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  • Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams

    Posted on November 4th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Many modern writers on the subject of morality are aware of its connection with emotional traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Many of those also acknowledge that morality is a subjective phenomenon, and that good and evil have no existence independent of the minds that imagine them.  In a sense, these thinkers have managed to claw their way back to the simple truths Darwin alluded to in his The Descent of Man after they were eclipsed for many years by the Blank Slate debacle. Once they’ve done so, however, a funny thing happens. With the lone exception of Edvard Westermarck who began writing on the subject more than a century ago, none of them, or at least none that I am aware of, has managed to appreciate the seemingly obvious logical implications of these truths. Having glimpsed them, they shrink back, as if stunned by what they’ve seen.

    What are the logical implications I refer to? If morality exists by virtue of evolved emotional traits, then,

    1. The traits in question evolved because they happened to increase the odds that individuals carrying the genes that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce.
    2. As Darwin noted, evolution by natural selection is a random process. As a result, it is to be expected that the moral behavior that might evolve in intelligent species other than our own might potentially be quite different from ours.
    3. It follows that morality is subjective, and has no objective existence. Good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things. Rather, they are imagined in the minds of individuals.
    4. The responsible genes must have evolved at times radically different from the present, and even, at least in part, in species that were ancestral to our own.
    5. It follows that morality did not evolve to serve the “purpose” or “function” of promoting the happiness or flourishing of our species, however construed.
    6. There is no guarantee that the traits we associate with morality will have the same effect of enhancing the odds of survival of individuals in the environment we live in now as they did in the one in which the evolved.
    7. It is irrational to blindly rely on these traits to regulate the interactions between and within groups vastly larger and/or utterly different in kind from groups that existed when they evolved.
    8. It is irrational, not to mention potentially dangerous, to blindly rely on these traits to promote social goals that have no connection whatsoever with the reasons they exist to begin with.
    9. It is irrational to assume that the universal tendency to apply a radically different morality to outgroups to the one we apply to our ingroup will disappear if we ignore the former.
    10. It is no more rational to assume that the innate basis of human morality is uniform across all populations, than it is to assume that skin color will be the same across all populations. It is to be expected that there are similarities between different versions of morality, but also that there will be significant differences, which cannot be explained as mere artifacts of “culture.”

    A good number of modern moral philosophers accept the first four items in the above list.  Then, however, an odd thing happens. Far from accepting the seemingly obvious conclusions that follow from these four, as set forth in the rest of the list, they begin writing as if morality were an ideal vehicle for promoting whatever social goals they happen to favor. They begin speaking of things that they personally perceive as good or evil as if everyone else must necessarily also perceive them in the same way. In the end we find them speaking of these subjective goods and evils for all the world as if they were real, objective things. This powerful illusion, so characteristic of our species, reasserts itself, and the seemingly obvious implications of the evolved nature of morality are ignored.

    Why has it been so difficult for modern philosophers to jettison the illusion of objective morality? The answer can be found by examining their ingroup. Most of the public intellectuals and philosophers who write about morality do so in academia and other milieus currently dominated by the “progressive Left.” In other words, they belong to an ingroup that tends to be extremely moralistic, and is typically defined by ideology. Members of such ingroups tend to deem themselves “good,” and anyone who disagrees with the ideology of their ingroup “evil,” in accordance with the nature of human beings since time immemorial. There is no essential difference in this regard between them and a group of hunter/gatherers who deem themselves “good,” and their neighbors in an adjoining territory “evil,” other than the arbitrary features that happen to distinguish ingroup from outgroup. As we have seen so often in the recent past, any member of such ingroups who dares to seriously question any of the shibboleths that define the ideological box these people live in can expect to be ostracized and have their careers destroyed. In short, there is a very powerful incentive not to wander too far off the ideological reservation, and to occasionally virtue signal loyalty to the ingroup.

    Beyond that, those who imagine they possess the moral high ground also imagine that this gives them the right to dictate behavior to others.  In other words, morality rationalizes power and status, and the desire for these things has always been a very powerful motivator of human behavior. Those who possess them aren’t inclined to give them up without a struggle. Today not only moral philosophers but a host of others base their right to dictate behavior to the rest of us on the illusion that their version of morality is “true.” If the illusion disappears, their power disappears with it. Hence, regardless of what they claim to believe about the evolutionary roots of morality, we commonly find them busily propping up the illusion.

    Steve Stewart-Williams is an excellent example of the type referred to above.  He devotes a great deal of attention to the subject of morality in his Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life. On page 203 of my hard cover copy he even quotes E. O. Wilson’s argument “for the necessity of an evolutionary approach to morality.” On page 148 he says more or less  that same thing as I pointed out in the fourth item in the above list, although without referring specifically to morality:

    Our fear of snakes and spiders is an example of an aspect of human psychology that is poorly matched to modern living conditions, but which would have been useful in the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – the environment in which these fears evolved.

    In the following passage on page 291, Stewart-Williams seems to come out very explicitly in favor of the subjective nature of morality:

    The second way that Darwin’s theory could undermine morality is that it could undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths – truths that exist independently of human minds, emotions and conventions. In the remaining pages of this book, I’m going to argue that evolutionary theory does indeed undermine this idea, and that morality is, in some sense, a human invention (or, more precisely, a joint project of human beings and natural selection). In other words, in the final analysis, nothing is right and nothing is wrong. This perspective is quite counterintuitive to most people (myself included).

    It turns out that, as far as Stewart-Williams is concerned, this perspective is very counterintuitive indeed. Instead of drawing the seemingly obvious conclusions listed above that follow from the evolutionary roots of morality and its subjective nature, he spends much of the rest of the book alternately insisting that he believes in subjective morality, and then contradicting himself with comments that make no sense unless there is an objective moral law. Not surprisingly, this “objective moral law” turns out to be a vanilla version of the one that is currently fashionable in academia. Stewart-Williams realizes that the academic ingroup he belongs to is currently highly moralistic, and is likely to take a very dim view of anyone who seriously challenges the shibboleths that define its territorial boundaries.  To placate the “public opinion” of his ingroup, he begins delivering himself of statements that really are “counterintuitive” if he believes in subjective morality as he claims. For starters, he starts dreaming up ways to hop over Hume’s is/ought barrier:

    Hume’s law seems to show that facts about evolution can have no bearing on ethical issues, and that factual and ethical reasoning are completely independent domains of discourse. But it does not have this implication at all. The importance of the is-ought fallacy has been drastically overstated. Consider this argument again:

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick or poor.

    Clearly, the argument is not deductively valid. This could easily be remedied, however, by including an additional premise that would justify the leap from is to ought. After all, it is possible in principle to construct a valid argument from any premise to any conclusion, given the appropriate intervening premise.

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    We ought not to go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick, or poor.

    The argument is now deductively valid, and thus if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true also.

    Right. It kind of reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon, in which one mathematician is proudly displaying his proof of some obscure hypothesis to another mathematician. The second replies that he doesn’t quite follow the step in the proof labeled “Miracle happens.” If, as Stewart-Williams claims, morality is subjective, then the reason you can’t just hop over the is/ought barrier is because there is no ought to hop to on the other side.  One cannot speak of an unqualified ought as he does above at all, because every ought is simply the expression of some individual’s emotionally motivated subjective opinion. Once you admit it is such an opinion, “valid arguments” of the type given above become entirely superfluous. The only “fact” involved is the experience of a subjective feeling which itself exists by virtue of an natural evolutionary process which has no function or purpose whatsoever. “Moral reasoning” is what happens when individuals attempt to interpret what they imagine these subjective feelings are trying to tell them.

    Having justified himself in advance by virtue of this ineffectual quibbling about the is/ought barrier, Stewart-Williams rattles off a whole series of “oughts,” for all the world as if they were unquestionable, objective facts.  For example, on page 255,

    I think we can agree that preparing for the future generations is a highly desirable value to cultivate.

    If morality is subjective, there cannot possibly be any “values,” whether “highly desirable” or not, to cultivate. He could say, “I think everyone else in the world shares my subjective opinion that we ought to prepare for future generations,” but, aside from being clearly false, that statement is entirely different from what he has actually written, implying the existence of “values” as objective things. On page 274, after making it quite clear that he personally considers the “moral dividing line” between humans and animals “is arbitrary,” and that he is opposed to “speciesism,” he writes,

    So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is unjustified.

    The above makes sense only if morality is objective. If, as Stewart-Williams claimed earlier, it is actually subjective, it is impossible for anything to be either justified or unjustified, unless one qualifies the statement by admitting that it is merely an expression of personal opinion based on nothing more substantial than feelings that exist by virtue of natural selection. The statement, “So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is justified,” is every bit as valid as the one given above, by virtue of the fact that the validity of both is zero. Consider what we’re dealing with here; a bag of behavioral traits that exist purely because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. I doubt that he is arguing that allocation of equal moral status to other animals will accomplish the same thing today. It’s likely to accomplish the exact opposite. As it stands, the statement is fundamentally irrational. All he is really saying is that he arbitrarily interprets certain emotional feelings to mean that humans and other animals must have equal moral status, and insists that everyone else must interpret their emotional feelings in the same way.  A bit later, he doubles down, writing,

    However, if we opt for a morality based on a brute human/non-human distinction, we know we’re getting it wrong – some animals will definitely be treated worse than they should be.

