The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Morality and the Ideophobes

    Posted on February 12th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    In our last episode I pointed out that, while some of the most noteworthy public intellectuals of the day occasionally pay lip service to the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, they act and speak as if they believed the opposite.  If morality is an expression of evolved traits, it is necessarily subjective.  The individuals mentioned speak as if, and probably believe, that it is objective.  What do I mean by that?  As the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck put it,

    The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise (his Ethical Relativity, ed.) implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.

    All of the individuals mentioned in my last post are aware that there is a connection between morality and its evolutionary roots.  If pressed, some of them will even admit the obvious consequence of this fact; that morality must be subjective.  However, neither they nor any other public intellectual that I am aware of actually behaves or speaks as if that consequence meant anything or, indeed, as if it were even true.  One can find abundant evidence that this is true simply by reading their own statements, some of which I quoted.  For example, according the Daniel Dennett, Trump supporters are “guilty.”  Richard Dawkins speaks of the man in pejorative terms that imply a moral judgment rather than rational analysis of his actions.  Sam Harris claims that Trump is “unethical,” and Jonathan Haidt says that he is “morally wrong,” without any qualification to the effect that they are just making subjective judgments, and that the subjective judgments of others may be different and, for that matter, just as “legitimate” as theirs.

    A commenter suggested that I was merely quoting tweets, and that the statements may have been taken out of context, or would have reflected the above qualifications if more space had been allowed.  Unfortunately, I have never seen a single example of an instance where one of the quoted individuals made a similar statement, and then qualified it as suggested.  They invariably speak as if they were stating objective facts when making such moral judgments, with the implied assumption that individuals who don’t agree with them are “bad.”

    A quick check of the Internet will reveal that there are legions of writers out there commenting on the subjective nature of morality.  Not a single one I am aware of seems to realize that, if morality is subjective, their moral judgments lack any objective normative power or legitimacy whatsoever when applied to others.  Indeed, one commonly finds them claiming that morality is subjective, and as a consequence one is “morally obligated” to do one thing, and “morally obligated” not to do another, in the very same article, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are stating a glaring non sequitur.

    None of this should be too surprising.  We are not a particularly rational species.  We give ourselves far more credit for being “wise” than is really due.  Most of us simply react to atavistic urges, and seek to satisfy them.  Our imaginations portray Good and Evil to us as real, objective things, and so we thoughtlessly assume that they are.  It is in our nature to be judgmental, and we take great joy in applying these imagined standards to others.  Unfortunately, this willy-nilly assigning of others to the above imaginary categories is very unlikely to accomplish the same thing today as it did when the  responsible behavioral predispositions evolved.  I would go further.  I would claim that this kind of behavior is not only not “adaptive.”  In fact, it has become extremely dangerous.

    The source of the danger is what I call “ideophobia.”  So far, at least, it hasn’t had a commonly recognized name, but it is by far the most dangerous form of all the different flavors of “bigotry” that afflict us today.  By “bigotry” I really mean outgroup identification.  We all do it, without exception.  Some of the most dangerous manifestations of it exist in just those individuals who imagine they are immune to it.  All of us hate, despise, and are disgusted by the individuals in whatever outgroup happens to suit our fancy.  The outgroup may be defined by race, religion, ethnic group, nationality, and even sex.  I suspect, however, that by far the most common form of outgroup (and ingroup) identification today is by ideology.

    Members of ideologically defined ingroups have certain ideas and beliefs in common.  Taken together, they form the intellectual shack the ingroup in question lives in.  The outgroup consists of those who disagree with these core beliefs, and especially those who define their own ingroup by opposing beliefs.  Ideophobes hate and despise such individuals.  They indulge in a form of bigotry that is all the more dangerous because it has gone so long without a name.  Occasionally they will imagine that they advocate universal human brotherhood, and “human flourishing.”  In reality, “brotherhood” is the last thing ideophobes want when it comes to “thought crime.”  They do not disagree rationally and calmly.  They hate the “other,” to the point of reacting with satisfaction and even glee if the “other” suffers physical harm.  They often imagine themselves to be great advocates of diversity, and yet are blithely unaware of the utter lack of it in the educational, media, entertainment, and other institutions they control when it comes to diversity of opinion.  As for the ideological memes of the ingroup, they expect rigid uniformity.  What Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Haidt thought they were doing was upholding virtue.  What they were really doing is better called “virtue signaling.”  They were assuring the other members of their ingroup that they “think right” about some of its defining “correct thoughts,” and registering the appropriate allergic reaction to the outgroup.

    I cannot claim that ideophobia is objectively immoral.  I do believe, however, that it is extremely dangerous, not only to me, but to everyone else on the planet.  I propose that it’s high time that we recognized the phenomenon as a manifestation of human nature that has long outlived its usefulness.  We need to recognize that ideophobia is essentially the same thing as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, or what have you.  The only difference is in the identifying characteristics of the outgroup.  The kind of behavior described is a part of what we are, and will remain a part of what we are.  That does not mean that it can’t be controlled.

    What evidence do I have that this type of behavior is dangerous?  There were two outstanding examples in the 20th century.  The Communists murdered 100 million people, give or take, weighted in the direction of the most intelligent and capable members of society, because they belonged to their outgroup, commonly referred to as the “bourgeoisie.”  The Nazis murdered tens of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and members of any other ethnicity that they didn’t recognize as belonging to their own “Aryan” ingroup.  There are countless examples of similar mayhem, going back to the beginnings of recorded history, and ample evidence that the same thing was going on much earlier.  As many of the Communists and Nazis discovered, what goes around comes around.  Millions of them became victims of their own irrational hatred.

    No doubt Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Haidt and legions of others like them see themselves as paragons of morality and rationality.  I have my doubts.  With the exception of Haidt, they have made no attempt to determine why those they consider “deplorables” think the way they do, or to calmly analyze what might be their desires and goals, and to search for common ground and understanding.  As for Haidt, his declaration that the goals of his outgroup are “morally wrong” flies in the face of all the fine theories he recently discussed in his The Righteous Mind.  I would be very interested to learn how he thinks he can square this circle.  Neither he nor any of the others have given much thought to whether the predispositions that inspire their own desires and goals will accomplish the same thing now as when they evolved, and appear unconcerned about the real chance that they will accomplish the opposite.  They have not bothered to consider whether it even matters, and why, or whether the members of their outgroup may be acting a great deal more consistently in that respect than they do.  Instead, they have relegated those who disagree with them to the outgroup, slamming shut the door on rational discussion.

    In short, they have chosen ideophobia.  It is a dangerous choice, and may turn out to be a very dangerous one, assuming we value survival.  I personally would prefer that we all learn to understand and seek to control the worst manifestations of our dual system of morality; our tendency to recognize ingroups and outgroups and apply different standards of good and evil to individuals depending on the category to which they belong.  I doubt that anything of the sort will happen any time soon, though.  Meanwhile, we are already witnessing the first violent manifestations of this latest version of outgroup identification.  It’s hard to say how extreme it will become before the intellectual fashions change again.  Perhaps the best we can do is sit back and collect the data.

  • Ingroups and Outgroups and Ideologues

    Posted on February 27th, 2016 Helian 5 comments

    The Blank Slate is not over.  True, behavioral scientists, intellectuals, and ideologues of all stripes now grudgingly admit something that has always been obvious to those Donald Trump refers to as the “poorly educated,” not to mention reasonably perceptive children; namely, that there is such a thing as human nature.  However, many of them only admit it to the point where it interferes with their imaginary utopias of universal brotherhood and human flourishing, and no further.  Allow me to consult the source material to illustrate what I’m talking about.  In Man and Aggression, published in 1968, Blank Slate high priest Ashley Montagu wrote,

    …man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings… The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless… Human nature is what man learns to become a human being.

