Of Tim Hunt and Elementary Morality

If we are evolved animals, then it is plausible that we have evolved behavioral traits, and among those traits are a “moral sense.”  So much was immediately obvious to Darwin himself.  To judge by the number of books that have been published about evolved morality in the last couple of decades, it makes sense to a lot of other people, too.  The reason such a sense might have evolved is obvious, especially among highly social creatures such as ourselves.  The tendency to act in some ways and not in others enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for those tendencies would survive and reproduce.  It is not implausible that this moral sense should be strong, and that it should give rise to such powerful impressions that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” as to produce a sense that “good” and “evil” exist independently as objective things.  Such a moral sense is demonstrably very effective at modifying our behavior.  It hardly follows that good and evil really are independent, objective things.

If an evolved moral sense really is the “root cause” for the existence of all the various and gaudy manifestations of human morality, is it plausible to believe that this moral sense has somehow tracked an “objective morality” that floats around out there independent of any subjective human consciousness?  No.  If it really is the root cause, is there some objective mechanism whereby the moral impressions of one human being can leap out of that individual’s skull and gain the normative power to dictate to another human being what is “really good” and “really evil?”  No.  Can there be any objective justification for outrage?  No.  Can there be any objective basis for virtuous indignation?  No.  So much is obvious.  Under the circumstances it’s amazing, even given the limitations of human reason, that so many of the most intelligent among it just don’t get it.  One can only attribute it to the tremendous power of the moral emotions, the great pleasure we get from indulging them, and the dominant role they play in regulating all human interactions.

These facts were recently demonstrated by the interesting behavior of some of the more prominent intellectuals among us in reaction to some comments at a scientific conference.  In case you haven’t been following the story, the commenter in question was Tim Hunt,- a biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for discoveries of protein molecules that control the division (duplication) of cells.  At a luncheon during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, he averred that women are a problem in labs because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Hunt’s comment evoked furious moral emotions, not least among atheist intellectuals.  According to PZ Myers, proprietor of Pharyngula, Hunt’s comments revealed that he is “bad.”  Some of his posts on the subject may be found here, here, and here.  For example, according to Myers,

Oh, no! There might be a “chilling effect” on the ability of coddled, privileged Nobel prize winners to say stupid, demeaning things about half the population of the planet! What will we do without the ability of Tim Hunt to freely accuse women of being emotional hysterics, or without James Watson’s proud ability to call all black people mentally retarded?

I thought Hunt’s plaintive whines were a big bowl of bollocks.

All I can say is…fuck off, dinosaur. We’re better off without you in any position of authority.

We can glean additional data in the comments to these posts that demonstrate the human version of “othering.”  Members of outgroups, or “others,” are not only “bad,” but also typically impure and disgusting.  For example,

Glad I wasn’t the only–or even the first!–to mention that long-enough-to-macramé nose hair. I think I know what’s been going on: The female scientists in his lab are always trying hard to not stare at the bales of hay peeking out of his nostrils and he’s been mistaking their uncomfortable, demure behaviour as ‘falling in love with him’.

However, in creatures with brains large enough to cogitate about what their emotions are trying to tell them, the same suite of moral predispositions can easily give rise to stark differences in moral judgments.  Sure enough, others concluded that Myers and those who agreed with him were “bad.”  Prominent among them was Richard Dawkins, who wrote in an open letter to the London Times,

Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”

The moral emotions of other Nobel laureates informed them that Dawkins was right.  For example, according to the Telegraph,

Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 said that Sir Tim had been “crucified” by ideological fanatics , and castigated UCL for “ousting” him.

Avram Hershko, an Israeli scientist who won the 2004 Nobel prize in chemistry, said he thought Sir Tim was “very unfairly treated.”  He told the Times: “Maybe he wanted to be funny and was jet lagged, but then the criticism in the social media and in the press was very much out of proportion. So was his prompt dismissal — or resignation — from his post at UCL .”

