Posted on December 3rd, 2012 No comments
According to the frontispiece of his The Evolution of Man, published in 1924, Grafton Elliot Smith held the titles of M.A., M.D., Litt. D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., and Professor of Anatomy at the University of London. If titles and academic honors are any guide, he must have been a very intelligent man. He was well aware of the limitations of human intelligence, and wary of the influence of the emotions on judgments of fact. For example, in the book referred to above, from which all the following quotes are taken as well, he wrote,
The range of true judgment is in fact extremely limited in the vast majority of human beings. Emotions and the unconscious influence of the environment in which an individual has grown up play an enormous part in all his decisions, even though he may give a rational explanation of the motives for many of his actions without realizing that they were inspired by causes utterly alien to those which he has given – and given without any intention of dishonesty – in explanation of them. It is the exception rather than the rule for men to accept new theories on evidence that appeals to reason alone. The emotional factor usually expresses itself in an egotistical form. The ‘will to believe’ can often be induced by persuading a man that he discovered the new theory of his own initiative.
No one could have written a better post mortem for Smith’s career. When it came to questions that really mattered about the evolution of man, he had a positive penchant for getting it wrong. Regarding the issue of whether erect posture or a large brain came first in the transition from ape to man, he noted in passing,
The case for the erect attitude was ably put by Dr. Munro (Neil Gordon Munro, better known for his studies of the Japanese Ainu, ed.) in 1893. He argued that the liberation of the hands and the cultivation of their skill lay at the root of Man’s mental supremacy.
Smith would have done well to listen to Munro, not to mention Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, both of whom proposed similar, “bipedalism before large brain” theories. However, he would have none of it, writing,
It was not the adoption of the erect attitude that made Man from an Ape, but the gradual perfecting of the brain and the slow upbuilding of the mental structure, of which erectness of carriage is one of the incidental manifestations.
Noting that the above quote was included in the substance of an address to the British Association delivered in the autumn of 1912, he rejoiced in a latter chapter that his conjecture had been followed almost immediately by a “dramatic confirmation”:
Within the month after its delivery a dramatic confirmation was provided of the argument that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way. For the late Mr. Charles Dawson (in association with Dr. – now Sir Arthur – Smith Woodward) brought to light in Sussex the remains of a hirtherto unknown type of Primate with a brain that, so far as size is concerned, came within the range of human variation, being more than 200 c.cm. larger than that of the more ancient and primitive member of the Human Family (Pithecanthropus), in association with a jaw so like that of a Chimpanzee that many of the leading palaeontologists believed it to be actually the remains of that Ape.
This, of course, was the famous Piltdown Man, probably the most damaging scientific forgery of all times, proved in 1953 to be a composite of a medieval human skull and the jaw of an orangutan. It was probably fabricated by Dawson himself, who had a knack for making similar “sensational” finds, and whose antiquarian collection was found to include at least 38 specimens that were “clear fakes” after his death. Ironically, its discovery induced just such a “will to believe” in Smith as he had warned his readers about earlier in the book. He rationalized the “genuineness” of Piltdown Man with arguments that were formidably “scientific” and astoundingly intricate. For example,
When the skull is restored in this way (according to an intricate reconstruction process described earlier, ed.) its conformation is quite distinctive, and differs profoundly from all other human skulls, recent or fossil. The parietal bone exhibits a peculiar depression between the diverging temporal lines, and the lower margin of the bone, below the depression, is everted. This creates a peculiarity in the form of the cranium that is found in the Gorilla and Chimpanzee. But the simian resemblances are revealed most strikingly in a transverse section of the reconstructed Piltdown Skull, when compared with corresponding sections of those of a Chimpanzee, a Gorilla, and a modern European. It will then be realized how much more nearly the Piltdown skull approaches the simian type. The general form of the cranium in transverse section is greatly expanded like that of an Ape. This applies particularly to the contour of the parietal bones. But the construction of the temporal bone is even more strikingly Ape-like in character.
…and so on. One can but feel a painful and vicarious sense of shame for the worthy professor, who had so thoroughly succeeded in hoodwinking himself. Unfortunately, his weighty testimony hoodwinked many others as well, eventually including even Sir Arthur Keith, who had immediately smelled a rat and publicly cast doubt on the discovery, only to later accept the forgery as real against his better judgment with the help of Smith’s “coaching.”
Piltdown Man wasn’t the only sensational discovery of the day. Raymond Dart had also discovered the first specimen of Australopithecus Africanus in the same year as Smith’s book was published. Dart had immediately noticed evidence of the creature’s upright posture, but Smith would have none of it:
But there is no evidence to suggest that its posture differed from that of the Chimpanzee. The peculiarity in the position of the foramen magnum – which Professor Dart assumed to afford further corroboration of its human affinity – is merely an infantile trait that is found equally in other young Anthropoids.
Poor old Dart. He was always being “debunked” for being right. He was similarly “set straight” by his peers for suggesting that early man engaged in anything so unsavory and politically incorrect as hunting live game. Next it was the turn of Neanderthal Man. To add insult to the injury of his recent extinction, Smith’s unflattering description spawned a myriad museum displays of a stooped, bestial creature, seemingly unattractive as a sex partner except to the most desperate:
His short, thick-set, and coarsely built body was carried in a half-stooping slouch upon short, powerful, and half-flexed legs of peculiarly ungraceful form. His thick neck sloped forward from the broad shoulders to support the massive flattened head, which protruded forward, so as to form an unbroken curve of neck and back, in place of the alternation of curves which is one of the graces of the truly erect Homo sapiens.
In a word, Professor Smith left us with a wealth of disinformation that it took decades of careful research to correct. His example should teach us humility. His book and a few others like it should be required reading for nascent Ph.D.’s. Many of them will find little time for such ephemera later on in their struggles to stay up to speed with all the latest in the collection of learned journals that pertain to their specialty. Still, they might find it amusing and even informative to occasionally step back from the information maelstrom, dust off some of the old books and journals in forgotten stacks, and recall the foibles as well as the triumphs of their compatriots gone before. In ambling through the old source material, they’re likely to find that the history they find on the Internet isn’t always served straight up. As is regrettably the case with Prof. Smith, it often happens that some of the more egregious warts and blemishes have been charitably removed. They are likely to find the unexpurgated versions more helpful, especially if they happen to specialize in fields that are long on unfalsifiable theories and short on repeatable experiments.
