Corona Comments

There are no objective oughts, no objective goods, no objective values, and no objective moral virtues. That is a simple statement of fact, and implies nothing whatsoever regarding how we ought to behave. Facts bear no implications about what we should do, except as means to an end. We must decide for ourselves what ends to seek. Objective facts may then inform us what we “should” do if we want to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
Whatever the goals we set for ourselves happen to be, in large measure if not totally, they are a response to our “nature”; predispositions that are as much innate as our arms and legs. These predispositions are similar but not identical among human individuals, and they exist by virtue of natural selection. In other words, at some point and in some environment, they promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors. It cannot be assumed that their influence on our behavior will have that result in the very different environment most of us live in today.

Our nature does not determine our behavior, in the sense that it does not dictate what we must do in this or that situation. Rather, it inclines us to act in some ways, and not in others. It is fundamentally emotional, in humans as well as in other animals. We happen to have very large brains, and so can ponder over what our emotions are trying to tell us. We can reason about how we ought to respond to them. However, our reason is far from infallible. As the reasoning process becomes more complex, the outcome regarding what we “ought” to do will vary increasingly among individuals. This is doubly true by virtue of the fact that most individuals respond to their emotions blindly, never considering or taking into account why those emotions exist to begin with.

The above is illustrated by the response of our societies to the spread of COVID-19. The situation is anomalous, in that few of us have experienced anything like it. As a result, an appropriate response to it is not neatly packaged among our preferred or habitual responses to everyday occurrences. One result of this is that we find unusual differences of opinion about how we should react to the virus, even among those whose ideology, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” was formerly a reliable predicter of what their response to a given situation would be. Two factions have formed; those who tend to agree that we ought to take extreme measures to control the spread of the virus, and those who tend to believe that this “cure” is worse than the disease. At the moment the former faction has the upper hand, although the latter hasn’t been silenced completely.

Both factions present their arguments as if they are defending an objective truth. In fact, that is impossible, because objective “oughts” do not exist. What they are really defending is something they want, or value, and what they want or value represents their response to emotions that exist because they evolved. That statement applies not just to our response to a virus, but to every other form of conscious human behavior.

Emotional responses are bound to vary to some extent across populations that have been widely separated by time and space, but they tend to be quite similar, as one would expect of traits that happen to promote survival in a given species. Fear and avoidance of death is one trait almost all of us have in common. The emotional root cause of this fear probably hasn’t changed much, but in creatures with large brains such as ourselves, our behavior isn’t rigidly determined by our genes. We think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and how we should behave in response. Needless to say, we don’t always all come to the same conclusions, regardless of how similar the underlying emotions happen to be.

In the modern human societies that exist in western Europe and North America, fear of death may well be a greater motivator than ever before. We have few children, and can reasonably expect that those children will survive to adulthood. That was not the case in societies that are more typical of our past, where a large fraction of children didn’t survive past their first few years. Death was not exactly welcomed, but we were more likely to accept it as a matter of course. Now we are more inclined to treat it as an unmitigated calamity, and one that must be staved off as long as possible at all costs. In the case of the virus, it almost seems some of us believe they will be immortal if only they can avoid catching it. Under the circumstances, such drastic steps as shutting down complex modern economies appear to be completely rational. We hand wave away any negative affect this may have on our own and future generations by simply assuming that the global economy will quickly recover afterwards. If we follow the chain of logic that is used to justify this behavior to its ultimate source, we will always find an emotion. The emotion is followed blindly, without regard for the reason it exists to begin with. That reason is that it once enhanced the odds of survival and reproduction of the genes that give rise to it. The question of whether it will have the same result if blindly reacted to in a completely different environment is treated as if it were entirely irrelevant.

