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  • Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint” – The Blank Slate and the Behavioral Genetics Insurgency

    Posted on January 28th, 2019 Helian No comments

    Robert Plomin‘s Blueprint is a must read. That would be true even if it were “merely” an account of recent stunning breakthroughs that have greatly expanded our understanding of the links between our DNA and behavior. However, beyond that it reveals an aspect of history that has been little appreciated to date; the guerilla warfare carried on by behavioral geneticists against the Blank Slate orthodoxy from a very early date. You might say the book is an account of the victorious end of that warfare. From now on those who deny the existence of heritable genetic effects on human behavior will self-identify as belonging to the same category as the more seedy televangelists, or even professors in university “studies” departments.

    Let’s begin with the science.   We have long known by virtue of thousands of twin and adoption studies that many complex human traits, including psychological traits, are more or less heritable due to differences in DNA. These methods also enable us to come up with a ballpark estimate of the degree to which these traits are influenced by genetics. However, we have not been able until very recently to detect exactly what inherited differences in DNA sequences are actually responsible for the variations we see in these traits. That’s were the “revolution” in genetics described by Plomin comes in. It turns out that detecting these differences was to be a far more challenging task than optimistic scientists expected at first. As he put it,

    When the hunt began twenty-five years ago everyone assumed we were after big game – a few genes of large effect that were mostly responsible for heritability. For example, for heritabilities of about 50 per cent, ten genes each accounting for 5 per cent of the variance would do the job. If the effects were this large, it would require a sample size of only 200 to have sufficient power to detect them.

    This fond hope turned out to be wishful thinking. As noted in the book, some promising genes were studied, and some claims were occasionally made in the literature that a few such “magic” genes had been found. The result, according to Plomin, was a fiasco. The studies could not be replicated. It was clear by the turn of the century that a much broader approach would be necessary. This, however, would require the genotyping of tens of thousands of single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (snips). A SNP is a change in a single one of the billions of rungs of the DNA ladder each of us carries. SNPs are one of the main reasons for differences in the DNA sequence among different human beings. To make matters worse, it was expected that sample sizes of a thousand or more individuals would have to be checked in this way to accumulate enough data to be statistically useful. At the time, such genome-wide association (GWA) studies would have been prohibitively expensive. Plomin notes that he attempted such an approach to find the DNA differences associated with intelligence, with the aid of a few shortcuts. He devoted two years to the study, only to be disappointed again. It was a second false start. Not a single DNA association with intelligence could be replicated.

    Then, however, a major breakthrough began to make its appearance in the form of SNP chips.  According to Plomin, “These could “genotype many SNPs for an individual quickly and inexpensively. SNP chips triggered the explosion of genome-wide association studies.” He saw their promise immediately, and went back to work attempting to find SNP associations with intelligence. The result? A third false start. The chips available at the time were still too expensive, and could identify too few SNPs. Many other similar GWA studies failed miserably as well. Eventually, one did succeed, but there was a cloud within the silver lining. The effect size of the SNP associations found were all extremely small. Then things began to snowball. Chips were developed that could identify hundreds of thousands instead of just tens of thousands of SNPs, and sample sizes in the tens of thousands became feasible. Today, sample sizes can be in the hundreds of thousands. As a result of all this, revolutionary advances have been made in just the past few years. Numerous genome-wide significant hits have been found for a host of psychological traits. And now we know the reason why the initial studies were so disappointing. In Plomin’s words,

    For complex traits, no genes have been found that account for 5 per cent of the variance, not even 0.5 per cent of the variance. The average effect sizes are in the order of 0.01 per cent of the variance, which means that thousands of SNP associations will be needed to account for heritabilities of 50 per cent… Thinking about so many SNPs with such small effects was a big jump from where we started twenty-five years ago. We now know for certain that heritability is caused by thousands of associations of incredibly small effect. Nonetheless, aggregating these associations in polygenic scores that combine the effects of tens of thousands of SNPs makes it possible to predict psychological traits such as depression, schizophrenia and school achievement.

    In short, we now have a tool that, as I write this, is rapidly increasing in power, and that enables falsifiable predictions regarding many psychological traits based on DNA alone. As Plomin puts it,

    The DNA revolution matters much more than merely replicating results from twin and adoption studies. It is a game-changer for science and society. For the first time, inherited DNA differences across our entire genome of billions of DNA sequences can be used to predict psychological strengths and weaknesses for individuals, called personal genomics.

    As an appreciable side benefit, thanks to this revolution we can now officially declare the Blank Slate stone cold dead. It’s noteworthy that this revolutionary advance in our knowledge of the heritable aspects of our behavior did not happen in the field of evolutionary psychology, as one might expect. Diehard Blank Slaters have been directing their ire in that direction for some time. They could have saved themselves the trouble. While the evolutionary psychologists have been amusing themselves inventing inconsequential just so stories about the more abstruse aspects of our sexual behavior, a fifth column that germinated long ago in the field of behavioral genetics was about to drive the decisive nail in their coffin. Obviously, it would have been an inappropriate distraction for Plomin to expand on the fascinating history behind this development in Blueprint.  Read between the lines, though, and its quite clear that he knows what’s been going on.

    It turns out that the behavioral geneticists were already astute at dodging the baleful attention of the high priests of the Blank Slate, flying just beneath their radar, at a very early date. A useful source document recounting some of that history entitled, Origins of Behavior Genetics: The Role of The Jackson Laboratory, was published in 2009 by Donald Dewsbury, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Florida. He notes that,

    A new field can be established and coalesce around a book that takes loosely evolving material and organizes it into a single volume. Examples include Watson’s (1914) Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology and Wilson’s (1975) Sociobiology. It is generally agreed that Fuller and Thompson’s 1960 Behavior Genetics served a similar function in establishing behavior genetics as a separate field.

    However, research on the effects of genes on behavior had already begun much earlier. In the 1930’s, when the Blank Slate already had a firm grip on the behavioral sciences, According to the paper, Harvard alumnus Alan Gregg, who was Director of the Medical Sciences Division of Rockefeller Foundation,

    …developed a program of “psychobiology” or “mental hygiene” at the Foundation. Gregg viewed mental illness as a fundamental problem in society and believed that there were strong genetic influences. There was a firm belief that the principles to be discovered in nonhuman animals would generalize to humans. Thus, fundamental problems of human behavior might be more conveniently and effectively studied in other species.

    The focus on animals turned out to be a very wise decision. For many years it enabled the behavioral geneticists to carry on their work while taking little flak from the high priests of the Blank Slate, whose ire was concentrated on scientists who were less discrete about their interest in humans, in fields such as ethology. Eventually Gregg teamed up with Clarence Little, head of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and established a program to study mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, and, especially dogs. Gregg wrote papers about selective breeding of dogs for high intelligence and good disposition. However, as his colleagues were aware, another of his goals “was conclusively to demonstrate a high heritability of human intelligence.”