    A bit later, in 1984, fellow Blank Slater Richard Lewontin generously expanded the repertoire of “innate” human behavior to include urinating and defecating in his Not in Our Genes.  One still finds such old school denialists in the darker nooks of academia today, but now one can at least speak of human nature without being denounced as a fascist, and the existence of such benign aspects thereof as altruism is generally admitted.  However, no such tolerance is extended to aspects of our behavior that contradict ideological shibboleths.  Here, for example, is a recent quote from a review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact (a good read, by the way, and one I highly recommend) by critic George Sciallaba:

    For all the vigor with which Coyne pursues his bill of indictment against organized religion, he leaves out one important charge. As he says, the conflict between religion and science is “only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition.” There are other kinds of superstition. Coyne mentions astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing, but religion “is the most widespread and harmful form.” I’m not so sure. Political forms of superstition, like patriotism, tribalism, and the belief that human nature is unalterably prone to selfishness and violence, seem to me even more destructive.

    Aficionados will immediate recognize the provenance of this claim.  It is a reworked version of the old “genetic determinism” canard, already hackneyed in the heyday of Ashley Montagu.  It serves as a one size fits all accusation applied to anyone who suggests that any aspect of the human behavioral repertoire might be “bad” as opposed to “good.”  Patriotism and tribalism are, of course, “bad.”  There’s only one problem.  If “genetic determinists” exist at all, they must be as rare as unicorns.  I’ve never encountered a genuine specimen, and I’ve search long and hard.  In other words, the argument is a straw man.  There certainly are, however, people, myself included, who believe that our species is predisposed to behave in ways that can easily lead to such “bad” behaviors as tribalism, selfishness and violence.  However, to the best of my knowledge, none of them believe that we are “unalterably prone” to such behavior.  What they do believe is that the most destructive forms of human behavior may best be avoided by understanding what causes them rather than denying that those causes exist.

    Which finally brings us to the point of this post.  Human beings are predisposed to categorize others of their species into ingroups and outgroups.  They associate “good” qualities with the ingroup, and “evil” qualities with the outgroup.  This fact was familiar to behavioral scientists at the beginning of the 20th century, before the Blank Slate curtain fell, and was elaborated into a formal theory by Sir Arthur Keith in the 1940’s.  I can think of no truth about the behavior of our species that is so obvious, so important to understand, and at the same time so bitterly denied and resisted by “highly educated” ideologues.  Tribalism is not a “superstition,” as Mr. Sciallaba would have us believe, but a form of ingroup/outgroup behavior and, as such, a perfectly predictable and natural trait of our species.  It has played a major role as the sparkplug for all the bloody and destructive wars that have plagued us since the dawn of recorded time and before.  It is also the “root cause” of virtually every ideological controversy ever heard of.  It does not make us “unalterably prone” to engage in warfare, or any other aggressive behavior.  I have little doubt that we can “alter” and control its most destructive manifestations.  Before we can do that, however, we must understand it, and before we can understand it we must accept the fact that it exists.  We are far from doing so.

    Nowhere is this fact better illustrated today than in the struggle over international borders.  Take, for example, the case of Germany.  Her “conservative” government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, long followed a policy of treating the countries borders as if they didn’t exist.  More than a million culturally alien Moslem “refugees” were allowed to pour across them in a single year.  This policy of the “conservative” German government was cheered on by the “leftist” German news media, demonstrating that the pleasant mirage of universal human brotherhood is hardly a monopoly of either extreme of the political spectrum.  The masses in Germany reacted more or less the same way they have reacted in every other western European country, demonstrating what some have referred to as an “immune” response.  They resisted the influx of immigrants, and insisted that the government reestablish control over the nation’s borders.  For this, one finds them condemned every day in both the “right wing” and “left wing” German media as “haters.”

    A remarkable fact about all this, at least as far as Germany is concerned, is that the very same German media, whether of the “right” or the “left,” quite recently engaged in a campaign of anti-American hatemongering that would put anything they accuse the local “tribalists” of completely in the shade.  The magazine Der Spiegel, now prominent in condemning as “haters” anyone who dares to suggest that uncontrolled immigration might not be an unalloyed blessing, was in the very forefront of this campaign of hate against the United States.  One could almost literally feel the spittle flying from the computer screen if one looked at their webpage during the climax of this latest orgy of anti-Americanism.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany among the furious denunciations of the United States for one imagined evil or another.  It was hardly “all about Bush,” as sometimes claimed.  These rants came complete with quasi-racist stereotyping of all Americans as prudish, gun nuts, religious fanatics, etc.  If ever there were a textbook example of what Robert Ardrey once called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” that was it.  After indulging in this orgy of hatemongering, Der Spiegel and the rest are now sufficiently hypocritical to point the finger at others as “haters.”

    There is another remarkable twist to this story as far as Germany is concerned.  There were a few brave little bloggers and others in Germany who resisted the epidemic of hate.  Amid a storm of abuse, they insisted on the truth, exposed the grossly exaggerated and one-sided nature of the media’s anti-American rants, and exposed the attempts in the media to identify Americans as an outgroup.  Today one finds the very same people who resisted this media hate campaign among those Der Spiegel and the rest point the finger at as “haters.”  In general, they include anyone who insists on the existence of national borders and the sovereign right of the citizens in every country to decide who will be allowed to enter, and who not.

    The point here is that the outgroup have ye always with you.  Those most prone to strike self-righteous poses and hurl down anathemas on others as “haters” are often the most virulent haters themselves.  To further demonstrate  that fact, one need only look at the websites, magazines, books, and other media produced by the most ardent proponents of “universal human brotherhood.”  If you find a website with comment threads, by all means look at them as well.  I guarantee you won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup.  It will always be there, decorated with all the usual pejoratives and denunciations we commonly associate with the “immoral,” and the “other.”  The “tribe” of “others” can come in many forms.  In the case of the proponents of “human flourishing,” the “other” is usually defined in ideological terms.  For leftists, one sometimes finds the “Rethugs,” or “Repugs” in the role of outgroup.  For rightists, they are “Commies” and “socialists.”  It’s never difficult to exhume the hated outgroup of even the most profuse proponents of future borderless utopias as long as one knows where to dig.  We are all “tribalists.”  Those who think tribalism is just a “superstition” can easily demonstrate the opposite by simply looking in the mirror.

    Today we find another interesting artifact of this aspect of human nature in the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  The elites of both parties don’t know whether to spit or swallow as they watch him sweep to victory after victory in spite of “gaffes,” “lies,” and all kinds of related “buffoonery,” that would have brought his political career to a screeching halt in the past.  The explanation is obvious to the “poorly educated.”  Trump has openly called for an end to uncontrolled illegal immigration.  The “poorly educated” were long cowed into silence, fearing the usual hackneyed accusations of racism, but now a man who can’t be cowed has finally stepped forward and openly proclaimed what they’ve been thinking all along; that uncontrolled immigration is an evil that will lead to no good in the long run.  This fact is as obvious to the “poorly educated” in Europe as it is to the “poorly educated” in the United States.

