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

    Posted on June 9th, 2019 Helian 1 comment

    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.

  • Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

    Posted on June 5th, 2019 Helian 1 comment

    It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

    This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not.

    This criterion certainly seems relevant to the question of designer babies. Let us focus on just one of the possible applications of the technologies that are now available or soon will be available, namely intelligence. There is no question that natural selection has heavily favored higher intelligence in the evolution of our ancestors over the last few million years. It seems reasonable to assume that it will continue to have a selective advantage in the future, at least in the long term. However, in the case of designer babies, there will be a radical change in the method of selection. It will occur on a much shorter time scale, and will be artificial rather than natural. Some articles by Brian Wang that recently appeared on the Nextbigfuture website provide insight into just how short that timescale will be. For example, according to an article entitled Future of Gene Sequencing, Genome Editing and Intelligence Enhancement, the heritability of human intelligence is likely from 50% – 80%. To date the increasingly powerful tool of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) has identified the source of 21% – 22% of this heritability, associated with a very large number of genes, each having a small effect. According to Wang, techniques such as embryo selection and gene editing combined with continued advances in our ability to pin down the genetic sources of heritability will make it possible to achieve average IQ gains of as much as 25 to 30 points within the next decade. In separate articles he notes that Human Gene Editing of Embryos Will Be Safe and Effective Within Two Years, and that shortcuts to higher intelligence may be achieved by adding genes to our DNA as opposed to modifying existing ones. He adds that “armies of students” at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen are now developing these and related technologies.

    Supposing Wang’s estimates of the speed of technological advances that will enable enhanced intelligence are anywhere near accurate, application of the criterion described above becomes relatively straightforward. Let us assume that no attempt is made to alter the emotions that motivate our behavior in a similarly radical fashion. In that case, we will continue to perceive others in terms of “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup. Intelligence will become an increasingly important criterion for distinguishing between the two. The intelligent ingroup may deem it useful to keep some of the less intelligent outgroup around as workers to perform the decreasing number of menial jobs that can’t be done more efficiently by robots, or as pets. Beyond that, it is difficult to imagine that they would perceive them as other than a useless burden and a threat to the environment and hence the sustainability of life on our planet if allowed to survive in large numbers. The chances that they would concern themselves with the “human flourishing” of the outgroup are vanishingly small. In the long term, it seems probable that the intelligent ingroup would survive, and the more “virtuous” outgroup, having rejected the relevant technologies as “immoral,” would perish.

    If, then, we choose to apply the criterion of survival to deciding how to act in response to our emotions, so that our behavior is “in harmony” with the reasons the emotions exist to begin with, then we “should” embrace the rapid development and application of intelligence enhancing technologies. If we choose to ignore the survival criterion, we may reject these technologies. There is no objective reason for preferring survival to the alternative. We may, for example, prefer to be happy as long as we’re around to survival in the long term, or we may decide that our moral emotions point to the “true good” and the “true evil,” and that it is better to be “good” than to survive. Nature doesn’t care one way or the other, and there is no objective basis for making these decisions. In the end, it boils down to whether your personal emotional whims include assigning value to such things as survival, reproduction, the survival of biological life in general, etc. or not.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Of Intellectuals, Ideology, and Ingroups

    Posted on January 20th, 2019 Helian 4 comments

    I’ve written much about the ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature. It would be difficult to exaggerate its importance. If you’re not aware of it, you will never understand the species Homo sapiens.  The myriad forms of bigotry that have plagued mankind over the years, our countless wars, such furious animosities as those between the blues and greens of the circus, or those who believed that Christ had only one nature and those who insisted he had two, and such stunning scientific debacles as the Blank Slate – all were profoundly influenced if not directly caused by this aspect of human behavior. I’ve just read a brilliant description of how it works in practice in a book by Norman Podhoretz entitled Breaking Ranks. Podhoretz began as a leftist radical, and ended up as a conservative. He probably never realized exactly what it was he was describing. For all that, he succeeded in describing it beyond all praise.

    Podhoretz edited Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. His milieu was that of New York intellectuals. Their ingroup was defined, not by race, religion, or ethnicity, but by ideology. He describes what was going on among them during the emergence of what became known as the “New Left” in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. To read his book is to understand what George Orwell meant when he wrote, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” What Podhoretz describes is stunningly similar to what we see going on all around us today, imagining it is somehow historically unique. Consider, for example, the following passage, in which he describes what happened to those who committed thoughtcrime against the ideological shibboleths that defined his ingroup.

