The Great European Morality Inversion

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know my take on morality.  It is the manifestation of a subset of our suite of innate behavioral traits.  The traits in question exist because they evolved.  Absent those traits, morality as we know it would not exist.  It follows that attempts to apply moral emotions in order to solve complex problems that arise in an environment that is radically different from the one in which the innate, “root causes” of morality evolved are irrational.  That, however, is precisely how the Europeans are attempting to deal with an unprecedented flood of culturally and genetically alien refugees.  The result is predictable – a classic morality inversion.

The situation is unfolding just as Jonathan Haidt described it in his paper, The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  As he put it,

…moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.

In other words, the “emotional dog” makes the judgment.  Only after the judgment has been made does the “rational tail” begin “wagging the dog,” concocting good sounding “reasons” for the judgment.  One can get a better idea of what’s really going on by tracking down the source of the moral emotions involved.

Let’s consider, then, what’s going on inside the “pro-refugee” brain.  As in every other brain, the moral machinery distinguishes between ingroup and outgroup(s).  In this case these categories are perceived primarily in ideological terms.  The typical pro-refugee individual is often a liberal, as that rather slippery term is generally understood in the context of 21st century western democracies.  Such specimens will occasionally claim that they have expanded their ingroup to include “all mankind,” so that it is no longer possible for them to be “haters.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  It comes with the human behavioral package.

If anything, the modern liberal hates more violently than any other subgroup.  He commonly hates the people within his own culture who disagree with the shibboleths of his ideology.  Those particular “others,” almost always constitute at least a part of his outgroup.  Outside of his own culture, ideology matters much less as a criterion of outgroup identification, as demonstrated, for example, by the odd affinity between many Western liberals and radical Islamists.

Beyond that, however, he is hardly immune from the more traditional forms of tribalism.  For example, European liberals typically hate the United States.  The intensity of that hatred tends to rise and fall over time, but can sometimes reach almost incredible levels.  The most recent eruption occurred around the year 2000.  Interestingly enough, one of the most spectacular examples occurred in Germany, the very country that now takes the cake for moralistic grandstanding in the matter of refugees.  Der Spiegel, its number one news magazine, was certainly in the avant-garde of the orgasm of hatred.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany on the homepage of its website, so filled was it with furious, spittle-flinging rants about the imagined evils of “die Amerikaner.”  However, virtually every other major German “news” outlet, whether it was nominally “liberal” or “conservative,” eventually jointed the howling pack.  The most vicious examples of anti-American hate were typically found in just those publications that are now quick to denounce German citizens who express concern about the overwhelming waves of refugees now pouring into the country as “haters.”

On the other hand, refugees, or at least those of the type now pouring into Europe, seldom turn up in any of these common outgroups of the modern liberal.  They land squarely in his ingroup.  Humans are generally inclined to help ingroup members who, like the refugees, appear to be in trouble.  This is doubly true of the liberal, who piques himself on what he imagines to be his moral superiority.  Furthermore, as the refugees can be portrayed as victims of colonialism and imperialism, one might say they are a “most favored subset” of the ingroup.  Throw in a few pictures of drowned children, impoverished women begging for help, etc., and all the moral ingredients are there to render the liberal an impassioned defender of the masses of humanity drawing a bead on his country.  Nothing gives him more self-righteous joy than imagining himself a “savior.”  This explains the fact that liberals are eternally in the process of “saving” one group of unfortunates or another without ever getting around to accomplishing anything actually recognizable as salvation.  All the pleasure is in the charade.  We find the same phenomenon whether its a matter of “saving” the environment, “saving” the planet from global warming, or “saving” the poor.  For the liberal, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

Which brings us back to the theme of this post.  All the sublime moral emotions now at play in the “salvation” of the refugees have an uncanny resemblance to many other instances of moral behavior as practiced by the modern liberal.  They have a tendency to favor an outcome which is the opposite of what the same moral emotions accomplished at an earlier time, and that led to their preservation by natural selection to begin with.  In a word, as noted above, we are witnessing yet another classic morality inversion.

Why an inversion?  At the most fundamental level, because it will lead to the diminution or elimination of the genes whose survival a similar response once favored.  At the moment, the pro-refugee side is calling the shots.  It controls the governments of all the major European states.  All of them more or less fit the pattern described above, whether they are nominally “liberal” or “conservative.”  Indeed, foremost among them is Germany’s “conservative’ regime, which has positively invited a flood of alien refugees across its borders.  Based on historical precedent, the outcome of all this altruism isn’t difficult to foresee.  In terms of “culture” it will be a future of ethnic and religious strife, possibly leading to civil war.  Genetically, it amounts to an attempt at ethnic suicide.  I am well aware that these outcomes are disputed by those promoting the refugee inundation.  However, I consider it pointless to argue about it.  I am content to let history judge.

While we bide our time waiting for the train wreck to unfold, it may be of interest to examine some of the techniques being used to maintain this remarkable instance of moralistic play-acting.  I take most of my examples from the German media, which includes some of the most avid refugee cheerleaders.  Predictably, outgroup vilification is part of the mix.  As noted above, anyone who objects to the flood of refugees is almost universally denounced as a “hater” by just those people who wear their own virulent hatreds on their sleeves while pretending they don’t exist.  Of course, there are also the usual hackneyed violations of Godwin’s Law.  For example, Jacob Augstein, leftwing stalwart for Der Spiegel, denounces them as “Browns” (i.e., brownshirts, Nazis) in a recent column.  On the “positive” side, the “conservative” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung optimistically suggests that the refugees will promote economic growth.  According to another article in Der Spiegel, the eastern Europeans, who are not quite so refugee-friendly as the Germans, are “blowing their chance.”  The ominous byline reads,

Europe is shrinking.  The demographic downtrend is particularly dramatic in the eastern part of the continent, where the population is literally dying out.  In spite of that, Hungary, Poland and company are resisting immigration.  They will regret it.

In other words, before turning out the lights and committing suicide, the eastern Europeans should make sure an alien culture is in place to take over their territories when they’re gone.  Of course, this flies in the face of the impassioned rhetoric the liberals have been feeding us about the need to reduce the surface population if we are to have an environmentally sustainable planet.

I note in passing that the European elites that are driving this process now seem to have taken a step back from the brink.  They are having second thoughts.  They realize that they don’t have their populations behind them, and that their defiance of popular opinion might eventually threaten their own power.  As a result, the number of news articles about the refugees and their plight is only a shadow of what it was only a few weeks ago.  Mild reservations about refugee wowserism are starting to appear even in such gung-ho forums as Der Spiegel where, as I write this, the lead article on their homepage is entitled “Now Things Are Getting Uncomfortable.”  Ya think!?  The byline reads,

There is a chance in tone in the refugee crisis.  SPD (German Social Democratic Party) chief Gabriel warms about limits to Germany’s ability to absorb refugees.  Minister of the Interior de Maziere deplores the misbehavior of many migrants.  The pressure on Chancellor Merkel is increasing.

