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  • David Gelernter and the Angst of the Philosophers

    Posted on January 8th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    One can understand the anxiety of the spiritually inclined.  Whether their tastes run to traditional religions or belief in some kind of a teleological life force, their world views have always depended on exploitation of the things we don’t understand.  As the quantity of such things declines, the credibility of their beliefs tends to decline in direct proportion.  Computer scientist David Gelernter, who happens to be a believer of the Jewish persuasion, recently delivered himself of an interesting cri de Coeur in response to this unsettling state of affairs.

    In a piece that appeared in Commentary entitled The Closing of the Scientific Mind, Gelernter cuts right to the chase, singling out as the enemy a strawman outgroup known as “scientists.”  These scientists, it would seem, “…have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.”  Furthermore, these same scientists use their “…locker room braggadocio to belittle the spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will.”  In that case I must be poor indeed, as I am familiar with no such discovery that is credible to anyone who believes that claims of truth should be based on actual evidence.  Apparently the braggadocio of the scientists is based, at least in part, on their ignorance, for, as Gelernter assures us, “Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics.”

    Where to begin?  At the risk of sounding barrenly scientific, one might ask what Gelernter means by “spirit” when he speaks of “spiritual support.”  Where is the evidence that such an entity even exists, or the proof that the scholarly, artistic, religious, and humanistic work he refers to actually does support it if, in fact, it does exist?  What on earth does he mean by “humanism?”

    Of course, the problem here may well be that, like Gelernter’s scientists, I simply don’t understand this work.  I would be the first to agree that it can be highly complex.  For example, my understanding of the detailed and intricate theological arguments in favor of the Trinity are vague indeed, as is my understanding of the reasons the followers of Father Arius reject these arguments.  I know no more than a babe about why one is supposed to risk eternal damnation by either embracing the iconoclast’s rejection of religious images, or the iconodule’s insistence that they remain.  I have no clue about the sophisticated arguments used by Jan Hus to demonstrate the need for Communication in both kinds, nor the equally involved arguments contrived by the Popes to justify decades of warfare in order to restore Communion in one kind only.  However, it is entirely clear to me that all these arguments are vain and senseless if the great Santa Claus in the sky that all these learned debaters appealed to doesn’t actually exist.  In fact, I have concluded as much, and so have not taken the trouble to waste much effort on “understanding this work.”

    For such “spiritual and religious discoveries” to be plausible, they must exist in a sphere inaccessible to the prying eyes of mere scientists.  Of course, as mentioned above, Gelernter is a believing Jew, so he has that sphere for starters.  However, he has another one up his sleeve, in the form of the “subjective world.”  As he puts it, nowhere is the bullying of the scientists “…more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.”  As my readers know, I have had much to say about the difference between subjective and objective phenomena, particularly as they relate to morality.  I do not believe in the objective existence of categories such as good, evil, rights, etc., independent of their subjective perception in the mind.  The Darwinian explanation of these subjective phenomena as owing their existence to the fact that the predispositions that are their ultimate cause promoted the survival and procreation of our ancestors at some point in time, with its caveat that they are ultimately explainable in terms of physical phenomena that we don’t currently understand, but that are hardly beyond our very powers of understanding, seems entirely plausible to me.  Of course, as immediately realized by the clerical worthies, both of Darwin’s time and our own, such an explanation has a very corrosive effect on “spiritual and religious discoveries.”  As a result, just as they did and do, Gelernter must reject it as well.

    And so he does.  In the article at hand, he bases his rejection of Darwin almost entirely on the work of philosopher Thomas Nagel, with emphasis on his book, Mind & Cosmos, as if Nagel’s opinion on the subject silenced all further debate.  It would seem we must jettison Darwin merely because, in Nagel’s opinion, “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness – the capacity to feel or experience the world.”  I would be the first to admit that we don’t yet understand consciousness.  However, clearly no such conclusion as “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain it” is warranted until we do.  No matter, Gelernter elevates Nagel to the status of a martyr of truth, who has been cruelly persecuted by the “killer hyenas” of science.  As evidence for the existence of the scientific “lynch mob,” he cites a review of Mind & Cosmos that appeared in the May 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong.”

    On actually reading the article, I kept wondering what on earth Gelernter meant by his dark references to a “lynch mob.”  By all means, read it yourself.  It’s meager stuff on which to anchor Nagel’s martyrdom.  To all appearances it’s a vanilla book review that actually praises Nagel in places, but concludes that he “went wrong” merely by doing a poor job of marshaling the potentially good arguments in favor of what the reviewer, Michael Chorost, to all appearances considered an entirely plausible point of view.  As Chorost put it,

    But Nagel’s goal was valid:  to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task.  A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical:  scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known.  (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and how to make new sciences.)

    That doesn’t exactly strike me as the criticism of a “killer hyena.”  Gelernter goes on to cite Ray Kurzweil’s singularity” mumbo-jumbo as an example of how the “scientists,” with their “roboticist” interpretation of the mind and their denial of his “subjective world,” have gone wrong.  In fact, the idea that all “scientists” embrace either Kurzweil’s transhumanist utopia or “roboticist” interpretations of the mind is nonsense.  I certainly don’t.

    The rest of Gelernter’s arguments in favor of a “subjective” never-never land, inaccessible to mere scientists and forever inexplicable in terms of crude explanations based on anything as naïve as physics and chemistry, are similarly implausible.  This subjective world is supposed to be capable of spawning “the best and deepest moral laws we know,” although Gelernter never supplies a metric by which we are to measure such quantities as “best” and “deepest,” nor, for that matter, any basis for the existence of such things as “moral laws.”  Presumably they would be beyond the understanding of mere scientists.  Again, the subjective world is to prevent us from becoming “morally wobbly,” and “inhumane.”  It is to supply us with a common appreciation of “scholarship (presumably of the non-scientific kind), art, and spiritual life.”  It will somehow affirm the “sanctity of life,” and will rationalize “all our striving for what is good and just and beautiful and sacred, for what gives meaning to human life, and makes us (as Scripture says) ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ and a little better than the rats and cats,” all of which is “invisible to the roboticist worldview.”