    Fast forward to the 60’s. It was a decade in which the Blank Slate hegemony began to slowly crumble under the hammer blows of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Robert Trivers, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and especially the outsider and “mere playwright” Robert Ardrey. In 1967 the Institute for Behavioral Genetics (IBG) was established at the University of Colorado by Prof. Jerry McClearn with his colleagues Kurt Schlesinger and Jim Wilson. In the beginning, McClearn et. al. were a bit coy, conducting “harmless” research on the behavior of mice, but by the early 1970’s they had begun to publish papers that were explicitly about human behavior. It finally dawned on the Blank Slaters what they were up to, and they were subjected to the usual “scientific” accusations of fascism, Nazism, and serving as running dogs of the bourgeoisie, but by then it was too late. The Blank Slate had already become a laughing stock among lay people who were able to read and had an ounce of common sense. Only the “experts” in the behavioral sciences would be rash enough to continue futile attempts to breath life back into the corpse.

    Would that some competent historian could reconstruct what was going through the minds of McClearn and the rest when they made their bold and potentially career ending decision to defy the Blank Slate and establish the IBG. I believe Jim Wilson is still alive, and no doubt could tell some wonderful stories about this nascent insurgency. In any case, in 1974 Robert Plomin made the very bold decision for a young professor to join the Institute. One of the results of that fortuitous decision was the superb book that is the subject of this post. As noted above, digression into the Blank Slate affair would only have been a distraction from the truly revolutionary developments revealed in his book. However, there is no question that that he was perfectly well aware of what had been going on in the “behavioral sciences” for many years. Consider, for example, the following passage, about why research results in behavioral genetics are so robust and replicate so strongly:

    Another reason seems paradoxical: behavioral genetics has been the most controversial topic in psychology during the twentieth century. The controversy and conflict surrounding behavioral genetics raised the bar for the quality and quantity of research needed to convince people of the importance of genetics. This has had the positive effect of motivating bigger and better studies. A single study was not enough. Robust replication across studies tipped the balance of opinion.

    As the Germans say, “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stark” (What doesn’t kill me make me strong). If you were looking for a silver lining to the Blank Slate, there you have it. What more can I say. The book is a short 188 pages, but in those pages are concentrated a wealth of knowledge bearing on the critical need of our species to understand itself. If you would know yourself, then by all means, buy the book.

  • 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.

  • Moral Emotions and Moral Truth

    Posted on November 6th, 2016 Helian 6 comments

    There are moral emotions.  There is no such thing as moral truth.

    The above are fundamental facts.  We live in a world of moral chaos because of our failure to accept them and grasp their significance.

    Eighteenth century British philosophers demonstrated that emotions are the source of all moral judgments.  “Pure reason” is incapable of anything but chasing its own tail.  Darwin revealed the origin of the emotions as the result of evolution by natural selection.  It was left for the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck to draw the obvious conclusion; that there is no such thing as moral truth.

    David Hume is often given the credit for identifying emotions or, as he put it, “passions,” as the source of moral judgments.  According to Hume,

    Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    However, when he wrote the above, Hume was really just repeating the earlier work of Francis Hutcheson.  It was Hutcheson who demonstrated the emotional origin of moral judgments beyond any serious doubt.  I encourage modern readers who are interested in the subject to read his books on the subject.  I have quoted him at length in earlier posts, and I will do so again here.  Here is what he had to say about the power of “pure reason” to isolate moral truth:

    If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.

    There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object.  This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike:  Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action:  Both propositions are equally true.

    But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.

    Hutcheson followed up this critique of reason with some comments about the role of “human nature” as the origin and inspiration of all moral judgment that might almost have come from a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology, and that are truly stunning considering that they were written early in the 18th century.  Again quoting the Ulster Scots/British philosopher as well as my own comments from an earlier post:

    Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.

    If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:

    Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature:  and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.”  He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.

    Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time.  As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:

    Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition.  Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe:  Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed:  And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.

    He concludes,

    Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections?  …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire?  And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation.  A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.

    The fact that Hutcheson believed that God was the origin of the emotions in question in no way detracts from the power of his logic about the essential role of the emotions themselves.  No modern philosopher sitting on the shoulders of Darwin has ever spoken more brilliantly or more clearly.

    In considering the relevance of the above to the human condition, one must keep in mind the fact that any boundary between moral emotions and other emotions is artificial.  Nature created no such boundaries, and they are an artifact of the human tendency to categorize.  Of all the emotions not normally included in the category of moral emotions, the most significant may well be our tendency to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Our outgroup includes people we consider “deplorable.”  They are commonly perceived as evil, and are usually associated with other negative qualities.  For example, they may be considered impure, disgusting, contemptible, infidels, etc.  Outgroup identification is universal, although the degree to which it is present may vary significantly from one individual to the next, like any other subjective mental predisposition.  If one would explore and learn to understand his moral consciousness, he would do well to begin by asking the question, “What is my outgroup?”  The “deplorables” will always be there.

    Consider the implications of the above.  Follow the abstruse reasoning of the “experts on ethics,” to its source, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

    Follow the arcane logic of theologians touching on the moral implications of this or that excerpt from the holy scriptures, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

    When bathroom warriors, or anti-culture appropriators, or the unmaskers of inappropriate Halloween costumes rain down their anathemas on anyone who happens to disagree with them, consider what motivates their behavior, and yet again you will find emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

    Stand in a crowd of Communists as they sing the Internationale, or of Nazis dreaming noble dreams of the liberation of Aryans everywhere from the powers of darkness as they sing the Horst Wessel Song, and you will find that the emotions those songs evoke evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  You won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup, either of Communists or Nazis.  Millions of them were murdered in the name of these two manifestations of higher morality.

    We live in a time of moral chaos because these truths have been too hard for us to bear.  As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we tend to invoke our inner moral lawyer whenever we happen to disagree with someone else about what ought to be.  We consult our moral emotions, and seek to justify ourselves by evoking similar moral emotions in others.  In the process we bamboozle ourselves and others into believing that those emotions relate to real things that we commonly refer to as good and evil, that are imagined to have an independent existence of their own.  They don’t.  They are merely illusions spawned by emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.

    In a word, what we are doing is blindly following and reacting to emotional whims, even though it is questionable whether doing so will have the same result as it did when those whims evolved.  For that matter, we don’t even care.  As long as we can satisfy whims that evolved in the Pleistocene, it matters not at all to us that they will accomplish precisely the opposite in the 21st century to what they did then.  The result is what I have referred to as a morality inversion.  Instead of promoting our survival, the emotions in question promote behavior that accomplishes the opposite in the radically different environment we live in today.  It matters not a bit.  As long as we “feel in our bones” that the actions in question are “Good,” we cheerfully commit suicide, whether by donning a suicide belt or deciding that it must be “immoral” to have children.  We imagine that these actions are “noble” and “morally pure” even though all we have really done is satisfy atavistic whims without the least regard for why those whims exist to begin with, and whether responding to them is likely to accomplish the same thing now as it did millions of years ago or not.