In the case of the virus, our innate fear of death has triumphed over all other emotions. We don’t take into account the fact that, while that fear exists for a reason, the programmed death of our physical bodies and consciousness occurs for exactly the same reason. Our fear of death and our programmed death both promote the survival of our genes. Our genes don’t protect us from death indefinitely. Rather, they insure that we will die, but at a time that is optimum for insuring that they will not die. They have been around, in different forms but in an unbroken chain, for more than two billion years. For all practical purposes, they are potentially immortal. I happen to share the goal of my genes. That goal is no more intrinsically good or virtuous than someone else’s goal to accomplish the opposite. However, it does seem to me to have the virtue of being in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with, and to be formed in full awareness of why the emotions that motivate it exist to begin with as well.

It does not seem “better” to me to be blindly blown about by the shifting winds of my emotions in a completely different environment than the one in which they evolved. The blind fear of death can be and often is trumped by an equally blind response to other emotions. Consider, for example, such slogans as “Death before dishonor,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “A fate worse than death.” Those who coined these slogans and those who were moved by them were no hypocrites. In the past we can find myriad examples of such individuals laying down their lives in defense of their principles. These principles were based on other innate emotions than fear of death, perhaps including hatred of the outgroup, or territoriality, or the struggle for status. Thus, while emotions are the basis of all our actions, they can motivate goals that are diametrically opposed to each other in different situations. I merely suggest that, instead of reacting to them blindly, we may find it useful to consider why they exist to begin with. That seems to me particularly true in the case of events as profound as global pandemics.

Objective Morality: The “Ethical Intuitionism” Gambit

Does it make any difference whether morality is objective or subjective? I think the answer to that question is certainly “yes”. If morality is objective, than it is our duty to obey the moral law no matter what. If we don’t, we are bad by definition. To the extent that other people understand the moral law better than we do, or are more virtuous than we are, they have an indubitable right to dictate to us how we ought to behave, and to vilify us if we don’t do as they tell us. If, on the other hand, morality is subjective, then it must be an artifact of natural selection. It could not be otherwise with emotionally motivated behavioral traits that clearly have a profound influence on whether we will survive or not. At least it could not be otherwise assuming there is no God, and that Hume and others before him were right in claiming that morality is not accessible via pure reason. For reasons I have outlined elsewhere, I think both of these assumptions are true. If morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection, then it follows that it can hardly be blindly assumed that what promoted our survival in the past when the traits in question evolved will continue to promote our survival in the present. In fact, it is quite possible that some of them have become dangerous in the environment we live in now. In that case no one has a right to dictate how we ought or ought not to behave based on their subjective version of morality. Instead of helpfully informing us what we need to do to be good, such people may actually pose a threat to us, to the extent that we value our own survival. These are only a few of the issues that depend on the answer to this question.

As my readers know, I believe that morality is subjective. Many philosophers disagree with me. One such is Prof. Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. Huemer, who has a blog by the name of Fake Nous, supports a version of objective morality known as ethical intuitionism, which is also the title of a book he has written about the subject. His claim is that we are “justified” in assuming there is an objective moral law because it “appears” to our intuition, and we should trust appearances absent convincing evidence that they are wrong. I think that, in examining this version of objective morality, it will be possible to expose some of the weaknesses common to them all.

According to Huemer, the morality object does not exist in the realm of objects that can “appear” to our usual five senses, either directly or via scientific instruments. Of course, this must be true, as no one has yet succeeded in snagging a good or evil object and putting it on display in a museum for the rest of us to admire. However, things in the extrasensory realm where the morality object exists do appear to our intuition. According to Huemer, that’s how we recognize its reality.

Of course, an obvious objection to Huemer’s claim that we are as justified in believing in objects that “appear” to our intuitions as in objects that appear to our senses is that claims based on such “appearances” are not falsifiable by the conventional scientific method of checking them via repeatable experiments.  However, setting that aside for the moment, let’s examine the credibility of this claim starting from the very beginning. For all practical purposes, the very beginning was the Big Bang. Physicists have given us plausible explanations of how everything we can detect in the observable universe came into existence in the aftermath of the Big Bang. I can accept the existence of quarks, photons, and quantum fields, because their “appearance” has been confirmed many times over in repeatable experiments, and they are accessible to my senses, either directly, or via scientific instruments. However, I find it incredible that this cataclysmic event also spit out a moral law object, which now somehow permeates all space. I am not at all trying to be funny here. If this thing the philosophers refer to exists, there must be some explanation of how it came to exist. What is it?

