Morality and Social Chaos: Can You Hear Darwin Now?

When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, it immediately rendered all previous theories and systems of morality obsolete. If he was right, then everything about us, or at least everything with a significant impact on our odds of survival, exists by virtue of natural selection. Our innate behavioral traits, some of which give rise to what we commonly refer to as morality, are no exception.  For the most part, the philosophers didn’t notice, or didn’t grasp the significance of what Darwin had revealed. Many of them continued to devote whole careers to things as futile as explicating the obscure tomes of Kant, or inventing intricate theories to “prove” the existence of something as imaginary as objective morality. Others concocted whole new theories of morality supposedly based on “evolution.” Virtually all of them imagined that “evolution” was actively striving to make progress towards the goal of a “higher” morality, thereby demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the significance of the term “natural” in natural selection. Darwin himself certainly didn’t fail to grasp the moral implications of his theory. He tried to spell it out for us in his “The Descent of Man” as follows:

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitable acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

To read Darwin is to wonder at his brilliance. He was well aware of the dual nature of human morality long before Herbert Spencer undertook a systematic study of the phenomena, or Sir Arthur Keith published his theory of in-groups and out-groups:

But these feelings and services (altruistic behavior, ed.) are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association.

He exposed the imbecility of the notion that natural selection “tracks” some imaginary objective moral law in a few sentences:

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

It is a tribute to the tremendous power of the evolved moral sense described by Darwin that it spawns a powerful illusion that Good and Evil are real things, that somehow exist independently of what anyone’s mere opinion of them happens to be. The illusion has been so powerful that even his clear and direct explanation of why it isn’t real was powerless to dispel it. Only one philosopher of note, Edvard Westermarck, proved capable of grasping the full import of what Darwin had written. Today one can complete an undergraduate degree in philosophy without ever seeing his name mentioned, even as a footnote, in the textbooks and anthologies.

We live in a world full of others of our kind, all of whom are chasing this illusion. They feel they “ought” to do things because they are good, noble, just, and moral. Using their big brains, they come up with all sorts of fanciful whims about what these things are that they “ought” to do. The reasons they use to arrive at these notions may be as complex as you please, but if you follow the chain of reasons to the end, you will always find they lead back to emotions. Those emotions spawn the illusion of the Good, and they exist by virtue of natural selection.

Do you feel a powerful impulse to join a Black Lives Matter demonstration? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you imagine that you can serve the Good by pulling down statues? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think that the people who are doing these things are Evil, and should be destroyed? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think we need a revolution or a civil war to insure the victory of the Good. You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Have you considered the fact that the panacea you imagine will result from a successful revolution or civil war will inevitably be just as “unnatural” for our species as the system it replaces? We are simply not adapted to live in the massive societies we are forced to live in today if we want to survive, no matter how cleverly they are organized. The best we can hope for is that they be so structured as to minimize the inconvenience of living in them.

As for the emotions referred to above, we may find it useful to keep in mind the fact that they exist because they happened to motivate behaviors that increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive in an environment populated by small, widely dispersed groups of hunter-gatherers. Today, in a radically different environment, those same emotions still motivate our behavior. However, the odds that this will have the same effect now as they did then in promoting gene survival are vanishingly small.

What are the implications of all this at the level of the individual?  For starters, it is neither Good nor Evil to rush around blindly responding to emotions by pulling down statues, joining demonstrations, organizing revolutions, or joining in civil wars. The obvious reason for this is that Good and Evil are terms for categories that simply don’t exist. They are imagined to exist. I merely suggest that individuals may want to stand back for a moment and consider whether, in their frantic efforts to promote the Good, they are accomplishing anything remotely connected to the reasons they imagine such a thing as the Good exists to begin with. The illusion of Good exists because it once promoted survival. As they pursue this mirage, individuals may want to consider whether their behavior will have a similar result today.

It is up to individuals to choose what their goals in life will be. No God or objective moral law can make the choice for them, because these things don’t exist. Supposing you’ve read Darwin, and understand that the sole reason for the existence of the emotions that motivate your behavior is the fact that, once upon a time, long, long ago, they happened to increase the odds that the genes you carry would survive. You can still choose to respond to those emotions in ways that make you happy, or in ways that make you feel good and noble, even if your behavior doesn’t improve the odds that you will survive, and may actually be suicidal. With a little effort, you may even still be able to delude yourself into believing that you really are fighting for the Good. Realizing that you are a link in a chain of living creatures that has existed unbroken for upwards of two billion years, you can make a conscious decision to be the final link. You can go through life imagining that you are as noble as Don Quixote, and then die, fully aware that you represent a biological dead end. None of these choices would be immoral. All I can say about them is that I don’t personally find them attractive.

