Posted on April 16th, 2013 No comments
Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal. Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths. In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays. Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years. As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.
For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:
The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency. Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.
In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:
The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste. The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.
The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people. The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets. The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship. Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day. Strange: it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.
However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable: at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.” Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion. The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.
Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate. For example,
Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.
His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.” Times change, and so do ideological dogmas. Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”
Posted on April 15th, 2013 7 comments
Anyone with a passing interest in evolutionary biology has heard of Dr. Robert Trivers. He is a giant in the field, and the seminal papers he published in the 1970′s on reciprocal altruism, parental investment theory, and gene-level thinking inspired the work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Well, I happened to look up a link for a reference to him in another post, and found to my surprise that he has been driven off the campus of Rutgers University! He has been involved in a controversy lately over his accusation that one of his graduate students committed fraud in a scientific paper. Apparently he was banned from campus because a colleague who supports the alleged fraudster claimed Trivers had “frightened him in his office.”
Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of any details of the case, but it does seem a bit rich that a university that tolerated a violent homophobe as basketball coach for three years would ban and humiliate an honored scientist with no history of violent or aggressive behavior because someone claimed he “frightened him.” Amazingly, there’s almost nothing about this case on the Internet. Here is Trivers’ side of the story:
I was involved in a case of academic fraud at Rutgers University concerning a very striking paper published in one of the top science journals of the world (Nature, 2005). I was a co-author on that paper and the head of the project in which the work took place. I was then a co-author of a short book proving that the prior paper was completely fraudulent. Indeed the chance that it was not fraudulent was less than one in ten billion.
But a colleague who wished to preserve the results (Dr Cronk) took the opposite view. I was creating the illusion of fraud beyond one in a billion but there was actually no fraud at all. When the dust settled, I was ejected from campus, not permitted back to any of it except in the company of an armed police officer for almost five months, deprived of any contact with my two classes, then 90% complete, deprived of my research space for 20 months and found to be in violation of the University’s anti-violence policy (which can lead to suspension without pay) having done nothing more violent than call a man who had slandered and defamed me multiple times, a “punk”.
If this is true, it is certainly a high-handed abuse of authority by the Rutgers administration. I would certainly like to hear Rutgers’ version of what happened, but can find nothing on the web. All this didn’t happen yesterday. Where are all the scientific heavyweights who have heaped praise on Trivers over the years? Are their reputations too delicate for them to get involved? They certainly don’t need to rush to judgment one way or the other, but at the very least they could insist that the public be given some rudimentary information about what’s going on. I don’t doubt that Trivers rubs many people the wrong way. He represents the exact opposite of the Blank Slater narrative according to which evolutionary biologists and psychologists are really all closet fascists and racists. He was close friends with Huey Newton, former Chairman of the Black Panthers, who served as godfather for one of his children, and is a bitter enemy of Israel and supporter of the Palestinians. However, his take on the reasons behind his punishment has the ring of truth. In his words,
As I later learned, my case showed many of the classic features of such cases in academia. Chiefly, there is no upside to fraud—at least not to admitting to it—the university in which the work takes place has no interest in revealing the fraud that occurs within its boundaries, nor does the journal that published the fraud.
The scientific journal claims to promote and publish the truth, but when presented with strong contrary evidence to work it has already published, it does not act at once to retract the results nor even call attention to their untrustworthiness—in fact, it often does nothing at all. Thus, a paper (Brown et al 2005 [PDF]) may easily survive un-rebutted in the literature for over seven years, accruing 127 citations, in spite of a small book (Trivers et al 2009 [PDF]) proving the fraud far beyond a reasonable doubt, yet to this day Nature refuses to publish even a reference to the book. For an account of Cronk’s early behavior regarding the fraud problem, see Chapter 12 of Trivers et al (The Anatomy of a Fraud [PDF]).
