The Tea Parties and Human Nature

Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People
The Amity/Enmity Complex is real. The term refers to the dual nature of human morality. Search the listings of any of the major book sellers, and you’ll see that the long and bitter resistance of the Marxists and other ideologues to the notion of innate human behavior, including moral behavior, has effectively ended.

The ideologues have been overwhelmed by a deluge of facts from the emerging fields of neuroscience and brain imaging. They have been forced to accept the vindication of Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, E.O. Wilson, and all the other old ethologists and sociobiologists, although they seldom have the grace to mention their names. A sea change has occurred in acceptance of the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior in the last two decades, but the old “nurture is everything” behaviorists still cling stubbornly to a few intellectual redoubts. Among these is the notion that morality, while it may be hard wired in the brain, is actually evolving towards the “real good,” which commonly includes such things as universal human brotherhood and abhorrence of anything which might injure the “rights” of any life form, whether bird, beast or “other.” Unfortunately, it ain’t so.

Human brains are wired for a dual system of morality, one that applies to those perceived as the “in-group” and a sharply different one for those in the “out-group.” All sorts of negative characteristics are reserved for the latter. They are unclean, harmful, unjust, “immoral,” and generally evil. Eventually, some bright young neuroscientist will ignore the tabus of her elders and start systematically searching for the traces of the Complex among her fMRI and CEEG scans, and she will find them, because they are there. The Amity/Enmity Complex has always been as obvious as the noses at the end of our faces, just as the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior has been obvious to anyone with reasonable intelligence and an open mind since the days of Darwin. Human history is one, long testimony to its existence. The emergence of the Tea Party movement has provided us with some particularly striking examples of the Complex in action.

Consider, for example, the reaction on the left of the political divide among the “progressives” and liberals, those great champions of the will of the “people.” We’ve just seen exactly what limitations apply to their definition of the “people.” Anyone who disagrees with them is not included.

The Tea Party phenomenon is the only instance of the emergence of genuine mass popular movement most of them have ever witnessed. According to the latest Rasmussen survey, 24% of American voters now say they are part of the movement. Unfortunately, their views do not coincide with those of their leftist opponents. The response of the “progressives” has been to excise this particular bloc of the people with a meat cleaver.

The psychological gymnastics used to accomplish the job are classic examples of out-group identification. See, for example, the “astroturfing” meme at Daily Kos, some of the many attempts to associate the movement with violent extremists here, here, here and here, the Tea Partiers as “frauds” at Huffpo, and a particularly amusing example of the many attempts to associate the movement with racism by erstwhile warmonger Jonathan Chaitt, which includes the rather striking non sequitur,

The Tea Party is not racist. But it is an almost entirely white movement, largely driven by a sense that the government is taking money away from people like them and giving it to people unlike them, with ‘them’ understood in a racial context.

Heap the numerous attempts by these professionally pious and virtuous lovers of the “people” to discredit the movement with deceptions and smears on top of the rest, and you have a textbook case of the Enmity half of the Amity/Enmity Complex.

Far be it from me to claim that the leftists’ ideological clones on the right are any different. I merely use the Tea Party movement as a particularly striking, and therefore educational, example of an aspect of human moral behavior that the recent spate of books on the subject continue to leave out. One must hope that continuing advances in neuroscience will force them to pull their heads from the sand in the not too distant future. True, the Amity/Enmity Complex is an embarrassing aspect of our behavior, but it is also a particularly dangerous one to ignore.

Frans de Waal and Moral Mysticism

Go to the website of any of the major booksellers and do a search with the keywords “evolution” and “morality” and you will find an avalanche of books about the biological origins of morality. Acceptance of the connection between these two words implies the slaughter of any number of ideological sacred cows, not the least of which was Communism, but these books generally mention the bitter, decades-long battle the ideologues waged against that acceptance only in passing, if at all. In fact, the connection between evolution and morality has always obvious to anyone with an open mind since at least the days of Darwin, but, of course, such people are rare, especially in academia. In the end, thanks in large measure to advanced neurological imaging and a host of other emerging assistive tools, the weight of evidence finally buried the ideologues.

