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

    Posted on February 16th, 2019 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Of Intellectuals, Ideology, and Ingroups

    Posted on January 20th, 2019 Helian 4 comments

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

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

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

    Seeing others ruthlessly dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts. The “terror” in other words, could at its most effective penetrate into the privacy of a person’s mind. But even at its least effective it served to set a very stringent limit on criticism of the radical line on any given issue or at any given moment. A certain area of permissible discussion and disagreement was always staked out, but it was hard to know exactly where the boundaries were; one was always in danger of letting a remark slip across the border and unleashing the “terror” on one’s head. Better, then, not to take a chance. Of course, one could recant and be forgiven; or alternatively one could simply speak one’s mind and let the “terror” do its worst. Yet whatever one chose to do, the problem remained.

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

    I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively. But there was also a more positive pull in the idea that if so many of the “best” students were becoming radicals, then the new radicalism must surely be that “wave of the future” the Communist party had only seemed to be in the days of one’s own youth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

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

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

  • Of Ingroups and Outgroups and the Hatreds they Spawn

    Posted on June 17th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Did it ever strike you as odd that the end result of Communism, a philosophy that was supposed to usher in a paradise of human brotherhood, was the death of 100 million people, give or take, and the self-decapitation of countries like Cambodia and the former Soviet Union?  Does it seem counter-intuitive that the adherents of a religion that teaches “blessed are the peacemakers” should have launched wars that killed tens of millions?  Is it bewildering than another one, promoted as the “religion of peace,” should have launched its zealots out of Arabia, killing millions more, and becoming the most successful vehicle of colonialism and imperialism ever heard of?  Do you find the theory that human warfare resulted from purely environmental influences that were the unfortunate outcome of the transition to Neolithic economies somewhat implausible?  In fact, all of these “anomalies” are predictable manifestations of what is perhaps both the most important and the most dangerous aspect of innate human behavior; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.

    Our tendency to associate the good with our ingroup, and all that is evil, disgusting and contemptible with outgroups, is a most inconvenient truth for moral philosophy.  You might call it the universal solvent of all moral systems concocted to date.  It is a barrier standing in the way of all attempts to manipulate human moral emotions, to force them to serve a “higher purpose,” or to cajole them into promoting the goal of “human flourishing.”  Because it is such an inconvenient truth it was vehemently denied as one aspect of the Blank Slate catastrophe.  Attempts were made to scare it away by calling it bad names.  Different specific manifestations became racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and so on.  The result was something like squeezing jello.  The harder we squeezed, the faster the behavior slipped through our fingers in new forms.  New outgroups emerged to take the place of the old ones, but the hatred remained, often more virulent than before.

    It is impossible to understand human behavior without first determining who are the ingroups, and who are their associated outgroups.  Consider, for example, recent political events in the United States.  Wherever one looks, whether in news media, social media, on college campuses, or in the “jokes” of comedians, one finds manifestations of a furious hatred directed at Trump and his supporters.  There is jubilation when they are murdered in effigy on stage, or shot in reality on baseball fields.  The ideologically defined ingroup responsible for all this hatred justifies its behavior with a smokescreen of epithets, associating all sorts of “bad” qualities with its outgroup, following a pattern that should be familiar to anyone who has studied a little history.  In fact, their hate is neither rational, nor does it result from any of these “bad” things.  They hate for the same reason that humans have always hated; because they have identified Trump and his supporters as an outgroup.

    Going back several decades, one can see the same phenomenon unfolding under the rubric of the Watergate Affair.  In that case, of course, Nixon and his supporters were the outgroup, and the ingroup can be more specifically identified with the “mainstream media” of the day.  According to the commonly peddled narrative, Nixon was a very bad man who committed very terrible crimes.  I doubt it, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other.  Nixon was deposed in what we are informed was a “triumph of justice” by some heroic reporters.  In fact, it was a successful coup d’état carried out behind a façade of legality.  The idea that what Nixon did or didn’t do had anything to do with it can be immediately exposed as a fiction by anyone who is aware of the type of human behavior described in this post, and who bothers to read through the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times during the 18 months or so the affair lasted.  There he will not find a conscientious attempt to keep readers informed about affairs in the world that might be important to them.  Rather, he will see an unrelenting obsession with Watergate, inexplicable as other than the manifestation of a deep hatred.  The result was a dangerous destabilization of the U.S. government, leading to further attempts to depose legitimately elected Presidents, as we saw in the case of Clinton, and as we now see underway in the case of Trump.  In Nixon’s day the mainstream media controlled the narrative.  They were able to fob off their coup d’état as the triumph of virtue and justice.  That won’t happen this time around.  Now there are powerful voices on the other side, and the outcome of such a “nice and legal” coup d’état carried out against Trump will be the undermining of the trust of the American people in the legitimacy of their political system at best.  At worst, some are suggesting we will find ourselves in the middle of a civil war.