Since the work was supported by Federal funds (NSF), the rule is that when fraud is alleged concerning such work, the Institution that received the money must investigate and report back to the Federal government—otherwise the Federal government is happy to cut off ALL federally supported research until compliance is achieved. In short, Rutgers had no choice and its 27-month investigation duly confirmed that fraud was committed (RAB report 2012 [PDF]) exactly as alleged in our 2009 book. Although Rutgers refuses to release the report publicly, I do so here because I am permitted to share copies of the report with whomever I choose. I was co-principal investigator and co-author on the fraud itself and I was co-author on a book proving the fraud. Rutgers’ official investigation merely bore out what our book showed.
Does Rutgers have a different version? By all means let’s hear it. Whether one agrees with his political opinions or not, Dr. Trivers has made mighty contributions to the advance of human knowledge. If he has really deserved the punishment and humiliation meted out to him by the Rutgers officialdom, the public certainly has a right to know the reasons why.
UPDATE: Richard Dawkins has apparently taken notice. I also found a post by leftover Blank Slater John Horgan about a response from Trivers to one of his rants against evolutionary psychology. According to Horgan, Trivers called it “shallow,” and accused him of “acting out the old Scientific American‘s long-standing inability to look at human sociobiology objectively.” This at least demonstrates that Trivers hasn’t lost his originality, and ability to think outside of an ideological box. Why? Because in spite of the fact that he stands on the left of the political spectrum himself, it’s apparently clear to him that Scientific American is much better described as a political tract than a science journal. He also isn’t afraid to offend the Horgan clones who still manage to maintain the ancient orthodoxy that there is no such thing as human nature in some of the more sequestered echo chambers of academia. Perhaps this explains why it has been necessary for him, so far at least, to fight this battle alone.
Posted on April 13th, 2013 2 comments
Supposedly Otto von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” The same could as well be said of science. However, for those who insist on watching the process, Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” is a must read. The book relates the author’s experiences as an anthropologist, a field long dominated by a particularly unsavory crew of sausage makers. Indeed, there is some question about whether they ever intended to make any real sausages at all. Instead, for many decades now, they have been busily engaged in concocting imaginary ones, which have the advantage of tasting much better than the real ones. In point of fact, they don’t invent sausages, but human beings, which, unlike the real ones, are never aggressive, and always nice. One might refer to them as Homo nihilum.
Chagnon was never cut out to be one of these fanciful anthropologists. He lacked imagination. On top of that, he was naive. In a word, he told the truth. Chagnon devoted his career to studying the Yanomamö, an indigenous people of South America. It was obvious to him from the start that they were not particularly nice, and were decidedly not invariably benign and unaggressive. He lacked the skills that are carefully acquired by most anthropologists, such as the ability, when one holds up four fingers in front of their face, to truly believe that they are seeing five. In a word, he had the bad taste to blurt out what he had seen in learned journals and academic conferences. This unwonted candor so shocked his fellow anthropologists that they actually began acting like Yanomamö themselves, confirming some of Chagnon’s hypotheses in the process; they reacted with furious hostility and aggression towards a perceived member of an outgroup. The shibboleth of human “niceness” that Chagnon had so clumsily demolished happened to be one of the main ideological props, not only of their ingroup, but of the ingroup of a whole host of related ideologues as well. In their alternative universe, humans are never, ever naturally aggressive. The somewhat discordant fact that warfare has been a ubiquitous feature of human existence since before the dawn of recorded time is explained away as merely the unfortunate artifact of some pathological derailing of human culture in the distant past. In order for us all to become “nice” again, all we need to do is eliminate these pernicious cultural engrams from our brains by such time-honored techniques as denying the obvious. Ironically, their furious and ruthless attacks on Chagnon provided a perfect example of the very behavior they were so determined to deny. They debunked their own myth. As Chagnon put it,
This virtual Noble Savage is a construct based on faith: in that respect anthropology has become more like a religion – where major truths are established by faith, not facts.
Despite the skepticism widely shared in the now politically correct anthropological profession, the ethnographic and archaeological evidence overwhelmingly indicates that warfare has been the most important single force shaping the evolution of political society in our species.