    For all this to happen, of course, it is necessary for the “subjective world” to be universal.  I can certainly understand the term “subjective,” but it seems to me to refer to phenomena that go on in the minds of individuals.  Gelernter never supplies us with an explanation of how these phenomena in the minds of individuals, whether scientifically explainable or not, acquire the magical power to leap out of those individual skulls and become independent things with independent normative powers, or, in a word, objects.  Perhaps a good Marxist could interpret it as an instance of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality.

    It all reminds me of a quirk of one of my favorite novelists, Stendhal, who couldn’t bear to describe on paper, even in his personal diaries, the consummation of one of his “sublime” love affairs for fear any such crude description would shatter its “beauty.”  I would be the first to admit that those affairs represented a “subjective world” to Stendhal.  For all that, I still have a sneaking suspicion that Darwin might have had something useful to say about them after all.

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

    Posted on December 8th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The gene does not lead, it follows.

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

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

    Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

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

     

  • 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.

  • On the Unbearable Lightness of Objective Morality

    Posted on October 14th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    There are still objective moralists – lots of them.  Of course, billions of people on the planet are objective moralists because they believe in God, but that’s the trivial case.  I’m not referring to them.  I’m referring to the legions of philosophers, ethicists, and moralists who sawed that particular branch off long ago, and yet imagine they can still sit on it.  It reminds me of an old “Itchy and Scratchy” episode on “The Simpsons.”  Itchy tears out Scratchy’s heart and hands it to him as a valentine.  Scratchy is charmed, and carries on as if nothing were amiss until he happens to read the bold headline in his newspaper, “You Need a Heart to Live!”  So it is with the objective moralists.  They insist that their treasured object needs neither a heart nor a God to exist.  It exists because they say so, and after all, they are the experts.  More importantly, it exists because they would not at all approve of a world in which it didn’t.

    An interesting example of the genre recently turned up in the pages of The New Atlantis in the form of an article entitled, The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson.  It was penned by Whitley Kaufman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  Kaufman is also an objective moralist, and his article is intended as a refutation of E. O. Wilson’s “evolutionary ethics.”  He informs us that “the discipline of evolutionary ethics can be divided into two broad camps.”  Supposedly Wilson belongs to the first camp, which “views evolutionary explanations of morality as a way to improve our understanding of what is moral and to put ethical claims on a stronger foundation.”  However, Kaufman finally gets around to telling us where he stands in describing the second camp:

    But there is a second, more radical school of thought in evolutionary ethics.  This view holds that evolutionary biology, rather than providing a basis for improving or modernizing ethics, shows that the idea of objective ethical rules is inherently mistaken.

    Returning to the same theme a bit later he writes,

    …the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims.

    That might well be true if there were even the faintest basis for the “objective status of ethical claims.”  In fact, there is none, and Kaufman makes no effort to supply one.  Objective moralists seldom do.  It seems to them that the Good and Evil objects that dance before their eyes are so light that they can float about in the ether without support.  It’s a common illusion among those who have reached terminal velocity as gravity pulls them crashing down to earth.

    By all means, read Kaufman’s essay from end to end.  You will search in vain for any justification of the claim that there is such a thing as objective morality.  Instead, you will find a very typical mélange of appeals to emotion, moralistic posing, and insistences that, because the author wouldn’t like it if there were no objective morality, therefore objective morality must exist.

    For example, in a section entitled Disquieting Precedents, he dangles familiar bugaboos before our eyes.  They include Social Darwinism, eugenics, and, of course, the Nazis.  These are all, supposedly, the misshapen children of evolutionary ethics.  In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:  I feel really, really strongly that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are evil.  It would be really, really outrageous for anyone to believe that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are good.  Therefore, it follows that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are objectively evil.  Using similar logic, one can easily prove the existence of a God.  After all, if God didn’t exist, we couldn’t go to heaven after we die, the bad people we resent wouldn’t go to hell, and our prayers for our favorite football team would never be answered.  Therefore, there must be a God.

    A little later, Kaufman puts this “it just can’t be” argument into an even simpler form.  Taking issue with Wilson he writes,

    In his 1986 essay “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” written with philosopher Michael Ruse, he (E. O. Wilson) argues that we now understand that we have been “deceived by our genes” into believing that morality objectively binds us, that there is a real right versus wrong.

    This view is best characterized as a form of moral nihilism, the idea that moral obligations do not exist.  Wilson tries to avoid the nihilistic position by insisting that the illusion of right and wrong is so deeply built into us that even recognizing it as an illusion will not likely make a difference in our behavior.  But committed moral nihilists reject this response:  realizing that moral claims are illusions surely means that moral claims are false.  There is, under this view, no real ethical difference between the actions of the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint.

    In other words, we have the following additional arguments for objective morality:  a) I don’t like moral nihilists at all, and, since moral nihilists deny the existence of objective right and wrong, therefore objective right and wrong must exist, b) I don’t at all like the idea that there is no objective moral difference between the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint, so there must be an objective moral difference between them, and, c) It would be a great shame if the mirage of a cool spring of water and palm trees shimmering ahead of me on the desert floor weren’t real.  Therefore they must be real.  Do any of these arguments make sense to you?  They certainly don’t to me.  A bit further on Kaufman writes,

    There are stronger grounds than Wilson offers, however, for rejecting the moral nihilism that some say is a consequence of evolutionary biology.  Consider an analogy with mathematics and science.  Like our ability to think about the morality of our actions, the cognitive abilities underlying mathematics and science are in some sense products of evolution.  But this fact has no significant implications regarding our ability to objectively study mathematics or physics, and it certainly does not imply that numbers, molecules, or, for that matter, genes, brains, and bodies studied by evolutionary biologists are fictions.  Likewise, the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims… To try to do ethics without genuine values and prescriptive moral principles is like trying to do science without recourse to facts and observations.