    Those still inclined to believe that the behavior in question really can be explained by the rationalizations used to justify it need only look a bit further back in history.  There they will find descriptions of exactly the same behavior, but rationalized in ways that appear incomprehensible and absurd to modern readers.  For example, read through the accounts of the various heresies that afflicted Christianity over the years.  Few Christians today could correctly identify the “orthodox” number of persons, natures, and wills of the Godhead, or the “orthodox” doctrines regarding the form of Communion or the efficacy of faith, and yet such issues have spawned ingroup/outgroup identification accompanied by the usual hatreds, resulting in numerous orgies of mass murder and warfare.

    I certainly don’t mean to claim that issues and how they are decided never matter in themselves.  However, when it comes to human behavior, their role often becomes a mere pretext, a façade used to rationalize hatred that is actually a manifestation of innate emotional predispositions.  Read the comments following articles about politics and you will get the impression that half the population wakes up in the morning determined to deliberately commit as many bad deeds as they possibly can, and the other half is heroically struggling to stop them and secure the victory of the Good.  Does that really make sense?  Is it really so difficult to see that such a version of reality represents a delusion, explicable only if one accepts human nature for what it is?  Would you understand what’s going on in the world?  Then for starters you need to identify the ingroups and outgroups.  Lacking that fundamental insight, you will be stumbling in the dark.  In the dark it’s very difficult to see that you, too, are a hater, simply by virtue of the fact that you belong to the species Homo sapiens, and to understand why you hate.  Hatred is a destructive force.  It would behoove us to learn to control it no matter what our goals happen to be, but we will have a very difficult time controlling it unless we finally understand why it exists.

  • Ingroups and Outgroups and Ideologues

    Posted on February 27th, 2016 Helian 5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

  • A Fly in the “Human Flourishing” Soup: An Australian Data Point

    Posted on March 30th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    One of the favorite hobbies of secular philosophers of late has been the fabrication of new and improved systems of morality.  Perhaps the best known example is outlined in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.  If conscientiously applied, we are promised, they will usher in nebulous utopias in which a common thread is some version of “human flourishing.”  We have already completed an experimental investigation of how these fancy theories work in practice.  It was called Communism.  Many eggs were broken to make that omelet, but the omelet never materialized.    That unfortunate experience alone should be enough to dissuade us from poking a stick into the same hornet’s nest again.

    The Communists were at least realistic enough to realize that their system wouldn’t work without a radical transformation in human behavior.  For that to happen, it was necessary for our behavioral habits to be almost infinitely malleable, a requirement that spawned many of the 20th century versions of the Blank Slate, and perverted the behavioral sciences for more than half a decade.  Since it became clear, as Trotsky once put it rather euphemistically just before Stalin had him murdered, that Communism had “ended in a utopia,” most of the “not in our genes” crowd have either mercifully died or been dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world.  Practitioners of the behavioral “sciences” are now at least generally agreed as to the truth of the proposition, sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old, that there actually is such a thing as human nature.

    That hasn’t deterred the inventers of sure-fire new universal moralities.  They seem to think that they can finesse the problem by persuading us that we should just ignore those aspects of our nature that stand in the way of “human flourishing.”  It won’t work for them any more than it worked for the Communists.  This stubborn fact was demonstrated yet again in rather amusing fashion on the occasion of the publication of a somewhat controversial book in Australia.

    The title of the book was The Conservative Revolution by Cory Bernardi.  The particular aspect of human nature that its release highlighted was our predisposition to adopt dual systems of morality, in which radically different rules apply depending on whether one is dealing with one’s ingroup or one’s outgroup.  Robert Ardrey called the phenomenon the “Amity/Enmity Complex,” and it has played a profound and fundamental role in the endemic warfare our species has engaged in since time immemorial.  The philosophy outlined in The Conservative Revolution would be familiar to most southern Republicans in the US.  His ingroup is the Australian political right.  In other words, he is positioned firmly in the outgroup of the political left.  When he published the book, “warfare” was not long in coming.