Posted on October 15th, 2012 No comments
I’ve mentioned subjects that the human brain perceives as objects before. Examples include Good, Evil, and Rights; entities that cannot possibly exist as other than subjective impressions or intuitions in the minds of individuals, and yet are still perceived as things-in-themselves that have an independent existence of their own. Edward Fitzgerald put it much more elegantly in his Rubaiyat, that font of wisdom thinly disguised as the translation of the work of a medieval Islamic poet:
The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
Yet, in spite of the fact that no one has yet devised an experiment capable of “seeing” these entities at any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, or measuring their temperature, or detecting their presence via gravitational anomalies, or otherwise demonstrating their independent existence outside of the brains of individuals, we stubbornly insist that they are real. It’s not hard to understand why Mother Nature has arranged things that way. Conceived as mere subjective individual whims, categories such as good and evil lose their normative power. The basis for applying them to others disappears, and they become useless for regulating behavior within or between groups. Perceived in that way, they would never helped us survive. As a consequence, they would never have evolved in the first place.
There are other interesting examples of the same phenomenon. “Value” is one of them. Survivalists and goldbugs favor a monetary system backed by precious metals because it seems to them they have real value, although there is no measurable quality of gold that would make it possible to distinguish its value from that of a common rock. Of course, there’s method in their madness. One could certainly devise a metric to distinguish the scarcity of gold from that of paper. No doubt statisticians could establish a correlation between scarcity and perceived value. Although he never actually spoke of a “labor theory of value,” Karl Marx did derive a “law of value” based on the work of earlier economists. I will leave the hair splitting over the precise manner in which Marx perceived value to the Marxist scholars. However, his many followers based their notion of “surplus value” on his work. They perceived of it as a real thing that the exploiting capitalists stole from the proletariat.
“Science” is another example. In reality it is merely a systematic approach to discovering truth which is usually haphazardly applied by scientists and often doesn’t work in practice. However, it, too, has been transmogrified into an object. One speaks of doing things “for science.” To imply that something is “scientific” is to imply that it is necessarily true, as in “scientific Marxism-Leninism.” Eugenics was scientific in its day, as was the luminiferous ether. “Men of Science” are supposed to “think right” compared to other mere mortals, who should not presume to intrude in their specialized domains. Often these “Men of Science” are, in reality, the prisoners of some fashionable ideology which causes them to imagine things that are palpable nonsense to most people. The Blank Slate dogma is a good example. In my own specialty, computational physics, “Men of Science” often make a cottage industry out of some arcane mathematical approach, and continue to tweak and fiddle with it, milking it for an endless series of papers in prestigious academic journals long after advances in computer power have rendered it completely obsolete. No matter that what they are doing is quite useless; it is, after all, “Science.”
No doubt there are other similar examples, but I will not attempt to catalog them all here. The point is that our brains are designed so that we perceive certain subjective intuitions as objects. Presumably, that trait evolved because it promoted our survival. Unfortunately, it evolved at times that were radically different than the present. It might not be quite as effective at promoting our survival today. The Nazis and the Communists were both completely convinced that they represented the Good, as did the suicide bombers of 911. Those whose tastes run to saving the world based on alternative versions of the Good might do well to keep their example in mind.
Posted on September 19th, 2012 1 comment
I must admit that I felt a certain malicious glee on reading E. O. Wilson’s defense of group selection in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. After all, Richard Dawkins dismissed the life work of men like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in his The Selfish Gene because, in his words, they were “totally and utterly wrong” in defending group selection. I happen to admire all three of them because they were the most influential and effective defenders of the existence of such a thing as human nature during the heyday of the Blank Slate. It was good to see Dawkins hoisted on his own petard. However, my glee has been dampened somewhat of late by what I see as an increasing tendency of some evolutionary biologists, and particularly those who have come out most strongly in favor of group selection, to adulterate their science with a strong dose of ideology. Apparently, they have learned little from the aberration of the Blank Slate, or at least not enough to avoid repeating it.
Consider, for example a paper that recently turned up on the website of the Social Evolution Forum with the somewhat incongruous title, “Joseph Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. Cultural Evolution. The Evolution Institute,” by Peter Turchin, professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics. A good part of it was a review of The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, which, Turchin informs us, he was about two-thirds of his way through. He notes that “Stiglitz is sympathetic to Leftist ideas. Actually, he is way out on the Left end of the political spectrum.” This doesn’t seem to raise any red flags at all, as far as Turchin is concerned. One wonders, “How can this be?” Haven’t we just been through all this? Were not the Blank Slaters who derailed the behavioral sciences for several decades also “way out on the Left end of the political spectrum?” Did they not villify anyone who disagreed with their puerile notions about human nature as arch-conservatives, John Birchers, and fascists? Did they not have powerful motives for making the “scientific facts” come out right so that they didn’t stand in the way of the drastic political and social changes they planned for us “for our own good?” There is no reason that anyone on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum can’t do good science, but it goes without saying that, when one has strong ideological motivations for having the answers come out one way or the other, that bias must be taken into account and carefully controlled for. That is particularly true when the answers always just happen to agree nicely with one’s ideological preconceptions.
None of this seems to occur to Turchin, who points out that Stiglitz “inveighs against the ‘Right’ on numerous occasions throughout the book.” Apparently, we are to believe this is somehow remarkable and heroic, for he continues, “This is unusual for an economist, especially such an accomplished one who is (or, at least, has been) part of the ruling elite. Most economists know very well which side of their bread is buttered. It is curious how economic theories that yield answers pleasing to the powerful and wealthy tend to be part of the mainstream, while those yielding uncomfortable answers are relegated to the fringe…” To this one can only say, “Surely you’re joking, Professor Turchin!” Did not Paul Krugman, hardly noted as a conservative wingnut, just win the Nobel Prize in economics? Has there been a sudden revelation that the economics professors at our great universities have issued a pronunciamiento in favor of the Republican ticket, with the exception of an insignificant “fringe.” Where is the hard data demonstrating that “most economists” favor the rich elites? Have all the leading economics journals suddenly gone hard over in favor of supply side economics while I wasn’t looking?
