What is the Proper Sphere of Morality?

I have often discussed what the proper sphere of morality is not.  My conclusions are based on the conclusion that morality depends ultimately for its existence on mental traits that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they resulted in increased fitness in the context of those times.  If that conclusion is true, then it follows that attempts to apply morality to entities that didn’t exist in those times, such as modern nation states, are irrational.  Given the nature of moral emotions, they are also predictable, but that is beside the point.

What, then, is the proper sphere of morality?  We certainly can’t dispense with it entirely, any more than a zebra can dispense with its stripes.  We are moral creatures because that is how we evolved.  It is our nature to experience moral emotions, and it is natural for our actions to be influenced by moral sentiments.  There is, indeed, no alternative to morality in regulating our routine, day to day interactions with other human beings.  We lack the mental capacity to logically analyze all those interactions in real time and arrive at well-reasoned decisions to regulate our own behavior, according to some complex algorithm, like so many biological supercomputers.  The proper sphere of morality is, then, that in which it cannot be dispensed with; our routine interactions with other human beings as individuals or small groups.

As we know from observing its manifestations in diverse human societies, moral behavior is not uniform, but can vary greatly under the influence of culture and education, even though the same evolved traits, or at least similar evolved traits, are the ultimate cause of all these variations.  I suggest, then, that, within the constraints imposed by our nature, moral rules be kept as simple as possible and, to the extent possible, serve to promote harmony and eliminate friction in our societies.

And what of the interactions of nations, political parties, super-national organizations, and other modern social entities to which morality is irrelevant because it evolved at a time when nothing like them existed?  We should seek to apply our powers of reason to regulate their actions and interactions in the pursuit of rationally arrived at and generally agreed on goals.  I know, human reason is a weak reed to lean on, and keeping morality out of such spheres will always be difficult because it is not “natural” for us to ignore and/or suppress our moral emotions.  However, if our history teaches us anything at all, it should be that there are consequences to the irrational application of morality in spheres irrelevant to its reasons for existence, and those consequences can be not just harmful, but devastating.  Consider the history of the 20th century, for example.  Communism and Nazism were no less moral and ethical systems because few people today would consider them “good.”  The “good” systems of tomorrow may well become the Nazism and Communism of the day after tomorrow.  Moral emotions have always been far more effective than dispassionate reason at justifying mass murder.  “Good” always implies an “evil” to go along with it, and we will never succeed in distilling it out of any future moral system, no matter how “enlightened.”  Millions of Jews and “bourgeoisie” were murdered in the name of fighting “evil.”  New outgroups will inevitably take their place in the moral systems of the future.

Let’s not go there again.  If we at least try to let reason be our guide, at best we stand a fighting chance of avoiding future Holocausts and the World Wars of the 20th century, only fought this time with massive arsenals of nuclear weapons.  At worst, we may at least avoid the inconvenience of having to take all manner of self-righteous posing and ostentations virtuous indignation seriously.

Morality and the John Stuart Mill Syndrome

John Stuart Mill recognized the subjective nature of morality, contrasting his own opinion with those who believed that good and evil were objective “things in themselves.” As he put it,

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

In spite of this, one constantly runs into artifacts of the implicit assumption that morality really does correspond to an object, a real thing. Consider, for example, the following excerpt concerning the basis of right and wrong:

A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it. The difficulty is not avoided by having recourse to the popular theory of a natural faculty, a sense of instinct, informing us of right and wrong. For – besides that the existence of such a moral instinct is itself one of the matters in dispute – those believers in it who have any pretensions to philosophy, have been obliged to abandon the idea that it discerns what is right or wrong in the particular case in hand, as our other senses discern the sight or sound actually present. Our moral faculty, according to those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not the perception of it in the concrete.

The implication here is, of course, that there actually is something concrete to find.  Weight is added to that impression by the following passage, in which, after noting the failure of philosophers to discover a universal morality in spite of more than 2000 years of effort, Mill suggests that whatever consistency we have finally attained on the subject is due to a “standard not recognized.”

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.

To the extent that such a standard exists, and is not due to innate human nature, it must be an objective thing it itself.  Mill was a brilliant man.  He had, however, the great misfortune of writing before the theories of Darwin could inform his work.  He was not a “Blank Slater” in the 20th century sense of the term, that is, an ideologue who insisted that he could not be wrong about innate human nature, and that anyone who maintained the contrary was morally or politically suspect.  He was aware he might be wrong about the matter, and admitted as much.

But I digress.  The point of this post is that, in spite of admitting the subjective nature of moral systems, Mill believed that, once the rational basis for the “utility” of his system of utilitarianism, or, as he put it, “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” had been accepted, It would somehow also acquire legitimacy.  In other words, it would become a valid basis for judging the actions, not just of himself and those who agreed with him, but everyone else, as well.  In short, it would become an objective thing.

We have learned a lot since then.  “Innate human nature” is now accepted as if there had never been any dispute about the matter, and, if the works of the likes of Jonathan Haidt, Frans de Waal, and Richard Wrangham are any guide, the ultimate reasons for the existence of morality are to be found in that nature.  As Mill would have agreed, it is entirely subjective.  It seems abundantly obvious that, given its nature and origins, morality cannot possibly acquire anything like universal legitimacy.  That, however, is a truth that our modern experts in ethics have found too hard to bear.  In a sense, it puts them out of business.  What good is their expertise if there is no universal standard to discover?  What becomes of the delicious joy of virtuous indignation and the divine pleasure of moral outrage once the absolute standard those joys depend on evaporates?