    The reaction of the leftist ingroup in Australia was furious.  To characterize it as hysterical frothing at the mouth would be putting it mildly.  The data demonstrating this enraged reaction has been kindly collected by the people at Amazon in the form of reader reviews of the book.  As I write this, there are 554 of them, and virtually all of them, whether “five star” or “one star,” are literary reflections of a two-year old’s temper tantrum.  Here are some excerpts from some of the 421 “one star” reviews:

    It’s only 178 pages long, and at the current price of just under $27, it’s quite expensive as well. So already one’s expectations are for a good quality product, given that it costs over 15 cents per page (or 30 cents per sheet, in other words).  Just for comparison, my local Woolworths has toilet paper on sale for 20 cents per ONE HUNDRED sheets, or less than 1% the price per sheet of this book!!

    It made an excellent liner for my bird cage. I love seeing my rainbow parakeets taking a dump on his head.

    The Dark One hungers. In his pit of eternal hatred he squats in the darkness feeding on the screams of the weak. Soon, his blood tide reaches a peak and he will scourge the unbelievers.

    …and so on.  Here are some of the 105 “five star” reviews:

    Many of the rituals I frequently practice – mostly summonings of minor demons – require ‘hate’ as an active ingredient. Before this book, I never really knew what to do. When I attempted to provide the hate myself, I found it difficult to focus and the rituals often went wrong (I even ended up losing a hand once, that was a pain to deal with). After that, I tried kidnapping some of my particularly nasty neighbours, but while that worked considerably better, it certainly wasn’t perfect – often fear would override the hate I needed, and of course I had to kill them afterwards, and disposing of all of the bodies was starting to get really annoying.  Then this book came along, and all of the took away all of the hassle of finding hatred.

    “Conservative Revolution” is the much-anticipated release by Cory Bestiality, after the success of his collaborative work on the ‘Real Solutions’ pamphlet. Effortlessly blending the Palaeofantasy, Historical Fiction and Political and Philosophical Satire genres, Bestiality creates a largely effective and revealing expose of the fallacies of Christian Fundamentalism and neoconservative ideology. Whilst lacking the insight and depth of ‘Real Solutions’, Bestiality’s new work is clearly inspired by similar writings, from Adolf Hitler’s stirring call to action, “Mein Kampf”, to Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue”

    Short and succinct! In just over 100 pages I learned that Adolf Hitler was a very moderate, balanced, caring and compassionate man in comparison to Corey Bernardi.

    One wonders that there are so many people in Australia who trouble themselves to write such stuff.  It’s certainly a tribute to the power of Ardrey’s “Complex.”  The shear irrationality of it is demonstrated by the fact that Bernardi is laughing all the way to the bank.  The book has already gone to a second printing, and the publisher is rubbing his hands as copies fly off the book store shelves.  The affair is just another data point swimming in an ocean of others, all pointing to a very fundamental truth; the outgroup have ye always with you.

    Consider the ingroup responsible for composing most of these furious anathemas.  It is the ingroup of the secular left, which lives in more or less the same ideological box in Australia as its analogs in Western Europe and North America.  In other words, this stuff is coming from the very ingroup most busily engaged in cobbling together spiffy new moralities which are to be characterized by universal human brotherhood!  Sorry my friends – no ingroup without an outgroup.  Even if you ushered in the Brave New World of “human flourishing” by exterminating the very significant proportion of the population that agrees with Cory Bernardi, another outgroup would inevitably crop up to take its place.  In the absence of an outgroup, it is our nature to simply create another one.

    It’s hard to imagine a less promising ingroup to gladden the rest of us with “human flourishing” than the modern secular left.  As Catholic philosopher Joseph Bottum notes in his book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, in the US these people are the direct descendants of the Puritans.  The overbearing self-righteousness evident in these “book reviews” seems to confirm that assessment.  They are saturated with a level of bile and hatred of the “other” that one normally expects to find only among religious fanatics.  And according to Bottum, that is basically what they are.  His take is summarized in a review of his book by David Goldman:

    Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

    Perhaps “human flourishing” would be a bit more plausible if we were all Benjamin Franklins, or Abraham Lincolns, or even Neville Chamberlains.  As William Shakespeare put it in Twelfth Night, “Anything but a devil of a Puritan.”

  • Ingroups and Outgroups: The Ukraine Data Stream

    Posted on March 2nd, 2014 Helian No comments

    The notion that the suite of behavioral traits we associate with morality is dual in nature goes back at least a century.  It was first formalized back in the 40’s by Sir Arthur Keith, who wrote,

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

    Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior.  At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.