I happen to have different goals. My goals are personal survival, and beyond that the continued survival of my species, and its continued evolution into forms that will promote the survival of biological life in general. To reach these goals, I realize it will occasionally be necessary to second guess my emotions, and to choose to act against the way they incline me to act. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are better than the goal of living a happy life, or of devoting my life to fighting on behalf of the illusion of Good. All I can say is that they are my goals, which I have chosen because they happen to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Darwin explained those reasons to us. Perhaps it’s time to start listening to him.

On the Poverty of (Moral) Philosophy

I’m not an anti-philosopher. Given the goals individuals set for themselves, philosophers can suggest alternative paths for reaching those goals, and provoke thought on whether the goals are worthwhile. Potentially, they could do the same for societies. Perhaps most importantly, they could suggest ways in which societies might construct systems of morality in pursuit of the common goals the members of society might set for themselves. These might include, for example, maximizing harmony and minimizing harm to individuals. Obviously, any effective system of morality must never lose sight of the reasons morality exists to begin with, and the limitations imposed by human nature. Contemporary philosopher’s, and particularly those in academia, are woefully failing at that task.

Darwin gave us a perfectly clear explanation of morality in his “The Descent of Man” almost a century and a half ago. He noted it was a natural phenomenon, and a result of natural selection. It promoted survival and reproduction by spawning a powerful illusion that good and evil exist as objective things, even though they are actually subjective and might be imagined very differently if they evolved in another intelligent species.

The philosophers still haven’t caught up. Indeed, they seem to be falling further behind all the time. True, they give a perfunctory nod to Darwin, but then they carry on with their philosophizing, for all the world as if the implications of what he taught us don’t matter. It stands to reason. After all, they’ve invested a great deal of time slogging through tomes of moral philosophy that are now of little more than historical interest. Their claims to expertise, not to mention their jobs, depend on propping up the illusion that the subject is incredibly complicated, accessible only to gatekeepers like themselves, possessed of the unique insight gleaned from these books, and mastery of the “philosophical method” of divining truth. The “philosophical method” consists of constructing long chains of reasons befogged by abstruse jargon that is a time-tested method of wading off into intellectual swamps. It was used long ago by the fathers of the church to acquaint us with fact that God has three persons, Christ has two wills and two natures, and similar “truths.” Today the philosophers use it to devise similar “mysteries” about morality.

There are other factors muddying the water as well. Just as earlier generations of philosophers were often forced to limit their speculations within the bounds imposed by Christian and other religious dogmas, modern philosophers are constrained by the dogmas that currently enjoy hegemony in academia. Their ingroup is defined by ideology, and they dare not step outside the bounds imposed by that ideology lest they be cast into outer darkness. For many years that ideology included a blanket denial that such a thing as human nature even exists. Absent acceptance that it does exist, it is impossible to understand human morality. When it comes to morality, the effect of this ideologically imposed constraint was, and continues to be, devastating.

The above can be illustrated by considering the work of those philosophers who, in the process of applying their idiosyncratic methods, have come closest to recognizing the implications of what Darwin wrote so long ago. Many of them are what’s known in the business as “error theorists.” Error theorists claim, quite accurately, that there are no moral facts. Just as statements about the length of a unicorn’s color are neither true nor false, because they describe something that doesn’t exist, error theorists insist that the same is true of claims about good and evil. They, too, can neither be true nor false, because they purport to describe moral facts, which are no more real than unicorns. This seems to fly in the face of the conviction that so many of us have that moral facts do exist, and are true or false regardless of what anyone’s subjective opinion happens to be on the subject. Darwin explained why this is true. The human behavioral traits we associate with morality exist by virtue of natural selection. They enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. The firm conviction, commonly associated with powerful emotions, that some things are truly morally good, and others truly morally evil, is just what one would expect. We did not survive by virtue of imagining that someone who stole from us, or lied to us, or attempted to kill us, had different subjective opinions then us about these things, and that perhaps we could sit down with them and have a rational discussion about it. We survived by virtue of truly believing that such individuals are evil, to be resisted regardless of what their personal opinions on the subject happened to be.

In short, Darwin provided a simple, rational explanation of human morality as we experience it. It is completely self-consistent, in that it requires nothing beyond natural selection for that explanation. For our philosophical error theorists, however, such simple explanations of morality are treated with great diffidence, almost as if they were embarrassing. They do not sufficiently exploit the idiosyncratic paths to the “truth” favored by philosophers. They are not sufficiently befogged by jargon, or obscured by long chains of complex syllogisms.

