History. You don’t know the half of it. Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own. A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists. Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys. They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless. The roles are periodically reversed. For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930’s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity Shlaes. Charles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.
Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be. In that case, they just disappear. Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia. Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades. According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant. The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense. In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact. They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since. It has been futile. Ardrey broke the spell. The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.
Enter Napoleon Chagnon. The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America. Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land. He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks. One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues. If so, however, one would think wrong. Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:
My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.
For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971. By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books. Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier. The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag. At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Chagnon continues,
I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle. What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.
Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology. Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related. More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology. Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).
So much for Robert Ardrey. His shade should smile. Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate. Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous. Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection. The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense. By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976. Why the dismissive attitude? Call it academic tribalism. The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow. It is a lasting insult to their amour propre. They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since. Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology. Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.” In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste. Surely the tribe can do better.
And what of Ardrey? He was certainly sensational enough. How could he not be? After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational. He was a man of many hypotheses. Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.” However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.
The fact that human nature exists and is important: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups: Ardrey 1, experts 0
Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate: Ardrey 1, experts 0
Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals: Ardrey 1, experts 0
The list goes on. Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time. See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968. And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten. As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.” The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead. They have dropped him down the memory hole. Such is history. As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.
A few days ago E. O. Wilson published a bit in The New York Times entitled The Riddle of the Human Species. Wilson, of course, is a fine writer and a great thinker who’s books include, among others, the seminal Sociobiology. He has been referred to as the “Father of Evolutionary Psychology,” or was, at least, until he challenged some academic orthodoxies in his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth. Among the most egregious of these was his defense of group selection, a subject with a fascinating history which I have often discussed in this blog. Basically, the group selection hypothesis is that natural selection of certain traits occurred because it favored the survival of groups, even though those traits were either neutral or detrimental to the survival of individuals. This drew a chorus of boos from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, who have more or less staked their reputations on the assertion that group selection never happened or, if it did, it wasn’t important. There’s really nothing new in Wilson’s latest bit. He basically reiterates the themes of his latest book, including group selection. This again drew the predictable catcalls from the Dawkins/Pinker camp. One of them was penned by Jerry Coyne, proprieter of the blog, Why Evolution is True. I certainly agree with his take on evolution, but I found some of the arguments in his response to Wilson’s latest risable.
So it’s sad to see him, at the end of his career, repeatedly flogging a discredited theory (“group selection”: evolution via the differential propagation and extinction of groups rather than genes or individuals) as the most important process of evolutionary change in humans and other social species. Let me back up: group selection is not “discredited,” exactly; rather, it’s not thought to be an important force in evolution. There’s very little evidence that any trait (in fact, I can’t think of one, including cooperation) has evolved via the differential proliferation of groups.
Here Coyne does a complete 180 in a single paragraph, making the bombastic claim that group selection is discredited and then doing a quick rowback to the more prosaic, “Well, maybe not quite.” There may be very little evidence that any trait evolved via group selection, as Coyne suggests, but there’s very little evidence that those that might have evolved via group selection didn’t, either. Coyne continues,
I’ve covered this issue many times (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), so I won’t go over the arguments again. Wilson’s “theory” that group selection is more important than kin selection in the evolution of social behavior (published in Nature with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita) was criticized strongly by 156 scientists—including virtually every luminary in social evolution—in five letters to the editor, and sentiment about the importance of group selection has, if anything, decreased since Wilson’s been pushing it.
This is the classic “50 billion flies can’t be wrong” argument, or, in more polite parlance, the argument from authority. Coyne knows that it is just as flimsy as the claim that group selection is a “discredited theory,” but this time he takes a bit longer to do a 180, writing near the very end of his bit,
His theories have not gained traction in the scientific community. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, for, in the end, scientific truth is decided by experiment and observation, not by the numbers of people initially on each side of an issue.
If that’s the case, why bring up the “156 scientists” argument to begin with? If memory serves, there were very few “experts” in the behavioral sciences who didn’t at least pay lip service to the Blank Slate orthodoxy until a very few decades ago. Did that make it right? Coyne next takes Wilson to task for his “inaccurate” use of the term “eusociality”:
“Eusociality” as defined by Wilson and every other evolutionist is the condition in which a species has a reproductive and social division of labor: eusocial species have “castes” that do different tasks, with a special reproductive caste (“queens”) that do all the progeny producing, and “worker castes” that are genetically sterile and do the tending of the colony. Such species include Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees, though not all species are eusocial), termites, naked mole rats, and some other insects.
But humans don’t have reproductive castes, nor genetically determined worker castes. Wilson is going against biological terminology, lumping humans with ants as “eusocial,” so he can apply his own theories of “altruism” in social insects (i.e., workers “unselfishly” help their mothers produce offspring while refraining themselves from reproducing), to humans.
Here, one can but smile and wonder if Coyne is actually serious. Is he really unaware that, while he may not have actually coined the term “eusociality,” Wilson supplied the first scientific definition for it? Is he no longer allowed to use a term that he essentially invented as he sees fit? The presence of “castes” is by no means universally accepted as a requirement for eusociality in any case.
As it happens, Wilson is co-author with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita of a paper presenting a mathematical theory of group selection entitled, The Evolution of Eusociality. Alluding to this, Coyne writes,
The mathematical “proof” given by Nowak et al. does not show that group selection is a better explanation than kin selection for social behavior in insects, for their “proof” does not vary the level of kinship, as it must if it could allow that conclusion.
This begs the question of whether alternative mathematical “proofs” of kin selection are any better. To this, as one who has spent a good part of his career as a computational physicist, I can only laugh. Consider the case of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), built to demonstrate inertial confinement fusion. The finest three-dimensional full physics codes, amply benchmarked with the results of previous experiments on earlier giant laser facilities such as Nova at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and OMEGA at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, confidently predicted that the NIF would succeed in achieving its ignition goal. It did not. It is currently short of that goal by more than an order of magnitude. Trust me, the mathematical models that are supposed to “prove” group selection or kin selection are hopelessly crude by comparison. They can all be taken with a grain of salt. Coyne continues,
The second egregious and false claim in this paragraph (a paragraph that’s the highlight of the piece) is that “multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists” because of the Nowak et al. paper. That’s simply not true. The form of multilevel selection adumbrated in that paper is, to my knowledge, embraced by exactly four people: the three authors of the paper and David Sloan Wilson.
