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  • Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

    Posted on June 28th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

    Darwin eliminated any rational basis for belief in objective moral truths when he revealed the nature of morality as a fundamentally emotional phenomenon and the reasons for its existence as a result of evolution by natural selection. Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s work for those with minds open enough to accept the truth. Their number has always been exceedingly small. The power of the illusion of the objective existence of good and evil has blinded most of us to facts that seem almost trivially obvious.

    We tend to believe what we want to believe, and we have never been determined to believe anything more tenaciously than the illusion of moral truth. We have invented countless ways to prop it up and deny the obvious. Philosophers have always been among the most imaginative inventors. It stands to reason. After all, they have the most to lose if the illusion vanishes; their moral authority, their claims to expertise about things that don’t exist, and their very livelihoods. I’ve found what I call the “unicorn criterion” one of the most effective tools for examining these claims. It amounts to simply assuming that, instead of instilling in our brains the powerful illusion of objective good and evil, natural selection had fitted each of us out with an overpowering illusion that unicorns are real. Then, simply substitute unicorns for moral truths in the arguments of the objective moralists. If the argument is as good for the former as it is for the latter, it seems probable to me that both arguments are wrong.

    I have reviewed some of the many schemes for propping up the illusion that appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, supposedly based on Darwin’s work itself. These were commonly based on the fallacy that evolution always results in “progress” from the “lower” and more primitive to the “higher” and more noble, and would finally ascend to identity with moral truth itself. Absurd as they were, these ideas at least accepted the existence of human nature. Debunking them was merely a matter of pointing out that evolution is a natural phenomenon that, by its very nature, cannot recognize the difference between “higher” and “lower,” and cannot possibly result in “progress” towards things that don’t exist.
    By the time Westermarck put the final nail in the coffin of these imaginative schemes, however, a deus ex machina had appeared to rescue the illusion in the form of the Blank Slate. For half a century the “experts” and “men of science” insisted on the absurd but ideologically expedient notion that there is no such thing as human nature. What Darwin had said on the subject was ignored. With human nature safely swept under the rug, there could no longer be an objection to the illusion of objective moral truths based on naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality. Eventually, the Blank Slate orthodoxy collapsed, and human nature could no longer be ignored. “Evolutionary debunking arguments” began to appear, once again pointing out the connection between natural selection and the existence of the emotions that generations of earlier philosophers had demonstrated were an essential “root cause” of morality. Once again, latter day philosophers faced an existential challenge. They had to find more creative ways to prop up the illusion.

    Enter the unicorn. As things now stand, the philosophers have met the challenge, at least in their imaginations. Even the “evolutionary debunkers” among them have come up with “anti-realist” versions of “moral truth” that leave the illusion virtually untouched. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for lay people to understand or assess the logic behind these ideas because philosophers are fond of cloaking them in a virtually impenetrable fog of academic jargon. In order to kick out the props holding up the illusion, one must devote some time to learning the jargon. I don’t speak the jargon myself, but have developed at least a rudimentary ability to understand it. I will try to translate at least part of one of the more prominent attempts to defend objective morality for the edification of my readers. It appeared in a paper entitled Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It, published in 1996 by Ronald Dworkin in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. The paper was actually debunked quite effectively in a paper by Prof. James Allan of the University of Queensland entitled Truth’s Empire – A Reply to Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It. By all means, read both if you have the time and don’t mind wading through the jargon. I will limit myself to what I consider a few of the more remarkable features of Dworkin’s article in this post.

    Perhaps most remarkable of all is Dworkin’s tactic of placing his unicorn high on a shelf, obscured by jargon, and unreachable by naturalistic arguments. It’s actually a version of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria Argument (NOMA), used to protect religion on a similar shelf. According to Dworkin, morality is so hermetically sealed off from the rest of reality that it is impossible to even deny the existence of moral truths from outside the realm of morality itself. Merely stating that you don’t believe in the existence of objective moral truths becomes a “moral argument!” He invents the term “archimedeans” for those who imagine they are arguing against a belief from outside the “realm” of that belief itself, and further claims that it is impossible to do so in the case of morality. As he puts it,

    Any successful – really, any intelligible – argument that evaluative propositions are neither true nor false must be internal to the evaluative domain rather than Archimedean about it.

    This comment is only comprehensible if one grasps the truly radical nature of Dworkin’s unicorn. It doesn’t exist in the physical world, accessible to our familiar senses. My readers may recall that I’ve suggested to the true believers in objective Goods and objective Evils that they capture one for me and present it to me nicely mounted on a board. Dworkin reacts with disgust to the notion that his unicorn could be such a mundane creature, noting,

    The idea of a direct impact between moral properties and human beings supposes that the universe houses, among its numerous particles of energy and matter, some special particles – morons – whose energy and momentum establish fields that at once constitute the morality or immorality, or virtue or vice, of particular human acts and institutions and also interact in some way with human nervous systems so as to make people aware of the morality and immorality or of the virtue or vice. We might call this picture the “moral-field” thesis. If it is intelligible, it is also false.

    However, there is an unavoidable consequence to making the “morons” disappear. In Dworkin’s words,

    The powerful consequence is this. Morality is a distinct, independent dimension of our experience, and it exercises its own sovereignty. We cannot argue ourselves free of it by its own leave, except, as it were, by making our peace with it… We cannot climb outside of morality to judge it from some external archimedean tribunal.

    In other words, we cannot deny the existence of unicorns from outside the world of unicorns! Let’s be clear about this. Dworkin is actually claiming that morality exists in some kind of a transcendental spirit world, inaccessible not only to our physical senses but to even the most sensitive scientific instruments. If one can swallow that, then hand-waving Darwinian arguments out of existence becomes a mere bagatelle. For example, according to Dworkin,

    Perhaps much of the contemporary philosophical skepticism has its forgotten source in exactly this logic: It may all be a lingering residue of the defeat of crude anthropomorphic religion. How else can we explain the widespread but plainly mistaken assumption that a successful Darwinian explanation of moral concern – that human animals with such a concern were more likely to survive – would have skeptical implications?

    Indeed, a powerful innate belief in unicorns cannot be defeated by Darwinian arguments if the unicorns don’t exist in a world accessible to Darwin, but in a spirit world of their own. The spirit world argument is hardly unique to Dworkin. Similar arguments aren’t difficult to find in the journals of philosophy.

    Dworkin doesn’t limit himself to the NOMA argument. He also tries the ad hominem gambit of conflating the claim that there are no objective moral truths with such whimsical and passing philosophical fads as post-modernism, anti-foundationalism, and related efforts to deny the very existence of objective truth. He also claims that disbelief in objective morality is “dangerous,” as if truth could be manufactured at will as a means of making us “safe.” It’s hardly worth wasting a torpedo on such flimsy arguments.

    If we are to believe the philosophers themselves, the number of “realists” like Dworkin is increasing among them. It hardly seems to matter, though. Even the “anti-realists,” such as J. L. Mackie and “evolutionary debunker” Sharon Street assume the existence of “moral truth” even as they reject arguments in favor of “objective moral truth.” I have yet to figure out in what sense they consider the distinction relevant. The jargon becomes unusually opaque when they try to explain it. They write long papers and even books explaining why there are no objectively true answers to moral questions, and conclude by explaining to the rest of us what our “duties” and “obligations” are, and what we “ought” and “ought not” to do. I personally have no intention of allowing either “realists” or “anti-realists” to dictate behavior to me based on their conclusions about what their moral emotions are trying to tell them.

    The “unicorn criterion” is interesting from a historical as well as a philosophical point of view. There was a rich literature devoted to the implications of Darwinism for morality before the Blank Slate debacle, but to all appearances it has all evaporated as if swallowed by a black hole. I have never yet seen anything by a modern “evolutionary debunker” attributing any of his ideas to a pre-Blank Slate philosopher in general or Edvard Westermarck in particular. Other than Darwin himself, they are seldom even mentioned. Perhaps it would be useful for the philosophers to learn some philosophy.

  • “Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History

    Posted on June 9th, 2019 Helian 3 comments

    I admire Frans de Waal. One of the reasons is the fact that he knows about Edvard Westermarck. In his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he even refers to him as, “…the Finnish anthropologist who gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality.” In fact, that’s not true. Darwin himself gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality, most notably in Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man, and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a host of scientists and philosophers wrote about the subject before Westermarck appeared on the scene. However, as far as I can tell all of them promoted some version of naturalistic fallacy. In other words, they thought that evolution would result in ever “higher” forms of morality, or that it was possible for us to be morally obligated to do some things and refrain from doing others by virtue of natural selection. Westermarck was the first writer of note after Darwin to avoid these fallacies, and no one of any stature with his insight has appeared on the scene since. To that extent, at least, de Waal is right. Unfortunately, he has an unsettling tendency to state his own moral judgments as if they were objective facts. As one might expect, they are virtually identical with the moral judgments of the rest of the academic tribe. Since Westermarck rightly pointed out that those who do this are victims of an illusion in the first chapter of his first book on the subject, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, one wonders whether de Waal understood what he was reading. Other than that, de Waal is one of the best writers around at describing progress in our understanding of the mental and emotional traits of other animals, and of the many similarities between us and them that are the natural result of the continuous evolution of these traits over millions of years. In his words,

    I focus on emotional expressions, body language, and social dynamics. These are so similar between humans and other primates that my skill applies equally to both, although my work mostly concerns the latter.

    Emotions, in turn, are of overriding importance if we would understand, not only animal behavior, but the human condition:

    Our judicial systems channel feelings of bitterness and revenge into just punishment, and our health care systems have their roots in compassion. Hospitals (from the Latin hospitalis, or “hospitable”) started out as religious charities run by nuns and only much later became secular institutions operated by professionals. In fact, all our most cherished institutions and accomplishments are tightly interwoven with human emotions and would not exist without them.

    He believes this is also true of a critical aspect of human behavior; our morality. I agree. De Waal draws a sharp distinction between emotions and feelings. As he puts it,

    Triggered by certain stimuli and accompanied by behavioral changes, emotions are detectable on the outside in facial expression, skin color, vocal timbre, gestures, odor, and so on. Only when the person experiencing these changes becomes aware of them do they become feelings, which are conscious experiences. We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings.