    There’s a novel proof for you.  Objective Good and Evil must exist because Prof. Kaufman requires them to do his job.  Actually, I’m entirely willing to believe in genuine values and prescriptive moral principles if Professor Kaufman could just catch one in his butterfly net and bring it in for me to observe.  That’s really where his ox is gored.  If there is no objective morality, people like him really have nothing to teach us, other than their opinions tarted up as “objects.”  I’m sorry about that, but the fact doesn’t alter reality one bit.  According to Kaufman,

    In order to fully comprehend human nature, there must always be a place for philosophy, history, literary studies, and even theology – disciplines that complement the natural sciences and fill in the picture of the human being as a free and rational agent.

    I personally don’t care what discipline my knowledge comes from.  You can call it science, or philosophy, or history, or whatever you like.  But regardless of where it comes from, I must insist that if people make assertions about objects that are supposed to exist independently of their subjective minds, they provide some data, some actual evidence that those objects exist.  Absent such data, but with plenty of data demonstrating that those “objects” are just what E. O. Wilson says they are – subjective illusions – I will continue in the belief that they are just that.

    Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for the existence of human morality.  Absent those predispositions, our morality as we know it would cease to exist.  In my opinion, that is the simple truth.  It will remain the truth whether its implications are unpleasant to the Kaufmans of the world or not.  Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are obviously possible, though hardly inevitable, outcomes if people engage in faulty reasoning about what they should do in response to their moral emotions.  If we really want to avoid such outcomes in the future, wouldn’t it be advisable to understand the truth about our moral emotions and where morality comes from?  It seems to me that would be wiser than attempting to ban them by insisting that everyone believe in imaginary objects.  That would amount to insisting that we repeat the same mistakes over again.  After all, there were no stronger believers in objective morality than the Nazis unless, perhaps, it was the Communists.  For them, the ultimate, objective Good was the welfare of the German Volk.  They tolerated no moral relativism on that score whatsoever.  For the Communists, the objective Good was achieving the future classless utopia.  They, too, allowed no moral relativism touching on that ultimate goal.  It seems to me that the lesson we really should have learned from Nazism and Communism is that such illusions of objective Good can be very dangerous, and we should be wary of anyone who comes along trying to peddle a new and improved version.

    There is no reason we will cease to be moral beings because we have finally learned to understand morality.  Just as E. O. Wilson said, it is our nature to be moral beings.  If there be moral nihilists who assume they can break the rules because the rules are conventions rather than objects, we will continue to punish them just as we have always punished such moral nihilists in the past.  I, for one, will have no problem with that.  However, it seems to me that the interactions of modern nation states armed with nuclear weapons bear little resemblance to those that prevailed during the long period over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved.  Under the circumstances it seems to me imprudent to regulate those interactions with reference to imaginary Good and Evil objects.  We did, after all, have some rather unpleasant experiences during the last century trying to do just that.  Let us refrain from compounding the error by attempting to repeat those experiments.  I have very little faith in the efficacy of the vaunted intelligence of our species.  However, it seems to me that in such cases we should leave off trying to cobble together new moral systems and actually try to be reasonable.

    As for Good and Evil objects, I am not intransigent.  I am entirely willing to believe in them.  All I ask is that Professor Kaufman rope one and show it to me.

     

  • Morality and the Perspicuity of the True Believers

    Posted on October 2nd, 2013 Helian No comments

    We are a social species.  It stands to reason that natural selection has equipped us with a suite of behavioral predispositions suitable for such a species.  A subset of those predispositions is the ultimate cause of what we know and experience as morality.  One might say that Mother Nature wasn’t too finicky about such irrelevancies as rational consistency in designing the necessary mental equipment.  She created the compelling illusion in our minds that such imaginary objects as Good, Evil, and Rights actually exist, and then hedged them about with powerful emotions that inclined us to reward Good and punish Evil.  The fact that we’re here demonstrates that the system has worked well enough so far, although it has shown distinct signs of becoming dysfunctional of late.

    I don’t know whether it ever occurred to Mother Nature that we might someday become clever and nosey enough to wonder where these objects came from.  I never asked her. I rather suspect that she assumed the problem would be patched over via the invention of imaginary super beings.  In that case, the objects would exist just because that’s the way the imaginary super being(s) wanted it, end of story.  She probably never bothered about the possibility that some of us might realize that the imaginary super beings weren’t really all that plausible.  After all, no one could accuse her of pussy footing around when it came to moral illusions.  Good and Evil would appear as real things in the imaginations of believers and infidels alike.  If the infidels couldn’t trace their existence to a God, well, they would just have to be creative and come up with something else.

    And creative the infidels have certainly been.  They’ve come up with all kinds of systems and rationalizations in the hope of saving the Good and Evil objects from vanishing into thin air.  They are similar in that all of them are even more implausible than belief in imaginary super beings.  The amusing thing is that the true believers can see through the charade without the least difficulty, whereas the “rational” infidels persist in floundering about in the darkness.

    Consider, for example, a piece Dennis Prager just wrote for National Review Online, packaged as “A Response to Richard Dawkins.”  Prager cuts to the chase with the following:

    If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

    Thank you, Mr. Prager.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  That is a perfectly clear and straightforward statement of a simple truth that so many of my fellow “rational” atheists seem completely unable to grasp.  There is simply no mechanism whereby the moral emotions in the mind of one individual can stroll over, smack another individual up alongside the head, and acquire the legitimacy to apply to that other individual as well.  Atheist moralists are like so many zombies, still wandering aimlessly about in their imaginary world of good and evil even though they’ve just been shot between the eyes.  The bullet that hit them is the realization that evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate cause of moral behavior.  As Mr. Prager says, they do, indeed, have very pronounced opinions about the precise nature of Good and Evil.  The problem is that such opinions are analogous to having opinions about the color of a unicorns horn.  They are opinions about objects that don’t exist.

    Unfortunately, belief in imaginary super beings is just as ineffectual as the fantasies of the atheists when it comes to conjuring up Good and Evil Things and endowing them with objective reality.  Consider, for example, the rest of Mr. Prager’s article.  It’s basically a statement of the familiar fallacy that, because (Judeo-Christian) God-based morality results in Good (as imagined by Mr. Prager), and atheist morality results in Evil (as imagined by Mr. Prager), therefore God must exist.  In fact, there is no logical mechanism whereby the mind of Mr. Prager can force God from non-existence into existence by virtue of the fact that a God is required to transmute his Good and his Evil into objective realities.  The truth of God’s existence or non-existence does not depend on Mr. Prager’s opinion touching on how his presence might affect the moral climate.