Here, I can but suggest that Coyne try Google, using the search term “group selection.” It would seem based on a cursory search that there are rather more embracers of group selection than he imagined. Coyne concludes,
Why does Wilson keep writing article and article, and book after book, promoting group selection? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is that his seeming monomaniacal concentration on a weakly-supported form of evolution can serve only to erode his reputation… Wilson’s reputation is secure. It’s sad to see it tarnished by ill-founded arguments for an unsubstantiated evolutionary process.
What, exactly, is this supposed to be? A thinly veiled threat? If not, how else is one to construe it? Is Coyne suggesting that Wilson either repeat orthodoxies about group selection that he clearly believes to be false, or, alternatively, shut up and surrender his freedom of speech because he’s worried about his precious reputation? It brings to mind my own furious denunciation of Aristotle in my 9th grade biology class for promoting wrong theories of cosmology. My teacher, Mr. Haag, who was much wiser than I deserved, observed, “Well, at least he thought.” I’ve thought a great deal about that reply since the 9th grade. To this day I have no idea whether group selection was really important or not, and don’t believe that anyone else has adequate evidence to decide the question one way or the other, either. However, regardless, I will always honor and admire E. O. Wilson. At least he thought.
A terrible and traumatic thing happened on the Monday night before last, particularly for those of us who grew up in Wisconsin during the years of the great Green Bay Packer dynasty built by Saint Vincent Lombardi. In a call so flagrantly and flamboyantly bad that I have never seen its like, even at the junior high school level, the NFL replacement refs awarded the Seattle Seahawks a touchdown on an obvious Green Bay interception, altering the outcome of the game. I immediately flew into a (not objectively justifiable) rage, filling the social media with comments to the effect that I would never again support the NFL in any way, shape, or form. Shortly thereafter, certain mood-altering things began to happen. The strike was settled, and the regular refs returned in time to call the next game on Thursday night. The Packers won and the unspeakable Seahawks lost. The NFL sent some nice people over to adjust my meds. My whole attitude changed. I love the NFL again, can’t wait to go to another game, and that traumatic Monday night is but a distant and fading memory.
That in microcosm, is what once happened to the academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences, albeit the process took a bit longer. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere, they once denied there was such a thing as human nature, or, if it existed at all, its influence was insignificant. If anyone disagreed, they flew into a rage and hurled down anathemas on the transgressor. As most of them tended to occupy points to the left of center on the ideological spectrum, those anathemas typically involved implications that the evildoer occupied the outgroup on the right. I noted the following examples directed at the most influential of the contrarians, Robert Ardrey, in an earlier post:
His (Ardrey’s) categories and preferences are bound to give comfort and provide ammunition for the radical Right, for the Birchites and Empire Loyalists and their analogues elsewhere. (Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer)
Major aggressions of history, including Hitler’s, may be explained superficially by these easy devices of instinct theory, or studied systematically with evidence known to historians and scientists. (Animal psychologist T. C. Schneirla)
Simple-minded ideas similar to those of (eugenecist Albert Edward) Wiggam concerning racial improvement led Hitler and his friends to try to eliminate one whole section of the human race. I doubt if Ardrey’s book has any such serious implication as this, but the erroneous notion that fighting over the possession of land is a powerful, inevitable, and uncontrollable instinct might well lead to the conclusion that war is inevitable and therefore a nation must attack first and fight best in order to survive and prosper. (Psychologist J. P. Scott. As those familiar with Ardrey’s work are aware, he never had any such “notion”).
In time, all that changed. The existence and importance of human nature had always been obvious to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old. The data continued to roll in, and gradually became so weighty that even the experts in the behavioral sciences were forced to agree with the 10 year olds. A paradigm shift occurred. A flood of articles began to appear, both in the academic and professional journals and the popular media, all citing the profound importance of human nature as if the matter had never been the least bit controversial. Oddly enough, it was discovered that evolution had not predisposed us to be fascists and John Birchers after all. Au contraire, we were all programmed to reside safely and solidly on the ideological left. Those on the right, finally noticing that their ox was being gored, began throwing pious thunderbolts in the opposite direction. For example, from an article entitled “Science Demands Big Government” by Dennis Prager, written for National Review Online,
“We have evolved,” the professor (Daniel Lieberman of Harvard) concluded his piece, “to need coercion.” In order to understand both how silly and how dangerous this comment is, one must first understand the role evolutionary explanations play in academic life — and in left-wing life generally. The Left has always sought single, non-values-based explanations for human behavior.
In the words of Scientific American, “Homo economicus is extinct.” But the biggest reason for the declining popularity of economic man is that science has displaced economics — which is not widely regarded as a science — as the Left’s real religion. Increasingly, therefore, something held to be indisputably scientific — evolution — is offered as the Left’s explanation for virtually everything.
If we take this claim seriously and use evolution to guide social policy, little that is truly decent will survive. Is there anything less prescribed by evolution than, let us say, hospices? Professor Lieberman writes that humans have evolved to cooperate with one another. But he cannot deny that the basic evolutionary proposition is survival of the fittest. How, then, can an evolutionary perspective demand the expending of energy and resources to take care of those who are dying? And if evolution demands the survival of the species, wouldn’t evolution call for other “coercion” — against abortion, for example?
…and so on, and so on. Thus, dear reader, we have finally come full circle. Within a very few years, “human nature” has done a double back flip, all the way from being a tool of fascist imperialism to the “scientific” basis of the nanny state. Silly anthropologists! Silly sociologists! Silly psychologists! Why did you resist the obvious for so long? It turns out that, thanks to “human nature”, we have evolved to be ideally adapted to whatever future utopias you see fit to concoct for us after all!