“Ought” the Europeans to alter their behavior?  Is what they consider “good” really “evil?”  Are they ignoring the real “goal” of natural selection?  Certainly not, at least from an objective point of view.  There is no objective criterion for determining what anyone “ought” to do, anymore than there is an objective way to distinguish the difference between things, such as good and evil, that have no objective existence.  They are hardly failing to move towards the “goal” of natural selection, since that process does not have either a purpose or a goal.  As you may have gathered, my own subjective whim is to oppose unlimited immigration.  I have, however, not the slightest basis for declaring that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is “evil.”  At best, I can try to explain my own whims.

I’m what you might call a moral compatibilist.  I see myself sitting at the end of a chain of life spawned by genetic material that has evolved over a period of more than three billions years, surviving and reproducing over that incredible gulf of time via an almost infinite array of successive forms, culminating in the species to which I now belong.  I consider the whole process, and the universe I live in, awesome and wonderful.  Subjectively, it seems to me “good” to act in a way that is compatible with the natural processes that have given me life.  It follows that, from my own, individual, subjective point of view, I “should” seek to preserve that life and pass it on into the indefinite future.

I have not the slightest basis for claiming that “my way” is better than the whimsical behavior of those I see around me exultantly pursuing their morality inversions.  At best, I must limit myself to observing that “my way” seems more consistent.

The Alternate Reality Fallacy

The alternate reality fallacy is ubiquitous.  Typically, it involves the existence of a deity, and goes something like this:  “God must exist because otherwise there would be no absolute good, no absolute evil, no unquestionable rights, life would have no purpose, life would have no meaning,” and so on and so forth.  In other words, one must only demonstrate that a God is necessary.  If so, he will automatically pop into existence.  The video of a talk by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias included below is provided as an illustrative data point for the reader.

The talk, entitled, “The End of Reason:  A Response to the New Atheists,” was Zacharias’ contribution to the 2012 Contending with Christianity’s Critics Conference in Dallas.  I ran across it at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website in the context of a discussion of rights.  We find out where Zacharias is coming from at minute 4:15 in the talk when he informs us that the ideas,

…that steadied this part of the world, rooted in the notion of the ineradicable difference between good and evil, facts on which we built our legal system, our notions of justice, the very value of human life, how intrinsic worth was given to every human being,

all have a Biblical mooring.  Elaborating on this theme, he quotes Chesterton to the effect that “we are standing with our feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  We have,

…no grounding anymore to define so many essential values which we assumed for many years.

Here Zacharias is actually stating a simple truth that has eluded many atheists.  Christianity and other religions do, indeed, provide some grounding for such things as objective rights, objective good, and objective evil.  After all, it’s not hard to accept the reality of these things if the alternative is to burn in hell forever.  The problem is that the “grounding” is an illusion.  The legions of atheists who believe in these things, however, actually are “standing with their feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  They have dispensed even with the illusion, sawing off the limb they were sitting on, and yet they counterintuitively persist in lecturing others about the nature of these chimeras as they float about in the vacuum, to the point of becoming quite furious if anyone dares to disagree with them.  Zacharias’ problem, on the other hand, isn’t that he doesn’t bother to provide a grounding.  His problem is his apparent belief in the non sequitur that, if he can supply a grounding, then that grounding must necessarily be real.

Touching on this disconcerting tendency of many atheists to hurl down anathemas on those they consider morally impure in spite of the fact that they lack any coherent justification for their tendency to concoct novel values on the fly, Zacharias remarks at 5:45 in the video,

The sacred meaning of marriage (and others) have been desacralized, and the only one who’s considered obnoxious is the one who wants to posit the sacredness of these issues.

Here, again, I must agree with him.  Assuming he’s alluding to the issue of gay marriage, it makes no sense to simply dismiss anyone who objects to it as a bigot and a “hater.”  That claim is based on the obviously false assumption that no one actually takes their religious beliefs seriously.  Unfortunately, they do, and there is ample justification in the Bible, not to mention the Quran, for the conclusion that gay marriage is immoral.  Marriage has a legal definition, but it is also a religious sacrament.  There is no rational basis for the claim that anyone who objects to gay marriage is objectively immoral.  Support for gay marriage represents, not a championing of objective good, but the statement of a cultural preference.  The problem with the faithful isn’t that they are all haters and bigots.  The problem is that they construct their categories of moral good and evil based on an illusion.

Beginning at about 6:45 in his talk, Zacharias continues with the claim that we are passing through a cultural revolution, which he defines as a,

decisive break with the shared meanings of the past, particularly those which relate  to the deepest questions of the nature and purpose of life.

noting that culture is,

an effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential questions that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives.

In his opinion, it can be defined in three different ways. First, there are theonomous cultures.  As he puts it,

These are based on the belief that God has put his law into our hearts, so that we act intuitively from that kind of reasoning.  Divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.

Christianity is, according to Zacharias, a theonomous belief.  Next, there are heteronymous cultures, which derive their laws from some external source.  In such cultures, we are “dictated to from the outside.”  He cites Marxism is a heteronymous world view.  More to the point, he claims that Islam also belongs in that category.  Apparently we are to believe that this “cultural” difference supplies us with a sharp distinction between the two religions.  Here we discover that Zacharias’ zeal for his new faith (he was raised a Hindu) has outstripped his theological expertise.  Fully theonomous versions of Christianity really only came into their own among Christian divines of the 18th century.  The notion, supported by the likes of Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury, that “God has put his law into our hearts,” was furiously denounced by other theologians as not only wrong, but incompatible with Christianity.  John Locke was one of the more prominent Christian thinkers among the many who denied that “divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.”

But I digress.  According to Zacharias, the final element of the triad is autonomous culture, or “self law”, in which everyone is a law into him or herself.  He notes that America is commonly supposed to be such a culture.  However, at about the 11:00 minute mark he notes that,

…if I assert sacred values, suddenly a heteronymous culture takes over, and tells me I have no right to believe that.  This amounts to a “bait and switch.”  That’s the new world view under which the word “tolerance” really operates.

This regrettable state of affairs is the result of yet another triad, in the form of the three philosophical evils which Zacharias identifies as secularization, pluralism, and privatization.  They are the defining characteristics of the modern cultural revolution.  The first supposedly results in an ideology without shame, the second in one without reason, and the third in one without meaning.  Together, they result in an existence without purpose.

One might, of course, quibble with some of the underlying assumptions of Zacharias’ world view.  One might argue, for example, that the results of Christian belief have not been entirely benign, or that the secular societies of Europe have not collapsed into a state of moral anarchy.  That, however, is really beside the point.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything Zacharias says about the baleful effects of the absence of Christian belief is true.  It still begs the question, “So what?”