For example, consider an essay penned by Michael Price, a professor of psychology, in “From Darwin to Eternity,” a blog he writes for Psychology Today.  Entitled “Morality:  What is it Good for?,” the article makes all the requisite nods to human nature.  For example,

Human moral systems are ultimately biological:  they are generated by brains, and brains are composed of mechanisms that evolve by standard Darwinian natural selection.  Like all biological adaptations (such as hearts, uteruses, and hands), these mechanisms solve problems related to individual survival and reproduction.  The moral judgments of individuals can generally be regarded as the primary products, or else as the by-products, of these mechanisms.

and, fending off in advance the charge of genetic determinism beloved of the old Blank Slaters,

Some psychological adaptations for morally-relevant behavior solve problems that exist in virtually all human environments (for instance, the problem of avoiding inbreeding).  Others are solutions to problems that are more severe in some environments than others, and this is a major reason why – despite the fact that human nature is fundamentally the same cross-culturally – some aspects of moral systems vary significantly across cultures.  For example, in environments in which access to resources depends especially heavily on success in war – such as among the tribal communities of highland New Guinea, or the fiefdoms of medieval Europe – people are relatively likely to endorse military virtues like fierceness and valor and to disparage cowardice.

Prof. Price concludes with some reflections on what he calls “cultural group selection”:

Historically, groups with relatively empowering moral systems have tended to supplant groups with relatively enfeebling moral systems, and also to be imitated by weaker groups who wish to emulate their success.  Through these processes, winning moral formulas have tended to spread at the expense of losing ones.  From this perspective, the crucible of intergroup competition plays a key role in determining which moral systems flourish and which ones perish.  This view does not necessarily imply anything cynical about morality:  there’s no reason at all from biology that this competition must be violent (and indeed, Pinker argues persuasively in his recent book (The Better Angels of our Nature) that it has become much less violent over time), and nonviolent, productive competition can lead to a rising tide of benefits for humanity in general.

“Benefits for humanity?”  Where have we heard that before?  You guessed it.  In the end it’s not about gaining a rational understanding of human moral emotions and accommodating them as best we can in a rapidly changing world.  It’s about inventing a better mousetrap:

What this view does imply is that morality ought to be less about passionate expressions of outrage, and more about designing a value system that will enable societal success in a constantly changing and eternally competitive world.

And so, after all these assurances about the subjective nature of morality as a consequence of the evolved mental characteristics of a certain biological species with large brains, the Good Object begins to emerge from the shadows once again, hazy but palpable.  From its admittedly humble origins as an odd collection of behavioral traits that happened to contribute to the fitness of ancient groups of hunter gatherers, an infant “value system” emerges, a Thing that, if it survives to adulthood, will seek to acquire legitimacy by “enabling societal success” along the way.  In a word, we’ve come full circle, back to John Stuart Mill.  Undeterred by the dubious success of innovative “value systems” like Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, we merely need to persevere.  With luck, we’ll cobble together an entirely new one that will finally “enable societal success” without the creation of another luckless outgroup like the Jews or the bourgeoisie along the way, and with none of the other traditional unfortunate side effects that have inevitably accompanied mankind’s previous efforts to apply morality to modern societies.  No thanks.  We’ve been down that path before.

I don’t mean to pick on Professor Price.  What public intellectual doesn’t share his penchant for concocting gaudy new moralities that will usher in a Brave New World of “human flourishing?”  We find even the new atheists ostentatiously striking pious poses and raining down indignant anathemas on the morally suspect.  Nothing is harder to shake off and leave behind than the odor of sanctity.  I suspect, however, that we must if we ever really want to flourish.

Evolutionary Psychology as a Tool of the Progressive Left

Great shades of the is-ought divide!  Once upon a time, the “progressive Left” considered the mere belief that such a thing as human nature exists a sure sign of a weakness for fascism, racism, and right wing moral turpitude in general.  Now, if we are to believe Dennis Prager at National Review Online, the world has been stood on its head.  In an essay entitled “Science Demands Big Government,” he claims to have discovered, based on an opinion piece in the New York Times by Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, that,

…something held to be indisputably scientific — evolution — is offered as the Left’s explanation for virtually everything.

As I’ve pointed out before, there has been a paradigm shift touching on the matter of human nature and the evolutionary origin of human behavioral traits.  Not long ago one could reliably expect an allergic reaction from the Left the moment the subject was raised.    While the shift is far from complete, that’s no longer the case.    To date, at least, no confirmed leftists have been observed dousing E. O. Wilson with water on account of his latest book, as they did after he published Sociobiology, albeit it certainly left some readers with indigestion.  Be that as it may, practitioners in the field are still constantly harassed by leftists, and for the same reasons that prevailed during the heyday of the Blank Slate.  It seems to them that any suggestion that there might be a biological basis to human behavior is a direct assault on their ideological sacred cows.  Copious examples, including this latest one, may be found on the blog of the journal Evolutionary Psychology.  In this case, blogger Robert Kurzban addresses the hoary accusation by John Horgan, who blogs for Scientific American, that evolutionary psychology is equivalent to “social Darwinism,” pointing out for the umpteenth time that the goal of evolutionary psychology is to discover that which “is”, not that which “ought” to be.  As Kurzban recalled, Horgan had earlier leveled a similar accusation at participants in the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) in Santa Barbara as long ago as 1995, in an essay entitled The New Social Darwinists. Referring back to that earlier piece, Kurzban writes,

Probably the most obviously incorrect aspect of the piece is the title, “The New Social Darwinists.” Social Darwinism is, of course, a political ideology, a set of ideas about values, or political oughts; HBES is, of course, a scientific society, and presenters at the conferences were making positive claims, about what is. Interestingly, in the body of the piece, Horgan explicitly acknowledges the is/ought barrier, writing of the attendees that “[m]ost shun the naturalistic fallacy, the conflation of what is with what should and must be.” His choice of title might, one could generously suppose, be intended as a play on words of some kind.