    Robert Ardrey combined the two words and gave them a Freudian twist to come up with a term for the phenomenon.  Writing during the heyday of the Blank Slate, long before Sociobiology was even a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, he called it  the Amity/Enmity Complex.  The truth that it exists is highly corrosive to utopian schemes for “human flourishing” of all stripes, from Communism to the more up-to-date versions favored by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene.  As a result, it is also a truth that has been furiously resisted, obvious explanation though it is for the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history as well as such phenomena as racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, etc., all of which are really just different varieties of outgroup identification.

    The current situation in Ukraine, dangerous though it is, presents us with a splendid laboratory for studying the Complex.  The underlying manifestation is, of course, nationalism, a form of ingroup identification that has been a thorn in our collective sides since the French Revolution.  It was the inspiration for the panacea of “national self-determination” after World War I, based on the disastrously flawed assumption that nice, clean national boundaries could be drawn that would all enclose so many pristine, pure ethnic states.  In reality, no such pristine territories existed, and “national self-determination” became a vehicle for the persecution of ethnic minorities all over Europe.  Human nature hasn’t changed, and it continues to function in the same way today.  For example, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian majority ingroup quickly began acting like one.  A Jewish community center and synagogue were firebombed.   The new rump parliament almost immediately voted to eliminate Russian as an official language, relegating Russian speakers to the status of second class citizens.

    Such high-handed actions were virtually ignored in western Europe and the United States, where the collective memory of the Russians as outgroup, still strong more than two decades after the fall of Communism, insured that the Ukrainian nationalists would be perceived as the “good guys.”  Oblivious to the fact that they had quite recently established a precedent by collaborating in the chopping off of a piece of Serbia and handing it to an ethnic minority, and ignoring such theoretical niceties as the claim that, if the Ukrainian majority in the west of the country had a right to vote itself special rights in the west of the country, the Russian majority in the east of the country must have similar rights in their territories, they began a war of words against the Russians, claiming that their occupation of the Crimea and protection of the Russian majority there was unheard of.

    In a word, there is nothing rational about what is going on in Ukraine unless one takes into account the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our species that predispose us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Such manifestations are hardly unique to Ukraine,.  Just look around on the Internet a little.  It’s full of a bewildering array of ideological, religious, ethnic, and political ingroups, all busily engaged in cementing “amity” within the group, and all with comment sections full of “enmity” directed at their respective outgroups in the form of furious anathemas and denunciations.

    The “Complex” is inseparable from human moral behavior.  No morality will ever exist that doesn’t come complete with its own outgroup.  Think we can “expand our consciousness” until our ingroup includes all mankind?  Dream on!  The “other” will always be there.  The “Complex” is the main reason that puttering away at new moralities is so dangerous.  No matter how idealistic their intentions, the outgroup will always remain.  We saw how that worked in the 20th century, with the annihilations of millions in the Jewish outgroup of the Nazis, and millions more in the “bourgeois” outgroup of the Communists.  Before we start playing with fire again, it would probably behoove us to finally recognize the ways in which it can burn us.

  • Ingroups and Outgroups Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere!

    Posted on February 26th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Every day in every way things are getting better and better.  Well, all right, maybe that’s a stretch, but now and then, things actually do take a turn for the better, at least from my point of view.  Take this interview of Oliver Scott Curry at the This View of Life website, for example.  Here’s a young guy who gets human nature, and gets morality, and isn’t in the least bit afraid to talk about them as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing the weather.  Have a look at some of the things this guy says:

    MICHAEL PRICE (Interviewer): What can evolutionary approaches tell us about human moral systems that other approaches cannot tell us? That is, what unique and novel insights about morality does an evolutionary approach provide?

    OLIVER SCOTT CURRY: Well, everything. It can tell us what morality is, where it comes from, and how it works. No other approach can do that.  The evolutionary approach tells us that morality is a set of biological and cultural strategies for solving problems of cooperation and conflict. We have a range of moral instincts that are natural selection’s attempts to solve these problems. They are sophisticated versions of the kind of social instincts seen in other species…Above all, the evolutionary approach demystifies morality and brings it down to earth. It tells us that morality is just another adaptation that can be studied in the same way as any other aspect of our biology or psychology.