I rather think Mr. Prager has a point. Many of the latest books and papers emanating from what used to be called in the vernacular ethology, and then sociobiology, and now evolutionary psychology have a distinctly leftist flavor. An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon is the increasing incidence of attacks from those quarters on the works of Ayn Rand in general, and her novel Atlas Shrugged in particular. Its hero is one John Galt, a typical Randian superman; brilliant, creative, resourceful, and scornful of all mediocrity. A bitter enemy of all stifling egalitarianism and collectivism, he organizes a strike by übermenschen like himself, who all withdraw to a secluded refuge and await the collapse of the bureaucratic nanny state that sought to exploit them. The Galt icon has long appealed to those who tend to favor “rugged individualism” over collectivism. That preference tends to occur more frequently among those on the right of the ideological divide, and particularly among libertarians. They tend to be somewhat rare among the ranks of professional academics. Lately, “science” has been sending them some depressing news. Their idol, John Galt is a chimera, the fantasy of a woman who was traumatized by a girlhood spent in a totalitarian police state posing as a collectivist worker’s paradise.
He missed such obvious bad guys as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, but that still covers the field pretty well. All of them, it would seem, have somehow been infected with bad behavioral alleles. They are all out of step with our evolutionary past, as represented, Johnson is careful to inform us, by our “good guy” bonobo next of kin, as opposed to the “bad guy” chimpanzees. Citing a passage from Rand that associates collectivism with “primordial savages,” who are not in tune with up-to-date human nature as represented by the likes of John Galt, Johnson continues,
The Pleistocene epoch, from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, was a formative time in our species’ development. The first members of the genus Homo began to walk the great savannas of Africa at the beginning of this epoch. In a little more than 2 million years, we went from loose aggregations of bonobo-like bipeds, traveling upright between patches of forest, to highly integrated societies made up of multiple families and clans. By studying the archaeological record as well as modern-day hunter-gatherers, evolutionary scientists have been constructing a record of how our early human ancestors made this journey. It is clear that John Galt was not present in our ancestral family tree.
To add point to this modern revelation of the behavioral sciences, Johnson presents us with a homily based on observations of the Mbuti, a tribe of pygmy hunters by anthropologist Colin Turnbull. One of them, a certain Cephu, had somehow managed to get out of step with his inner altruist:
The Mbuti employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. “In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters,” explained Turnbull in his book The Forest People, “but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.” Word spread among camp members that Cephu had been trying to steal meat from the tribe, and a consensus quickly developed that he should answer for this crime.
At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.
The concerned reader will be relieved to know that the story has a happy ending:
“Cephu committed what is probably one of the most heinous crimes in Pygmy eyes, and one that rarely occurs. Yet the case was settled simply and effectively,” Turnbull concluded. Among the Mbuti, as with most hunter-gatherer societies, altruism and equality are systems that enhance individual freedom. Following these moral rules helps prevent any one individual from taking advantage of others or even dominating the group as a whole because of unequal privileges. However, just as it is in our society, the negotiation between the individual and the group is always a work in progress. Perhaps that is why, after the Mbuti had feasted on the day’s successful hunt, one member of the group slipped away to give the still moaning Cephu some of the cooked meat and mushroom sauce that everyone else had enjoyed. Later that night, Cephu turned up at the main camp, where he sat on the ground and sang songs with the rest of his tribe. Holding up the world isn’t so trying when there are others who can lend a helping hand.
Johnson assures us that the Mbuti are by no means an anomaly. Citing the work of anthropologist Christopher Boehm, he writes,
Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls “Late-Pleistocene Appropriate” (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are. What he has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand’s selfish ideal.
And so, Paul Ryan, Rush Limbaugh, and all the rest of the Randian Tea Partiers are thrust into outer darkness, deniers of the modern science of human nature, on a one-way trip to evolutionary oblivion. The world has once again been made safe for utopia. I must admit, though that, influenced no doubt by my inner Rush Limbaugh, a few reservations do occur to me. In the first place, Atlas Shrugged remains extremely popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies annually more than a half a century after it first appeared. If John Galt does not appeal to anything “normal” in human nature, what is going on? Is a pathological mutation occurring in our “human nature” genes at alarming speed for some reason, perhaps as a weird after effect of nuclear testing? Are the innate behavioral predispositions of the Rand admirers being trumped by some bizarre artifact of culture and environment? I suggest a less dramatic explanation. It lies in human traits that have always been abundantly obvious, except, perhaps to behavioral scientists.
One of them was described in the scientific literature back in the 1940’s by Sir Arthur Keith – our tendency to perceive our fellow human beings in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Robert Ardrey used to refer to it as the Amity/Enmity Complex. Our species certainly does display altruistic behavior within the ingroup. It most decidedly does not extend it to the outgroup. Is it unreasonable to suggest that the legions of Rand fans perceive the bureaucratic parasites who are John Galt’s enemies in Atlas Shrugged as belonging to the latter, and not the former? It has been proposed, of course, that we merely expand our ingroup to include all mankind. I suspect this will turn out to be rather more difficult than some of the more sanguine among us expect. For example, Johnson has clearly revealed his own outgroup to us, as follows:
It’s hard for me to imagine Rush Limbaugh and Mr. Johnson in the same ingroup without a very liberal application of mind-altering drugs.
Another human trait that may explain the Ayn Rand anomaly has been well-described by Mr. Johnson himself; our tendency to despise and punish free riders and exploiters. The unfortunate Cephu is on the receiving end of this predisposition at the hands of his fellow Mbuti. Is it outside the realm of possibility that the Galt admirers do not identify him and his fellow rebels as Cephu, but as the punishers of the many Cephus among us, who constantly demand all good things from their ingroup, but are extremely unlikely to ever give anything back in return?
In a word, I rather suspect that Rand does not appeal to her many admirers because they are all evil, nor because they are all pathological mutants. She appeals to them because she resonates with aspects of human nature which are, perhaps, more pronounced on the right than on the left of the ideological spectrum. And the point of all this? Perhaps that, when it comes to the ideological hijacking of science, it’s never all over. For decades, the very existence of human nature was denied because it seemed to threaten ideological shibboleths. Finally, that gross imposture collapsed. But wait! Just when you thought you were safe, the shibboleths returned, only this time with “human nature” as one of their essential props. In the past, anyone who suggested that human nature existed and was important became the victim of furious, ideologically motivated attacks. In the future, we can confidently expect that those who don’t “think right” about human nature, by suggesting, for example, that it might occasionally motivate us to behave as other than benign altruistic and egalitarian cogs in the great, all-encompassing human ingroup will face similar attacks. Among others, it would seem that the ideological winds are beginning to blow strongly in the face of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and the rest of the “selfish gene” crowd.