They may have been buried, but they didn’t go away. The context has certainly changed, but the ideological struggle continues. Read any of the books mentioned above and you are sure to find some trace of it. An interesting example for those whose tastes don’t run to long tomes is a brief work by Frans de Waal entitled, “Primates and Philosophers.” De Waal is a professor at Emory specializing in the field of animal behavior. In Part I of his book he takes issue with “veneer theory,” something of a straw man whose proponents supposedly believe that humans are consciously competitive and selfish creatures, with morality merely a “a thin crust underneath of which boil antisocial, amoral, and egoistic passions.” Part II consists of critical comments supplied by Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer, academics specializing in the area of evolutionary psychology, philosophy, and bioethics. Wright is author of the recent bestseller, “The Evolution of God.” The final section of the book consists of De Waal’s response.

As we learn in an introduction to the book written by Josiah Ober and Stephen Macedo, de Waal and his commenters all “accept the standard scientific account of biological evolution as based on random natural selection,” and “None suggests that there is any reason to suppose that humans are different in their metaphysical essence from other animals, or at least, none base their arguments on the idea that humans uniquely possess a transcendent soul.” However, immediately following these caveats, we are also informed that “A second important premise that is shared by de Waal and all four of his commentators is that moral goodness is something real, about which it is possible to make truth claims… The two basic premises of evolutionary science and moral reality establish the boundaries of the debate over the origins of goodness as it is set forth in this book.”

I actually find it stunning that comments like that could appear in a book by a bevy of perfectly respectable professors as if it were a commonplace, not even worthy of further discussion. One recalls the comment by E.O. Wilson in his book, “Consilience,” that if these people really believe that “moral goodness is something real,” they should “lay their cards on the table” and explain why. I find myself reaching for the works of John Stuart Mill to reassure myself that, even though, like the rest of us, he experienced morality as a transcendental reality, he, too, grasped the irrationality of genuinely believing in that reality. Let me lay my cards on the table. Moral goodness is not something real. The idea that it is real is irrational and basically absurd.

If it is real, pray tell, what is the nature of its existence? Anything that is real in itself cannot depend on human minds for its existence. In what sense, then, would morality exist in a lifeless universe? It would, of course, cease to exist, because it is, in fact, a subjective construct of the human brain. There is no rational justification for morality as a real thing.

I know, I am wasting my breath here. After all, how likely is it that people who have spent their whole lives laboriously absorbing the tomes of Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer will suddenly realize that, while these works may be interesting intellectual curiousities, the idea that they can serve as guides to “real goodness” is nonsense? I suppose I should be content to have witnessed the remarkable paradigm shift in the acceptance of the notion of morality as an evolved trait in my lifetime. It was always a stretch to believe that all the philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists who have spent their lives on the quest for the holy grail of “real moral goodness” would suddenly see the light when they grasped the connection between morality and evolution and stop cobbling away on their transcendentalist theories. The only problem is that this cobbling away is dangerous.

It is dangerous because, to the extent that these people concoct this or that gaudy chimera of the “good in itself,” they will ignore or reject truths about human beings that are in conflict with it. These notions prevent us from knowing ourselves, and, unless we know ourselves, unless we thoroughly understand our own nature and learn to control it, we ourselves will always pose the greatest threat to our own survival.

Read the book, and you’ll see the latest version of the “New Soviet Man” these true believers are aiming at. In their Brave New World, human beings will have finally grasped the “fact” that “society” includes all mankind, and universal brotherhood will prevail. It’s merely a question of recognizing “true goodness” followed by a little judicious “reasoning,” to the effect that, because a equals b and b equals c that, (surprise, surprise) we have really been evolving towards that “true goodness” all this time, and are perfectly suited for it, and, voila, the new straightjacket is ready.

To his credit, de Waal does take a brief peek at the emperor’s new clothes. As he puts it,

It should further be noted that the evolutionary pressures responsible for our moral tendencies may not all have been nice and positive. After all, morality is very much an in-group phenomenon. Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside… Obviously, the most potent force to bring out a sense of community is enmity toward outsiders. It forces unity among elements that are normally at odds. This may not be visible at the zoo, but it is definitely a factor for chimpanzees in the wild, which show lethal intercommunity violence… In the course of human evolution, out-group hostility enhanced in-group solidarity to the point that morality emerged.

