More Ardreyania, with Pinker and CRISPR

Robert Ardrey is the one man the “men of science” in the behavioral disciplines would most like to see drop down the memory hole for good.  Mere playwright that he was, he was presumptuous enough to be right about the existence of human nature when all of them were wrong, and influential enough to make them a laughing stock among educated laypeople for denying it.  They’ve gone to great lengths to make him disappear ever since, even to the extreme of creating an entire faux “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  I, however, having lived through the events in question, and still possessed of a vestigial respect for the truth, will continue to do my meager best to set the record straight.  Indeed, dear reader, I descended into the very depths to glean material for this post, so you won’t have to.  In fine, I unearthed an intriguing Ardrey interview in the February 1971 issue of Penthouse.

The interview was conducted in New York by Harvey H. Segal, who had served on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1968 to 1969, and was an expert on corporate economics.  The introductory blurb noted the obvious to anyone who wasn’t asleep at the time; that the main theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature.

Equipped only with common sense, curiosity, and a practiced pen, Robert Ardrey shouldered his way into the study of human nature and has given a new direction to man’s thinking about man.


An impact on this scale is remarkable for any writer, but in Ardrey’s case it has the added quality of being achieved in a second career.

As usual, in this interview as in every other contemporary article and review of his work that I’ve come across, there is no mention of his opinion on group selection.  It will be recalled that Ardrey’s favorable take on this entirely ancillary subject in his book The Social Contract was seized on by Steven Pinker as the specious reason he eventually selected to announce that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong.”  There is much of interest in the interview but, as it happens, Ardrey’s final few remarks bear on the subject of my last post; artificial manipulation of human DNA.

In case you haven’t read it, that post discussed some remarks on the ethical implications of human gene manipulation by none other than – Steven Pinker.  According to Pinker the moral imperative for the bioethicists who were agonizing over possible applications of such DNA-altering tools as CRISPR-Cas9 was quite blunt; “Get out of the way.”  Their moral pecksniffery should not be allowed to derail the potential of these revolutionary tools for curing or alleviating a great number of genetically caused diseases and disorders or its promise of “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing.”  Pinker dismisses concerns about the possible misuse of the technology as follows:

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

That smacks a bit of what the German would call “Verharmlosung” – insisting that something is harmless when it really isn’t.  Tools like CRISPR certainly have the potential for altering DNA in ways not necessarily intended to merely cure disease.  For example, many intelligence related genes have already been found, and new ones are being found on a regular basis.  Alterations in genes that influence human behavior are also possible.  Ardrey had a somewhat more sober take on the subject in the interview referred to above.  For example,

Segal:  What about the possibility of altering the brain and human instincts through new advances in genetics, DNA and the like?

Ardrey:  I don’t have much faith.  Altering of the human being is something to approach with the greatest apprehension because it depends on what kind of human being you want.  It is not so long since H. J. Muller, one of the greatest American geneticists and one of the first eugenicists, was saying that we have to eliminate aggression.  But now there is (Konrad) Lorenz who says that aggression is the basis of almost all life.  Reconstruction of the human being by human beings is too close to domestication, like control of the breeding of animals.  Muller’s plan for the human future was dealing with sheep.  I happen to be one who works best at being something other than a sheep, and I think most people do.

and a bit later, on the prospect of curing disease:

I see some important things that might be done with DNA on a very simple scale, such as repairing an error in, say, a hemophiliac – one of those genetic errors that appear at random every so often.  But that is making a thing normal.  It is not impossible that some genetically-caused disease, particularly if it has a one-gene basis, might be fixed.  But genes are like a club or political party with all sorts of jostling and jockeying between them.  You change one and a bell rings at the other end of the line.

I tend to agree with Ardrey that there is a strong possibility that CRISPR and similar tools will be misused.  However, I also agree with Pinker that the bioethicists are only likely to succeed in stalling the truly beneficial applications, and the most “moral” course for them will be to step aside.  The dangers are there, but they are dangers the bioethicists are most unlikely to have the power to do anything about.