    No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though 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 ruthlessly 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 from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts. The “terror” in other words, could at its most effective penetrate into the privacy of a person’s mind. But even at its least effective it served to set a very stringent limit on criticism of the radical line on any given issue or at any given moment. A certain area of permissible discussion and disagreement was always staked out, but it was hard to know exactly where the boundaries were; one was always in danger of letting a remark slip across the border and unleashing the “terror” on one’s head. Better, then, not to take a chance. Of course, one could recant and be forgiven; or alternatively one could simply speak one’s mind and let the “terror” do its worst. Yet whatever one chose to do, the problem remained.

    Sound familiar? It should. Here’s another bit that should sound just as familiar, recounting a conversation with Podhoretz’s erstwhile friend, Jason Epstein:

    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 never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

    Those were halcyon days! Today comparing a (Republican) President to Hitler isn’t even enough to evoke a yawn. Podhoretz’s Making It was decidedly politically incorrect for its day. Here’s what happened when he tried to get his manuscript published:

    My agent read the manuscript and decided that she would rather forfeit a substantial commission and a client hitherto considered valuable than represent such a book. My publisher read the manuscript and decided that he would rather lose the substantial advance he had already paid me than put him imprint on such a book. They reacted, as I said at the time, the way their Victorian counterparts might have reacted to a work of sexual pornography. So did another publisher to whom the manuscript was then submitted by my new agent. Nor was the response much better among my friends. Lionel Trilling advised me not to publish it at all, warning that it would take me ten years to live it down. Jason Epstein agreed. No amount of money, he said, was worth what “they” would do to me when this book came out.

    That’s how de-platforming worked in those days. I’m sure Milo Yiannopoulos would have a good idea how Podhoretz felt. Eventually, the book was published. Here’s how he describes the response of his ingroup, described as the “Inner Clan”:

    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 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.”

    The Gleichschaltung of the equivalent of the MSM of the day proved to be a mere bagatelle. They fell into line as soon as they sensed which way the wind blew. As Podhoretz put it,

    …most of them had become fellow travelers of the Movement and so obedient to the radical party line on all issues that they could not even recognize it as a line. (They thought it was the simple truth and self-evident to all reasonable minds.)

    The situation in the universities in the 60’s was also uncannily similar to what we see among today’s “snowflakes.” It was worse in those days, though, because “the Youth” was practically deified.

    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. But there was also a more positive pull in the idea that if so many of the “best” students were becoming radicals, then the new radicalism must surely be that “wave of the future” the Communist party had only seemed to be in the days of one’s own youth.

    Podhoretz comments on the Vietnam War are a perfect example of how a policy that had once been open to rational discussion became a defining shibboleth of the ingroup, about which no “deviation” was allowed. The war was actually a legacy of JFK and originally almost universally supported by his liberal followers. He notes that, prior to about 1965,

    …there would have been nothing especially outlandish in saying that the “intellectuals” or the “academic community” were an important constituent of the liberal consensus on foreign policy that had in some sense led to American military intervention into Vietnam.

    However, beginning in the mid-60’s, there was a drastic shift in the direction of the ideological winds. Eventually, opposition to the war became one of the shibboleths that defined Podhoretz’s ingroup. Defying that shibboleth was heresy, and, then as now, heretics were cast into outer darkness:

    In turning against the war, many of these liberal intellectuals no doubt thought that they were responding to the force of evidence and argument, and this may indeed have been the case with some. But I have always found it hard to believe that it was the case with most. In those days the argument over Vietnam in the universities was characterized less by the appeal to evidence and reason than by the shouting of slogans, the mounting of mass demonstrations, and threat and the occasional resort to physical force, and the actuality and ubiquitousness of rhetorical violence and verbal abuse.

    …a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak.

    Podhoretz noted that the language used against the outgroup became increasingly furious. He added,

    Language like that was not meant to persuade, nor could it do so; it could, however, incite supporters and frighten opponents, and that is exactly what it did. Those already convinced were encouraged to believe that no other view deserved to be tolerated; those who still disagreed but who lacked either very powerful conviction or very great courage lapsed into prudent silence.

    Then as now, there were those who liked to tickle the dragons tail with an occasional provocative remark. However, that required a fine sense of where the red lines were that couldn’t be crossed, and when a ritual kowtow was in order to appease the gatekeepers of the ingroup. Podhoretz provides us with an example of this behavior in the following remarks about Norman Mailer’s “tail tickling”:

    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.