    De Waal is certainly aware of who the Blank Slaters were, the kind of “science” they did, and the gross disconnect between their egalitarian rhetoric and the reality of their behavior. A self-described hippy in the 70’s, his studies led him to collect extensive data on social hierarchy and the wielding of power among apes. He couldn’t avoid noticing the same behaviors in his own leftist ingroup:

    It came down to the staple of the observer: pattern recognition. I started to notice rampant jockeying for position, coalition formation, currying of favors, and political opportunism – in my own environment. And I don’t mean among just among the older generation. The student movement had its own alpha males, power struggles, groupies, and jealousies. In fact, the more promiscuous we became, the more sexual jealousy reared its ugly head. My ape study gave me the right distance to analyze these patterns, which were plain as day if you looked for them. Student leaders ridiculed and isolated potential challengers and stole everybody’s girlfriend while at the same time preaching the wonders of egalitarianism and tolerance. There was an enormous mismatch between what my generation wanted to be, as expressed in our passionate political oratory, and how we actually behaved. We were in total denial!

    A bit further in the book he adds,

    Human hierarchies can be quite apparent, but we don’t always recognize them as such, and academics often act as if they don‘t exist… Given a choice between manifest human behavior and trendy psychological constructs, the social sciences always favor the latter.

    He recounts an encounter between Paul Ekman, a colleague who studied the connection between emotions and facial expressions, and a typical Blank Slater, an anthropologist who insisted that human emotions and their expression were infinitely malleable. According to de Waal,

    Expecting to find cabinets full of field notes, films, and photographs of human body language, Ekman asked if he could get a look at his records. To his astonishment, the answer was that none existed. The anthropologist claimed that all his data were in his head.

    What I find the most remarkable thing about the book is that, in spite of these broad hints about how things were back in the day, he can’t bring himself to admit the full extent of the carnage. He seldom, if ever, uses the term Blank Slate, and never mentions the rather salient fact that the Blank Slate orthodoxy brought meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences, intimately connected as they are with his own discipline, to a screeching halt for more than half a century. He must be aware of the truth. De Waal is 70 years old, and must have noticed what was going on around him as a young Ph.D. student. He must have been aware that anyone who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy was furiously attacked, and was likely to have his career destroyed or derailed. It gets worse. Beyond avoiding the “indelicacy” of mentioning painful truths about the “integrity” of the behavioral sciences, shameful as they must be to de Waal and the rest of the academic tribe, he actually trots out mythical versions of the “history” of the Blank Slate. He is hardly unique in this respect. Of one thing we can be sure. Whatever fairy tale eventually emerges as the preferred “history” of the Blank Slate, any resemblance between it and the truth will be purely incidental. Let’s look at some examples. According to de Waal,

    In sociobiological depictions of nature as a dog-eat-dog place, all behavior boiled down to selfish genes, and self-serving tendencies were invariably attributed to “the law of the strongest.” Genuine kindness was out of the question, because no organism would be so stupid as to ignore danger in order to assist another. If such behavior did occur, it must be either a mirage or a product of “misfiring” genes. The infamous summary line of this era, “Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed,” was quoted over and over with a certain amount of glee: altruism, it said, must be a sham.

    Here we see a typical and fundamental aspect of the revised “history” – the smearing of those who were right about human nature when virtually the entire academic tribe was wrong. In the lay vernacular of the 60’s and early 70’s, the academic specialty most closely associated with this lonely group was ethology. It became “sociobiology” after the publication of the book of that name by E. O. Wilson in 1975. Did “sociobiologists” really depict nature as a dog-eat-dog place? One would think that the first place to look for an answer would be in the writings of Wilson, the greatest sociobiologist of them all. Wilson sees nature as the very opposite of a dog-eat-dog place. He is probably the most prominent proponent around of the idea that altruism plays a highly important role in the natural world, and that it exists mainly by virtue of group selection. Two other highly regarded sociobiologists, Robert Trivers and Richard Alexander, independently proposed explanations of apparently unreciprocated altruism back in the mid-80’s. The most recognizable proponent of selfish genes, of course, is Richard Dawkins, who published The Selfish Gene back in 1976. However, he was no sociobiologist. His book included attacks on sociobiologists in general and Wilson in particular for defending altruism in the natural world.

    In short, de Waal’s “dog-eat-dog” fantasy is just that – a fantasy. This begs the question, “Why?” Why is it that a respected public intellectual would claim to “remember” something that even a cursory glance at the source material reveals as pure nonsense? Readers of this blog can probably guess the answer – the Blank Slate. This “memory” and others like it can only be explained if one knows the history of the affair.

    By the 1960’s, the vast majority of scientists and professionals in the behavioral sciences had already been claiming that there is no such thing as human nature for several decades. This nonsense, laughable to any reasonably intelligent child, was the product of ideological imperatives that required perfectly plastic, malleable human beings to serve as denizens of the various utopias that were in fashion at the time. It was propped up by vilifying anyone who demurred as a racist, fascist, fanatical right-winger, etc., and letting them know that their careers would be destroyed if they persisted. As a result, it took an outsider, someone the Blank Slaters couldn’t destroy, to begin kicking out the props that supported the Blank Slate façade, thereby initiating its slow but inexorable collapse. The outsider who eventually turned up was Robert Ardrey, and he accomplished the feat by publishing a series of four highly popular books that defended the existence and importance of human nature, and exposed what had been going on in the behavioral “sciences” to intelligent lay people. The “men of science” were furious at Ardrey for exposing and humiliating them. They haven’t forgiven him to this day, and they still can’t admit that he was right and they were wrong. Instead of simply admitting as much, they have concluded that they can better preserve the “integrity” of their field by concocting an alternative “history” of the affair out of whole cloth. According to the current version of this “history,” Ardrey and others who began chiming in with the same message after he had broken the ice were “bad men,” and the “men of science” have now exposed their “errors.” Lately the “men of science” have actually had the gall to claim that the Blank Slate never happened, that it was all a “straw man.” De Waal’s dubious “memories” are best understood in the context of this campaign to rearrange history. Another example occurs in Chapter V:

    The first animal emotion studied – the only one that mattered to biologists in the 1960s and ‘70s – was aggression. In those days, every debate about human evolution boiled down to the aggressive instinct.

    This “memory,” too, is utter nonsense, as anyone can confirm by consulting the still plentiful source material. The “debate” in those days wasn’t over whether “aggression” was a human instinct, but over the question of whether innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature,” if you will, existed at all. It’s inconceivable that de Waal isn’t aware of this fact, and yet nowhere in his book does he so much as mention the Blank Slate. The number of biologists in the 60’s, particularly in the United States, who explicitly embraced the claim that human nature even existed was extremely small. Among those who did, the idea they claimed that aggression was the only animal emotion that mattered is ridiculous. Their work was collected and summarized by Ardrey in his books, including African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, both of which appeared in the 60s. In both there are extensive descriptions of many aspects of animal behavior other than aggression, including altruism and moral behavior, as well as the claim that these forms of behavior also existed in human beings. That was the real subject of debate.

    Whence, then, the “aggression” canard? It can best be understood as a Blank Slate strawman. The few who dared challenge the Blank Slate orthodoxy hardly ignored forms of behavior other than aggression. However, they didn’t ignore the fact of aggression, either. It was, of course, the theme of On Aggression, published by Konrad Lorenz in 1966. Even that book, however, discussed many other forms of animal behavior. The Blank Slaters seized on the topic because aggression could be portrayed as “bad.” They then tossed in the bogus strawman that their opponents believed that aggression was a rigid, “genetically determined” behavior, forcing humans and other primates to behave like “killer apes.” This transparent lie has been propped up by the academic tribe ever since. Unfortunately, de Waal compounds the lie with statements such as,

    There is one domain, though, in which aggression is common and reconciliation rare, making for decidedly different outcomes. This domain received enormous attention in 1966 when Konrad Lorenz argued in On Aggression that we have an aggressive drive that may lead to warfare, hence that war is part of human biology.

    Both Lorenz and Ardrey discussed aspects of human nature that “may lead to warfare.” Neither one of them ever claimed that it followed that war is some rigid, genetically determined part of human biology. Both were perfectly well aware that anything like modern warfare was impossible before the technology necessary to support it became available. What they did do is suggest that some aspects of innate human behavior might have something to do with the prevalence of warfare throughout recorded history and, if so, it would behoove us to understand what those aspects are, as a means of preventing warfare in the future. This suggestion can only be portrayed as “wrong” or “irrational” if one rejects the claim that innate human behavior exists at all or, in other words, if one has swallowed the dogmas of the Blank Slate. If de Waal really believes that Lorenz ever claimed that “war is part of human biology,” let him cite line and verse. Otherwise he should retract this patently false statement. A bit later, de Waal doubles down, presenting his version of that favorite Blank Slate canard, the “killer ape theory,” as follows:

    In the 1970s, however, came the first shocking field reports of chimpanzees killing each other, hunting monkeys, eating meat, and so on. And even though killing of other species was never the issue, the chimpanzee observations were used to make the point that our ancestors must have been murderous monsters. Incidents of chimps killing their leaders, such as described above, are exceptional compared to what they do to members of other groups for whom they reserve their most brutal violence. As a result, ape behavior moved from serving as an argument against Lorenz’s position to becoming exhibit A in its favor.

    This certainly conforms to the current version of the academic tribe’s narrative, but it is far from the truth. “Lorenz position” was never, ever, that “our ancestors must have been murderous monsters,” another lie among the many invented by the Blank Slaters. It wasn’t Ardrey’s position, either, as I’ve documented in my post about Travis Pickering’s book, Rough and Tumble. Indeed, the “murderous monster” lie, otherwise known as the “killer ape theory,” was much more commonly used to smear Ardrey than Lorenz. What Ardrey claimed is that our ape ancestors hunted. The Blank Slaters furiously denied this, although we now know that it was quite probably true. He also claimed that, since they hunted, they must also have killed, which the Blank Slaters also furiously denied, but which is also quite probably true. The only other significant aspect of the killer ape theory is that our ancestors killed like “murderous monsters,” that they were always furious and enraged when they killed. Neither Ardrey nor Lorenz believed this. Indeed, as I’ve documented elsewhere, they believed exactly the opposite. We encounter more of the same when de Waal gets around to describing the behavior of our more peace-loving relatives, the bonobos. According to the author,

    They are simply too peaceful, too matriarchal, and too gentle to fit the popular storyline of human evolution, which turns on conquest, male dominance, hunting and warfare… Our hippie cousins are invariably hailed as delightful, then quickly marginalized.