    No matter, Prager stumbles on with his version of the now familiar “proof” that (Judeo-Christian) God-based moral systems result in Good, but secular ones result in Evil, and that the (Judeo-Christian) God must therefore exist.  Apparently he knows enough history to realize that to believe this “proof” it is necessary to stand reality on its head.  The slaughter of countless Jews through the ages, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent women as “witches,” the extermination of the Albigensians, the decades of bloody warfare conducted by “good” Christians to stamp out the Hussite heresy, the slaughter of the French Huguenots, and countless other similar events are the real legacy of Christianity.  Prager is aware of this, and so would have us believe that Christianity has been successfully “tamed” in the 20th century.  As he puts it,

    But if that isn’t enough, how about the record of the godless 20th century, the cruelest, bloodiest, most murderous century on record? Every genocide of the last century — except for the Turkish mass murder of the Armenians and the Pakistani mass murder of Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) — was committed by a secular anti-Jewish and anti-Christian regime. And as the two exceptions were Muslim, they are not relevant to my argument. I am arguing for the God and Bible of Judeo-Christian religions.

    In fact, the God and Bible of the Judeo-Christian religions weren’t as spotless as all that, even in the 20th century.  Consider, for example, the bloody history of the “Black Hundreds” in Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution.  They murdered tens of thousands of Jews in the bloody pogroms that were one of their favorite pastimes.  The degree to which they were inspired by Christianity should be evident from the image of one of their marches I’ve posted below.  No, I’m sorry, but I put little faith in Mr. Prager’s assertion that, while Christianity may have been responsible for inspiring astounding levels of bloody mayhem over the centuries, the Christians promise to be good from now on.

    We are moral beings.  We will act morally regardless of whether we believe in imaginary supermen or not, because it is our nature to act morally.  As is obvious from the many variations in the details of moral rules among human societies, our moralities are not rigidly programmed by our genes.  Within the limits imposed by our innate moral predispositions, we can shape our moral systems to suit our needs.  It seems to me that our efforts in that direction are more likely to be successful if we leave religious fantasies, whether of the spiritual or secular variety, out of the process.

     

     

  • Morality: Making Simple Things Complicated

    Posted on May 5th, 2013 Helian 4 comments

    I believe in keeping up interstellar appearances.  If aliens from outer space ever do visit us, I don’t want to be embarrassed.  For example, it would be nice if they concluded that, given the rather short time since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we are actually rather smart.  As things now stand, that’s most unlikely.  What is likely is that they’ll have a hearty laugh at our expense, especially when they discover that we refer to ourselves as “Man the Wise.”  In the first place, a large majority of us still believe in imaginary super-beings who plan to boil us in hell for billions and trillions of years for the paltry sins they knew we were predestined to commit and couldn’t possibly avoid during our brief lives, or who are divided up into a complicated mélange of “spirit” and human-like sexual characteristics.  In the second, they will notice that, even though we have known about evolution for more than a century and a half, we still ascribe all sorts of supernatural qualities to morality as well.  Shameful!  The snickers and knowing glances at interstellar cocktail parties will be unbearable.

    It may be that a benign zoologist or two among them will observe what orgasmic pleasure we get out of striking self-righteous poses, and how addicted we are to imagining ourselves as “good” and the others as “evil,” and will frown at all this levity at our expense.  Such delicious pleasures are easy to rationalize, and hard to part with.  Besides, surely some of the very interstellar wags who laugh the loudest at our expense belong to species that commited follies in their “gilded youth” that were just as bad, if not worse.  Still, I’m keeping a paper bag handy to put over my head at need if the time comes.

    The God thing is bad enough, but, as the sympathetic zoologists might point out, at least it’s understandable.  Our species has an inordinate fear of dying and, since we’ve also managed the whimsical trick of identifying our consciousness, an entirely secondary entity that exists because it promoted genetic survival, with our “selves,” we imagine there’s no way out.  We either have to face the fact that we’re going to “depart from among men,” as the historian Procopius always put it, or – we have to invent an imaginary super-being to save us.

    The morality thing is a different matter.  We don’t keep up that charade to avoid death.  We just do it because it’s fun.  Members of our species love to imagine themselves as noble heroes in a never-ending battle against evil.  It “promotes high self-esteem.”  It enables us to do remarkably selfish things in the name of selflessness.  It even diverts our attention from our impending end and, when combined with the God illusion, offers an illusory way of escaping it.  Dealing with people who are enamored of their own righteousness is always an inconvenience.  Occasionally it’s much worse than that.  They become psychopathic, manage to convince others that they’re right, and commit mass murder as a way of eliminating the evil people.  It turns out that the God nexus isn’t even necessary.  Even people who avoid that first illusion usually fall victim to the second – that Good and Evil are real things, objects in themselves.

    The rationalization of the illusion is always flimsy enough.  In the case of religious believers, we have been provided with an example by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  It goes like this:

    If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

    Objective moral values do exist.

    Therefore, God exists.

    This is a farrago of nonsense.  What does the existence of a super-being have to do with objective morality?  Certainly, he can fry us in hell for billions and trillions of years for daring to disagree with him, but in the end, his opinion of good and evil is just that – an opinion.  His opinion is no more legitimate than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that he can either torture us forever on the one hand, or shack us up with 72 virgins on the other.  In other words, there is no way in which moral values can become objects just because he wants it that way.  The existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of objective moral values.

    As for the second component of the syllogism, it is a statement of faith, not fact.  If objective moral values really do exist, how is it that, after all these thousands of years, we are still waiting for one of the moralists to catch one in his butterfly net and show it to us, neatly mounted on a pin?  As for the third component, it evaporates without the first two.

    The attempts of the atheists are just as persistent, and just as absurd.  They often take the form of conflating a utilitarian ought with a moral ought.  A typical example that is actually offered as a “rebuttal” to the Christian syllogism above recently appeared at Secular Outpost.  The author, Bradley Bowen, starts out reasonably enough, noting that,

    One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2).  If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.