All these reactions have one thing in common.  They are completely irrational unless one assumes the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things rather than subjective impressions.  Or would you have me believe, dear reader, that statements like, “fuck off, dinosaur,” and allusions to crucifixion by “ideological fanatics” engaged in a “baying witch-hunt,” are mere cool, carefully reasoned suggestions about how best to advance the officially certified “good” of promoting greater female participation in the sciences?  Nonsense!  These people aren’t playing a game of charades, either.  Their behavior reveals that they genuinely believe, not only in the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things, but in their own ability to tell the difference better than those who disagree with them.  If they don’t believe it, they certainly act like they do.  And yet these are some of the most intelligent representatives of our species.  One can but despair, and hope that aliens from another planet don’t turn up anytime soon to witness such ludicrous spectacles.

Clearly, we can’t simply dispense with morality.  We’re much too stupid to get along without it.  Under the circumstances, it would be nice if we could all agree on what we will consider “good” and what “bad,” within the limits imposed by the innate bedrock of morality in human nature.  Unfortunately, human societies are now a great deal different than the ones that existed when the predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved, and they tend to change very rapidly.  It stands to reason that it will occasionally be necessary to “adjust” the types of behavior we consider “good” and “bad” to keep up as best we can.  I personally doubt that the current practice of climbing up on rickety soap boxes and shouting down anathemas on anyone who disagrees with us, and then making the “adjustment” according to who shouts the loudest, is really the most effective way to accomplish that end.  Among other things, it results in too much collateral damage in the form of shattered careers and ideological polarization.  I can’t suggest a perfect alternative at the moment, but a little self-knowledge might help in the search for one.  Shedding the illusion of objective morality would be a good start.


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

33 thoughts on “Of Tim Hunt and Elementary Morality”

  1. I’ve noticed that Dawkins has been loudly calling for the reinstatement of Hunt.
    Could I ask you your thoughts on the controversy involving Chomsky and Daniel Everett, there seemed to be less support for Everett, and I can’t help if there is not again some innate elite/territorialism going on.
    Ie Dawkins supports Hunt but doesn’t challenge Chomsky. ?

  2. I’m afraid I’ll have to let the linguists sort out the Everett – Chomsky debate on their own. They’re arguing a question of fact; whether recursion in human languages is a universal and unique capability of our species. No doubt innate behavioral baggage will come into play on both sides, as it always does, but such questions will remain very difficult to solve until we really understand how the brain works. That’s really the key question we need to answer. Ardrey and others like him took the question out of the realm of forbidden knowledge. Scientists are once again able to seek the answer without fear, or at least as much fear, of being vilified or having their careers destroyed. That may turn out to be the most important result of their work.

  3. I will try to keep this comment from being too long, but it is a complex subject.

    IMO, what is going on is in the intersection/interaction of morality and coalitional aggression.

    For a reduced argument/theory of morality I offer the following:

    1. People do not like being bullied, deceived or stolen from, but they also like to enforce a pecking order (bully), are wont to dissemble if the truth is inconvenient (lie), and get things at as little cost as possible (steal). Since all personality traits, including the ones that affect these habits, are heritable and variable to some extent there will be a distribution in a population of people who have different expressions of the propensities for the same.
    2. People tend to aggregate in groups and form alliances with others of similar levels of expression of the above. Those who are a little more comfortable with throwing an elbow or the “bump and run” of life are not, on average, going to form alliances with the more cautious in the population.

    From the above morality arises. Since essentially no one likes to be bullied or stolen from we evolved “thou shalt not steal”, and “thou shalt not kill”, enforced by Leviathan within the group. We don’t have much trouble enforcing these against the most egregious, but alliances form among those who have a similar sense of the more subtle nuances, especially when there is a social contest (“all’s fair in love and war”). “Do unto others” is more problematic, especially when some are much more comfortable with the rougher aspects of the contest of life.

    With the advent of “democracy”, the “Global Village”, and the perceived “Crisis of Humanity” the groupings have taken on an existential importance to some and the groups have coalesced on extremes. Those who are comfortable with the contest of life see things pretty much bumping along as usual, those who are not, but have a coalition behind them, see their chance to right wrongs – with a vengeance like jays mobbing an owl.

    As Robert Lindner observed, “It is a characteristic of all movements and crusades that the psychopathic element rises to the top.” I’m not sure Maximilian Robespierre would qualify as a psychopath, but he fits the pattern. Robespierre was a delicate sort, but so sure of his moral authority that he was dubbed “the immaculate one”. Today we are dealing with millions who are that “sure” of their moral authority. To me it’s just BS.