    PRICE: The ordinary view in biology is that adaptations evolve primarily to promote individual fitness (survival and reproduction of self/kin). Do you believe that this view is correct with regard to the human biological adaptations that generate moral rules? Does this view imply that individuals moralize primarily to promote their own fitness interests (as opposed to promoting, e.g., group welfare)?  (TVOL editor David Sloan Wilson is one of the foremost advocates of group selection, ed.)

    CURRY: No. Adaptations evolve to promote the replication of genes; natural selection cannot work any other way. Genes replicate by means of the effects that they have on the world; these effects include the formation of things like chromosomes, multicellular individuals, and groups. (My understanding is that everyone agrees about this, although there is some debate about whether groups are sufficiently coherent to constitute vehicles [1].)

    PRICE: What work by others on the evolution of morality (or just on morality in general) have you found most enlightening?

    CURRY: David Hume’s work has been particularly inspiring. In many ways he is the great-great-great granddaddy of evolutionary psychology. He almost stumbled upon the theory of evolution. He undertook a comparative “anatomy of the mind” that showed “the correspondence of passions in men and animals.” His “bundle theory of the self” hints at massive modularity. His A Treatise of Human Nature [2] introduced “the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects,” and discusses relatedness, certainty of paternity, coordination and convention, reciprocal exchange, costly signals, dominance and submission, and the origins of property. He even anticipated by-product theories of religion, describing religious ideas as “the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape” [3]. Remarkable.

    Remarkable, indeed!  Curry just rattles off stuff that’s been hidden in plain sight for the last 100 years, but that would have brought his career to a screeching halt not that long ago.  Beginning in the 1920’s, the obscurantists of the Blank Slate controlled the message about human nature in both the scientific and popular media for more than 50 years.  They imposed a stifling orthodoxy on the behavioral sciences that rendered much of the work in those fields as useless and irrelevant as the thousands of tomes about Marxism that were published during the heyday of the Soviet Union.  Their grip was only broken when a few brave authors stood up to them, and it became obvious to any 10-year-old that their “science” was absurd.  This should never, ever be forgotten in our hubris over the triumphs of science.  When the “men of science” start declaring that they have a monopoly on the truth, and that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but evil, it’s reasonable to suspect that what they’re promoting isn’t the truth, but an ideological narrative.

    It’s refreshing, indeed, to hear from someone who, in spite of the fact that he clearly understands where morality comes from, doesn’t immediately contradict that knowledge by spouting nonsense about moral “truths.”  At least in this interview, I find nothing like Sam Harris’ delusions about “scientific moral truths,” or Jonathan Haidt’s delusions about “anthropocentric moral truths, or Joshua Greene’s delusions about “utilitarian moral truths.”  I can but hope that Curry will never join them in their wild goose chase after the will-o’-the-wisp of “human flourishing.”

    At the end of the interview, Curry reveals that he’s also aware of another aspect of human morality that makes many otherwise sober evolutionary psychologists squirm; our tendency to see the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  When Price questions him about the most important unsolved scientific puzzles in evolutionary moral psychology he replies that one of the questions that keeps him up at night is, “Why are people so quick to divide the world into ‘us and them’? Why not just have a bigger us? (I’d like to see an answer rooted in three-player game theory.)”

    Hey, three-player game theory is fine with me, as long as we finally realize that the ingroup-outgroup thing is a fundamental aspect of human moral behavior, and one that it would behoove us to deal with rationally assuming we entertain hopes for the survival of our species.  As it happens, that’s easier said than done.  The academic milieu that is home to so many of the moral theorists and philosophers of our day has long been steeped in an extremely moralistic culture; basically a secular version of the Puritanism of the 16th and 17th centuries, accompanied by all the manifestations of self-righteous piety familiar to historians of that era.  It is arguably more difficult for such people to give up any rational basis for their addiction to virtuous indignation and the striking of highly ostentatious pious poses than it is for them to give up sex.  For them, the “real” Good must prevail.  As a result we have such gaudy and delusional “solutions” to the problem as Joshua Greene’s proposal that we simply stifle our moral emotions in favor of his “real” utilitarian morality, Sam Harris’ more practical approach of simply dumping everyone who doesn’t accept his “scientific” morality into a brand new outgroup, and various schemes for “expanding” our ingroup to include all mankind.

    Sorry, it won’t work.  Ingroups and outgroups ain’t goin’ nowhere.  Stifle racism, and religious bigotry will take its place.  Stifle religious bigotry, and homophobia will jump in to take over.  Stifle all those things, and there will always be a few deluded souls around who dare to disagree with you.  They, in their turn, will become your new outgroup.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  Better understand the problem than pretend it’s not there.