    Ingroups and outgroups are a fundamental manifestation of human morality.  There is an objective reason for the existence of that morality.  It exists because it has promoted the survival and reproduction of the genes responsible for it in times not necessarily identical to the present.  It does not exist for the “purpose” of promoting universal brotherhood, or the “purpose” of promoting “human flourishing,” or the “purpose” of eliminating international boundaries.  It has no “purpose” at all.  It simply is.  I am a moral being myself.  I happen to prefer a version of morality that accomplishes ends that I deem in harmony with the reasons that morality exists to begin with.  Those ends include my own survival and the survival of others like me.  Uncontrolled immigration of culturally alien populations into the United States or any other country is most unlikely to promote either the “flourishing” or the survival of the populations already there.  As has been demonstrated countless times in the past, it normally accomplishes precisely the opposite, typically in the form of bitter civil strife, and often in the form of civil war.  I happen to consider civil strife and civil war “evil,” from what is admittedly my own, purely subjective point of view.  I realize that my resistance to these “evils” really amounts to nothing more than a whim.  However, it happens to be a whim that is obviously shared by many of my fellow citizens.  I hope this “ingroup” of people who agree with me can make its influence felt, for the very reason that I don’t believe that human beings must forever remain “unalterably prone” to constantly repeating the same mistake of substituting a mirage for reality when it comes to understanding their own behavior.  That is what the Blank Slaters have done, and continue to do.  I hope they will eventually see the light, for their own “good” as well as mine.  We are not “unalterably prone” to anything.  However, before one can alter, one must first understand.

     

     

  • On the “Evil” of Colonialism

    Posted on November 29th, 2015 Helian No comments

    There are few better demonstrations of the fact that the term Homo sapiens is an oxymoron then the results of our species’ attempts to “interpret” the innate emotional responses that are the source of all the gaudy manifestations of human morality.  Moral emotions exist.  Evolution by natural selection is the reason for their existence.  If they did not exist, there would be no morality as we know it.  In other words, the only reason for the illusion that Good and Evil are objects, things-in-themselves that don’t depend on any mind, human or otherwise, for their existence, is the fact that, over some period of time, that illusion made it more likely that the genes responsible for spawning it would survive and reproduce.  Recently it has been amply demonstrated that, over a different period of time, under different conditions, the very same emotions spawned by the very same genes can accomplish precisely the opposite.  In other words, they can promote their own destruction.  Mother Nature, it would seem, has a fondness for playing practical jokes.

    The elevation of colonialism in some circles to the status of Mother of all Evils is a case in point.  It has long been the “root cause” of choice for all sorts of ills.  Prominent among them lately has been Islamic terrorism, as may be seen here, here, here and here.  Even prominent politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, and we find them engaged in the ludicrous pursuit of explaining to Islamic terrorists, who have been educated in madrassas and know the Quran by heart, that they are not “real Moslems.”  It must actually be quite frustrating for the terrorists, who have insisted all along that they are acting on behalf of and according to the dictates of their religion.  It also begs the question of how, if Islam is a “religion of peace,” all of north Africa, much of the Middle East outside of Arabia, Turkey, significant parts of Europe, Iran, etc., formerly parts of the Christian Roman Empire or the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, ever became Moslem.  Of course, it was accomplished by military force, and the ensuing colonization of these countries resulted in the destruction of the “indigenous” cultures and traditions that were overrun.  Interestingly, we seldom find this Moslem version of colonialism treated as a form of immorality.  Apparently we are to assume that there is a statute of limitations on the application of the relevant moral principles.

    Be that as it may, in bygone days colonialism was often also invoked as the “root cause” for the promiscuous massacres of the Communists, and is the “root cause” of choice for the ills, real or imagined, of all sorts of minorities as well.  I have long maintained that Good and Evil have no objective existence.  However, whether one agrees with that assertion or not, it seems only reasonable that the terms at least be defined in a way that is consistent with their evolutionary roots.  In that case, the notion that colonialism was evil becomes absurd.  It is yet another example of a morality inversion, characterized by the whimsical tendency of human moral emotions to stand on their heads in response to sufficiently drastic changes to the external environment.

    What were the actual results of colonialism?  We will limit our examination to white colonialism, as colonialism by other ethnic groups, although of frequent occurrence in the past, is not generally held to be such an “evil.”  Rather, colonialism as practiced by other than whites is deemed a mere expression of “culture.”  It would therefore be “racist” to consider it evil.  In the first place, then, white colonialism has led to a vast expansion in the area of the planet inhabited primarily by whites.  They are now the dominant ethnic groups on whole continents that they never knew existed little over half a century ago.  This must certainly be considered good if we are to define the Good consistently with the “root causes” of morality itself.  Interestingly, colonialism was also good in this way for other ethnic groups.  Sub-Saharan blacks, for example, now have a prominent presence over wide territories that they never would have seen in the absence of the white practice of carrying slaves to their colonies.  It is unlikely that, if faced with the choice, blacks would trade a world that never experienced white colonialism with the more “evil” world we actually inhabit.

    Even if one chooses to divorce morality entirely from its evolutionary roots, and assume that Good and Evil are independent entities floating about in the luminiferous aether with no biological strings attached whatsoever, it is not entirely obvious that white colonialism was an unmitigated evil.  Indeed, if we are to accept the modern secular humanist take on objective morality, as outlined, for example, in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, it would seem that the opposite is the case.  According to this version of morality, “human flourishing” is the summum bonum.  I would maintain that a vastly greater number of humans are flourishing today because of white colonialism than would otherwise be the case.  Thanks to white colonialism, the continents on which its impact was greatest now support much larger populations of healthier people who live for longer times on average, and are less likely to die violent deaths than if it had not occurred.  This, of course, is not necessarily true of every race involved.  The aborigines of Tasmania, for example, were entirely wiped out, and there has probably been a significant decline in the population of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America.  However, the opposite has been the case in Africa and India.  In any case, if we are to believe the ideological shibboleths that often emanate from the same ideological precincts that gave rise to the latest versions of morality based on “human flourishing,” all these distinctions by race don’t matter, because race is a mere social construct.

    I often wonder what makes modern secular Puritans imagine that they will be judged any differently by future generations than they are in the habit of judging the generations of the past.  After all, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain, France, and the other major colonialist countries did not imagine that they were being deliberately immoral during the heyday of colonialism.  On what basis is it justified to judge others out of the context of their time?  No one has ever come up with a rational answer to that question, for the very good reason that no such basis is possible.

    The proponents of colonialism left behind a great many books on the subject.  Typically, they perceived colonialism as a benign pursuit that benefited the colonial peoples as much as the colonizers.  There is an interesting chapter on the subject in Volume XII (The Latest Age) of the Cambridge Modern History (Chapter XX, The European Colonies), first published in 1910.  In reading it, one finds no hint of evidence that the author of the chapter, a university professor who no doubt considered himself enlightened according to the standards of the time, perceived colonialism as other than a benign force, and an expression of the energy and economic growth of the colonizing countries.  Some typical passages include,

    The few years under present consideration form a brief period in this long process (of European colonization since the 15th century).  Yet they have seen an awakened interest in colonization and an extension of the field of enterprise which give them a unique significance.  The comparative tranquility of domestic and foreign affairs in most countries of Europe has favoured a great outburst of colonizing energy, for which the growth of population and industry has provided the principal motive.  The growth of population has swollen the stream of emigration; the expansion of industry has increased the desire to control sources of supply for raw materials and markets for finished products.  A rapid improvement in means of communication and transport has facilitated intercourse between distant parts of the world.  A vast store of accumulated wealth in old countries has been available for investment in the new.