Be that as it may, there are no grounds for despair. After all, it is now at least possible to study human nature without fear of being vilified and slandered for doing so. The scientific tools at our command for undertaking that study are becoming more powerful every day. There will always be a few mavericks among the researchers and experimenters for whom the truth is more important than ideological purity. They will continue to accumulate evidence about the real nature of human beings, whether it happens to favor John Galt or not. Who knows? If we collect enough knowledge about who and what we really are, we may eventually become wise enough to survive after all.
I must admit that I felt a certain malicious glee on reading E. O. Wilson’s defense of group selection in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. After all, Richard Dawkins dismissed the life work of men like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in his The Selfish Gene because, in his words, they were “totally and utterly wrong” in defending group selection. I happen to admire all three of them because they were the most influential and effective defenders of the existence of such a thing as human nature during the heyday of the Blank Slate. It was good to see Dawkins hoisted on his own petard. However, my glee has been dampened somewhat of late by what I see as an increasing tendency of some evolutionary biologists, and particularly those who have come out most strongly in favor of group selection, to adulterate their science with a strong dose of ideology. Apparently, they have learned little from the aberration of the Blank Slate, or at least not enough to avoid repeating it.
Consider, for example a paper that recently turned up on the website of the Social Evolution Forum with the somewhat incongruous title, “Joseph Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. Cultural Evolution. The Evolution Institute,” by Peter Turchin, professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics. A good part of it was a review of The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, which, Turchin informs us, he was about two-thirds of his way through. He notes that “Stiglitz is sympathetic to Leftist ideas. Actually, he is way out on the Left end of the political spectrum.” This doesn’t seem to raise any red flags at all, as far as Turchin is concerned. One wonders, “How can this be?” Haven’t we just been through all this? Were not the Blank Slaters who derailed the behavioral sciences for several decades also “way out on the Left end of the political spectrum?” Did they not villify anyone who disagreed with their puerile notions about human nature as arch-conservatives, John Birchers, and fascists? Did they not have powerful motives for making the “scientific facts” come out right so that they didn’t stand in the way of the drastic political and social changes they planned for us “for our own good?” There is no reason that anyone on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum can’t do good science, but it goes without saying that, when one has strong ideological motivations for having the answers come out one way or the other, that bias must be taken into account and carefully controlled for. That is particularly true when the answers always just happen to agree nicely with one’s ideological preconceptions.
None of this seems to occur to Turchin, who points out that Stiglitz “inveighs against the ‘Right’ on numerous occasions throughout the book.” Apparently, we are to believe this is somehow remarkable and heroic, for he continues, “This is unusual for an economist, especially such an accomplished one who is (or, at least, has been) part of the ruling elite. Most economists know very well which side of their bread is buttered. It is curious how economic theories that yield answers pleasing to the powerful and wealthy tend to be part of the mainstream, while those yielding uncomfortable answers are relegated to the fringe…” To this one can only say, “Surely you’re joking, Professor Turchin!” Did not Paul Krugman, hardly noted as a conservative wingnut, just win the Nobel Prize in economics? Has there been a sudden revelation that the economics professors at our great universities have issued a pronunciamiento in favor of the Republican ticket, with the exception of an insignificant “fringe.” Where is the hard data demonstrating that “most economists” favor the rich elites? Have all the leading economics journals suddenly gone hard over in favor of supply side economics while I wasn’t looking?
Citing a theme of bête noire of the left Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Turchin continues,
It is interesting to note that when the wealthy ‘defect,’ they actually not only make the overall situation worse, but it is actually a suboptimal outcome for them, too. At least that is the message of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Among other things, Wilkinson and Pickett make a striking observation that the expectation of life among the wealthier segment of Americans is less than the median for many European societies that are much more egalitarian – and spend much less per capita on health.
“Much more egalitarian”? Evidently the authors never lived in Europe. I lived in Germany, and if they think that the society there is much more “egalitarian” than the United States just because the top 1% take home a smaller percentage of the national income, they’re dreaming. The country is far more stratified according to social rank and power than the US, and the same families tend to control positions of power in government and industry year after year. The presence of minorities in positions of political and economic influence is virtually imperceptible. Think the situation is different in France, another nation that beats the US in terms of income equality? Just ask any black in Paris whether they think their chances would be better there than here. Other than that, where is the data on countries where the rich “defect”? Has such a thing ever actually happened in the sense described in Rand’s novel? What evidence is there that the health of the top earners in the US, whether better or worse than their European peers, has anything to do with “egalitarianism”?
What, you might ask, does all this have to do with evolutionary biology? According to Turchin, one of Stiglitz major “shortcomings” is that he “is apparently unaware of the great progress that cultural evolution and cultural multilevel selection theory made in the last decade or so.” One wonders what, exactly, he is referring to when he speaks of “cultural” multilevel selection theory. One of the authors he cites in support of this contention, David Sloan Wilson, is certainly well known for his work on multilevel selection. However, his most cited work is on genetic, and not cultural evolution. Regardless, Turchin’s point is that science is to be used as a tool to support preconceived ideological truisms. That tendency to assume that “science” would always get the “right answer” contributed heavily to the debacle of the blank slate.
I had a similar experience in the conference the Evolution Institute organized last December in Stanford on Nation-Building and Failed States. One of the participants was Francis Fukuyama, who had recently published a book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he was clearly interested in engaging with evolutionary thinking. Yet he had to resort to appeals to the two tired (and badly wrong) models of human sociality – reciprocal altruism and kin selection.
Here we’ve come back to the point I made at the beginning of this article; the recent marked tendency of group selectionists to adulterate their science with ideology. As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not particularly fond of Dawkins, Pinker, and some of the other major advocates of reciprocal altruism and kin selection. However, when Turchin claims that they are “tired and badly wrong” he is just blowing smoke. The jury is still out, and he has no basis on which to make such a judgment. On what knowledge does he base this assurance that these theories are “badly wrong”? Nowak’s “complex mathematical models”? I was a computational physicist for much of my career, and while Nowak’s models are interesting, the idea that they account for all of the relevant data so thoroughly that they can serve as a basis for the conclusion that inclusive fitness theory is “badly wrong” is laughable.