    Again, absent objective morality, this statement is nonsense. If morality is subjective, it is impossible to make truth statements about it one way or the other. We cannot possibly “know” we are getting something wrong unless an objective criteria exists upon which to base that conclusion. On page 289 he tells us,

    When we look at large-scale surveys of everyday believers, we find that in many ways atheists are actually more moral than believers. On average, they are less prejudiced, less racist, and less homophobic; more tolerant and compassionate; and more law-abiding. Admittedly, whether this means atheists are more moral depends on your personal convictions; if you think homophobia is a virtue, for instance, then you’d have to conclude that a greater number of religious than non-religious people possess this particular virtue. Nonetheless, a convincing case can be made that non-religious moral codes are often superior to those traditionally linked with theism. Consider Peter Singer’s Top Three ethical recommendations: do something for the poor of the world; do something for non-human animals; and do something for the environment. This is the ethic of an atheist, a man who accepts that life evolved and has no ultimate meaning or purpose. To my mind, it is vastly superior to moral systems emphasizing trivial issues (or non-issues) such as premarital sex, blasphemy, and the like. Morality is not just about deciding what’s right and wrong, good or bad. it involves getting your moral priorities straight.

    Seldom does one find such a jumble of contradictions in one passage. Stewart-Williams tells us that, on the one hand, morality is subjective, and depends on “your personal convictions,” but, on the other hand, non-religious moral codes are superior to traditional ones linked with theism, and, if you don’t agree with the author, you “don’t have your moral priorities straight.” In other words, morality is subjective and objective at the same time. As an atheist, I’m flattered that he thinks I’m “more moral” than believers, but unfortunately there can be no rational basis for such a conclusion. What he is telling us is that we “ought to” jury rig moral emotions to accomplish ends that have no discernable connection with the reasons that those emotions exist to begin with. He calls this “getting our moral priorities straight.” Is it not abundantly obvious by now that exploiting moral emotions to accomplish social goal that could profoundly affect the lives of millions of people is not only counterproductive, but extremely dangerous? Have we really learned nothing from our experiences with Nazism and Communism? If we seek to stuff Singers three ethical recommendations down everyone’s throats as “good,” then everyone who disagrees with them automatically becomes “evil.” They are consigned to the outgroup. They become the Jews, or the “bourgeoisie.” Are we not yet sufficiently familiar with the often violent fate of outgroups in human history? Does he think he can simply wish away that aspect of human nature?

    Perhaps the above passage is best interpreted as Stewart-Williams’ triple kowtow to the gatekeepers of his ideologically/morally defined ingroup. In the end, it is apparent that he has been no more capable of freeing himself of the illusion of objective morality than the rest of his academic tribe.  He concludes the book with a bombastic passage that confirms this conclusion:

    Of course, nothing can be said to argue that people are morally obliged to accept this ethic, for to do so would be inconsistent with the ideas that inspired it in the first place. It is an ethic that will be adopted – if at all – by those who find a certain stark beauty in kindness without reward, joy without purpose, and progress without lasting achievement.

    No, I’m sorry. You can’t have your moral cake and eat it too. The only thing we can say with certainty about people who “adopt such an ethic” is that they are seriously delusional. They believe that the solution of all the complex social issues facing mankind is a mere matter of “correctly” tweaking a volatile mix of emotions whose origins have nothing whatever to do with the issues in question, and then just letting those emotions run wild to do their thing. As noted above, their thing” invariably involves dictating behavior to others, lending power and status to the would be dictators in the process.

    Allow me to suggest a different version of “getting our moral priorities straight.” In my personal opinion, we ought to limit the sphere of influence of human morality to the bare essentials, namely the regulation of the day to day interactions of human beings that it would be impractical to regulate in any other way because of our limited intelligence. When it comes to matters such as Singers “three ethical recommendations,” or any other social issues involving large numbers of people, let us leave morality strictly out of it to the extent possible for such emotional creatures as ourselves, and lay our cards on the table. No matter what we happen to desire, in the end the fundamental reason we desire it is to satisfy innate feelings and emotions that exist because they evolved. By “laying our cards on the table,” I mean citing the particular emotions we wish to satisfy, making it perfectly clear in the process whether the manner in which those emotions are to be satisfied will have anything to do with the reasons the emotions evolved to begin with or not. It strikes me that something of the sort would be a great deal more rational and less dangerous than continuing to pursue our current approach of allowing such matters to be decided by whatever faction proves most effective at manipulating our moral emotions.

  • How a “Study” Repaired History and the Evolutionary Psychologists Lived Happily Ever After

    Posted on June 12th, 2018 Helian No comments

    It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that those who have asserted the existence and importance of human nature have never experienced ideological bias. If that claim is true, then the Blank Slate debacle could never have happened. However, we know that it happened, based not only on the testimony of those who saw it for the ideologically motivated debasement of science that it was, such as Steven Pinker and Carl Degler, but of the ideological zealots responsible for it themselves, such as Hamilton Cravens, who portrayed it as The Triumph of Evolution. The idea that the Blank Slaters were “unbiased” is absurd on the face of it, and can be immediately debunked by simply counting the number of times they accused their opponents of being “racists,” “fascists,” etc., in books such as Richard Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes, and Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. More recently, the discipline of evolutionary psychology has experienced many similar attacks, as detailed, for example, by Robert Kurzban in an article entitled, Alas poor evolutionary psychology.

    The reasons for this bias has never been a mystery, either to the Blank Slaters and their latter day leftist descendants, or to evolutionary psychologists and other proponents of the importance of human nature. Leftist ideology requires not only that human beings be equal before the law, but that the menagerie of human identity groups they have become obsessed with over the years actually be equal, in intelligence, creativity, degree of “civilization,” and every other conceivable measure of human achievement. On top of that, they must be “malleable,” and “plastic,” and therefore perfectly adaptable to whatever revolutionary rearrangement in society happened to be in fashion. The existence and importance of human nature has always been perceived as a threat to all these romantic mirages, as indeed it is. Hence the obvious and seemingly indisputable bias.

    Enter Jeffrey Winking of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, who assures us that it’s all a big mistake, and there’s really no bias at all! Not only that, but he “proves” it with a “study” in a paper entitled, Exploring the Great Schism in the Social Sciences, that recently appeared in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. We must assume that, in spite of his background in anthropology, Winking has never heard of a man named Napoleon Chagnon, or run across an article entitled Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association, by Alice Degler.

    Winking begins his article by noting that “The nature-nurture debate is one that biologists often dismiss as a false dichotomy,” but adds, “However, such dismissiveness belies the long-standing debate that is unmistakable throughout the biological and social sciences concerning the role of biological influences in the development of psychological and behavioral traits in humans.” I agree entirely. One can’t simply hand-wave away the Blank Slate affair and a century of bitter ideological debate by turning up one’s nose and asserting the term isn’t helpful from a purely scientific point of view.

    We also find that Winking isn’t completely oblivious to examples of bias on the “nature” side of the debate. He cites the Harvard study group which “evaluated the merits of sociobiology, and which included intellectual giants like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin.” I am content to let history judge whether Gould and Lewontin were really “intellectual giants.” Regardless, if Winking actually read these “evaluations,” he cannot have failed to notice that they contained vicious ad hominem attacks on E. O. Wilson and others that it is extremely difficult to construe as anything but biased. Winking goes on to note similar instances of bias by other authors in various disciplines, such as,

    Many researchers use [evolutionary approaches to the study of international relations] to justify the status quo in the guise of science.

    The totality [of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology] is a myth of origin that is compelling precisely because it resonates strongly with Euro American presuppositions about the nature of the world.

    …in the social sciences (with the exception of primatology and psychology) sociobiology appeals most to right-wing social scientists.

    These are certainly compelling examples of bias. Now, however, Winking attempts to demonstrate that those who point out the bias, and correctly interpret the reasons for it, are just as biased themselves. As he puts it,

    Conversely, those who favor biological approaches have argued that those on the other side are rendered incapable of objective assessment by their ideological promotion of equality. They are alleged to erroneously reject evidence of biological influences because such evidence suggests that social outcomes are partially explained by biology, and this might inhibit the realization of equality. Their critiques of biological approaches are therefore often blithely dismissed as examples of the moralistic/naturalistic fallacy. This line of reason is exemplified in the quote by biologist Jerry Coyne

    If you can read the [major Evolutionary Psychology review paper] and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.

    I can’t imagine what Winking finds “blithe” about that statement! Is it really “blithe” to so much as suggest that people who dismiss entire fields of science as worthless may be ideologically motivated? I note in passing that Coyne must have thought long and hard about that statement, because his Ph.D. advisor was none other than Richard Lewontin, whom he still honors and admires!  Add to that the fact that Coyne is about as far as you can imagine from “right wing,” as anyone can see by simply visiting his Why Evolution is True website, and the notion that he is being “blithe” here is ludicrous. Winking’s other examples of “blithness” are similarly dubious, including,

    For critics, the heart of the intellectual problem remains an ideological adherence to the increasingly implausible view that human behavior is strictly determined by socialization… Should [social]hierarchies result strictly from culture, then the possibilities for an egalitarian future were seen to be as open and boundless as our ever-malleable brains might imagine.