It mystifies me that anyone can grasp all these things and yet still, against all odds, fail to see the light. In almost the next sentence, however, we witness the good professor stumbling over the edge of a very familiar cliff;

Humans go much further in all of this than the apes, which is why we have moral systems and apes do not. And so, the profound irony is that our noblest achievement – morality – has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior – warfare.

I have some suggestions of my own. Let us reject the straightjacket once and for all. Let us finally jettison the intellectually bankrupt notion of the “good in itself.” Let us embrace morality as something fundamental about us that will always play a decisive role in our day-to-day relationships with other human beings. At the same time, let us grasp the fact that certain aspects of our nature have been and will continue to be highly destructive in the modern world, and represent, even now, a threat to our survival, and will continue to pose such a threat unless and until we learn to understand and control them. Let us give over the chasing of gaudy moral butterflies. Our intellectual powers are limited, but, if we are to survive, we must at least try to apply them.

On Justifications of Morality

There is no justification of morality.  Period.  That’s the bottom line. 

Before one sets forth boldly to justify morality, it is always a good idea to first acquire an understanding of what it is.  Morality is a human trait resulting from predispositions hard-wired in the brain.  The exact manner in which it manifests itself in the form of behavior and perceptions is influenced to some extent by the environment.  Human beings are an evolved life form.  Therefore, traits such as hands, feet, eyes, ears, and morality exist because, at least at some point, they promoted our survival. 

Eyes did not suddenly spring into being in perfect form as a result of some remarkable chance mutation.  Their development can be traced back over hundreds of millions of years, presumably to the emergence of light sensitive cells on some primitive life form.  The same may be said of morality.  It is a manifestation of physical processes that take place in the brain.  Related physical processes take place in the brains of other animals, as they did in the brains of our ancestors going back tens of millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions, of years. 

Until quite recently, our ancestors did not have the mental equipment necessary to speculate wisely about Kant and Schopenhauer.  Morality would not have promoted our survival if it had taken the form of a predisposition to read tomes of philosophy, and then draw our own conclusions.  It promotes our survival by modifying our social behavior in a much more efficient manner, and one that worked for our animal ancestors as well as it does for us today.  It causes us to act according to moral rules or imperatives that we obey without thinking about them.  Other primates don’t have the luxury of thinking about why they act morally.  They just do it.  We can think about it, and the results have been very interesting.

On evolutionary time scales, human intelligence evolved with great speed.  There may have been some alterations in the mental wiring responsible for moral behavior during the process, but it’s most unlikely the related changes took place in perfect harmony.  We still experience morality in the same way as other primates, in the form of imperatives, or absolute rules.  As a result, it seems to us that those rules must have an objective existence of their own, independent of the mental processes that give rise to them.  For thousands of years philosophers have been seeking this object, this holy grail – in vain.  Even though we experience it that way, morality as an objective thing does not exist.  The holy grail was never there.  Morality exists, but its existence is in the form of physical processes in our brains, not as an object with an independent existence of its own.  Because morality is not an object, attempts to give it objective legitimacy – to “justify” it – are necessarily in vain.  One cannot “justify” behavioral traits that evolved in response to a social environment that no longer exists.  At best, one can understand what they are and why they are there.

It occurred to Darwin that the behavioral traits associated with morality had evolved, and many thinkers since his time have come to the same conclusion.  It was, however, a conclusion that seemed to fly in the face of any number of ideological narratives, not to mention most of the world’s organized religions.  As a result, it has taken us a long time to accept the obvious.  However, our knowledge has continued to expand, and recent scientific advances, particularly in the form of powerful tools that allow us to watch the brain in action, and the ability to unravel the human genome, have made it increasingly difficult to deny any genetic component to morality.  The idea has gone mainstream.

All this comes as bad news to those philosophers who have devoted their careers to the search for the holy grail of objective justification.  It completely upsets their apple cart of nicely arranged epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies.  In spite of that, they no longer have the luxury of pretending that the idea doesn’t exist.  One way or another, they have to address it.  One can find an interesting response to this troubling state of affairs by Jan Gorecki, one of the guild of grail seekers, in his book, “Justifying Ethics; Human Rights & Human Nature.”