Turchin is hardly the only one publishing such stuff. I’ve read several others authors recently who argue in favor of group selection without giving any indication that they have even an inkling of the complexity of the subject, and who rain down furious anathemas on the supposedly “debunked” proponents of inclusive fitness, associating them with evil ideological and political tendencies in the process. Their tone is typically one of outraged virtue rather than scientific detachment. Do we really need to go through all this again? Perhaps instead of declaiming about the philosophy of Kropotkin and crying up the moral superiority of their version of “equality,” advocates of group selection would do well to make sure they have the science right first.
Steve Davis has recently been championing group selection and lobbing rocks at Richard Dawkins and his fellow gene-centrists over at Science 2.0. He writes with a certain moralistic fervor that ill befits a scientist, but so does Dawkins and a good number of his followers. The problem isn’t that he takes issue with Dawkins and his inclusive fitness orthodoxy. The problem is that he associates evolutionary psychology with that orthodoxy, as if it would evaporate without a kin selection crutch. Not only is that untrue, but it stands the whole history of the science on its head. For example, referring to the book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene by philosopher Mary Midgley in an article entitled “Evolutionary Psychology – As it Should Be,” Davis writes,
Not only does the book have wide implications for debates in evolutionary psychology, it overturns that school of thought completely, as it presents a comprehensive rebuttal of the selfish gene hypothesis on which evolutionary psychology (as we know it) is based.
When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at (anthropologist and anarchist political theorist Peter) Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”)But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought.
As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based. Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.
Of course the issue of group selection in all its various flavors is actually very complex. For anyone interested, I recommend the excellent discussion of group selection that illustrates that complexity in J. van der Dennen’s The Origin of War. However, the real problem with these articles is their association of the entire field of evolutionary psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now. That association is fundamentally false. To demonstrate that fact, one need look no further than the first chapter of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. For example, quoting from the book,
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).
Who were Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt? Well, to begin with, they all supported the theory of group selection. They were also the most prominent evolutionary psychologists of their day. I use the term “evolutionary psychology” in the vernacular, that is, a science based on the hypothesis that there is such a thing as human nature. The vernacular term that meant the same thing in the heyday of the above three was “ethology.” Later it became “sociobiology.” The original sociobiologist was, of course, E. O. Wilson. He never fully accepted Dawkins’ gene-centric views, and, of course, recently came out of the closet as a firm believer in group selection. As for The Selfish Gene, it isn’t just about Dawkins theory of gene-centric evolution. It is also a full-fledged attack on the evolutionary psychologists of its day. The above quote is hardly unique, and is followed by many others attacking Lorenz and Ardrey for their support of group selection.
Davis’ misconception that there is some kind of an indissoluble bond between evolutionary psychology and Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution is understandable. EP has come of age during a time when Dawkins opinion represented scientific orthodoxy, and reflects that environment, in a manner no different from any of the other biological sciences. However, the fact that many evolutionary psychologists happened to also accept gene-centric orthodoxy hardly implies that the whole field is dependent on or derived from that point of view.
Davis’ conflation of kin selection and evolutionary psychology is also understandable in view of the extensive scrubbing of the history of the field. According to this “history,” as represented, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, what became EP began with a mythical “big bang” with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. In fact, as far as the reason for that book’s notoriety is concerned, its embrace of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature, it was just an afterthought. There is nothing in it that was not written more than a decade earlier by the likes of Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, most prominently, Robert Ardrey. To fact check this statement, one need only read Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves, published in 1968, and still available on Amazon for about a dollar the last time I looked. I suspect one of the reasons the history of EP has been “revised” is the fact that, when it came to Ardrey’s claim that there is such a thing a human nature, the fundamental theme of all his work, he was right, and the lion’s share of “experts” in the behavioral sciences, at least in the United States, were wrong. Ardrey, you see, was a mere playwright. Hence the “big bang” myth.
The claim that the imaginary link with kin selection that Davis refers to does exist with evolutionary psychology “as we know it,” or in its current incarnation, is also wrong. E. O. Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Martin Nowak are among the most prominent, if not the most prominent, evolutionary psychologists in the field of evolutionary morality as I write this. All three have come down firmly and publicly in favor of group selection.
Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times. It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading. Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism. As he notes in the review:
Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.
But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.
The “unspoken tension” is definitely there. I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason. Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion. He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists. Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,
These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe. The other three authors, however, are men of science.
My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw. “Men of science” indeed! Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?” Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?” I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality. Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals. Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience. In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism. As he puts it:
The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2: Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses). So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion. To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers. Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community. That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.
This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense. If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other. It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.
We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw. In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story: By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.” As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.” In other words, as Haidt puts it,
The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.
He then goes Atran and Henrich one better. Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution. Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection. In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,
In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.
It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion. I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007. When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not. Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way. His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence. Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection. Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection. He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection. Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around. However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion. Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.
I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.” Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion. For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group. For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.” Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.” Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.” He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,
…the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.
Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin. Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing. Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.” Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.” Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either. Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot. In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists. I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing. He concludes,
Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).
In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank. Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children. It seems we’ve come full circle. Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century. Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection. I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices. However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction. I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth. Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.
In chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind,Jonathan Haidt addresses the topic of religion:
In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology: Morality binds and blinds. Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.
Among the “scientists who misunderstand,” Haidt specifically singles out the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Group selectionist David Sloan Wilson recently wrote a similar critique of Dawkins in The Skeptic, claiming that Dawkins was “not an evolutionist” when discussing religion. In Wilson’s words,
Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare… How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.
I have some problems of my own with The God Delusion, such as its anti-American tone in general and its obsession with religious fundamentalists in the U.S., usually referred to by Dawkins as the “American Taliban” in particular. He even went so far as to repeat the old urban myth about how Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. However, it seemed to me that Dawkins was right as far as Wilson’s criticism was concerned. My impression was that the book really was concerned mainly with the question of whether or not there actually is a God, and that, as Dawkins said, he was therefore not obligated to digress on the evolutionary origins of religion. This impression was reinforced by Wilson’s review in The Skeptic, in which he wrote,
For religion, however, he (Dawkins) argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.