  4. In trying to keep it short I glossed over a bunch, but it is not lost to me that Robespierre went to the Guillotien and eventually the French got Napoleon.

  5. I don’t know if what Lindner says is true of all movements and crusades, but it’s certainly not uncommon for the psychopathic element to rise to the top. Unfortunately, the type you describe, those whose tastes run to messianic movements and crusades, aren’t usually inclined to worry too much about who is leading them.

  6. Back to Chomsky, just read a piece by Montague. Ch 9 “Chomsky explicitly states that he does not want what he is saying to be confused with the attempt of others to revise a theory of human instinct”
    Firstly Montagues’ writing I find completely outrageous, bizzare.
    Secondly Chomsky and the universal language principle seems important to me in that he is trying to distinguish between man and animal. A false division. Anyway a bit off topic but the Montague piece really got my goat.
    Lastly the owners of the worlds territory, tellingly, don’t write about how to achieve ownership. If the majority of fools woke up chaos would ensue?

  7. Montagu was bizarre enough all right, but then again, so were all of the Blank Slaters. Some of them even thought sex was a purely learned phenomenon. OTH, Montagu left us “Man and Aggression,” an invaluable piece of historical source material, in spite of himself. Among other things, it demolishes Pinker’s fairy tale version of the “history” of the Blank Slate. He actually had the gall to reference in the same place in his book where he claimed that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong.”

  8. Not only Ardrey, but Pinker took the same sort of shot at Konrad Lorenz’s “On Aggression”.

    All through “The Blank Slate” Pinker took a really PC line. I got the feeling that he was just another liberal falling back to a more defendable ditch.

    Lorenz was dealing with instincts from black box perspective, observing inputs and outputs without speculating about the workings within the box, which was all anyone could do at the time. His linking of aggression with social behavior was brilliant IMO.

    For an exploration of what is going on inside the box I have read “The Archaeology of Mind”, by Panksepp & Biven(?) which is very interesting. If anybody has any criticism/opinion of that one I would like to hear them – it is pretty technical. I’d also be interested if anyone has any comments about why Lucy Biven seemingly dropped out of cooperation with the book.

    Panksepp seems pretty liberal with his politics, but, as best I can tell, he is able to separate that from his study of biology.

  9. Substitute “progressive” for “liberal” in the above comment. What distinguishes them is the belief in the ability of men to shape history and society.

  10. Yes, criticizing Lorenz for his “archaic hydraulic theory” was ludicrous at best. He was simply suggesting a plausible hypothesis that fit the observed data at the time. I haven’t read “The Archeology of Mind.” I’ll pick up a copy.

  11. Archaeology of Mind is not an easy read, but it is worthwhile. One really has to study it as though taking a college course to get the most out of it. You might want to read some articles about Panksepp and his rats to see if it piques your interest first.

    I don’t think I could have made it through it if I had not read some articles first that kept me interested enough to keep slogging through it.

    (will now look for some articles)

  12. Yes, criticizing Lorenz for his “archaic hydraulic theory” was ludicrous at best. He was simply suggesting a plausible hypothesis that fit the observed data at the time.

    This point fascinates me, clearly Lorenz was talking about a mechanism in the brain. As we allow no external ‘metaphysical’ inputs the movements, thoughts responses must emerge from the brain.

    If we observe ourselves we will see patterns and how these patterns flow, strengthen and grow in strengh and are more difficult to break. When Lorenz talks about the hydraulic theory I actually see that the ‘flow’, ’emergence’, ‘bursting’, contradictory/whirpool’, etc language is quite evocative of the actual functioning of the observed mind.

    A great example is the alcoholic, he knows the failing, he knows he is responding to a ‘false’ positive, ie the Chemical, he sees this and stops. Now anyone who knows an alcoholic will know that one drink will trigger the release of this ‘hydraulic’ effect. (I see many other examples of this in peoples behaviour and if we observe and look for patterns, explosions of ‘instinctive’ reaction its all there.)
    Its the language which is difficult here, but again, typical of the ‘anti’ forces who split hairs to deny far greater truths that the wieght of the hair.

