murray and Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, with its claim that IQ is 40% to 80% heritable, the SA review of their book called them racists.

    After all,  In October 1973 a half-page advertisement entitled “Resolution Against Racism” appeared in the New York Times. With over 1000 academic signatories, it condemned “racist research”, denouncing in particular Jensen, Shockley and Herrnstein.

    After all, The American Anthropological Association convened a panel discussion in 1969 at its annual general meeting, shortly after the appearance of Jensen’s first paper on the heritability of intelligence, where several participants labelled his research as “racist”.

    After all, in a review of The Bell Curve, Steven Rosenthal referred to their work as “Academic Nazism.”

    I could go on and on.  In a word, other than the absurd implication that “behavioral genetics researchers” claim that intelligence and culture do not co-vary (by all means, if anyone knows one, please name her/him), and other than the equally absurd implication that Jensen and Rushton believed that, because intelligence was, in part heritable, it was therefore uninfluenced by culture, quite apart from all that, the notion that the theoretical heritability of black/white intelligence differences is “mainstream” is ludicrous.  In fact, the “mainstream,” orthodox position, constantly reinforced in the popular as well as scientific literature, not to mention the pages of Scientific American, is that Jensen, Shockley, and Herrnstein, and those who agree with them, are deliberately evil racist miscreants.

    Heaven forefend that I should ever stray from that orthodoxy by a jot or a tittle.  I do, however, think it would be quite interesting, though, of course, grossly immoral, if the dictator of some sub-Saharan country in Africa were to implement a draconian program of eugenics, exclusively for his country’s black population, promoting high IQ.  Suppose it were actually possible to keep it going for 200 or 300 years, and it actually succeeded (in spite of the fact that we don’t have “the foggiest idea” of where the relevant genes are, and because a = b, and b = c, it would quite clearly be mathematically impossible)?   At that point it would become necessary for the editors of Scientific American, at least in that country, to begin publishing articles proving that the lower IQ of whites compared to blacks was entirely an artifact of culture.  It might actually be quite amusing.

    And, at the risk or provoking completely unwarranted accusations of political incorrectness, I might add that I wish it really would become as orthodox as Mr. Kaufman suggests to study inherited IQ differences between human groups, and even to come up with a useful metric for measuring the same.  True, it might offend some people, but, among other things, it might be quite useful as a tool for assessing the relative merits of the new moral systems that are cropping up these days.  We have certainly felt the lack of such a tool in the past.

    In fact, the “covariance” between morality and intelligence has become quite pronounced in recent times.  This is particularly true of one of the “new-fashioned” moralities, of the type we are constantly assured we need to replace the old ones in the name of promoting “human flourishing.”  The one I have in mind is Marxism, and never did such a new secular religion, complete with a revolutionary new morality, introduce itself to the world with more extravagant promises of the “human flourishing” to come.  That’s where the usefulness of the proposed metric comes in.  I would maintain, quite apart from what was promised, that one of the most remarkable aspects of the reality of Marxist “human flourishing” that we have now been fortunate enough to witness has been the decapitation of at least two countries; the former Soviet Union and Cambodia.

    In round numbers, 25 million of a population of something under 200 million in the Soviet Union, and two million of a population of around seven million in Cambodia, were shot, starved, or tortured to death in these two countries in the interest of promoting “human flourishing.”  These millions were not randomly chosen.  They were, in fact, an instance of reverse eugenics in action.  The historical source material is there in abundance for anyone who cares to look.  Read, for example, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner.  In both cases, the victims came disproportionately from the ranks of each nation’s best and brightest; its scientists, its engineers, its literary and philosophical intelligentsia, and anyone else who happened to be educated beyond the mean.

    It seems to me wildly implausible that these events had no significant impact on the heritable cognitive abilities of the populations of these two nations, whether in the form of IQ or any other plausible measure.  Would not a metric of exactly what these effects were be extremely useful in helping us decide whether the whole project of coming up with yet another wonderful new morality is really in our best interests or not?  Who knows, we might find out that there are actually better ways to promote “human flourishing” after all.