Having so egregiously upset the apple cart by observing that human beings are not necessarily all that “nice” after all, Chagnon could not leave well enough alone. Instead, he rubbed salt in the wound. As any good progressive can tell you, such human conflict as does exist must be caused by “greed” for money, property, and related appurtenences of the social means of production. Alas, it turns out that this notion, too, belongs in the realm of faith, not facts. In the author’s words,
Conflicts over the possession of nubile females have probably been the main reason for fights and killings throughout most of human history: the original human societal rules emerged, in all probability, to regulate male access to females and prevent the social chaos attendant on fighting over women.
I suggest that conflicts over the means of reproduction – women – dominated the political machinations of men during a vast span of human history and shaped human male psychology. It was only after polygyny became “expensive” that these conflicts shifted to material resources – the “gold and diamonds” my incredulous colleagues alluded to – and the material means of production. By that time, after the agricultural revolution, the accummulation of wealth – and its consequence, power – had become a prerequisite to having multiple mates.
Chagnon simply would not desist. Next, he went after another of the favorite sacred cows of the “progressives”; the notion of egalitarianism:
Pre-state societies – tribesmen like the Yanomamö – are described by many anthropologists as egalitarian: everyone is more or less interchangeable with any other person of the same age and same sex, so status differentials are essentially determined by age, sex, and occasionally the ephemeral characteristics of leaders. This is definitely not the case among the Yanomamö. If my teachers (and anthropology textbooks) got anything wrong, it was their misunderstanding of the notion of egalitarianism: they stubbornly insisted on tying it to “differential access to material resources.” Among the Yanomamö, tribesmen differ in their ability to command and order others around because of differing numbers of kinsmen they can deploy in their service, whether they are unokai (men who have killed or been involved in a killing), and other nonmaterial attributes.
The traditional anthropological view of egalitarianism is remarkably Eurocentric and ethnocentric, that is, the argument that tribesmen are egalitarian because nobody has “privileged” access to “strategic” material resources. Such a view erroneously projects our own political and economic views into the Stone Age.
Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all was Chagnon’s embrace of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology. As he put it,
Our training had emphasized the role that culture played in human social relationships while completely ignoring the evolution of human behavior. The view from anthropology was that psychologists studied human behavior and anthropologists studied culture. Ever since Durkheim, cultural anthropology was skeptical about not only psychology and biology, but any theory that emphasized the biological underpinnings of behavior.
He goes on to describe his own embrace of what is known to the layman as human nature, and the furious attacks such ideas drew from the ideological zealots of the “progressive” left, noting,
One of the pro-sociobiology participants that I frequently ran into at these debates, Robert Trivers, said to me at one of them: “I’ve finally figured out what they mean by a ‘balanced’ debate. For every clear demonstration of how effective a sociobiological explanation is of some phenomenon, it must be ‘balanced’ by a completely nonsensical appeal to B.S., emotions, and political correctness.
Of course, this particular flavor of ideologically inspired obscurantism is known to aficionados as the Blank Slate episode in the behavioral sciences. It is interesting how his status as, in spite of his heresies, a member of the academic tribe, has shaped Chagnon’s consciousness of the affair. For example, he is unfamiliar with anything that happened before E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology in 1975, has apparently never read Robert Ardrey and is unaware of his significance, particularly in shaping the consciousness of a large audience outside of academia, and seems unaware that, for the time being at least, the Blank Slaters have lost control of the message outside of the ivory towers. For example, the “mainstream media” has embraced the basic premises of evolutionary psychology as if there had never been the least controversy about the subject. This was decidedly not the case in the 1980′s and 90′s. Furthermore, Chagnon seems to think that Blank Slate ideology was less pervasive in other branches of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology, than in cultural anthropology. This was certainly not the case in the United States, though it may have been true to some extent in Europe and elsewhere. In a word, he takes a very cultural anthropology-centric view of the affair. As a result he can certainly see clearly enough what’s going on in his own field. However, the impact of the Blank Slate orthodoxy transcends any one academic baliwick, and he may not see this big picture quite as well.