Gorecki is aware of the idea that morality is there as an adaptive function.  He is also perceptive enough to grasp the implications of that idea.  Speaking of the genetic explanation of morality he writes,

If true, it precludes not only the validity of the functional justification, but also of all other traditionally claimed justifications. Within the view of the world and of ethics accepted by proponents of this explanation, there is no room for such normmaking facts as divine will, intuitionist ontology, existence of pure reason as the source of ethics, or of human nature understood otherwise than as a genetic fitness implement. That is why no proponent of the genetic explanation supports any kind of objective justification of morality; they understand that, once their explanation is considered true, all justifications fail.

Precisely!  I couldn’t have said it any better myself.  What’s even more remarkable is the way that Gorecki, in spite of this realization, manages to maintain the precarious balance of his own particular apple cart.  Here are some relevant quotes:

… the very idea of morality being with us as an adaptive tool is enigmatic… In a living organism, the adaptive emergence of various organs is reasonably clear in the light of natural selection. But how can anyone explain, short of a miracle, an analogous role of moral evaluations in human society? (!)

Morality is, from this perspective, just one such technique. It is claimed that the human ability to ontogenetically develop the specifically human moral experiences emerged as a mutation over five million years ago, among hunters-gatherers living in small, endogamously breeding kinship bands. By providing a strong altruistic and cooperative motivation, this ability enhanced the inclusive fitness of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!)

This brings us to the basic question: is the genetic explanation true? The question cannot be answered in a publicly convincing way. It may well be true; it is possible that whatever exists is matter, that life can be reduced to physicochemical processes and mind to physiology, and that human morality is there since it promotes replication of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!!)

During this discussion, Gorecki cites several of the works of E.O. Wilson, such as “Sociobiology,” and “On Human Nature.”  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  If professional philosophers can so grossly misunderstand ideas as they are set forth by one who writes as clearly and elegantly as E.O. Wilson, are we really to believe that they understand Kant, who wrote in obscure German sentences a page and a half long?

The rest is predictable.  Gorecki buries his head in the sand, and insists that the rest of us do likewise;

…the belief “that human values are determined or fixed genetically…is doubtful to say the least,” and possibly untestable. (It’s certainly doubtful in the form he understands it.) Thus, we are not, and may never be, able to determine whether the genetic explanation of ethics is true. This indeterminacy is most relevant for our analysis; unproved and uncertain, the genetic explanation cannot be used for rebuttal of the functional justification (and other justifications) of morality.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s a time tested way of denying the obvious, if the obvious happens to conflict with a cherished world view.  Just hold the obvious to an impossible standard of proof, and then pretend it’s rational to ignore it by virtue of the fact that it can’t be proved.  Of course, one can always close ones eyes, hold ones hands firmly over ones ears, and declare that anything one doesn’t want to believe “can’t be proved.”  For that matter, it would be true.  Infirm creatures that we are, with a limited, and generally grossly overestimated, ability to reason, we can’t “prove” anything.  We must act according to probabilities.  It is highly probable, and becoming increasingly so as our knowledge expands, that morality is an evolved trait.  Failure to grasp the implications of that knowledge, and to act on them, is risky now, and will become increasingly risky in a world in which our powers of self-destruction expand with each passing day.  Assuming we value our own survival, we had best learn to know ourselves.

On the Smartness of Liberalism and Vegetarianism

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias had an interesting post on intelligence yesterday.  He quotes an article in the Social Psychology Quarterly that claims, among other things, that

Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women), while intelligence is not associated with the adult espousal of evolutionarily familiar values on children, marriage, family, and friends. … Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.

Where to begin?  Perhaps with the obvious observation that the psychologists have lost none of their ancient skill in doublethink.  They are perfectly familiar with the meaning of the term “intelligence,” and consider it a “well known fact” that it can be measured using reliable tests when associated with, for example, liberalism, vegetarianism, and atheism.  At the same time they are just as certain that “intelligence” is a highly ambiguous complex that it is hopeless to even attempt to measure when associated with, for example, sex or race.  

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the first of these “truths” of the psychologists really is true.  In other words, let us assume that Mr. Kanazawa really does know what he’s talking about when he speaks of intelligence, and that this intelligence really is measurable.  What, then, are we to make of its association with such “value-loaded” categories as liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention a tendency to have fewer children?