Citing a theme of bête noire of the left Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Turchin continues,
It is interesting to note that when the wealthy ‘defect,’ they actually not only make the overall situation worse, but it is actually a suboptimal outcome for them, too. At least that is the message of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Among other things, Wilkinson and Pickett make a striking observation that the expectation of life among the wealthier segment of Americans is less than the median for many European societies that are much more egalitarian – and spend much less per capita on health.
“Much more egalitarian”? Evidently the authors never lived in Europe. I lived in Germany, and if they think that the society there is much more “egalitarian” than the United States just because the top 1% take home a smaller percentage of the national income, they’re dreaming. The country is far more stratified according to social rank and power than the US, and the same families tend to control positions of power in government and industry year after year. The presence of minorities in positions of political and economic influence is virtually imperceptible. Think the situation is different in France, another nation that beats the US in terms of income equality? Just ask any black in Paris whether they think their chances would be better there than here. Other than that, where is the data on countries where the rich “defect”? Has such a thing ever actually happened in the sense described in Rand’s novel? What evidence is there that the health of the top earners in the US, whether better or worse than their European peers, has anything to do with “egalitarianism”?
What, you might ask, does all this have to do with evolutionary biology? According to Turchin, one of Stiglitz major “shortcomings” is that he “is apparently unaware of the great progress that cultural evolution and cultural multilevel selection theory made in the last decade or so.” One wonders what, exactly, he is referring to when he speaks of “cultural” multilevel selection theory. One of the authors he cites in support of this contention, David Sloan Wilson, is certainly well known for his work on multilevel selection. However, his most cited work is on genetic, and not cultural evolution. Regardless, Turchin’s point is that science is to be used as a tool to support preconceived ideological truisms. That tendency to assume that “science” would always get the “right answer” contributed heavily to the debacle of the blank slate.
I had a similar experience in the conference the Evolution Institute organized last December in Stanford on Nation-Building and Failed States. One of the participants was Francis Fukuyama, who had recently published a book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he was clearly interested in engaging with evolutionary thinking. Yet he had to resort to appeals to the two tired (and badly wrong) models of human sociality – reciprocal altruism and kin selection.
Here we’ve come back to the point I made at the beginning of this article; the recent marked tendency of group selectionists to adulterate their science with ideology. As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not particularly fond of Dawkins, Pinker, and some of the other major advocates of reciprocal altruism and kin selection. However, when Turchin claims that they are “tired and badly wrong” he is just blowing smoke. The jury is still out, and he has no basis on which to make such a judgment. On what knowledge does he base this assurance that these theories are “badly wrong”? Nowak’s “complex mathematical models”? I was a computational physicist for much of my career, and while Nowak’s models are interesting, the idea that they account for all of the relevant data so thoroughly that they can serve as a basis for the conclusion that inclusive fitness theory is “badly wrong” is laughable.
Turchin is hardly the only one publishing such stuff. I’ve read several others authors recently who argue in favor of group selection without giving any indication that they have even an inkling of the complexity of the subject, and who rain down furious anathemas on the supposedly “debunked” proponents of inclusive fitness, associating them with evil ideological and political tendencies in the process. Their tone is typically one of outraged virtue rather than scientific detachment. Do we really need to go through all this again? Perhaps instead of declaiming about the philosophy of Kropotkin and crying up the moral superiority of their version of “equality,” advocates of group selection would do well to make sure they have the science right first.
Posted on August 24th, 2012 No comments
Steve Davis has recently been championing group selection and lobbing rocks at Richard Dawkins and his fellow gene-centrists over at Science 2.0. He writes with a certain moralistic fervor that ill befits a scientist, but so does Dawkins and a good number of his followers. The problem isn’t that he takes issue with Dawkins and his inclusive fitness orthodoxy. The problem is that he associates evolutionary psychology with that orthodoxy, as if it would evaporate without a kin selection crutch. Not only is that untrue, but it stands the whole history of the science on its head. For example, referring to the book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene by philosopher Mary Midgley in an article entitled “Evolutionary Psychology – As it Should Be,” Davis writes,
Not only does the book have wide implications for debates in evolutionary psychology, it overturns that school of thought completely, as it presents a comprehensive rebuttal of the selfish gene hypothesis on which evolutionary psychology (as we know it) is based.
In a later article entitled “Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics,” he adds,
When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at (anthropologist and anarchist political theorist Peter) Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”)But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought.
As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based. Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.
Of course the issue of group selection in all its various flavors is actually very complex. For anyone interested, I recommend the excellent discussion of group selection that illustrates that complexity in J. van der Dennen’s The Origin of War. However, the real problem with these articles is their association of the entire field of evolutionary psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now. That association is fundamentally false. To demonstrate that fact, one need look no further than the first chapter of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. For example, quoting from the book,
These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.” The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).
Who were Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt? Well, to begin with, they all supported the theory of group selection. They were also the most prominent evolutionary psychologists of their day. I use the term “evolutionary psychology” in the vernacular, that is, a science based on the hypothesis that there is such a thing as human nature. The vernacular term that meant the same thing in the heyday of the above three was “ethology.” Later it became “sociobiology.” The original sociobiologist was, of course, E. O. Wilson. He never fully accepted Dawkins’ gene-centric views, and, of course, recently came out of the closet as a firm believer in group selection. As for The Selfish Gene, it isn’t just about Dawkins theory of gene-centric evolution. It is also a full-fledged attack on the evolutionary psychologists of its day. The above quote is hardly unique, and is followed by many others attacking Lorenz and Ardrey for their support of group selection.
Davis’ misconception that there is some kind of an indissoluble bond between evolutionary psychology and Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution is understandable. EP has come of age during a time when Dawkins opinion represented scientific orthodoxy, and reflects that environment, in a manner no different from any of the other biological sciences. However, the fact that many evolutionary psychologists happened to also accept gene-centric orthodoxy hardly implies that the whole field is dependent on or derived from that point of view.
