The Rich Really are Evil! Science Proves It!

The stuff you find in academic and professional journals runs the gamut. Sometimes it’s good science and sometimes it’s bad science. Occasionally, it’s abject drivel. A piece of the latter just turned up in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supposedly one of the nation’s elite scientific journals. Entitled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior, it claims, among other things, that “Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower class individuals,” and “Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.”  Unfortunately, only the abstract is available online.  PNAS is hiding the rest behind their copyright fence, but you can “rent” the article for a nominal fee at Deepdyve.

The title of the article gives a broad hint about the quality of the rest of the piece.  It simply assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist; an objective ethics.  The authors don’t refer to “our ethics,” or, as Marx might have put it, “proletarian ethics,” or “the ethics currently prevailing among professors at the University of California at Berkeley,” the source of the “studies.”  No, they simply make the bald assumption that Good and Evil exist as objective things.  Perhaps it will finally start to dawn on you, dear reader, why I am always harping about the nature of morality in this blog.  Among other things, understanding the distinction between subjective and objective “ethics” may prevent you from publicly making an ass of yourself in academic journals.

It is, of course, obvious that individuals of our species, like those of thousands of others, recognize differences in status, and that, in all these species, there are behavioral differences between high and low status individuals.  However, authors of articles documenting these differences in, for example, European jackdaws or hamadryas baboons, don’t commonly coach their readers to distinguish which of the animals are Good and which Evil.  Suppose, however, we ignore for the moment the author’s conflating of behavioral traits in Homo sapiens with their own subjective moral judgments, and consider the quality of the article aside from this rather glaring fault.

In one of the studies, the authors investigated whether upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection with stop signs on all sides.  They began by making the rather dubious assumption that “upper-class drivers” are identical with those who drive nice cars.  To “prove” this assumption, they refer to a “pop sci” book entitled Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy In An Era of Excess, written by Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell whose subjective moral predispositions, if we can judge by the reviewer comments at the Amazon link, are entirely similar to their own.  “Observers” stood near the intersection, “coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn.”  To add weight to the claim that such behavior is “unethical,” they helpfully note that, such behavior “defies the California Vehicle Code.”  Sure enough, “A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic, b = 0.36, SE b = 0.18, P < 0.05.”  I will not cavil at the fact that such observations were made.  After all, who would dare to doubt a binary logistic regression?  One can, however, question the bias of the observers.  What were their attitudes towards “high status individuals?”  Was any attempt made to determine whether they were more likely to conclude that nice cars had cut them off than clunkers in identical situations?  Do the authors give us any hint at all that they have ever heard of such a thing as a double blind procedure?  None of the above.

There are similar rather obvious faults in the rest of the seven studies.  One of them at least provides comic relief by measuring whether rich people are more likely (no kidding!) to steal candy from a baby, or, as the authors put it, “individually wrapped candies, ostensibly for children in a nearby laboratory.”  All of them contain statements such as, “Greed, in turn, is a robust determinant of unethical behavior,” “These results suggest that upper-class individuals are more likely to exhibit tendencies to act unethically compared with lower-class individuals,” “These results further suggest that more favorable attitudes toward greed among members of the upper class explain, in part, their unethical tendencies,” etc., with the implicit assumption that “ethics” is some objective, scientifically quantifiable thing-in-itself, hovering out there in the ether independent of the subjective judgments of mere mortals.

One wonders about the quality of peer review of stuff like this.  Far from any shred of intellectual honesty or scientific integrity, it appears the PNAS reviewers lacked even something as elementary as common sense.  Did it never occur to them to consider such obvious indicators of the association of social class with “unethical behavior” as the population of our prisons?  Presumably, most of the inmates have committed offenses even more serious than “defying the California Vehicle Code.”  What is the distribution of “rich” and “poor” among them?  Ah, but I forget!  All those people are in prison to begin with because of the exploitation and injustices of rich people!  We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?

Apart from the wretched nature of the “science” in these articles, one wonders whether the authors ever considered the results of similar jihads against “rich people” in the past.  They used to be called “bourgeoisie,” and mountains of similar “scientific studies” demonstrated that these “bourgeoisie” were also “unethical.”  Once all was said and done, 100 million of the “bourgeoisie” had been murdered to atone for their lack of ethics.  Do we really want to go there again?  To judge from these “studies,” a good number of us do.  It would certainly bring a smile to the faces of some of those earlier “scientists,” now no doubt ascended to that great Workers Paradise in the Sky.

On the Politics of Evolutionary Psychology

Robert Kurzban, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology.  Every few posts one finds him responding to some critic of the field.  For example, in a recent piece entitled Could Evolutionary Psychology’s Critics Pass Evolutionary Psychology’s Midterms? he writes,

Back in October of last year, Larry Moran wrote a critique of an article about domestic abuse, which I subsequently responded to, pointing out an error in Moran’s post. Moran later responded in turn on his blog, writing, in part:

“Robert Kurzban was upset by my critique of science journalism and evolutionary psychology [Evolutionary Psychology Crap in New Scientist]. You might recall that my criticism is based on many common features of evolutionary psychology but the most important are the unwarranted assumptions that: (1) a particular specific behavior has a strong genetic component. (2) that the behavior is adaptive, and (3) that we know how our ancestors behaved.”

Kurzban responds to this rather obvious stuff, stock and trade of the critics of the field since the antediluvian days, now lost in a fog of myths, before Sociology was more than a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, and before it even went by the name of Evolutionary Psychology, with the similarly obvious observation that it’s nonsense.  He goes on to describe how even beginning students of EP were able to demolish Moran’s claim about “unwarranted assumptions” in a midterm exam, and concludes with the observation,

The broader point is that Moran is only one instance of a larger phenomenon, and critics of evolutionary psychology frequently demonstrate innocence of the field’s basic assumptions and theoretical commitments. As I’ve said in the past, an interesting question is why critics feel comfortable voicing such strong objections to the field, given their lack of background, even to the point, as in this case, of accusations of the discipline not being a science. I don’t pretend to understand the motives, but it’s an area that merits closer study. I’m afraid that we can be confident that there will be plenty of additional data along the same lines from our voluble critics of evolutionary psychology.

I suspect Prof. Kurzban has been around long enough to understand the “motives” perfectly well.  Perhaps his sense of academic gravitas prevents him from calling a spade a spade or, more precisely, propaganda.  In fact, as he points out in his post, Moran’s objections are ridiculous from any rational point of view.  But hackneyed and threadbare though they are, they’ve been around a long time for a reason.  They’re excellent as propaganda.  As another expert in a different field of psychology once noted, people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it. 