A philosopher by the name of Jonas Olson has supplied an excellent example of the above in a book fittingly entitled, “Moral Error Theory.” Olson begins as follows:

Virtually any area of philosophy is haunted by a sceptical spectre. In moral philosophy its foremost incarnation has for some time been the moral error theorist, who insists that ordinary moral thought and discourse involve untenable ontological commitments and that, as a consequence, ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue.

In fact, among the myriad abstruse theories concocted by modern philosophers to address morality, “error theory” comes closest to agreeing with some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin wrote about the subject long ago. One such implication is indeed that ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue, for the obvious reason that beliefs and claims about anything that doesn’t exist are uniformly untrue. It would seem that it is too obvious for the philosophers. After all, what can the role of philosophers be in explaining things that are simple and obvious. It is essential for them to complicate simple things and befog them with thick layers of jargon if they are to justify their existence. In the case of “error theory,” they have succeeded splendidly.

According to Olson, for example, one cannot even take up the subject of error theory without being familiar with a grab bag of related philosophical esoterica. As he informs us,

The focus on the semantics of moral judgements and the ontology or moral properties, which make it possible and meaningful to distinguish moral error theory from subjectivism, relativism, non-cognitivism and other theories on which morality is not primarily to be discovered but somehow invented, is fairly recent in the history of philosophical theorizing about morality.

Far from something that follows simply from what Darwin wrote about morality, error theory must be propped up with arguments so abstruse that only certified Ph.D.’s in philosophy can understand them. One such rarified construct is the “argument from queerness.” This argument is usually attributed to J. L. Mackie, who claimed that objective values can’t exist, because, if they did, they would be very queer. As he put it, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities…of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” According to Olson, this argument, and not Darwin, “has now become central to the debate about moral error theory, and about metaethics at large.” He continues, “I shall argue that there are four distinct queerness arguments and thus four distinct versions of the argument from queerness.” As if that weren’t enough, Olson assures us that “oughts” can somehow be distilled out of error theory, all with complex philosophical pedigrees of their own. He has his own favorite among them, adding, “Here I challenge moral abolitionism and moral fictionalism, and defend an alternative view, which I call moral conservationism.” As we shall see, Olson’s moral conservatism is just as naïve as the competing schemes proposed by modern philosophers.

One of these is the brainchild of Richard Joyce, who is perhaps foremost among modern philosophers in his embrace of human nature as the source of morality. In his “The Myth of Morality” there is an entire chapter devoted to “Morality and Evolution.” In the first paragraph of this chapter he writes,

A proponent of an error theory – especially when the error is being attributed to a common, familiar way of talking – owes us an account of why we have been led to commit such a fundamental, systematic mistake. In the case of morality, I believe, the answer is simple: natural selection. We have evolved to categorize aspects of the world using moral concepts. Natural selection has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, demands which it does not make.

Unfortunately, the chapter referred to only appears after five earlier chapters devoted to abstruse discussions of “error theory.” Heaven forefend that I should ever be classed as an “error theorist,” with all the accompanying philosophical flotsam. In it and later chapters, there is no mention of earlier thinkers who were most consistent in applying Darwin’s thought, such as Westermarck and Keith. I doubt that Joyce has even heard of either of them. According to Joyce, natural selection has only endowed us with traits that are “good” according to the ideology of his academic ingroup. It is our nature to be “sympathetic,” and “cooperative.” Perhaps, but it is also our nature to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, and to hate and despise that latter. As recent political events have amply demonstrated, this is especially true of Joyce’s ingroup. Amusingly, he actually dismisses Herbert Spencer, the first major philosopher to note the existence and significance of ingroups and outgroups, as follows:

An evolutionary success theory holds that the kind of fact in virtue of which such (moral) judgments are true is, in some manner, a fact about human evolution. The first and probably most famous proponent of this kind of theorizing was Herbert Spencer, but – with his misguided assumptions that natural selection leads to heterogeneity and improvement, with his crass application of the model onto the class struggle – he need not detain us.

It’s quite true that Spencer was more follower of Lamarck than Darwin when it comes to evolution, but that would hardly justify such a high-handed dismissal of a man who, if he was not infallible, was a profound thinker. Here Joyce is actually demonstrating just the sort of ingroup/outgroup behavior Spencer wrote about. The notion that Spencer was guilty of a “crass application of the model onto the class struggle” is nonsense, and a latter-day invention of Joyce’s leftist ingroup. They also invented his so-called “social Darwinism,” which would have been quite a trick, since he wasn’t a Darwinist to begin with. In fact, the burr Spencer stuck under their saddle was entirely different. He wrote a book debunking socialism decades before the Russian Revolution, predicting with uncanny accuracy that socialist regimes would tend to deteriorate into a brutal form of authoritarianism we later became familiar with as “Stalinism.” They never forgave him for this all too accurate prediction.