    In other words, colonization was considered a manifestation of social progress.  The rights of indigenous peoples were not simply ignored as is so often claimed today.  It was commonly believed, and not without reason, that they, too, benefited from colonization.  Epidemic diseases were controlled, pervasive intertribal warfare and the slave trade were ended, and the brutal mistreatment of women was discouraged.  On the other hand, the abuse of native populations was also recognized.  Quoting again from a section of the book dealing with the Belgian Congo, the author writes,

    Its history would be a fine tale of European energy applied to the development of a tropical country, had not the work been marred by a cruel spirit of exploitation gaining the upper hand.  The first ten years of its existence were a period of great activity, during which a marvelous change came over the land.  Splendid pioneering work was done.  Experienced missionaries and travelers explored the great streams.  The drink traffic, the slave trade, and cannibalism, were much diminished.  The ancient Arab dominion in Central Africa was overthrown after a hard and costly struggle (1890-3).  Routes of communication were opened, and railway building commenced…

    But it was by its treatment of the native peoples that the Congo State attained that evil eminence which accumulating proof shows it to have well deserved.  The system of administration lent itself to abuses.  Large powers were devolved upon men not always adequately paid or capable of bearing their responsibilities.  The supervision of their activities in the interior was impossible from places so distant as Boma and Brussels.  The native was wronged by the disregard of his system of land ownership and of the tribal rights to hunt and gather produce in certain areas, as well as by a system of compulsory labor in the collection of produce on behalf of the State, enforced by barbarous punishments and responsible for continual and devastating warfare… Finally, the Belgian Parliament taking up the question, the Congo State was in 1908 transferred to Belgium, and its rulers have thus become responsible to the public opinion of a nation.

    Except, perhaps, during the most active periods of European competition for colonies during the last half of the 19th century, eventual independence was recognized not merely as an ideal but as practically inevitable.  In the last paragraph of the chapter the author writes,

    (Great Britain’s) colonial policy has been inspired by an understanding and a wise recognition of facts.  Settlers in new countries form societies; such societies, as their strength grows, desire the control of their own life; common interests draw contiguous societies together, and union creates and fosters the sense of nationality.  Perceiving the course of this development, the mother country has continually readjusted the ties that bound her to her colonies, so that they might be appropriate to the stage of growth which each colony had reached.  Wherever possible, she has conceded to them the full control of their own affairs; and she has encouraged contiguous colonies to unite, so that in dimensions, resources, population, and economic strength, the indispensable material foundations of a self-governing state could be formed.

    The author closes with sentiments that are likely to shock modern university professors out of their wits:

    Slowly the British empire is shaping itself into a league of Anglo-Saxon peoples, holding under its sway vast tropical dependencies as well as many small communities of mixed race.  Strong bonds of common loyalty, race, and history, as well as the need of cooperation for defense, unite the white peoples.  But the course of progress has carried the empire to an unfamiliar point in political development.  Loose and elastic in its structure, it may well take a new shape under the influence of external pressure, political and economic.

    In other words, the author did not share the modern penchant among the “Anglo-Saxons” for committing ethnic suicide.  In our own day, of course, while it is still perfectly acceptable for every other ethnic group on the planet to speak in a similar fashion, it has become a great sin for whites to do so.  Far be it for me to challenge this development on moral grounds, for the simple reason that there are no moral grounds one way or the other.  Similarly, this post is in no way intended to morally condone or serve as a form of moral apologetics for colonialism.  There exists no objective basis for morally judging colonialism, or anything else, for that matter.  I merely point out that the moral standards relating to colonialism have evolved over time.  Beyond that, one might add that colonialism accomplished ends in harmony with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral emotions to begin with, whereas the manipulation of those emotions to condemn colonialism on illusory moral grounds accomplishes precisely the opposite.  That is not at all the same thing as claiming that colonialism was Good, and anti-colonialism is evil.  It is merely stating a fact.

    One can certainly choose to oppose, and even actively fight against, colonialism, or anything else to which one happens to have an aversion.  I merely suggest that, before one does so, one have a reasonably accurate understanding of the emotions that are the cause of the aversion, and why they exist.  Moral emotions seem to point to objective things, Good and Evil, that are perceived as real, but aren’t.  I don’t wish to imply that no one should ever act.  I merely suggest that, before they do, they should understand the illusion.

  • Mencken Trilogy Republished: Some New Words of Wisdom from the Sage of Baltimore

    Posted on September 27th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Readers who loath the modern joyless version of Puritanism, shorn of its religious impedimenta, that has become the dominant dogma of our time, and would like to escape for a while to a happier time in which ostentatious public piety was not yet de rigueur are in luck.  An expanded version of H. L. Mencken’s “Days” trilogy has just been published, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rogers.  It includes Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, and certainly ranks as one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written.  The latest version actually contains a bonus for Mencken fans.  As noted in the book’s Amazon blurb,

    …unknown to the legions of Days books’ admirers, Mencken continued to add to them after publication, annotating and expanding each volume in typescripts sealed to the public for twenty-five years after his death. Until now, most of this material—often more frank and unvarnished than the original Days books—has never been published.  (This latest version contains) nearly 200 pages of previously unseen writing, and is illustrated with photographs from Mencken’s archives, many taken by Mencken himself.

    Infidel that he was, the Sage of Baltimore would have smiled to see the hardcover version.  It comes equipped with not one, but two of those little string bookmarks normally found in family Bibles.  I’ve read an earlier version of the trilogy, but that was many years ago.  I recalled many of Mencken’s anecdotes as I encountered them again, and perhaps with a bit more insight.  I know a great deal more about the author than I did the first time through, not to mention the times in which he lived.   There’ve been some changes made since then, to say the least.  For example, Mencken recalls that maids were paid $10 a month plus room and board in the 1880’s, but no less than $12 a month from about 1890 on.  Draught beer was a nickel, and a first class businessman’s lunch at a downtown hotel with soup, a meat dish, two side dishes, pie and coffee, was a quarter.  A room on the “American plan,” complete with three full meals a day, was $2.50.

    Mencken was already beginning to notice the transition to today’s “kinder, gentler” mode of raising children in his later days, but experienced few such ameliorations in his own childhood.  Children weren’t “spared the rod,” either by their parents or their teachers.  Mencken recalls that the headmaster of his first school, one Prof. Friedrich Knapp, had a separate ritual for administering corporal punishment to boys and girls, and wore out a good number of rattan switches in the process.  Even the policemen had strips of leather dangling from their clubs, with which they chastised juveniles who ran afoul of the law.  Parents took all this as a matter of course, and the sage never knew any of his acquaintance to complain.  When school started, the children were given one dry run on the local horse car accompanied by their parents, and were sent out on their own thereafter.  Of course, Mencken and his sister got lost on their first try, but were set on the right track by a policeman and some Baltimore stevedores.  No one thought of such a thing as supervising children at play. One encounters many similar changes in the social scene as one progresses through the trilogy, but the nature of the human beast hasn’t changed much.  All the foibles and weaknesses Mencken describes are still with us today.  He was, of course, one of the most prominent atheists in American history, and often singled out the more gaudy specimens of the faithful for special attention.  His description of the Scopes monkey trial in Heathen Days is a classic example.  I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the New Atheists.  In his words,

    No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it.  There were no converts from the faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics.  To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.

    Of course, if one possesses the wit of a Mencken or a Voltaire, one has the luxury of fighting the bigotry and fanaticism coming from the other side very effectively without using the same weapons.