I thought when I read this, and still think that the issue of adaptation was beside the point. Dawkins was addressing the issue of whether God exists, and not the adaptive value of religion. This impression was reinforced by the fact that, immediately after the passage quoted above, Wilson continued with a long, rambling defense of group selection. It reminded me of Maslow’s hammer: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Wilson was simply betraying a tendency to see everything in terms of his favorite area of expertise, whether it was really germane or not.
Enter Jonathan Haidt, who takes issue with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists for similar reasons, but does a better job of explaining exactly what it is he’s getting at. As he puts it,
But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion – and understand its relationship to morality and politics – we must first describe it accurately… Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.
Now we at least have a better idea of why Wilson and Haidt are rejecting the arguments of the New Atheists. As Haidt puts it, they are like Plato and other rationalist philosophers who thought that reason should control the passions, as opposed to the view of Hume (and Haidt) that reason is really just a servant of the intuitions. Beyond that, they are using contrived arguments to explain away the evolutionary origins of religion. According to Haidt and Wilson, religion exists as a manifestation of evolved mental traits, and those traits were selected because they increased the fitness, not of individuals, but of groups. In other words, Haidt’s recent comments in favor of group selection are no fluke. Group selection actually plays a fundamental role in his theoretical understanding of religion as an adaptive trait, and not cultural group selection, but genetic group selection. Chapter 11 actually includes a spirited defense of Wilson, noting that his,
…great achievement was to merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences: Darwin and (Emile) Durkheim… In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the ways that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.
At this point, Haidt begins performing some remarkable intellectual double back flips. If religion really is an adaptive trait, apparently he feels it necessary to demonstrate that it is also really “good”. For example, we learn that,
…John Calvin developed a strict and demanding form of Christianity that suppressed free riding and facilitated trust and commerce in sixteenth century Geneva.
There is no mention of Calvin torturing a religious opponent to death in a slow fire made of green wood with a wreath strewn with sulfur around his head. Haidt tells us that the 911 bombers were really motivated by nationalism, not religion. (Remember the yarns about how zealots of a secular religion, Communism, such as Ho chi Minh and Castro, were also supposed to be “nationalists.” And, of course, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, either.) But, as “the most revealing example” of the benign effects of religion, Haidt cites Wilson’s example of “the case of water temples among Balinese rice farmers in the centuries before Dutch colonization.”
It seems to me that, if the New Atheists are guilty of an error of omission for focusing on the existence of God and ignoring the nature of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, Haidt must also be guilty of an error of omission by focusing on Balinese rice farmers and ignoring the slaughter of the Crusades, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women as “witches,” the brutal military conquest of north Africa, Spain, and large areas of the Middle East and Europe in the name of Islam, pogroms that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the centuries, the additional hundreds of thousands of dead in the Hussite wars, the constant bloody internal conflicts in numerous medieval states over the minutiae of religious doctrine, and so on and so on and so on. We can certainly discuss whether such “evils” of religion are outweighed by the “goods” cited by Wilson and others, but if Haidt is really the “man of science” he claims to be, it is not acceptable to ignore them.
One might similarly praise the advantages of war, which is as likely as religion to be a manifestation of evolved human mental traits. It also fosters within-group charity, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and any number of other “goods,” which are cataloged by German General Friedrich von Bernhardi in his seminal work on the subject, “Germany and the Next War.” Are not objections to the effect that it is occasionally very bloody and destructive just more instances of “misconceptions” inspired by the thought of Plato and other rationalist philosophers?
Call me an incorrigible rationalist if you like, but it seems to me that it does actually matter whether God exists or not. What if, as Haidt suggests, religion is not only an evolutionary adaptation, but one that is, on balance, useful and benign? Does that really render the question of whether God exists or not irrelevant? Is it really a “rationalist delusion” to consider the evidence for and against that hypothesis without dragging evolution and group selection into the discussion? Is reality so irrelevant to the human condition that it is acceptable to encourage people to associate in groups and act based on belief in things that are not only palpably untrue, but silly? If the truth doesn’t matter, what is the point of even writing books about morality? Would Prof. Haidt have us believe that The Righteous Mind is a mere product of his intuitions? I suspect that, whatever our goals happen to be, we are more likely to achieve them if we base our actions on that which is true than on that which is not. I am just as dubious as Haidt about the power of human reason. However, I prefer continuing to grope for the truth with that reason, however weak it might be, to embracing intuitions that require belief in things that are false, whether they enhanced the fitness of our species in times utterly unlike the present or not.
If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law. It’s the best book on morality I know of. Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow. Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature. Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”. He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions. He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions. Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights. It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette. It should be read in full.
I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality. I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations. It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature. Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality. Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.
There is good news and bad news in the book. The bad news starts early. In the introduction, Haidt writes,
I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.
I’m afraid he’s right. I’m certainly no exception to the rule. The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating. It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason. If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears. In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd. However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point. He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right. It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.
Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse. I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward. Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows. I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.
I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do. However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it. Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it. Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth. For example, in chapter 4 he writes,
Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).
Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply. I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason. Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth. We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments. Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon. None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood. The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless. There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.
I’ve finally started reading Jonathan Haidt’sThe Righteous Mind. It does not disappoint. Haidt is certainly among the greatest, if not the greatest, moral psychologists of our time. He may turn out to be wrong in detail here and there, but I suspect that continued advances in our understanding of how the brain works will confirm the big picture he has painted for us when it comes to human morality. If it were up to me, this and a few similar books would be required reading in every high school in the country. If nothing else, they might at least provoke the next generation of advocates of holy causes into thinking a little about whether they’re actually motivated by a saintly desire to save the world, or perhaps something rather less heroic.
That said, let the nitpicking begin. I will have more to say about the book in a later post, but a couple of things caught my eye as I began reading. First, Haidt’s comments in favor of group selection in response to criticisms of E. O. Wilson’sThe Social Conquest of Earth by Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and a host of other anti-group selectionists were no fluke. He leaves no doubt where he stands on the matter in The Righteous Mind as well. For example, from the introduction,
But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960’s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war and genocide.”