In any case, based on his decidedly un-Darwinian portrayal of “morality by natural selection,” which omits anything his ingroup would find objectionable about human nature, Joyce proposes that we all adopt what he is pleased to call “moral fictionalism.” As he describes it, it entails a form of moral doublethink, in which we pretend to firmly believe the moral law, until philosophers like him decide a course correction is necessary. Of course, if we actually take Darwin seriously, no such enforced doublethink is necessary, since perception of the moral law as absolute and objectively true comes as naturally to our species as hunger and thirst. Nowhere does Joyce suggest that there is anything about those aspects of our innate mental equipment we usually include in the “morality” grab bag that it might not be wise for us to blindly include in his “fictionalism.”

One finds the same kind of naivete in the competing “moral conservationism” paradigm preferred by Olson. This would entail “preservation of ordinary (faulty) moral thought and discourse. Olson elaborates,

According to moral conservationism, there is no need for self-surveillance to prevent slips from pretence moral belief (associated with Joyce’s fictionalism, ed.) and pretence moral assertion into genuine moral belief and genuine moral assertion, and there are consequently no associated costs of instability. Moral belief is to be embraced rather than resisted.

Is it really necessary to point out the naivete of this policy of “non-resistance” in blindly applying moral predispositions that evolved in the Pleistocene to regulate the utterly different societies that exist today? I maintain that such naivete is a predictable result of treating natural selection as a side issue and occasionally useful prop, and then proceeding to ignore it in favor of applying such abstruse stuff as Mackie’s “argument from queerness,” which actually comes in several different flavors, to prop up “error theory” instead. So much for the “usefulness” of two of the modern academic philosophers who have actually come closest to understanding what Darwin tried to tell us. From there things only get worse – often much worse.

It would be better to simply stick to Darwin. Westermarck did this back in 1906 in his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” but has been ignored in favor of philosophers who have been leading us into intellectual swamps with their obscure arguments and incomprehensible jargon ever since. Today we have reached a point where moral philosophers are really only capable of communicating with each other, have devised a myriad competing schools of thought about morality, each propped up by long chains of “rational” arguments of the type that are comprehensible only to them, and which have zero chance of any useful application. On top of that, they are irrelevant. The moral behavior of today’s academic philosophers is not predicted by their arcane theories, but by the ideology of their ingroup. In moral practice, as opposed to moral theory, they are as similar as so many peas in a pod. Their moral practice is determined, not by their theories, but by the dogmas of their ingroup.

The above has actually been evident for some time. Consider, for example, how academic and professional philosophers reacted to the grotesque atrocities of the likes of Stalin and Pol Pot. Apparently, their fine moral theories were far more likely to inform them that they should collaborate with these mass murderers rather than condemn them on moral grounds. On the other hand, we often find them hurling down their moral anathemas on the likes of Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves. I submit that Washington and Jefferson both did more for the welfare of all mankind by any rational standard than any combination of 10,000 social justice warriors one could collect. Today we find them strangely silent on issues that might place them outside the ideological box they live in. For example, I am aware of no proponent of the myriad objective or subjective moral systems on tap today who has so much as raised a finger against the poisoning and mutilation of children in the name of “transgendering” them. Since morality only exists by virtue of the fact that it has enhanced the odds that individuals would successfully reproduce, failure to even speculate on the moral significance of this destruction of the ability to reproduce in children seems somewhat inconsistent to say the least.
I submit that philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if they would accept the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and seriously consider the implications of that fact. If Darwin was right, then there is no need for “arguments from queerness” to support “error theory.” The same conclusions follow naturally. It becomes perfectly obvious why we experience moral rules as mind independent even though they aren’t, and why it is just as irrational to noodle about whether some action is “truly good” or “truly evil” as it is to create fine theories to decide the question of whether a unicorn’s fur is blue or green. If Darwin was right, then there is neither a need nor any evidence for the claim that evolved morality tracks “true morality.” Such theories should be relegated to the philosophical garbage bin where they belong. If Darwin was right, then it is easy to grasp the reasons for the dual, ingroup/outgroup aspects of human morality, a factor that the theories of the philosophers typically simply ignore. If Darwin was right, then the reasons why we hardly limit our version of morality to ourselves, but attempt to dictate behavior to others as well, also become obvious. This, too, the philosophers have an unsettling tendency to overlook.