Baleful effects do not spawn alternate realities.  If the doctrines of Christianity are false, then the illusion that they supply meaning, or purpose, or a grounding for morality will not transmute them into the truth.  I personally consider the probability that they are true to be vanishingly small.  I do not propose to believe in lies, whether their influence is portrayed as benign or not.  The illusion of meaning and purpose based on a belief in nonsense is a paltry substitute for the real thing.  Delusional beliefs will not magically become true, even if those beliefs result in an earthly paradise.  As noted above, the idea that they will is what I refer to in my title as the alternate reality fallacy.

In the final part of his talk, Zacharias describes his own conversion to Christianity, noting that it supplied what was missing in his life.  In his words, “Without God, reason is dead, hope is dead, morality is dead, and meaning is gone, but in Christ we recover all these.”  To this I can but reply that the man suffers from a serious lack of imagination.  We are wildly improbable creatures sitting at the end of an unbroken chain of life that has existed for upwards of three billion years.  We live in a spectacular universe that cannot but fill one with wonder.  Under the circumstances, is it really impossible to relish life, and to discover a reason for cherishing and preserving it, without resort to imaginary super beings?  Instead of embracing the awe-inspiring reality of the world as it is, does it really make sense to supply the illusion of “meaning” and “purpose” by embracing the shabby unreality of religious dogmas?  My personal and admittedly emotional reaction to such a choice is that it is sadly paltry and abject.  The fact that so many of my fellow humans have made that choice strikes me, not as cause for rejoicing, but for shame.

…and Speaking of the New Atheists

New Atheist bashing is all the rage these days.  The gloating tone at Salon over New Atheist Sam Harris’ humiliation by Noam Chomsky in their recent exchange over the correct understanding of something that doesn’t exist referred to in my last post is but one of many examples.  In fact, New Atheists aren’t really new, and neither is New Atheist bashing.  Thumb through some of the more high brow magazines of the 1920’s, for example, and chances are you’ll run across an article describing the then current crop of atheists as aggressive, ignorant, clannish, self-righteous and, in short, prone to all the familiar maladies that supposedly also afflict the New Atheists of today.  And just as we see today, the more “laid back” atheists were gleefully piling on then as now.  They included H. L. Mencken, probably the most famous atheist of the time, who deplored aggressive atheism in his recently republished autobiographical trilogy.  Unfortunately he’s no longer around to explain the difference between “aggressive” atheism, and his own practice of heaping scorn and ridicule on the more backward believers.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Mencken was by nature a conservative.  He abhorred any manifestation of the “Uplift,” a term which in those days meant more or less the same thing as “progressive” today.

I think the difference between these two species of atheists has something to do with the degree to which they resent belonging to an outgroup.  Distinguishing between ingroups and outgroups comes naturally to our species.  This particular predisposition is ostensibly not as beneficial now as it was during the period over which it evolved.  A host of pejorative terms have been invented to describe its more destructive manifestations, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc., all of which really describe the same phenomenon.  Those among us who harbor no irrational hatreds of this sort must be rare indeed.  One often finds it present in its more virulent forms in precisely those individuals who consider themselves immune to it.  Atheists are different, and that’s really all it takes to become identified as an outgroup,

Apparently some atheists don’t feel themselves particularly inconvenienced by this form of “othering,” especially in societies that have benefited to some extent from the European Enlightenment.  Others take it more seriously, and fight back using the same tactics that have been directed against them.  They “other” their enemies and seek to aggressively exploit human moral emotions to gain the upper hand.  That is exactly what has been done quite successfully at one time or another by many outgroups, including women, blacks, and quite spectacularly lately, gays.  New Atheists are merely those who embrace such tactics in the atheist community.

I can’t really blame my fellow atheists for this form of activism.  One doesn’t choose to be an atheist.  If one doesn’t believe in God, then other than in George Orwell’s nightmare world of “1984,” one can’t be “cured” into becoming a Christian or a Moslem, any more than a gay can be “cured” into becoming heterosexual, or a black “cured” into becoming white.  However, for reasons having to do with the ideological climate in the world today that are much too complicated to address in a short blog post, New Atheists are facing a great deal more resistance than members of some of society’s other outgroups.  This resistance is coming, not just from religious believers, but from their “natural” allies on the ideological left.

Noam Chomsky’s scornful treatment of Sam Harris, accompanied by the sneers of the leftist editors of Salon, is a typical example of this phenomenon.  Such leaders as Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens are the public “face” of the New Atheist movement, and as a consequence are often singled out in this way.  Of course they have their faults, and I’ve criticized the first two myself on this blog and elsewhere.  However, many of the recent attacks, especially from the ideological left, are neither well-reasoned nor, at least in terms of my own subjective moral emotions, even fair.  Often they conform to hackneyed formulas; the New Atheists are unsophisticated, they don’t understand what they’re talking about, they are bigoted, they are harming people who depend on religious beliefs to give “meaning” to their lives, etc.

A typical example, which was also apparently inspired by the Harris/Chomsky exchange, recently turned up at Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon.  Entitled “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements,” it was ostensibly Pigliucci’s announcement that, after being a longtime member and supporter, he now wishes to “disengage” from the club.  As one might expect, he came down squarely in favor of Chomsky, who is apparently one of his heroes.  That came as no surprise to me, as fawning appraisals of Blank Slate kingpins Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have also appeared at the site.  It had me wondering who will be rehabilitated next.  Charles Manson?  Jack the Ripper?  Pigliucci piques himself on his superior intellect which, we are often reminded, is informed by both science and a deep reading of philosophy.  In spite that, he seems completely innocent of any knowledge that the Blank Slate debacle ever happened, or of Lewontin’s and Gould’s highly effective role in propping it up for so many years, using such “scientific” methods as bullying, vilification and mobbing of anyone who disagreed with them, including, among others, Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, Konrad Lorenz, and Richard Dawkins.  Evidence of such applications of “science” are easily accessible to anyone who makes even a minimal effort to check the source material, such as Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes.

No matter, Pigliucci apparently imagines that the Blank Slate was just a figment of Steven Pinker’s fevered imagination.  With such qualifications as a detector of “fools,” he sagely nods his head as he informs us that Chomsky “doesn’t suffer fools (like Harris) gladly.”  With a sigh of ennui, he goes on, “And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.”  The rest of the New Atheist worthies come in for similar treatment.  By all means, read the article.  You’ll notice that, like virtually every other New Atheist basher, whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, Pigliucci never gets around to mentioning what these “naïve” criticisms of religion actually are, far less to responding to or discussing them.

It’s not hard to find Dawkins’ “naïve” criticisms of religion.  They’re easily available to anyone who takes the trouble to look through the first few chapters of his The God Delusion.  In fact, most of them have been around at least since Jean Meslier wrote them down in his Testament almost 300 years ago.  Religious believers have been notably unsuccessful in answering them in the ensuing centuries.  No doubt they might seem naïve if you happen to believe in the ephemeral and hazy versions of God concocted by the likes of David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong.  They’ve put that non-objective, non-subjective, insubstantial God so high up on the shelf that it can’t be touched by atheists or anyone else.  The problem is that that’s not the God that most people believe in.  Dawkins can hardly be faulted for directing his criticisms at the God they do believe in.  If his arguments against that God are really so naïve, what can possibly be the harm in actually answering them?