But, to return to Prof. Kurzban’s question, what could Moran’s motive be for bleating such nonsense with the rest of the sheep?  It’s always been obvious enough.  It’s the same motive that convinced an earlier generation of benighted graduate students that they would be serving the greater good of mankind by physically attacking someone as benign as E. O. Wilson for suggesting there actually is such a thing as human nature.  It springs from the fact that evolutionary psychology and what was once upon a time a secular religion known as socialism are mutually exclusive.  True, the secular religion is no more; its god went bankrupt.  Artifacts of its demise, however, persist, especially in the more obscurantist recesses of university campuses, like the afterglow of a great supernova.

Socialism requires what evolutionary psychology precludes; that human behavior be infinitely malleable.  And why?  Prof. Kurzban asked for data points, so I will give him one.  In fact, I already mentioned it in an earlier post.  It turned up in an essay by Geoffrey Gorer, a world-renowned psychologist in the middle decades of the 20th century.  Gorer was a friend and correspondent of George Orwell, and gave him a leg up in finding publishers for his first books.  Both were convinced socialists.  In an essay published in 1956 entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, Gorer wrote,

One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

If Prof. Kurzban is looking for smoking guns regarding the “motives” of Evolutionary Psychology’s detractors, it seems to me this is a good one. But wait, there’s more!  It happens that Gorer contributed another essay to a remarkable little book entitled Man and Aggression, an invaluable piece of source material for anyone interested in the history of evolutionary psychology edited by Ashley Montagu that appeared in 1968.  Its contributors were a collection of academic and professional worthies, all of whom denied that there was any such thing as innate human nature, at least of any significance.  They were the sort of people one might refer to today as “Blank Slaters.”  The book, still available at Amazon for about a dollar, was basically a polemic aimed at the two most influential proponents at the time of what later became Evolutionary Psychology.  Most of them included some version of at least one of Moran’s “critiques” of Evolutionary Psychology.  Most of them also alluded to the moral turpitude of the defenders of innate human nature in matters of politics.  Gorer’s essay happened to include the following remarkable passage about one of the book’s two human targets:

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

I daresay Prof. Kurzban is as innocent of any knowledge of the existence of a man named Robert Ardrey as a typical Soviet apparatchik was innocent of any knowledge of a man named Leon Trotsky during the last years of Stalin. And yet I have seen him refer to Richard Lewontin, a man who was “completely and utterly wrong,” to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, about the blank slate, a convinced Marxist who still spouts blather about the “dialectic” (what great fun it would be to hear him try to give a “dialectic” account of the class nature of the Russian Revolution), and author of a book as inane as “Not in our Genes,” as a revered and highly respected authority.

Odd, isn’t it, that experts in the field of evolutionary psychology should be performing triple kowtows before Richard Lewontin even as they astutely ignore a man who, easily within living memory, was known as, “the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.” Odd, too, that Steven Pinker could have written a whole tome about the Blank Slate that contained a grand total of only one mention of the man acknowledged by the Blank Slaters themselves to be their most influential and skilled opponent, and then only to dismiss him as having been, again paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, “completely and utterly wrong.” It occurs to me that evolutionary psychologists would be a good deal more effective at resisting politically motivated obscurantists like Moran if they would refrain from distorting their own history.

Robert Ardrey

On the Proper Sphere of Morality

In earlier posts I have argued against allowing morality to play a role in the interactions of states, or in politics within states, or, in general, in any situation in which it is reasonably possible to think and make rational decisions.   I have done so because I consider morality a fundamentally emotional phenomenon.  It would not exist absent emotional responses that themselves exist because they evolved.  If so, they must have evolved at a time bearing no resemblance to the present because they were useful in regulating interactions within groups and between small groups bearing no resemblance to modern states, political organizations, or other large groups of human beings.  There is no reason to assume that they will function as well in regulating the interactions between the large human organizations that are a very recent phenomenon, at least as far as evolution is concerned.  There is good reason, based on ample historical precedent, for the claim that attempting to apply them in that way is downright dangerous.

The above does not in any way imply, however, that we should strive to be amoral, or Machiavellian schemers, or moral relativists in our day to day interactions with other individuals.  You might say that, at that level, morality is the only game in town.  We simply lack the intelligence to to come up with reason-based solutions to all the complex problems that arise in our relationships with others on the fly.  To the extent that we make rational decisions at that level at all (or at least feel like we are making rational decisions if you believe Jonathan Haidt), they are generally decisions that implement what our moral emotions prompt us to do.  In a word, as far as interactions between individuals are concerned, morality wins by default.  The best we can do is attempt to come up with a system of morality that is as simple as possible, enables us to get along with each other reasonably well, and accommodates our behavioral predispositions as they really are rather than as we want them to be.

And what of the moral relativists?  I suspect the number of us who really fit that description is vanishingly small.  We’re not programmed to act that way.  If anyone did, they would probably regret it.  Mother Nature would have been remiss if she had come up with moral beings lacking an acute ability to detect and deal with cheaters.

Geoffrey Gorer and the Blank Slate

Geoffrey Gorer was a British anthropologist, essayist, long-time friend of George Orwell, and, at least in my estimation, a very intelligent man.  He was also a Blank Slater.  In other words, he was a proponent of the orthodox dogma that prevailed among psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and other experts in the behavioral sciences during much of the 20th century according to which there was no such thing as human nature or, if it existed at all, its impact on human behavior was insignificant.  He defended that orthodoxy, among other places, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu, and an invaluable piece of source material for students of the Blank Slate phenomenon.

Now, of course, after one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of mankind, the Blank Slate has gone the way of Aristotelian cosmology, and books roll off the presses in an uninterrupted stream discussing innate human behavior as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  How, one might ask, if Geoffrey Gorer really was such an intelligent man, could he ever have taken the Blank Slate ideology seriously?  Well, I speak of intelligence in relative terms.  Taken as a whole, we humans aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are and, as Julius Caesar once said, we have a marked tendency to belief what we want to believe.

And why did Gorer “want” to believe in the Blank Slate?  I submit it was for the same reason that so many of his contemporaries defended the theory; their faith in socialism.  I do not use the term socialism in any kind of a pejorative sense.  Rather, I speak of it as the social phenomenon it was; for all practical purposes a secular religion posing as a science.  It is scarcely possible for people today to grasp the power and pervasiveness of socialist ideology in its heyday.  We have the advantage of hindsight and have watched socialist systems, ranging from the Communist authoritarian versions to the benign, democratic variant of the type tried in Great Britain after the war, fail over and over again.  Earlier generations did not have that advantage.

More or less modern socialist theories were prevalent in England long before Marx.  By 1917 they had taken such root in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia that Maxim Gorky could write that he couldn’t imagine a democratic state that wasn’t socialist.  A couple of decades later, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that,

In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.