    As for Curry’s suggestion that we declare Hume the father of evolutionary psychology, nothing could please me more.

     

     

  • Morality and the Epiphany of Joshua Greene

    Posted on September 14th, 2013 Helian 3 comments

    The manifestations of morality are complex, but its origins are simple.  Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for its existence.  In all of its many facets and forms, it only exists because of them, and would not exist without them.  Those behavioral traits evolved without a goal, and without a purpose.  They exist because they happened to increase our chances of surviving and procreating at a time when our mode of existence as well as our social and physical environment were radically different from what they are now.

    There are certain obvious implications of these simple facts.  Perhaps the most obvious is that we are unlikely to achieve any desirable end by blindly following our moral intuitions in a world which has become so different from the one in which those intuitions evolved.  In the first instance, this applies to the individual goals of surviving and procreating, which at least have something to do with the reasons that morality exists in the first place, but even more obviously to those goals, such as the promotion of “human flourishing,” which do not.  The 20th century supplied us with abundant experimental data to establish these facts.  Two highly moralistic secular creeds of that era devoted to the cause of “human flourishing” are particularly noteworthy; Communism and Nazism.  Both produced huge crops of moralistic idealists, and both resulted in levels of mass slaughter unprecedented in the bloody history of our species that preceded them.

    There was nothing accidental or improbable about these disastrous outcomes.  A detailed understanding of the workings of human moral predispositions and emotions must await a vastly expanded understanding of the brain, but certain of their more obvious qualities can be sketched with broad brush strokes.  Among other things, human moral systems invariably include the perception of ingroups and outgroups.  To the best of my knowledge, this truth was first formally stated by Sir Arthur Keith, was treated as a commonplace by Robert Ardrey, but has only finally begun to penetrate the collective consciousness of the intellectual elite among us in the last 15 years or so.  It is one of the main reasons why attempts to promote social ideals by tinkering with morality are not just unlikely to succeed, but downright dangerous.

    Which brings us back to the title of this post.  In an article at Edge.org entitled “Deep Pragmatism,” by moral psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene, we can almost literally watch the scales falling from his eyes.  Here are some of the more interesting bits:

    Another possibility is that what we’re seeing here are the limitations of intuitive human morality; that we evolved in a world in which we didn’t deal with people on the other side of the world—the world was our group. We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. The people on the other side of the hill—they’re the competition. We have heartstrings that you can tug, but you can’t tug them from very far away. There’s not necessarily a moral reason why we’re like this, it’s a tribal reason. We’re designed to be good to the people within our group to solve the tragedy of the commons, but we’re not designed for the tragedy of common sense morality. We’re not designed to find a good solution between our well-being and their well-being. We’re really about me and about us, but we’re not so much about them.

    Another, in my view, more plausible possibility is that we’re seeing the limitations of our moral instincts. That, again, our moral heart strings, so to speak, were designed to be tugged, but not from very far away. But it’s not for a moral reason. It’s not because it’s good for us to be that way. It’s because caring about ourselves and our small little tribal group helped us survive, and caring about the other groups—the competition—didn’t help us survive. If anything, we should have negative attitudes towards them. We’re competing with them for resources.

    what this suggests that if you agree that the well-being, the happiness of people on the other side of the world is just as important as the happiness of people here—we may be partial to ourselves, and to our family, and to our friends, but if you don’t think that objectively we’re any better or more important or that our lives are any more valuable than other people’s lives—then, we can’t trust our instincts about this, and we have to shift ourselves into manual mode.

    To bring this all full circle—two kinds of problems, two kinds of thinking. We’ve got individuals getting together as groups—me versus us—and there we want to trust those gut reactions, we want to trust the gut reactions that say, “Be nice, be cooperative, put your money into the pool, and help the group out,” and we’re pretty good at that. When it comes to us versus them—to distrusting people who are different from us, who are members of other racial groups or ethnic groups, when it comes to helping people who really could benefit enormously from our resources but who don’t have a kind of personal connection to us, us versus them, their interests versus our interests, or their interests versus my interests, or their values versus my values—our instincts may not be so reliable; that’s when we need to shift into manual mode.