As noted above, New Atheist bashing is probably inevitable given the current ideological fashions.  However, I suggest that those happy few who are still capable of thinking for themselves think twice before jumping on the bandwagon.  In the first place, it is not irrational for atheists to feel aggrieved at being “othered,” any more than it is for any other ostracized minority.  Perhaps more importantly, the question of whether religious beliefs are true or not matters.  Today one actually hears so-called “progressive” atheists arguing that religious beliefs should not be questioned, because it risks robbing the “little people” of a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.  Apparently the goal is to cultivate delusions that will get them from cradle to grave with as little existential Angst as possible.  It would be too shocking for them to know the truth.  Beyond the obvious arrogance of such an attitude, I fail to see how it is doing anyone a favor.  People supply their own “meaning of life,” depending on their perceptions of reality.  Blocking the path to truth and promoting potentially pathological delusions in place of reality seems more a betrayal than a “service” to me.  To the extent that anyone cares to take my own subjective moral emotions seriously, I can only say that I find substituting bland religious truisms for a chance to experience the stunning wonder, beauty and improbability of human existence less a “benefit” than an exquisite form of cruelty.

On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate

Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider the Blank Slate affair the greatest debacle in the history of science.  Perhaps you haven’t heard of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Those who are the most capable of writing its history are often also those who are most motivated to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  In any case, in the context of this post the Blank Slate refers to a dogma that prevailed in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century according to which there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as human nature.  I consider it the greatest scientific debacle of all time because, for more than half a century, it blocked the path of our species to self-knowledge.  As we gradually approach the technological ability to commit collective suicide, self-knowledge may well be critical to our survival.

Such histories of the affair as do exist are often carefully and minutely researched by historians familiar with the scientific issues involved.  In general, they’ve personally lived through at least some phase of it, and they’ve often been personally acquainted with some of the most important players.  In spite of that, their accounts have a disconcerting tendency to wildly contradict each other.  Occasionally one finds different versions of the facts themselves, but more often its a question of the careful winnowing of the facts to select and record only those that support a preferred narrative.

Obviously, I can’t cover all the relevant literature in a single blog post.  Instead, to illustrate my point, I will focus on a single work whose author, Hamilton Cravens, devotes most of his attention to events in the first half of the 20th century, describing the sea change in the behavioral sciences that signaled the onset of the Blank Slate.  As it happens, that’s not quite what he intended.  What we see today as the darkness descending was for him the light of science bursting forth.  Indeed, his book is entitled, somewhat optimistically in retrospect, The Triumph of Evolution:  The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941.  It first appeared in 1978, more or less still in the heyday of the Blank Slate, although murmurings against it could already be detected among academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences after the appearance of a series of devastating critiques in the popular literature in the 60’s by Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others, topped off by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

Ostensibly, the “triumph” Cravens’ title refers to is the demise of what he calls the “extreme hereditarian” interpretations of human behavior that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century in favor of a more “balanced” approach that recognized the importance of culture, as revealed by a systematic application of the scientific method.  One certainly can’t fault him for being superficial.  He introduces us to most of the key movers and shakers in the behavioral sciences in the period in question.  There are minutiae about the contents of papers in old scientific journals, comments gleaned from personal correspondence, who said what at long forgotten scientific conferences, which colleges and universities had strong programs in psychology, sociology and anthropology more than 100 years ago, and who supported them, etc., etc.  He guides us into his narrative so gently that we hardly realize we’re being led by the nose.  Gradually, however, the picture comes into focus.

It goes something like this.  In bygone days before the “triumph of evolution,” the existence of human “instincts” was taken for granted.  Their importance seemed even more obvious in light of the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.  As Cravens put it,

While it would be inaccurate to say that most American experimentalists concluded as  the result of the general acceptance of Mendelism by 1910 or so that heredity was all powerful and environment of no consequence, it was nevertheless true that heredity occupied a much more prominent place than environment in their writings.

This sort of “subtlety” is characteristic of Cravens’ writing.  Here, he doesn’t accuse the scientists he’s referring to of being outright genetic determinists.  They just have an “undue” tendency to overemphasize heredity.  It is only gradually, and by dint of occasional reading between the lines that we learn the “true” nature of these believers in human “instinct.”  Without ever seeing anything as blatant as a mention of Marxism, we learn that their “science” was really just a reflection of their “class.”  For example,

But there were other reasons why so many American psychologists emphasized heredity over environment.  They shared the same general ethnocultural and class background as did the biologists.  Like the biologists, they grew up in middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes, in a subculture where the individual was the focal point of social explanation and comment.

As we read on, we find Cravens is obsessed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, noting that the “wrong” kind of scientists belong to that “class” scores of times.  Among other things, they dominate the eugenics movement, and are innocently referred to as Social Darwinists, as if these terms had never been used in a pejorative sense.  In general they are supposed to oppose immigration from other than “Nordic” countries, and tend to support “neo-Lamarckian” doctrines, and believe blindly that intelligence test results are independent of “social circumstances and milieu.”  As we read further into Section I of the book, we are introduced to a whole swarm of these instinct-believing WASPs.

In Section II, however, we begin to see the first glimmerings of a new, critical and truly scientific approach to the question of human instincts.  Men like Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, and Alfred Kroeber, began to insist on the importance of culture.  Furthermore, they believed that their “culture idea” could be studied in isolation in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, insisting on sharp, “territorial” boundaries that would protect their favored disciplines from the defiling influence of instincts.  As one might expect,

The Boasians were separated from WASP culture; several were immigrants, of Jewish background, or both.

A bit later they were joined by joined by John Watson and his behaviorists who, after performing some experiments on animals and human infants, apparently experienced an epiphany.  As Cravens puts it,

To his amazement, Watson concluded that the James-McDougall human instinct theory had no demonstrable experimental basis.  He found the instinct theorists had greatly overestimated the number of original emotional reactions in infants.  For all practical purposes, he realized that there were no human instincts determining the behavior of adults or even of children.

Perhaps more amazing is the fact that Cravens suspected not a hint of a tendency to replace science with dogma in all this.  As Leibniz might have put it, everything was for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Everything pointed to the “triumph of evolution.”  According to Cravens, the “triumph” came with astonishing speed:

By the early 1920s the controversy was over.  Subsequently, psychologists and sociologists joined hands to work out a new interdisciplinary model of the sources of human conduct and emotion stressing the interaction of heredity and environment, of innate and acquired characters – in short, the balance of man’s nature and his culture.