    Again, we live in a world of moral chaos because we have been unable to face the truth, simple and obvious as it is.  There is nothing “bad” about that, nor is there anything “good” about it.  It is just the way things are.  I personally would prefer that we face the truth.  Perhaps then it would occur to us that, since we can hardly do without morality, we would be well advised to come up with a simple moral system that maximizes the ability of each of us to pursue whatever whims we happen to find important with as little fear of possible of being threatened, vilified, or otherwise subjected to the penalties that are typically the lot of outgroups.  If we faced the truth about the real subjective origins of what have seemed objective moral certainties to so many of us in the past, perhaps at least some of us would be more reticent about seeking to impose their own versions of morality on those around them.  If we faced the truth, perhaps we would realize that our universal tendency to blindly vilify and condemn outgroups represents an existential threat to us all, and that the threat must be recognized and controlled.

    These are things that I would like to see.  Of course, they represent nothing more significant than my own whims.

  • 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.

  • …And One More Thing about James Burnham: On Human Nature

    Posted on October 17th, 2015 Helian 4 comments

    There’s another thing about James Burnham’s Suicide of the West that’s quite fascinating; his take on human nature.  In fact, Chapter III is entitled “Human Nature and the Good Society.”  Here are a few excerpts from that chapter:

    However varied may be the combination of beliefs that it is psychologically possible for an individual liberal to hold, it remains true that liberalism is logically committed to a doctrine along the lines that I have sketched:  viewing human nature as not fixed but plastic and changing; with no pre-set limit to potential development; with no innate obstacle to the realization of a society of peace, freedom, justice and well-being.  Unless these things are true of human nature, the liberal doctrine and program for government, education, reform and so on are an absurdity.

    But in the face of what man has done and does, it is only an ideologue obsessed with his own abstractions who can continue to cling to the vision of an innately uncorrupt, rational and benignly plastic human nature possessed of an unlimited potential for realizing the good society.

    Quite true, which makes it all the more remarkable that virtually all the “scientists” in the behavioral “sciences” at the time Burnham wrote these lines were “clinging to that vision,” at least in the United States.  See, for example, The Triumph of Evolution, in which one of these “men of science,” author Hamilton Cravens, documents the fact.  Burnham continues,

    No, we must repeat:  if human nature is scored by innate defects, if the optimistic account of man is unjustified, then is all the liberal faith in vain.

    Here we get a glimpse of the reason that the Blank Slaters insisted so fanatically that there is no such thing as human nature, at least as commonly understood, for so many years, in defiance of all reason, and despite the fact that any 10 year old could have told them their anthropological theories were ludicrous.  The truth stood in the way of their ideology.  Therefore, the truth had to yield.

    All this begs the question of how, as early as 1964, Burnham came up with such a “modern” understanding of the Blank Slate.  Reading on in the chapter, we find some passages that are even more intriguing.  Have a look at this:

    It is not merely the record of history that speaks in unmistakable refutation of the liberal doctrine of man.  Ironically enough – ironically, because it is liberalism that has maintained so exaggerated a faith in science – almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature unite in giving evidence against the liberal view of man as a creature motivated, once ignorance is dispelled, by the rational search for peace, freedom and plenty.  Every modern school of biology and psychology and most schools of sociology and anthropology conclude that men are driven chiefly by profound non-rational, often anti-rational, sentiments and impulses, whose character and very existence are not ordinarily understood by conscious reason.  Many of these drives are aggressive, disruptive, and injurious to others and to society.

    !!!

    The bolding and italics are mine.  How on earth did Burnham come up with such ideas?  By all means, dear reader, head for your local university library, fish out the ancient microfiche, and search through the scientific and professional journals of the time yourself.  Almost without exception, the Blank Slate called the tune.  Clearly, Burnham didn’t get the notion that “almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature” contradicted the Blank Slate from actually reading the literature himself.  Where, then, did he get it?  Only Burnham and the wild goose know, and Burnham’s dead, but my money is on Robert Ardrey.  True, Konrad Lorenz’ On Aggression was published in Germany in 1963, but it didn’t appear in English until 1966.  The only other really influential popular science book published before Suicide of the West that suggested anything like what Burnham wrote in the above passage was Ardrey’s African Genesis, published in 1961.

    What’s that you say?  I’m dreaming?  No one of any significance ever challenged the Blank Slate orthodoxy until E. O. Wilson’s stunning and amazing publication of Sociobiology in 1975?  I know, it must be true, because it’s all right there in Wikipedia.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”

  • The Group Selectionist and the Blank Slater: David Sloan Wilson Interviews Richard Lewontin

    Posted on April 26th, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    I would rank the Blank Slate debacle as the greatest scientific disaster of all time.  For half a century and more, the “men of science” created and maintained a formidable obstacle in the way of our gaining the self-knowledge as a species that may be critical to our survival.  This obstacle was the denial that human behavior is in any way influenced by innate human nature.  For the time being, at least, the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been crushed.  It would seem however, that the scientific community is still traumatized by the affair.  The whimsical “histories” that continue to be concocted of the affair and of the roles of the key players in it is a manifestation thereof.

    For example, Robert Ardrey, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday, has been thoroughly vindicated as far as the main theme of all his work is concerned.  In spite of that, he is a virtual unperson today.  Having shamed the “men of science,” it would seem that it is now beneath their dignity to even take notice of the fact that he ever existed.  Meanwhile, Richard Lewontin, one of the high priests of the Blank Slate, is revered, and continues to win prestigious awards as a “great scientist.”  Among people who should certainly know better, the mere mention of the fact that he was a kingpin of the Blank Slate orthodoxy is greeted with stunned disbelief.

    Recently Lewontin was interviewed by David Sloan Wilson, one of today’s foremost defenders of group selection, a topic with a fascinating history of its own in connection with the Blank Slate.  We find that, like the Bourbons who were propped back up as French monarchs by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  He has merely become more circumspect about revealing the ideological motivations behind his “science.”  This becomes obvious when Wilson gets around to asking Lewontin about the connection between The Spandrels of San Marco, a paper he co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould in 1979, and Sociobiology.  Lewontin demurely replies that it may have been “contextually relevant,” but the paper was mainly an attack on naïve adaptationism.  Wilson:  “I’m interested to know that was the primary motivation for the article, not Sociobiology.”  Lewontin:  “Yeah.”  Balked in this first attempt, later in the interview, Wilson becomes a bit more blunt.  (I delete some of the exchange for brevity.  I encourage readers to look at the entire interview.)

    DSW:  Dick, I’d like to spend a little bit of time on Sociobiology and also Evolutionary Psychology, because even though that didn’t motivate the Spandrels paper, it still motivated you to be a critic and Steve too.