    To this I can only wonder, “Where have you been?” I’ve been reading stories about how wonderful and peaceful bonobos are nonstop for at least the last ten years. They’ve been anything but marginalized. The amusing thing is that they occasionally slip off their pedestal, especially in discussions of their “feminist” proclivities. I was at a talk by a woman who had spent much time observing bonobos in the field. She described how two dominant females treated a male who got out of line. They viciously attacked him and, as she triumphantly declared, tore his testicles almost completely off! De Waal continues,

    Of all the apes, the bonobo looks most like Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), down to its general body proportions, long legs, grasping feet, and even brain size. But instead of offering a new perspective stressing humanity’s gentle and empathetic potential long with that of one of its closest relatives, anthropologists gave us only hand-wringing about how atypical Ardi was – how could we have had such a gentle ancestor? Presenting Ardi as an anomaly and a mystery kept intact the prevailing macho storyline.

    Seriously? The anthropologists have become a gang of warmongers, male chauvinists, and killer ape aficionadoes, and I didn’t even notice? I can only suggest that de Waal read Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Society by Alice Dreger. Therein he will learn that the “science” of anthropology has long been more about insuring that reports from the field reflect how leftist academics imagine human beings should be than about how they actually are. It should be an epiphany for him.  We find another quaint throwback to the strawmen of the Blank Slaters near the beginning of Chapter 6, where we find the comment,

    Emotion-based reactions have this gigantic advantage over reflex-like behavior: they pass through a filter of experience and learning known as appraisal. I wish early ethologists had thought of this, instead of clinging to the instinct concept, which is now largely outdated. Instincts are knee-jerk reactions which are pretty useless in an ever-changing world. Emotions are much more adaptable, because they operate like intelligent instincts.

    Here, again, we must charitably assume that de Waal has never read what the early ethologists actually wrote. From Darwin on, when they spoke of instincts, they made it perfectly clear that they weren’t referring to “knee-jerk reactions,” but to what de Waal calls emotions. Every scientist I’m aware of who ever wrote about “human instincts” was careful to point out that, in our species, they were much less rigid, much more subject to what de Waal calls “feelings,” and much more amenable to conscious restraint than in other animals, and that, for that matter, they weren’t “knee-jerk reactions” in many other animals as well. In fact, the “knee-jerk reaction” was yet another favorite canard of the Blank Slaters of old. They, of course, insisted that human beings, not to mention apes have no instincts. See, for example, the comments to that affect in Man and Aggression, by Ashley Montagu, one of the more invaluable pieces of source material from the heyday of the Blank Slate. Apparently they imagined this piece of nonsense would become more palatable if they redefined “instinct” to refer exclusively to rigid and unlearned types of behavior such as one finds, for example, in insects, in spite of the fact that they knew perfectly well it was never used in that sense when applied to human beings. As can also be seen by referring to Man and Aggression, this pathetic gambit was aimed mainly at Robert Ardrey, who had used the term as commonly understood in African Genesis. In his later works he was at pains to refer to human instincts as “open-ended” or as “innate predispositions” to make it perfectly clear what he was talking about. If de Waal seriously believes that “instinct” has always meant “knee-jerk reaction,” I can only suggest he pick up a copy of one of Darwin’s books. Darwin often used the term, and made it perfectly clear that he was not referring to a “knee-jerk reaction” when he applied it to human beings in, for example, his The Descent of Man.

    It’s sad, really. If de Waal had tried to publish Mama’s Last Hug back in the mid-70’s, the Blank Slaters would have furiously denounced him as a racist and fascist, in league with the likes of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz just as they did to E. O. Wilson when he published Sociobiology back in 1975. Is it really too much to ask that de Waal take a look at what the old ethologists and sociobiologists actually wrote, instead of propping up ludicrous myths about them? If he did, he would notice that their hypotheses were actually virtually identical to those he supports today. De Waal knows all about the connections between emotions and human behavior, and has embraced the truth that human morality is rooted in emotion. Why then this bowing and scraping to the ancient Blank Slaters, who vilified and attempted to destroy anyone who proposed similar ideas a few decades ago. Why this gleeful collaboration in the bowdlerization of history? Do the Blank Slaters of old still wield that much power in academia? Is de Waal that fearful of being ostracized from his academic tribe?

    It’s even more sad that de Waal isn’t the only one actively engaged in making up an alternative history out of whole cloth. Many others are busily engaged in the project as well, and the “men of science” will very likely succeed in “adjusting” history to spare their amour propre and the humiliation of admitting that they were consistently and almost uniformly dead wrong about something as critical to our very survival as an understanding of our own nature for more than half a century. Apparently, when it comes to “selfish genes,” they have more than their share.

  • Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

    Posted on May 2nd, 2019 Helian 6 comments

    As I noted in a recent post, (Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective), John Staddon, a Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke, published a very timely and important article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion noting the gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities in secular humanist morality. These included its obvious lack of any visible means of support, even as flimsy as a God, for its claims to authority and legitimacy. My post included a link to a review by Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the Why Evolution is True website and New Atheist stalwart, that called Prof. Staddon’s article the “worst” ever to appear on Quillette, based on the false assumption that he actually did maintain that secular humanism is a religion. In fact, it’s perfectly obvious based on a fair reading of the article that he did nothing of the sort.

    Meanwhile, Quillette gave Prof. Coyne the opportunity to post a reply to Staddon. His rebuttal, entitled Secular Humanism is Not a Religion, doubled down on the false assertion that Staddon had claimed it is. Then, in a counterblast, entitled Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne, Staddon simply pointed out Prof. Coyne’s already obvious “confusion” about what he had actually written, and elaborated on his contention that secular values depend on faith. As I noted in the following comment I posted at Quillette, I couldn’t agree more:

    I’m sure Prof. Staddon doesn’t need my sympathy, but I sympathize with him nonetheless. He wrote an article in which he clearly does not claim that secular humanism is a religion. Prof. Coyne then falsely accused him of claiming that secular humanism is a religion, using this false accusation as the basis for his assertion that the article was “the worst ever” to appear at Quillette. Prof. Staddon responded by stating very politely what should have been obvious to anyone who gave his original article a fair reading in the first place – that Prof. Coyne’s response was based on a false premise. It would be nice if Prof. Coyne would now simply admit the truth and apologize but, human nature being what it is, I strongly doubt that will happen.

    IMHO Prof. Staddon’s article is one of the best that’s ever appeared at Quillette, not the worst. It addresses a very fundamental problem; the tendency of secular humanists to insist on tinkering with the law based on novel and constantly mutating versions of morality that lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide them with any reasonable claim to legitimacy or authority. This tendency is certainly predictable for our species, but it is also irrational. In fact, it is simply one aspect of an even bigger problem; our inability to understand and rationally respond to our moral nature.

    Secular humanist apologists among the commenters assure us that their moral claims are not similar to religious moral claims, because they are more rational and flexible. They can be refined and make progress towards the “Good.” Unfortunately, this “Good” of theirs doesn’t exist. It is an illusion. All they are really saying is, “Unlike religious morality, my version of morality is rational and flexible, and so can be refined and make progress towards satisfying my emotional whims.” That’s all their “Good” actually is, and yet they seriously believe it automatically possesses a magical authority to dictate behavior to others via the law.

    Lost in such claims is the very fact that morality is rooted in emotions, and wouldn’t exist, at least as we know it, absent these emotions. The claims are based on the assumption that the emotional basis of morality can simply be ignored, and “oughts” and “ought nots” tinkered and cobbled together as if these emotional constraints didn’t exist at all. In other words, secular humanism is just a warmed over version of John Stuart Mill’s Blank Slate utilitarianism, and just as chimerical.

    I’m afraid Prof. Staddon has Darwin on his side on this one. Just read Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” If that’s not clear enough for you, read the first chapter of Westermarck’s “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.” If that’s not enough, read Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” and, if you still don’t get it, all I can suggest is that you start wading through the ocean of books that have been rolling off the presses lately about “evolved morality,” and the expression of morality in animals. Consider the obvious implications if morality is an expression of evolved emotions. Natural selection is just that, a natural process. It does not make progress towards anything, nor does it have any goal or function in mind. It has no mind. The same applies to morality if it is the result of that natural process. In short, Darwinism and secular humanism are mutually exclusive and the latter is really nothing but an expression of blind faith, just as Prof. Staddon claims. Emotional whims have no intrinsic authority whatsoever, and yet, as he points out, secular humanists persist in claiming that the law must be based on these whims. When one considers that the emotions involved evolved in times radically different from the present, it should be abundantly obvious that it can’t be assumed that they will even have the same results now as they did then. Furthermore, there is no basis whatsoever for the claim that those results, namely, survival and reproduction of the relevant genes, are “Good in themselves.” The secular humanist rationale for meddling with the law is based on a fantasy. It is not only irrational, but potentially dangerous as well.

    Of course, secular humanists aren’t the only ones who are delusional about morality. Virtually everyone else on the planet is as well. The illusion that good and evil are real things, existing independently of anyone’s opinion about them, is a powerful and pervasive aspect of human nature. It is so powerful that, when it is challenged, we defend and rationalize the illusion, refusing to even consider the seemingly obvious and elementary reasons that it is just that – an illusion. Many “get” the connection between evolution by natural selection and the existence of morality. In spite of that, they are incapable of putting two and two together and accepting the implications of that connection. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist by virtue of natural selection, it is simply impossible for the illusions of good and evil spawned by these emotions to be true. As he put it,

    The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    Prof. Coyne is typical of secular humanists in general. In one breath he claims that he realizes that morality is subjective, and in the next he leaps to the defense of the chimera! This glaring non sequitur is treated as if there were nothing incongruous or absurd about it at all. In defending his chimera, he resorts to typical rationalizations, which can also be found sprinkled among the comments to the articles referred to above. For example, he writes,

    But religious morality has three features that differentiate it from morality deriving from secular humanism. First, the diversity of morality among secular humanists is far wider than that of followers of a given religion: beyond adherence to the Golden Rule, secular humanists vary dramatically in what they consider moral.