Alas, my dear Cravens, the controversy was just beginning.  In what follows, he allows us a glimpse at just what kind of “balance” he’s referring to.  As we read on into Section 3 of the book, he finally gets around to setting the hook:

Within two years of the Nazi collapse in Europe Science published an article symptomatic of a profound theoretical reorientation in the American natural and social sciences.  In that article Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist, and M. F. Ashley-Montagu, an anthropologist, summarized and synthesized what the last quarter century’s work in their respective fields implied for extreme hereditarian explanations of human nature and conduct.  Their overarching thesis was that man was the product of biological and social evolution.  Even though man in his biological aspects was as subject to natural processes as any other species, in certain critical respects he was unique in nature, for the specific system of genes that created an identifiably human mentality also permitted man to experience cultural evolution… Dobzhansky and Ashley-Montagu continued, “Instead of having his responses genetically fixed as in other animal species, man is a species that invents its own responses, and it is out of this unique ability to invent…  his responses that his cultures are born.”

and, finally, in the conclusions, after assuring us that,

By the early 1940s the nature-nurture controversy had run its course.

Cravens leaves us with some closing sentences that epitomize his “triumph of evolution:”

The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

At this point, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently Cravens, who has just supplied us with arcane details about who said what at obscure scientific conferences half a century and more before he published his book was completely unawares of exactly what Ashley Montagu, his herald of the new world order, meant when he referred to “extreme hereditarian explanations,” in spite of the fact that he spelled it out ten years earlier in an invaluable little pocket guide for the followers of the “new science” entitled Man and Aggression.  There Montagu describes the sort of “balance of man’s nature and his culture” he intended as follows:

Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

and,

There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “phylogenetically adapted instinctive” behavior of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive-forces of human behavior.  The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

So much for Cravens’ “balance.”  He spills a great deal of ink in his book assuring us that the Blank Slate orthodoxy he defends was the product of “science,” little influenced by any political or ideological bias.  Apparently he also didn’t notice that, not only in Man and Aggression, but ubiquitously in the Blank Slate literature, the “new science” is defended over and over and over again with the “argument” that anyone who opposes it is a racist and a fascist, not to mention far right wing.

As it turns out, Cravens didn’t completely lapse into a coma following the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1947 pronunciamiento in Science.  In his “Conclusion” we discover that, after all, he had a vague presentiment of the avalanche that would soon make a shambles of his “new evolutionary science.”  In his words,

Of course in recent years something approximating at least a minor revival of the old nature-nurture controversy seems to have arisen in American science and politics.  It is certainly quite possible that this will lead to a full scale nature-nurture controversy in time, not simply because of the potential for a new model of nature that would permit a new debate, but also, as one historian has pointed out, because our own time, like the 1920s, has been a period of racial and ethnic polarization.  Obviously any further comment would be premature.

Obviously, my dear Cravens.  What’s the moral of the story, dear reader?   Well, among other things, that if you really want to learn something about the Blank Slate, you’d better not be shy of wading through the source literature yourself.  It’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.  One particularly rich source of historical nuggets is H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which Ron Unz has been so kind as to post online.  Mencken took a personal interest in the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, and took care to publish articles by heavy hitters on both sides.  For a rather different take than Cravens on the motivations of the early Blank Slaters, see for example, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley.  Parshley was an interesting character who took on no less an opponent than Clarence Darrow in a debate over eugenics, and later translated Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex into English.

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What Made the “blank slate” the Blank Slate?

The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history.  For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature.  So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day.  What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century?  After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle.  A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.  Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.

Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced.  Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.”  In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”  The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them.  For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man.  Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally.  Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally.  The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but.  They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason.  As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin.  For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,

The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing.  A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison.  Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience.  “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.”  This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.

Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself.  Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they.  This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.

In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely.  That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists.  They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter.  Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them.  And for a long time, it worked.

By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin.  Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials.  Interested readers are encouraged to check the index.  As Pinker puts it,

So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”

Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it.  For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,

We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.

Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984.  What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior?  As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.”  Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:

Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies.  As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.

All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.

The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said:  “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy.  The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.”  He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”  What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends.  As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.

Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist.  Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance.  As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday.  Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:

The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.

The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism.  To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded.  To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.

Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.

Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:

More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported.  E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others.  Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith.  It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.

This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate.  They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well.  There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.”  Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters.  By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.

It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight.  We possess the means of committing suicide as a species.  Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander.  In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues.  Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology.  Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all.  For example, again quoting from Lewontin:

Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances.  If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.

One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin.  What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate.  I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real.  Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.

It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice.  Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”

The New Atheists as Imperialist Warmongers; Leftist Islamophilia in the Afterglow of Communism

The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it.  For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa.  The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available.  The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots.  In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind.  As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it.  Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam.  For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town.  The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular.  The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.

So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across.  Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm.  They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam.  Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”

An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine,  which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.”  In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!”  Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom.  The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.

It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question.  We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general.  He hardly mentions Christianity.  When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story.  As Savage puts it,

It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.

As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:

The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.

Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:

Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.

The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era.  Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.”  Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.”  No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin.  In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:

The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.”  In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.

One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb.  Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,

Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.

If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:

Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.

and this:

This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.

So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy.  He just had a bad environment.  See how that works?  At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest.  In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes.  It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise.  In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant.  Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.

In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated.  Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace?  I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation.  As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves.  They’ve all been excommunicated.

happyjar

 

Thanks to Tom at Happyjar.com for the cartoon.  Check out his store!

 

 

Science vs. Ideology in Genetics, in which Richard Dawkins and Professor Ceiling Cat Admonish David Dobbs

Cultural determinism is like the Paris fashions.  It defies ridicule.  The idea is so useful that it won’t drown, despite the torrent of contradictory facts it has been submerged under lately.  The cobbling of utopias is great fun, and utopia is ever so much more plausible if only everything can be changed to the heart’s desire by culture and environment.  One of the more flamboyant examples of the phenomenon recently turned up in Aeon Magazine in the form of an article penned by science journalist David Dobbs.

The title of the article, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, is provocative enough.  The Selfish Gene, of course, was the subject of a book with that title by Richard Dawkins.  Rubbing salt in the wound, Dobbs adds the byline, “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”  All this irritated Dawkins’ friend Jerry Coyne, to the point that he not only read the rather lengthy article, but penned a pair of rebuttals on his Why Evolution is True website.  It wasn’t hard.

Dobbs’ claim that Dawkins’ selfish gene version of evolution is wrong was based on his embrace of the idea of genetic accommodation.  Coyne (known to his students as Professor Ceiling Cat, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who visits his blog) described the idea in his second rebuttal as follows;

Today’s discussion is on what Dobbs and some of the heroes of his piece (especially Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard) see as the truly novel and non-Darwinian refutation of the selfish gene idea: the idea of genetic accommodation.  “Genetic accommodation” has other names: it’s also been called “The Baldwin Effect” and “genetic assimilation.”  But all of these names refer to a single mechanism: instead of existing genetic variation being subject to natural selection in an existing or changing environment, the environment itself evokes phenotypic (not genetic) variation, which is then somehow fixed in the species’ genome.