If Prager will read Horgan’s latest, he will see that the accusations therein are a mirror image of his own.  Just as Prager accuses evolutionary psychologists of manipulating science to condone the nanny state, a bête noire of the Right, Horgan accuses it of condoning warfare, a bête noire of the Left.   While Prager probably doesn’t realize it, the attacks from the Left have been coming for decades.  It hardly seems fair that evolutionary psychology should now be attacked from the right as well.  For example, again quoting Prager’s essay,

Evolution explains love, altruism, morality, economic behavior, God, religion, intelligence. Indeed, it explains everything but music. For some reason, the evolutionists have not come up with an evolution-based explanation for why human beings react so powerfully to music. But surely they will.

Now, along comes Professor Lieberman not merely to use evolution to explain human behavior, but to justify coercive left-wing social policy.

In other words, not only is the Left progressive when it coerces citizens to act in ways the Left deems appropriate, science itself — through evolution — inexorably leads to government coercion on behalf of such policies.

Alas, dear reader, there is actually is some truth in what Mr. Prager says.  Little does he know that what he calls the progressive Left once worked itself into a fine fit of virtuous indignation and hurled down anathemas on the very same science with a fury no less imposing than his own.  Of late, however, a good many of them have finally stopped kicking against the goad.  In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” they are now busily engaged in cobbling their ideological “oughts” onto the “is” of evolved human behavioral traits.  Read through Professor Lieberman’s opinion piece, for example, and you’ll find enough “oughts” to put a religious tract to shame.

In hopes of mollifying Mr. Prager, I can only point out once again that the science of human nature has been sufficiently beaten up by the left over the last several decades, and doesn’t need any more brickbats from the right.  If he doubts it, I suggest he consult books like Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, or Not in our Genes, by Richard Lewontin.  Beyond that, there are a good many honest practitioners in the field who are well aware of the difference between “is” and “ought,” and are more interested in uncovering the truth than in scoring ideological points.  As we learned from the Blank Slate episode, the Left is perfectly capable of inventing comfortable fantasies to replace those truths, no matter how obvious, if they happen to be ideologically inconvenient.  One must hope that the Right doesn’t prove just as adept at doing the same thing.

Evolution and the Morality Gurus

Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause of human morality.  We perceive the world in terms of good and evil, not because good and evil are real things that exist on their own, independent of human minds, but because it is our nature to do so.  This means, among other things, that a legitimate basis for declaring some things good and others evil, a holy grail of philosophers for millennia, doesn’t exist.

This truth is particularly inconvenient for the legions of “experts” in ethics and morality of a secular bent.  Their whole trade is based on the assumption, whether implicit or explicit, of objective good and evil.  If there is no legitimate reason to claim that what they consider good is not just their own subjective opinion or intuition, but applies to others as well as themselves, their entire basis for claiming superior knowledge and authority in such matters evaporates.  So much is obvious to their religious brethren, who base their own claims to authority on the existence of imaginary super beings.  In such matters, at least, they are a great deal more clear headed than the unbelievers.  They immediately recognize that, when their super being is lacking, the legitimacy of moral claims disappears with it.

In fact, so much was obvious enough a few years after Darwin published his famous theory.  Given what we have learned in the last couple of decades about the relationship of moral emotions to processes in the brain, the existence of similar behavior  in other animals, and the revelations of Haidt and others about the manner in which moral judgments are actually made, it would seem there is no basis for any lingering doubts on the matter.  Of course, human beings have always been good at ignoring such truths if their profession or their ideology requires it, and the ethics “experts” have been no more behind hand about it than the corner chiropractor.

To illustrate how this works in practice, let us consider an essay composed by one of the expert tribe entitled Did Morality Evolve?  I don’t mean to pick on its author, Steve Steward-Williams, in particular, but he happens to describe himself as a lecturer in evolutionary psychology, which makes his conclusions that much more remarkable.  As such, he cannot well deny the evolved component of morality, noting, for example,

…there’s little doubt that evolutionary theory can shed light on the origins of some of the behaviours that fall within the rubric of morality, including altruism, empathy, and our characteristic attitudes about certain kinds of sexual behaviour.

This, however, is immediately following by,

On the other hand, the morality-as-adaptation hypothesis faces some serious challenges. If morality were a direct product of evolution, why would people constantly argue about what’s right and wrong? Why would we spend so much time teaching our children to be good, and inculcating in them virtues such as generosity? Why would we experience inner conflict between what we think is morally right and what we really want to do?

Cutting to the chase, Steward-Williams informs us that he has no “snappy answers” to these questions, concluding that,

…morality is not a direct product of evolution. Instead, and to some extent, it is a humanmade system of favouring those evolved tendencies that facilitate group cohesion, while disfavouring those that are socially divisive. Morality is a way of controlling our evolved natures, rather than a mere reflection of those natures.