    I certainly encourage those who haven’t read Mencken to pick up a copy of this latest release of his work.  Those interested in more detail about the content may consult the work of professional reviewers that I’m sure will soon appear.  I will limit myself to one more observation.  It never fails that when some new bit of Menckeniana appears, the self-appointed guardians of the public virtue climb up on their soapboxes and condemn him as a racist.  Anyone who reads the Days will immediately see where this charge comes from.  Mencken makes free use of the N word and several other terms for African-Americans that have been banned from the lexicon over the ensuing years.  No matter that he didn’t use more flattering terms to describe other subgroups of the population, and certainly not of the white “boobeoisie,” of the cities, or the “hinds,” and “yokels” of the country.

    Nothing could be more untrue or unfair than this charge of “racism,” but, alas, to give the lie to it one must actually read Mencken’s work, and few of the preening moralists of our own day are willing to go to the trouble.  That’s sad, because none of them have contributed anywhere near as much as Mencken to the cause of racial equality.  He did that by ignoring the racist conventions of his own day and cultivating respect for black thinkers and intellectuals by actively seeking them out and publishing their work, most notably in the American Mercury, which he edited from its inception in 1924 until he turned over the reigns to Charles Angoff in 1933.  He didn’t publish them out of condescension or pity, or as their self-appointed savior, or out of an inordinate love of moralistic grandstanding of the sort that has become so familiar in our own day.  He paid them a much higher favor.  He published them because, unlike so many others in his own time, he was not blind to their intellectual gifts, and rightly concluded that their work was not only worthy of, but would enhance the value of the Mercury, one of the premier intellectual, political and literary journals of the time.  As a result, the work of a host of African-American intellectuals, professionals, and poets appeared in Mencken’s magazine, eclipsing the Nation, The New Republic, The Century, or any other comparable journal of the day in that regard.  All this can be easily fact-checked, because every issue of the Mercury published during Mencken’s tenure as editor can now be read online. For example, there are contributions by W. E. B. Dubois in the issue of October 1924, a young poet named Countee P. Cullen in November 1924, newspaper reporter and editor Eugene Gordon in June 1926, James Weldon Johnson, diplomat, author, lawyer, and former leader of the NAACP in April 1927, George Schuyler, author and social commentator in December 1927,  Langston Hughes, poet, author, and activist in November 1933, and many others.

    Most issues of the Mercury included an Americana section devoted to ridiculing absurdities discovered in various newspapers and other publications listed by state.  Mencken used it regularly to heap scorn on genuine racists.  For example, from the March 1925 issue:

    North Carolina

    Effects of the war for democracy among the Tar Heels, as reported in a dispatch from Goldsboro:

    Allen Moses and his wife, wealthy Negroes, left here in Pullman births tonight for Washington and New York.  This is the first time in the history of this city that Negroes have “had the nerve,” as one citizen expressed it, to buy sleeper tickets here.  White citizens are aroused, and it is said the Ku Klux Klan will be asked to give Moses a warm reception on his return.

    From the May 1926 issue:

    North Carolina

    The rise of an aristocracy among the defenders of 100% Americanism, as revealed by a dispatch from Durham:

    “According to reports being circulated here the Ku Klux Klan has added a new wrinkle to its activities and are now giving distinguished service crosses to member of the hooded order of the reconstruction days.  In keeping with this new custom, it is reported that two Durham citizens were recipients of this honor recently.  The medal, as explained by the honorable klansman making the award, is of no intrinsic value, ‘but the sentiment attached to it and the heart throbs that go with it are as measureless as the sands of the sea.'”

    From the August 1928 issue:

    District of Columbia

    The Hon. Cole L. Blease, of South Carolina, favors his colleagues in the Senate with a treatise on southern ethics:

    “There are not enough marines in or outside of the United States Army or Navy, in Nicaragua, and all combined, to make us associate with niggers.  We never expect to.  We never have; but we treat them fairly.  If you promise one of the $5 for a days work, if he does the days work, I believe you should pay him.”

    So much for the alleged “racism” of H. L. Mencken.  It reminds me of a poster that was prominently displayed in an office I once worked in.  It bore the motto, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

     

  • Privilege and Morality

    Posted on May 25th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege.  Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male.  In his words,

    There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year…  “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

    As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe.  His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S.  Again quoting Fortgang,

    Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

    I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter.  When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.”  For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,

    Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.

    and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:

    What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men,  are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.

    The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.

    Which brings us to the point of this post.  Our species isn’t good at nuance.  The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context.  It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions.  That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists.  It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way.  It exists because it evolved.  It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate.  That is the only reason for its existence.  Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual.  It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  That dual nature is not optional.  It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.

    The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege.  It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white.  However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society.  As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male.  Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived.  As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species.  It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa.  Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups.  That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”

    It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma.  Privilege exists.  It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy.  However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred.  The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege.  Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.

    What “should” we do under the circumstances?  There is no objective answer to that question.  At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims.  In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.”  A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves.  For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival.  Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action.  Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me.  When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.

    On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.”  For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair.  Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege.  I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.

    However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race.  In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero.  Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion.  Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries.  The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation.  I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations.  I am satisfied with equality before the law.

    Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage.  I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.

  • Troublesome Nick and the Timid Echoes of the Blank Slate

    Posted on May 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    You can still get in trouble for saying things that are true, or, for that matter, even obvious.  Consider, for example, Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.  I haven’t yet read the book, so have no comment on whether any of the specific hypotheses therein are scientifically credible or not.  However, according to the blurb at Amazon, the theme of the book is that there actually is such a thing as human biodiversity (hbd).  So much is, of course, not only true, but obvious.  The problem is that such truths have implications.  If there are significant genetic differences between human groups, then it is unlikely that the influence of those differences on the various metrics of human “success” will be zero.  In other words, we are dealing with a truth that is not only inconvenient, but immoral.  It violates the principle of equality. 

    It is only to be expected that there will be similarities between the reaction to this particular immoral truth and those that have been observed in response to other immoral truths in the past.  Typical reactions among those whose moral emotions have been aroused by such truths have been denial, vilification of the messenger, and the invention of straw men that are easier targets than the truth itself.  All these reactions occurred in response to what is probably the most familiar example of an immoral truth; the fact that genes influence behavior, or, if you will, that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.”  In that case, denial took the form of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, which perverted and derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  The messengers were condemned, not only with the long since hackneyed accusation of racism, but with a host of other political and moral shortcomings.  The most familiar straw man was, of course, the “genetic determinist.”

    Predictably, the response to Wade’s book has been similar.  Not so predictable has been the muted nature of that response.  Compared to the vicious attacks on the messengers who debunked the Blank Slate, it has been pianissimo, and even apologetic.  It would almost seem as if the current paragons of moral purity among us have actually been chastened by the collapse of that quasi-religious orthodoxy.  Allow me to illustrate with an example from the past.  It took the form of a response to the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  Entitled Against “Sociobiology”, it appeared in the New York Review of Books shortly after Wilson’s book was published.  As it happens, it didn’t have just one author. It had a whole gang, including such high priests of the Blank Slate as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The message, of course, was that all right-thinking people agreed that the book should be on the proscribed list, and not just a mere individual. Anathemas were rained down on the head of Wilson with all the pious self-assurance of those who were cocksure they controlled the message of “science.” For example,

     The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.

     Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

    and, of course, the de rigueur association of Wilson with the Nazis:

     These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

    Now, fast forward the better part of four decades and consider a similar diatribe by one of the current crop of the self-appointed morally pure.  The paragon of righteousness in question is Andrew Gelman, and the title of his bit is The Paradox of Racism. True, Gelman doesn’t leave us in suspense about whether he’s in the ranks of the just and good or not. He can’t even wait until he’s past the title of his article to accuse Wade of racism. However, having established his bona fides, he adopts a conciliatory, and almost apologetic tone. For example,

    Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics.

    Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.

    That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.

    Obviously, Gelman hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years.  Here we find him peering back over his shoulder, appearing for all the world as if he’s afraid the truth might catch up with him.  He’s aware of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, perhaps the greatest debunking of the infallible authority of “science” of all time.  He allows that we might not merely be dealing with a racist individual here, but a racist truth. He even acknowledges that, in that case, something might actually be done about it, implicitly dropping the “genetic determinism” canard:

     Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.

    Indeed, unlike the authors of the earlier paper, Gelman can’t even bring himself to summon up the ghost of Hitler.  He concludes,

     Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

    In a word, Gelman’s remarks are rather more nuanced than the fulminations of his predecessors.  Am I making too much of this apparent change of tone? I don’t think so. True, there are still plenty of fire-breathing Blank Slaters lurking in the more obscure echo chambers of academia, but, like the Communists, they are doing us the favor of gradually dying off. Their latter day replacements, having seen whole legions of behavioral “scientists” exposed as charlatans, are rather less self-assured in their virtuous indignation. Some of them have even resorted to admitting that, while it may be true that there is such a thing as human biodiversity, the masses should be sheltered from that truth. Predictably, they have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the forbidden knowledge.

    I note in passing the historical value of the attack on Wilson mentioned above.  Like many similar bits and pieces of source material published in the decade prior to 1975, still easily accessible to anyone who cares to do a little searching, it blows the modern mythology concocted by the evolutionary psychologists to account for the origins of their science completely out of the water.  According to that mythology, it all began with the “big bang” of Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  The whole yarn may be found summarized in a nutshell in the textbook Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss.  According to Buss, Sociobiology was “monumental in both size and scope.” It “synthesized under one umbrella a tremendous diversity of scientific endeavors and gave the emerging field (sociobiology) a visible name.”  And so on and so on.  At least that’s the version in my 2009 edition of the book.  “History” might have changed a bit since Wilson’s embrace of group selection in his The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012.  We’ll have to wait and see when the next edition of the textbook is published.

    Be that as it may, the fact is that the reason for the original notoriety of Sociobiology, and the reason it is not virtually forgotten today, had nothing to do with all the good stuff Wilson packed into the middle 25 chapters of his book that was subsequently the subject of Buss’ panegyrics.  That reason was Wilson’s insistence in the first and last of his 27 chapters that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” There was nothing in the least novel, original, or revolutionary in that insistence. In fact, it was merely a repetition of what other authors had been writing for more than a decade. Those authors were neither obscure nor ignored, and were recognized by Blank Slaters like Gould and Lewontin as their most influential and effective opponents. They, and not any novel “scientific synthesis,” were the reason that such worthies paid any attention to Wilson’s book at all. And, much as I admire the man, they, and not Wilson, were most influential in unmasking the absurdities of the Blank Slate, causing it to stumble and eventually collapse. Those facts were certainly no secret to the authors of the article.  Allow me to quote them by way of demonstration:

    From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

    Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information.

     The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology.

    In a word, the Blank Slaters themselves certainly perceived nothing “novel” in Sociobiology. By the time it was published the hypotheses about human nature they objected to in its content were already old hat. They were merely trying to silence yet another voice proclaiming the absence of the emperor’s new clothes. Again, just do a little searching through the historical source material and you’ll find that the loudest and most influential voice of all, and the one that drew the loudest bellows of rage from the Blank Slaters, belonged to one of Wilson’s predecessors mentioned by name in the above quotes; Robert Ardrey. Of course, Ardrey was a “mere playwright,” and it’s a well-known fact that, once one has been a playwright, one is automatically disqualified from becoming a scientist or writing anything that counts as science ever after. Add to that the fact that Ardrey was right when all the scientists with their Ph.D.’s were wrong about human nature, and I think it’s obvious why making him anything like the “father of evolutionary psychology” would be in bad taste. Wilson fits that role nicely, or at least he did until his flirtation with group selection escalated into a full scale romance.  Ergo, Ardrey was declared “totally and utterly wrong,” became an unperson, and Wilson stepped up to fill his ample shoes.  Alas, if past history is any guide, I fear that it eventually may become necessary to drop poor Nick down the memory hole as well.  True, at least the man isn’t a playwright, but he isn’t sporting a Ph.D., either.  Really, how “scientific” can you be if you don’t have a Ph.D.?   In any case, the mythology that passes for the history of evolutionary psychology began “just so.”   

  • A Papal Bull from Daily Kos: On Permissible and Impermissible Sciences

    Posted on January 14th, 2013 Helian 3 comments

    Practitioners of the behavioral sciences will be pleased to know that an official blessing has come down from on high announcing that believers in the existence of human nature are no longer to be considered fascists and racists.  Writing for Daily Kos, one Erasmussimo announced the long-expected change in orthodox dogma as follows:

    In the 70s and 80s, a strict intolerance for the racist abuse of science mushroomed into something entirely different: an ideological rejection of the notion that genetics played any role in human behavior. This school of thought was so dominant that many scientists were frightened away from any research remotely related to such matters.

    But you can’t deny reality.  As one scientist wrote, “Evolution didn’t stop at the neck.” Human mental evolution was strongly influenced by selection pressures, which manifested themselves in human behavior. Genetics really does influence behavior, but it took a while for scientists to re-assert that basic principle. Two scientists, Cosmides and Tooby, began an extremely rigorous program of experiments that demonstrated beyond question that there were oddities of human cognition that could not be explained by any environmental factors. They christened their field of research “evolutionary psychology”. For many years they attracted considerable opprobrium, but their research was flawless and now evolutionary psychology is a respected field of research.

    Au contraire, my dear Erasmussimo!  The reality that “Evolution doesn’t stop at the neck,” was denied quite successfully by psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists alike for a period of several decades, and was the prevailing orthodoxy, not only in the 70’s and 80’s, but in the 50’s and 60’s as well, in spite of that denial being palpably ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old.  Indeed, our unfortunate Erasmussimo seems to have compounded his mistake by completely swallowing the Pinker “big bang” myth of evolutionary psychology, according to which the field sprang forth in all its glory from the mind of E. O. Wilson, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  For example,

    The eminent scientist E.O.Wilson was the world’s leading authority on the behavior of ants when, in the 1970s, he proposed that evolutionary selection pressures acted on behavior as well as the body, leading to genetic factors in behavior. His work with ants demonstrated the basic concept beyond question, but when he extended his ideas to humans, he triggered a shitstorm of outrage, and was treated quite badly. Wilson’s work was impeccable, but because it was distantly analogous to the racist IQ claims, his ideas (which he termed “sociobiology”) were lumped together with that odious ideology.

    As I’ve pointed out before, Pinker’s “big bang” fairy tale can be easily debunked by anyone who takes the trouble to read Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  A manifesto of the Blank Slaters, the last I looked it was available on Amazon for a mere 46 cents.  It documents the fact that there were several thinkers who insisted on the existence of innate human nature long before Wilson, including Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, and that they also had the honor of being denounced as fascists and racists by the politically pure.  According to the testimony of the Blank Slaters themselves, however, by far the most prominent among them was not Lorenz but Robert Ardrey, a “mere playwright.”  That fact goes far to explain Pinker’s fabrication, which spares the sensitivities and gravitas of his academic tribe.  Read Ardrey’s books, along with those of Lorenz and several others who were challenging the prevailing orthodoxy during the 60’s, and it will become abundantly clear that, as far as the overriding theme of innate human nature is concerned, Sociobiology was anything but original.