Dobbs’ version of this idea leads him to some rather startling assertions.  For example, he writes,

Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another.  We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps.  Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals – what biologists call our phenotype, which is essentially the recognizable thing a genotype builds.  This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult.  The writing varies – but hardly as much as the reading.

Great shades of Trofim Lysenko!  One can almost see the great Soviet con man in one of his Siberian laboratories, turning out a race of centaurs by astutely tweaking the “reading” of the genes of a zebra.  Where is Dobbs going with this?  Let’s cut to the chase and have a look at his thumbnail sketch of genetic accommodation:

There lies the quick beating heart of her (Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s) argument: the gene follows. And one of the ways the gene follows is through this process called genetic accommodation. Genetic accommodation is a clunky term for a graceful process. It takes a moment to explain. But bear with me a moment, and you’ll understand how you, dear reader, could evolve into a fast and deadly predator.

Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.

First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form — its phenotype — by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.

For example, suppose you’re a predator. You live with others of your ilk in dense forest. Your kind hunts by stealth: you hide among trees, then jump out and snag your meat. You needn’t be fast, just quick and sneaky.

You get faster. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did.

Then a big event — maybe a forest fire, or a plague that kills all your normal prey — forces you into a new environment. This new place is more open, which nixes your jump-and-grab tactic, but it contains plump, juicy animals, the slowest of which you can outrun if you sprint hard. You start running down these critters. As you do, certain genes ramp up expression to build more muscle and fire the muscles more quickly. You get faster. You’re becoming a different animal. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs. By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.

Then a mutation occurs in one grandkid. This mutation happens to create stronger, faster muscle fibres. This grandchild of yours can naturally and easily run faster than her fastest siblings and cousins. She flies. Her children inherit the gene, and because their speed wows their mating prospects, they mate early and often, and bear lots of kids. Through the generations, this sprinter’s gene thus spreads through the population.

Now the thing is complete. Your descendants have a new gene that helps secure the adaptive trait you originally developed through gene expression alone. But the new gene didn’t create the new trait. It just made it easier to keep a trait that a change in the environment made valuable. The gene didn’t drive the train; it merely hopped aboard.

In fact, all this is so banal, and so lacking in any serious departure from anything Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, that Coyne apparently assumed that he’d missed something, and accused Dobbs of Lamarckism.  After all, if he wasn’t at least implying Lamarckism between the lines, there isn’t the shadow of a hook in this scenario on which to hang the claim that such “genetic accommodation” is in any way revolutionary, non-Darwinian, or non-Dawkinsian.  In fact, if you read the passage closely, you’ll see there’s nothing Lamarckian about it at all.  The kids and grandkids don’t get faster and stronger by inheritance or acquired characteristics, but merely by hanging out with their parental role models.  Evidently Dawkins himself noticed, because at this point he chimed in and wrote his own rebuttal, patiently Fisking Dobbs article, and quite reasonably pointing out that there was nothing in all this that contradicted Darwin or himself in any substantial way at all.

Coyne and Dawkins concluded from all this that Dobbs was merely grandstanding.  As Dawkins put it, his article was,

…infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.

True enough, but as scientists often do, Dawkins sees the basic absurdity of the article clearly enough, but fails to see that it is absurd, not because it is bad science, but because it is an ideological morality tale.  Let’s allow Dobbs to explain the moral of the story in his own words:

The gene does not lead, it follows.

And ‘evolution is not about single genes’ (West-Eberhard) says.  It’s about genes working together.

It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome.  It’s a social genome.

Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

And so, thanks to the environment, the collective once again triumphs over the “selfish” individual.  If you don’t get the ideological point, dear reader, I’m not going to spell it out for you.  I’ll let the ideologues do that for themselves.  See, for example, Drugged Individualism, in the November 1934 issue of the American Mercury, or The Myth of Individuality (by Theodore Dreiser, no less) in the March issue of the same year.  The hive mind hasn’t changed much in 80 years.

 

Moral Artifacts of the Shutdown

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.  The government shutdown is making life miserable for federal employees and government contractors, but it’s the greatest show on earth for students of human nature.  Ingroup/outgroup behavior, first described in formal academic terms by Sir Arthur Keith, Freudianized by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and probably the most important “root cause” of human warfare throughout the ages, can be observed in its crudest forms on both the left and the right of the ideological spectrum.  As Keith put it,

Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior.  At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.

To judge by the partisan political blogs, Keith’s early humanity was quite successful in passing those traits along to later humanity.  Typically, commenters in such forums are firmly convinced that the “others” are not just misguided and mistaken.  They are perceived as disgusting, stupid, and deliberately evil.  For example, from the comment section of the left wing Talking Points Memo in response to an article about who’s to blame for the shutdown,

The hillbilly homegrown terrorists know what they’re doing, and the whole point is to shut the country down and cause pain for the people they don’t like (aka “other Americans”).

Republicans don’t believe in polls.  Or science.  Or math.  Or medicine… I’m not really sure what they do believe in besides the “invisible hand” of the market and the concept that an “invisible man in the sky” has chosen them specifically to spread gun-love and lecture poor people, minorities and women on why they are inferior.

Republicans hate the black man in the White House and that hatred trumps everything else.  They will force default just to spite us.

…and from an article on the shutdown on Powerline, a similarly partisan blog on the right wing of the spectrum,

170 years ago it was whether a certain race of people should be enslaved; today it is whether our entire population should be shackled and softly enslaved by an overly oppressive government.

My (grand)father’s Democrat Party didn’t have Marxist garbage like Van Jones nor feral types like Alan Grayson.  Since I would never answer to such garbage we’re back in 1850’s America.

I do think a tipping point has been reached when you have the specter of the federal government literally barricading (a deliberate solecism on the right, playing on the President’s name) state roads, to prevent people from getting a view, a corrupt attorney general literally stepping into states, to disallow them to institute basic voting safeguards.  A labor department literally blocking the gates of a company in South Carolina, because they didn’t pay proper respects to another political group.  This government is harming real people now, for no more reason than thin skinnedness and spite.

Notice the symmetry?  As usual, both sides can see the other’s spite and hatred, but not their own.  For example, from the Powerline comments,

Conservatives think that liberals are wrong, but liberals think that conservatives are evil.

Readers of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind will recognize his “inner lawyer” at work here, busily rationalizing moral emotions.  As usual, Haidt’s “rational tail” is hard at work wagging the “emotional dog.”