However, let us assume for the moment that the moral law object did somehow come into existence. Presumably this must have been before the evolution of human beings, else we couldn’t possibly have evolved the capacity to detect it with our intuitions. Absent some other plausible path to the existence in our brains of something as sophisticated as an “intuition” sense capable of enabling us to detect the moral law object, this ability must necessarily be a result of natural selection. Of course, natural selection doesn’t automatically choose the Good. It chooses whatever promotes our survival. If Huemer is right, then we must have somehow acquired, not only the ability to detect the moral law object via intuition, but virtually at the same time a predisposition to act in accordance with the moral law. By a wonderful coincidence, it also just so happened that acting in this way promoted the survival of creatures such as ourselves, although it would more likely have resulted in the immediate demise of other life forms. Darwin mentions bees, for example.

Our eyes and ears have taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve. How is it that a “sense” capable of detecting the moral law object evolved so quickly? It couldn’t have happened in creatures less intelligent than ourselves, because they have no morality, at least as it is described by Huemer, nor any need for an intuition capable of detecting it. The initial appearance of this “sense” in our species and its subsequent evolution to such a state of perfection must have happened rapidly indeed.

Huemer dismisses natural selection as an explanation of subjective morality because, in his words, it is “not impressive.” As can be seen above, however, he cannot simply hand wave natural selection out of existence. He claims we possess an intuition capable of detecting morality objects. How did we acquire this intuition absent natural selection? If Huemer wants to claim that God did it, well and good, we can debate the existence of God. However, I doubt he wants to go there. There is no mention of God in his book. Absent God, what other path to the acquisition of such a complex ability exists, other than natural selection? Huemer will have to be “impressed” by natural selection at some point, whether he likes it or not.

Assuming Darwin was right about natural selection, isn’t it simpler and more rational to accept that innate behavior, including the predispositions that give rise to morality, evolved directly because it happened to promote survival, resulting in our associating “good” with behavior that promoted our survival and “bad” with behavior that didn’t? The alternative proposed by Huemer is that we first evolved the ability to detect the moral law, only then followed by the evolution of awareness that the moral law was trying to get us to do something followed by a predisposition to believe it was “good” to follow the moral law and “bad” not to follow it, along with the remarkable coincidence that all this promoted our survival. Does this sound even remotely plausible to you? Then, to use one of the author’s favorite clichés, I have some bridges to sell you.

I submit that every version of objective morality that doesn’t rely on the intervention of supernatural beings suffers from the same implausibility as Huemer’s system, for more or less the same reasons. That’s why I believe that morality is subjective. Huemer notes in his book that I am hardly alone in this regard. There are legions of people who describe themselves as subjective moralists. However, as he also correctly points out, it doesn’t make any difference. When it comes to their actual moral behavior, they act in ways that are inexplicable absent the implied assumption of objective morality. I know of not a single exception to this rule among philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals of note. Every one of them treats their idiosyncratic moral judgments as if they automatically apply to others without so much as blinking an eye. That is actually a major theme of this blog. However, I’ve rambled on long enough, and will take up the matter in my next post.

Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality

I recently read a book entitled Nature’s Virtue by James Pontuso, a professor of political science at Hampden-Sydney College. He informs his readers that his goal in writing the book was to demonstrate a foundation for virtue. In his words,

It is in taking up the challenge of anti-foundationalism that I hope this book will contribute to the on-going dialogue about the place of virtue in human life. It will attempt to define virtue in the course of a discussion of its friends and adversaries.