    Then, however, he begins wading into the swamp:

    Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1).  Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values.  I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE (Craig) argument.

    Religious people have a way of becoming very acute logicians when it comes to assessing the moral illusions of atheists.  William Lane Craig is no exception.  Bowen quotes him as follows:

    I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.  What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists?  I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists.  Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction.  Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.

    Reasonable enough.  Here, of course, it is obvious that Craig is referring to justice as an objective moral good.  He also points out the simple and seemingly obvious fact, at least since the days of Darwin, that, absent a God, moral values are “properties of persons.”  Well put!  While human morality can manifest itself in countless varieties of rules, systems, and laws depending on time and circumstances, the ultimate reason for its existence is a “property of persons.”  In all its variations, it represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits.  Absent those ultimate causes, carried about in the genetic material of each “person,” morality as most people understand the term would disappear.

    Bowen, however, kicks against the goads.  For him, dispensing with “objective moral values” would be as hard as giving up chocolate, or even sex.  It would take all the joy out of life.  To preserve them, he comes up with a “proof” just as chimerical as Craig’s syllogism.  In essence, it is just a crude and transparent attempt to ignore the word “objective.”  According to Bowen,

    Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR (Atheistic Moral Realism) believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see.  Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true.  It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.

    It is not hard to see at all.  If justice does not exist independently of humans or persons, then it is subjective, not objective.  Bowen has simply decided to ignore the term “objective.”  This becomes more clear in the following:

    I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons.  If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity.  However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.

    In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as “green.”  No doubt if we were smart enough, we could dissect all the molecules, hormones, and atomic interactions that account for the impression “green.”  However, if there is really any distinction between subjective and objective at all, green remains subjective.  In other words, it is the impression left on the mind of an individual by certain real things, in this case, photons.  It is, however, not the things themselves.  Bowen is left with the burden of demonstrating how justice and all the rest of his moral subjects are magically transformed into objects.  That, after all, is the whole point of Craig’s use of the term “objective.”  How does justice, as described by Bowen, acquire the ability to leap out of his skull, or of any other skull for that matter, and become an “object.”  By what mysterious process does it acquire that legitimacy?

    No, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have more bad news for you.  Not only is there not a Santa Claus, but there is no God, and no objective morality.  Don’t despair, though.  Santa Claus was certainly a grievous loss, but we’d all be much better off without the other two.  In the end, lies are liabilities.  “God” motivates us to fly airplanes full of people into tall buildings, and “objective morality” convinces us that we are perfectly justified in murdering millions of people because they are Jews or “bourgeoisie.”

    Well, in spite of these rather obvious drawbacks, just as we are certainly descended from apes, most of us are certainly still absurd enough to believe in Gods and “objective morality.”  When it comes to potential interstellar visitors, I can but paraphrase Darwin’s apocryphal noble lady and hope that these absurdities don’t become generally known.  I’m still keeping my paper bag handy, though.

  • Not All Cultural Anthropologists are Evil!

    Posted on March 11th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    Yes, it’s true, there are a lot of leftover Blank Slaters around.  They live on in the hermetically sealed halls of academia as sort of a light echo of the Marxist supernova.  Still, I count myself lucky to have witnessed the smashing of the absurd orthodoxy they once imposed on the behavioral sciences.  Few people pay any attention to them anymore outside of their own echo chambers.  That makes it all the more refreshing to see shoots of new life sprouting in the once desiccated wasteland of cultural anthropology.

    Consider, for example, the work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, currently a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia.  As a young graduate student in 1995, Henrich landed in Peru and began studying the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live by hunting and small-scale farming.  In the process, he turned up some very interesting data on the importance of culture in human affairs.  As noted in an article entitled, We Aren’t the World, that appeared recently in the Pacific Standard,

    While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.

    The particular game that Henrich used was the Ultimatum Game (click on the hyperlink for a description), and as the data accumulated, it revealed some rather profound behavioral differences between the Machiguenga and the average North American or European.  Again quoting from the Pacific Standard article,

    To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

    Obviously, “the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring” was not the most parsimonious explanation for this “anomaly.”  It was, of course, culture.  As Henrich and his collaborators continued their research,

    …they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains.

    As they say, read the whole thing.  I find stories like this tremendously encouraging.  Why?  In none of Henrich’s papers that I have looked at to date is there any suggestion that anyone who disagrees with him is either a racist or a fascist.  In none of them do I detect that he has an ideological ax to grind.  In none of them do I detect an implicit rejection of anything smacking of evolutionary psychology.  Quite the contrary!  In a conversation with an interviewer from 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.

    and,

    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.

     

     

  • E. O. Wilson vs. Jerry Coyne: The Group Selection Wars Continue

    Posted on March 4th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    A few days ago E. O. Wilson published a bit in The New York Times entitled The Riddle of the Human Species.  Wilson, of course, is a fine writer and a great thinker who’s books include, among others, the seminal Sociobiology.  He has been referred to as the “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” or was, at least, until he challenged some academic orthodoxies in his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Among the most egregious of these was his defense of group selection, a subject with a fascinating history which I have often discussed in this blog.  Basically, the group selection hypothesis is that natural selection of certain traits occurred because it favored the survival of groups, even though those traits were either neutral or detrimental to the survival of individuals.  This drew a chorus of boos from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, who have more or less staked their reputations on the assertion that group selection never happened or, if it did, it wasn’t important.  There’s really nothing new in Wilson’s latest bit.  He basically reiterates the themes of his latest book, including group selection.  This again drew the predictable catcalls from the Dawkins/Pinker camp.  One of them was penned by Jerry Coyne, proprieter of the blog, Why Evolution is True.  I certainly agree with his take on evolution, but I found some of the arguments in his response to Wilson’s latest risable.

    Coyne writes,

    So it’s sad to see him, at the end of his career, repeatedly flogging a discredited theory (“group selection”: evolution via the differential propagation and extinction of groups rather than genes or individuals) as the most important process of evolutionary change in humans and other social species. Let me back up: group selection is not “discredited,” exactly; rather, it’s not thought to be an important force in evolution.  There’s very little evidence that any trait (in fact, I can’t think of one, including cooperation) has evolved via the differential proliferation of groups.