We are less than a year away from the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I, and there are some interesting commonalities between the shutdown and that conflict.  Since humans were/are involved in both conflicts, it is not surprising to find the human traits associated with status seeking and dominance figuring as important factors in both.  Students of history will recall that the relevant suite of emotions went by the name of “honor” in World War I.  Prior to that conflict, Austria-Hungary had directly challenged Russia by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908.  Russia, recently weakened by the 1905 Revolution and defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, had been forced to back down, and was perceived, both by herself and others, as having acted weakly.  In 1914, Austria challenged Russia again, mobilizing against her ally, Serbia, and shelling Belgrade.  This time, however, Russia was determined not to lose face.  Her leaders imagined all sorts of dire consequences if she backed down again, ignored the immeasurably more dire consequences of not backing down, and ordered their own army to mobilize.  That got the ball rolling in Germany, and the rest is history.

In the last government shutdown during the Clinton Administration, the Republicans also backed down, in part because of polls showing the public blamed them for the mess, and were humbled just as the Russians were in 1908.  Now the Republicans face their own 1914.  In what they probably perceive in more or less the same way as the Russians perceived the shelling of Belgrade, their political enemies forced through a program they bitterly opposed without a single Republican vote.  Now they, too, refuse to back down, and the Democrats are just as determined not to lose face.  One must hope that the outcome won’t be quite as drastic for the Republicans and Democrats as it was for Russia and Austria-Hungary.

 

Morality and the Epiphany of Joshua Greene

The manifestations of morality are complex, but its origins are simple.  Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for its existence.  In all of its many facets and forms, it only exists because of them, and would not exist without them.  Those behavioral traits evolved without a goal, and without a purpose.  They exist because they happened to increase our chances of surviving and procreating at a time when our mode of existence as well as our social and physical environment were radically different from what they are now.

There are certain obvious implications of these simple facts.  Perhaps the most obvious is that we are unlikely to achieve any desirable end by blindly following our moral intuitions in a world which has become so different from the one in which those intuitions evolved.  In the first instance, this applies to the individual goals of surviving and procreating, which at least have something to do with the reasons that morality exists in the first place, but even more obviously to those goals, such as the promotion of “human flourishing,” which do not.  The 20th century supplied us with abundant experimental data to establish these facts.  Two highly moralistic secular creeds of that era devoted to the cause of “human flourishing” are particularly noteworthy; Communism and Nazism.  Both produced huge crops of moralistic idealists, and both resulted in levels of mass slaughter unprecedented in the bloody history of our species that preceded them.

There was nothing accidental or improbable about these disastrous outcomes.  A detailed understanding of the workings of human moral predispositions and emotions must await a vastly expanded understanding of the brain, but certain of their more obvious qualities can be sketched with broad brush strokes.  Among other things, human moral systems invariably include the perception of ingroups and outgroups.  To the best of my knowledge, this truth was first formally stated by Sir Arthur Keith, was treated as a commonplace by Robert Ardrey, but has only finally begun to penetrate the collective consciousness of the intellectual elite among us in the last 15 years or so.  It is one of the main reasons why attempts to promote social ideals by tinkering with morality are not just unlikely to succeed, but downright dangerous.

Which brings us back to the title of this post.  In an article at Edge.org entitled “Deep Pragmatism,” by moral psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene, we can almost literally watch the scales falling from his eyes.  Here are some of the more interesting bits:

Another possibility is that what we’re seeing here are the limitations of intuitive human morality; that we evolved in a world in which we didn’t deal with people on the other side of the world—the world was our group. We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. The people on the other side of the hill—they’re the competition. We have heartstrings that you can tug, but you can’t tug them from very far away. There’s not necessarily a moral reason why we’re like this, it’s a tribal reason. We’re designed to be good to the people within our group to solve the tragedy of the commons, but we’re not designed for the tragedy of common sense morality. We’re not designed to find a good solution between our well-being and their well-being. We’re really about me and about us, but we’re not so much about them.

Another, in my view, more plausible possibility is that we’re seeing the limitations of our moral instincts. That, again, our moral heart strings, so to speak, were designed to be tugged, but not from very far away. But it’s not for a moral reason. It’s not because it’s good for us to be that way. It’s because caring about ourselves and our small little tribal group helped us survive, and caring about the other groups—the competition—didn’t help us survive. If anything, we should have negative attitudes towards them. We’re competing with them for resources.

what this suggests that if you agree that the well-being, the happiness of people on the other side of the world is just as important as the happiness of people here—we may be partial to ourselves, and to our family, and to our friends, but if you don’t think that objectively we’re any better or more important or that our lives are any more valuable than other people’s lives—then, we can’t trust our instincts about this, and we have to shift ourselves into manual mode.

To bring this all full circle—two kinds of problems, two kinds of thinking. We’ve got individuals getting together as groups—me versus us—and there we want to trust those gut reactions, we want to trust the gut reactions that say, “Be nice, be cooperative, put your money into the pool, and help the group out,” and we’re pretty good at that. When it comes to us versus them—to distrusting people who are different from us, who are members of other racial groups or ethnic groups, when it comes to helping people who really could benefit enormously from our resources but who don’t have a kind of personal connection to us, us versus them, their interests versus our interests, or their interests versus my interests, or their values versus my values—our instincts may not be so reliable; that’s when we need to shift into manual mode.

Maybe a discussion for another time is: Should we trust those instincts that tell us that we shouldn’t be going for the greater good? Is the problem with our instincts or is the problem with the philosophy? What I argue is that our moral instincts are not as reliable as we think, and that when our instincts work against the greater good, we should put them aside at least as much as we can. If we want to have a global philosophy—one that we could always sign onto, regardless of which moral tribes we’re coming from—it’s going to require us to do things that don’t necessarily feel right in our hearts. Either it’s asking too much of us, or it feels like it’s asking us to do things that are wrong—to betray certain ideals, but that’s the price that we’ll have to pay if we want to have a kind of common currency; if we want to have a philosophy that we can all live by.

In a word, instead of continuing our attempts to blindly apply evolved behavioral traits to the solution of problems that have nothing to do with their evolutionary origins, perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to address them rationally for a change.  It’s very encouraging to occasionally run across such recognition of the obvious by thinkers as well-regarded as Prof. Greene.  It’s not out of the question that, as the thinking class continues to digest the implications of the biological origins of morality, we will see much more of the same.  Such optimism may well be unwarranted.  After all, the academy is filled with “experts” on morality and ethics, not to mention a host of professional philosophers, whose self-respect and livelihood depend on successfully bamboozling the rest of us into believing that they actually know something about “good” and “evil,” that is, objects that exist only in their imaginations.  On the other hand, change happens.  The behavioral sciences were dominated by the Blank Slate orthodoxy for decades, and yet today one can actually suggest that there is such a thing as human nature without being shouted down as a fascist.