One might call this a statement of the “reformed” version of the Blank Slate.  According to this version, there is, after all, such a thing as human nature, and it even influences morality, but it doesn’t matter, because there is another, “good” morality which serves to “control our evolved natures.”  Presumably our “evolved natures” include the “bad” morality.  Unstated but implicit in all this is the assumption that an objective good exists, and that it is associated with something like what Sam Harris might call “human flourishing.”  Voila! The role of the “expert” is restored.  It is to uncover the details of this unevolved morality for the rest of us so that we can “control” our evolved natures so as to serve the legitimate and true “Good.”

Steward-Williams’ “proofs” that some aspects of morality are not evolved are of the flimsiest.  For example, morality can’t be directly evolved “because people constantly argue about what’s right and wrong.”  This is a revised version of the “genetic determinist” argument of the Blank Slaters, according to which “human nature” could only consist of traits as rigidly programmed as the instincts of a bird building its nest, or a spider spinning its web.  Morality can’t be directly evolved, “because we spend so much time teaching our children to be good.”  More of the same, archaic, nature versus nurture stuff.  Morality can’t be directly evolved, because if it were we wouldn’t “experience inner conflict between what we think is morally right and what we really want to do.”  Really?  Why?  What, exactly, is it about evolved traits associated with moral behavior that requires that they immediately be completely self-consistent and in accord with all our other appetites, as perfect as Athena stepping forth from the brow of Zeus?

Why do I have a problem with these self-declared experts who are busily cobbling away on the details of future “other, unevolved” moralities?  After all, I’m tolerant enough of the corner chiropractor, and times are hard.  Well, as it happens, we’ve already tried the manipulation of morality on numerous previous occasions in order to, as Steward-Williams puts it, favor “those evolved tendencies that facilitate group cohesion, while disfavouring those that are socially divisive,” often with disastrous results.  Every morality implies an out-group.  To cite a couple of recent examples of the manipulation of morality, Communism “facilitated group cohesion” by murdering 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take.  Nazism “facilitated group cohesion” by murdering six million Jews.

I have a better idea.  It’s basically an adaptation of the old, “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” philosophy.  Let’s stop inventing new moralities.  Instead, let’s promote a thorough understanding of the behavioral traits that are the basis and precondition for the existence of them all.  Armed with that understanding, we might stand a chance of controlling our more destructive tendencies by relying on reason instead of novel and more perfect pieties.  It seems to me we’ve suffered from the strutting and posing of the pathologically pious long enough.

The Ethics of Individual Eugenics

Ross Douthat just published an opinion column for the New York Times entitled Eugenics, Past and Future, about the ever increasing control of individuals over the genetic makeup of their offspring.  After the obligatory brickbats thrown at the old eugenicists of the 20’s and 30’s, he maintains that what he calls “ethics” should be applied to decide whether such individual level eugenics is desirable or not.  Here are the last four paragraphs of his essay:

Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.

From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.

But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.

First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

In a word, Douthat believes that morality should be used to decide whether parents can exercise control over the genes of their offspring or not.  I would argue that morality has nothing to do with it.

Debates like this illustrate the fact that, while our understanding of what morality is, and why it exists, has been expanding by leaps and bounds, we have as yet been unable to come to grips with the implications of that understanding.  We are still too mesmerized by the illusion of the Good as object, as a thing-in-itself.  In spite of the fact that there are a myriad of other Goods, quite different from our own, we cling to the comforting fantasy that we perceive the “real” Good, the “true” Good.  It stands to reason.  That’s the way evolution has programmed us, presumably because those individuals unfortunate enough not to perceive the Good in that way did not survive.

Morality exists because it evolved.  Culture and environment have a profound influence on how and what we perceive as good and evil, but those perceptions would not exist at all failing the existence of the innate behavioral traits that are their ultimate cause.  Those traits promoted our survival at times and places utterly unlike the present, and I see no basis for assuming that they will continue to promote our survival in the modern world, nor do I see any basis for the supposition that they would be relevant in any way to decisions about whether or not to act in ways that were impossible at the time they evolved.  Specifically,  morality is not relevant to parent’s decisions about the genetic makeup of their children.

Assuming I am right about what morality actually is, there is no objective basis for moral decisions.  Philosophers throughout the ages have sought such a basis, but never found one.  How, then, are moral decisions made regarding issues such as the one raised by Mr. Douthat?  His last paragraph perfectly illustrates the method.  By striking virtuous poses and shaming and shouting down the opposition.  Whoever shouts the loudest and shames the best wins.  If Mr. Douthat can successfully manipulate human moral emotions so as to evoke a subjective feeling of moral approval for his contentions that parents who seek to control the genetic inheritance of their offspring really are seeking a mindless and illegitimate form of “mastery and control,” and that they are usurping unwarranted control over the “marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn,” and have a flawed belief in their own righteousness, then he wins.  If his opponents can shout louder, strike more convincing poses, and manipulate more effectively, they win.  Read the comments following the essay and you’ll see the process unfolding before your eyes, complete with extravagant and bombastic poses and the shouting down of anathemas on the morally flawed.