    Like the Church, a number of contemporary thinkers have also grounded their moral and political views in scientific assumptions about… human nature, specifically that there isn’t one.

    Unlike the “comparable” statements by the Blank Slaters, these statements neither accuse those who deny the existence of human nature of being Nazis, nor is evidence lacking to back them up.  On the contrary, one could cite a mountain of evidence to back them up supplied by the Blank Slaters themselves.  Winking soon supplies us with the reason for this strained attempt to establish “moral equivalence” between “nature” and “nurture.”  It appears in his “hypothesis,” as follows:

    It is entirely possible that confirmation bias plays no role in driving disagreement and that the overarching debate in academia is driven by sincere disagreements concerning the inferential value of the research designs informing the debate.

    Wait a minute!  Don’t roll your eyes like that!  Winking has a “study” to back up this hypothesis.  Let me explain it to you.  He invented some “mock results” of studies which purported to establish, for example, the increased prevalence of an allele associated with “appetitive aggression” in populations with African ancestry.  Subtle, no?  Then he used Mechanical Turk and social media to come up with a sample of 365 people with Masters degrees or Ph.D.’s for a survey on what they thought of the “inferential power” of the fake data.  Another sample of 71 were scraped together for another survey on “research design.”  In the larger sample, 307 described themselves as either only “somewhat” on the “nature” side, or “somewhat” on the “nurture” side.  Only 57 claimed they leaned strongly one way or the other.  The triumphant results of the study included, for example, that,

    Participants perceptions of inferential value did not vary by the degree to which results supported a particular ideology, suggesting that ideological confirmation bias is not affecting participant perceptions of inferential value.

    Seriously?  Even the author admits that the statistical power of his “study” is low because of the small sample sizes.  However statistical power only applies where the samples are truly random, meaning, in this case, where the participants are either unequivocably on the “nature” or “nurture” side.  That is hardly the case.  Mechanical Turk samples, for example are biased towards a younger and more liberal demographic.  Most of the participants were on the fence between nature and nurture.  In other words, there’s no telling what their true opinions were even if they were honest about them.  Even the most extreme Blank Slaters admitted that nature plays a significant role in such bodily functions as urinating, defecating, and breathing, and so could have easily described themselves as “somewhat bioist.”  Perhaps most importantly, any high school student could have easily seen what this “study” was about.  There is no doubt whatsoever that holders of Masters and Doctors degrees in related disciplines had no trouble a) inferring what the study was about, and b) had an interest in making sure that the results demonstrated that they were “unbiased.”  In other words, were not exactly talking “double blind” here.

    I think the author was well aware that most readers would have no trouble detecting the blatant shortcomings of his “study.”  Apparently to ward off ridicule he wrote,

    Regardless of one’s position, it is important to remind scholars that if they believe a group of intelligent and informed academics could be so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribe to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research, then they must acknowledge they themselves are equally as capable of being so misguided.

    Kind of reminds you of the curse over King Tut’s tomb, doesn’t it?  “May those who question my study be damned to dwell among the misguided forever!”  Sorry, my dear Winking, but “a group of intelligent and informed academics” not only could, but were “so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribed to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research.”  It was called the Blank Slate, and it derailed the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  That’s what Pinker’s book was about.  That’s what Degler’s book was about, and yes, that’s even what Cravens’ book was about.  They all did an excellent job of documenting the debacle.  I suggest you read them.

    Or not.  You could decide to believe your study instead.  I have to admit, it would have its advantages.  History would be “fixed,” the lions would lie down with the lambs, and the evolutionary psychologists would live happily ever after.

  • On the Gleichschaltung of Evolutionary Psychology

    Posted on June 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    When Robert Ardrey began his debunking of the ideologically motivated dogmas that passed for the “science” of human behavior in 1961 with the publication of his first book, African Genesis, he knew perfectly well what was at stake.  By that time what we now know as the Blank Slate orthodoxy had derailed any serious attempt by our species to achieve self-understanding for upwards of three decades.  This debacle in the behavioral sciences paralyzed any serious attempt to understand the roots of human warfare and aggression, the sources of racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, and the myriad other manifestations of our innate tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the nature of human territorialism and status-seeking behavior, and the wellsprings of human morality itself.  A bit later, E. O. Wilson summed up our predicament as follows:

    Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world.  The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour.  We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.  We thrash about.  We are terribly confused about the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.

    In the end, the Blank Slate collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity, in spite of the now-familiar attempts to silence its opponents by vilification rather than logical argument.  The science of evolutionary psychology emerged based explicitly on acceptance of the reality and importance of innate human behavioral traits.  However, the ideological trends that resulted in the Blank Slate disaster to begin with haven’t disappeared.  On the contrary, they have achieved nearly unchallenged control of the social means of communication, including the entertainment industry, the “mainstream” news media, Internet monopolies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, and, perhaps most importantly, academia.  There an ingroup defined by ideology has emerged that has always viewed the new science with a jaundiced eye.  By its very nature it challenges their assumptions of moral superiority, their cherished myths about the nature of human beings, and the viability of the various utopias they have always enjoyed concocting for the rest of us.  As Marx might have put it, this clash of thesis and antithesis has led to a synthesis in evolutionary psychology that might be described as creeping Gleichschaltung.  In other words, it is undergoing a slow process of getting “in step” with the controlling ideology.  It no longer seriously challenges the dogmas of that ideology, and the “studies” emerging from the field are increasingly, if not yet exclusively, limited to subjects that are deemed ideologically “benign.”  As a result, when it comes to addressing issues that are of real importance in terms of the survival and welfare of our species, the science of evolutionary psychology has become largely irrelevant.

    Consider, for example, the sort of articles that one typically finds in the relevant journals.  In the last four issues of Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences they have addressed such subjects as “Committed romantic relationships,” Long-term romantic relationships,” “The effect of predictable early childhood environments on sociosexuality in early adulthood,” “Daily relationship quality in same-sex couples,” “Modern-day female preferences for resources and provisioning by long-term mates,” “Behavioral reactions to emotional and sexual infidelity: mate abandonment versus mate retention,” and “An evolutionary perspective on orgasm.”  Peering through the last four issues of Evolutionary Psychology Journal we find, “Mating goals moderate power’s effect on conspicuous consumption among women,” “In-law preferences in China: What parents look for in the parents of their children’s mates,” “Endorsement of social and personal values predicts the desirability of men and women as long-term partners,” “Adaptive memory: remembering potential mates,” “Passion, relational mobility, and proof of commitment,” “Do men produce high quality ejaculates when primed with thoughts of partner infidelity?” and “Displaying red and black on a first date: A field study using the ‘First Dates’ television series.”

    All very interesting stuff, I’m sure, but the last time I checked humanity wasn’t faced with an existential threat due to cluelessness about the mechanics of reproduction.  Articles that might actually bear on our chances of avoiding self-destruction, on the other hand, are few and far between.  In short, evolutionary psychology has been effectively neutered.  Ostensibly, it’s only remaining purpose is to pad the curriculum vitae of the professoriat in the publish or perish world of academia.

    Does it really matter?  Probably not much.  The claims of any branch of psychology to be a genuine science have always been rather tenuous, and must remain so as long as our knowledge of how the mind works and how consciousness can exist remains so limited.  Real knowledge of how the brain gives rise to innate behavioral predispositions, and how they are perceived and interpreted by our “rational” consciousness is far more likely to be forthcoming from fields like neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology than evolutionary psychology.  Meanwhile, we are free of the Blank Slate straitjacket, at least temporarily.  We must no longer endure the sight of the court jesters of the Blank Slate striking heroic poses as paragons of “science,” and uttering cringeworthy imbecilities that are taken perfectly seriously by a fawning mass media.  Consider, for example, the following gems from clown-in-chief Ashley Montagu:

    All the field observers agree that these creatures (chimpanzees and other great apes) are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

    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.

    …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.

    In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts.  On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do.  Their capacities for learning are simply more limited than those of Homo sapiens.

    In his heyday Montagu could rave on like that nonstop, and be taken perfectly seriously, not only by the media, but by the vast majority of the “scientists” in the behavioral disciplines.  Anyone who begged to differ was shouted down as a racist and a fascist.  We can take heart in the fact that we’ve made at least some progress since then.  Today one finds articles about human “instincts” in the popular media, and even academic journals, as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  True, the same “progressives” who brought us the Blank Slate now have evolutionary psychology firmly in hand, and are keeping it on a very short leash.  For all that, one can now at least study the subject of innate human behavior without fear that undue interest in the subject is likely to bring one’s career to an abrupt end.  Who knows?  With concurrent advances in our knowledge of the actual physics of the mind and consciousness, we may eventually begin to understand ourselves.

  • J. L. Mackie: A Moral Subjectivist and His Magical System

    Posted on July 1st, 2017 Helian 8 comments

    J. L. Mackie was an Australian philosopher.  He was astute enough to realize that there are no such things as objective good and evil.  In fact, the very first sentence of his Ethics:  Inventing Right and Wrong consists of the bald statement,

    There are no objective moral values.

    A couple of paragraphs later he elaborates as follows:

    The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues – rightness and wrongness, duty obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on.