    For more modern examples, see what I wrote in my last post about Steven Pinker’s unhinged ranting about Trump in his Enlightenment Now, a book that was supposed to be about “science” and “reason,” and an earlier one I wrote about Prof. Travis Pickering’s “violent agreement” with what Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz wrote about the “hunting hypothesis,” furiously attacking them and then repeating what they’d written earlier virtually word for word without attribution. Pickering was well aware that some of the ancient high priests of the Blank Slate were still around, and they still had plenty of clout when it came to casting out heretics, even if they were forced to throw in the towel on human nature. They have by no means forgotten how Ardrey and Lorenz shamed and humiliated them, and the good professor decided a bit of judicious virtue signaling would be prudent before repeating anything so closely associated with their legacy.

    There are many other outstanding examples of how, then as now, the ingroup “sausage” was made. They demonstrate how intellectuals who pique themselves on their devotion to “science” and “reason” can be convinced after the fashion of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 that two plus two really does equal five.  Orwell was a remarkably prescient man. He also wrote, ““If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Now, as in the 60’s, that right is under attack. It is entirely possible that, in the long run, the attackers will win. Communism and Nazism were defeated in the 20th century. Today we take their defeat for granted, as if it were inevitable. It was not inevitable. Our future may well look a great deal more like Communism or Nazism than anything the heroes of the Enlightenment had in mind. If we would avoid such a future, we would do well to understand ourselves. That’s particularly true in the case of what a man named Ardrey once called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”

  • Steven Pinker and His Obscurantist “Enlightenment”

    Posted on January 19th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

    Quillette recently hosted an essay by Steven Pinker on his Enlightenment Now a year after its publication. The following is a repost of a comment on the book I left there by way of a review. In the first chapters of the book, Pinker argues that we’ve made lots of progress towards “human flourishing” by applying the principles of the Enlightenment. I don’t take issue here with those claims one way or the other. I do take issue with what he has to say about his favorite flavor of morality, referred to in the book as humanism, as follows:

    Pinker extols the merits of science and reason. The problem with “Enlightenment Now” is that it is fundamentally irrational and unscientific. Consider, for example, what he has to say about morality, which he discusses under the rubric of humanism. He agrees with Darwin that it is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “human nature” if you will. If that is the case, then there can be no such thing as objective morality. Darwin practically spoon fed us this truth in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” The illusion that there is an objective morality, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter, complete with objective goods and evils, is as much an illusion as the belief in God, yet Pinker, in spite of accepting the innate basis of morality, makes the fundamentally irrational claim that the illusion is real. Nowhere in the book do we find a disclaimer to the effect that what he has written about morality merely represents his personal opinion. On the contrary, he speaks of it as an objective thing, imposing duties on the rest of us. It comes complete with “moral imperatives” and even an “authority,” based on what Pinker describes in glowing terms as the values of the Enlightenment. These values themselves, however, cannot be distilled from pure reason, any more than a computer can program itself. Hume pointed this out long ago. Try to trace Pinker’s reasons for embracing the values of the Enlightenment back to their “rational” source, reason by reason, and you will find that his reasons only end up chasing their own tails. In the end, those values, too, must have a root cause or source in innate predispositions, or emotions, if you will, that exist by virtue of natural selection. Since these predispositions exist by virtue of a natural process, they cannot have a purpose. They are simply facts of nature. They could not have a purpose of the sort claimed by Pinker unless a God or other creator existed who gave them purpose.

    Pinker is well known as an opponent of group selection. He confirms his belief that the emotional roots of morality exist by virtue of natural selection, and are selected at the level of the gene, in the following passage:

    Today’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which the unit of selection is the group, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest group in competition with other groups, and humans have been selected to sacrifice their interests for the supremacy of their group. (This contrasts with mainstream evolutionary psychology, in which the unit of selection is the gene.)

    He then commits the fundamentally irrational non sequitur of claiming that we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with, and jury-rig it so that it goes well beyond group selection, and promotes “the good of the species!” For example,

    Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.

    and,

    Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind.

    How can it possibly be deemed “rational” to “reprogram” morality in this way? We are dealing with a manifestation of human nature that evolved at a time radically unlike the present, in which the very existence of “all of humankind” was unknown. It evolved because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Pinker would have us believe that it is “reasonable” to “fool” morality into serving other ends that may well result in outcomes that are not only dangerous, but the very opposite of the survival of those genes. The “other ends” Pinker has in mind are the “values of the Enlightenment,” which he describes in noble, glowing phrases, but which are really just expressions of other emotional predispositions not unlike those that give rise to morality. We can certainly reason about whether we want to promote “the values of the Enlightenment” or not as individuals, but to bowdlerize morality in order to serve those ends, harnessing powerful illusions of “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” which can just as easily promote violence and warfare as they can “the values of the Enlightenment” is nothing short of foolhardy. I suggest that we would all be better served by reducing the scope of such a powerful emotional phenomenon as much as possible.