    This is entirely beside the point. The number of versions of morality one can find among the various secular humanist ingroups is irrelevant. What is relevant is that both religious believers and humanists defend their goods and evils as if they were real, objective things, regardless of whether they claim to believe in the subjectivity of morality or not. Prof. Coyne goes on,

    Further, much of a religion’s morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims… In contrast, the morality of secular humanists derives from rational consideration about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but ultimately grounded on a secular preference (i.e., “I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.”). Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    As noted by Darwin, Westermarck, Hume, Hutcheson, and many others, these “secular preferences” are actually emotions, irrational by their very nature. If the moral pretensions of humanists are “ultimately grounded” on emotions, they cannot be “largely based on reason” at the same time. They are based on emotions, period! “Reason” comes in when, like everyone else, humanists attempt to figure out what their emotions are trying to tell them. This “rational” process inevitably fails, because the emotions in question are artifacts of a natural process. As such, they cannot possibly be trying to tell them anything. Coyne then recites the usual nonsensical circular argument humanists are fond of using to justify their moral claims:

    I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.

    which boils down to, “My version of the Good is that which maximizes the Good.” Coyne continues,

    Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    Really!? Is it “science” when mom and pop bakeries are threatened with destruction unless they act in ways that violate the proprietors’ religious beliefs, based on novel rules that didn’t exist when they opened their businesses? Is it “science” when parents are threatened with heavy fines, jail, and the state kidnapping of their children unless they agree to have them poisoned, mutilated, and neutered in order to promote “transgender rights?” Is it “science” when the careers of legitimate scientists are arbitrarily destroyed by baying mobs for being insufficiently “woke” about the latest dictates of political correctness? Is it “science” when the literature and other cultural icons of a people are destroyed because of some humanist’s delusion that they don’t “maximize well-being”? Is it “scientific” to propose versions of morality that blithely ignore such fundamental aspects of human morality as its dual nature – our universal tendency to apply different versions of morality to ingroups and outgroups? To this I can only respond, try reading and actually comprehending Prof. Staddon’s argument in his original article about the arbitrary manner in which humanist moral pretensions are actually transformed into law. Is there really anything “scientific” about it? Is there some regular process by which the opinions of all regardless of the version of morality they happen to embrace are taken into account? Is there any suggestion that those who insist that others obey laws based on their moral claims be required to clearly state the emotions that are the “ultimate grounding” for those claims, and explain whether or not the laws will accomplish anything even close to the reasons that account for the fact that the emotions in question exist to begin with? No, no, and again, no! The idea that there is anything remotely “scientific” about the way the moral sausage is prepared in our societies is utterly ludicrous. I think that is what Prof. Staddon was actually trying to say. In his words,

    I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion.

    This seems perfectly obvious to me, but apparently not to Prof. Coyne. He continues,

    Thus everyone in the world becomes religious, save for sociopaths and the few who disdain all morality.

    No, secular humanists to not “become religious” by virtue of the fact that there are similarities between their behavior and that of religious believers. And “everyone” does not belong to one of these two categories. Darwin was not a sociopath, and Westermarck did not disdain all morality, and yet neither of them seems to have suffered from the illusion that their moral emotions should be consulted in formulating the law.

    Prof. Staddon has a point, and a very important one. Our moral emotions, the real “ultimate basis” of our morality, are relics of an environment that no longer exists. It is extremely unlikely that blindly consulting them to formulate the laws and other rules that regulate human behavior in a completely different environment will have the same result that it did when the emotions in question evolved. I would go even further than Prof. Staddon. He claimed that secular humanists don’t believe in “invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.” In fact, they do believe that imaginary things, namely, Good and Evil, have an objective existence independent of anyone’s mere opinion about them. Many of them claim to be subjective moralists, but, for all practical matters, if not in theory, subjective morality and secular humanism are mutually exclusive. It is not rational to insist that the law be based on one’s emotions, and yet, as Prof. Staddon points out, that is precisely what we commonly find them doing. Far from respecting alternative opinions about morality, they perceive anyone who disagrees with them according to the familiar practice of our species – as outgroup. That is yet another characteristic they share with religious believers.

    If, as Darwin insisted, human morality is ultimately based on emotions, and those emotions exist by virtue of natural selection, then it is impossible to derive “moral truths” based on reason. That, however, is the secular humanist agenda. It is an agenda that depends on ignoring the reasons that the emotions in question exist to begin with, on insisting that they can be “reprogrammed” to apply to social realities that didn’t exist at the time they evolved, and being willfully blind to inconvenient truths about human morality, such as its dual quality of applying radically differently rules to ingroups and outgroups. It is on such palpably false assumptions that the rules and laws that regulate behavior in our societies are made. Nothing that I, Prof. Staddon, or anyone else says is likely to change that fact any time in the foreseeable future. However, whatever your personal goals happen to be, it would probably be expedient to take it into account as you pursue them.

  • E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter

    Posted on April 23rd, 2019 Helian 4 comments

    There are but 125 very sparsely filled pages in Genesis, E. O. Wilson’s latest. The book is really little more than a pamphlet. The few reviews one finds online are dismissive in their brevity. Perhaps it’s best described as a farewell letter from the grand old man. If so, the loss will be great. I know of no one who can fill his shoes. Wilson is an independent, courageous thinker who is refreshingly free of the now ubiquitous habit of larding his books with virtue signaling to his academic tribe. He can also occasionally be quite blunt. For example, in Genesis,

    The following can be posed with near certainty. Every part of the human body and mind has a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. And all of it, so far as we can tell by continuing scientific examination, originated through evolution by natural selection.

    No mealy-mouthed nonsense there about “spandrels,” or “exaptations.” Wilson has always been forthright about insisting on the obvious. He became famous for that trait back in the 70’s, defiantly debunking the Blank Slate dogmas that had blocked progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century in his Sociobiology and On Human Nature. At the time he became the most prominent academic in the U.S. to break ranks, giving the Blank Slate priesthood an extra poke in the eye by actually praising Robert Ardrey.

    Like most farewell letters, Genesis assumes its readers are already familiar with the author. For example, there is much discussion of the results of group selection, but the book is too short to allow an adequate explanation of what the term actually means, not to mention the historical controversy surrounding it. The same goes for “eusociality.” Wilson defines the term at length in his earlier books, but simply assumes the reader will know what he’s talking about in this one.

    It’s hard to say how long we will have to wait before another free spirit turns up who is both as prominent as Wilson and as willing to dismiss the obviously bogus truisms of his academic tribe with contempt. Sir Arthur Keith is the most recent example I can think of before him, and there was a gap of about a quarter of a century between the two. Both published some of their best work when they were in their 80’s, and both were convinced of the prominent role of group selection in driving the rapid evolutionary advance of the genus Homo, although Keith used the term in a much more general sense than is common today. Both pointed to truths that our species will continue to ignore at its peril.

    If this is really Wilson’s gentle way of saying “Goodbye,” all I can think of to say in response is “Thanks.” I’ll leave it at that. I hate long goodbyes.

  • Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective?

    Posted on April 21st, 2019 Helian 5 comments

    John Staddon, a professor of psychology at Duke, recently published an article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion?  The question of whether secular humanism is a religion is, of course, a matter of how one defines religion. According to Staddon, religions are defined by three elements they possess in common, including,

    1. Belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds, and processes – like God, heaven miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.
    2. Potentially verifiable claims about the real world, such as Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, etc.
    3. Rules for action – prohibitions and requirements – a morality

    Many of the commenters on the article leapt to the conclusion that he was answering the question in the affirmative – that secular humanism actually is a religion. In fact, that’s not the case. Staddon actually claims that secular humanism fits only one of the three elements, namely, the third. As he puts it, “In terms of moral rules, secular humanism is indistinguishable from a religion.” However, in his opinion, that’s a very important similarity, because the first two elements have “no bearing on action,” including the very significant matter of action on “legal matters.” That is actually the whole point of the article. Staddon doesn’t attempt to answer the question of whether secular humanism is a religion one way or the other. He limits himself to the claim that, as far as the only element of the three that has a significant bearing on action, including legal action, is concerned, secular humanists are no different from religious believers. He’s right.

    In fact, I would go even further. I would throw in the first element as well. Secular humanists do believe in invisible or hidden things. Whether they admit it or not, they perceive good and evil as real things, and they act, often very passionately, as if they believe they are real things. In fact, to be a secular humanist is to believe in these illusions. Based on these fantasies, secular humanists assume a right to dictate to others how they should or should not behave, and what the law that applies not just to themselves, but to everyone else, should be.

    As Staddon points out, this is a problem, because, even though secular humanists are at least as passionate and fanatical in defense of their moral illusions as the religious, “secular morality is not written down in a single identifiable source. It is not easily accessible.” That’s for sure! It also has the unsettling habit of changing from one day to the next, and is often defended as “the truth” in spite of that. Secular humanist morality has also become almost completely disconnected from the reasons that the emotions that give rise to it exist to begin with. I know of not a single humanist out there who could give a coherent, rational answer to the question of why they hold their moral beliefs, and what those moral beliefs have to do with the reasons they exist. “Coherent” and “rational” are the key words here. In other words, in general they are ignorant of the fact that the existence of morality is explained by natural selection, they are incapable of explaining whether their version of morality will accomplish ends similar to those that account for the existence of morality to begin with, and they are incapable of citing any authority for their morality’s unsettling ability to jump out of their skull, fasten itself on someone else’s back, and begin dictating how they ought or ought not to behave.

    Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the excellent Why Evolution is True website and one of the most effective debunkers of the God myth around, was infuriated by the article, blasting back at it with one of his own entitled, “The worst article to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a religion. Apparently he thought his ox had been gored, and ended up writing one of his own “worst articles” as a result. In the first place, he, too, jumped to the conclusion that Staddon actually did claim that secular humanism is a religion. As noted above, that’s not true. More importantly, however, Prof. Coyne completely missed the point about the third “element,” the one about morality. The point is, quoting Staddon, that when it comes to morality, secular humanists “…have just as many ‘unprovable beliefs'” as religious believers. The only difference between them is that seculars lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide an authority for their beliefs. Their “authority” is simply assumed, floating out there in the vacuum somewhere. In spite of that, again quoting Staddon, “…many passionate, ‘religious’ beliefs of secular candidates (for political office, ed.) go undetected and unquestioned. Thus they become law by stealth.”

    That is, in fact, a major theme of this blog. From my own point of view, it’s bad enough that secular humanists have delusional beliefs about morality that are no different in kind from the superstitions of religious believers. The real problem is, however, that they insist on forcing the rest of us to pretend their illusions are true, and intimidating us into acting and speaking as if they were true. As Staddon notes, they also insist on giving their illusions, which have no natural authority whatever beyond their own emotional whims, the force of law.

    According to Prof. Coyne, “…there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond ‘Do what benefits other people.'” It’s beyond me how anyone with any experience of the real world can believe something so preposterous. There may not be “a” morality of secular humanism. There are, in fact, a variety, generally quite similar, but, whatever the details, they are often passionately defended. They are also very well defined. Secular humanists tend to belong to ingroups that are defined by ideological shibboleths, many of them consisting of moral “goods” and “bads.” The fact that, as Prof. Coyne puts it, “…secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule,” is completely beside the point.

    Prof. Coyne himself is no exception. He claims to believe that morality is subjective. Many other secular humanists do as well. In fact, secular humanism and subjective morality are mutually exclusive. Read some of the articles on his website. He makes moral judgments all the time. If pressed, he will claim that they are just his opinion, but he never states them that way. He claims to be a scientist and an atheist. If so, his behavior, in common with that of every other secular humanist I’m aware of, is fundamentally irrational.

    As Darwin, Westermarck, and many others before them pointed out, morality is by its very nature an expression of emotions. Where do those emotions come from, and why do they exist? If one is truly an atheist and a scientist worthy of the name, one must admit they exist by virtue of natural selection. How does natural selection work? When it comes to morality, does it work by selecting for actions that “benefit other people”? No, it doesn’t work by selecting for those things, or for anything even close to them. Among other things, it has selected for hatred of outgroups, a trait that all human beings have in common. Secular humanists are fond of ignoring that trait, although their hatred of outgroups, generally consisting of people who disagree with them about what “ought” to be, is often deeper and more bitter than the outgroup hatred of religious people. Have a look, for example, at Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, one of Prof. Coyne’s favorite fellow secular humanists. Therein you will find expressions of hatred directed at Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and Friedrich Nietzsche on the other that utterly fly in the face of the claim that secular humanism is all about “benefiting others.” If one is to take Pinker seriously, one must believe that people like Trump and Nietzsche wake up every morning wracking their brains to come up with a list of bad deeds they can do that day. Are we to seriously believe that there is nothing even remotely coercive in such shaming and vilification by prominent public intellectuals? When it comes to the law, are we to believe that such whimsical pronunciamientos have never had any effect on legislation regarding, for example, gay marriage, who may use what bathrooms, and who must bake what sort of cakes for whom?

    Natural selection, the source of the emotions that account for the existence of morality, is a natural process that favors traits that enhance the odds that the genes responsible for those traits will survive and reproduce. Moral emotions are included among those traits. When someone tells us that they want to “benefit other people,” or they want to “create a harmonious world,” they are telling us, after devoting more or less thought to the subject, what they think their moral emotions are trying to tell them. They are utterly wrong. That is not what their moral emotions are trying to tell them. To the extent that their moral emotions are trying to “tell” them anything, it is “Survive and reproduce!” When secular humanists tell us that they want to “benefit other people” and “create a harmonious world,” they are actually blindly responding to emotions in ways whose connection with the reason the emotions exist to begin with is purely coincidental. When they attempt to force the rest of us to swallow their prescriptions for “benefiting other people,” and “creating a harmonious world,” is it unreasonable for the rest of us to ask, “On what authority?” and to demand that they explain why we should be constrained to pay attention to any of their dyfunctional emotional whims whatsoever? What on earth gives them the right to arbitrarily reprogram human morality, and then bully the rest of us and denounce us as “evil” if we don’t blindly follow suit? That, in a nutshell, is the secular humanist agenda. I know of not a single one who isn’t on board with that agenda, and certainly none of them of any prominence is an exception to the rule.

    It is questions like these that Staddon is actually posing in his Quillette article, and that is the reason why it is anything but “the worst” they’ve ever published. We can’t ignore human moral emotions, whether we’re speaking of the law or of simple rules and conventions relating to social behavior. However, it seems to me there must be some better way of establishing those laws and conventions then simply allowing whatever ingroup happens to be best at manipulating emotions to dictate them to the rest of us. We might start by actually seeking to understand our moral behavior, including the potential dangers it poses. It might also behoove us to pose the question to anyone seeking to “improve” our social or legal rules, “How will the change affect the odds that the genes you carry will survive and reproduce? If it will not enhance those odds, why do you want to make the change?” Circular answers such as “It will do good” will not be accepted. I’m sorry, Prof. Coyne, but this time you got it wrong. You missed the point of the article, and if you think your version of morality is truly “subjective,” you have some explaining to do.

     

  • On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck

    Posted on April 4th, 2019 Helian 3 comments

    The illusion of objective morality is amazingly powerful. The evidence is now overwhelming that morality is a manifestation of emotions, and that these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that there can be no such thing as objective moral truths. The brilliant Edvard Westermarck explained why more than a century ago in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas:

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

    Westermarck, in turn, was merely pointing out some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin had written about morality in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Today Westermarck is nearly forgotten, what Darwin wrote about morality is ignored as if it didn’t exist, and the illusion is as powerful and persistent as it was more than a century ago. Virtually every human being on the planet either believes explicitly in objective moral truths, or behaves as if they did regardless of whether they admit to believing in them or not.

    There are many, for example, who claim to accept the fact that morality is subjective. If that were the case, however, it would be irrational for them to argue that one should do one thing and should not do another thing without qualification. That, however, is precisely what every single “subjective moralist” I’ve ever heard, ever read, or was ever aware of actually does. If anyone knows of an exception, I would be pleased to hear about it. The delusional belief in objective moral truths is evidently far more difficult to shed than the “God delusion.” Consider, for example, the case of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is, of course, one of the most prominent “New Atheists.” It’s also clear that he is aware that our moral emotions exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. He made that perfectly clear as early as the publication of “The Selfish Gene” more than four decades ago. In spite of that, Dawkins constantly turns up on Twitter condemning some “evil,” or promoting some “good,” for all the world as if they were objective things. He is not alone in committing this glaring non sequitur. Everyone else on the planet who has ever passed as a New Atheist does exactly the same thing. Even Westermarck was no exception, closing his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas with the paragraph,

    I have here pointed out only the most general changes to which the moral ideas have been subject in the course of progressive civilization; the details have been dealt with each in their separate place. There can be no doubt that changes also will take place in the future, and that similar causes will produce similar effects. We have every reason to believe that the altruistic sentiment will continue to expand, and that those moral commandments which are based on it will undergo a corresponding expansion; that the influence of reflection upon moral judgments will steadily increase; that the influence of sentimental antipathies and likings will diminish; and that in its relation to morality religion will be increasingly restricted to emphasizing ordinary moral rules, and less preoccupied with inculcating special duties to the deity.

    In other words he felt obligated to reassure his readers that, in spite of his revolutionary Darwinian approach to morality, they needn’t worry; society would continue to make “moral progress” towards what everyone knows is “really good.” This incredibly tenacious belief in “moral progress,” a delusion not only of the new atheists, but of Westermarck himself, persists in spite of the seemingly obvious fact that, if there are no moral truths, there can be no moral progress. There is simply nothing to progress towards. If morality is an artifact of natural selection, it cannot possibly have a goal or anything of the sort towards which “progress” can be made. What passes for “moral progress” can never be anything more than progress towards satisfying the emotionally driven whims of individuals, no matter how many individuals happen to share the same whim. It is progress towards a mirage, and a dangerous mirage at that.

    The virtually universal belief, whether admitted or not, that the mirage is real, is remarkable in view of all we have learned about the workings of the human mind in the last century and a half. In light of that knowledge, the fact that morality is subjective should be obvious. It doesn’t even take Darwin to demonstrate the fact. Simply observe some ranting social justice warrior during one of their fits of virtuous indignation and ask yourself the question, “What authority entitles them to make these moral judgments.” In every case, the answer is the same. They possess no such authority. They simply assume it. If challenged, of course, they would seldom admit as much. The God authority has become unfashionable, but they can be relied on to come up with another one, even more absurd. Often, they simply rely on some version of the circular argument that what they claim is good is really good because it can be derived from some other good that is “obviously” really good. A rich array of such specious arguments have been invented to prop up the illusion, each more threadbare than the last. Most of us are incapable of even considering the possibility that morality is subjective, far less the implications of that fact. If the possibility is suggested, a typical response it to grasp at one of these arguments as a drowning man grasps a straw, and defend it to the end. No attempt is made to rationally consider the arguments in favor of subjective morality. Instead, one simply assumes they must be wrong, and then proceeds to rationalize the assumption. Anything to avoid facing the truth.

    If morality were objective it would necessarily exist in some form independent of the minds of individuals. No such object has ever been detected, for the obvious reason that no such object exists. Amazingly, this rather salient fact doesn’t seem to matter at all. As Westermarck put it,

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

    The illusion is so powerful that our finest scientists and our most brilliant intellectuals appear powerless to resist it even today. We behold all mankind blindly chasing a chimera, far from realizing that it’s a chimera, and incapable of rationally considering the implications of the natural process that created such a realistic illusion to begin with. This, in a nutshell, is the default state of our species. Our behavior is fundamentally irrational. The only general advice I can give individuals, whatever their personal goals happen to be, is Adapt. Your fellow human beings are likely to continue to act irrationally for the foreseeable future.