    RL:  Look, when I look at Sociobiology, the book or some of the other books he (E. O. Wilson) has written, it drives me mad.  For example, if you read – I’ll take an extremely nasty example because it’s so clear – it is written that aggression is a part of human nature.  It says that in the book, it lists features of human nature and aggression is one of them.  So then I have said to Ed and others of his school, what do you do about people who have spent almost their entire lives in jail because they refuse to be conscripted into the army?  What do you think the answer is?  That is their form of aggression.

    DSW:  Well, OK, that’s facile.

    RL:  I don’t know what you can do about it.  If everything can be said to be a form of aggression, even the refusal to be physically aggressive, what kind of science is that? …Because if everything by definition can be shown to be aggression then it ceases to be a useful concept in our scientific discussions.

    As it happens, Lewontin uses the same argument in Not In Our Genes, a book he co-authored with fellow Blank Slaters Steven Rose and Leon Kamin in 1984.  It makes no more sense now than it did then.  Obviously, what’s still sticking in Lewontin’s craw after all these years is a series of books on the subject of human aggression that appeared back in the 60’s, the most famous of which was “On Aggression,” by Konrad Lorenz, published in the U.S. in 1966.  In fact, the notion that the anecdote about an imprisoned pacifist demolishes what Lorenz and others actually wrote about human aggression is the sheerest nonsense.  Lorenz and the others never dreamed that any of their theories on the subject precluded the possibility of conscientious objectors in any way, shape or form.  In reality Lewontin is refuting, not Lorenz, but his favorite strawman then and now, the “genetic determinist.”  Lewontin’s “genetic determinist” is one who believes that “human nature” forces people to behave in certain ways and not in others, regardless of culture or environment.  If such beasts exist, they must be as rare as unicorns, because in all my reading I have never encountered one, not even among the most hard-core 19th century social Darwinists.  Lewontin imagines them behind every bush.  For him, all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists must necessarily be “genetic determinists.”

    Lewontin spares Wilson any mention of his obsession with “genetic determinists,” but lays his cards on the table nevertheless.  He’s still as much of a Blank Slater as ever.  For example, at the end of the interview,

    My main complaint is… the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory.  I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with, it allows us to claim anything.  That’s my problem with Sociobiology.  It’s too loose.

    Well, not exactly.  Readers who really want to crawl into the mind of a Blank Slater should read Not In Our Genes, the book I referred to above.  There it will be found that Lewontin’s problem isn’t that Sociobiology is “too loose,” but that he perceives it as an impediment to the glorious socialist revolution.  You see, Lewontin is a Marxist, and Not In Our Genes is not a book of science, but a political tract.  In its pages one will find over and over and over again the assertion that those who believe in human nature are stooges of the bourgeoisie.  Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature are merely so many contrived, ideologically motivated ploys to defend the capitalist status quo and stave off the glorious dawn of socialism.  For example, quoting from the book,

    Each of us has been engaged… in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself.  We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just – a socialist – society.  And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.

    Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.  In that struggle we transform our own nature.

    Those who possess power and their representatives can most effectively disarm those who would struggle against them by convincing them of the legitimacy and inevitability of the reigning social organization.  If what exists is right, then one ought not oppose it; if it exists inevitably, one can never oppose it successfully.

    Here, then, we see that Lewontin is being a bit coy when he claims that he only objects to Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature because they are “too loose.”  In perusing the book, we find that not only Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, but also Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and W. D. Hamilton are all really just so many hirelings of the capitalist system.  No matter that Trivers is a radical leftist, and Ardrey almost became a Communist himself in the 1930’s.

    It is amusing to read Lewontin’s pecksniffery about the lack of scientific rigor in the work of these “capitalist stooges,” followed in short order by praise for the “scientific” work of Mao, Marx, and Engels.  I can only encourage anyone in need of a good belly laugh to read Engels’ Dialectics of Nature.  Therein he will find the great St. Paul of Marxism lecturing the greatest scientists of his day about all the errors he’s discovered in their work because they don’t pay enough attention to the dialectic.  Lewontin’s confirmation of one important facet of innate human nature, ingroup/outgroup identification, referred to by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, by his furious ranting against the “bourgeoisie” in a book that claims there is no such thing as human nature would also be amusing, were it not for the fact that 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take, paid with their lives for this particular manifestation of outgroup identification.

    If one is determined to cobble together a version of “reality” in which Lewontin figures as a “great scientist” instead of the Blank Slate kingpin he actually was, he will find no better place to look than the pages of Not In Our Genes.  It comes complete with sage warnings against running to the opposite extreme of “cultural determinism,” and anathemas against the proponents of tabula rasa.  To this I can only reply that nowhere in any of his work has Lewontin ever affirmed the existence of anything resembling the innate predispositions that one normally refers to in the vernacular as human nature, and he has consistently condemned anyone who does as politically suspect.  If “good science” were a matter of condemning anyone who disagrees with your version of reality as a hireling of the forces of evil, Lewontin would take the cake.

    UPDATE:  Whyvert tweeted a link to a great article by Robert Trivers posted at the Unz Review website entitled, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small.  Included is a vignette of none other than Richard Lewontin.  As it happens, Prof. Trivers was among those singled out by Lewontin as an evil minion of the bourgeoisie in his Not In Our Genes.  His article includes some very interesting observations on the disintegrating effects of politics on Lewontin’s scientific career.

  • Whither Morality?

    Posted on April 19th, 2015 Helian 4 comments

    The evolutionary origins of morality and the reasons for its existence have been obvious for over a century.  They were no secret to Edvard Westermarck when he published The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906, and many others had written books and papers on the subject before his book appeared.  However, our species has a prodigious talent for ignoring inconvenient truths, and we have been studiously ignoring that particular truth ever since.

    Why is it inconvenient?  Let me count the ways!  To begin, the philosophers who have taken it upon themselves to “educate” us about the difference between good and evil would be unemployed if they were forced to admit that those categories are purely subjective, and have no independent existence of their own.  All of their carefully cultivated jargon on the subject would be exposed as gibberish.  Social Justice Warriors and activists the world over, those whom H. L. Mencken referred to collectively as the “Uplift,” would be exposed as so many charlatans.  We would begin to realize that the legions of pious prigs we live with are not only an inconvenience, but absurd as well.  Gaining traction would be a great deal more difficult for political and religious cults that derive their raison d’être from the fabrication and bottling of novel moralities.  And so on, and so on.