And what is my opinion concerning the “should” of this matter.  Alas, my “should” can have no sturdier basis than my own, personal whim.  My whim is to survive.  It seems to me that parents are the best judges of whether their offspring are likely to survive or not, and should be allowed as much latitude as possible in insuring their survival, including by consciously endowing them with the genes most likely to insure their survival.  As for the state, I suspect the old eugenicists had at least some excuse for giving it such a large role.  Many of the intellectuals of the 20’s and 30’s believed in the perfectibility of the state.  They had not yet been disillusioned by the reality of the fascist and Communist versions of totalitarianism.  We should be sufficiently aware by now that the state is far too liable to prefer its own interests over those of individual citizens to ever again entrust it with such power.

On the Role and Legitimacy of Morality

No human being is obligated to conform to someone else’s conception of the Good.  Moral rules are expression of the subjective judgments of individuals.  As such, they can never acquire objective legitimacy.  It follows from this that virtuous indignation and moral outrage can never be objectively justified.  They exist, not as rational responses to the breaking of objectively legitimate rules, but as subjective behavioral traits that are usually irritating and occasionally dangerous to others.

Does the above imply that we should not behave morally in our day to day interactions with other human beings?  Of course not!  There is no other plausible way to regulate those interactions so as to minimize conflict and maximize mutual benefit.  We are certainly not intelligent enough to accomplish the same thing in real time using our meager powers of reason.  Imagine the tedium of a conversation in which each party had to carefully reason about the potential outcome and impact of every word he spoke.  It is to the advantage of all, or at least most of us, that moral rules exist, and that their violation be punished or otherwise prevented.  It is, however, reasonable to insist that those rules conform to human nature, be as simple and efficient as possible, and not be motivated by the claims of any religion, whether spiritual or secular.

More on E. O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth”: Let the Kerfluffles Begin!

Group selection isn’t the only hornet’s nest E. O. Wilson poked a stick into in his latest book. The interstellar travel fans at the Tau Zero Foundation are bound to take exception to this:

The same cosmic myopia exists today a fortiori in the dreams of colonizing other star systems. It is an expecially dangerous delusion if we see emigration into space as a solution to be taken when we have used up this planet.

and,

Another principle that I believe can be justified by scientific evidence so far is that nobody is going to emigrate from this planet, not ever.

In my humble opinion, Wilson is wrong about interstellar travel.  I hereby predict that we will colonize planets in other star systems.  Our survival depends on it, and our species has a strong inclination to survive.  I suspect his opinion is motivated less by a sober assessment of the technological possibility of interstellar travel than by ideological concerns about the environment.  For example,

Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.  The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principle cause, is now overwhelming.

I suspect a certain rather irascible Czech physicist may take exception to that comment.  In any case, while I admit to having a personal preference that the planet not be destroyed, but I would certainly not presume to elevate such idiosyncratic whims to the level of a “moral precept.”  Here, like so many other modern thinkers who should know better, Wilson is treating moral precepts as objective things.  In this case, he is suggesting that not destroying the planet can be legitimized as a “good-in-itself” by virtue of everyone agreeing on it.  Otherwise, his comment becomes pointless.  He probably wouldn’t agree, because he writes elsewhere,

There is a principle to be learned by studying the biological origins of moral reasoning… If such greater understanding amounts to the “moral relativism so fervently despised by the doctrinally righteous, so be it.

I can certainly sympathize with Wilson’s aversion to the doctrinally righteous or, as I would call them, the pathologically pious.  However, virtually in the same breath, he falls back into the same old fallacy, writing,

It is that outside the clearest ethical precepts, such as the condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide, which all will agree should be opposed everywhere without exception, there is a larger gray domain inherently difficult to navigate.

Here we have the familiar “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” justification of the legitimacy of moral precepts.  Wilson’s comment begs the question of what qualitative difference exists between “clear ethical precepts,” and all the rest that lie in the gray area.  If, as he asserts, the origins of moral reasoning are biological or, in a word, evolved, in what way is it at all reasonable to claim that condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide can have an objective existence as ethical precepts at all?  Presumably, the thought that there even was such a thing as “genocide” never occurred to those of our forebears among whom the “biological origins of moral reasoning” evolved.   Wilson’s implicit acceptance of an objective morality is evident elsewhere in the book.  For example,

For scientific as well as for moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake insted of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.

On what, exactly, are we to base the legitimacy of these “moral reasons”?  In what sense was the “promotion of human biological diversity” relevant to the australopithecines?  Wilson has some other comments on the origin of moral precepts that are bound to make the detractors of group selection see red, such as,

An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.

At the risk of committing lèse-majesté, I must admit that I find such sweeping generalizations somewhat over the top.  Turning to less controversial subjects, Wilson mentions the concept of a superorganism in several places, such as,

The queen and her offspring are often called superorganisms…

This circumstance lends credence to the view that the colony can be viewed as an individual organism or, more precisely, an individual superorganism.

and,

In this sense, I have argued, the primitive colony is a superorganism.

It would have been nice if Wilson had mentioned the great South African, Eugene Marais, who first proposed the idea of a superorganism in the context of his studies of termites, in the course of these discussions.  Readers of today will find some remarkably modern insights in books such as The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape.  To say Marais was ahead of his time is an understatement.