    Maybe a discussion for another time is: Should we trust those instincts that tell us that we shouldn’t be going for the greater good? Is the problem with our instincts or is the problem with the philosophy? What I argue is that our moral instincts are not as reliable as we think, and that when our instincts work against the greater good, we should put them aside at least as much as we can. If we want to have a global philosophy—one that we could always sign onto, regardless of which moral tribes we’re coming from—it’s going to require us to do things that don’t necessarily feel right in our hearts. Either it’s asking too much of us, or it feels like it’s asking us to do things that are wrong—to betray certain ideals, but that’s the price that we’ll have to pay if we want to have a kind of common currency; if we want to have a philosophy that we can all live by.

    In a word, instead of continuing our attempts to blindly apply evolved behavioral traits to the solution of problems that have nothing to do with their evolutionary origins, perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to address them rationally for a change.  It’s very encouraging to occasionally run across such recognition of the obvious by thinkers as well-regarded as Prof. Greene.  It’s not out of the question that, as the thinking class continues to digest the implications of the biological origins of morality, we will see much more of the same.  Such optimism may well be unwarranted.  After all, the academy is filled with “experts” on morality and ethics, not to mention a host of professional philosophers, whose self-respect and livelihood depend on successfully bamboozling the rest of us into believing that they actually know something about “good” and “evil,” that is, objects that exist only in their imaginations.  On the other hand, change happens.  The behavioral sciences were dominated by the Blank Slate orthodoxy for decades, and yet today one can actually suggest that there is such a thing as human nature without being shouted down as a fascist.

    As I have pointed out before, understanding the nature and origins of morality will not cause us all to suddenly start dancing naked in the streets.  It is our nature to be moral creatures, and we will continue to be moral creatures.  It is not in our nature to be “moral relativists,” and we will not all become moral relativists.  It is no more possible for us to jettison morality than for a leopard to change its spots.  We may, however, find it useful to restrict morality to its proper sphere of regulating our day to day interactions with other individuals, and seek to come up with moral system(s) that are simple, in harmony with our innate behavioral traits, and that enable us to live together and pursue our individual goals as comfortably and with as little friction as possible.  Meanwhile, we should be wary of those who seek to exploit moral emotions to achieve social ideals, promote holy causes, and peddle political nostrums.

     

  • Of Ingroups, Outgroups and Ideology

    Posted on August 25th, 2013 Helian No comments

    The set of innate human behavioral traits we associate  with morality did not evolve in order to eventually promote and uphold ideological utopias.  However, they did evolve to promote a dual system of moral behavior, in which one set of rules applies to the ingroup and another to the outgroup.  Murder, for example, which is usually severely punished if the victim belongs to the ingroup, has on occasion been treated with indifference and even encouraged if he belongs to an outgroup.  Knowledge of the distinguishing traits of ingroups and outgroups are acquired by experience and culture.  Such traits often include ideologies, of both the religious and secular types.  Thus, to cite a familiar example, while support or contempt for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the other shibboleths of Marxism played no role in the evolution of moral behavior, they are quite capable of serving as ingroup/outgroup markers.

    For example, as I write this, the liberal/conservative divide in the US is a major variant of ingroup/outgroup identification.  That’s why one runs across terms like “polarization” in the news so often.  Read the comment section of any political blog, and you’ll quickly see that liberals and conservatives often don’t see their opponents as fellow citizens who happen to disagree with them, but as enemies, members of an outgroup complete with all the negative qualities commonly associated with outgroups.  They are not only wrong, but morally evil.

    Mankind has often paid a heavy price for failing to understand this fundamental aspect of our moral nature.  Communism and Nazism were both highly successful ideological ingroups, in essence, secular religions, and both were also highly moralistic.  Both fought against “evil,” in the form of an outgroup.  For the Communists, the outgroup was the bourgeoisie, and for the Nazis, the Jews.  In the course of a few decades, these two powerful and charismatic secular religions had murdered tens of millions of men, women and children in the name of ridding the world of the “evil” supposedly embodied in these two groups.  The process continues today.  Old outgroups are exchanged for new ones, often strikingly similar to the ones they replaced.  For example, instead of bourgeoisie, we now have “the one percent.”  Instead of Jews, we now have “Zionists.”  The only difference in that respect between this century and the last is that the 21st century hasn’t yet spawned a new, charismatic ideology anywhere near as “successful” as Nazism and Communism to fill the vacuum left by their demise.  Unless we learn to understand and control this aspect of our moral nature, the appearance of new ones is just a matter of time.

    The outgroup have ye always with you.  It represents a fundamental human need.  If one doesn’t happen to be handy, it will be invented. Hence the chimerical nature of schemes to unite all mankind into one big ingroup, a gigantic mutual admiration society.  As E. O. Wilson put it referring to a different ideology, “Great theory, wrong species.”

