Panksepp, Animal Rights, and the Blank Slate

So who is Jaak Panksepp?  Have a look at his YouTube talk on emotions at the bottom of this post, for starters.  A commenter recommended him, and I discovered the advice was well worth taking.  Panksepp’s The Archaeology of Mind, which he co-authored with Lucy Biven, was a revelation to me.  The book describes a set of basic emotional systems that exist in all, or virtually all, mammals, including humans.  In the words of the authors:

…the ancient subcortical regions of mammalian brains contain at least seven emotional, or affective, systems:  SEEKING (expectancy), FEAR (anxiety), RAGE (anger), LUST (sexual excitement), CARE (nurturance), PANIC/GRIEF (sadness), and PLAY (social joy).  Each of these systems controls distinct but specific types of behaviors associated with many overlapping physiological changes.

This is not just another laundry list of “instincts” of the type often proposed by psychologists at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  Panksepp is a neuroscientist, and has verified experimentally the unique signatures of these emotional systems in the ancient regions of the brain shared by humans and other mammals.  Again quoting from the book,

As far as we know right now, primal emotional systems are made up of neuroanatomies and neurochemistries that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species.  This suggests that these systems evolved a very long time ago and that at a basic emotional and motivational level, all mammals are more similar than they are different.  Deep in the ancient affective recesses of our brains, we remain evolutionarily kin.

If you are an astute student of the Blank Slate phenomenon, dear reader, no doubt you are already aware of the heretical nature of this passage.  That’s right!  The Blank Slaters were prone to instantly condemn any suggestion that there were similarities between humans and other animals as “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, if you read the book you will find that their reaction to Panksepp and others doing similar research has been every bit as allergic as their reaction to anyone suggesting the existence of human nature.  However, in the field of animal behavior, they are anything but a quaint artifact of the past.  Diehard disciples of the behaviorist John B. Watson and his latter day follower B. F. Skinner, Blank Slaters of the first water, still haunt the halls of academia in significant numbers, and still control the message in any number of “scientific” journals.  There they have been following their usual “scholarly” pursuit of ignoring and/or vilifying anyone who dares to disagree with them ever since the heyday of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin.  In the process they have managed to suppress or distort a great deal of valuable research bearing directly on the wellsprings of human behavior.

We learn from the book that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been as damaging for other animals as it has been for us.  Among other things, it has served as the justification for indifference to or denial of the feelings and consciousness of animals.  The possibility that this attitude has contributed to some rather gross instances of animal abuse has been drawing increasing attention from those who are concerned about their welfare.  See for example, the website of Panksepp admirer Temple Grandin.  According to Panksepp & Bevin,

Another of Descartes’ big errors was the idea that animals are without consciousness, without experiences, because they lack the subtle nonmaterial stuff from which the human mind is made.  This notion lingers on today in the belief that animals do not think about nor even feel their emotional responses.

Many emotion researchers as well as neuroscience colleagues make a sharp distinction between affect and emotion, seeing emotion as purely behavioral and physiological responses that are devoid of affective experience.  They see emotional arousal as merely a set of physiological responses that include emotion-associated behaviors and a variety of visceral (hormonal/autonomic) responses, without actually experiencing anything – many researchers believe that other animals may not feel their emotional arousals.  We disagree.

Some justify this rather counter-intuitive belief by suggesting that it is impossible to really experience or be conscious of emotions (affects) without language.  Panksepp & Bevins’ response:

Words cannot describe the experience of seeing the color red to someone who is blind.  Words do not describe affects either.  One cannot explain what it feels like to be angry, frightened, lustful, tender, lonely, playful, or excited, except indirectly in metaphors.  Words are only labels for affective experiences that we have all had – primary affective experiences that we universally recognize.  But because they are hidden in our minds, arising from ancient prelinguistic capacities of our brains, we have found no way to talk about them coherently.