  13. The Wiki entry on Lorenz mentions his “psychohydraulic” model, and claims that it, “…tended towards group selectionist ideas, which were influential in the 1960s.” Very interesting, because based on my reading of what he actually said on the subject it had nothing whatsoever to do with group selection. However, Pinker’s specious claim that Ardrey and Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong” was based on a quote from Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” in which he was referring exclusively to their support for group selection. This particular distortion of history seems to have a tendency to build on itself and become more tangled all the time.

  14. I’ve had a bit of scout around this ‘group selection’ issue and am not really sure why it’s seen as of such importance. I can see instances where it occurs, to varying degree’s, to what extent and under what motivators would take more thought however.
    Do you suggest any short pieces that outline the main issues here?

  15. “Do you suggest any short pieces that outline the main issues here?”

    I will say that the main issue as I understand it is that by conventional formulae used a gene is not supposed to do anything that jeopardizes its opportunity to replicate by passing itself along. i.e. it is supposed to be “selfish”.

    The example of “Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his brother”, is not supposed to exist by this calculation. Group selection and multilevel selection are theories that try to explain how this might have evolved. Most of the arguments seem to be about the math which I have never tried or cared to understand, so I am not competent to debate the issue.

  16. Many thanks. I’ve had a quick read. Enjoyed the link to the Dawkin’s /Wilson discussion.
    I am still trying to make sense of my current thinking re Dawkins. It is based on my belief that he has missed something crucial that Tinbergen and Lorenz etc make quite clear. There is no such thing as ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.
    Dawkin’s with his galloping atheism /humanism etc allows for the claim that he has a post kantian element that begs the q. “And just what are you basing that on.?”
    Anyway thanks again.

  17. Johan van der Dennen gives a good brief synopsis of group selection on page 17 of his book “The Origin of War,” which is available online at:


    The history of the group selection controversy is at least as interesting as the question of whether it actually happened to any significant degree. See, for example,


    As you can see from that post, E. O. Wilson really shook things up with his wholehearted embrace of group selection in his, “The Social Conquest of Earth.” He doubled down on the subject in his next book, “The Meaning of Human of Existence.” You can imagine what problems this presents to Pinker and his acolytes. After all, he used group selection as the pretext for dismissing the entire legacy of Ardrey and Lorenz, propping up Wilson to take their place as the great knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon.

  18. Thank you.
    I’m looking forward to reading these.
    If I can get back on one of ny favourite hobby horses. Holldobler and E O Wilson wrote ‘The Leafcutter Ants. Civilization by Instinct” , a promising title. Now page 9, ‘Ant colonies are more than the sum of there parts.” Nooooo. If we cannot see/understand complexity we must stand and seliver truth, ie complexity is such that there is more going on than we understand.
    Look, the ant bee issue is crucial. Moving from the ” sum is greater” to “each unit has within it all the receptors and fractal drivers that are neccesary for the amazing complexity we see.
    Instinct and unconscious forces drive through, the important issue here is the realization that our conscious /ego self is crushed.
    Re Dawkins selfish gene. I’m beginning to think its a selfish theory. As complexity grows defence drifts claims of authority.
    I’ve mentioned the same thing with Chomsky and the Amazon language principle.
    Anyway thanks again and will update thoughts after reading these links.

  19. Have read these now, thanks for the links.
    Ummmmm, I’m going to think about that.
    My only immediate thought is that when science becomes almost impossible to understand then something is up.
    I’ll reread when I have the time and think some more.

  20. Chomsky and Dawkins both have careers based on ‘definative’ works in specialist areas.
    Both defend their territorial rights to absolute rule.
    Both are ‘humanitarians’ ,and ‘box office’ in civil society.
    Dawkins’ selfish gene theory contradicts most of his humanitarian offerings.
    If we look at the scientist/academic as our object of study, we can identify traits that deserve ‘game theory’ analysis not gentlemanly debate.
    How powerful a strategy to encourage others to not compete, how interesting that others accept such thoughts.
    Re territory, denied yet 2000 trillion in territory owned around the world.
    Maybe man has so successful learnt the art of lying that he does it unconsciously.
    Anyway just thoughts.

  21. Yes, Dawkins response to Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth” was telling. He wrote an angry article denouncing Wilson for not consulting the rest of the “scientific community,” i.e., him, before publishing a book supporting group selection. Wilson had crossed into forbidden territory without consulting the self-appointed gatekeeper.