    Be that as it may, it’s still gratifying to know that the authors of the recent stream of books about innate human behavior are not under any immediate threat of falling under the interdict of the secular morality police.  Alas, we gather that not all fields of inquiry have been so fortunate from the title of Erasmussimo’s epistle:  Racism has a New Name:  HBD.  For the unitiated, the acronym HBD stands for Human BioDiversity, described by one of its practitioners as follows:

    Human biodiversity is an acknowledgment that humans differ from each other in various ways because of our different genotypes. Differences include, but are not limited to, physical appearance, athletic ability, personality, and cognitive abilities.

    Those who have sullied themselves by lusting after such forbidden knowledge need not complain that they were unaware that they were inviting excommunication.  The anathema from Kos was preceded by numerous rumblings from lesser lights among the secular clergy.  See for example, The Perversity of Human Biodiversity, a.k.a. “Scientific” Racism, the Steve Sailer Sucks blog (Steve Sailer is an arch-wizard of HBD, who, BTW, had the effrontery to sass back), the archive for the Human Biodiversity (HBD) Category at the Unamusement Park, etc.  In spite of this, apparently not all of them are in immediate danger of secular hellfire.  Kos is merciful.  As Erasmussimo puts it,

    However, riding on the coattails of this respectable (evolutionary psychology) work is the HBD movement, populated mostly by eager amateurs rather than professional scientists. The HBD movement covers a broad range of ideas, from the genuinely scientific to the nakedly racist. At the scientific end of the range we have people like HBD Chick, who aggregate lots of evidence on matters anthropological and genetic as they relate to human behavior. At the other extreme we have Steve Sailor (sic), a conservative who promulgates racist ideas.

    And how are we to distinguish who in the HBD movement are dangling like spiders over the flaming pits of hell (to paraphrase Jonathan Edwards), as opposed to those who are granted a respite to get their minds right?  As Erasmussimo explains, by their fruit shall ye know them:

    There’s an easy way to differentiate the scientific side of HBD from the racist side: fixation on IQ. These people love to wring the IQ data for every ounce of scientific justification they can find for their racism. They analyze IQ scores by race, religion, gender, national origin, and lots of other factors; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them hasn’t calculated the correlation coefficient of IQ score with aversion to broccoli. They triumphantly trumpet the results that support their prejudices and quietly ignore results that undermine their prejudices, such as the finding that national IQ scores are correlated with GDP per capita.

    Paradoxically, at least for those unschooled in the holy mysteries, Erasmussimo leaves open the hypothetical possibility that these racists may actually be right:

    Finally, I caution the reader to subordinate personal preference for scientific objectivity in this question. I fervently believe that “All men are created equal”, but I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that some men are born with lesser cognitive talents than others. If solid evidence arises that blacks are cognitively less capable than whites, then I shall accept the hypothesis and move on to asking how we reconcile scientific conclusions with political theory. So far, however, the evidence I have seen is completely inadequate to support the hypothesis.

    It may not appear immediately obvious how such evidence, in the wildly implausible event that it exists, is to be forthcoming given that anyone who dares to investigate the matter is to be automatically denounced as a racist.  However, it’s not that difficult to understand.  Voltaire explained it in Candide, where, alluding to the judicial murder of Admiral Byng by the English, he wrote, “There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”

    Ancient Greek artwork depicting Evolutionary Psychology emerging fully formed from the head of E. O. Wilson.

  • Someone Tell Der Spiegel: Germans Can’t Vote in U.S. Elections

    Posted on July 31st, 2012 Helian 2 comments

    Well, actually that’s only technically true.  Any potential Obama voter who can afford the fare and tell a red state from a blue state becomes an honorary U.S. citizen as soon as they set foot on these shores.  They can vote as often as they like, as long as they don’t do it all in the same precinct.  Still, I had to chuckle when I glanced at the website of Der Spiegel this morning.  They are so in the tank for Obama they make MSNBC look like the soul of objective journalism.  Here are the stories I found in a quick glance through:

    Headline:  Candidate Embarrassing  Byline:  Stiff as a board, clueless, artificial.  Republican Presidential candidate exposed many of his weaknesses on his European tour.

    Headline:  Romney Enrages Palestinians (have they ever not been enraged?)  Byline:  Romney campaigns on his foreign tour – and arouses the Palestinians against him in the process.

    Headline:  Romney’s Blundering Tour through Europe  Byline:  The U.S. candidate for President booked a week of blunders and slip-ups in Europe.  Things just aren’t going right for the Republican.

    Headline:  Stepping in it On Tour  Byline:  The Palestinians accuse him of racism, the British are cross, and Polands Solidarnosc doesn’t like him.

    Headline:  Romney Advisor Curses Reporters in Warsaw  Byline:  There’s no end to the criticism directed at Romney’s foreign tour – now one of his advisors lost his cool.

    And mind you, that’s just what I saw in a quick glance on a single day.  Actually, it’s a huge improvement.  Back in the last years of the Clinton and first years of the Bush Administrations, Der Spiegel’s website was so full of vile, quasi-racist anti-American rants that it was often difficult to wade through it all and find any news about Germany.  They only gave it up when a few people across the pond started to notice, and the editors realized they were putting all those prestigious international prizes for “objective journalism” in jeopardy.  They still occasionally throw out some red meat to the Amerika haters, but only enough to keep them on life support.

  • Israel and the Other Holocaust

    Posted on July 3rd, 2012 Helian No comments

    Perhaps it would be better to say “one of the other holocausts” instead of “the other holocaust.”  There have, after all, been many.  However, the one that Jews of eastern and central Europe suffered during and immediately after World War I was probably more costly in terms of lives and suffering than any other save the Nazi inferno.  Accounts of it may be found in numerous sources.  The following are taken from the memoirs of Maurice Paleologue, French ambassador to Russia during the war (my translation from the German version).  The first is from the entry of March 1, 1915:

    The Jews of Poland and Lithuania have suffered terrible persecution since the beginning of the war.  During the month of August (1914) they were forced to leave the zone near the border as quickly as possible.  After a short time, these mandatory expulsions, carried out with excessive haste an cruelty, were applied further east with each passing day.  Eventually, the entire Israelite population from Grodno, Lomza, Plozk, Kutno, Lodz, Pietrokov, Kielce, Radom, and Lublin was forced into the interior of the country in the direction of Podolia and Volhynia.  Everywhere the expulsions were accompanied by acts of violence and plunder, carried out under the approving gaze of the authorities.  One could see hundreds of thousands of unfortunates, driven aimlessly through the snow, driven on like cattle by bands of cossacks, in extreme want, abandoned in train stations, open fields, and the outskirts of cities, dying of hunger, exhaustion, and cold.  And to improve their morale, everywhere they went these miserable people encountered the same feelings of hatred and rejection, the same accusations of expionage and treason.  Never in all its painful history has Israel suffered a more tragic expulsion.  And yet, there are 200,000 Jewish soldiers fighting bravely in the ranks of the Russian army!

    and, from the entry of August 5, 1915,

    With every retreat of the Russian army, the police continue the expulsion of Jews.  Wherever it occurs, the expulsions are carried out with the usual excessive haste, as mindless as they are cruel.  Those affected are informed at the last minute; they have neither time nor opportunity to take anything along.  They are hurriedly packed into train cars; they are forced onto the road like herds of cattle; they are informed of their destination, which is then changed 20 times along the way.  And wherever the order is given for them to leave a city, the orthodox population descends on the ghetto and plunders it.  Forced back in the direction of Podolia, Volhynia, Bessarabia, and the Ukraine, they are given over to terrible suffering.  The total number of the expelled has reached 800,000.