At the individual level, parents interested in enhancing the intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks of their offspring will seize the opportunity to do so, taking the moralists with a grain of salt in the process, and if the technology is there, the opportunity to create “designer babies” will be there as well for those rich enough to afford it.  Even more worrisome is the potential misuse of the technology by state actors.  As Ardrey pointed out, they may well take a much greater interest in the ancient bits of the brain that control our feelings, moods and behavior than in the more recently added cortical enhancements responsible for our relatively high intelligence.

In a word, what we face is less a choice than a fait accompli.  Like nuclear weapons, the technology will eventually be applied in ways the bioethicists are likely to find very disturbing.  It’s not a question of if, but when.  The end result of this new era of artificially accelerated evolution will certainly be interesting for those lucky enough to be around to witness it.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

Steven Pinker on “The moral imperative for bioethics”

According to Steven Pinker in The moral imperative for bioethics, an opinion piece he recently wrote for the Boston Globe,

…the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.  Get out of the way.

I would strengthen that a bit to something like, “Stop the mental masturbation and climb back into the real world.”  At some level Pinker is aware of the fact that bioethicists and other “experts” in morality are not nearly as useful to the rest of us as they think they are.  He just doesn’t understand why.  As a result he makes the mistake of conceding the objective relevance of morality in solving problems germane to the field of biotechnology.  The fundamental problem is that these people are chasing after imaginary objects, things that aren’t real.  They have bamboozled the rest of us into taking them seriously because we have been hoodwinked by our emotional baggage just as effectively as they have.  There is no premium on reality as far as evolution is concerned.  There is a premium on survival.  We perceive “good” and “evil” as real objects, not because they actually are real objects, but because our ancestors were more likely to pass on the relevant genes if they perceived these fantasies as real things.  Bioethics is just one of the many artifacts of this delusion.

Consider what the bioethicists are really claiming.  They are saying that mental impressions that exist because they happened to improve the evolutionary fitness of a species of advanced, highly social, bipedal apes correspond to real things, commonly referred to as “good” and “evil,” that have some kind of an objective existence independent of the minds of those creatures.  Not only that, but if one can but capture these objects, which happen to be extremely elusive and slippery, one can apply them to make decisions in the field of biotechnology, which didn’t exist when the mental equipment that gives rise to the impressions in question evolved.  Consider these extracts from the online conversation:

Carl Elliot, at his blog, Fear and Loathing in Bioethics,

Forget Tuskegee. Forget Willowbrook and Holmesburg Prison. Pay no attention to the research subjects who died at Kano, Auckland Women’s Hospital or the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Never mind about Jesse Gelsinger, Ellen Roche, Nicole Wan, Tracy Johnson or Dan Markingson. According to Steven Pinker, “we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.”  So bioethicists should just shut up about abuses and let smart people like him get on with their work.


Indeed, biotechnology has moral implications that are nothing short of stupendous. But they are not the ones that worry the worriers.

Julian Savulescu at the Practical Ethics website:

What we need is less obstruction of good and ethical research, as Pinker correctly observes, and more vigilance at picking up unethical research. This requires competent, professional and trained bioethicists and improvement of ethics review processes.

Daniel K. Sokol, also at Practical Ethics:

The idea that research that has the potential to cause harm should be subject to ethical review should not be controversial in the 21st century. The words “this project has been reviewed and approved by the Research Ethics Committee” offers some reassurance that the welfare of participants has been duly considered. The thought of biomedical research without ethical review is a frightening one.


A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.”

One imagines oneself in Bedlam.  These people are all trying to address what most people would agree is a real problem.  They understand that most people don’t want to be victims of anything like the Tuskegee experiments.  They also grasp the fact that most people would prefer to live longer, healthier lives.  True, these, too, are merely subjective goals, whims if you will, but they are whims that most of us will agree with.  The whims aren’t the problem.  The problem is that we are trying to apply a useless tool to reach the goals; human moral emotions.  We are trying to establish truths by consulting emotions to which no truth claims can possibly apply.  Stuart Rennie got it right in spite of himself in his attack on Pinker at his Global Bioethics Blog:

My first reaction was: how is this new bioethics skill taught? Should there be classes that teach it in a stepwise manner, i.e. where you first learn not to butt in, then how to just step a bit aside, followed by somewhat getting out of the way, and culminating in totally screwing off? What would the syllabus look like? Wouldn’t avoiding bioethics class altogether be a sign of success?