In any case, all these heresies goaded the ideologues who called the tune in anthropology into a frenzy. As usual, they were none too picky about the ways they chose to strike back. There were, of course, the usual accusations of racism and fascism, and the familiar bowdlerization of anything faintly smacking of evolutionary psychology as “genetic determinism.” A collection of slanders was published by a particularly vile reptile by the name of Patrick Tierney and, to its eternal shame, was uncritically received by the august members of the American Anthropological Association. Those interested in the details of this episode are encouraged to read, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association,” by Alice Dreger. The attacks continue unabated to this day. A typical example of the genre, full of the usual pious grandstanding, by one Lori Allen, another “expert” who was never there may be found here. By all means read her essay. After you reach the 99th ad hominem attack on Chagnon, it may start to dawn on you why I insist on the importance of understanding morality for what it really is. In general, people like Ms. Allen can no more justify the legitimacy of their copious striking of pious poses than the man in the moon.
In the end, Chagnon had the consolation of being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, at which one of his more persistent attackers, Martin Sahlins, resigned. Good riddance! May many more of Sahlins’ fellow obscurantists pursue the same course. It reminds me of the words from my favorite German version of Haydns Creation, after God says, “Let there be light!” (see Google translate. The original libretto was actually in English, but I like the German translation a lot better)
Erstarrt entflieht der Höllengeister Schar
In des Abgrunds Tiefen hinab
Zur ewigen Nacht.
Verzweiflung, Wut und Schrecken
Begleiten ihren Sturz,
Und eine neue Welt
Entspringt auf Gottes Wort.
I may be an atheist, but sometimes a good oratorio hits the spot. Other than that, I can only say I admire Chagnon for his courage, both in enduring the rage of his fellow “scientists,” and in working in conditions in which his life and safety were anything but secure for many years in the pursuit of knowledge. And, by all means, read the book.
UPDATE: Hattip to her ladyship for the hbd-chick-lanche.
Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on March 26th, 2013 3 comments
New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.” According to Boehm,
In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.
Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.
All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.
Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.
However, something has gone terribly wrong. International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it. As Boehm puts it,
What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.
I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior. My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system? There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them. Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way. However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous. If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system. However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.
Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.
It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy. The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous. Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism? Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences? Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation. However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place. Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality. And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup. There is no Good without Evil. Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us. Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation? Hardly! One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.
I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions. I am, after all, human too. However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it. What’s that you say? It can’t happen here? You have a very short historical memory! By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful. However, let’s leave morality out of it. Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.” Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.
Posted on March 17th, 2013 No comments
History. You don’t know the half of it. Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own. A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists. Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys. They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless. The roles are periodically reversed. For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930′s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity Shlaes. Charles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.
Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be. In that case, they just disappear. Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia. Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades. According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant. The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense. In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact. They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since. It has been futile. Ardrey broke the spell. The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.
Enter Napoleon Chagnon. The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America. Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land. He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks. One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues. If so, however, one would think wrong. Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:
My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.
For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971. By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books. Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier. The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag. At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Chagnon continues,
I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle. What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.
Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology. Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related. More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology. Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).
So much for Robert Ardrey. His shade should smile. Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate. Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous. Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection. The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense. By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976. Why the dismissive attitude? Call it academic tribalism. The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow. It is a lasting insult to their amour propre. They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since. Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology. Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.” In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste. Surely the tribe can do better.
And what of Ardrey? He was certainly sensational enough. How could he not be? After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational. He was a man of many hypotheses. Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.” However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.
The fact that human nature exists and is important: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups: Ardrey 1, experts 0
Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate: Ardrey 1, experts 0
Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The list goes on. Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time. See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968. And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten. As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.” The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead. They have dropped him down the memory hole. Such is history. As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.