In any case, I hope all the controversy Wilson’s latest is bound to inspire won’t have the unfortunate effect of toppling him from his exalted state as the “father of evolutionary psychology.”  The field has enough unpersons as it is.  Regardless, some rewriting of textbooks will likely be in order.  For example, in David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology he refers to the “bulk of the theoretical tools” in Wilson’s Sociobiology as “inclusive fitness theory, parental investment theory, parent-offspring conflict theory, and reciprocal altuism theory.”  Might it not, perhaps, be best, to avoid “confusing” young undergraduates, to just let Wilson’s group selection faux pas pass in silence?  If not, and his head must indeed roll, I hereby nominate Charles Darwin as the new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  At least he will be a safe choice.

Sex and War by Potts and Hayden: The Amity/Enmity Complex Revisited

Sex and War by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden is the icon of a paradigm shift. Perhaps better than any other recent work, it marks academia’s final abandonment of the Blank Slate, final tossing away of ideological blinders, final acceptance of the abundantly obvious fact that we are predisposed to act in some ways but not in others by our genes, acceptance of the equally obvious fact that these predispositions are not all rosy and benign, but have been a major contributing factor to our species’ long history of warfare and violence, and recognition, at long last, that there are such things and ingroups and outgroups, and our behavior towards individuals is profoundly different, depending on whether they appear to us to belong to the one or the other. In the author’s words,

We suggest that the predisposition to form aggressive coalitions is so deep-seated within us that all humanity is compelled to live by two profoundly contradictory moral systems. We have the morals of the troop, expressed by “Thou shalt not kill,” and the morals of the aggressive male coalition, also explicitly spelled out in the Old Testament, “And when the Lord they God has delivered (a city) into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword… Whether we want to or not, we all distinguish between our ingroup and various outgroups.

This pretentious “suggestion,” of course, amounts to nothing more than a belated acceptance by the authors that writers who said the same thing decades ago were right after all. For example, from Sir Arthur Keith, writing in the 1930’s,

Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.

Somewhat later, Robert Ardrey wrote about the same behavioral traits a great deal more clearly, in a much pleasanter style, and with a much better grasp of their implications for the future of our species. He referred to them as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and devoted a chapter with that title to the subject in The Territorial Imperative. Of course, Ardrey was a mere playwright who, lacking the academic gravitas of such worthies as Potts and Hayden, “rose above his station” in insisting on such a palpably obvious aspect of our nature at a time when the orthodox in anthropology were still bedazzled by the Blank Slate. As readers of this blog are aware, his reward for such pretentiousness has been the gross distortion of his legacy and consignment to oblivion. And as for Keith, comically enough, the authors actually do mention him, but in a context that has nothing to do with his writings on ingroup/outgroup behavior. Apparently they were loath to be upstaged. But I digress.

Actually, one should cheer on reading a book like this. It represents the victory of an obvious truth over the quasi-religious dogmas posing as “science” that prevailed for decades in the behavioral sciences, according to which human nature was either nonexistent or insignificant. Alas, I could only sigh. It’s a bittersweet book for anyone who’s actually been paying attention to what’s been happening in the field now referred to as evolutionary psychology for the last 50 years. Fifteen years ago, Potts and Hayden would have been almost universally vilified as fascists and demons of the right for publishing such a book, just as Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz and E.O. Wilson were in their day. Now, instead of chanting “four legs good, two legs bad,” the academic sheep are chanting “four legs good, two legs better,” just like in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Ironically, Potts and Hayden belong to the very milieu of the academic left that would have been foremost in hurling down righteous anathemas on their heads 15 years ago. Apparently all unawares, they still live in the ideological box of that most obscurantist and dogmatic of ingroups. It’s delicious, really. They give a perfect description their own ingroup in the book without even realizing it.

Allow me to illustrate with a few quotations from the book. Of course, every good ingroup must have its outgroup or, in the vernacular, bad guys. For Potts and Hayden, these are the usual stock villains of the academic left; conservative Republicans, Israel, evangelical Christians, evil white people against pure and innocent Indians, etc. For example,

On May 26, 1637, during the war with the Pequot Indians in New England Connecticut Colony, a Puritan army commanded by John Mason surrounded a small wooden fort in which “six or seven hundred” Pequot Indians were sheltering. Mason ordered the wooden palisade surrounding the fort set on fire. Only seven Indians escaped alive.

This bit of “history,” in all likelihood unbeknownst to Professors Potts and Hayden, is such a vicious and outrageous lie that it’s worth addressing it at length. From a work entitled “History of the Indian Wars,” published in 1846 by Henry Trumble, who was anything but an inveterate hater of Indians, we read,

In June, 1634, they (the Pequots) treacherously murdered Capt. Stone and Capt. Norton, who had been long in the habit of visiting them occasionally to trade. In August, 1635, they inhumanly murdered a Mr. Weeks and his whole family, consisting of a wife and six children, and soon after murdered the wife and children of a Mr. Williams, residing near Hartford.

In spite of many such outrages, the colonists signed a treaty of peace with the Pequots. Trumbull continues,

Soon after the conclusion of peace with the Pequots, the English, to put their fair promises to the test, sent a small boat into the river, on the borders of which they resided, with the pretence of trade; but so great was the treachery of the natives, that, after succeeding by fair promises in enticing the crew of the boat on shore, they were inhumanly murdered… A few families were at this time settled at or near Weathersfield, Ct. the whole of whom were carried away captives. Two girls, daughters of Mr. Gibbons of Hartford, were in the most brutal manner put to death. After gashing their flesh with their knives, the Indians filled their wounds with hot embers, in the mean time mimicking their dying groans.