Pinker, too, iterates to an entirely rational final sentence in his opinion piece:

Biomedical research will always be closer to Sisyphus than a runaway train — and the last thing we need is a lobby of so-called ethicists helping to push the rock down the hill.

I, too, would prefer not to be a Tuskegee guinea pig.  I, too, would like to live longer and be healthier.  I simply believe that emotional predispositions that exist because they happen to have been successful in regulating the social interactions within and among small groups of hunter-gatherers millennia ago, are unlikely to be the best tools to achieve those ends.


Morality Inversions

The nature of morality and the reason for its existence have been obvious for more than a century and a half.  Francis Hutcheson demonstrated that it must arise from a “moral sense” early in the 18th century.  Hume agreed, and suggested the possibility that there may be a secular explanation for the existence of this moral sense.  Darwin demonstrated the nature of this secular explanation for anyone willing to peak over the blindfold of faith and look at the evidence.  Westermarck climbed up on the shoulders of these giants, gazed about, and summarized the obvious in his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In short, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are subjective artifacts of behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved.  Absent that evolved “moral sense,” morality as we know it would not exist.  It evolved because it happened to increase the probability that the genes responsible for its existence would survive and reproduce.  There exists no mechanism whereby those genes can jump out of the DNA of one individual, grab the DNA of another individual by the scruff of the neck, and dictate what kind of behavior that other DNA should regard as “good” or “evil.”

In the years since Darwin and Westermarck our species has amply demonstrated its propensity to ignore such inconvenient truths.  Once upon a time religion provided some semblance of a justification for belief in an objective “good-in-itself.”  However, latter day “experts” on ethics and morality have jettisoned such anachronisms, effectively sawing off the branch they were sitting on.  Then, with incomparable hubris, they’ve claimed a magical ability to distill objective “goods” and “evils” straight out of the vacuum they were floating in.  In our own time the result is visible as a veritable explosion of abstruse algorithms, incomprehensible to all but a few academic scribblers, for doing just that.  Encouraged by these “experts,” legions of others have indulged themselves in the wonderfully sweet delusion that the particular haphazard grab bag of emotions they happened to inherit from their ancestors provided them with an infallible touchstone for sniffing out “real good” and “real evil.”  The result has been an orgy of secular piety that the religious Puritans of old would have shuddered to behold.

The manifestations of this latter day piety have been bizarre, to say the least.  Instead of promoting genetic survival, they accomplish precisely the opposite.  Genes that are the end result of an unbroken chain of existence stretching back billions of years into the past now seem intent on committing suicide.  It’s not surprising really.  Other genes gave rise to an intelligence capable of altering the environment so fast that the rest couldn’t possibly keep up.  The result is visible in various forms of self-destructive behavior that can be described as “morality inversions.”

A classic example is the belief that it is “immoral” to have children.  Reams of essays, articles, and even books have been written “proving” that, for various reasons, reproduction is “bad-in-itself.”  If one searches diligently for the “root cause” of all these counterintuitive artifacts of human nature, one will always find them resting on a soft bed of moral emotions.  What physical processes in the brain give rise to these moral emotions, and how, exactly, do they predispose us to act in some ways, but not others?  No one knows.  It’s a mystery that will probably remain unsolved until we unravel the secret of consciousness.  One thing we do know, however.  The emotions exist because they evolved, and they evolved because they enhanced the odds that the genes that gave rise to them would reproduce; or at least they did in a particular environment that no longer exists.  In the vastly different environment we have now created for ourselves, however, they are obviously capable of promoting an entirely different end, at least in some cases; self destruction.