Posted on March 11th, 2013 2 comments
Yes, it’s true, there are a lot of leftover Blank Slaters around. They live on in the hermetically sealed halls of academia as sort of a light echo of the Marxist supernova. Still, I count myself lucky to have witnessed the smashing of the absurd orthodoxy they once imposed on the behavioral sciences. Few people pay any attention to them anymore outside of their own echo chambers. That makes it all the more refreshing to see shoots of new life sprouting in the once desiccated wasteland of cultural anthropology.
Consider, for example, the work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, currently a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia. As a young graduate student in 1995, Henrich landed in Peru and began studying the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live by hunting and small-scale farming. In the process, he turned up some very interesting data on the importance of culture in human affairs. As noted in an article entitled, We Aren’t the World, that appeared recently in the Pacific Standard,
While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.
The particular game that Henrich used was the Ultimatum Game (click on the hyperlink for a description), and as the data accumulated, it revealed some rather profound behavioral differences between the Machiguenga and the average North American or European. Again quoting from the Pacific Standard article,
To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
Obviously, “the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring” was not the most parsimonious explanation for this “anomaly.” It was, of course, culture. As Henrich and his collaborators continued their research,
…they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains.
As they say, read the whole thing. I find stories like this tremendously encouraging. Why? In none of Henrich’s papers that I have looked at to date is there any suggestion that anyone who disagrees with him is either a racist or a fascist. In none of them do I detect that he has an ideological ax to grind. In none of them do I detect an implicit rejection of anything smacking of evolutionary psychology. Quite the contrary! In a conversation with an interviewer from Edge.org, for example, Henrich explicitly embraces human nature, suggesting that its evolution was driven by culture. For example, from the interview,
Another area that we’ve worked on is social status. Early work on human status just took humans to have a kind of status that stems from non-human status. Chimps, other primates, have dominant status. The assumption for a long time was that status in humans was just a kind of human version of this dominant status, but if you apply this gene-culture co-evolutionary thinking, the idea that culture is one of the major selection pressures in human evolution, you come up with this idea that there might be a second kind of status. We call this status prestige.
A commitment to something like anti-nepotism norms is something that runs against our evolutionary inclinations and our inclinations to help kin and to invest in long-term close relationships, but it’s crucial for making a large-scale society run. Corruption, things like hiring your brother-in-law and feathering the nest of your close friends and relatives is what really tears down and makes complex societies not work very well. In this sense, the norms of modern societies that make modern societies run now are at odds with at least some of our evolved instincts.
I love that reference to “evolved instincts.” Back in the day the Blank Slaters used to dismiss anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with humans as a troglodyte. “Instincts” were for insects. Humans might (but almost certainly did not) have ”predispositions.” Politicians and debaters are familiar with the gambit. It’s basically a form of intellectual one-upmanship. Of course, neither then or now was anyone ever confused by the use of the term “instinct.” Everyone knew perfectly well in the heyday of the Blank Slate what those who used it were talking about, just as they do now in the context of Henrich’s interview. The pecksniffery associated with its use was more or less equivalent to a physicist striking intellectual poses because someone he disagreed with used the term “work” or “power” in a matter different from their definitions in scientific textbooks.
In short, the work published by Henrich et. al. does not appear to conform to some ideological party line in the interest of some future utopia. It’s intent does not appear to be the enabling of pious poses by the authors as “saviors” of indigenous people. One actually suspects they have written it because it is what they have observed and believe to be the truth!
This sort of work is not only very refreshing, but very necessary. Science advances by way of hypotheses, or what some have called “just so stories.” Truth is approached by the relentless criticism and testing of these ”just so stories.” The havoc wrought in the field of cultural anthropology and many of the other behavioral sciences by the zealots of failed secular religions destroyed their credibility, greatly impairing their usefulness as a source of criticism and testing for the hypotheses of evolutionary psychology, which have been proliferating in such abundance of late. Work like this may eventually restore some semblance of balance. It’s high time. There is no form of knowledge more important to our species than self-knowledge. It is not hyperbole to say that our survival may depend on it.