Davis’ conflation of kin selection and evolutionary psychology is also understandable in view of the extensive scrubbing of the history of the field. According to this “history,” as represented, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, what became EP began with a mythical “big bang” with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. In fact, as far as the reason for that book’s notoriety is concerned, its embrace of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature, it was just an afterthought. There is nothing in it that was not written more than a decade earlier by the likes of Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, most prominently, Robert Ardrey. To fact check this statement, one need only read Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves, published in 1968, and still available on Amazon for about a dollar the last time I looked. I suspect one of the reasons the history of EP has been “revised” is the fact that, when it came to Ardrey’s claim that there is such a thing a human nature, the fundamental theme of all his work, he was right, and the lion’s share of “experts” in the behavioral sciences, at least in the United States, were wrong. Ardrey, you see, was a mere playwright. Hence the “big bang” myth.
The claim that the imaginary link with kin selection that Davis refers to does exist with evolutionary psychology “as we know it,” or in its current incarnation, is also wrong. E. O. Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Martin Nowak are among the most prominent, if not the most prominent, evolutionary psychologists in the field of evolutionary morality as I write this. All three have come down firmly and publicly in favor of group selection.
Posted on August 18th, 2012 No comments
Of all the hopeless new moralities that are being cobbled together to promote “human flourishing” and related chimeras, anthropologist Frank Salter’s adaptive utilitarianism, as set forth in his book On Genetic Interests, at least has the merit of being logically consistent. It’s premise is that a “good” act is one that increases or protects the fitness of the greater number. That seems reasonable given that virtually all of our physical and mental traits, including the ones that give rise to morality, only exist because, at least at some time in the past, they enhanced our genetic fitness. However, Salter’s morality is a non-starter for the same reasons as all the rest. David Hume pointed them out back in the 18th century:
There has been an opinion very industriously propagated by certain philosophers, that morality is susceptible of demonstration; and tho’ no one has ever been able to advance a single step in those demonstrations; yet ’tis taken for granted, that this science may be brought to an equal certainty with geometry or algebra.
If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralities abound.
Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in the particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of reason…
…reason can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence. Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable.
Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.
In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cites Hume’s dictum that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” and reviews recent experimental demonstration of the existence of these “passions,” and the way in which they influence moral judgment. Noting that there are not just one, but six innate “foundations” of moral judgment, he adds,
…we believe that moral monism – the attempt to ground all morality on a single principle – leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.
It goes without saying that philosophers don’t create moral systems to apply only to themselves. Unless it is applied to others as well, morality is pointless. It is the source of moral judgment, and the basis of what Haidt identifies as a very fundamental human behavioral trait; self-righteousness. That is another Achilles heel of the cobblers of moral systems; all moralities imply self-righteousness, but self-righteousness can never be objectively legitimate. We all judge others, because it is our nature to do so. However, the idea that there can ever be some objective basis for those judgments that renders them valid in themselves is nonsense. We have certainly evolved to experience them as valid in themselves, but that is hardly a proof that they actually are. In my opinion, that is actually one of the more comforting aspects of the philosophy of Hume and the science of evolutionary morality. We are no longer burdened by any tiresome obligation to take the pathologically pious among us seriously. It becomes quite reasonable for us to view them as buffoons. Of course, in saying that, I am expressing a moral sentiment of my own.
It seems to me Salter’s ideas work much better as a source of a personal sense of purpose than as a source of ethics. There is no objective reason why we “ought” to do anything. Our reasons must be entirely subjective. It may not work for everyone, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t, for that matter, but serving what Salter refers to as my genetic interests works for me. I find it very satisfying as the “purpose of life.” While I can hardly provide a rational objective basis for this “ought,” the same could be said of any other “ought” anyone could come up with. I look at it this way. I exist because everything about me has promoted my genetic survival. If my conscious acts and my conscious purpose are not in harmony with the reasons for my existence, I am, in a sense, ill and defective. The thought of being ill and defective is not pleasing to me. Hence, my “purpose in life.” It’s entirely subjective and I can’t reasonably apply it to anyone else, I know, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s not at all troubling to me that most other people don’t appear to have a similar purpose in life, unless, of course, they happen to be close relatives.
Posted on August 7th, 2012 No comments
In chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt addresses the topic of religion:
In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology: Morality binds and blinds. Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.
Among the “scientists who misunderstand,” Haidt specifically singles out the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Group selectionist David Sloan Wilson recently wrote a similar critique of Dawkins in The Skeptic, claiming that Dawkins was “not an evolutionist” when discussing religion. In Wilson’s words,
Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare… How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.
I have some problems of my own with The God Delusion, such as its anti-American tone in general and its obsession with religious fundamentalists in the U.S., usually referred to by Dawkins as the “American Taliban” in particular. He even went so far as to repeat the old urban myth about how Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. However, it seemed to me that Dawkins was right as far as Wilson’s criticism was concerned. My impression was that the book really was concerned mainly with the question of whether or not there actually is a God, and that, as Dawkins said, he was therefore not obligated to digress on the evolutionary origins of religion. This impression was reinforced by Wilson’s review in The Skeptic, in which he wrote,
For religion, however, he (Dawkins) argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.
I thought when I read this, and still think that the issue of adaptation was beside the point. Dawkins was addressing the issue of whether God exists, and not the adaptive value of religion. This impression was reinforced by the fact that, immediately after the passage quoted above, Wilson continued with a long, rambling defense of group selection. It reminded me of Maslow’s hammer: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Wilson was simply betraying a tendency to see everything in terms of his favorite area of expertise, whether it was really germane or not.
Enter Jonathan Haidt, who takes issue with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists for similar reasons, but does a better job of explaining exactly what it is he’s getting at. As he puts it,
But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion – and understand its relationship to morality and politics – we must first describe it accurately… Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.
Now we at least have a better idea of why Wilson and Haidt are rejecting the arguments of the New Atheists. As Haidt puts it, they are like Plato and other rationalist philosophers who thought that reason should control the passions, as opposed to the view of Hume (and Haidt) that reason is really just a servant of the intuitions. Beyond that, they are using contrived arguments to explain away the evolutionary origins of religion. According to Haidt and Wilson, religion exists as a manifestation of evolved mental traits, and those traits were selected because they increased the fitness, not of individuals, but of groups. In other words, Haidt’s recent comments in favor of group selection are no fluke. Group selection actually plays a fundamental role in his theoretical understanding of religion as an adaptive trait, and not cultural group selection, but genetic group selection. Chapter 11 actually includes a spirited defense of Wilson, noting that his,
…great achievement was to merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences: Darwin and (Emile) Durkheim… In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the ways that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.