  • Has It Ever Occurred To You That None Of Us Are Acting Rationally?

    Posted on March 12th, 2019 Helian 17 comments

    Do you imagine that you are acting for the good of all mankind? You are delusional. What is your actual goal when you imagine you are acting for the good of all mankind? Maximization of human happiness? Maximization of the rate at which our species as a whole reproduces? Complete elimination of our species? All of these mutually exclusive goals are deemed by some to be for the “good of all mankind.” How is that possible if there really is such a thing as “the good of all mankind?” The answer is that there is no such thing, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as good, unless one is speaking of a subjective impression.

    Look, just stop arguing with me in your mind for a moment and try a thought experiment. Imagine that what I’ve said above about good – that it is merely a subjective impression – is true. In that case, how can we account for the existence of this subjective impression, this overpowering belief that some things are good and other things are evil? It must exist for the same reason that all of our other behavioral predispositions and traits exist – by virtue of natural selection, the same process that accounts for our very existence to begin with. In that case, these subjective impressions, these overpowering beliefs, must exist because, in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. How, then, is it possible for us to imagine that our goal is “the good of all mankind.” Natural selection does not operate at the level of “all mankind.” It operates at the level of the individual and, perhaps, at the level of small groups. If our goal is to act for “the good of the species,” we can only conclude that the behavioral predispositions responsible for this desire have become “dysfunctional,” in the sense that they are no longer likely to promote the survival of the responsible genes. The most plausible reason they have become “dysfunctional” is the fact that they exist in the context of a radically changed environment.

    This has some obvious implications as far as the rationality of our behavior is concerned. Try following the reasons you imagine you’re doing what you do down through the accumulated “rational” muck to the emotional bedrock where they originate. You can string as many reasons together as you want, one following the other, and all perfectly rational, but eventually the chain of reasons must lead back to the origin of them all. That origin cannot be the “good in itself,” because such an object does not exist. It is imaginary. In fact, the bedrock we are seeking consists of behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved. As the result of a natural process, they cannot possibly be “rational,” in the sense of having some deeper purpose or meaning more fundamental than themselves. It is evident that these behavioral traits exist because, at least at some point in time and in some environment, they enhanced the odds that the individuals possessing these traits would survive and reproduce. That, however, is not their purpose, or their function, because there was no one around to assign them a purpose or function. They have no purpose or function. They simply are.

    That’s what I mean when I say that none of us acts rationally. The sun does not act rationally when it melts solid objects that happen to fall into it. It does not have the purpose or goal of melting them. It simply does. The ocean does not act rationally when it drowns air breathing creatures that are unfortunate enough to sink beneath its surface. Millions of creatures have drowned in the ocean, but the ocean didn’t do it on purpose, nor did it have a goal in doing so. In the same sense, our behavioral traits do not have a goal or purpose when they motivate us to act in one way or another. Just as it is a fact of nature that the sun melts solid objects, and the ocean drowns land creatures, it is a fact of nature that we are motivated to do some things, and avoid others. That is what I mean when I say that our behavior is irrational. I don’t mean that it can’t be explained. I do mean that it has no underlying purpose or goal for doing what it does. Goals and purposes are things we assign to ourselves. They cannot be distilled out of the natural world as independent objects or things in themselves.

    Consider what this implies when it comes to all the utopian schemes that have ever been concocted for our “benefit” over the millennia. A goal that many of these schemes have had in common is “moral progress.” It is one of the more prominent absurdities of our day that even those among us who are most confident that Darwin was right, and who have admitted that there is a connection between morality and our innate behavioral predispositions, and who also realize and have often stated publicly that morality is subjective, nevertheless embrace this goal of “moral progress.” This begs the question, “Progress towards what?” Assuming one realizes and has accepted the fact that morality is subjective, it can’t be progress towards any objective Good, existing independently of what anyone thinks about it. It must, then, be progress towards something going on in conscious minds. However, as noted above, conscious minds are a fact of nature, existing by virtue of natural processes that have no function and have no goal. They simply are. Furthermore, our conscious minds are not somehow connected all across the planet in some mystical collective. They all exist independently of each other. They include predispositions that motivate the individuals to whom they belong to have desires and goals. However, those desires and goals cannot possibly exist by virtue of the fact that they benefit all mankind. They exist by virtue of the fact that they enhanced the odds that the responsible genetic material would survive and reproduce. They were selected at the level of the individual, and perhaps of small groups. They were definitely not selected by virtue of any beneficial effect on all mankind.

    In other words, when one speaks of “moral progress,” what one is in reality speaking of is progress towards satisfying the whims of some individual. The reason for the existence of these whims has nothing to do with the welfare of all mankind. To the extent that the individual imagines they have some such connection, the whims have become “dysfunctional,” in the sense that they have been redirected towards a goal that is disconnected from the reasons they exist to begin with. Belief in “moral progress,” then, amounts to a blind emotional response to innate whims on the part of individuals who have managed to profoundly delude themselves about exactly what it is they’re up to. The problem, of course, is that they’re not the only ones affected by their delusion. Morality is always aimed at others. They insist that everyone else on the planet must respect their delusion, and allow it to dictate how those others should or should not behave.

    This fundamental irrationality applies not just to morality, but to every other aspect of human behavior. Whether it’s a matter of wanting to be “good,” or of “serving mankind,” or accumulating wealth, or having sex, or striving for “success” and recognition, we are never motivated by reason. We are motivated by whims, although we certainly can and do reason about what the whims are trying to tell us. This process of reasoning about whims can result in a bewildering variety of conclusions, most of which have nothing to do with the reasons the whims exist to begin with. You might say that our brains have evolved too quickly. Our innate behavioral baggage has not kept up, and remains appropriate only to environments and forms of society that most of us left behind thousands of years ago. We continue to blindly respond to our emotions without understanding why they exist, pursuing goals that have nothing to do with the reasons they exist. In effect, we are living in an insane asylum.

    I am not suggesting that we all stop having goals and aspirations. Life would be extremely boring without them, and they can be just as noble as we please, at least from our own point of view. From my point of view, the fact that creatures like us can exist at all seems wildly improbable, wonderful, and sublime. For all we know, the life we are a part of may exist on only one of the trillions of planets in our universe. I personally deem it precious, and one of my personal goals is that it be preserved. Others may have different goals. I merely suggest that, regardless of what they are, we keep in mind what motivates us to seek them in the first place. I personally would prefer that we avoid botching the wildly improbable, wonderful, and sublime experiment of nature that is us by failing to understand ourselves.

  • The Blank Slate and the Great Group Selection Scam

    Posted on February 20th, 2019 Helian No comments

    “Group Selection” has certainly been good for something. Steven Pinker seized on the term to rationalize dropping those who played the greatest role in demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy down the memory hole in the fairy tale he served up as the “history” of the affair. His version had the great advantage of sparing the feelings of the academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences, by assuring them that their “science” had been self-correcting after all. In fact, it didn’t self-correct on its own for over half a century. As so often happens, it took outsiders to finally break the Blank Slate spell and extract the behavioral sciences from the swamp they had been floundering in for so long. They included ethologists and behavioral geneticists who were supposed to be confining their attention to animals. Perhaps the greatest of them all was the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, an outsider par excellence. Enter Richard Dawkins, who observed that some of the most important of these dismantlers of the Blank Slate were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection. No matter that the theme of their work had been the existence and importance of human nature, and not group selection. Pinker seized on Dawkins’ convenient phrase, and declared that they had all been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, without even bothering to mention that Dawkins criticism had been limited to group selection.

    It gets worse. It is hardly clear that the very term “group selection” as used by generations of earlier thinkers since Darwin even meant what Dawkins claimed it did. You see, there’s “group selection,” and then there’s “group selection.” The term can mean different things to different people. No doubt a great many thinkers since Darwin would  have been furious to learn that Dawkins had gratuitously foisted his definition on them. Many of them meant nothing of the sort. They certainly included Konrad Lorenz, one of the men specifically called out by Dawkins. Lorenz liked to speak of traits as being “good for the species.” Indeed, there can be little doubt that our hands, with their nice, opposable thumbs, and the eyes that present us with a 3-dimensional view of the world are “good for our species.” That rather obvious observation hardly implies that these handy traits were actually selected at the level of the species. Lorenz never suggested any such thing. Indeed, elsewhere he wrote very clearly that selection takes place at the level of the individual, not at that of the species. In spite of that, Dawkins insisted in putting words in his mouth, and Pinker was only too happy to use Dawkins as his “authority” on the matter.

    If you’d like to read a brief but concise account of the use of the term over the years, take a look at Section 1.2.5 (“Group Selection”) in the first volume of Johan van der Dennen’s The Origin of War, which is available free online. As he puts it,

    Group selection is one of the most confused and confusing topics in modern evolutionary biology. It is part of an ongoing and sometimes acrimonious, controversy over the “level-of-selection.” the term “group selection” is used in a dazzling number of different meanings. One generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that a trait may evolve for the benefit or the “greater good” of the group or species, but at the expense of the individual gene carrier.

    Dawkins wrongly implies that this “strict” version of the definition is the only one around, but that’s hardly the case. Van der Dennen continues,

    The other generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that in the course of human evolution, groups have competed with one another – some groups subjugating other groups, some groups absorbing and assimilating other groups, some groups even eliminating other groups altogether – and that these events must have had an impact on the gene pools and (the direction of) human evolution. As applied to the human species, therefore, group selection may be eminently possible, “since one group of humans can consciously organize their altruistic behaviors and wipe out a rival group.” …This latter meaning of the term “group selection” is probably what Darwin envisaged when attempting to explain human morality (which posed a serious problem for his theory).