Posted on March 3rd, 2013 No comments
Back in 2002, Robert Kurzban, who writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, wrote a review of Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, by Steven and Hilary Rose. The Roses, ideological zealots and leftover Blank Slaters who have devoted their careers to scientific obscurantism, had regurgitated all the usual specious arguments against human nature, which had already become hackneyed by that time. Anyone with a passing interest in human behavior likely knows most of them by heart. They include the claim that the hypotheses of EP are unfalsifiable, that evolutionary explanations of human behavior serve evil political ends rather than science, etc. etc., usually topped off with that most ancient and threadbare red herring of them all, that anyone who dares to say anything nice about EP is a “genetic determinist.” In his review, entitled, “Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned,” Kurzban demolishes them all in turn, writing in his conclusion,
There are now a collection of dialogues in the popular press between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. The discussions all seem to have the same form: Critics assert that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what ought be. Evolutionary psychologists reply that they never made any of these claims, and document places where they claim precisely the reverse. The critics then reply that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what should be.
The contradictions between what evolutionary psychologists have said and what their critics have said they said are as clear as they are infuriating. All of the correctives that I have presented here have been discussed before, and all of them are in the pieces cited by the critics of evolutionary psychology. It is unfathomable how the Roses and the other contributors to Alas Poor Darwin could have come away from the primary literature with their impressions of genetic determinism, panglossian adaptationism, and so on.
I suspect that Kurzban fathomed the reasons well enough, even then. Such attacks on EP are not scientific refutations, but propaganda, designed to prop up pseudo-religious ideological shibboleths that happen to be badly out of step with reality. Even then, they already had all the familiar trappings of propaganda, including the “Big Lie”; endless repetition while studiously ignoring counter-arguments. Nothing has changed in the ensuing decade. “Genetic determinism” is still as much a fixture in the screeds of left-over Blank Slaters as ever. Pointing out the absurdity of the charge is as futile as trying to refute the charge of “fascism” by carefully explaining the theory of the corporate state. Razib Khan, who writes the Gene Expression blog for Discover magazine, notes that he was just denounced as a “genetic determinist” for daring to even question the scientific credentials of cultural anthropologists, in a couple of posts that didn’t so much as take up the question of the connection between genes and behavior.
All this points up a fact that is as true now as it was in the days of Galileo. “Science,” understood as a disinterested and cautious search for truth inspired by a spirit of skepticism, can still be as easily derailed by secular religious zealots as it was by the more traditional “spiritual” variety who intimidated Galileo and still fume against Darwin. The puerile myths of the Blank Slate represented the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral “sciences” for decades, propped up, not by a tolerant and open spirit of academic freedom, but by vilification and intimidation of anyone who dared to step out of line. Evolutionary psychologists are hardly the only victims, but they are probably the most prominent. They have the misfortune of representing an idea that happens to tread on far more ideological toes than most. Blank Slate orthodoxy is hardly unique in that regard.
For example, one of the common hypotheses of evolutionary psychology that there may be an innate component of human morality immediately elicits a “territorial defense” response from the legions of those who spend their time devising new moral systems for the edification of mankind. Most of them spend their time cobbling elaborate proofs of the existence of the Good just as their intellectual forebears once concocted proofs of the existence of God. Consider, for example, the case of the author of the Atheist Ethicist blog, who has demonstrated that, because a equals b and b equals c, it therefore follows that anyone who dares to claim that there is “an evolutionary basis for morality” is immoral. To make a long story short, the “ethicist” believes that those insidious evolutionary psychologists are not limiting themselves to studying the “is” of human moral behavior, but have a disquieting tendency to lap over into the “ought,” a territory which he has reserved for himself and his revolutionary moral system of “desire utilitarianism.” He does not actually name any specific examples of the most egregious of these evildoers, but no doubt we can trust him given his unique moral qualifications.