I find it surprising that Haidt would have the courage to stick his neck out like this on such a controversial subject, and one that is likely to arose the ire of some very influential public scientists and intellectuals. Group selection theory has inspired fierce passions for well over half a century, and continues to do so today. Haidt has much to lose by climbing into the arena and joining the slugfest. The question is, what does he have to gain? One can only surmise that he is convinced group selection played a key role in the evolution of the behavioral traits described in his book, or perhaps that the latest mathematical models of group selection published by Martin Nowak and others are airtight.
Other than that, I was bemused (or perhaps chagrined is a better word) to find Steven Pinker’s fanciful and farcical “history” of the Blank Slate ensconced in yet another book by a respected public scientist. Apparently the rulers of Orwells Oceania were right. “He who controls the present controls the past.” Here’s Haidt’s version of the fairy tale:
The second wave of moralism was the radical politics that washed over universities in America, Europe, and Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Radical reformers usually want to believe that human nature is a blank slate on which any utopian vision can be sketched. If evolution gave men and women different sets of desires and skills, for example, that would be an obstacle to achieving gender equality in many professions. If nativism (the belief that natural selection gave us minds that were preloaded with moral emotions, ed.) could be used to justify existing power structures, then nativism must be wrong. (Again, this is a logical error, but this is the way righteous minds work.)
While it was true that the Blank Slate was embraced by reformers because it accommodated their utopian visions, those reformers were on the scene long before the type prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s came along, and the earlier versions were really more mainstream than radical. They typically supported some flavor of socialism, an entirely mainstream philosophy in the 30’s, 40’s and well into the 50’s, particularly in Europe, and represented the scientific and political orthodoxy of their day, at least as it existed on university campuses. I recently wrote an article about a typical example of the type, anthropologist and socialist Geoffrey Gorer, a friend and supporter of George Orwell, who was also a convinced socialist. Gorer was entirely respectable, mainstream, and impeccably non-radical in his day, and wrote the following in the 50’s:
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.
Gorer was highly intelligent, by no means a pious pecksniff of the 60’s and 70’s stripe, but, like so many other behavioral scientists of his era, had somehow managed to convince himself that a theory that should have been immediately identifiable as bunk to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old was actually true. It had to be true, or all of those fine “worldwide ideologies” that had occasioned the spilling of so much ink would be stillborn.
The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was a graduate student a Harvard in the 1970’s. In his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker describes the ways scientists betrayed the values of science to maintain loyalty to the progressive movement. Scientists became “moral exhibitionists” in the lecture hall as they demonized fellow scientists and urged their students to evaluate ideas not for their truth but for their consistency with progressive ideals such as racial and gender equality.
Nowhere was the betrayal of science more evident than in the attacks on Edward O. Wilson, a lifelong student of ants and eco-systems. In 1975 Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The book explored how natural selection, which indisputably shaped animal bodies, also shaped animal behavior. That wasn’t controversial, but Wilson had the audacity to suggest in his final chapter that natural selection also influenced human behavior. Wilson believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions.
Prophets challenge the status quo, often earning the hatred of those in power. Wilson therefore deserves to be called a prophet of moral psychology. He was harassed and excoriated in print and in public. He was called a fascist, which justified (for some) the charge that he was a racist, which justified (for some) the attempt to stop him from speaking in public. Protesters who tried to disrupt one of his scientific talks rushed the stage and chanted, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”
There, in a nutshell, are all the elements of Pinker’s bogus “history”: In the beginning, the Blank Slate was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And E. O. Wilson said, Let there be light, and there was light. As I will never weary of pointing out, it didn’t happen that way. Wilson, for whom I have the greatest respect as a scientist and a courageous thinker, was hardly a “prophet” who came along and single-handedly slew the Blank Slate Dragon. Prophets are the carriers of revelations. Wilson carried none, at least as far as human nature is concerned. He was preceded by numerous influential thinkers, such as Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, who also “believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” and were derided for those beliefs as fascists long before E. O. Wilson came on the scene.
The most famous and influential of Wilson’s predecessors by far, as documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in Man and Aggression, an invaluable piece of historical source material edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, was Robert Ardrey. For example, from Gorer, who contributed to the book,
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.
The idea that there was anything “audacious” about “suggesting that natural selection also influenced human behavior” by 1975 is nonsense. There is literally nothing in Sociobiology, at least as far as the ideas Wilson was attacked for, or regarded as a “prophet” for writing, are concerned, that had not appeared repeatedly in the works of Ardrey published more than a decade earlier, such as African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative. For example,
Man is a fraction of the animal world… We are not so unique as we should like to believe. The problem of man’s original nature imposes itself upon any human solution.
Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity. In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.
A certain justification has existed until now, in my opinion, for submission of the insurgent specialists to the censorship of scientific orthodoxy. Such higher bastions of philosophical orthodoxy as Jefferson, Marx, and Freud could scarcely be stormed by partial regiments. Until the anti-romantic (anti-blank slate) revolution could summon to arms what now exists, an overwhelming body of incontrovertible proof, then action had best be confined to a labyrinthine underground of unreadable journals, of museum back rooms, and of gossiping groups around African camp-fires.
If today we say that almost nothing is known about the much-observed chimpanzee, then what we mean is that almost nothing is known of his behavior in a state of nature.
The romantic fallacy (blank slate) may be defined as the central conviction of modern thought that all human behavior, with certain clearly stated exception, results from causes lying within the human experience… Contemporary thought may diverge wildly in it prescriptions for human salvation; but it stands firmly united in its systematic error.
The contemporary revolution in the natural sciences points inexorably to the proposition that man’s soul is not unique. Man’s nature, like his body, is the product of evolution.
Marxian socialism represents the most stunning and cataclysmic triumph of the romantic fallacy over the minds of rational men… And an observer of the animal role in human affairs can only suggest that much of what we have experienced in the last terrifying half-century has been simply what happens, no more and no less, when human energies become preoccupied with the building of social institutions upon false assumptions concerning man’s inner nature.
It is the superb paradox of our time that in a single century we have proceeded from the first iron-clad warship to the first hydrogen bomb, and from the first telegraphic communication to the beginnings of the conquest of space; yet in the understanding of our own natures, we have proceeded almost nowhere.