Anyone doubting the influence of similar ideas in the United States at the time need only go back and read the New Republic, The Nation, The American Mercury, and some of the other intellectual and political journals of the mid-30’s.  In a word, then, socialism was once accepted as an unquestionable truth by large numbers of very influential intellectuals.  It seemed perfectly obvious that capitalism was gasping its last, and the only question left seemed to be how the transition to socialism would take place, and how the socialist states of the future should be run.

There was just one problem with this as far as the social and behavioral sciences were concerned.  Socialism and human nature were mutually exclusive.  The firmest defenders of genetically programmed behavioral predispositions in human beings have never denied the myriad possible variations in human societies that are attributable to culture and environment.  Socialism, however, required more than that.  It required human behavior to be infinitely malleable which, if innate behavioral predispositions exist, it most decidedly is not.

Which brings us back to Geoffrey Gorer.  In an essay entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, written in 1956, we can follow the intellectual threads that show how all this came together in the mind of a mid-20th century anthropologist.  I will let Gorer speak for himself.

One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

In Gorer’s opinion the problem wasn’t human nature.  It couldn’t be, or socialism wouldn’t work.  The problem was that we simply hadn’t been using the right technique.  For example, we hadn’t been relying on proper role models.  Gorer had somehow convinced himself that female school teachers had played a decisive role in altering the character of immigrants to American, “transforming them within a generation into good citizens of their countries of adoption, with changed values, habits and expectations… In our original thinking, this role of the school-teacher, and the derivatives of this situation, were idiosyncratic to the culture of the United States.”  According to Gorer, the introduction of police in England had had a similar magical effect.  By serving as role models, they had, almost sole-handedly, brought about “the great modifications in the behavior of the English urban working classes in the nineteenth century from violence and lawlessness to gentleness and law-abiding.”  They had, “…provided an exemplar of self-control which the mass of the population could emulate and use as a model.”  If the phrase “just so story” popped into your mind, you’re not alone.  Of course, one man’s “just so story” is another man’s “scientific hypothesis.”  It all depends on whether it happens to be politically convenient or not.

Proper role models, then, were one of the ingredients that Gorer discovered were needed to “change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.”  He discovered no less than four more in the process of reading Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old, which he described as “account of a society which has transformed itself within twenty-five years.”  The society in question was that of the Manus, inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands, which lie just north of New Guinea.  And sure enough, their society did change drastically in a generation and, if we are to believe Mead, for the good.  This change had been greatly facilitated by one Paliau, a charismatic leader of the Manu who luckily happened along at the time.  Gorer admitted this was a fortuitous accident, but he saw, or at least imagined he saw, several other ingredients for radical change which could be applied by properly qualified experts.  In his words,

The availability of a man of Paliau’s genius is obviously an unpredictable accident which cannot be generalized; but the other four conditions – readiness for change, the presentation of a model for study and observation, the sudden and complete break with the past, nurture and support during the first years of the new life – would seem to provide a paradigm of the way in which men may be changed in a single generation.

Human societies certainly may change radically within a very short time.  It is an adaptive trait that accounts for the fact that we managed, not only to survive, but to thrive during times of rapid environmental change.  The brilliant South African, Eugene Marais, was the first to make the connection.  In his words,

If now we picture the great continent of Africa with its extreme diversity of natural conditions – its high, cold, treeless plateaux; its impenetrable tropical forests; its great river systems; its inland seas; its deserts; its rain and droughts; its sudden climatic changes capable of altering the natural aspect of great tracts of country in a few years – all forming an apparently systemless chaos, and then picture its teeming masses of competing organic life, comprising more species, more numbers and of greater size than can be found on any other continent on earth, is it not at once evident how great would be the advantage if under such conditions a species could be liberated from the limiting force of hereditary memories? Would it not be conducive to preservation if under such circumstances a species could either suddenly change its habitat or meet any new natural conditions thrust upon it by means of immediate adaptation? Is it not self-evident that in a species far-wandering, whether on account of sudden natural changes, competitive pressure, or through inborn “wanderlust,” those individuals which could best and most quickly adapt themselves to the most varied conditions would be the ones most likely to survive and perpetuate the race, and that among species, one equipped for distant migrations would always have a better chance than a confined one? Are not all the elements present to bring about the natural selection of an attribute by means of which a species could thus meet and neutralise one of the most prolific causes of destruction?

This is not advanced as a demonstrable theory. It is no more than an attempt to show that it is hardly possible to imagine conditions existing anywhere in nature at any time which would not in some degree tend towards the evolution of such an attribute. If these present conditions are self-evidently likely to select it, how much more likely, for instance, would not its birth and growth have been during the earlier history of the planet, during the Pleistocene period, when cataclysmic movements of its crust and great and repeated climatic changes still belonged to the usual and customary category of natural events.

These astounding insights occurred to a man, working mainly alone in South Africa, in the early years of the 20th century.  Marais was indeed a genius.  Unfortunately, at least from Gorer’s point of view, while his theories accounted for mankind’s extreme adaptability, they in no way implied that that adaptability would enable well-meaning ideologues to reinvent human character at will to convert us into suitable inmates for whatever utopia du jour they were cooking up for us.  It would seem that’s what Gorer overlooked in his sanguine conclusions about the Manu.  Their society had indeed adapted, but it had done so on its own, and not as programmed by some inspired anthropologist.  He concludes his essay as follows:

The great merit of New Lives for Old is that it opens up a whole new field for observation, experiment and speculation, a field of the greatest relevance to our present preoccupations.

The “present preoccupation” which required the “remaking of man” was, of course, our happy transformation to a socialism.  Unfortunately, the wishful thinking of a generation of Gorers made no impression on the genetic programming responsible for our behavioral predispositions.  It remained stubbornly in place, spoiling who knows how many of the splendid Brave New Worlds that noble idealists the world over were preparing for us.

In retrospect, socialism ended, as the old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky suggested it might in 1939, just before Stalin had him murdered, in a utopia.  It was a secular religion that inspired a highly speculative and mindless faith in a collection of untested theories in the minds of a host of otherwise highly intelligent and perfectly sane people like Gorer, who all managed to somehow convince themselves that the socialist mirage was a “science.”  As E. O. Wilson so succinctly summed it up, “Great theory, wrong species.”  And that, perhaps, is the reason that the Blank Slate was defended so fiercely for so long, in the teeth of increasingly weighty scientific evidence refuting it, not to mention common sense, until its conflict with reality became too heavy to bear, and it finally collapsed.  It was an indispensible prop for a God that failed.