Pontuso then takes us on a rambling discussion of what the postmodernists, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, and several other thinkers had to say about virtue. All this may be enlightening for students of philosophy, but it is neither here nor there as far as establishing a foundation for virtue is concerned. In fact, the last two paragraphs of the book are the closest he comes to “taking up the challenge.” There he writes, Continue reading “Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality”

Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

In my last post I noted that the arguments in an article by Ronald Dworkin defending the existence of objective moral truths could be used equally well to defend the existence of unicorns. Dworkin is hardly unique among modern philosophers in this respect. Prof. Katia Vavova of Mt. Holyoke College also defended objective morality in an article entitled Debunking Evolutionary Debunking published in 2014 in the journal Oxford Studies in Metaethics. According to Prof. Vavova’s version of the argument, it is impossible to accurately describe the characteristics of unicorns without assuming the existence of unicorns. Therefore, we must assume the existence of unicorns. QED

As the title of her article would imply, Prof. Vavova focuses on arguments against the existence of objective moral truths based on the Theory of Evolution. In fact, Darwin’s theory is hardly necessary to debunk moral objectivity. If objective moral truths exist independently of what anyone merely thinks to be true, they can’t be nothing. They must be something. Dworkin was obviously aware of this problem in the article I referred to in my last post. He was also aware that no one has ever detected moral objects in a form accessible to our familiar senses. He referred derisively to the notion that the existed as moral particles, or “morons,” or as “morality fields” accessible to the laws of physics. To overcome this objection, however, he was forced to rely on the even more dubious claim that moral truths exist in some sort of transcendental plane of their own, floating about as unphysical spirits. Continue reading “Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn”

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?”

On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck

The illusion of objective morality is amazingly powerful. The evidence is now overwhelming that morality is a manifestation of emotions, and that these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that there can be no such thing as objective moral truths. The brilliant Edvard Westermarck explained why more than a century ago in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

Westermarck, in turn, was merely pointing out some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin had written about morality in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Today Westermarck is nearly forgotten, what Darwin wrote about morality is ignored as if it didn’t exist, and the illusion is as powerful and persistent as it was more than a century ago. Virtually every human being on the planet either believes explicitly in objective moral truths, or behaves as if they did regardless of whether they admit to believing in them or not. Continue reading “On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck”

Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint”: The Reply of the Walking Dead

The significance of Robert Plomin’s Blueprint is not that every word therein is infallible. Some reviewers have questioned his assertions about the relative insignificance of the role that parents, schools, culture, and other environmental factors play in the outcome of our lives, and it seems to me the jury is still out on many of these issues. See, for example, the thoughtful review of Razib Khan in the National Review. What is significant about it is Plomin’s description of new and genuinely revolutionary experimental tools of rapidly increasing power and scope that have enabled us to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that our DNA has a very significant influence on human behavior. In other words, there is such a thing as “human nature,” and it is important. This truth might see obvious today. It is also a fact, however, that this truth was successfully suppressed and denied for over half a century by the vast majority of the “scientists” who claimed to be experts on human behavior.

There is no guarantee that such scientific debacles are a thing of the past. Ideologues devoted to the quasi-religious faith that the truth must take a back seat to their equalist ideals are just as prevalent now as they were during the heyday of the Blank Slate. Indeed, they are at least as powerful now as they were then, and they would like nothing better than to breathe new life into the flat earth dogmas they once foisted on the behavioral sciences. Consider, for example, a review of Blueprint by Nathaniel Comfort entitled “Genetic determinism rides again,” that appeared in the prestigious journal Nature. The first paragraph reads as follows:

It’s never a good time for another bout of genetic determinism, but it’s hard to imagine a worse one than this. Social inequality gapes, exacerbated by climate change, driving hostility towards immigrants and flares of militant racism. At such a juncture, yet another expression of the discredited, simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature seems particularly insidious.

Can anyone with an ounce of common sense, not to mention the editors of a journal that purports to speak for “science,” read such a passage and conclude that the author will continue with a dispassionate review of the merits of the factual claims made in a popular science book? One wonders what on earth they were thinking. Apparently Gleichschaltung is sufficiently advanced at Nature that the editors have lost all sense of shame. Consider, for example, the hoary “genetic determinism” canard. A “genetic determinist” is a strawman invented more than 50 years ago by the Blank Slaters of old. These imaginary beings were supposed to believe that our behavior is rigidly programmed by “instincts.” I’ve searched diligently during the ensuing years, but have never turned up a genuine example of one of these unicorns. They are as mythical as witches, but the Blank Slaters never tire of repeating their hackneyed propaganda lines. It would be hard to “discredit” the “simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature” by virtue of the fact that no one ever made such a preposterous claim to begin with, and Plomin certainly wasn’t the first. Beyond that, what could possibly be the point of dragging in all the familiar dogmas of the “progressive” tribe? Apparently Nature would have us believe that scientific “truth” is to be determined by ideological litmus tests.

