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.


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.

David Sloan Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Group Selection

An interesting skirmish has been going on recently between noted proponent of the theory of group selection David Sloan Wilson and Jerry Coyne, bête noir of the Intelligent Designers.  It started when Wilson posted an article on his website entitled When Richard Dawkins is not an Evolutionist.  It appears that, in Wilson’s opinion, Dawkins wanders from the straight and narrow path of a true evolutionist 1) In his discussion of religion in The God Delusion, and 2) In his opinion of the role of selfish genes in relation to group theory.

Jerry Coyne immediately fired back with a somewhat overwrought rebuttal on his blog.  I won’t go into the details of the controversy here, and, for the record, I agree with Coyne in most of his reply, except for his tendency to “soften” Dawkins’ comments about group selection in The Selfish Gene.  Here’s what Coyne wrote:

Yes, genes are replicators, but no, Dawkins never claimed that their status as selfish replicators somehow rules out group selection. What he claimed, in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, was that successful replicators must share the same vehicle if they are to be successful in the future. Usually that vehicle is the body of an individual organism, which is used by the replicators to propagate themselves. Dawkins’s argument against the efficacy of group selection was that this form of selection is usually unsuccessful because groups are vulnerable to subversion from within by those selfish replicators.

Evidently Coyne didn’t read The Selfish Gene very closely, or he’s been unduly influenced by Dawkins’ recent rowback in the matter of group selection.  Here, Wilson is right.  In fact, Dawkins rejected group selection root and branch.  For example, quoting from the book in the context of a discussion of the importance of selfishness and altruism,

“These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.”  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).”

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that the bald statement that the theory of group selection is “totally and utterly wrong” is somehow compatible with forthright acceptance of group selection, albeit in limited circumstances.  If that’s what Dawkins meant to say, he certainly had a roundabout way of doing it.  This particular quote has an interesting history, by the way.  It was used by Steven Pinker in his book, The Blank Slate, to dismiss the entire intellectual legacy of Robert Ardrey root and branch, in a single sentence, even though group selection was never more than a sidelight in his work.  In other words, Pinker was capable of writing a thick tome purporting to be about the Blank Slate while managing to ignore the role of the most significant opponent of Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday in all but a single sentence.  Certainly a virtuoso performance.

And how do I know that Ardrey was the Blank Slate’s most significant opponent?  As readers of my earlier posts are aware, you certainly don’t have to take my word for it.  It’s all nicely documented in an invaluable little book published in 1968 by the Blank Slaters themselves, entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and still available at Amazon for about a buck.  For example, from an essay in the book by Geoffrey Gorer,

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 or the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.

Of course, today Ardrey, is an unperson, thanks in part, as noted above, to Dawkins’ hard over position on group selection.  After all, Ardrey was a mere playwright, and to admit the crucial role he played would be to offend the academic gravitas of any number of worthy professors emeritus who really had been “totally and utterly wrong” about human nature when Ardrey was right.

But I digress.  Allow me to quote a couple of other passages from “The Selfish Gene” to clear up any remaining doubt about Dawkins’ unequivocal rejection of group selection in that book:

To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first.  Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals.  This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in the Social Contract.

Not much wiggle room there, either, is there, unless Dawkins meant to inform his readers that he is not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory?  Here’s another remarkable example:

Robert Ardrey, in ‘The Social Contract,’ used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general.  He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness.  Ardrey at least did his homework.  His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.

Here I really don’t know what on earth Dawkins was talking about.  He was either deliberately lying, or he never actually read “The Social Contract.”  The idea that Ardrey used that book, “to account for the whole of social order in general” is the purest fantasy.

In a word, anyone who takes the trouble to read The Selfish Gene can see that Coyne is on very thin ice in his attempts to dumb down Dawkins’ position on group selection when he wrote the book.  By all means, check all the references to group selection in the index if you like, but you’ll find it’s not really necessary to read past the first chapter to see that Wilson is entirely justified in claiming that, “A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection.”

Of Evolutionary Psychology and Diet Books

Times have changed!  The behavioral sciences have done a full intellectual double back flip.  Evolutionary psychology, once anathema to all right thinkers in the field in its various earlier incarnations as ethology, the new biology, sociobiology, etc., has finally banished the blank slate obscurantists and gained acceptance, even among the most pious leftists in academia.  So complete has been the paradigm shift among the orthodox gentry of the field that the stunning recognition that there actually is such a thing as human nature has appeared in – a diet book!

This is no ordinary diet book, mind you.  It’s a diet book, entitled The Six-Week Cure for the Middle-Aged Middle, whose authors, Michael and Mary Eades, write and co-produce Lo Carb CookwoRx, a nationally televised show on PBS, a staunch bastion of the Blank Slate no more than 15 years ago.  Allow me to quote a few lines:

According to (Naomi) Wolf and others of her opinion, there is no universal standard for human beauty.  Were we not programmed by advertisers and the entertainment industry, we would find a fat man or woman just as attractive and desirable as a thin one.  We disagree.  Years of serious scientific study, across numerous disciplines, prove otherwise.  Our attraction to a pretty face and a flat belly is in our genes and is an atavistic throwback to a time when such features represented health and the ability to reproduce.

Our ideas of beauty are not driven by Madison Avenue, but by the microchip in our DNA, placed there by Mother Nature using her most indispensable tool:  natural selection.

About forty years ago researchers started applying the laws of natural selection, not just to physical adaptations, but to mental adaptations as well.  Evolutionary psychologists realized that animals born with instinctive fears – for example, fear of falling or fear of snakes or fear of the dark – had a greater likelihood of surviving and passing on those inbred fears to their progeny.  In the same way, desires were genetically hardwired.  Those who developed the instinct to search for mates using looks and/or body size and shape as indicators of good reproductive health were more likely to populate the world with their offspring who carried those same genes.


It’s really stunning to read stuff like this, in a diet book no less, if you’ve been following developments in the field that is now known as Evolutionary Psychology since the day that Robert Ardrey published African Genesis.  It comes complete with an allusion to the quaint historical mythology today’s evolutionary psychologists have created to restore some semblance of academic gravitas to the field, epitomized by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.  According to this mythology, referred to in the third quote above, the universe was once void and without form, ruled by the chaos of the Blank Slate.  Then E. O. Wilson said, “Let there be light!” and, lo, there was light!  And E. O. Wilson saw the light, that it was good, and he called it Sociobiology.  And “just so,” dear reader, Evolutionary Psychology emerged from the outer darkness like Athena from the mind of Zeus.  That’s what the authors mean with their reference to “40 years ago.”  I’ve got news for them.  They’ll find it in the pages of Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, or Carveth Read’s The Origin of Man and his Superstitions, or in the essays of Sir Arthur Keith, or in the books of the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, or in the pages of On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz.

You see, Drs. Eades, human nature isn’t really a discovery of the last 40 years at all.  Indeed, it’s not out of the question that a “Happy Few” speculated about its existence, even before the time of Darwin!

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.