    Just as they do today, those who experienced these “inconveniences” in one form or another pointed to the drawbacks of reality in Westermarck’s time.  For example, from his book,

    Ethical subjectivism is commonly held to be a dangerous doctrine, destructive to morality, opening the door to all sorts of libertinism.  If that which appears to each man as right or good, stands for that which is right or good; if he is allowed to make his own law, or to make no law at all; then, it is said, everybody has the natural right to follow his caprice and inclinations, and to hinder him from doing so is an infringement on his rights, a constraint with which no one is bound to comply provided that he has the power to evade it.  This inference was long ago drawn from the teaching of the Sophists, and it will no doubt be still repeated as an argument against any theorist who dares to assert that nothing can be said to be truly right or wrong.  To this argument may, first, be objected that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.  The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true.  another question is whether any scientific truth really is mischievous on the whole, although it may cause much discomfort to certain people.  I venture to believe that this, at any rate, is not the case with that form of ethical subjectivism which I am here advocating.

    I venture to believe it as well.  In the first place, when we accept the truth about morality we make life a great deal more difficult for people of the type described above.  Their exploitation of our ignorance about morality has always been an irritant, but has often been a great deal more damaging than that.  In the 20th century alone, for example, the Communist and Nazi movements, whose followers imagined themselves at the forefront of great moral awakenings that would lead to the triumph of Good over Evil, resulted in the needless death of tens of millions of people.  The victims were drawn disproportionately from among the most intelligent and productive members of society.

    Still, just as Westermarck predicted more than a century ago, the bugaboo of “moral relativism” continues to be “repeated as an argument” in our own day.  Apparently we are to believe that if the philosophers and theologians all step out from behind the curtain after all these years and reveal that everything they’ve taught us about morality is so much bunk, civilized society will suddenly dissolve in an orgy of rape and plunder.

    Such notions are best left behind with the rest of the impedimenta of the Blank Slate.  Nothing could be more absurd than the notion that unbridled license and amorality are our “default” state.  One can quickly disabuse ones self of that fear by simply reading the comment thread of any popular news website.  There one will typically find a gaudy exhibition of moralistic posing and pious one-upmanship.  I encourage those who shudder at the thought of such an unpleasant reading assignment to instead have a look at Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.  As he puts it in the introduction to his book,

    I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings.  But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental… I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.  It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.

    Haidt also alludes to a potential reason that some of the people already mentioned above continue to evoke the scary mirage of moral relativism:

    Webster’s Third New World Dictionary defines delusion as “a false conception and persistent belief in something that has no existence in fact.”  As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history:  the rationalist delusion.  It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).  The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature.  It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.

    Human beings are not by nature moral relativists, and they are in no danger of becoming moral relativists merely by virtue of the fact that they have finally grasped what morality actually is.  It is their nature to perceive Good and Evil as real, independent things, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them, and they will continue to do so even if their reason informs them that what they perceive is a mirage.  They will always tend to behave as if these categories were absolute, rather than relative, even if all the theologians and philosophers among them shout at the top of their lungs that they are not being “rational.”

    That does not mean that we should leave reason completely in the dust.  Far from it!  Now that we can finally understand what morality is, and account for the evolutionary origins of the behavioral predispositions that are its root cause, it is within our power to avoid some of the most destructive manifestations of moral behavior.  Our moral behavior is anything but infinitely malleable, but we know from the many variations in the way it is manifested in different human societies and cultures, as well as its continuous and gradual change in any single society, that within limits it can be shaped to best suit our needs.  Unfortunately, the only way we will be able to come up with an “optimum” morality is by leaning on the weak reed of our ability to reason.

    My personal preferences are obvious enough, even if they aren’t set in stone.  I would prefer to limit the scope of morality to those spheres in which it is indispensable for lack of a viable alternative.  I would prefer a system that reacts to the “Uplift” and unbridled priggishness and self-righteousness with scorn and contempt.  I would prefer an educational system that teaches the young the truth about what morality actually is, and why, in spite of its humble origins, we can’t get along without it if we really want our societies to “flourish.”  I know; the legions of those whose whole “purpose of life” is dependent on cultivating the illusion that their own versions of Good and Evil are the “real” ones stands in the way of the realization of these whims of mine.  Still, one can dream.

  • But What of Shaftesbury?

    Posted on February 8th, 2015 Helian 3 comments

    In this and my previous post, I discuss some British philosophers that even most well-educated laypeople have never heard of.  Why?  Because they shed a great deal of light on the subjects of human nature and morality.  These subjects are critical to our self-understanding, which, in turn, is critical to our survival.  If we had read, understood, and built on what they taught, we might have avoided wandering into many of the blind alleys into which we were led by subsequent generations of the “men of science.”  The most damaging and delusional blind alley of all was the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Ironically, it was enforced by exploiting the very moral emotions whose existence it denied, setting back the behavioral sciences and moral philosophy by more than a century in the process.  View, if you like, these posts as an attempt to pick up the lost threads.

    In my previous post I highlighted the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson.  I note in passing that he was actually born in Ireland, and studied and received his degree in Scotland.  I did that because Hutcheson was the first, or at least the first I know of, to elaborate a well thought out and coherent theory of the origins of morality in an innate “moral sense,” demonstrating in the process why, absent such a moral sense, moral behavior is not even possible.  In other words, the “root cause” of morality is this moral sense.  Furthermore, Hutcheson explained why, as a consequence, it is impossible to distinguish between good and evil using reason alone.  Two hundred years later the great Finnish moral philosopher Edvard Westermarck, who had read and admired Hutcheson, noted that in the ensuing years, his contention that, “the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.”

    That said, it is hardly true that the works of many other 18th century British authors do not contain ideas similar to Hutcheson’s.  Such authors are often able to see further and more clearly than those who have come before by virtue of the privilege of, as Einstein put it, “sitting on the shoulders of giants.”  In Hutcheson’s case, one such giant was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  Hutcheson certainly left no one in doubt concerning his debt to Shaftesbury in his own time.  Sir James MacKintosh, who left sketches of many forgotten British moral philosophers who are well worth reading today in his, “On the progress of ethical philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth & XVIIIth centuries,” which first appeared as a supplement to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1829, went so far as to refer to Shaftesbury as Hutcheson’s “master.”  Although Shaftesbury was born in England, MacKintosh claimed that, “…the philosophy of Shaftesbury was brought by Hutcheson from Ireland,” after it and similar works had been suppressed in England for some time “by an exemplary but unlettered clergy.”

    Like Hutcheson, many of the themes in Shaftesbury’s writings would have sounded very familiar to modern evolutionary psychologists.  For example, he had this to say on the Blank Slate ideology of his day:

    It was Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world, and made the very ideas of these… unnatural and without foundation in our minds.

    Locke, of course, is often cited as a forerunner of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century, although the comparison isn’t entirely accurate.  He rejected innate morality because it was incompatible with his Christian theology rather than the secular “progressive” ideology of a later day.

    The key theme of Hutcheson’s work as far as the modern science of morality is concerned – the existence of an innate “moral sense” – is, if anything, emphasized even more strongly in the writings of Shaftesbury.  For example, from his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, probably his most important work on morality as far as modern readers are concerned,

    Sense of right and wrong therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make; there is no speculative opinion, persuasion or belief, which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it.  That which is of original and pure nature, nothing beside contrary habit or custom (a second nature) is able to displace.  And this affection being an original one of earliest rise in the soul or affectionate part; nothing beside a contrary affection, by frequent check and control, can operate upon it, so as either to diminish it in part, or destroy it in whole.