The above are seemingly obvious implications of the origins of morality in natural selection. With the brilliant exceptions of Westermarck and a few others, philosophers have studiously avoided noticing the obvious. Instead, we find them following paths made up of long chains of reasons. As we know from long experience, unless they can be checked by repeatable experiments, these paths lead deep into intellectual swamps. To follow them is to demonstrate a gross lack of awareness of the limitations of human intelligence. Today we find the professional and academic philosophers among us floundering about in those swamps, spouting their obscure theories in jargon that renders them incomprehensible to the rest of us. In short, they have succeeded in rendering themselves irrelevant to anyone but themselves. It’s sad. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Good News! Academics Prove Trump is Reducing Prejudice

As I noted in my last post, we have an innate tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroup and outgroup(s), and to apply different versions of morality to each. We associate the ingroup with good, and the outgroup with evil. There was no ambiguity about the identity of the outgroup when this behavior evolved. It was commonly just the closest group to ours. As a result, any subtle but noticeable difference between “us” and “them” was adequate for distinguishing ingroup from outgroup. Today, however, we are aware not only of the next group over, but of a vast number of other human beings with whom we share our planet. Our ingroup/outgroup behavior persists in spite of that. We still see others as either “us” or “them,” often with disastrous results. You might say the trait in question has become dysfunctional. It is unlikely to enhance our chances of survival the way it did in the radically different environment in which it evolved. In modern societies it spawns a myriad forms of prejudice, any one of which can potentially pose an existential threat to large numbers of people. It causes us to stumble from one disaster to another. We respond by trying to apply bandages, in the form of “evil” labels, for the types of prejudice that appear to cause the problem, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc. It is a hopeless game. New forms of prejudice will always pop up to replace the old ones. The only practical way to limit the damage is to understand the underlying innate behavior responsible for all of them. We are far from achieving this level of self-understanding.

Consider, for example, Continue reading “Good News! Academics Prove Trump is Reducing Prejudice”

Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex

Sir Arthur Keith was the first to formulate a coherent theoretical explanation for the dual nature of human morality; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different versions of morality pertaining to each. As he put it,

A tribesman’s sympathies lie within the compass of his own tribe; beyond his tribe, begin his antipathies; he discriminates in favor of his own tribe and against all others. This means also that the tribesman has two rules of behavior, one towards those of his group and another to the members of other groups. He has a dual code of morality: a code of “amity” for his fellows; a code of indifference, verging into “enmity,” towards members of other groups or tribe.

According to Keith, this aspect of our behavior played a critical role in our evolution:

I shall seek to prove… that obedience to the dual code is an essential factor in group evolution. Without it there could have been no human evolution.

We are all still tribesmen today. We just have a vastly expanded set of criteria for deciding who belongs to our “tribe,” and who doesn’t. Of course, given the radically different environment we live in today, it can hardly be assumed that the behavior in question will enhance the odds of our survival as it did in the distant past. Indeed, various versions of the behavior have been deemed harmful, and therefore “evil,” including racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. All are manifestations of the same basic behavior. Human beings are typically found justifying their own irrational hatred by claiming that the “other” is guilty of one of these “officially recognized” forms of irrational hatred. Unaware of the underlying behavior, they are incapable of recognizing that they are just as “tribal” as those they attack. Continue reading “Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex”

Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not. Continue reading “Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?”

Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

As I noted in a recent post, (Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective), John Staddon, a Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke, published a very timely and important article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion noting the gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities in secular humanist morality. These included its obvious lack of any visible means of support, even as flimsy as a God, for its claims to authority and legitimacy. My post included a link to a review by Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the Why Evolution is True website and New Atheist stalwart, that called Prof. Staddon’s article the “worst” ever to appear on Quillette, based on the false assumption that he actually did maintain that secular humanism is a religion. In fact, it’s perfectly obvious based on a fair reading of the article that he did nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, Quillette gave Prof. Coyne the opportunity to post a reply to Staddon. His rebuttal, entitled Secular Humanism is Not a Religion, doubled down on the false assertion that Staddon had claimed it is. Then, in a counterblast, entitled Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne, Staddon simply pointed out Prof. Coyne’s already obvious “confusion” about what he had actually written, and elaborated on his contention that secular values depend on faith. As I noted in the following comment I posted at Quillette, I couldn’t agree more: Continue reading “Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette”

The Blank Slate and the Great Group Selection Scam

“Group Selection” has certainly been good for something. Steven Pinker seized on the term to rationalize dropping those who played the greatest role in demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy down the memory hole in the fairy tale he served up as the “history” of the affair. His version had the great advantage of sparing the feelings of the academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences, by assuring them that their “science” had been self-correcting after all. In fact, it didn’t self-correct on its own for over half a century. As so often happens, it took outsiders to finally break the Blank Slate spell and extract the behavioral sciences from the swamp they had been floundering in for so long. They included ethologists and behavioral geneticists who were supposed to be confining their attention to animals. Perhaps the greatest of them all was the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, an outsider par excellence. Enter Richard Dawkins, who observed that some of the most important of these dismantlers of the Blank Slate were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection. No matter that the theme of their work had been the existence and importance of human nature, and not group selection. Pinker seized on Dawkins’ convenient phrase, and declared that they had all been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, without even bothering to mention that Dawkins criticism had been limited to group selection.