  • The “Worry” of Chinese Eugenics

    Posted on January 20th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    Click on the “About” link at the website, and you’ll  find that, was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals that held met from 1981-1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, the Board Rooms of Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Sciences, and investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms, and elsewhere.  Though the venue is now in cyberspace, the spirit of the Reality Club lives on in the lively back-and-forth discussions on the hot-button ideas driving the discussion today.

    To prime the discussion, Edge comes up with an Annual Question for a select group of 150 intellectuals.  This year’s was, “What *should* we be worried about?”  One of the most intriguing answers was that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller; Chinese Eugenics.  In his words,

    When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention.  China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies.

    He adds some perceptive remarks about the likely reaction to all this in the West:

    The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?

    Google “Chinese eugenics” and you’ll find abundant instances of “bioethical panic” complete with the usual pontification about “playing God” and references to the movie Gattaca.  However, the old “Eugenics = Nazis” arguments seem to be losing their sting, and there are approving remarks as well.  Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu goes so far as to claim that the artificial selection of genes that promote “nice” behavior is actually a “moral obligation.”  On all sides, one hears admonitions against plunging ahead into a brave new world of designer babies until the bioethical and moral issues have been fully aired.

    As a good atheist, I can only reply, “Heaven forefend!”  All we need to really muddle this issue is to attempt to decide it based on which side’s experts in ethics and morality can strike the most convincing self-righteous poses.  That’s why I keep harping about morality on this blog.  It’s important to understand what it is, lest it become a mere prop for pious poseurs.  It exists because it promoted our survival in the past.  Would it not at least be esthetically pleasing if it continued to promote our survival in the future?  Suppose the worst fears of the Sinophobes are realized, and, after gaining a sufficiently large genetic advantage, the Chinese decide to clear the rest of us off the board like so many Neanderthals?  How much will all these moral niceties matter then?  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  There can be nothing more evil than collaborating in one’s own extinction.  The number of “experts” on ethics and morality who have a clue about the nature of human morality and the reasons for its existence is vanishingly small.  In a word, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Under the circumstances, I suspect that the value of their input on this matter is likely to be very limited.

    My personal preference is that our species survive, and continue to evolve in such a way as to best promote its survival into the future.  I doubt that we are intelligent enough at our current stage of development to achieve those goals.  For that reason, I would prefer that we become more intelligent as quickly as possible.  There are various ways in which technology might be used to speed the process up.  For example, it might be applied via an involuntary, classical eugenics program run by the state, or by giving parents the right of voluntary choice.  I don’t presume to have any infallible knowledge as to the best approach.  However, it seems to me unlikely that the priorities of genes will ever be in harmony with those of a modern state.  States tend to serve their own interests.  Consider, for example, Professor Savulescu’s suggestion about the “moral obligation” to produce “nice” babies.  As far as the interests of the state are concerned, “nice” can be translated as “docile,” a behavioral trait parents might not be so interested in preserving.  Limiting these choices to parents will also have the advantage of being more “natural.”  It will simply be continuing the same type of “eugenics” we have been practicing since time immemorial via sexual selection.

    In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury is now available online.  In those halcyon days before eugenics became associated with the Nazis, and therefore taboo, it was still possible to discuss the topic rationally.  Interested readers might want to take a look at a “pro” article, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley that appeared in the February 1924 issue of the Mercury, and a “con” article, The Eugenics Cult, by Clarence Darrow that appeared in the June 1926 issue.  To those who suspect I’m slanting the debate towards the “con” by giving the pulpit to the great lawyer of Inherit the Wind fame, I point out that Mencken was no mean judge of intellectuals.  Apparently Simone de Beauvoir agreed, because she entrusted Parshley with the English translation of The Second Sex.