The colonists had no illusion about their fate if they were defeated by the Pequots. As it was they could hardly hunt or cultivate their fields and were in danger of starvation. If they suffered a serious defeat they and their families would likely be butchered. The “army” Potts and Hayden referred to consisted of less than 100 men, the entire effective fighting force of the Connecticut colony. It was accompanied by several hundred Indian allies who, at the moment of crisis, stayed in the rear and watched as noncombatants. It did not surround the Pequot palisade and coolly set it on fire, an act that would have been impossible with such a tiny band facing an effective force of several hundred Indian warriors inside. Here is how Trumbull describes the action:

When within a few rods of (the palisade), Capt. Mason sent for Uncas and Wequash (leaders of the Indian allies), desiring them in their Indian manner to harangue and prepare their men for combat. They replied, that their men were much afraid, and could not be prevailed on to advance any farther. “Go then,” said Capt. Mason, “and request them not to retire, but to surround the fort at any distance they please, and see what courage Englishmen can display!” They day was now dawning, and no time was to be lost. The fort was soon in view. The soldiers pressed forward, animated by the reflection that it was not for themselves alone that they were to fight, but for their parents, wives, children, and countrymen! As they approached the fort within a short distance, they were discovered by a Pequot sentinel, who roared out, Owanux! Owanux! (Englishmen, Englishmen.) The troops pressed on, and as the Indians were rallying, poured in upon them the contents of their muskets, and instantly hastened to the principal entrance to the fort, rushed in, sword in hand. An important moment, this; for, notwithstanding the blaze and thunder of the fire-arms, the Pequots made a powerful resistance. Sheltered by their wigwams, and rallied by their sachems and squaws, they defended themselves, and, in some instances, attacked the English with a resolution that would have done honor to the Romans. After a bloody and desperate conflict of near two hours, in which hundreds of the Indians were slain, and many of the English killed and wounded, victory still hung in suspense. In this critical state of the action, Capt. Mason had recourse to a successful expedient. Rushing into a wigwam within the fort, he seized a brand of fire, and in the mean time crying out to his men, “We must burn them!” communicated it to the mats with which the wigwams were covered, by which means the whole fort was soon wrapt in flames. As the fire increased, the English retired and formed a circle around the fort. The Mohegans and Narragansets, who remained idle spectators to the bloody carnage, mustered courage sufficient to form another circle in the rear of them. The enemy were now in a deplorable situation. Death inevitably was their portion. Sallying forth from their burning cells, they were shot or cut in pieces by the English; many, perceiving it impossible to escape the vigilance of the troops, threw themselves into the flames.

So much for Potts’ and Hayden’s tall tale about the “army” that coolly burned the inoffensive Indians in cold blood. The little band of 90 men knew that if they failed on that day, nothing would protect their wives and children from the Pequots who had demonstrated their ruthlessness on many previous occasions. If the authors or anyone else know of any source material disputing Trumbull’s account, I hereby challenge them to bring it forward.

Forgive me for going on at such length, but I get really tired of the “noble savage” schtick. Moving right along to Israel and the Republicans, we find them, too, consigned to the outer darkness reserved for outgroups, far from the enlightened halls of the wise, the good, and the just inhabited by the author’s academic ingroup:

We cannot remind ourselves too often of the ubiquitous nature of our Stone Age behaviors. On the same day in 2006, President Bush announced he would veto a Senate Bill loosening restrictions on stem cell research and permit the export of bombs to Israel to use it its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, where collateral killing of civilians was certain. When I was a laboratory researcher, I needed a powerful microscope to even see a bunch of stem cells, and personally I would have been much less troubled by flushing stems cells down the sink than dropping a bomb on a house full of women and children. Yet our ingrained ability to dehumanize others is so strong, and our ability to “justify” war so facile, that intelligent and well-intentioned people spend more time worrying about embryos than children or adults – provided of course that those children and adults live somewhere else and are not part of out ingroup.

And so the good professors self-identify their own ingroup. I need hardly mention there’s another side to this story. Anyone worthy of the name of “scientist” should have been aware of the fact and mentioned it, whether they personally agree with it or not. Instead, Potts and Hayden are content to merely condemn their Republican and Israeli outgroups for “Stone Age behavior.” Here’s another example of “Stone Age behavior” that, coincidentally enough, once again relates to two other iconic “bad guys” of the ideological left, evangelical Christians and the military:

Michael Drosnin, who wrote The Bible Code, implying extraterrestrial forces embedded a secret code in the Bible only modern computers can unravel, was invited to brief “top military intelligence officials” in the Pentagon following 9/11. Whatever the original evolutionary benefit of blind faith in such patently ridiculous explanations of the world may have been, its application to modern international relations is clearly and wildly maladaptive.

This version of the Drosnin affair is more or less an urban myth, but it fits the narrative, so Potts and Hayden simply swallowed it, apparently without even bothering to do a little fact checking on Google. Apparently they found their version in the New York Times, which should have been an obvious tipoff as to its ideological provenance, but no doubt the Grey Lady is the soul of objectivity as far as the authors are concerned. The evangelical Christian outgroup comes in for a good deal more abuse, counter-intuitively, it would seem, as Muslims have been responsible for most of the deliberate religiously motivated mayhem against civilians. Remember, though, that we are in the realm of ideological narrative, not facts. For example, referring to the latest Gulf war,

Blair did not wear religion on his sleeve while in office, but Bush paraded his faith enthusiastically. His religious outlook resonated with many American fundamentalist Christians, whose contrived interpretations of the rambling Book of Revelation have sinister implications for war and violence. In one strain, a belief has emerged that the Temple of Solomon has to be rebuilt in Jerusalem in order for the Second Coming to take place – and that “keeping” Jerusalem Jewish is a necessary step on the way. Beyond being poor theology, this interpretation encourages foolish military action in order to hasten the coming of the end times, but still finds a receptive audience in the United States.