With such excuses, and the fact that they could not “see” feelings and emotions in their experiments with “reinforcement” and “conditioning,” the behaviorists concluded that the feelings of the animals they were using in their experiments didn’t matter.  It was outside the realm of “science.”  Again from the book,

Much as we admire the scientific finesses of these conditioning experiments, we part company with (Joseph) LeDoux and many of the others who conduct this kind of work when it comes to understanding what emotional feelings really are.  This is because they studiously ignore the feelings of their animals, and they often claim that the existence or nonexistence of the animals’ feelings is a nonscientific issue (although there are some signs of changing sentiments on these momentous issues).  In any event…, LeDoux has specifically endorsed the read-out theory – to the effect that affects are created by neocortical working-memory functions, uniquely expanded in human brains.  In other words, he see affects as a higher-order cognitive construct (perhaps only elaborated in humans), and thereby he envisions the striking FEAR responses of his animals to be purely physiological effects with no experiential consequences.

…And when we analyze the punishing properties of electrical stimulation here in animals, we get the strongest aversive responses imaginable at the lowest levels of brain stimulation, and humans experience the most fearful states of mind imaginable.  Such issues of affective experience should haunt fear-conditioners much more than they apparently do.

The evidence strongly indicates that there are primary-process emotional networks in the brain that help generate phenomenal affective experiences in all mammals, and perhaps in many other vertebrates and invertebrates.

It’s stunning, really.  Anyone who has ever owned a dog is aware of how similar their emotional responses can often be to those of humans, and how well they remember them.  Like humans, they are mammals.  Like humans, their brains include a cortex.  It would hardly be “parsimonious” to simply assume that humans represent some kind of a radical departure when it comes to the ability to experience and remember emotions, and that other animals lack this ability, in defiance of centuries of such “common sense” observations that they can.  All this mass of evidence apparently isn’t “scientific,” and therefore doesn’t count, because these latter day Blank Slaters can’t observe in their mazes and shock boxes what appears obvious to everyone else in the world.  “Anthropomorphism!”  From such profound reasoning we are apparently to conclude that pain in animals doesn’t matter.

Why the Blank Slate’s furious opposition to “anthropomorphism?”  In a sense, it’s actually an anachronism.  Recall that the fundamental dogma of the Blank Slate was the denial of human nature.  Obviously other mammals have a “nature.”  Clearly, the claim that dogs and cats must “learn” all their behavior from their “culture” was never going to fly.  Not so human beings.  Once upon a time the Blank Slaters claimed that everything in the human behavioral repertoire, with the possible exception of breathing, urinating, and defecating, was learned.  They even went so far as to include sex.  Even orgasms had to be “learned.”  It follows that the gulf between humans and animals had to be made as wide as possible.

Fast forward to about the year 2000.  As far as their denial of human nature was concerned, the Blank Slaters had lost control of the popular media.  To an increasing extent, they were also losing control of the message in academia.  Books and articles about innate human behavior began pouring from the presses, and people began speaking of human nature as a given.  The Blank Slaters had lost that battle.  The main reason for their “anthropomorphism” phobia had disappeared.  In the more sequestered field of “animal nature,” however, they could carry on as if nothing had happened without making laughing stocks of themselves.  No one was paying any attention except a few animal rights activists.  And carry on they did, with the same “scientific” methods they had used in the past.  Allow me to quote from Panksepp & Biven again to give you a taste of what I’m talking about:

It is noteworthy that Walter Hess, who first discovered the RAGE system in the cat brain in the mid-1930s (he won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949), using localized stimulation of the hypothalamus, was among the first to suggest that the behavior was “sham rage.”  He confessed, however, in writings published after his retirement (as noted in Chapter 2:  e.g., The Biology of Mind [1964]), that he had always believed that the animals actually experienced true anger.  He admitted to having shared sentiments he did not himself believe.  Why?  He simply did not want to have his work marginalized by the then-dominant behaviorists who had no tolerance for talk about emotional experiences.  As a result, we still do not know much about how the RAGE system interacts with other cognitive and affective systems of the brain.

In an earlier chapter on The Evolution of Affective Consciousness they added,

In his retirement he admitted regrets about having been too timid, not true to his convictions, to claim that his animals had indeed felt real anger.  He confessed that he did this because he feared that such talk would lead to attacks by the powerful American behaviorists, who might thereby also marginalize his more concrete scientific discoveries.  To a modest extent, he tried to rectify his “mistake” in his last book, The Biology of Mind, but this work had little influence.