In reality, similar ideas set forth in Wilson’s books such as Sociobiology and On Human Nature, are better seen as afterthoughts than audacity. Keep in mind that we are not discussing the merits of this or that scientific theory here, but mere matters of historical fact, e.g., who were really the most significant and influential opponents of the Blank Slate? A genuine example of audacity may be found in Pinker’s book. He dismisses the entire life work of Ardrey (and Lorenz) as follows:
The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory. The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact, they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)
So much for “the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature” in a book purporting to be about the Blank Slate. Pinker doesn’t even bother to explain why Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong. To learn that, we have to consult The Selfish Gene itself. Here is the passage referred to:
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 gene).
In other words, group selection was Pinker’s excuse for excising Ardrey from history and anointing Wilson as the great prophet who had thrown down the gauntlet to the Blank Slaters. We are to ignore the life work of a man, brilliant in spite of the constant bowdlerization of his work (and acceptance of that bowdlerization by those who should know better) as the “Killer Ape Theory,” and unrivaled in his ability to portray the big picture, whose constant theme was “that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” because of group selection. In one of the most delicious ironies in the history of science, that theory has now been embraced by “dragon slayer” of the Blank Slate E. O. Wilson himself. In fact, the last couple of decades have been nothing if not a triumphant vindication of Ardrey’s battle against the false orthodoxy of the Blank Slate. To delete him from the history of that sad episode in the history of science as “totally and utterly wrong” makes about as much sense as deleting the Wright brothers from the history of manned flight as a couple of dilettante bicycle mechanics.
I suggest that if Haidt looked into the historical facts for himself, it might begin to dawn on him why Dawkins and Pinker were so quick to condemn Wilson’s advocacy of group selection in his latest book. As a psychologist, I suggest he might want to consider the reasons why Pinker and others have so grossly misrepresented the history of the Blank Slate in a way that, to all appearances, seems intended to spare the sensitivities of the “group” of academic experts to which Pinker belongs by airbrushing out of history a man whose influence and significance as regards the Blank Slate controversy were much greater than Wilson’s, but who had the “audacity” to be right when the “group” of academic experts were wrong in spite of the fact that he was a “mere playwright.” It might behoove him to do so for reasons of sheer self-preservation. After all, if the man who really was the greatest opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday could be airbrushed out of history and become an unperson for advocating group selection, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Haidt, not to mention Wilson?
Since group selection is becoming fashionable once again, I propose that a special group prize be added to the yearly Darwin Awards. According to the banner on the website, “The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it.” In the case of groups, self-selection seems to play a far more prominent role than it does for individuals. The word “accidental” should therefore be replaced by “deliberate.” Finally, groups that reduce overall fitness are disqualified. Otherwise the Communists would have no competition, having, in effect, beheaded two whole countries, Cambodia and the Soviet Union.
Religions, being false (except for yours, of course, dear reader), have been prominent throughout history in spawning self-destructive behavior. The Catholic Church should certainly receive a lifetime achievement award for convincing millions of priests and nuns that they should not reproduce. However, a different Christian sect takes the cake. It is described in the Memoirs of Maurice Paleologue, French Ambassador to Russia during World War I as follows:
I recently mentioned the important role played by mystic sects in the religious life of the Russian people. The following description concerns one of the most unusual and obstinate thereof, the sect of the “Skoptsy,” or “the Mutilated Ones.”
They can be traced back to the same religious principles as the “Chlisty”; but whereas the “Flagellants” seek to defeat the flesh by mortification, the Skoptsy free themselves of carnal sin by mutilation. The founder of this sect was a simple peasant, Andrei Ivanovich, who was born around the year 1730 in the vicinity of Orel. Certain words of Christ evoked a remarkable impression on his childish and tortured soul. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” ” Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.” “For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.” Andrei Ivanovich was touch so profoundly by these words, and saw in them such a secure basis for eternal salvation, that he robbed himself of any ability to satisfy his fleshly lusts. As there is no aberration, that isn’t contagious to the Slavic soul, the newly-minted eunuch immediately found 12 disciples, who also castrated themselves in the name of Christ and the Holy Ghost. One of the, Kondrati Selivanov, who was a talented and convincing speaker, became an apostle of his teachings, adding weight to the words of the Gospel via the divine promises handed down to us by Isaiah:
For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.
He went from city to city, to Tambov, Tula, Riazan, Moscow, and preached the necessity of redeeming ones self from the hellish temptation of the flesh through a bloody sacrifice. And everywhere he went he found followers. This propaganda eventually took on such proportions, that the government arrested the heretic and, in the year 1774, sent him to the prison of Irkutsk. Andrei Ivanovich died soon thereafter, and left behind a clouded legacy. For Selivanov, however, it was the start of a period of activity as full of wonders as a fairy tale. The rumor that he was the Savior himself, the true incarnation of Jesus Christ, gained more and more believers. Another fairy tale gained currency, according to which Czar Peter III had actually managed to escape his would-be murderers, and that he was under the protection of the mystic prisoner. Even more remarkable stories were whispered in the shadows of churches and cloisters. This unfortunate Peter Feodorovich was not the son of Anna Petrovna: It was said that he was miraculously conceived in the womb of his aunt, who remained a virgin her entire life, through the power of the Holy Ghost, in spite of all the obvious facts that appeared to contradict this story. Panting after chastity, it was only after overcoming a terrible aversion that he agreed to be married. The struggle exhausted him. Immediately after the birth of his son Paul, he castrated himself, so that he would no longer be a prey to the carnal passions of his wife Catherine, who then flew into a rage and murdered him…
The bloody manner in which one joins the sect sets the tone for the entire religious life of the Skoptsy, and is integral to it. Their spiritual and liturgical heirarchy is based entirely on the significance of bodily mutilation. The “brothers” and “sisters” who have agreed to the complete removal of their genitals, thereby destroying in their earthly existence the “playgrounds of the devil,” and referred to as “white lambs” and “white doves.” Their flesh, forever purified, gloriously bears “the great imperial seal.” The timid ones, who have only agreed to a partial operation, are still subject to certain attacks of the devil, and bear only “the lesser seal” on the scars of their imperfect mutilations.
I know of no other mammal that deliberately mutilates its own genitals. Only in humans with their “advanced” brains is it possible. As costly as it is in calories to maintain that brain, it must have given us decisive advantages indeed to evolve so quickly in spite of such occasional drawbacks. Whether it will prove to be an improvement to the fitness of our species in the long term remains to be determined.