Of course, self destruction is not objectively evil because nothing is objectively evil.  Neither is it unreasonable, because, as Hume pointed out, reason by itself cannot motivate us to do anything.  We are motivated by “sentiments” or “passions” that we experience because it is our nature to experience them.  These include the moral passions.  Self destruction is a whim, and reason can be applied to satisfy the whim.  I happen to have a different whim.  I see myself as a link in a vast chain of millions of living organisms, my ancestors, if you will.  All have successfully reproduced, adding another link to the chain.  Suppose I were to fail to reproduce, thus becoming the final link in the chain and announcing, in effect, to those who came before me and made my life possible that, thanks to me, all their efforts had ended in a biological dead end.  In that case I would see myself as a dysfunctional biological unit or, in a word, sick, the victim of a morality inversion.  It follows that I have a different whim; to reproduce.  And so I have.  There can be nothing that renders my whims in any way objectively superior to those of anyone else.  I merely describe them and outline what motivates them.  I’m not disturbed by the fact that others have different whims, and choose self destruction.  After all, their choice to remove themselves from the gene pool and stop taking up space on the planet may well be to my advantage.

Another interesting example of a morality inversion is the deep emotional high so many people in Europe and North America seem to get from inviting a deluge of genetically and culturally alien immigrants to ignore the laws of their countries and move in.  One can but speculate on the reasons that the moral emotions, mediated by culture as they always are, result in such counterintuitive behavior.  There is, of course, such a thing as human altruism, and it exists because it evolved.  However, that evolutionary process took place in an environment that made it likely that such behavior would enhance the chances that the responsible genes would survive.  People lived in relatively small ingroups surrounded by more or less hostile outgroups.  We still categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, but the process has become deranged.  Thanks to our vastly expanded knowledge of the world around us combined with vastly improved means of communication, the ingroup may now be perceived as “all mankind.”

Except, of course, for the ever present outgroup.  The outgroup hasn’t gone anywhere.  It has merely adopted a different form.  Now, instead of the clan in the next territory over, the outgroup may consist of liberals, conservatives, Christians, Moslems, atheists, Jews, blacks, whites, or what have you.  The many possibilities are familiar to anyone who has read a little history.  Obviously, the moral equipment in our brains doesn’t have the least trouble identifying the population of Africa, the Middle East, or Mexico as members of the ingroup, and citizens of one’s own country who don’t quite see them in that light as the outgroup.  In that case, anyone who resists a deluge of illegal immigrants is “evil.”  If they point out that similar events in the past have led to long periods of ethnic and/or religious strife, occasionally culminating in civil war, or any of the other obvious drawbacks of uncontrolled immigration, they are simply shouted down with the epithets appropriate for describing the outgroup, “racist” being the most familiar and hackneyed example.  In short, a morality inversion has occurred.  Moral emotions have become dysfunctional, promoting behavior that will almost certainly be self-destructive in the long run.  I may be wrong of course.  The immigrants now pouring into Europe and North America without apparent limit may all eventually be assimilated into a big, happy, prosperous family.  I seriously doubt it.  Wait and see.

One could cite many other examples.  The faithful, of course, have their own versions, such as removing themselves from the gene pool by acting as human bombs, often taking many others with them in the process.  The “good” in this case is the delusional prospect of enjoying the services of 70 of the best Stepford wives ever heard of in the afterlife.  Regardless, the point is that the evolved emotional baggage that manifests itself in so many forms as human morality has been left in the dust.  It cannot possibly keep up with the frenetic pace of human social and technological progress.  The result is morality inversions; behaviors that accomplish more or less the opposite of what they did in the environment in which they evolved.  Under the circumstances, the practice of allowing people to wallow in their moral emotions, insisting that they have a monopoly on the “good” and anyone who opposes them is “evil” is becoming increasingly problematic.  As noted above, I don’t have a problem with these people voluntarily removing themselves from the gene pool.  I do have a problem with becoming collateral damage.