It struck me that this yarn about the sinister Christians lurking behind every bush in the United States had an unmistakable British ring to it, and, sure enough, Potts originally came from merry old England. If you’re interested in “comparative religion,” read Sex and War alongside Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, which is larded with lots of similar horror stories about the “American Taliban.” I think you’ll find the tone of the two books remarkably similar. As an American atheist, it seems to me our cousins from the old country have a marked tendency to lay it on a bit too thick when it comes to American Christian fundamentalism.

In short, what we have here is a chimera, a couple of professors who come from the same milieu from which the fiercest Blank Slaters used to emanate writing about ingroups and outgroups as if they were devoted disciples of Robert Ardrey, all ensconced in a thick, hoary crust of ante-deluvian leftist ideological shibboleths. One of the more interesting aspects of the book has to do with the relevance of its theme to moral behavior. Intellectually, the authors know, or at least pay lip service to the fact that there is no such thing as an objective, transcendental morality. For example,

Most people, however, still think of moral sentiments and religious convictions as transcendental things that come from outside of us, either reflecting some eternal truth, emanating from a supernatural power, or as instructions from a God who created us and who will reward or punish us according to how we restrain aggression or enhance empathy. History shows that this understanding of morality has not worked terribly well as a means to ending war. Our survival as a species will not depend on divine intervention but on understanding our Stone Age behaviors. Once we do that, controlling them should become an achievable goal.

And yet they simply cannot dispense with the cherished belief of all people who share the ideological box they dwell in that they represent the good, the true and the just, as opposed to members of the outgroups cited above who are slaves of the basest human behavioral predispositions. Of course, they cannot have a monopoly on truth and justice unless these things have an objective, transcendental existence of their own, so we have what Marx might have called a “contradiction.” As a result, a certain amount of doublethink is necessary. For example,

Before we look more closely at how we can rein in our warring impulses, we have first to understand the nature of what it is we are confronting. In English, we have one simple word that expresses it perfectly: evil.

In what sense does the term “evil” have any meaning if it has no objective existence? In fact the authors make it quite clear that, in their heart of hearts, they perceive morality as an objective thing-in-itself. It is not a product of evolution, but an entity having an independent existence of its own, often in conflict with evolution. For example,

…evolution is not only remorselessly amoral: it is also not nearly as efficient as we might like in pruning branches that come to bear toxic, destructive fruit.

Evolution doesn’t make morality obsolete, any more than being hungry excuses a violent mugging.

and,

Remember that evolution cares not a whit for morality, it has provided human males at the bottom of the social pile ample reason to risk everything, including violent death, rather than live a passive, sexless life without passing on their genes.

Such statements are complete gibberish, absent morality as a thing-in-itself. Evolution may not “care” about morality, but morality does not have any existence whatsoever other than as a subjective subset of the human behavioral repertoire which is itself a product of evolution. It has no independent existence other than as an evolved behavioral trait. When you say that evolution does not make morality obsolete, my dear professors, pray tell me what morality you are talking about.  Well, we can excuse this particular instance of doublethink.  After all, without virtuous indignation and a smug feeling of moral superiority, life would hold little joy for the average ideologue of the left.  Apparently the realization that they had just sawed off the limb that they and their moral superiority were sitting on was a bit much for Professors Potts and Hayden to bear.

In any case, the two find grounds for optimism. As they inform us,

Now we are finding ways to extend ingroup morality beyond national boundaries to embrace all humanity.

How, exactly, they plan to do that after roundly denouncing that vast bloc of humanity unfortunate enough to have landed in one of the familiar outgroups of the left is beyond me. Do they plan to invite them all to the University of California at Berkeley for a seminar on anger management? Perhaps they will be good enough to let us know in their next book.

No matter. We, too, can be optimistic, dear reader, for while Sex and War may be a tedious ideological tract, it is also one more data point confirming that we have finally landed safely on the far side of a paradigm shift. It and many other works of its kind emanating from the hoariest and most obscurantist caverns of academia serve as announcements that, yes, the Blank Slate really is stone, cold dead. We have finally gained acknowledgement that such a thing as human nature really does exist, and that is no small thing.

The Carnivores are Up to Bat!

The Grey Lady, sporting as ever, has called on carnivores the world over to explain “why it’s ethical to eat meat.”  The editors have even convened a panel of experts to judge the expected flood of entries, more or less similar in its makeup to the panel the Devil called together to hear Daniel Webster.  As my more astute readers will have gathered, the tacit premise of this contest is the existence of a legitimate, universal ethics object upon which the judging will presumably be based.  I am far too diffident to elevate my own particular genetically programmed inclinations to such an estate.  However, I encourage those readers who consider themselves the gold standard in such matters to have at it.  First prize is underwhelming – you get to be named and publicly shamed by the learned panel in the pages of the NYT – but you can at least win a set of knives if you post your entry here.