At this point, Haidt begins performing some remarkable intellectual double back flips. If religion really is an adaptive trait, apparently he feels it necessary to demonstrate that it is also really “good”. For example, we learn that,
…John Calvin developed a strict and demanding form of Christianity that suppressed free riding and facilitated trust and commerce in sixteenth century Geneva.
There is no mention of Calvin torturing a religious opponent to death in a slow fire made of green wood with a wreath strewn with sulfur around his head. Haidt tells us that the 911 bombers were really motivated by nationalism, not religion. (Remember the yarns about how zealots of a secular religion, Communism, such as Ho chi Minh and Castro, were also supposed to be “nationalists.” And, of course, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, either.) But, as “the most revealing example” of the benign effects of religion, Haidt cites Wilson’s example of “the case of water temples among Balinese rice farmers in the centuries before Dutch colonization.”
It seems to me that, if the New Atheists are guilty of an error of omission for focusing on the existence of God and ignoring the nature of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, Haidt must also be guilty of an error of omission by focusing on Balinese rice farmers and ignoring the slaughter of the Crusades, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women as “witches,” the brutal military conquest of north Africa, Spain, and large areas of the Middle East and Europe in the name of Islam, pogroms that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the centuries, the additional hundreds of thousands of dead in the Hussite wars, the constant bloody internal conflicts in numerous medieval states over the minutiae of religious doctrine, and so on and so on and so on. We can certainly discuss whether such “evils” of religion are outweighed by the “goods” cited by Wilson and others, but if Haidt is really the “man of science” he claims to be, it is not acceptable to ignore them.
One might similarly praise the advantages of war, which is as likely as religion to be a manifestation of evolved human mental traits. It also fosters within-group charity, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and any number of other “goods,” which are cataloged by German General Friedrich von Bernhardi in his seminal work on the subject, “Germany and the Next War.” Are not objections to the effect that it is occasionally very bloody and destructive just more instances of “misconceptions” inspired by the thought of Plato and other rationalist philosophers?
Call me an incorrigible rationalist if you like, but it seems to me that it does actually matter whether God exists or not. What if, as Haidt suggests, religion is not only an evolutionary adaptation, but one that is, on balance, useful and benign? Does that really render the question of whether God exists or not irrelevant? Is it really a “rationalist delusion” to consider the evidence for and against that hypothesis without dragging evolution and group selection into the discussion? Is reality so irrelevant to the human condition that it is acceptable to encourage people to associate in groups and act based on belief in things that are not only palpably untrue, but silly? If the truth doesn’t matter, what is the point of even writing books about morality? Would Prof. Haidt have us believe that The Righteous Mind is a mere product of his intuitions? I suspect that, whatever our goals happen to be, we are more likely to achieve them if we base our actions on that which is true than on that which is not. I am just as dubious as Haidt about the power of human reason. However, I prefer continuing to grope for the truth with that reason, however weak it might be, to embracing intuitions that require belief in things that are false, whether they enhanced the fitness of our species in times utterly unlike the present or not.
Posted on August 5th, 2012 1 comment
If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law. It’s the best book on morality I know of. Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow. Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature. Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”. He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions. He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions. Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights. It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette. It should be read in full.
I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality. I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations. It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature. Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality. Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.
There is good news and bad news in the book. The bad news starts early. In the introduction, Haidt writes,
I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.
I’m afraid he’s right. I’m certainly no exception to the rule. The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating. It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason. If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears. In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd. However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point. He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right. It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.
Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse. I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward. Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows. I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.
I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do. However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it. Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it. Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth. For example, in chapter 4 he writes,
Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).
Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply. I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason. Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth. We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments. Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon. None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood. The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless. There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.
Posted on July 25th, 2012 No comments
I’ve finally started reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. It does not disappoint. Haidt is certainly among the greatest, if not the greatest, moral psychologists of our time. He may turn out to be wrong in detail here and there, but I suspect that continued advances in our understanding of how the brain works will confirm the big picture he has painted for us when it comes to human morality. If it were up to me, this and a few similar books would be required reading in every high school in the country. If nothing else, they might at least provoke the next generation of advocates of holy causes into thinking a little about whether they’re actually motivated by a saintly desire to save the world, or perhaps something rather less heroic.
That said, let the nitpicking begin. I will have more to say about the book in a later post, but a couple of things caught my eye as I began reading. First, Haidt’s comments in favor of group selection in response to criticisms of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth by Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and a host of other anti-group selectionists were no fluke. He leaves no doubt where he stands on the matter in The Righteous Mind as well. For example, from the introduction,
But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960’s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war and genocide.”
I find it surprising that Haidt would have the courage to stick his neck out like this on such a controversial subject, and one that is likely to arose the ire of some very influential public scientists and intellectuals. Group selection theory has inspired fierce passions for well over half a century, and continues to do so today. Haidt has much to lose by climbing into the arena and joining the slugfest. The question is, what does he have to gain? One can only surmise that he is convinced group selection played a key role in the evolution of the behavioral traits described in his book, or perhaps that the latest mathematical models of group selection published by Martin Nowak and others are airtight.
Other than that, I was bemused (or perhaps chagrined is a better word) to find Steven Pinker’s fanciful and farcical “history” of the Blank Slate ensconced in yet another book by a respected public scientist. Apparently the rulers of Orwells Oceania were right. “He who controls the present controls the past.” Here’s Haidt’s version of the fairy tale:
The second wave of moralism was the radical politics that washed over universities in America, Europe, and Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Radical reformers usually want to believe that human nature is a blank slate on which any utopian vision can be sketched. If evolution gave men and women different sets of desires and skills, for example, that would be an obstacle to achieving gender equality in many professions. If nativism (the belief that natural selection gave us minds that were preloaded with moral emotions, ed.) could be used to justify existing power structures, then nativism must be wrong. (Again, this is a logical error, but this is the way righteous minds work.)