So much for the “self-correcting” nature of science.  It is anything but that when poisoned by ideological dogmas.  Panksepp and Biven conclude,

But now, thankfully, in our enlightened age, the ban has been lifted.  Or has it?  In fact, after the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s, the behaviorist bias has largely been retained but more implicitly by most, and it is still the prevailing view among many who study animal behavior.  It seems the educated public is not aware of that fact.  We hope the present book will change that and expose this residue of behaviorist fundamentalism for what it is:  an anachronism that only makes sense to people who have been schooled within a particular tradition, not something that makes any intrinsic sense in itself!  It is currently still blocking a rich discourse concerning the psychological, especially the affective, functions of animal brains and human minds.

This passage is particularly interesting because it demonstrates, as can be seen from the passage about “the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s,” that the authors were perfectly well aware of the larger battle with the Blank Slate orthodoxy over human nature.  However, that rather opaque allusion is about as close as they came to referring to it in the book.  One can hardly blame them for deciding to fight one battle at a time.  There is one interesting connection that I will point out for the cognoscenti.  In Chapter 6, Beyond Instincts, they write,

The genetically ingrained emotional systems of the brain reflect ancestral memories – adaptive affective functions of such universal importance for survival that they were built into the brain, rather than having to be learned afresh by each generation of individuals.  These genetically ingrained memories (instincts) serve as a solid platform for further developments in the emergence of both learning and higher-order reflective consciousness.

Compare this with a passage from the work of the brilliant South African naturalist Eugene Marais, which appeared in his The Soul of the Ape, written well before his death in 1936, but only published in 1969:

…it would be convenient to speak of instinct as phyletic memory.  There are many analogies between memory and instinct, and although these may not extend to fundamentals, they are still of such a nature that the term phyletic memory will always convey a clear understanding of the most characteristic attributes of instinct.

As it happens, the very charming and insightful introduction to The Soul of the Ape when it was finally published in 1969 was written by none other than Robert Ardrey!  He had an uncanny ability to find and appreciate the significance of the work of brilliant but little-known researchers like Marais.

As for Panksepp, I can only apologize for taking so long to discover him.  If nothing else, his work and teachings reveal that this is no time for complacency.  True, the Blank Slaters have been staggered, but they haven’t been defeated quite yet.  They’ve merely abandoned the battlefield and retreated to what would seem to be their last citadel; the field of animal behavior.  Unfortunately there is no Robert Ardrey around to pitch them headlong out of that last refuge, but they face a different challenge now.  They can no longer pretend to hold the moral high ground.  Their denial that animals can experience and remember their emotions in the same way as humans leaves the door wide open for the abuse of animals, both inside and outside the laboratory.  It is to be hoped that more animal rights activists like Temple Grandin will start paying attention.  I may not agree with them about eating red meat, but the maltreatment of animals, justified by reference to a bogus ideological dogma, is something that can definitely excite my own RAGE emotions.  I will have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder with them in this fight.

On the Red Meat Morality Inversion

Dwight Furrow recently posted an article at 3 Quarks Daily entitled “In Defense of Eating Meat.”  His first paragraph reads,

There are many sound arguments for drastically cutting back on our consumption of meat—excessive meat consumption wastes resources, contributes to climate change, and has negative consequences for health. But there is no sound argument based on the rights of animals for avoiding meat entirely.

As far as the first sentence is concerned, I have no problem with rationally discussing the pros and cons of meat consumption as long as the emotional whims behind the reasons are laid on the table.  I certainly agree with the second sentence, for the same reason cited by Westermarck more than a century ago; there is no such thing as objective morality, and it is therefore not subject to truth claims.  Furrow “kind of” sees it that way, but not quite.  Indeed, the core of his argument is very revealing.  It exposes all the ambivalence of the modern moral philosopher who understands the evolutionary origins of morality, but can’t bear to accept the consequences of that truth.  It reads as follows:

Singer’s argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using “rights” talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.  The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings. Rights, then, are entitlements that determine what a right-holder may demand of others that we decide to honor in order to maintain the requisite level of social trust.

We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don’t eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals.