    In the next four chapters of his book, Mackie elaborates on this theme and its implications.  At the beginning of chapter 5 he claims to have demonstrated that,

    …no substantive moral conclusions or serious constraints on moral views can be derived from either the meanings of moral terms or the logic of moral discourse.

    Perhaps, but at this point Mackie has climbed quite a ways up the scaffolding he was busy building in the first four chapters.  Like so many “subjective moralists” before him, he now makes the mistake of looking down.  He suffers an attack of vertigo, based on the realization that if he climbs much higher, he will be forced to admit that all the tomes of moral philosophy he has spent a lifetime reading, the very basis of his claims to be an “expert,” are actually irrelevant to the subject he claims to be an expert about, other than as historical curiosities.  As we read on, he begins carefully climbing back down.  In the following passage we find him taking his first tentative steps in reverse:

    What tasks then remain for moral philosophy?  One could study the moral views and beliefs of our own society or others, perhaps through time, taking as one’s subject what is summed up in Westermarck’s title, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  But this perhaps belongs rather to anthropology and sociology.  More congenial to philosophers and more amenable to philosophical methods would be the attempt systematically to describe our own moral consciousness or some part of it, such as our “sense of justice,” to find some set of principles which were themselves fairly acceptable to us and with which, along with their practical consequences and applications, our “intuitive” (but really subjective) detailed moral judgements would be in “reflective equilibrium.”

    Mackie should have read Westermarck more carefully.  He’s the only one I know of other than Darwin himself who not only realized the subjective nature of moral judgements, but was also aware of the implications of the fact that morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist as a result of natural selection.  Mackie paid lip service to Darwin, but clearly didn’t understand the process of natural selection.  Nothing evolves to serve a purpose, or to perform a task.  Moral emotions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce at a particular point in time.  As we read on, it becomes clear that what Mackie is saying in the above passage is that the job of the moral philosopher is to discover this nonexistent task, and then concoct a moral system designed to accomplish the task.  As he puts it,

    At least we can look at the matter in another way.  Morality is not to be discovered, but to be made:  we have to decide what moral views to adopt, what moral stands to take.

    Let’s consider what Mackie is saying here if morality really is a manifestation of evolved behavioral predispositions.  In that case it must be a manifestation of emotions, so what Mackie is saying is that we have to manipulate emotions.  Apparently he assumes they are so malleable they can be manipulated at will to make them conform to any “moral stand.”  What, however, would be the point of taking this, that, or the other “moral stand?”  Mackie explains,

    In the narrow sense, a morality is a system of a particular sort of constraints on conduct – ones whose central task is to protect the interests of persons other than the agent and which present themselves to an agent as checks on his natural inclinations or spontaneous tendencies to act.

    A bit later on he quotes another moral philosopher, G. J. Warnock, as follows:

    …we shall understand (morality) better if we ask what it is for, what is the object of morality.  Morality is a species of evaluation, a kind of appraisal of human conduct; this must, he (Warnock) suggests, have some distinctive point, there must be something that it is supposed to bring about… The function of morality is primarily to counteract this limitation of men’s sympathies.  We can decide what the content of morality must be by inquiring how this can best be done.

    According to Mackie, these comments, evoking as they do “tasks,” and “purposes” and “functions” of a form of evolved behavior, and thereby flying in the face of everything Darwin taught about natural selection, are “…a useful approach.”  In fact, they are the foundation of sand upon which Mackie will later erect an elaborate moral system.  All Mackie is really suggesting is that we manipulate some emotions in order to satisfy another emotion.  Apparently the moral itch he wants to scratch is the “limitation of men’s sympathies.”  However, this particular moral itch has no more objective legitimacy or external authority than the desire to hang a thief, or take vengeance on an enemy, or satisfy any other whim one could suggest.  This fundamental error is made by every moral subjectivist, moral nihilist, or moral relativist I am aware of except for Westermarck and Darwin himself.  Herbert Spencer, who may have been wrong about many things, but was an original thinker for all that, exposed the error very nicely in the case of utilitarianism in his Social Statics (pp. 33-35), more than a century and a half ago.  It comes in the form of a dialog, closing with the following:

    Wherefore, if reduced to its simplest form, your doctrine turns out to be the assertion, that all men have equal claims to happiness; or applying it personally – that you have as good a right to happiness as I have.

    No doubt I have.

    And pray, sir, who told you that you have as good a right to happiness as I have?

    Who told me?  I am sure of it; I know it; I feel it; I…

    Nay, nay, that will not do.  Give me your authority.  Tell you who told you this – how you got at it – whence you derived it.

    Whereupon, after some shuffling, our petitioner is forced to confess, that he has no other authority than his own feeling – that he has simply an innate perception of the fact; or, in other words, that “his moral sense tells him so.”

    So much for Mackie’s “useful approach.”  In fact, it is nothing but the expression of an emotional whim, and is similar in that regard to all the other ultimate goods that ever tickled the fancy of moral philosophers.  In spite of that he uses the remainder of the book to start tacking together yet another moral system, complete with hairsplitting distinctions between alternative “oughts” that would gladden the hearts of pettifogging lawyers and quibbling theologians alike.  In the end his “subjective” morality is anything but that.  It has now become a tool that is to be “made” to perform a “function,” and this “function” is to promote the “higher goal” of “protecting the interests of persons other than the agent,” a goal which is not only unrelated to the reasons that morality evolved to begin with, but has now, for all practical purposes, been transmogrified into an objective good.

    Why does it matter?  Why not just let Mackie and the rest of the “experts on ethics” continue to play in their sandboxes?  In my opinion, because we can no longer afford to blindly respond to the emotions that give rise to morality as if they were still operating in the environment in which they evolved.  The environment is radically different now, and the games we are playing with moral emotions are becoming increasingly dangerous.  The emotions aren’t going anywhere.  We are profoundly moral beings, and simply suppressing our moral emotions is not an option.  I personally would prefer that we find a way to accommodate them that doesn’t involve the moral blackmail, bullying, and pious posing that are currently the preferred methods of adjusting our differences over what our moral emotions are trying to tell us.  However, we can only do that if we understand what morality really is, and how and why it evolved.  The invention of yet another moral “system” is not the way to gain that understanding.

     

  • On the Practicality of Non-Lethal Methods of Updating Morality

    Posted on May 18th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    Character is destiny.  Societies tend to thrive when there are well-understood moral rules that are obeyed, or, in cases where they are not obeyed, the disobedient are punished so as to prevent their disobedience from doing harm to others.  There are no objective moral truths, so it follows that the moral rules referred to above cannot be based on such truths.  However, if the statements above are true, they will remain true whether there are objective moral truths or not.

    It does not follow from the absence of objective moral truth that everyone “should” be allowed to rape, murder, and pillage, or do anything they please, for the simple reason that if there are no objective moral truths, there can be no objective “shoulds” either.  It may not be objectively bad to rape, murder, and pillage, but it is not objectively bad for the members of a society to punish or eliminate from that society those who do such things, either.  They do so by establishing moral rules, sometimes made explicit in the form of laws, and sometimes not.

    Moral rules will exist whether the individuals in a given society have religious beliefs or not, whether they believe in the existence of objective moral truths or not, and whether they subscribe to any given philosophy or not.  Our societies have moral rules because it is our nature to experience moral emotions.  These emotions incline us to believe that there are ways that we and others ought to behave, and ways that we and others ought not to behave.  As noted above, these beliefs manifest themselves in the formulation of moral rules.  We experience these rules as absolute, objective things, even though they cannot possibly be absolute, objective things.  At the moment, the contradiction between this emotionally derived belief and reality is becoming increasingly acute.  In the first place, the religious beliefs that once supplied a rationalization for the existence of absolute moral rules are declining in some parts of the world.  It is also difficult to accommodate a belief in objective morality with the increasing realization that moral emotions are innate, and must therefore have evolved.  Finally, thanks to the vast expansion in our ability to examine and communicate with other cultures that has occurred in the last few hundred years, we have learned that, while there are significant commonalities across all moralities, there are also profound differences between them.  If moral rules are objective and absolute, it seems to follow logically that no such differences could exist.

    It is a tribute to the power of our moral emotions that these contradictions have had little impact on our moral behavior.  Most of us still imagine that moral rules are absolute, or at least behave as if they were, regardless.  However, as a result of changes to the social environment such as those referred to above, individuals in our societies experience changes in their perceptions of what their moral emotions are trying to tell them as well.  They imagine that new “objective” moral rules must exist, and that old ones were never valid to begin with.  Occasionally enough of them experience the same illusion to force changes in the moral paradigm.  This process has certainly happened in the past.  Moralities have evolved as new religions became dominant, or new heresies and orthodoxies arose in old ones.  Now, however, it is occurring at an increasingly rapid, if not historically unprecedented rate.  The result has been moral chaos.  Deep fractures are opening in our societies between ingroups that prefer traditional versus those that favor updated versions of “absolute” morality.