While it was true that the Blank Slate was embraced by reformers because it accommodated their utopian visions, those reformers were on the scene long before the type prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s came along, and the earlier versions were really more mainstream than radical. They typically supported some flavor of socialism, an entirely mainstream philosophy in the 30’s, 40’s and well into the 50’s, particularly in Europe, and represented the scientific and political orthodoxy of their day, at least as it existed on university campuses. I recently wrote an article about a typical example of the type, anthropologist and socialist Geoffrey Gorer, a friend and supporter of George Orwell, who was also a convinced socialist. Gorer was entirely respectable, mainstream, and impeccably non-radical in his day, and wrote the following in the 50’s:
One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation. This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.
Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.
Gorer was highly intelligent, by no means a pious pecksniff of the 60’s and 70’s stripe, but, like so many other behavioral scientists of his era, had somehow managed to convince himself that a theory that should have been immediately identifiable as bunk to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old was actually true. It had to be true, or all of those fine “worldwide ideologies” that had occasioned the spilling of so much ink would be stillborn.
The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was a graduate student a Harvard in the 1970’s. In his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker describes the ways scientists betrayed the values of science to maintain loyalty to the progressive movement. Scientists became “moral exhibitionists” in the lecture hall as they demonized fellow scientists and urged their students to evaluate ideas not for their truth but for their consistency with progressive ideals such as racial and gender equality.
Nowhere was the betrayal of science more evident than in the attacks on Edward O. Wilson, a lifelong student of ants and eco-systems. In 1975 Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The book explored how natural selection, which indisputably shaped animal bodies, also shaped animal behavior. That wasn’t controversial, but Wilson had the audacity to suggest in his final chapter that natural selection also influenced human behavior. Wilson believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions.
Prophets challenge the status quo, often earning the hatred of those in power. Wilson therefore deserves to be called a prophet of moral psychology. He was harassed and excoriated in print and in public. He was called a fascist, which justified (for some) the charge that he was a racist, which justified (for some) the attempt to stop him from speaking in public. Protesters who tried to disrupt one of his scientific talks rushed the stage and chanted, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”
There, in a nutshell, are all the elements of Pinker’s bogus “history”: In the beginning, the Blank Slate was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And E. O. Wilson said, Let there be light, and there was light. As I will never weary of pointing out, it didn’t happen that way. Wilson, for whom I have the greatest respect as a scientist and a courageous thinker, was hardly a “prophet” who came along and single-handedly slew the Blank Slate Dragon. Prophets are the carriers of revelations. Wilson carried none, at least as far as human nature is concerned. He was preceded by numerous influential thinkers, such as Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, who also “believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” and were derided for those beliefs as fascists long before E. O. Wilson came on the scene.
The most famous and influential of Wilson’s predecessors by far, as documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in Man and Aggression, an invaluable piece of historical source material edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, was Robert Ardrey. For example, from Gorer, who contributed to the book,
Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.
…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.
The idea that there was anything “audacious” about “suggesting that natural selection also influenced human behavior” by 1975 is nonsense. There is literally nothing in Sociobiology, at least as far as the ideas Wilson was attacked for, or regarded as a “prophet” for writing, are concerned, that had not appeared repeatedly in the works of Ardrey published more than a decade earlier, such as African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative. For example,
Man is a fraction of the animal world… We are not so unique as we should like to believe. The problem of man’s original nature imposes itself upon any human solution.
Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity. In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.
A certain justification has existed until now, in my opinion, for submission of the insurgent specialists to the censorship of scientific orthodoxy. Such higher bastions of philosophical orthodoxy as Jefferson, Marx, and Freud could scarcely be stormed by partial regiments. Until the anti-romantic (anti-blank slate) revolution could summon to arms what now exists, an overwhelming body of incontrovertible proof, then action had best be confined to a labyrinthine underground of unreadable journals, of museum back rooms, and of gossiping groups around African camp-fires.
If today we say that almost nothing is known about the much-observed chimpanzee, then what we mean is that almost nothing is known of his behavior in a state of nature.
The romantic fallacy (blank slate) may be defined as the central conviction of modern thought that all human behavior, with certain clearly stated exception, results from causes lying within the human experience… Contemporary thought may diverge wildly in it prescriptions for human salvation; but it stands firmly united in its systematic error.
The contemporary revolution in the natural sciences points inexorably to the proposition that man’s soul is not unique. Man’s nature, like his body, is the product of evolution.
Marxian socialism represents the most stunning and cataclysmic triumph of the romantic fallacy over the minds of rational men… And an observer of the animal role in human affairs can only suggest that much of what we have experienced in the last terrifying half-century has been simply what happens, no more and no less, when human energies become preoccupied with the building of social institutions upon false assumptions concerning man’s inner nature.
It is the superb paradox of our time that in a single century we have proceeded from the first iron-clad warship to the first hydrogen bomb, and from the first telegraphic communication to the beginnings of the conquest of space; yet in the understanding of our own natures, we have proceeded almost nowhere.
In reality, similar ideas set forth in Wilson’s books such as Sociobiology and On Human Nature, are better seen as afterthoughts than audacity. Keep in mind that we are not discussing the merits of this or that scientific theory here, but mere matters of historical fact, e.g., who were really the most significant and influential opponents of the Blank Slate? A genuine example of audacity may be found in Pinker’s book. He dismisses the entire life work of Ardrey (and Lorenz) as follows:
The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory. The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact, they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)
So much for “the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature” in a book purporting to be about the Blank Slate. Pinker doesn’t even bother to explain why Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong. To learn that, we have to consult The Selfish Gene itself. Here is the passage referred to:
These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or gene).
In other words, group selection was Pinker’s excuse for excising Ardrey from history and anointing Wilson as the great prophet who had thrown down the gauntlet to the Blank Slaters. We are to ignore the life work of a man, brilliant in spite of the constant bowdlerization of his work (and acceptance of that bowdlerization by those who should know better) as the “Killer Ape Theory,” and unrivaled in his ability to portray the big picture, whose constant theme was “that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” because of group selection. In one of the most delicious ironies in the history of science, that theory has now been embraced by “dragon slayer” of the Blank Slate E. O. Wilson himself. In fact, the last couple of decades have been nothing if not a triumphant vindication of Ardrey’s battle against the false orthodoxy of the Blank Slate. To delete him from the history of that sad episode in the history of science as “totally and utterly wrong” makes about as much sense as deleting the Wright brothers from the history of manned flight as a couple of dilettante bicycle mechanics.