    As far as Pinker’s embrace of “reason” is concerned, consider all the passages in the book in which he condemns Trump and all his works. He would have us believe that Trump is no less than a follower of Hitler and Mussolini, inspired by a careful parsing of the works of Nietzsche. Anyone who supports him, and that would amount to half the population of the United States, give or take, must therefore be either a Nazi or a dupe of the Nazis. In what way does such a claim support the notion of a “rational” dialogue with all these people? I am certainly not in the habit of calmly and rationally discussing things with people who initiate the conversation by claiming I’m a Nazi.

    In fact, a major reason Trump was elected, and the main reason a great many voters supported him, was his promise to enforce our immigration laws. Not only was this not irrational, it was actually an embrace of Enlightenment values. Was not one of those values respect for the law? “The rule of law” was deemed so important that it was actually inscribed as a motto on French coins after the Revolution! Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construe the furious attacks on Trump that appear so frequently throughout the book as “reasonable.” They are far better understood as virtue signaling to Pinker’s academic tribe. He has often subjected that tribe to pinpricks here and there, but he is well aware that he dare not attack the fundamental shibboleths that define his tribalist ingroup, and one of those shibboleths is currently blind allegiance to the notion that Trump is a manifestation of pure evil. Respect for the shibboleths of his tribe is how Pinker has managed to avoid being denounced as a heretic and ostracized after the fashion of Charles Murray or James Watson. Need I add that there is nothing “rational” about tribalistic virtue signaling, other than the fact that it is a common trait of our species?

  • Morality and Reason – Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

    Posted on January 12th, 2019 Helian 4 comments

    Consider the evolution of life from the very beginning. Why did the first stirrings of life – molecules that could reproduce themselves – do what they did? The answer is simple – chemistry. As life forms became more complex, they eventually acquired the ability to exploit external sources of energy, such as the sun or thermal vents, to survive and reproduce. They improved the odds of survival even further by acquiring the ability to move towards or away from such resources. One could easily program a machine to perform such simple tasks. Eventually these nascent life forms increased the odds that they would survive and reproduce even further by acquiring the ability to extract energy from other life forms. These other life forms could only survive themselves by virtue of acquiring mechanisms to defend themselves from these attacks. This process of refining the traits necessary to survive continues to this day. We refer to it as natural selection. Survival tools of astounding complexity have evolved in this way, such as the human brain, with its ability evoke consciousness of such things as the information received from our sense organs, drives such as thirst, hunger, and sexual desire, and our emotional responses to, for example, our own behavior and the behavior of others. Being conscious of these things, it can also reason about them, considering how best to satisfy our appetites for food, water, sex, etc., and how to interpret the emotions we experience as we interact with others of our species.

    A salient feature of all these traits, from simple to complex, is the reason they exist to begin with. They exist because at the time and in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that we would survive, or at least they did to the extent that they were relevant to our survival at all. They exist for no other reason. Our emotions and predispositions to behave in some ways and not others are certainly no exception. They are innate, in the sense that their existence depends on genetic programming. Thanks to natural selection, we also possess consciousness and the ability to reason. As a result, we can reason about what these emotions and predispositions mean, and how we should respond to them. They are not rigid instincts, and they do not “genetically determine” our behavior. In the case of a subset of them, we refer to the outcome of this process of reasoning about and seeking to interpret them as morality. It is these emotions and predispositions that are the root cause for the existence of morality. Without them, morality as we know it would not exist. They exist by virtue of natural selection. At some time and in some environment, they promoted our survival and reproduction. It can hardly be assumed that they will accomplish the same result at a later date and in a different environment. In fact, it is quite apparent that in the drastically different environment we live in today, they often accomplish the opposite. For a sizable subset of the human population, morality has become maladaptive.

    The remarkable success of our species in expanding from a small cohort of African apes to cover virtually the entire planet is due in large part to our ability to deal with rapid changes in the environment. We can thrive in the tropics or the arctic, and in deserts or rain forests. However, when it comes to morality, we face a very fundamental problem in dealing with such radical changes. Our brain spawns illusions that make it extremely difficult for us to grasp the nature of the problem we are dealing with. We perceive Good, Evil, Rights, etc., as real, objective things. These illusions are extremely powerful, because by being powerful they could most effectively regulate our behavior in ways that promoted survival. Now, in many cases, the illusions have become a threat to our survival, but we can’t shake them, or see them for what they really are. What they are is subjective constructs that are completely incapable of existing independently outside of the minds of individuals. Even those few who claim to see through the illusion are found defending various “Goods,” “Evils,” “Rights,” “Duties,” and other “Oughts” in the very next breath as if they were referring to real, objective things. They often do so in support of behaviors that are palpably maladaptive, if not suicidal.