    These expulsions were accompanied by bloody pogroms, lasting through the Civil War years, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in cold blood.  Descriptions of those carried out in the Odessa area may be found, for example, in Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days.

    In the years immediately following World War II, as hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews continued to wander about Europe, it seemed obvious to President Truman and many other leaders on this side of the iron curtain that the best solution to the problem was the creation of a Jewish State.  There they would have at least a fighting chance of defending themselves against the holocausts of the future.  It is interesting to consider, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the founding of the state of Israel really was a good idea after all.  However, while the existence of human moral emotions certainly cannot be ignored in answering that question, they should certainly not be consulted to arrive at that answer.

    Consider, for example, the contortions of the “progressive” ideologues as they chased the chimera of “the Good” as applied to the state of Israel.  In the beginning, the Jews were the “good guys,” as seen, for example, in films like “Exodus.”  Now, after demonstrating on several occasions that they are quite capable of defending themselves, they have become the “bad guys,” a much more familiar role for the Jews, who have always had the misfortune of being a “natural” outgroup wherever the diaspora has taken them.  They are accused of favoring “apartheid,” in spite of Israel’s large Arab population, and the decimation of Jewish minorities in many of the states of north Africa and the Middle East.  They are the ones guilty of “ethnic cleansing,” even as genuine ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is accepted without a murmur.  They are accused of atrocities against civilians, even as their enemies deliberately fire thousands of rockets at civilian population centers, and so on, and so on.

    All this demonstrates once again, as have a virtually infinite number of similar experiments throughout human history, that decisions of this sort should not be based on morality.  The reason for this seems abundantly obvious.  The moral emotions from which all moral systems are ultimately derived evolved at a time when entities such as the state of Israel, or anything else resembling a modern state, for that matter, simply did not exist.  On what, then, should they be based, if we exclude the wonderfully satisfying but grossly destructive and unreliable moral emotions?  Why, the human ability to reason, by default.  It is, admittedly, a very weak reed to lean on, but it’s the only one we really have.

  • Of Marriage Structure and Sexism in Academia

    Posted on June 9th, 2012 Helian No comments

    An interesting hypothesis recently turned up in a paper entitled “Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace,” published on the website of the Social Science Research Network.  According to the authors,

    In this article, we examine a heretofore neglected pocket of resistance to the gender revolution in the workplace: married male employees who have stay-at-home wives. We develop and empirically test the theoretical argument suggesting that such organizational members, compared to male employees in modern marriages, are more likely to exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are harmful to women in the workplace.

    An interesting piece of ideologically loaded academic jargon, that.  It would seem that a large segment of the male population is “resisting” a “revolution” in a way that is “harmful.”  More specifically,

    …we found that employed husbands in traditional and neo-traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion. We believe that the results of these studies are important to understanding the stalled gender revolution as well as to theorizing about the effects of marriage structures in the workplace and, more pragmatically, effectively targeting efforts aimed at enhancing gender equality in work organizations.

    On the face of it, this appears to be a statement of “is” rather than a statement of “ought.”  In other words, if the authors are correct, they have simply stated facts, not necessarily loaded with an accompanying moral judgment.  I think most readers of the paper will agree that the moral judgment is certainly there, but let’s ignore that for the moment.  Is proposing such hypotheses, and then presenting data to support them “good” or “not good?”  Well, as readers of my blog are aware, while I do have a distinct weakness for making moral judgments myself, I don’t flatter myself that I have any objective basis for doing so.  I can, however, point out that there is a consensus in some human societies that similar statements about various groups regarding characteristics over which they have no control, such as race, gender, ethnicity, etc., are considered evil.  For example, academic papers presenting data, no matter how convincing, that certain races are more intelligent than others, or that certain ethnic groups are more greedy or lazy than others, or even that some subclass of females are similarly “harmful,” would likely be greeted with a storm of protest.  This begs the question of why such discrimination applied to men is OK.  It would seem that what we have here is a classic double standard.

    Numerous similar double standards exist in modern societies, often due to the long resistance to recognizing commonalities in human behavior, or “human nature.”  Classification of other human beings into ingroups and outgroups, or what was once referred to as the Amity/Enmity Complex, is one such commonality.  It is the ultimate cause of many of the negative consequences we associate with various forms of discrimination.  However, because we have refused to recognize that ultimate cause, it has been necessary for us to separately identify each negative outcome of that behavior after a long, slow learning process, instead of immediately recognizing the psychological basis of them all.  For example, anti-Semitism was not considered a serious moral fault until the discovery of mounds of corpses in the Nazi death camps.  Racism was similarly acceptable until the social evils arising from it were clearly recognized.  It would seem, based on the evidence of this paper, that sexism directed at men has not yet been recognized as another of the undesirable manifestations of ingroup/outgroup discrimination.

    Should it be?  The authors assure us that no such negative consequences are intended.  For example,

    Therefore, we do not intend to, nor are we pointing a finger at those whom we have claimed constitute a pocket of resistance to the gender revolution. Some may be characterized as “benevolent sexists” (e.g., Glick & Fiske, 1996) and others may be neither benevolent nor hostile sexists. We do not want to label, we also do not want to ignore a real problem.  Clearly, organizations should not seek to control the marital status of their male employees, for example, by means of selection. To do so would be unjust, likely illegal, and perhaps, bad business.

    and,

    No, organizations should not seek to manipulate people’s non-work lives; but we, as organizational scholars, should seek to understand better how the byproduct of those non-work lives can be accommodated in the workplace.

    It has a familiar ring to it doesn’t it?  “I’m not prejudiced.  Some of my best friends are black!”  Whether the authors are prejudiced against a subgroup of men because of a trait over which many of them have no control is neither here nor there.  It is simply a fact that to make statements such as,

    We have found that employed husbands in traditional and neo-traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.

    and,

    …employed husbands embedded in traditional (wife not employed) and neo-traditional (wife employed part-time) marriages compared to those embedded in more modern ones (wife employed full-time) are more likely to exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors harmful to women in the workplace.

    and,

    We were led to consider this group by a question posed by Chugh and Brief (2008) in their attempt to suggest a research agenda for the study of diversity in organizations. They stated, “We wonder whether a domestic traditionalist can also be an organizational egalitarian?” (p. 332). The answer we posit is “no.”

    will, inevitably, promote discrimination against men, regardless of the author’s protestations of their good intentions.  Is the social good of promoting gender equity in the workplace worth the social cost of promoting discrimination?  I think not.  The author’s are extremely hazy about how their conclusions are to be usefully applied.  For example,

    We believe that the results of these studies are important to understanding the stalled gender revolution as well as to theorizing about the effects of marriage structures in the workplace and, more pragmatically, effectively targeting efforts aimed at enhancing gender equality in work organizations.

    One wonders what “targeting efforts aimed at enhancing gender equality in work organizations” could possibly consist of if it didn’t somehow imply condemnation of men in “traditional” marriages.  Are we to believe that there is really no better way to promote gender equality than by denouncing a large subgroup of men, whether implicitly, and, as the Germans say, “through the flower,” or not?   The promotion of new forms of sexism seems a counterintuitive way to promote gender equality.