 

Geoffrey Gorer

Note on the Pathologically Pious

I mentioned Malcolm Muggeridge’s post-mortem of a decade he had just lived through, The Thirties, in an earlier post.  There are any number of thought provoking nuggets in the book, but one of the best has to do with the people I sometimes refer to as the pathologically pious.  These are the self-appointed saviors of one category of the oppressed and downtrodden or other whose “selfless” crusades are always an irritant to the rest of us, and occasionally become downright dangerous.  Typically one finds them eternally locked in a noble struggle to right some egregious wrong, yet, in spite of all their self-attributed heroism, they never actually seem to reach the goal.  There’s good reason for that.  The “struggle” is the end in itself.  As Muggeridge put it,

In all movements which undertake the championship of the oppressed, and demand rectification of injustices and inequalities, there is, as in Don Quixote, a strong admixture of egotism.  Their leaders are usually heroic; but when their heroism is no longer required, they are left disconsolate, and sometimes embittered.  It seems cruel that they should be deprived of the limelight, or at best deserve as veterans only occasional acclamation, for no other reason than that what they agitated for has been wholly, or largely, obtained.  In their case, nothing fails like success.

The doom of all who invest imaginative hopes in earthly enterprises and mortal men, is for these enterprises to triumph.

In other words, as Skinner might have put it, the positive “reinforcement” for this sort of behavior lies not in actually achieving some hypothetical goal, but in the process of, or, perhaps more accurately, in the appearance of “struggling” to achieve that goal.  To put it more pithily, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

There’s nothing surprising or unexpected about this particular aspect of human behavior.  It’s perfectly “normal” manifestation of the human traits associated with morality.  As is usually the case, it requires the Don Quixote in question to perceive the Good as an object, existing independently, outside of the subjective mind.  We are all programmed to perceive the Good in that way, even though no such object actually exists.  Evolution doesn’t arrive at solutions that respect abstract truth.  It arrives at solutions that promote genetic survival.

It is not difficult to understand why we should be programmed to perceive the Good in this way.  Assuming moral behavior promoted our ancestors’ survival in the first place, it is more plausible that it would do so in the form of emotional imperatives rather than as a mix of subjective alternatives for cave dwelling philosophers to chew the fat over around the campfire at night.  This sort of programming apparently worked well enough in our prehistoric past.  After all, we’re still here.  In those days, the Good was associated almost exclusively with ones own tribe or group, and the Evil with ones neighbors.  The problem is, human societies have changed rather significantly since then.  We can now perceive the Evil in ways that Mother Nature never imagined during the long millennia in which we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers.  Victor Davis Hanson provided just a few of the almost countless possibilities from a point of view on the political right in a recent article:

…there are new monsters in America, and I am starting to wonder whether I am to be considered among them: those of the uninvolved and uninformed lives, the bar-raisers, the downright mean ones, the never deserving of respect ones, the Vegas junketeers, the Super Bowl jet setters, the tuition stealers, the faux-Christians who do not pay higher taxes, the too much income makers, the tormenters of autistic children, the polluters, the enemies deserving of punishment, the targets to bring a gun against, the faces to get in front of, the limb-loppers, the tonsil pullers, the fat cats, the corporate jet owners, the one-percenters, the stupidly acting, the not paying their fair sharers, the discriminators on the “way you look”, the alligator raisers and moat builders, the vote deniers, the clingers, the typical something persons, the hunters of kids at ice cream parlors, the stereotypers and profilers, the cowards, the lazy and soft, the non-spreaders of money, the not my people people, the Tea party racists, the not been perfect and mistake makers, the disengaged and the dictating, the not the time to profiteers, the ones who did not know when to quit making money, and on and on.

Those on the left could compose a similar list, and it would be just as accurate.  One finds saviors of mankind occupying all points on the political spectrum, and they all perceive Good and Evil in a bewildering array of real and imagined entities that didn’t exist when the tendency to conceptualize Good and Evil as real, independent objects evolved.  As a result, human moral behavior is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.  If the preceding ages weren’t sufficient, the 20th century provided us with ample experimental confirmation of the fact.  Never before had so many people been slaughtered in the name of defending the Good in its Communist, Nazi, and assorted other ideological manifestations.

As one who cherishes the whim that our species should survive, I suggest that it’s high time that we a) realize we have a problem, and b) do something about it.  We have at least taken the first baby step towards this goal by finally realizing, after a bitter struggle, that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it exists because it evolved.  It seems to me that, once we have accepted these elementary facts and done a little thinking about their implications, we may be able to start breaking ourselves of the very satisfying but increasingly dangerous habit of inventing ever more imaginary Goods and the imaginary Evils of the sort noted by Mr. Hanson that invariably come along with them.

The advantages would be many.  For starters, we could finally dismiss all the pretentions of the pathologically pious, the obnoxiously self-righteous, and the permanently outraged among us to an exclusive knowledge of the ingredients of Virtue.  Instead of taking them seriously, would it not be better to smile in their faces, explain to them that the particular Good object that seems so real to them doesn’t actually exist, and, if they persist, house them in comfortable asylums?  The alternative is to wait and hope they go away, as we did so often in the past.  Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t and, as history has so copiously demonstrated, eventually they can accumulate enough power to start murdering those of us who are unfortunate enough to fit their description of Evil.  From a purely utilitarian point of view, it seems better not to take the risk.

The New York Times Discovers Human Nature

While wandering to and fro on the Internet, and surfing up and down in it, I recently ran across an article that appeared in the New York Times a while back touching on the subject of human nature entitled, “Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive.”  Of course, “all the news that’s fit to print” comes with a leftist slant in the Grey Lady, and the ideological left has stubbornly rejected the very idea that there is such a thing as human nature until quite recently.  Indeed, until little more than a decade ago, such notions were not only rejected, but associated with any number of nefarious outgroups on the political right.  As this article documents, times have changed.  At some point, the mounting evidence that there not only is such a thing as human nature, but that it has a profound effect on our behavior, a fact that has always been obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense who happened not to be encumbered with the quasi-religious ideological baggage of the Blank Slate, became to weighty to deny, even for the most casuistic dwellers in academia.  A paradigm shift happened.  The whole, tawdry intellectual facade that had been propping up the Blank Slate finally collapsed in a heap, human nature was embraced, albeit with a wry lack of enthusiasm, and a whole, largely mythical “history” of its passing was invented, as set forth, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.  This article provides some interesting insight into how the “news” about human nature is currently being assimilated on the ideological left.

It turns out that there was nothing to be afraid of all along.  For example, we read with a sigh of relief that “To be fair is human:  Our instinct is to limit hierarchy.”  A nice touch, that.  There was a time when the very use of the word “instinct” would set the “experts” in human behavior to huffing and puffing about the precise definition of the word and its use in such a context.  In these post-paradigm shift times, its value as a bludgeon for such point scoring has evaporated.  Thus, a word that once inspired the striking of some of the most extravagant intellectual poses now raises nary an eyebrow, and has resumed its humble place in the vernacular.  Elsewhere in the article we read that, according to one Dr. Katarina Gospic, “…the act of treating people fairly and implementing justice in society has evolutionary roots.  It increases our survival.”  Citing another expert, the author opines, “Our rise to global dominance began, paradoxically enough, when we set rigid dominance hierarchies aside.”