    Ingroups of the type referred to above typically define themselves ideologically, on the basis of a particular version of morality.  They recognize others who don’t agree with their ideological narrative not just as individuals who are wrong about particular facts, but as members of outgroups.  It is our nature to experience hatred and disgust in response to outgroups, and to vilify their members.  We seek to arouse moral emotions in others that cause them to hate and despise the outgroup as well.  We see the results of this process in action around us every day.  Obviously, they do not promote social harmony.  History has demonstrated the likely outcomes of the process over and over again.  In the past these have included mass murder and warfare.  We will continue to experience these outcomes until we recognize the problem and come up with more rational ways of dealing with it.  My own preferred method of dealing with it would include coming up with a better way to formulate our “absolute” moralities.

    Through thousands of years of recorded history, we have never come up with a perfect form of government.  It is not to be expected that we will suddenly come up with a perfect way to formulate morality, either.  In fact, it would be impractical to even make the attempt unless the members of society, or at least a majority of them, understood and accepted what morality is, and why it exists.  That knowledge is a precondition if we would escape the prevailing moral chaos.  Supposing that society ever achieves that state of enlightenment, I offer the following suggestions as an Ansatz for establishing a rational morality.  I offer them not as infallible nostrums, but as suggestions.  In the event that a serious attempt is ever made to implement them, experience will certainly make it obvious whether any of them are practical or not, but we have to start somewhere.  With those reservations in mind, here is what I suggest for a possible “morality of the future.”

    It should be minimal, limited to only those situations where it is indispensable.  It is indispensable in situations where it would be impractical to apply careful, logical thought.  Examples are day to day interactions among individuals.

    It would have the support of the majority of those to whom it apples.

    It would maximize the freedom of individuals to pursue whatever goals in life they happen to have, free from harm by others or excessive regimentation by government.

    It would be possible to change it, but only at infrequent though regular intervals, according to an established procedure accepted by a majority.  Changes would not be made without thorough vetting beforehand, nor without the support of a majority of those affected.  Each change would require explicit recognition of the moral emotions driving it, and whether it would enhance the odds of survival of the responsible genes or not.

    It would be in harmony with human nature.  It would not contradict or be in conflict with human moral emotions.

    It would be sequestered from politics and other areas in which the possibility exists to examine different courses of action rationally and evaluate them based on explicit recognition of the behavioral predispositions/emotions driving those courses of action.

    In keeping with human nature, once established, the moral rules would be treated as absolute.  those breaking the rules, that is, acting “immorally,” would be punished in accordance with the severity of the breach.

    The moral emotions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved because they enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Therefore, no decisions affecting society at large would be made without explicit recognition of the impact those decisions will have on the genetic survival of the individuals to whom they apply.  If they will not promote the genetic survival of the members of the society to whom they apply, a rational explanation will be required for why the action is still considered desirable.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions to accomplish political ends would be discouraged and/or punished.  To this end, it would be necessary to suppress the human predisposition to cast every decision and action in moral terms.  In other words, it would be necessary to act against human nature.  Obviously, this could not be done without carefully educating the members of society about the reasons why this is necessary, based on the disconnect between the environment in which the predispositions motivating the behavior in question evolved, and the environment we live in now.  It would be necessary for them to understand that behavior that evolved because it enhanced the odds of survival long ago now is more likely to accomplish the opposite in the radically different societies we live in now.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions with the goal of altering the moral law independently of the established procedures for doing so would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Attempts to harm or shame others by arousing moral emotions other than those explicitly sanctioned by the existing moral law would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Again, these suggestions would fall flat absent recognition of the evolved and innate origins of morality by the people capable of implementing them.  They will certainly require revision in practice, and are not intended as an exhaustive list.  However, I think they represent a step forward from the old fashioned way of updating moralities by mutual vilification, occasionally culminating in mass murder and warfare.  Although the old fashioned way has certainly been effective, at least for some ingroups, I think most of my readers would agree it has been somewhat unpleasant in practice.  Perhaps we can find a better way.

  • Morality; Once More From the Top

    Posted on April 2nd, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality.  Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it.  Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality.  They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions.  As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.

    Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning.  According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid.  Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God.  However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.

    Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions.  Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.”  However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.

    Evolution is a natural process.  As such, it has no purpose or goal.  It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.

    The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past.  It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now.  It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.

    Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature.  They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.

    Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do.  That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals.  It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.

    In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity.  They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.

    Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it.  These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways.  In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed.  Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals.  However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.

    Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them.  It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then.  When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past.  One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.

    So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior.  Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small?  The answer lies in morality itself.  More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups.  When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people.  Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality.  Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup.  It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe.  We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing.  The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above.  As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.

    Why do I bother to write about morality?  Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above.  I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject.  One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right.  One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind?  Assuming they exist, can you show one to me?  Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing?  Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”

    The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us.  For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with.  Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path.  Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors.  When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders.  H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift.  From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative.  In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned.  The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful.  As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.

    I know, I’m grasping at straws.  The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck.  He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him.  The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work.  His example is hardly encouraging.  On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing.  Therefore, I will do something.  I will continue to write.

  • Whither Evolutionary Psychology?

    Posted on April 9th, 2016 Helian 6 comments

    Back in the day when the Blank Slaters were putting the finishing touches on the greatest scientific debacle of all time, there was much wringing of hands about “aggression.”  The “evolutionary psychologists” of the day, who were bold enough even then to insist that there actually is such a thing as human nature, were suggesting that, in certain circumstances, human beings were predisposed to act aggressively.  Not only that, but the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history since the dawn of recorded time might not be just an unfortunate cultural artifact of the transition to agricultural economies.  Rather, it might be the predictable manifestation of innate behavioral traits.  They suggested that, instead of hoping the traits in question would disappear if we just pretended they didn’t exist, it might be wiser to seek to understand them.  If we understood the problem, we might actually be able to take reasonable steps to do something about it.

    Fast forward to the present, and the Blank Slate is still with us, but only as a pale shadow of its former self.  References to human nature are commonly found in both the popular and academic literature, as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  The fact that innate predispositions have a significant impact on human behavior is accepted as a matter of course.  However, it turns out that the assumption that if only the power of the Blank Slate orthodoxy could be broken, we could start to seriously address problems, such as warfare, that are a threat to our security and perhaps our very survival, was a bit premature.  In retrospect, it seems the Blank Slaters should have learned to stop worrying and love human nature.

    What has happened in evolutionary psychology and the other scientific disciplines that address human behavior may be described by a term that was fashionable during the Third Reich – Gleichschaltung.  Literally translated it means “equal switching,” or, in plain English, something like “getting in step.”  The Blank Slate was a brute force attempt to sweep undesirable traits under the rug, and portray human behavior as almost perfectly malleable through brainwashing (or “education” and “culture” as it was more delicately put at the time).  Such “ideal” creatures would be infinitely adaptable as future denizens of the utopias crafted by the ideological Left.  In spite of the manifest absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, and the failure over and over again of actual human beings to behave as the Blank Slaters claimed they should, the Blank Slate orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences over a period of many decades.  It turns out that the whole charade may have been completely unnecessary.

    In retrospect, the solution was obvious; Gleichschaltung.  Today we find the process in full swing.  The number of papers currently appearing in the academic journals that take even a sideways glance at “ungood” human behaviors like aggression is vanishingly small.  Rather, most of the papers that are published may be broadly grouped into two “safe” subject areas; 1) sex, always good for attracting at least a few of those citations that look so good on academic CVs, and 2) “approved” forms of behavior, such as altruism.

    Examples are not hard to find.  For example, glance through the articles in recent editions of the journal, Evolutionary Psychology.  They include such titles as “Are Women’s Mate Preferences for Altruism Also Influenced by Physical Attractiveness?,” “Male and Female Perception of Physical Attractiveness; An Eye Movement Study,” “The Young Male Cigarette and Alcohol Syndrome; Smoking and Drinking as a Short-Term Mating Strategy,” “Effects of Humor Production, Humor Receptivity, and Physical Attractiveness on Partner Desirability,” and “Mating and Memory; Can Mating Cues Enhance Cognitive Performance?”  So much for sex.  There is also a plentiful supply of papers in the second broad area mentioned above, generally with impeccably politically correct titles that signal the virtue of the authors, such as “Empowering Women; The Next Step in Human Evolution?,” “Upset in Response to a Sibling’s Partner’s Infidelity; A Study With Siblings of Gays and Lesbians, From an Evolutionary Perspective,” and “Western Europe, State Formation, and Genetic Pacification.”  The last of these suggests the very rapid evolution of “peaceful” individuals thanks to the fortuitous effects of culture during the last thousand years or so.  Occasionally one even finds titles that mix the two categories, such as “Sexual Selection and Humor in Courtship; A Case for Warmth and Extroversion.”  The point here is not that the authors of these papers are wrong, but that their findings and theories tend to be “in step.”