    A somewhat startling aspect of Shaftesbury’s work, given the time in which it was written, was his recognition of the continuity between human beings and other animal species.  For example, again from the Inquiry,

    We know that every creature has a private good and interest of his own, which Nature has compelled him to seek, by all the advantages afforded him within the compass of his make.  We know that there is in reality a right and a wrong state of every creature, and that this right one is by nature forwarded and by himself affectionately sought.

    and

    We have found that, to deserve the name of good or virtuous, a creature most have all his inclinations and affections, his dispositions of mind and temper, suitable, and agreeing with the good of his kind, or of that system in which he is included, and of which he constitutes a part.

    and, finally,

    The ordinary animals appear unnatural and monstrous when they lose their proper instincts, forsake their kind, neglect their offspring, and pervert those functions or capacities bestowed by nature.  How wretched must it be, therefore, for man, of all other creatures, to lose that sense and feeling which is proper to him as a man, and suitable to his character and genius?

    If one didn’t know better, one might easily imagine that E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, with its assertions about our “good” nature being the result of group selection, and our “evil” nature the result of selection at the level of the individual, had been inspired by Shaftesbury.  For example,

    There being allowed therefore in a creature such affections as these towards the common nature or system of the kind, together with those other which regard the private nature or self-system, it will appear that in following the first of these affections, the creature must on many occasions contradict and go against the latter.  How else should the species be preserved?  Or what would signify that implanted natural affection, by which a creature through so many difficulties and hazards preserves its offspring and supports its kind.

    One must hope that such passages won’t draw down on Shaftesbury’s head the anathemas of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker as the great heresiarch of group selection theory.

    In a remarkable passage that might have been lifted from the pages of Westermarck, Shaftesbury reveals some doubt regarding the objective existence of good and evil, in spite of our tendency to imagine them in that way:

    If there be no real amiableness or deformity in moral acts, there is at least an imaginary one of full force.  Though perhaps the thing itself should not be allowed in nature, the imagination or fancy of it must be allowed to be from nature alone.  Nor can anything besides art and strong endeavor, with long practice and meditation, overcome such a natural prevention or prepossession of the mind in favor of this moral distinction.

    Finally, at the risk of exhausting the patience of even my most dogged readers, allow me to throw in another aspect of Shaftesbury’s writings that would put him “ahead of his time” even if he were alive today; his dispassionate and temperate comments on the subject of atheism.  Consider, for example, the following:

    …it does not seem, that atheism should of itself be the cause of any estimation or valuing of anything as fair, noble, and deserving which was the contrary.  It can never, for instance, make it be thought that the being able to eat man’s flesh, or commit bestiality, is good and excellent in itself.  But this is certain, that by means of corrupt religion or superstition, many things the most horridly unnatural and inhuman come to be received as excellent, good, and laudable in themselves.

    and

    …religion, (according as the kind may prove) is capable of doing great good or harm, and atheism nothing positive in either way.   For however it may be indirectly an occasion of men’s losing a good and sufficient sense of right and wrong, it will not, as atheism merely, be the occasion of setting up a false species of it, which only false religion or fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity, is able to effect.

    To confirm those observations, one need look no further than recent events in the Middle East.  When it comes to “fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity,” the 20th century gave us two outstanding examples, in the form of Communism and Nazism.  Pundits like Bill O’Reilly claim that atheism itself is responsible for all the crimes of these modern secular versions of “corrupt religion.”  This was a form of bigotry of which Shaftesbury, writing three centuries earlier, give or take, was not capable.

    Of course, Shaftesbury no more wrote in a vacuum than Hutcheson.  Similar themes may be found in the work of many other British moral philosophers of the time.  In particular, Joseph Butler, like Hutcheson, borrowed heavily from Shaftesbury in developing his own ideas regarding the origins of morality in human nature.  Brief descriptions of the work of many others may be found in the book by Sir James MacKintosh referred to above, and in Michael Gill’s excellent book, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.

  • Of Philosophical Truths and Scientific Farces: Francis Hutcheson, Morality and the Blank Slate

    Posted on January 31st, 2015 Helian No comments

    The thought of brilliant individuals is worth considering regardless of the historical pigeon holes they happen to end up in.  Sometimes we ignore them because they’re not in the “right” pigeon hole.  For example, “philosophers” are dismissed by some as irrelevant since the advent of “science.”  Such a cavalier attitude can be perilous assuming one is really seeking the truth.  True, many philosophers were born too early, before Darwin or his theory were heard of, but that doesn’t mean their musings were useless.  At the very least, they are of historical value, informing us of what was on the minds of people who thought in days gone by.  Sometimes, they are a great deal more valuable than that.

    Consider, for example, what a certain 18th century British philosopher by the name of Francis Hutcheson had to say touching on the subject of morality as an expression of human nature.  As my astute readers will recall, the “science” of much of the 20th century denied that human nature had anything to do with morality.  The “scientists” who promoted this dogma, sometimes referred to today as the Blank Slaters, would have done well to read Hutcheson.  He demolished the Blank Slate narrative two centuries before it became the greatest scientific debacle of the 20th century, if not of all time.

    As it happens, there is a fascinating connection between thought about morality and human nature in British philosophy going back at least to the time of the Puritans of the 17th century.  An excellent history of the subject was written by Michael Gill, entitled, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.  Therein, Gill traces the debate between those who defended the possibility of morality based on reason alone, and those, like Hutcheson, as well as Shaftesbury before him and Hume after him, who claimed that a rational origin of morality was impossible.  Of the three, Hutcheson deserves most of the credit for demonstrating that morality based on pure reason is impossible, and that a “moral sense,” grounded in human nature, is a prerequisite for its very existence.

    As suggested above, history has deposited Hutcheson in the “philosopher” pigeon hole.  However, he was well aware of the scientific method, and enthusiastic about the advance of science in his own time.  He conscientiously sought to apply scientific technique to his own inquiries into human nature.  His “experiments” consisted of keen observations of the moral behavior and reactions of other human beings, as well as a constant probing and examination of his own consciousness.

    Hutcheson’s most important work on the subject was An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, which was published in 1728.  In that work he demonstrated that there can be no such thing as a purely reasonable morality, that reason cannot possibly serve as the end motivation for moral behavior, that only an innate moral sense can provide such motivating ends for moral actions, and that as a consequence of the fact that this moral sense is innate, it cannot be acquired purely by learning or, as moderns might put it, by “culture.”  In other words, the Blank Slate is a logical impossibility.