In the next paragraph Comfort supplies Plomin, a professor of behavior genetics, with the title “educational psychologist,” and sulks that his emphasis on chromosomal DNA leaves microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts, and developmental biologists out in the cold. Seriously? Since when did these fields manage to hermetically seal themselves off from DNA and become “non-overlapping magisteria?” Do any microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts or developmental biologists actually exist who consider DNA irrelevant to their field?

Comfort next makes the logically questionable claim that, because “Darwinism begat eugenics”, “Mendelism begat worse eugenics,” and medical genetics begat the claim that men with an XYY genotype were violent, therefore behavioral genetics must also “begat” progeny that are just as bad. QED

Genome-wide association (GWA) methods, the increasingly powerful tool described in Blueprint that has now put the finishing touches on the debunking of the Blank Slate, are dismissed as something that “lures scientists” because of its “promise of genetic explanations for complex traits, such as voting behavior or investment strategies.” How Comfort distills this “promise” out of anything that actually appears in the book is beyond me. One wonders if he ever actually read it. That suspicion is greatly strengthened when one reads the following paragraph:

A polygenic score is a correlation coefficient. A GWAS identifies single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the DNA that correlate with the trait of interest. The SNPs are markers only. Although they might, in some cases, suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait, the polygenic score itself is in no sense causal. Plomin understands this and says so repeatedly in the book – yet contradicts himself several times by arguing that the scores are in fact, causal.

You have to hand it to Comfort, he can stuff a huge amount of disinformation into a small package. In the first place, the second and third sentences contradict each other. If SNPs are variations in the rungs of DNA that occur between individuals, they are not just markers, and they don’t just “suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait.” If they are reliable and replicable GWA hits, they are one of the actual points at which the trait is affected. Plomin most definitely does not “understand” that polygenic scores are in no sense causal, and nowhere does he say anything of the sort, far less “repeatedly.” What he does say is:

In contrast, correlations between a polygenic score and a trait can only be interpreted causally in one direction – from the polygenic score to the trait. For example, we have shown that the educational attainment polygenic score correlates with children’s reading ability. The correlation means that the inherited DNA differences captured by the polygenic score cause differences between children in their school achievement, in the sense that nothing in our brains, behavior, or environment can change inherited differences in DNA sequence.

I would be very interested to hear what Comfort finds “illogical” about that passage, and by virtue of what magical mental prestidigitations he proposes to demonstrate that the score is a “mere correlation.” Elsewhere we read,

Hereditarian books such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) and Nicholas Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance (see N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014) exploited their respective scientific and cultural moments, leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda. Although Blueprint is cut from different ideological cloth, the consequences could be just as grave.

In fact, neither The Bell Curve nor A Troublesome Inheritance have ever been discredited, if by that term is meant being proved factually wrong. If books are “discredited” by how many ideological zealots begin foaming at the mouth on reading them, of course, it’s a different matter. Beyond that, if something is true, it does not become false by virtue of Comfort deeming it “undemocratic.” I could go on, but what’s the point? Suffice it to say that Comfort’s favorite “scientific authority” is Richard Lewontin, an obscurantist high priest of the Blank Slate if ever there was one, and author of Not in Our Genes.

I can understand the editors of Nature’s desire to virtue signal their loyalty to the prevailing politically correct fashions, but this “review” is truly abject. It isn’t that hard to find authors on the left of the political spectrum who can write a book review that is at least a notch above the level of tendentious ideological propaganda. See, for example, Kathryn Paige Harden’s review of Blueprint in the Spectator. Somehow she managed to write it without implying that Plomin is a Nazi in every second sentence.  I suggest that next time they look a little harder.