    When it comes to economic behavior, a subject near and dear to the hearts of those on the ideological Left, recent discoveries about our innate traits are equally reassuring.  Ample confirmation may be found at the website of Evonomics, where one finds the following in the “about” blurb; “Orthodox economics is quickly being replaced by the latest science of human behavior and how social systems work. Evonomics is the home for thinkers who are applying the ground-breaking science to their lives and who want to see their ideas influence society.”  Here one may find such encouraging titles as “Traditional Economics Failed. Here’s a New Blueprint; Why true self-interest is mutual interest,” “Does Behavioral Economics Undermine the Welfare State?” (of course not!  As the author hopefully if somewhat diffidently opines, “Like any field, behavioral economics gives you lots of opportunity to pick and choose, and if you’re willing to be superficial or unscrupulous, you can justify lots of policy positions with it. But on balance I think it cuts in favor of the welfare state.”), and “Why the Economics of ‘Me’ Can’t Replace the Economics of ‘We.'”  It turns out that “evolved behavior” deals Conservative and Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand an especially severe smackdown.  The author of one article, entitled “What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory,” concludes that, “Our very survival as a species depended on cooperation, and humans excel at cooperative effort. Rather than keeping knowledge, skills and goods ourselves, early humans exchanged them freely across cultural groups.”  According to other papers, “science says” that evolved human behavior promotes altruism, not selfishness, and Rand must therefore be all wet.  See, for example, “What Ayn Rand Got Wrong About Human Nature and Free Markets; When altruism trumps selfishness” and “Ayn Rand Was Wrong about Human Nature; Rand would be surprised by the new science of selfishness and altruism.”  Indeed, the “evonomicists” seem obsessed by Rand, going so far as to suggest that a Soviet style cure might have been called for to treat her ideologically suspect notions.  The author of the last article mentioned above asks the rhetorical question, “I believe a strong case could be made that Ayn Rand was projecting her own sense of reality into the mind’s of her fictional protagonists. Does this mean that Rand was a sociopath?,” adding remarks in the remainder of the paragraph that leave the reader with the impression that she almost certainly was.  In an article entitled, “Let’s Take Objectivism Back From Ayn Rand,” group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson piles on with, “…it is no secret that the Ayn Rand movement had all the earmarks of a cult.”

    Far be it for me to retrospectively assess the mental health of Ayn Rand one way or the other.  My point is that, when it comes to innate behavior, the process of Gleichschaltung is well underway.  One can already predict with a fair degree of certainly what most of the “discoveries” about innate human behavior will look like for the foreseeable future.  Be that as it may, one still detects glimmers of light here and there.  As yet, no such “iron curtain” shrouds thought and theory in the behavioral sciences as prevailed during the darkest days of the Blank Slate.  One occasionally finds articles that are “noch nicht gleichgeschaltet” (still not in step), in both Evolutionary Psychology and at Evonomics.  In the former, for example, see “Book Review: What Men Endure to Be Men: A review of Jonathan Gottschall, The professor in the cage: Why men fight, and why we like to watch,” and in the latter a article by Michael Shermer entitled Would Darwin be a Socialist or a Libertarian? that actually has some nice things to say about Friedrich Hayek.  It would seem, then that the process of Gleichschaltung is not yet quite complete, although, given the almost universal lack of ideological diversity in academia, there is no telling how long those few who persist in being “out of step” will still be tolerated.

    Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism is the simple fact that the Blank Slate has been crushed.  There is no longer a serious debate about whether innate human nature exists.  If its existence is accepted as a fact, then psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists may continue to publish papers portraying it as universally benign and dovetailing perfectly with leftist ideological shibboleths until they are blue in the face.  Neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists will still be out there investigating how these innate processes actually work at the microscopic level in the brain.  With luck, they may eventually be able to discover ways to isolate a few kernels of truth from the chaff of “just so stories” that are inevitable in the publish or perish world of academia.  One must hope they will sooner rather than later, because it is likely that our very survival will depend on acquiring an accurate knowledge of exactly what kind of creatures we are.

    In a world full of nuclear weapons, it is probably more important for us to learn what innate aspects of our nature have contributed to the incessant warfare that has plagued our species since before the dawn of recorded time than it is to know how male eye movements influence female sexual receptiveness.  Similarly, it is important for us to be familiar, not just with the “good” innate behaviors commonly found within ingroups, but also with the “ungood” innate behaviors we exhibit towards outgroups, and for that matter, the mere fact that there actually are such things as ingroups and outgroups.  One hardly needs the services of a professional evolutionary psychologist to observe the latter.  Just read the comments at any liberal or conservative website.  There one will find ample documentation of the fact that members of the outgroup are not just wrong, but evil, hateful, and deserving severe punishment which is not infrequently imagined in the form of beating, killing, or, as was recently called for in the case of Sarah Palin, gang rape and other forms of sexual assault.  In other words, “aggression” is still out there, and it isn’t going anywhere.  It might be useful for us to learn how to deal with it without either annihilating ourselves or destroying the planet we live on.  Behavioral scientists might want to keep that in mind while they’re composing their next paper on the “nice” aspects of human behavior.

  • Of Moral Truths and Moral Smoke Screens

    Posted on January 9th, 2016 Helian 3 comments

    I’m hardly the only one who’s noticed the evolutionary origins of morality.  I’m not even the only one who’s put two and two together and realized that, as a consequence, objective morality is a chimera.  Edvard Westermarck arrived at the same conclusion more than a century ago, pointing out the impossibility of truth claims about good and evil.  Many of my contemporaries agree on these fundamental facts.  However, it would seem that very few of them agree with me on the implications of these truths for each of us as individuals.

    Consider, for example, a recent post by Michael Shepanski, entitled Morality without smoke, that appeared on his blog Step Back, Step Forward.  Shepanski appears to have no reservations about the evolutionary origins of morality, noting that those origins don’t imply the Hobbesian conclusion that all human behavior is motivated by self-interest:

    To begin, human nature is not the horrible thing that some have imagined. I’m looking at you, Thomas Hobbes:

    Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

    That was written in 1651, and since then we have learnt something about evolutionary psychology. It turns out that our genes have equipped us with more than narrow self-interest: we come with innate tendencies towards (among other things) altruism, empathy, loyalty, and retribution. Also society has systems of rewards and punishments to keep us mostly in line, whether we’re innately disposed to it or not.

    Shepanski also appears to accept the conclusion that, as a result of the evolutionary origins of morality, all the religious and secular edifices concocted so far as a “basis” for it are really just so much smoke.  However, he denies the implication that this implies the “end of morality.”  Rather, he would prefer a “morality without smoke,” meaning one that doesn’t have a “mystical foundation.”  The problem is that he has no such morality to offer:

    About now, you might expect me to put forward some non-mystical basis for morals: something from science perhaps. No, that is not my plan. I don’t believe it’s possible. I’m with the philosopher David Hume, who said we can never reason from matters of fact alone to a moral conclusion: we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.

    I agree with Shepanski about the lack of an objective, or “smoke-free” basis for morality, and I also agree that the lack of such a basis does not imply the “end of morality.”  Morality certainly isn’t going anywhere, regardless of the musings of the philosophers.  It is part of our nature, and a part that we could not well do without even if that were possible, which it isn’t.  This is where things really get interesting, however, and not just in the context of Shepanski’s paper, but in general.  What are the consequences of the facts set forth above?  What “should” we do in view of them?  What do they imply in terms of how individuals should interpret their own moral emotions?

    According to Shepanski,

    And I agree with Hume because (a) as a matter of logic, I don’t see how you can ever get a conclusion that uses the moral words (“ought”, “should”, “good”, “evil” etc.) from premises that don’t use those words (unless the conclusion is completely vacuous), and (b) to my knowledge, no-one has ever found a way around Hume’s law (and even if some ingenious workaround can be found, we don’t want to put morality on hold while we’re waiting for it).

    Summing up so far: basing morals on mysticism is noxious, and basing morals on science alone looks impossible. What next?

    Tell the truth?  Accept the fact that objective morality is as imaginary as Santa Claus, and consider rationally where we go from there?  Well, not quite.  Again quoting Shepanski,

    When you get to that point, and someone asks you what your moral bedrock is based on, my advice is: don’t answer. Keep mum. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Zip it. (Or if you really must have some words to fill an awkward conversational silence, then it’s probably harmless to say any of the following: “It’s a deeply held personal belief,” “It’s just the way I was brought up,” or “These truths we hold to be self-evident”. Just don’t attempt a real defense: don’t attempt to deduce your moral bedrock from anything else.)

    In other words, as my old drama teacher used to put it, “Ad lib!”  Just make sure you never reveal the little man behind the curtain.  Manipulate moral emotions to your heart’s content, but just make sure you never tell the truth.  Of course, this “solution” is very convenient for the “experts on ethics.”  They get to continue pretending that they’re actually experts about something real.  That, of course, is exactly what the legions of them plying their trade in academia and elsewhere are doing as I write this.

    As I pointed out above, what’s interesting about Shepanski’s take on morality is that he derives it from the same basic facts as my own.  In short, he realizes that there is no such thing as objective morality, and he knows that morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains, capable of reasoning about what their moral emotions are trying to tell them.  As he puts it:

    Without smoke, moral principles are pegged to one thing only: our willingness to accept their consequences. Which consequences we are willing to accept is determined, to a large extent, by our evolved psychological tendencies, including altruism, empathy, and self-interest. Within the human species these evolved tendencies are probably more similar than different, so there is hope that our moral principles will converge. Reasoning with one other…, can bring the convergence forward.