    Darwin suggested a solution to the problem as follows:

    It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

    In other words, “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection” was certainly plausible if the traits in question could somehow arise via natural selection. Darwin was puzzled about how these traits could evolve to begin with, given that they imparted only “a slight or no advantage” to individuals. This, of course, is already quite different from Dawkins’ “strict definition,” according to which “group selection” means traits that are only useful to the group, but actually harmful to individuals within the group. As it happens, Sir Arthur Keith, whose work I discussed in my last post, also commonly used “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection.” Indeed, he referred to his “new theory of human evolution,” the subject of a book with that title published in 1948, as “group theory.” Heaven forefend that Pinker should immediately pounce on poor Sir Arthur and declare him “totally and utterly wrong” with the rest.  In fact, like Lorenz, he also made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t using the term in the strict sense implied by Dawkins. But most importantly, he suggested an answer to Darwin’s puzzle. According to Keith, the traits commonly associated with group selection could very definitely be strongly selected at the level of the individual.  In other words, they were not necessarily harmful to the individual at all.

    According to Keith, life in small groups in close proximity to each other had a forcing effect on human evolution. In his words, “it favored rapid evolutionary change.” As noted in my last post, he considered our common tendency to perceive others in the context of ingroups and outgroups as key to this effect. In his words,

    It will this be seen that I look on the duality of human nature as an essential part of the machinery of human evolution. It is the corner-stone of my mosaic edifice… We may assume, therefore, that in the very earliest stages of man’s evolution, even in his simian stages, “human nature” was already converted into an instrument for securing group isolation.

    According to Keith, in the context of isolated, competing groups, the factors which favored the survival of groups were also strongly selected at the level of the individual. As he put it, “Individual and group selection went on hand in hand.” Obviously, he was not using the term “group selection” in the sense suggested by Dawkins. In the following chapters, he discusses many aspects of human morality and human nature and the reasons they would have been strongly selected at the level of the individual in the context of his “group theory.” These included many aspects of human behavior that we can all observe for ourselves, assuming we are not blinded by ideological dogmas, such as the desire to appear morally “good” in the eyes of others in the group, the desire to achieve high status in the group, the desire to appear attractive to the opposite sex, etc. As Keith pointed out, all of these “good” traits would contribute strongly both to the “selection” of the group in competition with other groups, and at the same time would strongly increase the odds that the individual would survive and reproduce within the group.

    Darwin and Keith were hardly the only ones to use the “other generic meaning” of group selection. Indeed, use of the term in that sense may be considered the default until V. C. Wynne-Edwards finally showed up in the early 60’s with a version that really does fit the “strict” definition preferred by Dawkins. Whether that version ever actually happened to a significant extent is still the subject of bitter disputes. The point is that use of the term by no means implies acceptance of the “strict” version. It goes without saying that it is also no excuse for rearranging history.

  • Ingroups and Outgroups and Sir Arthur Keith – Adventures in the Bowdlerization of History

    Posted on February 16th, 2019 Helian No comments

    There is no more important aspect of human nature than our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Without an awareness of its existence and its power it is impossible to understand either out history or many of the critical events that are happening around us today. A trait that probably existed in our ancestors millions of years ago, it evolved because it promoted our survival when our environment and way of life were radically different from what they are now. In the context of current human technologies and societies, it often appears to have become wildly dysfunctional. We can distinguish ingroup from outgroup based on the subtlest of differences. That worked fine when we all lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. The outgroup was always just the next group over. Today the same mental equipment for identifying the outgroup has resulted in endless confusion and, in many cases, disaster. The only way out lies in self-understanding, but as a species we exhibit an incorrigible resistance to knowing ourselves.

    In my last post I commented on the foibles of an ingroup of intellectuals whose “territory” was defined by ideology. I’m sure they all believed their behavior was entirely rational, but they had no clue what was going on as they reacted to a “turncoat” and “heretic” in the same way that ingroups have done for eons. Had they read a seminal book by Sir Arthur Keith entitled A New Theory of Human Evolution, they might have had at least an inkling about the real motivation of their behavior. Published in 1948, the book was of critical importance, not just because it addressed the question of ingroups and outgroups, but because of Keith’s sure feel for the aspects of human behavior that really matter, and for his forthright and undaunted insistence on the existence and importance of innate human nature. He was certainly not infallible. What scientist is? He believed the Piltdown skull was real until it was finally proved a hoax just before he died. Some of what he had to say about human behavior has stood the test of time and some hasn’t. However, his hypotheses about ingroups and outgroups definitely belong in the former category, along with many others. There is no question that they were closer to the truth than the Blank Slate dogmas that already served as holy writ for most of the so-called behavioral scientists of the day.

    Today there are few original copies of his book around, although some are offered at Amazon as I write this. However, it is available online at archive.org, and reprints are available at Alibris.com and elsewhere. It is a must read if you interested in human behavior, and even more so if you are interested in the history of the behavioral sciences in general and the Blank Slate in particular. Unfortunately, most of the accounts of that history that have appeared in the last 50 years or so are largely fairy tales, concocted either to deny or “embellish” the reality that the Blank Slate was the greatest scientific catastrophe of all time. If you want to know what really happened, there is no alternative to consulting the source material yourself.  One of the biggest fairy tales is that the man who played the greatest single role in demolishing the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey, was “totally and utterly wrong.” In fact, Ardrey was “totally and utterly right” about the main theme of all his books; that human nature is both real and important. He insisted on that truth in the teeth of the Blank Slate lies that had been swallowed by virtually every “behavioral scientist” of his day.

    Ardrey had an uncanny ability to ferret out scientists whose work actually did matter. Sir Arthur Keith was no exception. What he had to say about Keith and his take on ingroup/outgroup behavior was far more eloquent than anything I could add. For example,

    In his last two books, Essays on Human Evolution in 1946 and A New Theory of Human Evolution in 1948, Keith took the final, remorseless step which his thinking had made inevitable. Conscience, he affirmed is simply that human mechanism dictating allegiance to the dual code. Those who assert that conscience is inborn are therefore correct. But just how far does conscience compel our actions in such an ultimate direction as that of the brotherhood of man? Not far. Conscience is the instrument of the group.

    Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus, conscience serves both codes of group behavior: it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as of the code of amity.

    These were Keith’s last words on the subject. If the grand old man had any noteworthy capacities for self-delusion, they escape the eye. And when he died a few years later, at the age of ninety, with him ended truth’s brief history. His thoughts by then were overwhelmed by the new romanticism (the Blank Slate, ed.) when falsehood came to flower: his sentiments were condemned by that academic monopoly which substituted high-mindedness for the higher learning. And as for almost twenty years no one followed C. R. Carpenter (a primatologist who published some “inconvenient truths” about the behavior of monkeys and apes in the field, anticipating the revelations of Goodall and others, ed.) into the rain forest, so for almost twenty years none has followed Sir Arthur Keith into the jungle of noble intentions.

    Beautifully said by the great nemesis of the Blank Slate. Ardrey had much else to say about both Keith and the history of hypotheses about ingroup/outgroup behavior in Chapter 8, “The Amity-Enmity Complex” of his The Territorial Imperative. If you’re looking for source material on the history of the Blank Slate, Ardrey’s four books on human nature wouldn’t be a bad place to start. They’re certainly more accurate than Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the affair. Keith himself was certainly aware of Blank Slate ideologues and their “academic monopoly.” However, he had a naïve faith that, if he only told the truth, he would eventually be vindicated. A hint about the extent to which that faith was realized can be gleaned by perusing the Wiki entry about him, which dismisses him into the realm of unpersons with the usual hackneyed claim of the pathologically pious that he was a “racist,” along with a gleeful notice that he was taken in by the Piltdown skull.

    When it comes to the bowdlerization of history, by all means, have a look at the Wiki entry on “Ingroups and outgroups” as well. The most shocking thing about it is the thought that its author might actually believe what he’s written. We learn, for example, that “The terminology was made popular by Henri Tajfel and colleagues during his work in formulating social identity theory.” One wonders whether to laugh or despair on reading such absurdities. The idea that the history of what Ardrey referred to as the “Amity-Enmity Complex” began with some inconsequential “study” done by a Polish psychologist back in 1971 is beyond ludicrous. That’s just one of the reasons why its important to read such important bits of source material as Keith’s book. He actually presents an accurate account of the history of this critical aspect of human behavior. For example,

    In brief, I hold that from the very beginning of human evolution the conduct of every local group was regulated by two codes of morality, distinguished by Herbert Spencer as the “code of amity” and the “code of enmity.”

    Spencer wrote extensively about the subject in his Principles of Ethics, which appeared in 1892, nearly 80 years before the subject “was made popular” in Tajfel’s “study.” Unfortunately, he also noted the fallacies behind the then fashionable versions of socialism in another of his books, and gave reasons that governments based on them would fail that were amply confirmed by the history of the next hundred years. For that, he was viciously condemned as a “Social Darwinist” by the socialist true believers. The moniker has stuck to this day, in spite of the fact that Spencer was never even a “Darwinist” to begin with. He certainly had his own theories of evolution, but they were much closer to Lamarckism than Darwinism. In any case, Keith continues,

    As a result of group consciousness, which serves to bind the members of a community together and to separate the community from all others, “there arises,” to use the words of Professor Sumner, “a differentiation between ourselves – the ‘we’ group or ‘in’ group – and everybody else – the ‘out’ group.”

    The passage Keith refers to appeared in Folkways, published by Prof. William Graham Sumner in 1906, also somewhat earlier than the good Prof. Tajfel’s study. Of course, studies by learned professors of psychology are not necessary to document ingroup/outgroup behavior. Just read a little history. Look around you. Can one really understand the furious hatred of Trump by so many highly educated academics and intellectuals absent a grasp of this aspect of human behavior? Are racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, hatred of the “bourgeoisie” or other versions of the “class enemy,” or any of the other myriad versions of outgroup identification that have been documented in our history best understood as the acts of “evil” people, who apparently get up every morning wracking their brains to decide what bad deeds they can do that day, or are they better understood as manifestations of the type of innate behavior described by Prof. Keith? I personally lean towards the latter explanation. Given the incredibly destructive results of this aspect of our behavior, would it not be advisable for our “experts” in evolutionary psychology to devote a bit more attention to it, as opposed to the more abstruse types of sexual behavior by which they now seem to be so fascinated? No doubt it would annoy the hardcore Blank Slaters who still haunt academia, but on the other hand, it might actually be useful.