    Here Coyne does a complete 180 in a single paragraph, making the bombastic claim that group selection is discredited and then doing a quick rowback to the more prosaic, “Well, maybe not quite.”  There may be very little evidence that any trait evolved via group selection, as Coyne suggests, but there’s very little evidence that those that might have evolved via group selection didn’t, either.  Coyne continues,

    I’ve covered this issue many times (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), so I won’t go over the arguments again. Wilson’s “theory” that group selection is more important than kin selection in the evolution of social behavior (published in Nature with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita) was criticized strongly by 156 scientists—including virtually every luminary in social evolution—in five letters to the editor, and sentiment about the importance of group selection has, if anything, decreased since Wilson’s been pushing it.

    This is the classic “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” argument, or, in more polite parlance, the argument from authority.  Coyne knows that it is just as flimsy as the claim that group selection is a “discredited theory,” but this time he takes a bit longer to do a 180, writing near the very end of his bit,

    His theories have not gained traction in the scientific community. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, for, in the end, scientific truth is decided by experiment and observation, not by the numbers of people initially on each side of an issue.

    If that’s the case, why bring up the “156 scientists” argument to begin with?  If memory serves, there were very few “experts” in the behavioral sciences who didn’t at least pay lip service to the Blank Slate orthodoxy until a very few decades ago.  Did that make it right?  Coyne next takes Wilson to task for his “inaccurate” use of the term “eusociality”:

    “Eusociality” as defined by Wilson and every other evolutionist is the condition in which a species has a reproductive and social division of labor: eusocial species have “castes” that do different tasks, with a special reproductive caste (“queens”) that do all the progeny producing, and “worker castes” that are genetically sterile and do the tending of the colony. Such species include Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees, though not all species are eusocial), termites, naked mole rats, and some other insects.

    But humans don’t have reproductive castes, nor genetically determined worker castes.  Wilson is going against biological terminology, lumping humans with ants as “eusocial,” so he can apply his own theories of “altruism” in social insects (i.e., workers “unselfishly” help their mothers produce offspring while refraining themselves from reproducing), to humans.

    Here, one can but smile and wonder if Coyne is actually serious.  Is he really unaware that, while he may not have actually coined the term “eusociality,” Wilson supplied the first scientific definition for it?  Is he no longer allowed to use a term that he essentially invented as he sees fit?  The presence of “castes” is by no means universally accepted as a requirement for eusociality in any case.

    As it happens, Wilson is co-author with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita of a paper presenting a mathematical theory of group selection entitled, The Evolution of Eusociality. Alluding to this, Coyne writes,

    The mathematical “proof” given by Nowak et al. does not show that group selection is a better explanation than kin selection for social behavior in insects, for their “proof” does not vary the level of kinship, as it must if it could allow that conclusion.

    This begs the question of whether alternative mathematical “proofs” of kin selection are any better.  To this, as one who has spent a good part of his career as a computational physicist, I can only laugh.  Consider the case of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), built to demonstrate inertial confinement fusion.  The finest three-dimensional full physics codes, amply benchmarked with the results of previous experiments on earlier giant laser facilities such as Nova at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and OMEGA at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, confidently predicted that the NIF would succeed in achieving its ignition goal.  It did not.  It is currently short of that goal by more than an order of magnitude.  Trust me, the mathematical models that are supposed to “prove” group selection or kin selection are hopelessly crude by comparison.  They can all be taken with a grain of salt.  Coyne continues,

    The second egregious and false claim in this paragraph (a paragraph that’s the highlight of the piece) is that “multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists” because of the Nowak et al. paper. That’s simply not true.  The form of multilevel selection adumbrated in that paper is, to my knowledge, embraced by exactly four people: the three authors of the paper and David Sloan Wilson.

    Here, I can but suggest that Coyne try Google, using the search term “group selection.”  It would seem based on a cursory search that there are rather more embracers of group selection than he imagined.  Coyne concludes,

    Why does Wilson keep writing article and article, and book after book, promoting group selection? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is that his seeming monomaniacal concentration on a weakly-supported form of evolution can serve only to erode his reputation… Wilson’s reputation is secure. It’s sad to see it tarnished by ill-founded arguments for an unsubstantiated evolutionary process.

    What, exactly, is this supposed to be?  A thinly veiled threat?  If not, how else is one to construe it?  Is Coyne suggesting that Wilson either repeat orthodoxies about group selection that he clearly believes to be false, or, alternatively, shut up and surrender his freedom of speech because he’s worried about his precious reputation?  It brings to mind my own furious denunciation of Aristotle in my 9th grade biology class for promoting wrong theories of cosmology.  My teacher, Mr. Haag, who was much wiser than I deserved, observed, “Well, at least he thought.”  I’ve thought a great deal about that reply since the 9th grade.  To this day I have no idea whether group selection was really important or not, and don’t believe that anyone else has adequate evidence to decide the question one way or the other, either.  However, regardless, I will always honor and admire E. O. Wilson.  At least he thought.

  • Jonathan Last and the Un-Problem of Shrinking Populations

    Posted on February 24th, 2013 Helian 3 comments

    In his latest book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last warns us of the dire consequences of shrinking populations.  He’s got it backwards.  It’s the best thing that could happen to us.

    Before proceeding with my own take on this issue, I would like to assure the reader that I am not a rabid environmentalist or a liberal of the sort who considers people with children morally suspect.  I have children and have encouraged my own children to have as many children as possible themselves.  It seems to me that the fact that those among us who are supposedly the most intelligent are also the most infertile is a convincing proof of the stupidity of our species.