It gets worse. It is hardly clear that the very term “group selection” as used by generations of earlier thinkers since Darwin even meant what Dawkins claimed it did. You see, there’s “group selection,” and then there’s “group selection.” The term can mean different things to different people. No doubt a great many thinkers since Darwin would  have been furious to learn that Dawkins had gratuitously foisted his definition on them. Many of them meant nothing of the sort. They certainly included Konrad Lorenz, one of the men specifically called out by Dawkins. Lorenz liked to speak of traits as being “good for the species.” Indeed, there can be little doubt that our hands, with their nice, opposable thumbs, and the eyes that present us with a 3-dimensional view of the world are “good for our species.” That rather obvious observation hardly implies that these handy traits were actually selected at the level of the species. Lorenz never suggested any such thing. Indeed, elsewhere he wrote very clearly that selection takes place at the level of the individual, not at that of the species. In spite of that, Dawkins insisted in putting words in his mouth, and Pinker was only too happy to use Dawkins as his “authority” on the matter.

If you’d like to read a brief but concise account of the use of the term over the years, take a look at Section 1.2.5 (“Group Selection”) in the first volume of Johan van der Dennen’s The Origin of War, which is available free online. As he puts it,

Group selection is one of the most confused and confusing topics in modern evolutionary biology. It is part of an ongoing and sometimes acrimonious, controversy over the “level-of-selection.” the term “group selection” is used in a dazzling number of different meanings. One generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that a trait may evolve for the benefit or the “greater good” of the group or species, but at the expense of the individual gene carrier.

Dawkins wrongly implies that this “strict” version of the definition is the only one around, but that’s hardly the case. Van der Dennen continues,

The other generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that in the course of human evolution, groups have competed with one another – some groups subjugating other groups, some groups absorbing and assimilating other groups, some groups even eliminating other groups altogether – and that these events must have had an impact on the gene pools and (the direction of) human evolution. As applied to the human species, therefore, group selection may be eminently possible, “since one group of humans can consciously organize their altruistic behaviors and wipe out a rival group.” …This latter meaning of the term “group selection” is probably what Darwin envisaged when attempting to explain human morality (which posed a serious problem for his theory).

Darwin suggested a solution to the problem as follows:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

In other words, “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection” was certainly plausible if the traits in question could somehow arise via natural selection. Darwin was puzzled about how these traits could evolve to begin with, given that they imparted only “a slight or no advantage” to individuals. This, of course, is already quite different from Dawkins’ “strict definition,” according to which “group selection” means traits that are only useful to the group, but actually harmful to individuals within the group. As it happens, Sir Arthur Keith, whose work I discussed in my last post, also commonly used “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection.” Indeed, he referred to his “new theory of human evolution,” the subject of a book with that title published in 1948, as “group theory.” Heaven forefend that Pinker should immediately pounce on poor Sir Arthur and declare him “totally and utterly wrong” with the rest.  In fact, like Lorenz, he also made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t using the term in the strict sense implied by Dawkins. But most importantly, he suggested an answer to Darwin’s puzzle. According to Keith, the traits commonly associated with group selection could very definitely be strongly selected at the level of the individual.  In other words, they were not necessarily harmful to the individual at all.

According to Keith, life in small groups in close proximity to each other had a forcing effect on human evolution. In his words, “it favored rapid evolutionary change.” As noted in my last post, he considered our common tendency to perceive others in the context of ingroups and outgroups as key to this effect. In his words,

It will this be seen that I look on the duality of human nature as an essential part of the machinery of human evolution. It is the corner-stone of my mosaic edifice… We may assume, therefore, that in the very earliest stages of man’s evolution, even in his simian stages, “human nature” was already converted into an instrument for securing group isolation.

According to Keith, in the context of isolated, competing groups, the factors which favored the survival of groups were also strongly selected at the level of the individual. As he put it, “Individual and group selection went on hand in hand.” Obviously, he was not using the term “group selection” in the sense suggested by Dawkins. In the following chapters, he discusses many aspects of human morality and human nature and the reasons they would have been strongly selected at the level of the individual in the context of his “group theory.” These included many aspects of human behavior that we can all observe for ourselves, assuming we are not blinded by ideological dogmas, such as the desire to appear morally “good” in the eyes of others in the group, the desire to achieve high status in the group, the desire to appear attractive to the opposite sex, etc. As Keith pointed out, all of these “good” traits would contribute strongly both to the “selection” of the group in competition with other groups, and at the same time would strongly increase the odds that the individual would survive and reproduce within the group.