    Sir Arthur had much more to say about the evolution of human nature, including that great tool of historical obfuscation, “group selection.” But that’s a matter best left to another day.

  • A New York Intellectual’s Unwitting Expose; Human Nature Among the Ideologues

    Posted on February 11th, 2019 Helian No comments

    Norman Podhoretz is one of the New York literati who once belonged to a group of leftist intellectuals he called the Family. He wrote a series of books, including Making It, Breaking Ranks, and Ex-Friends, describing what happened when he underwent an ideological metamorphosis from leftist radical to neoconservative. In the process he created a wonderful anthropological study of human nature in the context of an ingroup defined by ideology. Behavior within that ingroup was similar to behavior within ingroups defined by race, class, religion, ethnicity, or any of the other often subtle differences that enable ingroups to distinguish themselves from the “others.” The only difference was that, in the case of Podhoretz’ Family, the ingroup was defined by loyalty to ideological dogmas. Podhoretz described a typical denizen as follows:

    Such a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes, or anyway used to take, doctrine or dogma. Though we cluck our enlightened modern tongues at such fanaticism, there is a reason why people have been excommunicated, and sometimes even put to death, by their fellow congregants for heretically disagreeing with the official understanding of a particular text or even of a single word. After all, to the true believer everything important – life in this world as well as life in the next – depends on obedience to these doctrines and dogmas, which in turn depends on an accurate interpretation of their meaning and which therefore makes the spread of heresy a threat of limitless proportions.

    This fear and hatred of the heretic, together with the correlative passion to shut him up one way or the other, is (to say the least, and in doing so I am bending over backward) as much a character trait of so-called liberal intellectuals as it is of conservatives… For we have seen that “liberal” intellectuals who tell us that tolerance and pluralism are the highest values, who profess to believe that no culture is superior to any other, and who are on that account great supporters of “multiculturalism” will treat these very notions as sacred orthodoxies, will enforce agreement with them in every venue in which they have the power to do so (the universities being the prime example at the moment), and will severely punish any deviation that dares to make itself known.

    Podhoretz may not have been aware of the genetic roots responsible for such behavior, but he was certainly good at describing it. His description of status seeking, virtue signaling, hatred of the outgroup, allergic reaction to heretics, etc., within the Family would be familiar to any student of urban street gangs. As anthropological studies go, his books have the added advantage of being unusually entertaining, if only by virtue of the fact that his ingroup included such lions of literature as Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Allen Ginsburg, and Lionel Trilling,

    Podhoretz was editor of the influential cultural and intellectual magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995. When he took over the magazine already represented the anti-Communist Left. However, he originally planned to take a more radically leftist line, based on the philosophy of Paul Goodman, a utopian anarchist. In his Growing Up Absurd, Goodman claimed that American society was stuck with a number of “incomplete revolutions.” To escape this “absurdity” it was necessary to complete the revolutions. Podhoretz seized on Goodman’s ideas as the “radical” solution to our social ills he was seeking, and immediately started a three-part serialization of his book in Commentary. Another major influence on Podhoretz at the time was Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, a late Freudian tract intended to reveal “the psychoanalytical meaning of history.” It is depressing to read these books today in the knowledge that they were once taken perfectly seriously by people who imagined themselves to be the cream of the intellectual crop. Goodman certainly chose the right adjective for them – “absurd.”

    In any case, as the decade wore on, the Left did become more radicalized, but not in the way foreseen by Podhoretz. What was known then as the New Left emerged, and began its gradual takeover of the cultural institutions of the country, a process that has continued to this day. When he came of age, most leftists had abandoned the Stalinism or Trotskyism they had flirted with in the 30’s and 40’s, and become largely “pro-American” and anti-Communist as the magnitude of the slaughter and misery in the Soviet Union under Stalin became impossible to ignore. However, as the war in Vietnam intensified, the dogs returned to their vomit, so to speak. Leftists increasingly became useful idiots – effectively pro-Communist whether they admitted it or not. As Israel revealed its ability to effectively defend itself, they also became increasingly anti-Semitic as well, a development that also continues to this day. Then, as now, anti-Semitism was fobbed off as “anti-Zionism,” but Podhoretz, a Jew as were many of the other members of the family, was not buying it. He may have been crazy enough to take Goodman and Brown seriously, but he was not crazy enough to believe that it was preferable to live in a totalitarian Communist state than in the “imperialist” United States, nor, in light of the Holocaust, was he crazy enough to believe that the creation of a Jewish state was “unjust.” In the following passage he describes his response when he first began to notice this shift in the Zeitgeist, in this case on the part of an erstwhile “friend”:

    I was not afraid of Jason. I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

    Today, of course, one no longer roars. One simply concludes that those who habitually resort to Hitler comparisons are imbeciles, and leaves it at that. In any case, Podhoretz began publishing “heretical” articles in Commentary, rejecting these notions, and nibbling away that the shibboleths that defined what had once been his ingroup in the process. In the end, he became a full-blown neoconservative. The behavioral responses to Podhoretz “treason” to his ingroup should be familiar to all students of human behavior. His first book length challenge to his ingroup’s sense of its own purity and righteousness was Making It, published in 1967. As Podhoretz recalls,

    In an article about Making It and its reception that was itself none too friendly to the book, Norman Mailer summed up the critical response as “brutal – coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” But, he added, “the public reception of Making It was nevertheless still on the side of charity if one compared the collective hooligan verdict to the earlier fulminations of the Inner Clan.” By the “Inner Clan,” Mailer meant the community of New York literary intellectuals I myself had called the Family. According to Mailer, what they had been saying in private about Making It even before it was published made the “horrors” of the public reception seem charitable and kind. “Just about everyone in the Establishment” – i.e., the Family – was “scandalized, shocked, livid, revolted, appalled, disheartened, and enraged.” They were “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips… No fate could prove undeserved for Norman, said the Family in thin quivering late-night hisses.”

    Podhoretz notes that academia was the first of the cultural institutions of the country to succumb to the radical Gleichschaltung that has now established such firm control over virtually all the rest, to the point that it has become the new “normalcy.” In his words,

    For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively.

    By the late 60’s the type of behavior that is now ubiquitous on university campuses was hardly a novelty. “De-platforming” was already part of the campus culture:

    By 1968 SDS (the leftist Students for a Democratic Society) had moved from argument and example to shouting down speakers with whom it disagreed on the ground that only the “truth” had a right to be heard. And it also changed its position on violence… and a number of its members had gone beyond advocacy to actual practice in the form of bombings and other varieties of terrorism.

    As Podhoretz documents, the War in Vietnam had originally been supported, and indeed started and continued by intellectuals and politicians on the left of the political spectrum. He noted that Robert Kennedy had been prominent among them:

    Kennedy too then grew more and more radicalized as radicalism looked more and more like the winning side. Having been one of the architects of the war in Vietnam and a great believer in resistance to Communist power in general, he now managed to suggest that he opposed these policies both in the small and in the large.

    However, in one of the rapid changes in party line familiar to those who’ve read the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and memorialized by George Orwell in 1984, the hawks suddenly became doves:

    …a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak. A speaker whose criticisms were insufficiently violent could even expect a hard time, as I myself discovered when a heckler at Wayne State in Detroit accused me, to the clear delight of the audience, of not being “that much” against the war because in expressing my opposition to the American role I had also expressed my usual reservations about the virtues of the Communist side.

    Of course, there was no Internet in the 60’s, so “de-platforming” assumed a form commensurate with the technology available at the time. Podhoretz describes it as follows:

    The word “terror,” like everything else about the sixties, was overheated. No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though there were undoubtedly some who lost out on job opportunities or on assignments or on advances from book publishers they might otherwise have had). The sanctions of this particular reign of “terror” were much milder: one’s reputation was besmirched, with unrestrained viciousness in conversation and, when the occasion arose, by means of innuendo in print. People were written off with the stroke of an epithet – “fink” or “racist” or “fascist” as the case might be – and anyone so written off would have difficulty getting a fair hearing for anything he might have to say. Conversely, anyone who went against the Movement party line soon discovered that the likely penalty was dismissal from the field of discussion.

    Seeing others ruthless dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them even from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts.

    The “terror” is more powerful and pervasive today than it ever was in the 60’s, and it’s ability to “dismiss from the field of discussion” is far more effective. As a result, denizens of the leftist ingroup or those who depend on them for their livelihood tend to be very cautious about rocking the boat.  That’s why young, pre-tenure professors include ritualistic denunciations of the established heretics in their fields before they dare to even give a slight nudge to the approved dogmas. Indeed, I’ve documented similar behavior by academics approaching retirement on this blog, so much do they fear ostracism by their own “Families.” Podhoretz noticed the same behavior early on by one of his erstwhile friends:

    As the bad boy of American letters – itself an honorific status in the climate of the sixties – he (Normal Mailer) still held a license to provoke and he rarely hesitated to use it, even if it sometimes meant making a fool of himself in the eyes of his own admirers. But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

    So much for Podhoretz description of the behavioral traits of the denizens of an ideologically defined ingroup. I highly recommend all of the three books noted above, not only as an unwitting but wonderfully accurate studies of “human nature,” but as very entertaining descriptions of some of the many famous personalities Podhoretz crossed paths with during his long career. One of them was Jackie Kennedy, who happened to show up at his door one day in the company of his friend, Richard Goodwin, “who had worked in various capacities for President Kennedy.”

    She and I had never met before, but we seemed to strike an instant rapport, and at her initiative I soon began seeing her on a fairly regular basis. We often had tea alone together in her apartment on Fifth Avenue where I would give her the lowdown on the literary world and the New York intellectual community – who was good, who was overrated, who was amusing, who was really brilliant – and she would reciprocate with the dirt about Washington society. She was not in Mary McCarthy‘s league as a bitchy gossip (who was?), but she did very well in her own seemingly soft style. I enjoyed these exchanges, and she (an extremely good listener) seemed to get a kick out of them too.

    Elsewhere Podhoretz describes McCarthy as “our leading bitch intellectual.” Alas, she was an unrepentant radical, too, and even did a Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, but I still consider her one of our most brilliant novelists. I guess there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to ingroups.