And who was that expert?  Why, none other than Dr. David Sloan Wilson.  I had to smile at that, although the joke would be somewhat obscure to anyone who hasn’t been paying close attention to the human nature controversy.  You see, Wilson is one of the foremost proponents of the theory of group selection.  It happens that this very theory was mentioned favorably in The Social Contract one of Robert Ardrey’s lesser known books.  Now, Robert Ardrey was almost universally recognized by the Blank Slaters themselves in their heyday as their most formidable intellectual opponent, as documented, for example, in a collection of their essays entitled Man and Aggression.  Edited by Ashley Montagu, the book can still be found on Amazon for a mere penny.  However, it wouldn’t do for Ardrey, a mere playwright, to have been right about human nature when virtually the entire academic and professional community of experts in psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc., had been dead wrong.  It was just too embarrassing to admit.  It was necessary to revise history, relegating Ardrey to the role of an unperson, in the process elevating the far more academically palatable E. O. Wilson, who did nothing more than parrot Ardrey’s ideas in such books as On Human Nature and Sociobiology more than a decade later, to the role of the gallant knight who had actually defeated the Blank Slaters.  Of course, some excuse was needed for sweeping Ardrey under the rug, and one was duly found – group selection!  No matter that group selection played a minor role at best in Ardrey’s thought, it would have to serve.  Richard Dawkins did the actual dirty work, writing in The Selfish Gene, that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection.  Pinker seized on this in The Blank Slate, treating Dawkins’ pronouncement as if it were a divine revelation to dismiss Ardrey’s entire legacy in a single sentence.  It would seem, in retrospect, that Ardrey wasn’t quite as “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection as Dawkins suggested, or at least not in the opinion of David Sloan Wilson, now cited as an expert in the NYT.  But wait, there’s more!  A certain well known scientist has joined David Wilson in publishing papers in support of group selection.  And who may that be?  Why, none other than E. O. Wilson!  Now, if Dawkins and Pinker were justified in dismissing all Ardrey’s work on account of group selection, can we expect another pronunciamento from them throwing E. O. Wilson under the bus as well, for the same reason?  I’m not holding my breath.

But I digress.  Let us turn to the article in question, and examine it for more broad insights into the topic of human nature.  So far we have learned that our species is happily endowed with an “instinct” for fairness and equality.  The author helpfully spoon feeds us regarding the relevance of this insight to current social arrangements concerning the distribution of wealth in the United States.  We are unsurprised to learn that from a purely scientific and evolutionary standpoint, such arrangements are decidedly maladaptive.  However, one looks in vain for any mention of such things as the hunting and raiding behavior of chimpanzees and its possible relevance to the suggestion that “human nature” might have something to do with our unrelieved history of warfare and slaughter of outgroups, or any other of the less politically correct elements of our behavioral repertoire.  Of course, it’s only one data point, but I think it’s still a fairly accurate representation of the “progress” of the ideological left as it relates to innate human behavioral traits.  In brief, it amounts to abandonment of the Blank Slate and acceptance of innate human behavior as glibly as if it had never been the subject of the slightest controversy.  It also tends to take the form of seizing at any straw to “prove” that our innate predispositions are benign and politically correct, and studiously ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

And who are we to cavil at this “progress?”  Surely it is a great leap forward from the blind “not in our genes” obscurantism that prevailed during the long reign of the Blank Slate.  Research in the broad field of evolutionary psychology can now proceed, if not without controversy, at least without the distraction of thunderous anathemas hurled down by the high priests of a secular religion posing as scientists.  So long as that research can proceed unhindered, we will gradually gain a deeper and more realistic understanding of our innate behavioral traits, revealing them as they really are, rather than as we want them to be.  That, it seems to me, is real progress.

 

Space Colonization and Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking is in the news again as an advocate for space colonization.  He raised the issue in a recent interview with the Canadian Press, and will apparently include it as a theme of his new TV series, Brave New World with Stephen Hawking, which debuts on Discovery World HD on Saturday.  There are a number of interesting aspects to the story this time around.  One that most people won’t even notice is Hawking’s reference to human nature.  Here’s what he had to say.

Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.

The fact that Hawking can matter-of-factly assert something like that about innate behavior in humans as if it were a matter of common knowledge speaks volumes about the amazing transformation in public consciousness that’s taken place in just the last 10 or 15 years.  If he’d said something like that about “selfish and aggressive instincts” 50 years ago, the entire community of experts in the behavioral sciences would have dismissed him as an ignoramus at best, and a fascist and right wing nut case at worst.  It’s astounding, really.  I’ve watched this whole story unfold in my lifetime.  It’s just as stunning as the paradigm shift from an earth-centric to a heliocentric solar system, only this time around, Copernicus and Galileo are unpersons, swept under the rug by an academic and professional community too ashamed of their own past collective imbecility to mention their names.  Look in any textbook on Sociology, Anthropology, or Evolutionary Psychology, and you’ll see what the sounds of silence look like in black and white.  Aside from a few obscure references, the whole thing is treated as if it never happened.  Be grateful, dear reader.  At last we can say the obvious without being shouted down by the “experts.”  There is such a thing as human nature.

Now look at the comments after the story in the Winnipeg Free Press I linked above.  Here are some of them.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”  If that is the case, perhaps we don’t deserve to survive. If we bring destruction to our planet, would it not be in the greater interest to destroy the virus, or simply let it expire, instead of spreading its virulence throughout the galaxy?

And who would decide who gets to go? Also, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” What a stupid thing to say: if we can’t survive ‘lurking’ on planet Earth then who’s to say humans wouldn’t ruin things off of planet Earth?

I will not go through any of this as I will be dead by then and gone to a better place as all those who remain and go through whatever happenings in the Future,will also do!

I’ve written a lot about morality on this blog.  These comments speak to the reasons why getting it right about morality, why understanding its real nature, and why it exists, are important.  All of them are morally loaded.  As is the case with virtually all morally loaded comments, their authors couldn’t give you a coherent explanation of why they have those opinions.  They just feel that way.  I don’t doubt that they’re entirely sincere about what they say.  The genetic programming that manifests itself as human moral behavior evolved many millennia ago in creatures who couldn’t conceive of themselves as members of a worldwide species, or imagine travel into space.  What these comments demonstrate is something that’s really been obvious for a long time.  In the environment that now exists, vastly different as it is from the one in which our moral predispositions evolved, they can manifest themselves in ways that are, by any reasonable definition of the word, pathological.  In other words, they can manifest themselves in ways that no longer promote our survival, but rather the opposite.