My initial post about Blueprint tended to emphasize the historical ramifications of the book in the context of the Blank Slate disaster. As a result, my description of the scientific substance of the book was very broad brush. However, there are many good reviews out there that cover that ground, expressing some of my own reservations about Plomin’s conclusions about the importance of environment in the process. See, for example, the excellent review by Razib Khan in the National Review linked above. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the book itself is only 188 pages long, so, by all means, read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Pinker and His Obscurantist “Enlightenment”

Quillette recently hosted an essay by Steven Pinker on his Enlightenment Now a year after its publication. The following is a repost of a comment on the book I left there by way of a review. In the first chapters of the book, Pinker argues that we’ve made lots of progress towards “human flourishing” by applying the principles of the Enlightenment. I don’t take issue here with those claims one way or the other. I do take issue with what he has to say about his favorite flavor of morality, referred to in the book as humanism, as follows:

Pinker extols the merits of science and reason. The problem with “Enlightenment Now” is that it is fundamentally irrational and unscientific. Consider, for example, what he has to say about morality, which he discusses under the rubric of humanism. He agrees with Darwin that it is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “human nature” if you will. If that is the case, then there can be no such thing as objective morality. Darwin practically spoon fed us this truth in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” The illusion that there is an objective morality, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter, complete with objective goods and evils, is as much an illusion as the belief in God, yet Pinker, in spite of accepting the innate basis of morality, makes the fundamentally irrational claim that the illusion is real. Nowhere in the book do we find a disclaimer to the effect that what he has written about morality merely represents his personal opinion. On the contrary, he speaks of it as an objective thing, imposing duties on the rest of us. It comes complete with “moral imperatives” and even an “authority,” based on what Pinker describes in glowing terms as the values of the Enlightenment. These values themselves, however, cannot be distilled from pure reason, any more than a computer can program itself. Hume pointed this out long ago. Try to trace Pinker’s reasons for embracing the values of the Enlightenment back to their “rational” source, reason by reason, and you will find that his reasons only end up chasing their own tails. In the end, those values, too, must have a root cause or source in innate predispositions, or emotions, if you will, that exist by virtue of natural selection. Since these predispositions exist by virtue of a natural process, they cannot have a purpose. They are simply facts of nature. They could not have a purpose of the sort claimed by Pinker unless a God or other creator existed who gave them purpose.

Pinker is well known as an opponent of group selection. He confirms his belief that the emotional roots of morality exist by virtue of natural selection, and are selected at the level of the gene, in the following passage:

Today’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which the unit of selection is the group, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest group in competition with other groups, and humans have been selected to sacrifice their interests for the supremacy of their group. (This contrasts with mainstream evolutionary psychology, in which the unit of selection is the gene.)

He then commits the fundamentally irrational non sequitur of claiming that we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with, and jury-rig it so that it goes well beyond group selection, and promotes “the good of the species!” For example,

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.

and,

Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind.

How can it possibly be deemed “rational” to “reprogram” morality in this way? We are dealing with a manifestation of human nature that evolved at a time radically unlike the present, in which the very existence of “all of humankind” was unknown. It evolved because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Pinker would have us believe that it is “reasonable” to “fool” morality into serving other ends that may well result in outcomes that are not only dangerous, but the very opposite of the survival of those genes. The “other ends” Pinker has in mind are the “values of the Enlightenment,” which he describes in noble, glowing phrases, but which are really just expressions of other emotional predispositions not unlike those that give rise to morality. We can certainly reason about whether we want to promote “the values of the Enlightenment” or not as individuals, but to bowdlerize morality in order to serve those ends, harnessing powerful illusions of “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” which can just as easily promote violence and warfare as they can “the values of the Enlightenment” is nothing short of foolhardy. I suggest that we would all be better served by reducing the scope of such a powerful emotional phenomenon as much as possible.