    An interesting feature of such maladaptive behaviors is the common claim that they are justified by “reason.” The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson explained very convincingly why moral claims can’t be based on reason alone almost 300 years ago. As David Hume put it somewhat later, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason alone can never do anything but chase its own tail. After all, computers don’t program themselves. There must be something to reason about. In the case of human behavior the chain of reasons can be as long and as elaborate as you please, but must always and invariably originate in an innate predisposition or drive, whether it be hunger, thirst, lust, or what is occasionally referred to as our “moral sense.” Understood in that way, all of our actions are “unreasonable,” because reason can never, ever serve as the cause of our actions itself.  Reasoning about good and evil is equivalent to reasoning about the nature of God. In both cases one is reasoning about imaginary things. Behavior can never be objectively good or evil, because those categories only exist as illusions. It can, however, be objectively described as adaptive or maladaptive, depending on whether it enhances the odds of genetic survival or not.

    In the case of morality, maladaptive behavior is seldom limited to a single individual. Morality is always other-regarding. The illusion that Good, Evil, etc., exist as independent, objective things implies that, not just we ourselves, but everyone else “ought” to behave in ways that embrace the “Good,” and resist “Evil.” As a result we assume a “right” to dictate potentially maladaptive and/or suicidal behavior to others. If we are good at manipulating the relevant emotions, those others may quite possibly agree with us. If we can convince them to believe our version of the illusion, they may accept our reasoning about what our moral emotions are “really” trying to tell us, and become convinced that they must act in ways detrimental to their own survival as well. They may clearly see that they are being induced to behave in a way that is not to their advantage, but the illusion would tend to paralyze any attempt to behave differently. The only means of resistance would be to manipulate the moral sense so as to evoke different illusions of what good and evil “really” are.

    If, as noted above, there is nothing objectively good or evil about anything, it follows that there is nothing objectively good or evil about any of these behaviors. They are simply biological facts that happen to be observable at a given time and in a given environment. However, whatever one seeks to accomplish in life, they will be more likely to succeed if they base their actions on facts rather than illusions. That applies to the illusions associated with our moral sense as much as to any others. The vast majority of us, including myself, have an almost overwhelming sense that the illusions are real, and that good and evil are objective things. However, it is becoming increasingly dangerous, if not suicidal, to continue to cling to these illusions, assuming one places any value on survival.

    Most of us have goals in life. In most cases those goals are based on illusions such as those described above. Human beings tend to stumble blindly through life, without a clue about the fundamental reasons they behave the way they do. Occasionally one sees them jumping off cliffs, stridently insisting that others must jump off the cliff too, because it is “good,” or it is their “duty.” Perhaps Socrates had such behavior in mind when he muttered, “The unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial. Before jumping off a cliff, would it not be wise to closely examine your reasons for doing so, following those reasons to their emotional source, and considering why those emotions exist to begin with? I, too, have goals. Paramount among my personal goals is survival and reproduction. There is nothing intrinsically or objectively better about those goals than anyone else’s, including the goal of jumping off a cliff. I have them because I perceive them to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Those who do not wish to survive and reproduce appear to me to be sick and dysfunctional biological units. I do not care to be such a unit. As corollary goals I wish for the continued evolution of my species to become ever more capable of survival, and beyond that for the continued existence of biological life in general. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are “correct,” or that the goals of others are “wrong.” Mine are just as much expressions of emotion as anyone else’s. Call them whims, if you will, but at least they have the virtue of being whims that aren’t self destructive.

    Supposing you have similar goals, I suggest that it would behoove you to shed the illusion of objective morality. That is by no means the same thing as dispensing with morality entirely, nor does it imply that you can’t treat a version of morality you deem conducive to your survival as an absolute. In other words, it doesn’t imply “moral relativism.” It is our nature to perceive whatever version of morality we happen to favor as absolute. Understanding why that is our nature will not result in moral nihilism, but it will have the happy effect of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the moralistic bullies who have always assumed a right to dictate behavior to the rest of us. To understand morality is to realize that the “moral high ground” they imagine they’re standing on doesn’t exist.

    It is unlikely that any of us will be able to resist or significantly influence the massive shifts in population, ideology and the other radical changes to the world we live in that are happening at an ever increasing rate merely by virtue of the fact that we recognize morality and the illusions of objective good and evil associated with it for what they really are. However, it seems to me that recognizing the truth will at least enhance our ability to cope with those changes. In other words, it will help us survive, and, after all, survival is the reason that morality exists to begin with.