  22. My take on Dawkins’ and Pinker’s response to Wilson’s embrace of group selection are summed up here and here. I’m not so much interested in the extent to which group selection actually happened as I am in the historical role of the subject in the Blank Slate affair. Pinker used it as his excuse for ignoring the seminal role of Ardrey, based on Dawkins’ authority. That is ludicrous in itself, regardless of whether group selection actually happened to any significant extent or not. Obviously, it becomes even more ludicrous if group selection turns out to be important. I think that goes a long way towards explaining the responses to Wilson’s book you link in your comment.

  23. Indeed and apologies, I found your previous comments whilst looking through some of your previous post.
    One more quote from Lorenz, (On Aggression 1967, p56-57)
    “Among animals symbols are not transmitted by tradition from generation to generation, and it is here, if one wishes to draw the border between ‘the animal’ and man. In animals individually acquired experience is sometimes transmitted by teaching and learning, from older to younger individuals, though such true learning is only seen in those forms whose high learning is combined with a higher development of their social life…….
    However, no means of communication, no learned rituals are ever handed down by tradition in animals. In other words, animals have no culture.”

    I’ve always thought that Lorenz was taking to us about us, his use of the animal example is a screen, yet how can this be so given this quote? Man can only have no culture if it is an illusion, Tinbergen talks to us of the super stimuli, the reality for man is that god and morality, ethics and much else that forms his cradle is such.

  24. Thank you ‘Idrather’,
    Thank you, had a quick read.
    I feel that I’ve got a fair understanding that there is a great conflict here that obviously means there are groups at work.
    The delightful contradiction I find, (having been savaged on twitter by some self appointed Dawkins soldiers) is that anyone who is not genetically benefiting from the reproduction of Dawkins, or themselves, is effectively wasting their biological time arguing about pouring from the empty into the void.
    One chap who was quite indignant had the twitter handle, ‘stonedathiest’. It’s these contradictions, or misfiring of the psyche of man that fascinates me.
    As Mr Helian has stated, I’m quite happy for them to remove themselves from the evoltionary stream, less competition for me and my children. Here is the crux, they obviously see themselves as somehow not part of the animal world.

  25. I see you were the one who recommended Panksepp. Thanks! It’s a brilliant book. It’s very encouraging to see that kind of science being done. I think that was really the point of the battle against the Blank Slate – not to put over this or that theory of human nature, but to insure that scientists could do and publish that kind of work without being vilified and/or ignored, and to remove the roadblocks to acquiring that kind of knowledge. The book is also historically interesting. It documents how the Skinnerite/behaviorist wing of the Blank Slate suppressed research into animal emotions and feelings for decades, and just how intimidating and effective they were in doing that.

  26. Ahh, yes I know this is a while back and yes I have been pondering the whole Group selection thingo, so here goes.

    Firstly the inspiration or the ‘ping’ moment came when reading Ardrey’s Territorial imperative. (What a book, I but those sticky paper things in my books as I read, Ardreys look like hedgehogs. Anyway I tangent.)

    The problem I had with group theory, or kin theory is this,. A young man with English genetics wakes up one day and decides he is a Muslim, he goes to Syria and fights for the ‘other side’. Now from my perspective this is against his ‘Kin’ gene evolutionary determiner.

    (there may be psychological reasons for this, I do have a theory, but lets just stick with this example)

    Another variation are the young atheist’s who stalk anyone on the Twitter world who challenges Dawkins, now a bit more obscure but the same rule. Their actions are not in the best interests of their gene past.

    Now I have let it slip, their gene “Past”. In this area of group vs kin there is a simply switch point where the “Group” always become the “Kin”.

    Therefore “Kin’ group selection is a truism if we see it in the future tense.

    Whether the individual reproduces or not is not the issue here, I accept that fighting or risking ones life for the group is part of this equation. it’s a rule of averages and this “future’ tense makes more sense to me and removes my objection.

    As is often the case I feel in these rarefied atmospheres that I have completely missed the plot, but there you have it.

  27. I know all about the hedgehog thing. As for group selection, its main interest for me is its fascinating history. I think it would take computer codes well beyond the current state of the art to begin to decide whether it was actually significant.

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