As far as Pinker’s embrace of “reason” is concerned, consider all the passages in the book in which he condemns Trump and all his works. He would have us believe that Trump is no less than a follower of Hitler and Mussolini, inspired by a careful parsing of the works of Nietzsche. Anyone who supports him, and that would amount to half the population of the United States, give or take, must therefore be either a Nazi or a dupe of the Nazis. In what way does such a claim support the notion of a “rational” dialogue with all these people? I am certainly not in the habit of calmly and rationally discussing things with people who initiate the conversation by claiming I’m a Nazi.

In fact, a major reason Trump was elected, and the main reason a great many voters supported him, was his promise to enforce our immigration laws. Not only was this not irrational, it was actually an embrace of Enlightenment values. Was not one of those values respect for the law? “The rule of law” was deemed so important that it was actually inscribed as a motto on French coins after the Revolution! Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construe the furious attacks on Trump that appear so frequently throughout the book as “reasonable.” They are far better understood as virtue signaling to Pinker’s academic tribe. He has often subjected that tribe to pinpricks here and there, but he is well aware that he dare not attack the fundamental shibboleths that define his tribalist ingroup, and one of those shibboleths is currently blind allegiance to the notion that Trump is a manifestation of pure evil. Respect for the shibboleths of his tribe is how Pinker has managed to avoid being denounced as a heretic and ostracized after the fashion of Charles Murray or James Watson. Need I add that there is nothing “rational” about tribalistic virtue signaling, other than the fact that it is a common trait of our species?

Touching on the Dangers of Living Among the Morally Delusional

A major theme of all I have written about morality is that it is subjective. Assuming I am right, this fact has major implications regarding human behavior. It follows, for example, that good and evil do not exist as objective things. Since they are almost universally imagined to actually be objective things, it follows that good and evil are subjective illusions. This begs the question of why the illusions exist. The obvious reason is that they exist by virtue of natural selection. As a result of the natural process of evolution we have brains that construct these illusions because, at some time and in some environment that was likely vastly different from the present, the illusions happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. They are an aspect of human nature, if you will, and one that gives rise to what we commonly refer to as morality. Absent this particular aspect of human nature, morality as we know it would not exist.

Morality predisposes us to imagine that we ought to do some things, and ought not to do others. However, since the mental traits responsible for morality are the result of a natural process, it is impossible that there can be anything that we ought or ought not to do from an objective point of view. To imagine otherwise is to fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy. However, a life lived in complete indifference to what we ought or ought not to do would certainly be boring, and probably impossible for creatures such as ourselves, with a powerful predisposition to imagine that good and evil are real things. The question is, how do we come up with our oughts and ought nots? More broadly speaking, how do we come up with a “meaning of life” to which all of our other oughts and ought nots would presumably be subordinated? The obvious answer is that we assign these things to ourselves.

From a purely personal point of view I consider it expedient to consider rationally this matter of what ultimate goals to assign myself, and what I ought and ought not to do in pursuit of these goals. I have decided that my own personal goals should include survival and reproduction. There is no objective reason for pursuing such a goal, anymore than there is an objective reason for pursuing any other goal. I have chosen these goals because of my conclusion that virtually all of my essential physical and mental traits exist because they enhanced the odds that I would survive and reproduce. I prefer to act in a way that is in harmony with the natural processes that are responsible for my existence. If I were to do otherwise, I would have the impression that I had become “sick” or “dysfunctional” as a biological unit. In keeping with this goal, I have the additional goals of ensuring the survival of my species, and promoting its continued evolution to become ever more capable of surviving in any environment it is likely to encounter, and of ensuring the survival of biological life itself. I consider these additional goals reasonable because I deem them preconditions for my original goal of survival and reproduction, extended into the indefinite future. None of these goals are justifiable from an objective point of view, independent of my subjective mind. It is impossible for any goal to have that attribute. Call them whims, if you will, but there you have them. I have laid my cards on the table.

I would certainly like to see the other members of my species lay their cards on the table in a similar fashion, but that is not likely to happen. The problem is that almost all of them are delusional. They actually believe that the illusions of good and evil are real. Many of them also believe that their meaning and purpose are supplied by imaginary gods that don’t actually exist. Unfortunately, all this has a severe impact, not just on themselves, but on those around them as well. It can do a lot of what those others may perceive, and what I personally certainly perceive, as harm.