To begin, allow me to enlighten Mr. Kanazawa on a matter touching on this discussion, but about which he seems somewhat confused.  In his abstract we read, “The origin of values and preferences is an unresolved theoretical question in behavioral and social sciences.”  I have no doubt that it is an unresolved theoretical question in the behavioral and social sciences.  For those of us who don’t move in such high intellectual circles, however, the answer is obvious enough.  Values and preferences reflect mental traits of various animals, one species of which happens to be Homo sapiens.  Mental traits originate in the brain, and the human brain exists in its current form because all of its essential features have, at one time or another in the past, promoted our genetic survival. 

Values and preferences such as liberalism and vegetarianism have not, of course, evolved in their perfect modern incarnations, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.  Rather, they correspond to responses of the human brain to conditions quite different from those that prevailed during the long process of its evolution, moderated by cultural influences.  As values and preferences, they are morally loaded.  In other words, one doesn’t embrace liberalism and vegetarianism by virtue of a purely rational evaluation of whether they will promote one’s genetic survival or not.  Rather, they are adopted by virtue of emotional responses associated with those innate mental characteristics we associate with morality.  In other words, they are perceived as “good,” and not just good from a utilitarian point of view,  but “good in themselves.”  That’s how human morality works, no matter how smart one happens to be.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an objective “good in itself.”  Liberalism and vegetarianism certainly have a real existence as “goods,” but only as subjective, or perceived goods.  In other words, they do have a genuine existence as goods, but that genuine existence is in the form of a figment of our imaginations.

Liberalism and vegetarianism, then, can be considered artifacts of innate human mental characteristics interacting with an environment utterly different from that in which they evolved to begin with.  Those mental traits could not possibly have evolved fast enough to keep up with the profound changes in the human environment that have occurred over, say the last 10,000 years.  Furthermore, they are not perfectly malleable and adaptable to those changes, as the inventors of the New Soviet Man discovered to their cost.  Under the circumstances, it seems rather risky to assume that complex behavioral traits that have emerged as ancient human mental characteristics interact with the modern environment will continue to promote our survival. 

In the case of liberalism and vegetarianism, I would claim that they certainly do not.  According to the article,

Liberalism … [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others. Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel. Humans … are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or exchange with. … There is no evidence that people in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands freely share resources with members of other tribes. …

True enough.  However, as we often hear, the world has shrunk.  We are no more capable of altruistic behavior towards strangers and “other tribes” than we ever were.  However, thanks to modern means of transportation and communication, it has become possible for us to perceive a far greater number of others as belonging to “our tribe.”  “We” is no longer constrained by the environment to a small group of people who are likely to be genetically related to us.  “We” can now correspond to much larger social constructs, such as fellow citizens in a modern state, fellow members of huge political organizations, or fellow believers in massive religious denominations.  “We” can be such entities as “the proletariat,” or “the German people,” or “the oppressed masses.”  “We” can even include other species.  Liberalism and vegetarianism are only “evolutionarily novel” in the sense that they represent the response of a relatively unchanged human brain to massive and transformational environmental and perceptual changes.

Unfortunately, such modern “goods” no longer promote our survival.  In the case of liberalism, the result is the handing over of resources to those from whom the chances that we will ever receive any corresponding benefit in return are vanishingly small.  In the case of vegetarianism, it is the establishment of artificial taboos against certain foods that one can dispense with in certain developed countries that happen not to be at war, but which may be essential to survival elsewhere, or in those same countries in the event of war or one of the other types of social breakdown that occurred with such alarming frequency in the 20th century.  To the extent that a “good” no longer promotes our survival, it is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, a serious threat.  Morality exists, like everything else about us, because, and only because, at some time in the past, it promoted our survival.  That being the case, nothing can be more immoral than failing to survive.  To anyone who would claim otherwise, I can only say, to borrow a phrase from E.O. Wilson, please “lay your cards on the table,” and explain why.

What, then, can we say about the association of higher levels of human intelligence with such survival threatening “goods” as modern liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention with such behavioral tendencies as having fewer children.  Apparently, we are forced to conclude that, as things now stand, human beings with above average intelligence represent a biological dead end.  Eventually they must either become more stupid, or more intelligent.  My personal preference is for the latter.  I have a hunch it will more effectively promote our long term survival.