    Morality, we are now told, must be put on a secular, “scientific” basis, in order to serve the transcendental “good” of “human flourishing.”  This new scheme of harnessing moral emotions in the name of “human flourishing” is not only palpably absurd, but dangerous.  Moral behavior evolved.  It has no purpose.  The reasons it evolved have to do with the survival of individual genes, and have nothing whatsoever to do with “human flourishing.”  “Human flourishing” itself will inevitably mean different things to different people, and these differences will spawn ingroups and outgroups as before.  There is nothing wrong with human beings uniting to consider rational means of achieving mutually agreed upon goals.  However, attempts to “tame” morality, and make it conform to “science” in pursuit of those goals is a prescription for disaster.  Human moral emotions cannot be manipulated at will.

    Morality will not disappear, nor will our moral behavior undergo any fundamental change simply by virtue of our understanding it.  We will not all suddenly become “moral relativists,” nor will we all begin applying mathematical equations instead of moral emotions to regulate our day-to-day interactions.  We may, however, become wise enough to cease and desist from attempts to “tame” those emotions in the interest of promoting this or that ideological or political system.  Unless we are to understand that the mayhem and senseless mutual slaughter we have been engaged in since the dawn of recorded time represents “human flourishing,” one must hope so.

  • Of Ingroups and Outgroups and Niall Ferguson

    Posted on August 24th, 2012 Helian No comments

    I’ve mentioned the work of historian Niall Ferguson in the context of what used to be called the Amity/Enmity Complex before.  Simply put, the term was used to describe that ubiquitous tendency of our species to perceive the rest of mankind in terms of ingroups, to which we belong and with which we associate Good, and outgroups, to which “others” belong, and with which we associate Evil.  Ferguson just did something that was guaranteed to land him in an outgroup.  He started rattling and prying at one of the boards of which the ideological box that a particular ingroup lives in was built.  He accomplished this feat by publishing an article in Newsweek critical of Barack Obama, who happens to be the human icon of the Good for the ingroup in question, consisting of a substantial faction of the ideological left.

    Ferguson doesn’t exactly have a history of ingratiating himself with the left.  He was an advisor to McCain in 2008, has been critical of Obamacare and government fiscal policy, and is certainly an outlier to the right among his fellow Harvard professors.  Perhaps the furious response to his latest piece reflects the fact that it appeared in Newsweek, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an organ of the right.  If he’d published the same piece in, say, National Review, I doubt that the bees would have come swarming out of their hive in quite such massive numbers.  In any case, here are some of the responses to his latest, beginning with Alex Pareene at Salon;

    Niall Ferguson is an intellectual fraud whose job, for years, has been to impress dumb rich Americans with his accent and flatter them with his writings. It’s a pretty easy con, honestly, if you’re born shameless and British (or French).

    Maybe it’s a rich people thing, but I never thought Ferguson was particularly flattering towards Americans.  For example, in his War of the World, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings.  Moving right along, here’s another take by Noah Smith:

    I have been known to tease a fellow blogger or two, but there is really only one writer who makes me truly mad, and that is British historian Niall Ferguson. I will explain exactly why he makes me so mad at the end of this post. First, though, I want to say a few words about Mr. Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek magazine, entitled “Hit the Road, Barack”. I should note that it imposes a heavy psychic cost for me to do so, since it requires that I actually read Niall Ferguson. But the public duty to expose BS and promote truth and intellectual honesty overrides such selfish concerns.

    and another by James Fallows:

    Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline (As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize). But here is what I have in mind right now:  A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade.

    I won’t presume to judge between Ferguson and his detractors on matters of fact.  As usual in such cases, the main differences between them depend, not on the facts themselves, but on how they are spun.  For example, most of the broadsides against Ferguson I’ve seen so far take issue with the following quote from Newsweek:

    Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.

    It is cited as one of Ferguson’s “lies,” even though it is factually correct, because it doesn’t have the right spin.  For example, Matthew O’Brien writes,

    Ferguson’s fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, “Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole — despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak.”

    Ferguson counters with some spin of his own,

    Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it’s a fact.

    Which version you prefer is probably a pretty good indication of which of the contending ingroups you inhabit.  You be the judge, dear reader.  While you’re at it, maybe you can tell me who was really guilty of starting World War I as well.  I merely offer Ferguson’s article and the furious response thereto as another data point for students of the group behavior of our species.