Consider, for example, the case of morality. There has always been widespread recognition of the harm done by those who blindly follow their moral whims. Shakespeare referred to them as “devils of Puritans.” More recently, they have been contemptuously referred to as the Uplift, or do gooders, or Social Justice Warriors. Seldom if ever, however, has anyone been able to put their finger on the reason why the behavior of such people is dangerous and harmful. The main reason for this is that they have always suffered from the same delusion as the do gooders. They, too, have imagined that good and evil exist as objective things. They merely believe in different versions of these imaginary things. As a result, they cannot simply point out that the pathologically pious among us are blindly following an emotional whim that is harmful to the rest of us. They are generally reduced to coming up with an alternative grab bag of goods and evils, and engaging in futile arguments over whose grab bag is better. Since the do gooders are generally a great deal more adept at manipulating moral emotions, they commonly win these arguments.

Consider what the outcome of this state of affairs has been concerning, for example, the integrity of national borders. In recent years, much of Europe, North American, and parts of east Asia had reached a state of affairs in which the birthrates of the indigenous populations was below replacement level. Eventually, this would have caused their populations to begin shrinking. In some cases they have already begun to shrink. From my personal point of view, this is an extremely good state of affairs. I would be the first to admit that alarmists have exaggerated many of the environmental problems we face. However, considering that earth is the only boat we have to live in at the moment, why rock it? Virtually every environmental problem you could name would go away with substantial reductions in population. With fewer others to compete with for limited resources, there would be more elbow room for my descendants. We are told that the economy will only be good as long as the population continually increases. Obviously, this can’t go on forever. The planet can only sustain so many people, and its limits are already being strained in many areas. To the extent that survival is a goal we have in common, it would be much better, not only for me, but for our species in general, if at least a few enclaves could be preserved with sustainable populations. Worrying about or tweaking the economy amounts to little more than an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We have far more substantial problems to worry about.

However, we are told by the pathologically pious that we cannot continue to protect these potentially sustainable enclaves of ours because it is immoral. We must open our borders and allow anyone who pleases to move in, because this is the “moral” thing to do. The result is not hard to foresee. The amount of environmental damage these immigrants will cause will be vastly greater than if they had stayed in their own countries. Our population will no longer begin decreasing to more sustainable levels. Those coming in are culturally and ethnically different from the population already here. In view of the invariable human tendency to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, this will inevitably lead to social tension, perhaps culminating in civil war.  Even in terms of the economy, there is no evidence that allowing cheap labor to flood across the border, placing huge demands on our health, educational, and social welfare resources, will have a beneficial effect, even in the short term. Our population will begin to look more and more like the populations of South American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela that have been notably unsuccessful in sustaining a level of affluence similar to the one we enjoy, in spite of their control over vast natural resources. These obvious objections are commonly rationalized away with specious arguments in the interest of doing “good.”

If I were to ask those who support such a destructive policy to justify their claim that it must be done because it is moral, they would be incapable of responding with a coherent answer. If they actually understood what morality is, the best reply they could give me would be that they want to do it to satisfy an emotional whim. However, that emotional whim evolved at a time when our species never had to deal with such issues. Attempting to solve the complex issues we are faced with now by doing whatever happens to be most emotionally satisfying is not only stupid, but self-destructive. Unfortunately, those who seek to blindly satisfy their emotional whims in this way apply them not just to themselves, but to the rest of us as well. Unless they are allowed to dictate to us what we “ought” or “ought not” to do, not only in the matter of borders, but in everything else, then they will deem us “evil,” and seek to force their emotionally motivated solutions to all the world’s problems down our collective throats.

Unless we wake up and realize what morality actually is, those who hardly have our welfare or interests at heart will continue to manipulate it to lead us around by the nose. Unfortunately, I don’t see our species waking up any time soon. Our situation will remain as it is. Whatever goals and purposes we happen to assign ourselves, we must learn to deal with it.