It isn’t difficult to find similar examples illustrating why the ideologically inspired find EP such a tempting target. However, the fact that it is is a stroke of very bad luck for our species. After all, EP is a field devoted to expanding our understanding of our selves, and there is no more critical knowledge than self-knowledge. For example, what if the greed of evil corporations, or the imperialist pretentions of certain uniquely evil races, or “frustration” don’t turn out to be completely adequate and all-encompassing explanations of human warfare after all? Is it really possible to know with absolute certainty that innate behavioral traits play no role whatsoever? If they do, the failure to discover and understand them may threaten our very survival. I happen to prefer survival to the alternative. For that reason, it seems to me that the time for refuting such charges as “genetic determinism” with patient, reasoned arguments is past. It is high time to begin fighting back against the ideological zealots with the same weapons they have long been using against their victims.
Posted on February 10th, 2013 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.
Posted on February 8th, 2013 No comments
Razib Khan, who writes Discover Magazine’s Gene Expression blog, has been a bit testy lately about some unusually vile ad hominem attacks being directed at Jared Diamond by some of the usual suspects among the pathologically pious faction of cultural anthropologists and miscellaneous self-appointed saviors of indigenous peoples. It seems that Diamond, author of such bestsellers as Guns, Germs, and Steel, and by all accounts safely on the left of the ideological spectrum, has been unmasked as a closet colonialist, imperialist, admirer of Cecil Rhodes, and pawn of evil global corporations. Razib’s response to all this:
I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated.
I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology.
and, more poetically,
Many cultural anthropologists believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.
I wouldn’t go quite that far, and, in fact, the people at Survival International who were responsible for giving Razib the final nudge over the top don’t actually claim to be cultural anthropologists, but I must admit it’s a nice turn of phrase. You can read the rest of what he had to say here and here. While I, too, have taken a rather dim view of Diamond’s books, I can only heartily agree with Razib when he says,
Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies.
And with that lengthy preamble, let me finally get to the point of this post. It has to do with something else Razib wrote in the articles linked above, namely,
As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter.
To this, a commenter replied,
There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.
I side with Razib on this one. Appeasement has never worked against self-righteous ideological zealots of any stripe. To this, an insightful reader who’s been following my blog for a while might reply, “But how can you favor responding to morally based attacks with morally based attacks? You don’t believe in morality!” Of course, that’s not quite accurate. I do believe in morality as the expression of subjective emotions whose existence ultimately depends on evolved behavioral traits. I don’t believe in transcendental morality, e.g., the existence of Good and Evil as objects, or things in themselves. For that reason I see the morally loaded attacks on Diamond that Khan objects to for what they really are; a self-righteous and self-interested display of moral emotions that have become disconnected from the “purpose” those emotions evolved to serve; the propagation and survival of the genes of the phenotypes from which the attacks are emanating. Or, to put it in the vernacular, they are absurd. They are being mounted by people who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of something that doesn’t exist; objective Good. They are not mounted because they are really likely to save anyone, but because they give pleasure to those who pose as saviors.
In spite of that, they are potentially very effective, are demonstrably very destructive, and are certainly not to be defeated by calm, scientific refutation. One must fight fire with fire, or accept defeat. Call it doublethink if you will. Essentially, I am advocating the use of a weapon whose existence is based on the premise that there is such a thing as objective Good, when there quite clearly is not. However, we are a moral species, and these battles are carried out in the realm of moral emotions, not reason. Jonathan Haidt even goes so far as to suggest that our rational minds themselves only exist to serve as advocates for those emotions. This is not a question of moral “shoulds,” but of mere practicality. Those who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of the Good in itself are not to be dissuaded by calm logic. Let history judge. How often were the fanatical zealots of such spiritual religions as Christianity and Islam, or such secular religions as Communism and Nazism, persuaded they were wrong by patient, reasoned argument? All of them were extremely effective at exploiting moral emotions as a weapon. One can either pick up that weapon and fight back, or sit back and await the pleasure of one’s enemies.