    Why did I decide to have children?  In the end, it’s a subjective whim, just like every other “purpose of life” one might imagine.  However, as such I think it’s justifiable enough.  The explanation lies in the way in which I perceive my “self.”  As I see it, “we” are not our conscious minds, although that is what most of us perceive as “we.”  Our conscious minds are evanescent manifestations of the physical bodies whose development is guided by our genes.  They pop into the world for a moment and are then annihilated in death.  They exist for that brief moment for one reason only – because they happened to promote our genetic survival.  Is it not more reasonable to speak of “we” as that about us which has existed for billions of years and is potentially immortal, namely, our genes, than to assign that term to an ancillary manifestation of those genes that exists for a vanishingly small instant of time by comparison?  We have a choice.  We can choose that this “we” continue to survive, or we can choose other goals, and allow this “we” to be snuffed out, so that the physical bodies that bear our “we” become the last link in an unbroken chain stretching back over billions of years.  There is no objective reason why we should prefer one choice or the other.  The choice is purely subjective.  The rest of the universe cares not a bit whether our genes survive or not.  I, however, care.  If countless links in a chain have each created new links in turn and passed on the life they carried over the eons, only to come to a link possessed of qualities that cause it to fail to continue the chain, it seems reasonable to consider that link dysfunctional, or, in the most real sense imaginable, a failure.  I personally would not find the realization comforting that I am a sick and dysfunctional biological unit, a failure at carrying out that one essential function that a process of natural selection has cultivated for an almost inconceivable length of time.  Therefore, I have children.  As far as I am concerned, they, and not wealth, or property, or fame, are the only reasonable metric of success in the life of any individual.  The very desire for wealth, property or fame only exist because at some point in our evolutionary history they have promoted our survival and procreation.  As ends in themselves, divorced from the reason they came into existence in the first place, they lead only to death.

    Am I concerned if others don’t agree with me?  Far from it!  And that brings us back to the main point of this post.  I do not agree with Jonathan Last that a constantly increasing population, or even a stable one at current levels, is at all desirable.  As far as I am concerned, it is a wonderful stroke of luck that in modern societies the conscious minds of so many other humans have become dysfunctional, resulting in their genetic death.  I am interested in keeping other genes around only to the extent that they promote the survival of my own.  That is also the only reason that I would prefer one level of population on the planet to one that is larger or smaller.  That, of course, is a very personal reason, but it seems to me that it is a conclusion that must follow for anyone else to the extent that they prefer survival to the alternative.

    Survival, then, is my sine qua non.  Given that this planet is, for practical purposes, the only one we can depend on to support our survival, I consider it foolhardy to prefer a population that is potentially unsustainable, or that will diminish everyone’s chances of long term survival.  I am hardly a fanatical environmentalist.  I would just prefer that we refrain from rocking the boat.  I have read Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, and am well aware of how frequently the environmentalists have been crying “wolf” lo now these many years.  However, like Lomborg, I agree that there is still reason for concern.  Pollution and environmental degradation are real problems, as is the rapid exploitation of limited sources of cheap energy and other raw materials.  Obviously, Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions that we would run out of everything in short order were far off the mark.  However, eventually, they will run out, and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the date as long as possible.  Let us consider the reasons Jonathan Last believes all these risks are worth taking.  In all honesty, assuming we are agreed that survival is a worthwhile goal, they seem trivial to me.

    To begin, while paying lip service to the old chestnut that a correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, Last suggests exactly that.  On page 7 of the hardcover version of his book he writes, “Declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things.  Disease.  War.  Economic stagnation or collapse.”  To see whether this suggestion holds water, let’s look at one of Lasts own examples of “declining populations.”  On p. 36 he writes, “World population also declined steeply between 1340 and 1400, shrinking from 443 million to 374 million.  This was not a period of environmental and social harmony; it was the reign of the Black Death.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether declining populations were the cause of the Black Death, or the Black Death was the cause of declining populations.  To anyone who has read a little history, it is abundantly clear that, while disease, war, and economic collapse may cause depopulation, the instances where the reverse was clearly the case are few and far between.  In a similar vein, referring to the Roman Empire, Last writes on p. 35, “Then, between A.D. 200 and 600, population shrank from 257 million to 208 million, because of falling fertility.  We commonly refer to that period as the descent into the Dark Ages.”  Where is the evidence that the population fell because of “falling fertility”?  Last cites none.  On the other hand, there is abundant source material from the period to demonstrate that, as in the case of the Black Death, declining populations were a result, and not a cause.  In Procopius‘ history of the Great Italian War in the 6th century, for example, he notes that Italy has become depopulated.  The great historian was actually there, and witnessed the cause first hand.  It was not “declining fertility,” but starvation resulting from the destruction of food sources by marauding armies.

    However, this allusion to “Very Bad Things” is really just a red herring.  Reading a little further in Last’s book, it doesn’t take us long to discover the real burrs under his saddle.  Most of them may be found by glancing through the 50 pages between chapters 5 and 7 of his book.  They include, 1) The difficulty of caring for the elderly.  2) The decrease in inventiveness and entrepreneurship (because of an over proportion of elderly)  3) A decline in military strength, accompanied by an unwillingness to accept casualties, and 4) Lower economic growth.  The idea that anyone could seriously suggest that any of these transient phenomena could justify playing risky games with the ability of our planet to sustain life for millennia into the future boggles the mind.  The population of the planet cannot keep increasing indefinitely in any case.  At some point, it must stabilize, and these consequences will follow regardless.  The only question is, how many people will be affected.

    Consider Japan, a country Last considers an almost hopeless demographic basket case.  Its population was only 42 million as recently as 1900.  At the time it won wars against both China and Russia, which had much greater populations of 415 million and 132 million, respectively at the time.  Will it really be an unmitigated disaster if its population declines to that level again?  It may well be that Japan’s elderly will have to make do with less during the next century or two.  I hereby make the bold prediction that, in spite of that, they will not all starve to death or be left without health care to die in the streets.  Demographically, Japan is the most fortunate of nations, not the least favored.  At least to date, she does not enjoy the “great advantage” of mass immigration by culturally alien populations, an “advantage” that is likely to wreak havoc in the United States and Europe.