I suggest that if Haidt looked into the historical facts for himself, it might begin to dawn on him why Dawkins and Pinker were so quick to condemn Wilson’s advocacy of group selection in his latest book. As a psychologist, I suggest he might want to consider the reasons why Pinker and others have so grossly misrepresented the history of the Blank Slate in a way that, to all appearances, seems intended to spare the sensitivities of the “group” of academic experts to which Pinker belongs by airbrushing out of history a man whose influence and significance as regards the Blank Slate controversy were much greater than Wilson’s, but who had the “audacity” to be right when the “group” of academic experts were wrong in spite of the fact that he was a “mere playwright.” It might behoove him to do so for reasons of sheer self-preservation. After all, if the man who really was the greatest opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday could be airbrushed out of history and become an unperson for advocating group selection, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Haidt, not to mention Wilson?
Posted on July 18th, 2012 No comments
Another good title for this post might be, “Over the Top Evolutionary Psychology.” There can, in fact, be too much of a good thing. Any lingering doubt I may have had on the matter was dispelled by some links to articles on the “evolution” of atheism at the This View of Life website. It would seem that a new journal, Religion, Brain and Behavior, has been spawned to “develop, support, and catalyze research initiatives into the manifold functions of religion,” apparently from an evolutionary point of view. The latest issue focused on “a scientific study of atheism,” a subject of passing interest to me, since I happen to be an atheist. Reading further in the opening editorial, I found that “Atheism is becoming a topic of fascination for researchers in the scientific study of religion because the naturalness of religion makes atheism unexpected.”
Now it seems to me that I am an atheist because I have devoted some thought to the matter and concluded based on the evidence I am aware of that there is no God. I think that explanation of atheism should be allowable if one also accepts the fact that the human brain did not evolve merely as a convenient lightweight stuffing material for the skull. The scientists at Religion, Brain and Behavior, however, are having none of it. Apparently, rejecting the “moderate” point of view that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is significant, they have gone the Blank Slaters one better. Dismissing the notion that the ability to reason logically and to distinguish truth from falsehood had anything to do with the evolution of the human brain, they seem to have concluded that everything, or at least everything touching on religion, is a manifestation of “human nature.” In short, they conclude that both atheism and religious belief are actually evolved traits.
If atheism really is a trait that enhanced fitness, it must have some survival-enhancing function. In a word, it must be “for” something. Hence the title of one of the issues main articles, “What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non-belief in the evolution of religion,” by Dominic Johnson, embellished with a list of no less than 118 citations of other learned authors. According to Johnson,
Although there was a significant rise in the prominence of atheism after the Reformation in Europe several authors argue that atheists and skeptics were present throughout human history and are common among traditional societies, suggesting that atheism stretches back some way into human evolution.
We are faced, therefore, with the possibility that atheism and atheists have been present throughout human evolutionary history. This sits awkwardly with evolutionary theories that suggest religious beliefs and behaviors are universal, have powerful cognitive underpinnings, and are important to survival and reproduction. How can we square the circle?
Johnson has an elegant answer to this intriguing question:
The key conclusion is that non-belief unambiguously represents our phylogenetic inheritance…
In other words, our primate ancestors were once all too stupid to imagine such things as supernatural beings, so, like lions and tigers and bears, they were all atheists. Now it seems to me that, besides being unflattering to atheists, this conclusion ignores a rather significant fact. There is a qualitative difference between lack of belief because of inability of conceive of gods, and lack of belief because of the reasoned conclusion that gods don’t exist. That distinction apparently hasn’t occurred to Johnson, who charges ahead, citing a laundry list of reasons that atheism may have evolved, such as,
Evolutionary game theory shows that traits often do best when they coexist with other different traits. In many natural systems, this forms an evolutionarily stable equilibrium, with declining fitness returns preventing departures from the right mix of types in the population – so-called “frequency dependent” selection.
The presence of atheists may indirectly improve the fitness of believers by catalyzing their beneficial interactions.
The presence of atheists may force the community to bolster religious doctrine in the face of skepticism.
It seems to me that, if any of these hypotheses are true, atheism must have “evolved” in an awful hurry. If we exclude the “lions and tigers and bears” variant of atheism for the reasons cited above, the ability to disbelieve in gods must necessarily have followed the ability to conceive of and believe in them in the first place. Now, unless there were Homo erectus philosophers who discussed these weighty matters around their campfires, one must conclude that atheism “evolved” in a matter of no more than a couple of hundred thousand years, give or take. For that matter, religious belief itself would have had no greater span of time in which to “evolve.”
Allow me to suggest an alternative to all these interesting adaptive hypotheses. Religious belief did not “evolve.” The cognitive abilities of the human brain evolved, until at some point we became capable of wondering how all this stuff around us got here. When this happened, it must have seemed just as obvious as the fact that the earth didn’t revolve around the sun that it was there because it was created, and by a being or beings much more sophisticated than humans. Sometime thereafter, deliberate rejection of such beliefs became possible. Isn’t this, at least, more “parsimonious” than the notion that every human belief must be directly connected with some kind of a “human nature” widget in the brain?
Apparently Johnson doesn’t agree. As he observes in the conclusion to his article,
Personally, I am skeptical of the main adaptive hypotheses proposed. I favor the null hypothesis of natural variation, in which cognitive mechanisms underpinning religious beliefs vary in whether and how much they generate belief. At one end of this spectrum – one of the tail ends of the distribution – we will have people with very low levels of belief, even atheists, just as we always have extremes of other biological and psychological traits.
In response, I quote a response from one of the commenters at This View of Life.
I suggest that it is essential to distinguish between atheism and anti-theism in this regard. If the object of this evolutionary study is atheism, per se, then we are wasting our time. We may as well study whether or not non-belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth-Fairy is adaptive from an evolutionary point-of-view. Having said that, if there is an evolutionary basis to non-belief in the super-empirical it lies in the phylogeny / adaptivity of human intelligence and reason.
Rendered into the vernacular, this elegant bit of academic jargon becomes, “Atheism may exist because human heads evolved to serve as something other than ornate hat racks.” I concur. I don’t have a particularly high regard for human intelligence, but neither do I have such a low opinion of our powers of reason that I consider them incapable of ever distinguishing truth from falsehood.