Darwin and Keith were hardly the only ones to use the “other generic meaning” of group selection. Indeed, use of the term in that sense may be considered the default until V. C. Wynne-Edwards finally showed up in the early 60’s with a version that really does fit the “strict” definition preferred by Dawkins. Whether that version ever actually happened to a significant extent is still the subject of bitter disputes. The point is that use of the term by no means implies acceptance of the “strict” version. It goes without saying that it is also no excuse for rearranging history.

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

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.

A New York Intellectual’s Unwitting Expose; Human Nature Among the Ideologues

Norman Podhoretz is one of the New York literati who once belonged to a group of leftist intellectuals he called the Family. He wrote a series of books, including Making It, Breaking Ranks, and Ex-Friends, describing what happened when he underwent an ideological metamorphosis from leftist radical to neoconservative. In the process he created a wonderful anthropological study of human nature in the context of an ingroup defined by ideology. Behavior within that ingroup was similar to behavior within ingroups defined by race, class, religion, ethnicity, or any of the other often subtle differences that enable ingroups to distinguish themselves from the “others.” The only difference was that, in the case of Podhoretz’ Family, the ingroup was defined by loyalty to ideological dogmas. Podhoretz described a typical denizen as follows:

Such a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes, or anyway used to take, doctrine or dogma. Though we cluck our enlightened modern tongues at such fanaticism, there is a reason why people have been excommunicated, and sometimes even put to death, by their fellow congregants for heretically disagreeing with the official understanding of a particular text or even of a single word. After all, to the true believer everything important – life in this world as well as life in the next – depends on obedience to these doctrines and dogmas, which in turn depends on an accurate interpretation of their meaning and which therefore makes the spread of heresy a threat of limitless proportions.

This fear and hatred of the heretic, together with the correlative passion to shut him up one way or the other, is (to say the least, and in doing so I am bending over backward) as much a character trait of so-called liberal intellectuals as it is of conservatives… For we have seen that “liberal” intellectuals who tell us that tolerance and pluralism are the highest values, who profess to believe that no culture is superior to any other, and who are on that account great supporters of “multiculturalism” will treat these very notions as sacred orthodoxies, will enforce agreement with them in every venue in which they have the power to do so (the universities being the prime example at the moment), and will severely punish any deviation that dares to make itself known.

Podhoretz may not have been aware of the genetic roots responsible for such behavior, but he was certainly good at describing it. His description of status seeking, virtue signaling, hatred of the outgroup, allergic reaction to heretics, etc., within the Family would be familiar to any student of urban street gangs. As anthropological studies go, his books have the added advantage of being unusually entertaining, if only by virtue of the fact that his ingroup included such lions of literature as Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Allen Ginsburg, and Lionel Trilling,

Podhoretz was editor of the influential cultural and intellectual magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995. When he took over the magazine already represented the anti-Communist Left. However, he originally planned to take a more radically leftist line, based on the philosophy of Paul Goodman, a utopian anarchist. In his Growing Up Absurd, Goodman claimed that American society was stuck with a number of “incomplete revolutions.” To escape this “absurdity” it was necessary to complete the revolutions. Podhoretz seized on Goodman’s ideas as the “radical” solution to our social ills he was seeking, and immediately started a three-part serialization of his book in Commentary. Another major influence on Podhoretz at the time was Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, a late Freudian tract intended to reveal “the psychoanalytical meaning of history.” It is depressing to read these books today in the knowledge that they were once taken perfectly seriously by people who imagined themselves to be the cream of the intellectual crop. Goodman certainly chose the right adjective for them – “absurd.”

In any case, as the decade wore on, the Left did become more radicalized, but not in the way foreseen by Podhoretz. What was known then as the New Left emerged, and began its gradual takeover of the cultural institutions of the country, a process that has continued to this day. When he came of age, most leftists had abandoned the Stalinism or Trotskyism they had flirted with in the 30’s and 40’s, and become largely “pro-American” and anti-Communist as the magnitude of the slaughter and misery in the Soviet Union under Stalin became impossible to ignore. However, as the war in Vietnam intensified, the dogs returned to their vomit, so to speak. Leftists increasingly became useful idiots – effectively pro-Communist whether they admitted it or not. As Israel revealed its ability to effectively defend itself, they also became increasingly anti-Semitic as well, a development that also continues to this day. Then, as now, anti-Semitism was fobbed off as “anti-Zionism,” but Podhoretz, a Jew as were many of the other members of the family, was not buying it. He may have been crazy enough to take Goodman and Brown seriously, but he was not crazy enough to believe that it was preferable to live in a totalitarian Communist state than in the “imperialist” United States, nor, in light of the Holocaust, was he crazy enough to believe that the creation of a Jewish state was “unjust.” In the following passage he describes his response when he first began to notice this shift in the Zeitgeist, in this case on the part of an erstwhile “friend”:

I was not afraid of Jason. 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 had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

Today, of course, one no longer roars. One simply concludes that those who habitually resort to Hitler comparisons are imbeciles, and leaves it at that. In any case, Podhoretz began publishing “heretical” articles in Commentary, rejecting these notions, and nibbling away that the shibboleths that defined what had once been his ingroup in the process. In the end, he became a full-blown neoconservative. The behavioral responses to Podhoretz “treason” to his ingroup should be familiar to all students of human behavior. His first book length challenge to his ingroup’s sense of its own purity and righteousness was Making It, published in 1967. As Podhoretz recalls,

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 literary 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.”

Podhoretz notes that academia was the first of the cultural institutions of the country to succumb to the radical Gleichschaltung that has now established such firm control over virtually all the rest, to the point that it has become the new “normalcy.” In his words,

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.

By the late 60’s the type of behavior that is now ubiquitous on university campuses was hardly a novelty. “De-platforming” was already part of the campus culture:

By 1968 SDS (the leftist Students for a Democratic Society) had moved from argument and example to shouting down speakers with whom it disagreed on the ground that only the “truth” had a right to be heard. And it also changed its position on violence… and a number of its members had gone beyond advocacy to actual practice in the form of bombings and other varieties of terrorism.

As Podhoretz documents, the War in Vietnam had originally been supported, and indeed started and continued by intellectuals and politicians on the left of the political spectrum. He noted that Robert Kennedy had been prominent among them:

Kennedy too then grew more and more radicalized as radicalism looked more and more like the winning side. Having been one of the architects of the war in Vietnam and a great believer in resistance to Communist power in general, he now managed to suggest that he opposed these policies both in the small and in the large.

However, in one of the rapid changes in party line familiar to those who’ve read the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and memorialized by George Orwell in 1984, the hawks suddenly became doves:

…a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak. A speaker whose criticisms were insufficiently violent could even expect a hard time, as I myself discovered when a heckler at Wayne State in Detroit accused me, to the clear delight of the audience, of not being “that much” against the war because in expressing my opposition to the American role I had also expressed my usual reservations about the virtues of the Communist side.

Of course, there was no Internet in the 60’s, so “de-platforming” assumed a form commensurate with the technology available at the time. Podhoretz describes it as follows:

The word “terror,” like everything else about the sixties, was overheated. No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though there were 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 ruthless 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 even from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts.

The “terror” is more powerful and pervasive today than it ever was in the 60’s, and it’s ability to “dismiss from the field of discussion” is far more effective. As a result, denizens of the leftist ingroup or those who depend on them for their livelihood tend to be very cautious about rocking the boat.  That’s why young, pre-tenure professors include ritualistic denunciations of the established heretics in their fields before they dare to even give a slight nudge to the approved dogmas. Indeed, I’ve documented similar behavior by academics approaching retirement on this blog, so much do they fear ostracism by their own “Families.” Podhoretz noticed the same behavior early on by one of his erstwhile friends:

As the bad boy of American letters – itself an honorific status in the climate of the sixties – he (Normal Mailer) still held a license to provoke and he rarely hesitated to use it, even if it sometimes meant making a fool of himself in the eyes of his own admirers. 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.

So much for Podhoretz description of the behavioral traits of the denizens of an ideologically defined ingroup. I highly recommend all of the three books noted above, not only as an unwitting but wonderfully accurate studies of “human nature,” but as very entertaining descriptions of some of the many famous personalities Podhoretz crossed paths with during his long career. One of them was Jackie Kennedy, who happened to show up at his door one day in the company of his friend, Richard Goodwin, “who had worked in various capacities for President Kennedy.”

She and I had never met before, but we seemed to strike an instant rapport, and at her initiative I soon began seeing her on a fairly regular basis. We often had tea alone together in her apartment on Fifth Avenue where I would give her the lowdown on the literary world and the New York intellectual community – who was good, who was overrated, who was amusing, who was really brilliant – and she would reciprocate with the dirt about Washington society. She was not in Mary McCarthy‘s league as a bitchy gossip (who was?), but she did very well in her own seemingly soft style. I enjoyed these exchanges, and she (an extremely good listener) seemed to get a kick out of them too.

Elsewhere Podhoretz describes McCarthy as “our leading bitch intellectual.” Alas, she was an unrepentant radical, too, and even did a Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, but I still consider her one of our most brilliant novelists. I guess there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to ingroups.

Of Intellectuals, Ideology, and Ingroups

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.”