    As for military strength, I doubt that we will need to fear enslavement by some foreign power as long as we maintain a strong and reliable nuclear arsenal, and, with a smaller population, the need to project our power overseas, for example to protect sources of oil and other resources, will decline because our needs will be smaller.  As for inventiveness, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, it would be better to promote them by restraining the cancerous growth of modern tax-devouring welfare states than by artificially stimulating population growth.  Again, all of Last’s “Very Bad Things” are also inevitable things.  What he is proposing will not enable us to avoid them.  It will merely postpone them for a relatively short time, as which point they will be even more difficult to manage because of depleted resources and a degraded environment than they are now.  It seems a very meager excuse for risking the future of the planet.

    In a word, I favor a double standard.  Unrestricted population growth of my own family and those closely related to me genetically balanced by an overall decline in the population overall.  There is nothing incongruous about this.  It is the inherent nature of our species to apply one standard to our ingroup, and an entirely different one to outgroups.  We all do the same, regardless of whether we are prepared to admit it or not.  I leave you, dear reader, in the hope that you will not become confused by the distinction between the two.

  • Procopius on Kin Selection and Territoriality

    Posted on February 10th, 2013 Helian No comments

    Procopius was one of the greatest of the Roman historians (or slightly post-Roman if you insist that the Empire “fell” in 476 A.D.).  He wrote during the reign of the Emperor Justinian.  As he was the personal secretary of the brilliant general Belisarius, his works are full of first hand accounts of the great man’s many victories against the Persians, Vandals, and Goths.  These include many fascinating and touching anecdotes, such as finding a young boy, obviously from a wealthy family because he was wearing a gold chain, abandoned by his mother on the side of the road just as the invading Persian armies were approaching; of a Hun in Belisarius’ little army of mercenary barbarians who became depressed, perhaps because he was so far from home, and one day rode out alone among the enemy Goths, killing many of them before being cut down himself; of Belisarius’ men’s consternation at his laughter when, besieged in Rome, the vast host of Goths outside sent massive seige towers against them that overtopped the walls.  Belisarius merely let them come on until they were within range, drew back his bow, and shot down one of the oxen pulling the towers.  After his men had finished off the rest, they realized why Belisarius had been laughing.

    Some of the other stories Procopius recounts were picked up by hearsay, or from books, and many are little more than glorified fairy tales.  Like the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, though, they often provide some insight into human nature.  One of them is the story of the pearl, apparently well known among the Persians of the time.  As the story goes, an oyster on the Persian coast produced a fabulous pearl, which it like to display between its open valves.  A shark fell in love with the beautiful gem, and could only leave off looking at it when, at long intervals, it was forced by hunger to search for food.  A fisherman saw what was going on, and reported the whole matter to the Persian king, Perozes.  According to Procopius,

    Now when Perozes heard his account, they say that a great longing for the pearl came over him, and he urged on this fisherman with many flatteries and hopes of reward.  Unable to resist the importunities of the monarch, he is said to have addressed Perozes as follows:  “My master, precious to a man is money, more precious is his life, but most prized of all are his children; and being naturally constrained by his love for them a man might perhaps dare anything.  Now I intend to make trial of the monster, and hope to make thee master of the pearl.  And if I succeed in this struggle, it is plain that henceforthf  shall be ranked among those who are counted blessed.  For it is not unlikely that thou, as King of Kings, wilt reward me with all good things; and for me it will be sufficient, even if it so fall out that I gain no reward, to have shewn myself a benefactor of my master.  But if it must needs be that I become the prey of this monster, they task indeed it will be, O King, to requite my children for their father’s death.  Thus even after my death I shall still be a wage-earner among those closest to me, and thou wilt win greater fame for thy goodness, – for in helping my children though wilt confer a boon upon me.

    Predictably, the shark caught up with the poor fisherman, but not before he was able to throw the pearl to his companions on shore.  If there’s any truth to the story, his children did very well.  The Persian kings apparently took such matters very seriously.  One of them, Isdigerdes, was named the guardian of the child of the Roman emperor Arcadius just before the latter’s death.  The King of Kings took immediate charge of the child, and threatened immediate invasion and death to anyone who presumed to harm him or usurp his place.

    Another interesting story turns up in the same book (Book I, History of the Wars) a few pages later.  It seemed that certain persons had impugned the loyalty of the Armenian client king Arsaces to his Persian overlord Pacurius.  The latter invited Arsaces to his capital, where he was made a prisoner.  However, he was in a quandry as to whether the Armenian was really guilty or not, and solicited advice from his wisemen, the Magi.  Again, letting Procopius pick up the tale,

    Now the Magi deemed it by no means just to condemn men who denied their guilt and had not been explicitly found guilty, but they suggested to him an artifice by whicdh Arsaces himself might be compelled to become openly his own accuser.  They bade him cover the floor of the royal tent with earth, one half from the land of Persia, and the other half from Armenia.  This the king did as directed.  Then the Magi, after putting the whole tent under a spell by means of some magic rites, bade the king take his walk there in company with Arsaces, reproaching him meanwhile with having violated the sworn agreement.  They said, further, that they too must be present at the conversation, for in this way there would be witnesses of all that was said.  Accordingly Pacurius straightway summoned Arsaces, and beganf to walk to and fro with him in the tent in the presence of the Magi; he enquired of the man why he had disregarded his sworn promises, and was setting about to harass the Persians and Armenians once more with grievous troubles.  Now as long as the conversation too place on the ground which was covered with the earth from the land of Persia, Arsaces continued to make denial, and, pledging himself with the fearful oaths, insisted that he was a faithful subject of Pacurius.  But when, in the midst of his speaking, he came to the center of the tent where they stepped upon Armenian earth, then, compelled by some unknown power, he suddenly changed the tone of his words to one of defiance, and from then on ceased not to threaten Pacurius and the Persians, announcing that he would have vengeance upon them for this insolence as soon as he should become his own master.  These words of youthful folly he continued to utter as they walked all the way, until turning back, he came again to the earth from the Persian land.  Thereupon, as if chanting a recantation, he was once more a suppliant, offering pitiable explanations to Pacurius.  But when he came again to the Armenian earth, he returned to his threats.

    As I mentioned in my last post, Razib Khan at Discover’s Gene Expression blog just wrote,

    …cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.

    I am not so pessimistic.  I think they might yet recover if they read more ancient fairy tales, and stopped inventing new ones of their own.