As can be seen from the first comment, for example, thanks to our expanded consciousness of the world we live in, we can conceive of such an entity as “all mankind.”  Our moral programming predisposes us to categorize our fellow creatures into ingroups and outgroups.  In this case, “all mankind” has become an outgroup or, as the commenter puts it, a “virus.”  The demise, not only of the individual commenter, but of all mankind, has become a positive Good.  More or less the same thing can be said about the second comment.  This commenter apparently believes that it would be better for humans to become extinct than to “mess things up.”  For whom?

As for the third commenter, survival in this world is unimportant to him because he believes in eternal survival in a future imaginary world under the proprietership of an imaginary supernatural being.  It is unlikely that this attitude is more conducive to our real genetic survival than those of the first two commenters.  I submit that if these commenters had an accurate knowledge of the real nature of human morality in the first place, and were free of delusions about supernatural beings in the second, the tone of their comments would be rather different.

And what of my opinion on the matter?  In my opinion, morality is the manifestation of genetically programmed traits that evolved because they happened to promote our survival.  No doubt because I understand morality in this way, I have a subjective emotional tendency to perceive the Good as my own genetic survival, the survival of my species, and the survival of life as it has evolved on earth, not necessarily in that order.  Objectively, my version of the Good is no more legitimate or objectively valid that those of the three commenters.  In some sense, you might say it’s just a whim.  I do, however, think that my subjective feelings on the matter are reasonable.  I want to pursue as a “purpose” that which the evolution of morality happened to promote; survival.  It seems to me that an evolved, conscious biological entity that doesn’t want to survive is dysfunctional – it is sick.  I would find the realization that I am sick and dysfunctional distasteful.  Therefore, I choose to survive.  In fact, I am quite passionate about it.  I believe that, if others finally grasp the truth about what morality really is, they are likely to share my point of view.  If we agree, then we can help each other.  That is why I write about it.

By all means, then, let us colonize space, and not just our solar system, but the stars.  We can start now.  We lack sources of energy capable of carrying humans to even the nearest stars, but we can send life, even if only single-celled life.  Let us begin.

The Forgettable Philosophy of Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz was a great man.  A careful observer of animal behavior, he noted the many similarities between the innate traits of some of the species he studied and the behavior of human beings.  In view of the fact that we are the products of a similar process of evolution, and the improbability of the supposition that our ancestors had suddenly shed all these innate traits in the relatively short time it took them to evolve large brains, he came to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the ultimate cause of these analogous characteristics was to be found in the genetic programming of the brain.  It was not, however, obvious to a great number of sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other professional “experts” in human behavior, including the vast majority of them in the United States, over a period of many decades.  They persisted stubbornly in the belief that no such innate traits existed, that all human behavior worth mentioning was a result of culture and education, and that the human mind at birth was actually a “blank slate.”

The absurdities of blank slate orthodoxy are sufficiently obvious that the ease of debunking them is akin to that of shooting fish in a barrel.  In fact, there were numerous debunkers during the decade of the 60’s and early 70’s when the theory was still in vogue.  Of these, Lorenz was the second most effective.  The most effective was Robert Ardrey.  As proof of this assertion, we have the testimony of the blank slaters themselves, conveniently assembled in an invaluable little book published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu entitled, Man and Aggression.

In the fullness of time, blank slate orthodoxy collapsed under its own weight and the pressure of advances in the relevant sciences.  It is one of the more remarkable oddities of this field of study that has always had such an abundance of oddities that its demise was accompanied by the emergence of a whole new orthodoxy in the form of a fantastically imaginary account of its downfall.  The whole, fanciful tale can be found in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, purportedly a “history” of the blank slate in which he manages to get through 528 pages in paperback with hardly a mention of its two most effective opponents.  Lorenz is dismissed because of his “hydraulic theory,” an hypothesis that made only a minor appearance in his work and was utterly insignificant as far as his fundamental thought on human behavior is concerned.  Ardrey, a brilliant man and the greatest debunker of them all, is waved out of existence with a single mention because, according to Richard Dawkins, no less, he was “completely and utterly wrong.”  This concoction was apparently produced to cover the shame of the academic and professional experts in human behavior who had been so wrong for so long, in part by trotting out E.O. Wilson as the “real” father of opposition to the blank slate.  His book, On Human Nature, was merely a repetition of the fundamental conclusions that had appeared in the work of Lorenz and Ardrey more than a decade earlier.  No matter.  He could plausibly be claimed by the experts as one of their own.  Now, instead of being shamed by a mere playwright, they had actually cleaned their own house.  To add oddity to oddity, it turns out that the reason that Dawkins claimed that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong,” was his support for the theory of group selection in his book, The Social Contract.  The theory, still highly controversial, was subsequently embraced by none other than E.O. Wilson!  And what of Lorenz?  He may have been right about innate behavior, but, regrettably, he had linked it with some of the less savory human traits in On Aggression.  For example, from that book,

To the humble seeker of biological truth there cannot be the slightest doubt that human militant enthusiasm evolved out of a communal defense response of our prehuman ancestors.  The unthinking single-mindedness of the response must have been of high survival value even in a tribe of fully evolved human beings.  It was necessary for the individual male to forget all his otgher allegiances in order to be able to dedicate himself, body and soul, to the cause of the communal battle.

and,

Humanity is not enthusiastically combative because it is split into political parties, but it is divided into opposing camps because this is the adequate stimulus situation to arouse militant enthusiasm in a satisfying manner.  “If ever a doctrine of universal salvation should gain ascendancy over the whole earth to the exclusion of all others,” writes Erich von Holst, “it would at once divide into two strongly opposing factions (one’s own true one and the other heretical one) and hostility and war would thrive as before, mankind being – unfortunately – what it is!”

This was a bit much for the orthodox “experts.”  After all, they had been assuring each other for years that the pervasiveness of warfare in virtually all human societies since the beginning of recorded time was merely a regrettable coincidence.  Take away war toys, adjust the “culture” here and there, and fine tune the educational system a bit and, viola!, it would be banished to mankind’s dark past, never to return again.  If something in our genes actually did contribute to this remarkable “coincidence” of warfare, such dreams vanished like the morning fog, and with them all the Brave New Worlds of “human flourishing” that were being planned for a recalcitrant humanity.  Having strained on the gnat of innate behavior, they found this added lump of “aggression” just too much to swallow.  Lorenz had to go.

No matter, in the end, Pinker’s fairy tale doesn’t wash in any case.  The truth will out.  We have Ashley Montagu and his fellow blank slaters to thank for that.  Pinker may have relegated Ardrey and Lorenz to the ranks of unpersons, but they were not quite so delusional.  They knew who their most effective opponents were, and they set it all down in black and white in no uncertain terms in Man and Aggression.  For anyone who cares to fact check Pinker’s “official history,” that invaluable little book is still available in paperback at Amazon for the bargain basement price of one cent.