Lovers of boneless ribeye steaks may well wish to simply accept this as it stands.  Any port in a storm, right?  Unfortunately, I’m a bit more fastidious than that.  Before plunging ahead, however, a bit of background on the debate might be useful.  Perhaps the best known crusader against the consumption of red meat is Peter Singer.  His Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, published in 1975, has been, as Wiki puts it, “a formative influence on leaders of the modern animal liberation movement.”  His arguments are based on his conclusion that the particular flavor of utilitarianism he favored at the time constituted an objective guide for establishing the legitimacy of truth claims about the rights of animals.  As Furrow points out, the basic claim of the Utilitarians is that “only overall consequences matter in assessing the moral quality of an action.”  The most coherent statement of this philosophy was probably John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, published in 1863.  That was probably too early for the moral consequences of Darwin’s Origin, published in 1859, to sink in.  I seriously doubt that Mill himself would have been a Utilitarian if he had lived a century later.  He was too smart for that.  Mill explicitly denied any belief in objective morality, noting that mankind had been struggling to find such an objective standard since the time of Socrates.  In his words,

To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine. It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.

I think Mill would have grasped where the “standard not recognized” really came from if there had been time for the consequences of Darwin’s great theory to really dawn on him.  Not so Singer, who apparently either never read or never appreciated Mill’s own reservations about his moral philosophy when he wrote his book, and treated utilitarianism as some kind of a moral gold standard.

Which brings us back to Furrow’s counter-arguments.  Note in the above quote that he recognizes that morality is both subjective and an “evolutionary development.”  From that point, however, he wanders off into an intellectual swamp.  If morality is an evolutionary development, then it is quite out of the question that it arose, “…because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.”  Evolution is not driven by needs, nor does it serve any purpose.  Robert Ardrey put it very succinctly in his bon mot, “Birds do not fly because they have wings.  They have wings because they fly.”  According to Furrow, “The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation.”  No, evolution didn’t somehow create an “institution of morality” consisting of “a set of considerations.”  Rather, it resulted in a set of behavioral responses in the form of emotions and feelings.  In other words, it produced the “moral sense” whose existence was demonstrated by Francis Hutcheson a century and a half before Darwin.  These emotions and feelings have their analogs in other animals.  We can only “consider” what they might mean after we have experienced them.  Had we not experienced them to begin with there would be nothing to consider, and therefore no morality.  Morality is a fundamentally emotional behavioral phenomena, and not some cognitively distilled laundry list of legalistic prescriptions for developing trust so we can cooperate with each other.

Furrow goes on to claim that animals cannot have rights because our “flourishing” does not depend on trusting them.  However, that can only be true if it is also true that the “purpose” of morality and therefore the “goal” of evolution was to promote “human flourishing,” which is nonsense.  “Rights” are subjective emotional constructs that we commonly delude ourselves into perceiving as real things.  It follows that any metric of their objective legitimacy when applied to animals is entirely equivalent to their objective legitimacy when applied to humans; zero.

My own opinion on the eating of red meat is not based on any claim that I understand the “purpose” of moral emotions better than Singer.  Rather, it is based on the observation that morality exists because it has made our genetic survival more probable.  It therefore seems to me that interpreting our moral emotions in a way that makes our survival less likely is a characteristic of a dysfunctional biological unit.  In other words, it is what I call a morality inversion.  Establishing artificial moral taboos against the eating of red meat or any other food that might increase our chances of survival in the event that there’s not enough food to go around strikes me as just such a morality inversion.  It is based on the wildly improbable assumption that there will always be enough food to go around, in spite of the continuing increase of the human population, and in spite of the fact that such a state of affairs has often been more the exception rather than the rule throughout human history.  In other words, it amounts to turning morality against itself.

There is nothing objectively wrong about morality inversions.  It’s just that an aversion to them happens to be one of my personal whims.  I like the idea of my own continued genetic survival and the continued survival of the human race because it seems to me to be in harmony with the reasons we happen to exist to begin with.  As a result, I have a negative emotional response to moral systems that accomplish the opposite.  In other words, according to my cognitive interpretation of my own subjective moral emotions, eating red meat is “good,” and morally induced vegetarianism is “evil.”  As I said, it’s just a whim, but I see no reason why my whims should take a back seat to anyone else’s, and that’s all Singer’s infinitesimally elaborated version of utilitarianism really amounts to.  Indeed, I’m encouraged by the hope that there are others who also place a certain value on survival, and therefore share my whims.  I note in passing that they by no means coincide with the notion of “human flourishing” that currently prevails in the academy.


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.