    Is that really what we “ought” to do?  Embrace a future in which the best manipulators of moral emotions get to guide their “convergence” to whatever end state they happen to prefer?  I can’t answer that question.  Like Shepanski, I lack any “bedrock” basis for telling anyone what they “ought” to do as a matter of principle.  When it comes to “oughts,” I must limit myself to suggesting what they “ought” to do as a mere matter of utility in order to best achieve goals that, for one reason or another, happen to be important to them.  With that caveat, I suggest that they ought not to follow Shepanski’s advice.

    If human morality is really the expression of evolved behavioral traits, as Shepanski and I both agree, than those traits didn’t just suddenly pop into existence.  Perhaps, like the human eye, they arose from extremely primitive origins, and were gradually refined to their present state over the eons.  Regardless of the precise sequence of events, it’s clear that they evolved in times radically different from the present.  If they evolved, then they must have had some survival value at the time they evolved.  It is certainly not obvious, and indeed it would be surprising, if they were similarly effective in promoting our survival today.  One can cite many examples in which they appear to be accomplishing precisely the opposite, leading to what I have referred to elsewhere as “morality inversions.”

    In other words, while I think it likely that most of us have some subjective notion of purpose, of the meaning of life, of aspirations or goals that are important to us, I very much doubt that a “convergence” of morality will prove to be the most effective way for most of us to achieve those ends.  In the first place, manipulating atavistic emotions strikes me as a dangerous game.  In the second, human moral emotions don’t promote “convergence.”  As Sir Arthur Keith pointed out long ago, they are dual in nature, and include an innate tendency to identify an outgroup, whose members it is natural to despise and hate.  One need only glance through the comment section of any blog or website hosted by some proponent of the “brotherhood of man” to find abundant artifacts of the intense hatred felt for the ideological “other.”  Hatred of the “other” has been with us throughout recorded history, is alive and well today, especially among those of us who most pique themselves on their superior piety and moral purity, and will certainly continue to be a prominent trait of our species for a long time to come.

    What do I suggest as a more “useful” approach than Shepanski’s “convergence?”  The truth is always a good place to start.  We have the misfortune to live in an age dominated by Puritans in both the traditional spiritual and modern secular flavors.  Their demands to be taken seriously as well as the wellsprings of such power as they possess is absolutely dependent on maintaining the illusion that there are such things as objective good and evil.  As a result, promoting a general knowledge and appreciation of the consequences of the truth won’t be easy.  It will entail pulling the rug out from under these obscurantists.  Beyond that, we need to restrict morality to the limits within which we can’t do without it, such as the common, day-to-day interactions of human beings.  My personal preference would be to come up with a common morality that limits the harm we do to each other as much as possible, while at the same time leaving each of us as free as possible to pursue whatever goals in life we happen to have.

    None of the above are likely to happen anytime soon.  No doubt that will come as some comfort to those who “feel in their bones” that good and evil are real things, independent of the human minds that concoct them.  Still, it seems that there’s an increasing tendency, at least in some parts of the world, for people to jettison the silly notion of God into the same realms as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  If that trend is any indication, perhaps there is at least a ray of hope.

  • On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate

    Posted on March 22nd, 2015 Helian 17 comments

    Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider the Blank Slate affair the greatest debacle in the history of science.  Perhaps you haven’t heard of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Those who are the most capable of writing its history are often also those who are most motivated to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  In any case, in the context of this post the Blank Slate refers to a dogma that prevailed in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century according to which there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as human nature.  I consider it the greatest scientific debacle of all time because, for more than half a century, it blocked the path of our species to self-knowledge.  As we gradually approach the technological ability to commit collective suicide, self-knowledge may well be critical to our survival.

    Such histories of the affair as do exist are often carefully and minutely researched by historians familiar with the scientific issues involved.  In general, they’ve personally lived through at least some phase of it, and they’ve often been personally acquainted with some of the most important players.  In spite of that, their accounts have a disconcerting tendency to wildly contradict each other.  Occasionally one finds different versions of the facts themselves, but more often its a question of the careful winnowing of the facts to select and record only those that support a preferred narrative.

    Obviously, I can’t cover all the relevant literature in a single blog post.  Instead, to illustrate my point, I will focus on a single work whose author, Hamilton Cravens, devotes most of his attention to events in the first half of the 20th century, describing the sea change in the behavioral sciences that signaled the onset of the Blank Slate.  As it happens, that’s not quite what he intended.  What we see today as the darkness descending was for him the light of science bursting forth.  Indeed, his book is entitled, somewhat optimistically in retrospect, The Triumph of Evolution:  The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941.  It first appeared in 1978, more or less still in the heyday of the Blank Slate, although murmurings against it could already be detected among academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences after the appearance of a series of devastating critiques in the popular literature in the 60’s by Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others, topped off by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

    Ostensibly, the “triumph” Cravens’ title refers to is the demise of what he calls the “extreme hereditarian” interpretations of human behavior that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century in favor of a more “balanced” approach that recognized the importance of culture, as revealed by a systematic application of the scientific method.  One certainly can’t fault him for being superficial.  He introduces us to most of the key movers and shakers in the behavioral sciences in the period in question.  There are minutiae about the contents of papers in old scientific journals, comments gleaned from personal correspondence, who said what at long forgotten scientific conferences, which colleges and universities had strong programs in psychology, sociology and anthropology more than 100 years ago, and who supported them, etc., etc.  He guides us into his narrative so gently that we hardly realize we’re being led by the nose.  Gradually, however, the picture comes into focus.

    It goes something like this.  In bygone days before the “triumph of evolution,” the existence of human “instincts” was taken for granted.  Their importance seemed even more obvious in light of the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.  As Cravens put it,

    While it would be inaccurate to say that most American experimentalists concluded as  the result of the general acceptance of Mendelism by 1910 or so that heredity was all powerful and environment of no consequence, it was nevertheless true that heredity occupied a much more prominent place than environment in their writings.

    This sort of “subtlety” is characteristic of Cravens’ writing.  Here, he doesn’t accuse the scientists he’s referring to of being outright genetic determinists.  They just have an “undue” tendency to overemphasize heredity.  It is only gradually, and by dint of occasional reading between the lines that we learn the “true” nature of these believers in human “instinct.”  Without ever seeing anything as blatant as a mention of Marxism, we learn that their “science” was really just a reflection of their “class.”  For example,

    But there were other reasons why so many American psychologists emphasized heredity over environment.  They shared the same general ethnocultural and class background as did the biologists.  Like the biologists, they grew up in middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes, in a subculture where the individual was the focal point of social explanation and comment.

    As we read on, we find Cravens is obsessed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, noting that the “wrong” kind of scientists belong to that “class” scores of times.  Among other things, they dominate the eugenics movement, and are innocently referred to as Social Darwinists, as if these terms had never been used in a pejorative sense.  In general they are supposed to oppose immigration from other than “Nordic” countries, and tend to support “neo-Lamarckian” doctrines, and believe blindly that intelligence test results are independent of “social circumstances and milieu.”  As we read further into Section I of the book, we are introduced to a whole swarm of these instinct-believing WASPs.

    In Section II, however, we begin to see the first glimmerings of a new, critical and truly scientific approach to the question of human instincts.  Men like Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, and Alfred Kroeber, began to insist on the importance of culture.  Furthermore, they believed that their “culture idea” could be studied in isolation in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, insisting on sharp, “territorial” boundaries that would protect their favored disciplines from the defiling influence of instincts.  As one might expect,

    The Boasians were separated from WASP culture; several were immigrants, of Jewish background, or both.

    A bit later they were joined by joined by John Watson and his behaviorists who, after performing some experiments on animals and human infants, apparently experienced an epiphany.  As Cravens puts it,

    To his amazement, Watson concluded that the James-McDougall human instinct theory had no demonstrable experimental basis.  He found the instinct theorists had greatly overestimated the number of original emotional reactions in infants.  For all practical purposes, he realized that there were no human instincts determining the behavior of adults or even of children.

    Perhaps more amazing is the fact that Cravens suspected not a hint of a tendency to replace science with dogma in all this.  As Leibniz might have put it, everything was for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Everything pointed to the “triumph of evolution.”  According to Cravens, the “triumph” came with astonishing speed:

    By the early 1920s the controversy was over.  Subsequently, psychologists and sociologists joined hands to work out a new interdisciplinary model of the sources of human conduct and emotion stressing the interaction of heredity and environment, of innate and acquired characters – in short, the balance of man’s nature and his culture.

    Alas, my dear Cravens, the controversy was just beginning.  In what follows, he allows us a glimpse at just what kind of “balance” he’s referring to.  As we read on into Section 3 of the book, he finally gets around to setting the hook:

    Within two years of the Nazi collapse in Europe Science published an article symptomatic of a profound theoretical reorientation in the American natural and social sciences.  In that article Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist, and M. F. Ashley-Montagu, an anthropologist, summarized and synthesized what the last quarter century’s work in their respective fields implied for extreme hereditarian explanations of human nature and conduct.  Their overarching thesis was that man was the product of biological and social evolution.  Even though man in his biological aspects was as subject to natural processes as any other species, in certain critical respects he was unique in nature, for the specific system of genes that created an identifiably human mentality also permitted man to experience cultural evolution… Dobzhansky and Ashley-Montagu continued, “Instead of having his responses genetically fixed as in other animal species, man is a species that invents its own responses, and it is out of this unique ability to invent…  his responses that his cultures are born.”

    and, finally, in the conclusions, after assuring us that,

    By the early 1940s the nature-nurture controversy had run its course.