In a word then, Lorenz deserves a lot more respect than he gets in Pinker’s yarn, or in the sanitized “histories” that are fed to unwitting undergraduates in the current crop of Evolutionary Psychology textbooks, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded for his work in 1973, two years before Wilson published On Human Nature.  Why, then, do I find his philosophy “forgettable.”  It seems to me that, just as Einstein should have stayed out of politics, a field in which he was easily manipulated by the unscrupulous ideologues of his day, Lorenz should have left the philosophizing to Kant and Hegel.  Alas, he had drunk too deeply in those waters.  Like Don Quixote, who, Cervantes tells us, read stirring tales of knight-errantry until he became a bold knight himself in his imagination, Lorenz thought to save the world with his philosophy.  He could sling epistomologies, ontologies, and teleologies with as much panache as the best of them, and so he did in a number of his lesser known works.

It happens I have just waded through one of them, entitled The Waning of Humaneness, a somewhat rough approximation of the German title, Der Abbau des Menschlichen, which conveys more of the flavor of Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), a work which Lorenz often cites.  Written in 1983 when Lorenz was 79 years old, the book is a mish-mash of stuff taken, sometimes word for word, from his earlier books, dubious claims about the origin of values, even more dubious prescriptions for restoring them so that humaneness stops waning, all in a melange of simplistic pontification about preserving the environment inspired, we are informed, by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

To enlist the help of others in restoring “humaneness,” it is first necessary to explain to them what it is.  It turns out that humaneness is as similar to all the other noble causes that have disturbed the tranquility of mankind since time immemorial as one pea to all the others in a pod.  In short, Humaneness is what Lorenz thinks is Good.  It’s not very original as Goods go.  In the Foreword we are informed that it consists of restoring the environment and reversing the cultural “decadence” with which its degradation goes hand in hand.  This is to be done by restoring “true” morality and values.  Of course, the rub, as with all such systems, lies in establishing the legitimacy of the Good.  Why is the Good really good?

In the case of Lorenz, the task of establishing this legitimacy would seem particularly daunting.  After all, he was a pioneer in establishing the innate, genetically programmed component of human morality.  By no means does he renounce his earlier work.  In fact, he actually cites it.  For example, reiterating his earlier claims about the ancient wellsprings of the emotions that influence human behavior he writes,

Based on genetic programming are not only the apparatuses for sensory perception and for logical thinking that outline and fill in with color the picture we have of our world; also based on these programs are the complicated feelings that determine our interhuman behavior.  Our social behavior especially is dominated by an immensely old heritage of species-specific action and reaction patterns; these are undoubtedly much, much older than the specific capacities of intelligence associated with our neocortex, that is, with the evolutionarily youngest part of our brain.

and,

It is beyond doubt that a great number of qualitative emotions, recognizable and unmistakable, are common to all mankind, that is, are anchored in the genes of humans.

So far so good.  However, these innate traits, as well as the various culturally transmitted modes of behavior to which they give rise haven’t kept up with the pace of technological and cultural change.

…many of the innate as well as traditional norms of humans that were still well-adapted programs of social and economic behavior just a short while ago today contribute to the waning of what is humane.

Again, if we can drop the “waning of humaneness” jargon and simply say that these behavioral traits have become maladaptive, Lorenz is merely reiterating truths that have, in the meantime, become obvious to all but the most diehard and ancient of blank slaters.  But it is just here that Lorenz, along with so many others who have more or less accepted the facts as set forth above, run off the tracks.

It seems clear to me that, if the ultimate cause of human behavior (and moral behavior, however defined, is merely a subset thereof), lies in the evolved features of our brains, then there can be no possible legitimate basis for one human being to claim that what his subjective emotions portray to him as the Good must also be the Good for everyone else.  This pervasive illusion, cause of so much human misery, should finally be recognized as such and jettisoned once and for all.  But in spite of the demise of the Blank Slate, in spite of a tidal wave of papers in scholarly journals on innate behavior, and in spite of a continuing flood of books on themes such as hard-wired morality and the moral behavior of animals, that isn’t about to happen.  The emotional high of feeling morally superior to lesser mortals is just too sweet and savory to dispense with.  Orgasms of self-righteousness and virtuous indignation are almost as satisfying as the sexual kind, and they last a lot longer.  But to experience them in all their glory, the Good must be justified.

Lorenz goes about the task without much virtuosity, but with a few idiosyncratic twists.  In short, he admits that values are subjective, but claims that they are, nevertheless, real.  As he puts it:

What must be made clear, and convincingly, is that our subjective experiential processes possess the same degree of reality as everything that can be expressed in the terminologies of the exact natural sciences. …Since all of the moral responsibilities of humans are determined by their perceptions of values, the epidemic delusion that only numerical and measurable reality has validity must be confronted and contradicted.

Certainly our subjective impressions are real and do actually exist in the sense that they result from observable and measurable physical phenomena in our brains. The non sequitur here is that, simply by virtue of the fact that they do actually exist in that fashion, they thereby acquire some sort of objective legitimacy.  Some more or less similar leap of faith is always necessary to establish a moral system.  Somehow, a subjective impression must be promoted to the Good, an objective thing in itself.  Only in that form can it acquire the power of serving as an imperative for all mankind.  It seems to have occurred to Lorenz that his claim of objective validity by virtue of subjective reality is a rather threadbare variant of this essential sleight of hand.  To prop it up, he drags in Beauty.

For all the value perceptions of humans that have been discussed up to now, the assumption is justified that these sensibilities assist the individual in advantageous achievements and, therewith, the assumption is also justified that their programs as well, through selection of these achievements, have evolved in typical ways.  But there is the beautiful, the genesis of which in a similar manner must be doubted, for which, in fact, an explication of origin by means of selection seems conspicuously contrived.

If Lorenz’ argument for the special status of Beauty gives you a faint sense of a televangelist arguing for the special status of divine creation, you’re not alone.  Cutting to the chase, in the final chapter the author reveals himself as a theist.  We finally detect the supernatural stiffening behind all this flimsy stuff about Beauty and Values.  Nature is “really beautiful” and “true values” are really legitimate because God wants it that way.

Lorenz’ suggestions for turning the humaneness curve back in the right direction are paltry enough.  Even in 1983 he was still feeling the afterglow of the 60’s youth fetish.  (As a baby boomer myself, I cannot but feel a distinct relief that my generation, the object of all that obsession with “youth,” has finally reached retirement age).   As usual, we were to redeem mankind from its horrible fate:

The predicament of young people today is especially critical.  Forestalling the threatening apocalypse will devolve on their perceptions of value; their sensibilities of the beautiful and worthwhile must be aroused and renewed.