As I have pointed out before, understanding the nature and origins of morality will not cause us all to suddenly start dancing naked in the streets.  It is our nature to be moral creatures, and we will continue to be moral creatures.  It is not in our nature to be “moral relativists,” and we will not all become moral relativists.  It is no more possible for us to jettison morality than for a leopard to change its spots.  We may, however, find it useful to restrict morality to its proper sphere of regulating our day to day interactions with other individuals, and seek to come up with moral system(s) that are simple, in harmony with our innate behavioral traits, and that enable us to live together and pursue our individual goals as comfortably and with as little friction as possible.  Meanwhile, we should be wary of those who seek to exploit moral emotions to achieve social ideals, promote holy causes, and peddle political nostrums.

 

Steven Pinker, Science, and “Scientism”

In an article that appeared recently in The New Republic entitled, “Science is not Your Enemy,” Steven Pinker is ostensibly defending science, going so far as to embrace “scientism.”  As he points out, “The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine.”  That’s quite true, which is reason enough to be somewhat circumspect about self-identifying (if I may coin a term) as a “scientismist.”  Nothing daunted, Pinker does just that, defending scientism in “the good sense.” He informs us that “good scientism” is distinguished by “an explicit commitment to two ideals,” namely, the propositions that the world is intelligible, and that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.

Let me say up front that I am on Pinker’s side when it comes to the defense of what he calls “science,” just as I am on his side in rejecting the ideology of the Blank Slate.  Certainly he’s worthy of a certain respect, if only in view of the sort of people who have been coming out of the woodwork to attack him for his latest.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  It’s just that, whenever I read his stuff, I find myself rolling my eyes before long.  Consider, for example, his tome about the Blank Slate.  My paperback version runs to 500 pages give or take, and in all that prose, I find only a single mention of Robert Ardrey, and then only accompanied by the claim that he was “totally and utterly wrong.”  Now, by the account of the Blank Slaters themselves (see, in particular, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer in Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu), Robert Ardrey was their most effective and influential opponent.  In other words, Pinker wrote a thick tome, purporting to be an account of the Blank Slate, in which he practically ignored the contributions of the most important player in the whole affair, only mentioning him at all in order to declare him wrong, when in fact he was on the same side of the issue as Pinker.

Similar problems turn up in Pinker’s latest.  For example, he writes,

Just as common, and as historically illiterate, is the blaming of science for political movements with a pseudoscientific patina, particularly Social Darwinism and eugenics.  Social Darwinism was the misnamed laissez-faire philosophy of Herbert Spencer.  It was inspired not by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Spencer’s Victorian-era conception of a mysterious natural force for progress, which was best left unimpeded.

Here, as in numerous similar cases, it is clear Pinker has never bothered to read Spencer.  The claim that he was a “Social Darwinist” was a red herring tossed out by his enemies after he was dead.  Based on a minimal fair reading of his work, the claim is nonsense.  If actually reading Spencer is too tedious, just Google something like “Spencer Social Darwinism.”  Check a few of the hits, and you will find that a good number of modern scholars have been fair-minded enough to actively dispute the claim.  Other than that, you will find no reference to specific writings of Spencer in which he promotes Social Darwinism as it is generally understood.  The same could be said of the laissez faire claim.  Spencer supported a small state, but hardly rejected stated intervention in all cases.  He was a supporter of labor unions, and even was of the opinion that land should be held in common in his earlier writings.  As for “Victorian-era” conceptions, if memory serves, Darwin wrote during that era as well, and while Spencer embraced Lamarckism and had a less than up-to-date notion of how evolution works, I find no reference in any of his work to a “mysterious natural force for progress.”

Pinker’s comments about morality are similarly clouded.  He writes,

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science… The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.  For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages.  And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions – that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct – the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely, adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.

In other words, Pinker has bought in to the Sam Harris “human flourishing” mumbo-jumbo, and thinks that the “facts of science” can somehow become material objects with the power to dictate that which is “good” and that which is “evil.”  Here Pinker, in company with Harris, has taken leave of his senses.  Based on what he wrote earlier in the essay, we know that he is aware that what we understand as morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits.  Those traits are their ultimate cause, and without them morality would literally cease to exist as we know it.  They exist in the brains of individuals, solely by virtue of the fact that, at some point in the distant past utterly unlike the present, they promoted our survival.  And yet, in spite of the fact that Pinker must understand, at least at some level, that these things are true, he agrees with Harris that the emotional responses, or, as Hume, whom Pinker also claims to have read, puts it, sentiments, can jump out of our heads, become objects, or things in themselves, independent of the minds of individuals, and, as such, can be manipulated and specified by the “facts of science.”  Presumably, once the “educated” and the “scientists” have agreed on what the “facts of science” tell us is a “defensible morality,” at that point the rest of us become bound to agree with them on the meanings of “good” and “evil” that they pass down to us, must subordinate our own emotions and inherent predispositions regarding such matters to “science,” and presumably be justifiably (by “science”) punished if we do not.  What nonsense!

“Science” is not an object, any more than “good” and “evil.”  “Science” cannot independently “say” anything, nor can it create values.  In reality, “science” is a rather vague set of principles and prescriptions for approaching the truth, applied willy-nilly if at all by most “scientists.”  By even embracing the use of the term “science” in that way, Pinker is playing into the hands of his enemies.  He is validating their claim that “science” is actually a thing, but in their case, a bête noire, transcending its real nature as a set of rules, more or less vaguely understood and applied, to become an object in itself.  Once the existence of such a “science” object is accepted, it becomes a mere bagatelle to fix on it the responsibility for all the evils of the world, or, in the case of the Pinkers of the world, all the good.

In reality, the issue here is not whether this imaginary “science” object exists and, assuming it does, whether it is “good” or “evil.”  It is about whether we should be empowered to learn things about the universe in which we live or not.  The opponents of “scientism” typically rail against such things as eugenics, Social Darwinism, and the atomic bomb.  These are supposedly the creations of the “science” object.  But, in fact, they are no such thing.  In the case of eugenics and Social Darwinism, they represent the moral choices of individuals.  In the case of the atomic bomb, we have a thing which became possible as a result of the knowledge of the physical world acquired in the preceding half a century, give or take.  What would the opponents of “scientism” have us change?  The decision to build the atomic bomb?  Fine, but in that case they are not opposing “science,” but rather a choice made by individuals.  Opposition to “science” itself can only reasonably be construed as opposition to the acquisition of the knowledge that made the bomb possible to begin with.  If that is what the opponents of “scientism” really mean, let them put their cards on the table.  Let them explain to us in just what ways those things which the rest of us are to be allowed to know will be limited, and just why it is they think they have the right to dictate to the rest of us what we can know and what we can’t.

It seems to me this whole “science” thing is getting out of hand.  If we must have an object, it would be much better for us to go back to the Enlightenment and use the term “reason.”  It seems to me that would make it a great deal more clear what we are talking about.  It would reveal the true nature of the debate.  It is not about the “science” object, and whether it is “good” or “evil,” but about whether we should actually try to use our rational minds, or instead relegate our brains to the less ambitious task of serving as a convenient stuffing for our skulls.