    Cravens leaves us with some closing sentences that epitomize his “triumph of evolution:”

    The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

    At this point, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently Cravens, who has just supplied us with arcane details about who said what at obscure scientific conferences half a century and more before he published his book was completely unawares of exactly what Ashley Montagu, his herald of the new world order, meant when he referred to “extreme hereditarian explanations,” in spite of the fact that he spelled it out ten years earlier in an invaluable little pocket guide for the followers of the “new science” entitled Man and Aggression.  There Montagu describes the sort of “balance of man’s nature and his culture” he intended as follows:

    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.

    and,

    There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “phylogenetically adapted instinctive” behavior of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive-forces of human behavior.  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.

    So much for Cravens’ “balance.”  He spills a great deal of ink in his book assuring us that the Blank Slate orthodoxy he defends was the product of “science,” little influenced by any political or ideological bias.  Apparently he also didn’t notice that, not only in Man and Aggression, but ubiquitously in the Blank Slate literature, the “new science” is defended over and over and over again with the “argument” that anyone who opposes it is a racist and a fascist, not to mention far right wing.

    As it turns out, Cravens didn’t completely lapse into a coma following the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1947 pronunciamiento in Science.  In his “Conclusion” we discover that, after all, he had a vague presentiment of the avalanche that would soon make a shambles of his “new evolutionary science.”  In his words,

    Of course in recent years something approximating at least a minor revival of the old nature-nurture controversy seems to have arisen in American science and politics.  It is certainly quite possible that this will lead to a full scale nature-nurture controversy in time, not simply because of the potential for a new model of nature that would permit a new debate, but also, as one historian has pointed out, because our own time, like the 1920s, has been a period of racial and ethnic polarization.  Obviously any further comment would be premature.

    Obviously, my dear Cravens.  What’s the moral of the story, dear reader?   Well, among other things, that if you really want to learn something about the Blank Slate, you’d better not be shy of wading through the source literature yourself.  It’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.  One particularly rich source of historical nuggets is H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which Ron Unz has been so kind as to post online.  Mencken took a personal interest in the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, and took care to publish articles by heavy hitters on both sides.  For a rather different take than Cravens on the motivations of the early Blank Slaters, see for example, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley.  Parshley was an interesting character who took on no less an opponent than Clarence Darrow in a debate over eugenics, and later translated Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex into English.

    chimp-thinking

  • On the Resurrection and Transfiguration of the Blank Slate

    Posted on February 28th, 2015 Helian No comments

    All appearances to the contrary in the popular media, the Blank Slate lives on.  Of course, its heyday is long gone, but it slumbers on in the more obscure niches of academia.  One of its more recent manifestations just turned up at Scientia Salon in the form of a paper by one Mark Fedyk, an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University in Sackville, Canada.  Entitled, “How (not) to Bring Psychology and Biology Together,” it provides the interested reader with a glimpse at several of the more typical features of the genre as it exists today.

    Fedyk doesn’t leave us in doubt about where he’s coming from.  Indeed, he lays his cards on the table in plain sight in the abstract, where he writes that, “psychologists should have a preference for explanations of adaptive behavior in humans that refer to learning and other similarly malleable psychological mechanisms – and not modules or instincts or any other kind of relatively innate and relatively non-malleable psychological mechanisms.”  Reading on into the body of the paper a bit, we quickly find another trademark trait of both the ancient and modern Blank Slaters; their tendency to invent strawman arguments, attribute them to their opponents, and then blithely ignore those opponents when they point out that the strawmen bear no resemblance to anything they actually believe.

    In Fedyk’s case, many of the strawmen are incorporated in his idiosyncratic definition of the term “modules.”  Among other things, these “modules” are “strongly nativist,” they don’t allow for “developmental plasticity,” they imply a strong, either-or version of the ancient nature vs. nurture dichotomy, and they are “relatively innate and relatively non-malleable.”  In Fedyk’s paper, the latter phrase serves the same purpose as the ancient “genetic determinism” strawman did in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  Apparently that’s now become too obvious, and the new jargon is introduced by way of keeping up appearances.  In any case, we gather from the paper that all evolutionary psychologists are supposed to believe in these “modules.”  It matters not a bit to Fedyk that his “modules” have been blown out of the water literally hundreds of times in the EP literature stretching back over a period of two decades and more.  A good example that patiently dissects each of his strawmen one by one is “Modularity in Cognition:  Framing the Debate,” published by Barrett and Kurzban back in 2006.  It’s available free online, and I invite my readers to have a look at it.  It can be Googled up by anyone in a few seconds, but apparently Fedyk has somehow failed to discover it.

    Once he has assured us that all EPers have an unshakable belief in his “modules,” Fedyk proceeds to concoct an amusing fairy tale based on that assumption.  In the process, he presents his brilliant and original theory of “anticipated consilience.”  According to this theory, researchers in new fields, such as EP, should rely on the findings of more mature “auxiliary disciplines,” particularly those which have been “extremely successful” in the past, to inform their own research.  In the case of evolutionary psychology, the “auxiliary discipline” turns out to be evolutionary biology.  As Fedyk puts it,

    One of the more specific ways of doing this is to rely upon what can be called the principle of anticipated consilience, which says that it is rational to have a prima facie preference for those novel theories commended by previous scientific research which are most likely to be subsequently integrated in explanatorily- or inductively-fruitful ways with the relevant discipline as it expands.  The principle will be reliable simply because the novel theories which are most likely to be subsequently integrated into the mature scientific discipline as it expands are just those novel theories which are most likely to be true.

    He then proceeds to incorporate his strawmen into an illustration of how this “anticipated consilience” would work in practice:

    To see how this would work, consider, for example, two fairly general categories of proximate explanations for adaptive behaviors in humans, nativist (i.e., bad, ed.) psychological hypotheses which posit some kind of module (namely the imaginary kind invented by Fedyk, ed.) and non-nativist (i.e., good, ed.) psychological hypotheses, which posit some kind of learning routine (i.e., the Blank Slate, ed.)

    As the tale continues, we learn that,

    …it is plausible that, for approximately the first decade of research in evolutionary psychology following its emergence out of sociobiology in the 1980s, considerations of anticipated consilience would have likely rationalized a preference for proximate explanations which refer to modules and similar types of proximate mechanisms.

    The reason for this given by Fedyk turns out to be the biggest thigh-slapper in this whole, implausible yarn,

    So by the time evolutionary psychology emerged in reaction to human sociobiology in the 1980s, (Konrad) Lorenz’s old hydraulic model of instincts really was the last positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior.

    Whimsical?  Yes, but stunning is probably a better adjective.  If we are to believe Fedyk, we are forced to conclude that he never even heard of the Blank Slate!  After all, some of that orthodoxy’s very arch-priests, such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould are/were evolutionary biologists.  They, too, had a “positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior,” in the form of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk is speaking of a time in which the Blank Slate dogmas were virtually unchallenged in the behavioral sciences, and anyone who got out of line was shouted down as a fascist, or worse.  And yet we are supposed to swallow the ludicrous imposture that Lorenz’ hydraulic theory not only overshadowed the Blank Slate dogmas, but was the only game in town!  But let’s not question the plot.  Continuing on with Fedyk’s adjusted version of history, we discover that (voila!) the evolutionary biologists suddenly recovered from their infatuation with hydraulic theory, and got their minds right:

    …what I want to argue is that, in the last decade or so, a new understanding of the biological importance of developmental plasticity has implications for evolutionary psychology. Whereas previously considerations of anticipated consilience with evolutionary biology and cognitive science may have provided support for those proximate hypotheses which posited modules, I argue in this section that these very same considerations now support significantly non-nativist proximate hypotheses. The argument, put simply, is that traits which have high degrees of plasticity will be more evolutionarily robust than highly canalized innately specified non-malleable traits like mental modules. The upshot is that a mind comprised mostly of modules is not plastic in this specific sense, and is therefore ultimately unlikely to be favoured by natural selection. But a mind equipped with powerful, domain general learning routines does have the relevant plasticity.

    I leave it as an exercise for the student to pick out all the innumerable strawmen in this parable of the “great change of heart” in evolutionary biology.  Suffice it to say that, as a result of this new-found “plasticity,” anticipated consilience now requires evolutionary psychologists to reject their silly notions about human nature in favor of a return to the sheltering haven of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk helpfully spells it out for us:

    This means that, given a choice between proximate explanations which reflect a commitment to the massive modularity hypothesis and proximate explanations which, instead, reflect an approach to the mind which privileges learning…, the latter is most plausible in light of evolutionary biology.

    The kicker here is that if anyone even mildly suggests any connection between this latter day manifestation of cultural determinism and the dogmas of the Blank Slate, the Fedyks of the world scream foul.  Apparently we are to believe that the “proximate explanations” of evolutionary psychology aren’t completely excluded as long as one can manage a double back flip over the rather substantial barrier of “anticipated consilience” that blocks the way.  How that might actually turn out to be possible is never explained.  In spite of these scowling denials, I personally will continue to prefer the naïve assumption that, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, then it actually is a duck, or Blank Slater, as the case may be.