And how was this arousal and renewal to be brought about?

It must still, in some way, be possible to provide even those children born and reared in large cities with some kind of opportunity for developing their capacities to perceive the harmony and disharmony of living systems – if only by means of an aquarium.  Those children who are given a chance to tend to aquarium and to care for its inhabitants come to learn, through necessity, to comprehend a functioning entirety in its harmony and disharmony, an entirety bringing together and combining very many systems consisting of animals, plants, bacteria and an entire range of inorganic givens, systems that complement one another and systems that are antagonistic to one another.  Children would learn how delicate the equilibrium of such an artificial ecological system is.

It may seem uncharitable to dismiss the aquarium idea.  After all, we’ve tried pretty much everything else.  However, I can assure the reader that, as a child, my teachers had me tend to both an aquarium and a beehive for good measure, and look how I turned out.

The Waning of Humaneness contains a good deal more of puerile stuff about corporate war profiteers, the evils of nuclear energy, canned homilies about saving the environment, the stupidity of Americans who live in suburban subdivisions, tiresomely repetitious warnings about the impending suicide of mankind, etc., but that can rest.  Konrad Lorenz was, after all, a great man.  Working in his own specialty, he struck a telling blow at the Blank Slate, one of the most pernicious pseudo-religions that ever claimed the name of science.  Let us remember and honor him for that.

Ingroups and Outgroups: All Things Old are New Again

According to an article I just ran across on the World Science website, scientists have just “discovered” that “Human prejudice may date back 25 million years or more.” On closer reading, one finds that what they have just “discovered” has been obvious since the days of Darwin; that we humans group others of our species into ingroups and outgroups. Sir Arthur Keith summarized earlier work on the subject and put it on a firm theoretical basis well over half a century ago. As Robert Ardrey, who called it the Amity/Enmity Complex, wrote of it a couple of decades later, it was, “the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside (by the “Blank Slaters”, ed.) under the pretense it does not exist.”  Ardrey went on to say, “What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.  But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.”

In this “enlightened” age, when an increasing stream of books like Wild Justice:  The Moral Lives of Animals by Bekoff and Pierce and Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal et. al., are rolling off the presses, one would think that brilliant thinkers like Ardrey and Keith, triumphantly vindicated, would receive the tardy recognition they deserve.  If so, one would be very mistaken.  You see, Ardrey was a mere playwright, guilty of the unpardonable lèse-majesté of challenging the entire establishment of behavioral scientists of his day and proving them wrong, and Keith was presumptuous in writing down such ideas before the official “beginning” of Evolutionary Psychology as set forth in the mythical histories of the science set forth in the modern textbooks on the subject.

 

The Afterlife of Objective Morality

Morality is a subjective mental construct, fundamentally emotional in nature, and no more capable of existing as a “thing in itself,” discoverable by reason, than hunger, sexual desire, or physical pain.  Its ultimate cause as a collection of behavioral traits inherent in our brains in the form of predispositions whose expression can vary depending on cultural and environmental factors, but is broadly similar among human populations.  The mental traits responsible for the expression of morality evolved.  They did not suddenly pop into existence thanks to some miraculous mutation simultaneously with the appearance of homo sapiens.  Rather, those traits in humans represent incremental adaptations of similar traits that have existed in our animal ancestors for tens of millions of years, if not longer.  They are entirely similar in that respect to most of our other distinguishing characteristics as a species, as demonstrated by the wonderful advances in the field of evolutionary development in recent years.  They did not evolve because they served the greater good, or because they were in accord with some imaginary, objective “good-in-itself,” or because they promoted “human flourishing,” as it is variously defined.  They evolved because they increased the probability that the individual packets of genetic material that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce.  They did not evolve to serve any purpose, nor did they evolve because they promoted the “good of the species.”  They evolved at a time in which the conditions of human existence were utterly dissimilar to those existing today.  As a result, the assumption that they will continue to promote the survival of the packets of genetic material that give rise to them under these vastly altered conditions is unwarranted.

I cannot assert that all of the above statements are certainly true, any more than I can assert that anything at all is certainly true.  I can, however, point out that all of them are supported by compelling and rapidly increasing bodies of evidence.  Most of the scientists working in the relevant fields of study are aware of the existence of that evidence.  As a result, most of them will now admit that, at least to some degree, human morality, not to mention our other behavioral traits, are dependent for their existence on features programmed in our brains by our genes.  Few of them would have made such an admission, at least in the behavioral sciences, as recently as two decades ago.  In spite of the fact that thinkers since the days of Darwin and before have insisted on the decisive role of innate predispositions, or “human nature” in shaping human behavior, the quite recent general acceptance of that fact that can be traced in both the scientific and popular literature represents a genuine paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences.

It should hardly be surprising that the behavioral expression of morality in conscious animals with highly developed brains can be complex and vary significantly in detail across human populations.  The fact remains that the mental traits responsible for what we refer to as “moral” behavior, under its various definitions, are a subset of the mental traits that are the ultimate cause of what is loosely referred to as “human nature,” more or less arbitrarily set apart from the rest.  It follows that, absent those evolved mental traits, morality as we know it would cease to exist.  It does exist because it promoted the survival of packets of genetic material carried by individual human beings.  Attempts to alienate it from those origins by assigning some “purpose” to it, whether that purpose be the service of some imaginary supernatural being, the greater good of some “master race,” promotion of “human flourishing,” or what have you, are irrational.  There is no “objective good.”  There is no legitimate basis for one animal of a particular species insisting that all the other animals of that species “should” conform to and adopt his particular version of “the good” given the fact that his ability to imagine such a fundamentally emotional construct as “the good” exists because of mental traits that evolved because, at least at some time in the past, they happened to promote the survival of the packet of genes he happens to be carrying around.  If our species were anywhere near as intelligent as we give ourselves credit for being, it would seem that recognition of the above facts would follow immediately on recognition of the fundamental nature of morality.  It is a tribute to the power of the emotional traits that give rise to moral behavior that nothing of the sort has happened.  The deontologists, consequentialists, and various other tribes of moral and ethical philosophers have continued their speculations about what we “really ought” to do as if nothing had happened, like the sages of yore who debated over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

I suggest to the fellow members of my species that, given the paradigm shift referred to above, it is high time that we refrain from such unproductive debates, and accept the logical consequences of what we have discovered about morality.  It would be useful, at least from my point of view, for a number of reasons.  For example, for reasons I have set forth elsewhere, continued attempts to establish moral systems threaten the survival of our species.  The desire to avoid extinction may be just another emotional whim, but I suspect that it is one that I share with many others of my species.  As such, it is a goal towards which we might agree to work together.