    Hutcheson begins by pointing out that many of the words available in human languages are imprecise, and as a result are blunt instruments for conducting inquiries into subjects as complex as the origins of human morality.  In particular, it’s necessary to understand exactly what one means when one speaks of “reason.”  As he puts it,

    Since reason is understood to denote our power of finding out true propositions, reasonableness must denote the same thing, with conformity to true propositions, or to truth.  Reasonableness in an action is a very common expression, but yet upon inquiry, it will appear very confused, whether we suppose it the motive to election, or the quality determining approbation.

    It follows that, while reason can be applied to discover the consequences of an action, it can never provide motivation for choosing or approving it over any other:

    If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.

    There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object.  This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike:  Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action:  Both propositions are equally true.

    Hutcheson went on to point out that, as a result, no ultimate end can ever be found using reason alone.  Any end must have a motivating reason based on some other end.  However, another reason must be supplied for this “other end,” and a reason must be found for that end as well.  As each end is identified in turn, we can go on asking “why?” forever.  As Hutcheson put it,

    But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.

    According to Hutcheson, two types of reason can supply the ultimate answer to the final “why,” thereby ending the chain, including “exciting” reasons, and “justifying” reasons.  I encourage those interested in the precise definition of these words to read his book.  However, in either case, they cannot be derived by reason, but presuppose the existence of “human nature:”

    Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.

    If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:

    Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature:  and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.”  He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.

    Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time.  As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:

    Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition.  Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe:  Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed:  And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.

    He concludes,

    Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections?  …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire?  And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation.  A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.

    A bit later, Hume used the same arguments as Hutcheson to demonstrate his famous dictum that,

    Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    As readers of such modern books as Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind are aware, Hume got all the credit, and Hutcheson is now more or less forgotten by all but professional philosophers.  I suspect that’s because, as Gill pointed out, Hume supplied the final link in a chain of philosophers going back through Hutcheson to Shaftesbury, Cudworth, and many others, who had insisted on the origins of morality in human nature.  Except for Hume, Hutcheson and most of the others had been firm believers in a Deity, and often Christian theologians.  Like Hutcheson, they traced the origins of human nature to the hand of God.  Hume was the exception, and could therefore be ensconced as the “Father of Secular Ethics.”  That doesn’t alter the fact that Hutcheson had supplied compelling arguments for the existence and significance of human nature before Hume came on the scene.  Those arguments remain unrefuted to this day.  As the great Edvard Westermarck wrote nearly 200 years later:

    That the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.

    Westermarck was familiar with Hutcheson, and referred to him in his own work.  It’s a shame that the latter day Blank Slaters didn’t read him as well.  It turns out that his “philosophy” was far in advance of their “science.”  It took the “men of science” the greater part of the 20th century to finally crawl out of the swamp they had wandered into, and find Hutcheson there to greet them when they finally made it back to solid ground.  There is no more important knowledge for human beings than self-knowledge.  Occasionally one can find it hiding in the books of obscure philosophers.

  • Massimo Pigliucci on Hume and Human Nature

    Posted on May 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Massimo Pigliucci recently posted an article at his Scientia Salon website exploring the connection between the philosophy of David Hume and the concept of human nature.  Entitled Human Nature, a Humean Take, it’s an interesting artifact of current perceptions in academia of human nature in general and the Blank Slate episode in particular.  Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York.  He prides himself on the latter specialty, and will occasionally use it as a bludgeon against his intellectual opponents.   His article begins with the following:

    Human nature is a funny thing. Some scientists, like biologist E.O. Wilson and linguist Steven Pinker are pretty convinced it is a real thing, and that it seriously constrains what we are going to do with our lives (the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology as it was known in its first incarnation, is predicated on it).

    Then again, plenty of philosophers I have talked to in recent years seem to be genuinely surprised that one could still talk about such a thing in all seriousness.  Surely that quaint idea went out the window after decades of criticism of genetic determinism, they say.  This, of course, despite the fact that there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy of perfectly comprehensible talk about human nature.

    The first of these two paragraphs is amusing because one of Pigliucci’s pet peeves is “scientism,” and he has singled out Pinker for criticism as one of the foremost proponents of that ideology.  In spite of that, here we find him rattling off Pinker’s “Big Bang” revision of the history of the Blank Slate as if there was nothing in the least controversial about it.  Score one for Pinker.  His fairy tale is all there, complete with the guileless assertion that “sociobiology” was the first incarnation of the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  Of course, as anyone who’s been around long enough is aware, EP didn’t begin with the “Big Bang” of E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  “Ethology” was the vernacular term of choice for what later became evolutionary psychology more than a decade before sociobiology was ever heard of.  To swallow Pinker’s version of history, you have to perform a lobotomy on the 20th century, deleting a period of about a decade and a half starting around 1960, and pretend that the contributions of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, last but by no means least, that greatest of all the unpersons of evolutionary psychology, the “playwright,” Robert Ardrey, were either insignificant or, as Richard Dawkins put it in The Selfish Gene, “totally and utterly wrong.”

    In the second paragraph of the above quote, we find Pigliucci all unaware that the “philosophers” who were “genuinely surprised” that there is, in fact, an entire academic discipline that does take the notion of human nature “in all seriousness,” are actually leftover Blank Slaters of a type it’s becoming increasingly hard to find outside of the academic echo chamber.  He also seems unaware that the “decades of criticism of genetic determinism,” really amounted to nothing more than the deification of a propaganda slogan.  For all I know, there may actually be “genetic determinists,” but if so, they must be as rare as hen’s teeth.  I’ve never actually seen one.  If any of my readers ever happen to run across the genuine article in a circus sideshow or some similar venue, I would be most grateful if they’d spread the word.

    Pigliucci continues,

    Indeed, even people like Pinker seem to be sending somewhat mixed messages about the whole concept: on the one hand he vehemently (and justly) attacks the idea of a “blank slate” (though I don’t actually know too many people who hold onto it in anything like the original, strong, Lockeian version. On the other hand, however, he claims — huge data sets in hand — that human beings have been able to yield to the “better angels” of our nature and have progressively built societies characterized by less and less violence.

    This is certainly an odd assertion, following on the heels of his assertions that he knows other philosophers who don’t believe in human nature.  I daresay that their version of the “blank slate” is likely to be a great deal “stronger” than Locke’s.  In the first place, it’s ridiculous to link the “blank slatism” of Locke with that of such later thinkers as John Stuart Mill, or the “blank slatism” of Mill with that of such latter day ideologues as Ashley Montagu or Richard Lewontin.  To do so denies to each of them their right to be taken seriously as individual thinkers.  Locke’s “blank slatism” followed from his religious principles.  Mill’s is probably best described as due to the misfortune of writing his Utilitarianism before his thought could be informed by Darwin’s great theory.  For many of the 20th century versions, “blank slatism” was a necessary prop for the assorted utopian social schemes they happened to favor.  Locke’s version was probably not as “strong” as theirs, or, for that matter, as that of Pigliucci’s “philosophers.”  For example, quoting Locke,

    Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing.

     Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men’s appetites.

    One can find a whole menagerie of latter day Blank Slaters whose versions are a great deal “stronger” than this by thumbing through the pages of Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  As for the claim that Pinker is sending a “mixed message” in his The Better Angels of our Nature, it’s nonsense unless you believe that one must either be a Blank Slater or one of those unicorn-like Genetic Determinists. Apparently Pigliucci really believes these two extremes are the norm, and imagines himself in the benevolent role of providing adult supervision.  For example,

    Because of my original training as an evolutionary biologist interested in nature-nurture issues, I guess I never understood the (alleged) dichotomy. My basic take is that human behavioral traits (“human nature”) are the result of a continuous and inextricable interaction between our genes and our environments — which means that it makes no sense to ask what percentage of what we do is “caused” by genes and what percentage by the environment. If you add the well established concept, in evolutionary biology, of phenotypic plasticity — the idea that different sets of genes help produce wider or narrower ranges of behaviors in response to the quality of environmental inputs, and that the majority of these environmental inputs are nowadays the result of cultural forces — you’ve got a fairly solid framework to argue that yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable.

    You might think that this would reassure both the scientists who insists (rightly) that human beings are not infinitely malleable blank slates, and the humanists who are (again, rightly) weary of the sinister socio-political implications of strong biological determinism. Everybody wins, can we go home now?

    In fact, as far as human nature is concerned, no such dichotomy has ever existed outside of the fevered imaginations of Pigliucci’s Blank Slate “philosophers.”  If he would trouble himself to read the first chapter of any undergraduate Evolutionary Psychology textbook, he will notice that the point is usually forcefully made that no such dichotomy exists.  Certainly such Pinkerian unpersons as Lorenz and Ardrey constantly insisted there was no such dichotomy, as did E. O. Wilson.  When Pigliucci claims that “percentages make no sense,” he is simply misrepresenting the claims of the users of the mathematical techniques he alludes to.  Finally, when he claims that, “yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable,” he reveals a deep misunderstanding of what is actually meant by the term, “human nature.”  The term is both meaningless and useless unless one is referring to a bag of behavioral traits whose ultimate cause is to be found in our genes.  The fact that the expression of those traits can take on an infinity of different forms does not imply any change in that ultimate cause.  The only way in which “human nature” can change is via genetic change.

    Which brings us to David Hume.  He was a brilliant thinker, and what he had to say about human nature is one of the best refutations of “scientism” I am aware of.  Anyone who thinks science has made philosophy irrelevant needs to read him.  The question is, why was he relevant?  I think the best answer to that question was given by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind.  Indeed, Haidt is now at NYU, and Pigliucci could do worse than to jump on the subway and ride down to the other end of Manhattan for a visit.  Here’s what Haidt has to say about Hume in a sub-heading entitled The Birth of Moral Science beginning on page 114 of the hardcover version of his book:

    Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project:  an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences.  His first great work, A Treatise of Human Nature, had this subtitle:  Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.  Hume believed that “moral science” had to begin with careful inquiry into what humans are really like.  And when he examined human nature – in history, in political affairs, and among his fellow philosophers – he saw that “sentiment” (intuition) is the driving force of our moral lives, whereas reasoning is biased and impotent, fit primarily to be a servant of the passions.  He also saw a diversity of virtues, and he rejected attempts by some of his contemporaries to reduce all of morality to a single virtue such as kindness, or to do away with virtues and replace them with a few moral laws.

    Haidt continues with a quote of the great philosopher himself,

    Morality is nothing in the abstract Nature of Things, but is entirely relative to the S3entiment or mental Taste of each particular Being; in the same Manner as the Distinctions of sweet and bitter, hot and cold, arise from the particular feeling of each Sense or Organ.  Moral Perceptions therefore, ought not to be class’d with the Operations of Understanding, but with the Tastes or Sentiments.

    For someone writing long before Darwin, it’s hard to think of anyone, philosopher or scientist, who came up with an insight more brilliant than that.  For the reasons for that statement, by all means, read Haidt’s book.  Unfortunately, Pigliucci, who piques himself on his profound philosophical insight, can’t leave it at that.  He insists on teasing something more out of Hume.  Eventually, after ruminations which I leave the interested reader to peruse for himself, he gets from point A, the actual writings of Hume, to point B, which he states as follows:

    At any rate, the basic, somewhat Humean (or Hume-inspired) outline of what I’m thinking about is that human nature — i.e., what it is to be human, as opposed to, say, being chimpanzee — evolves both genetically and culturally, with the two constantly interacting with each other, and yet, I think, with the cultural component becoming more and more independent of the genetic one.

    One must hope that Hume would have disavowed this fanciful interpretation of his work.  The “cultural component” would not exist without its genetic ultimate cause.  This amounts to the same thing as claiming that, because culture has enabled our legs to perform intricate and unprecedented dances, and to jump unprecedented distances, and to climb Mount Everest, our legs are therefore becoming independent of their genetic origins.  In other words, it’s nonsense.  Pigliucci continues,

    Consider, as a controversial example, Pinker’s own theory in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence has more or less steadily gone down throughout human history (yes, despite two world wars in the 20th century!) at the least in part because of our ability to talk to each other and originate and spread (philosophical) ideas about democracy, justice, and so on. If Pinker’s outline is even remotely close to the truth, then we have a situation where pre-existing feelings of intra-group fairness and cooperation, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, gradually, via cultural evolution, got more elaborated and became applied more broadly, generating what Peter Singer refers to as our enlarging circle of empathy and moral concern.

    The idea is that if, indeed, we are making moral progress (as Singer suggests, and as Pinker-style data seem to confirm), then this in an important sense counts as a change in human nature, but it is one achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

    In other words, by enlisting Hume in a cause I daresay the great philosopher would have strenuously objected to were he still among us, Pigliucci ends by claiming that there actually is something as un-Humean as “moral progress,” and that the fictional existence of such a thing counts as a “change in human nature.”  He tops it off with the non sequitur that this “change in human nature” is “achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

    What can I say?  I suppose that, first of all, I must congratulate Steven Pinker.  His imaginary “history” of the Blank Slate has apparently been swallowed, even by someone who is one of his most eloquent academic opponents.  In other words, his fiction is well on the way to becoming the “truth.”  And who is likely to ever question the “truth?”  After all, most serious history is now written by academics, and what academic is ever likely to draw down the ire of the rest of his tribe by insisting that the “men of science” were full of crap for more than half a decade, but were finally forced to admit they were wrong by a playwright?  Good luck with that.

    Other than that, apparently the concept of “human nature,” a vernacular term understood by virtually every member of our species above the age of 10 as something constant and unchanging in our behavioral repertoire, is not so understood in academia, or at least not universally.  It remains to find a ten-year-old with sufficient influence and charm to explain the concept to the academics.

    David Hume

    David Hume