Posted on July 16th, 2012 No comments
John Stuart Mill recognized the subjective nature of morality, contrasting his own opinion with those who believed that good and evil were objective “things in themselves.” As he put it,
There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.
In spite of this, one constantly runs into artifacts of the implicit assumption that morality really does correspond to an object, a real thing. Consider, for example, the following excerpt concerning the basis of right and wrong:
A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it. The difficulty is not avoided by having recourse to the popular theory of a natural faculty, a sense of instinct, informing us of right and wrong. For – besides that the existence of such a moral instinct is itself one of the matters in dispute – those believers in it who have any pretensions to philosophy, have been obliged to abandon the idea that it discerns what is right or wrong in the particular case in hand, as our other senses discern the sight or sound actually present. Our moral faculty, according to those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not the perception of it in the concrete.
The implication here is, of course, that there actually is something concrete to find. Weight is added to that impression by the following passage, in which, after noting the failure of philosophers to discover a universal morality in spite of more than 2000 years of effort, Mill suggests that whatever consistency we have finally attained on the subject is due to a “standard not recognized.”
To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine. It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.
To the extent that such a standard exists, and is not due to innate human nature, it must be an objective thing it itself. Mill was a brilliant man. He had, however, the great misfortune of writing before the theories of Darwin could inform his work. He was not a “Blank Slater” in the 20th century sense of the term, that is, an ideologue who insisted that he could not be wrong about innate human nature, and that anyone who maintained the contrary was morally or politically suspect. He was aware he might be wrong about the matter, and admitted as much.
But I digress. The point of this post is that, in spite of admitting the subjective nature of moral systems, Mill believed that, once the rational basis for the “utility” of his system of utilitarianism, or, as he put it, ”The Greatest Happiness Principle,” had been accepted, It would somehow also acquire legitimacy. In other words, it would become a valid basis for judging the actions, not just of himself and those who agreed with him, but everyone else, as well. In short, it would become an objective thing.
We have learned a lot since then. “Innate human nature” is now accepted as if there had never been any dispute about the matter, and, if the works of the likes of Jonathan Haidt, Frans de Waal, and Richard Wrangham are any guide, the ultimate reasons for the existence of morality are to be found in that nature. As Mill would have agreed, it is entirely subjective. It seems abundantly obvious that, given its nature and origins, morality cannot possibly acquire anything like universal legitimacy. That, however, is a truth that our modern experts in ethics have found too hard to bear. In a sense, it puts them out of business. What good is their expertise if there is no universal standard to discover? What becomes of the delicious joy of virtuous indignation and the divine pleasure of moral outrage once the absolute standard those joys depend on evaporates?
For example, consider an essay penned by Michael Price, a professor of psychology, in “From Darwin to Eternity,” a blog he writes for Psychology Today. Entitled “Morality: What is it Good for?,” the article makes all the requisite nods to human nature. For example,
Human moral systems are ultimately biological: they are generated by brains, and brains are composed of mechanisms that evolve by standard Darwinian natural selection. Like all biological adaptations (such as hearts, uteruses, and hands), these mechanisms solve problems related to individual survival and reproduction. The moral judgments of individuals can generally be regarded as the primary products, or else as the by-products, of these mechanisms.
and, fending off in advance the charge of genetic determinism beloved of the old Blank Slaters,
Some psychological adaptations for morally-relevant behavior solve problems that exist in virtually all human environments (for instance, the problem of avoiding inbreeding). Others are solutions to problems that are more severe in some environments than others, and this is a major reason why – despite the fact that human nature is fundamentally the same cross-culturally – some aspects of moral systems vary significantly across cultures. For example, in environments in which access to resources depends especially heavily on success in war – such as among the tribal communities of highland New Guinea, or the fiefdoms of medieval Europe – people are relatively likely to endorse military virtues like fierceness and valor and to disparage cowardice.
Prof. Price concludes with some reflections on what he calls “cultural group selection”:
Historically, groups with relatively empowering moral systems have tended to supplant groups with relatively enfeebling moral systems, and also to be imitated by weaker groups who wish to emulate their success. Through these processes, winning moral formulas have tended to spread at the expense of losing ones. From this perspective, the crucible of intergroup competition plays a key role in determining which moral systems flourish and which ones perish. This view does not necessarily imply anything cynical about morality: there’s no reason at all from biology that this competition must be violent (and indeed, Pinker argues persuasively in his recent book (The Better Angels of our Nature) that it has become much less violent over time), and nonviolent, productive competition can lead to a rising tide of benefits for humanity in general.
“Benefits for humanity?” Where have we heard that before? You guessed it. In the end it’s not about gaining a rational understanding of human moral emotions and accommodating them as best we can in a rapidly changing world. It’s about inventing a better mousetrap:
What this view does imply is that morality ought to be less about passionate expressions of outrage, and more about designing a value system that will enable societal success in a constantly changing and eternally competitive world.
And so, after all these assurances about the subjective nature of morality as a consequence of the evolved mental characteristics of a certain biological species with large brains, the Good Object begins to emerge from the shadows once again, hazy but palpable. From its admittedly humble origins as an odd collection of behavioral traits that happened to contribute to the fitness of ancient groups of hunter gatherers, an infant “value system” emerges, a Thing that, if it survives to adulthood, will seek to acquire legitimacy by “enabling societal success” along the way. In a word, we’ve come full circle, back to John Stuart Mill. Undeterred by the dubious success of innovative “value systems” like Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, we merely need to persevere. With luck, we’ll cobble together an entirely new one that will finally “enable societal success” without the creation of another luckless outgroup like the Jews or the bourgeoisie along the way, and with none of the other traditional unfortunate side effects that have inevitably accompanied mankind’s previous efforts to apply morality to modern societies. No thanks. We’ve been down that path before.
I don’t mean to pick on Professor Price. What public intellectual doesn’t share his penchant for concocting gaudy new moralities that will usher in a Brave New World of “human flourishing?” We find even the new atheists ostentatiously striking pious poses and raining down indignant anathemas on the morally suspect. Nothing is harder to shake off and leave behind than the odor of sanctity. I suspect, however, that we must if we ever really want to flourish.