UPDATE:  Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy has more on the Kanazawa article.  From his take:

I suspect that much of the public interest in Kanazawa’s study is driven by a perception that political views endorsed by more intelligent people are more likely to be true. This, however, is a dubious inference. Even intelligent people have incentives to be rationally ignorant about politics and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know. I do think that, other things equal, a political view is more likely to be correct if it is more likely to be endorsed by people with greater knowledge of the issue (controlling for other factors that may affect their answers). While knowledge and intelligence are likely to be correlated, they are not the same thing. Ultimately, the fact that a political ideology is more likely to be endorsed by more intelligent people is only a weak indicator of its validity.

Or, as Confucius once said, “Study without thought is vain; thought without study is dangerous.”

Interestingly, Kanazawa himself does not claim that intelligent people are more likely to endorse liberalism because it is true. Instead, he argues that the result is due to the fact that liberalism is more at odds with our genetic instincts than conservatism is, and intelligent people are more likely to endorse “novel” ideas.

Liberals are not different from conservatives because they are more rational, and therefore less subject to genetic instincts.  (“Genetic instincts” is imprecise, but we’ll use the vernacular for the time being).  Rather, liberalism and conservatism are manifestations of the same genetic instincts in the context of the modern world.  They differ only in such factors as identification of who belongs in the “in-group” and who belongs in the “out-group.”  These distinctions can have a major political impact, but, as far as human nature is concerned, they are peripheral.  They are both merely possible expressions of emotional responses whose fundamental origins in the brain are identical in both cases.

Niall Ferguson and the Amity/Enmity Complex

In earlier posts, I have noted the remarkable paradigm shift that has recently occurred in acceptance of the fact that human behavior, including moral behavior, is highly dependent on predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain. It did not come easy.  The concept of innate behavioral traits flew in the face of a good many cherished ideological myths, not the least of which was the myth of Marxism.  We have made great progress, but we have not reached our journey’s end. 

Not all the myths are dead.  Legions of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and other “experts” of every stripe are still fighting a delaying action.  They will continue to insist until the bitter end, or, to put it more concretely, until the facts finally drag them back to reality, that, while some aspects of human behavior may be innate, we are only wired to be “good” and “moral.”  Once upon a time they told us that, because the “gentle” chimpanzee was our closest relative in the animal kingdom, then, obviously, our nature was to be “gentle” and “unaggressive” as well.  When it turned out that, after all, the chimpanzee is not as “gentle” and “unaggressive” as first imagined, and, in fact, displays some character traits that are distinctly politically incorrect, the hapless beast was tossed overboard in favor of today’s favorite, the lately fashionable bonobo.  The bonobo, we are told, is a paragon of cooperative behavior, with sexual habits that are in perfect harmony with the most advanced views on the topic.  In a word, we have made progress, but only partial progress.  Instead of being fully buried, our heads are now only half buried in the sand.   

All this gushing over bonobos ignores some hard facts.  Among them is the Amity/Enmity Complex.  As I noted in an earlier post, Robert Ardrey once described the Complex as

…the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist. The paradox may be simply stated: If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence? If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?

…What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.

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

It does not take a mental giant to figure out how the predisposition to acquire such a dual morality would have promoted the survival of ancestral humans.  It served to spread populations out, optimizing their exploitation of available territory.  Ardrey has included several interesting descriptions of related behavior in other primate species in his books.  At a time when we possessed only crude weapons, the survival value of enmity between adjoining groups was enhanced by the fact that it was unlikely to have lethal consequences.  Times have changed.  Our weapons are no longer crude.

The complex is the fundamental human behavioral trait behind such “isms” and other related evils as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious bigotry.  However, rather than admit something as unpleasant as an innate behavioral trait that might predispose us to be other than perfect angels, we have refused to accept the obvious.  The obvious is that the enmity half of the Amity/Enmity Complex is the unifying fact that explains all these behaviors.  Rather than accept it, we have instead experienced the devastating effects of each of these “isms” in turn, only giving them a name that associates them with “evil” after the fact.  Would it not be better to understand the underlying phenomenon than to continue on this eternal treadmill, constantly closing the barn door after the animals have already fled?  There have been many Cassandras among us since the time of Darwin, thinkers who pointed to the abundant evidence for the existence of the Complex, and the dangers of ignoring its existence.  One would think that, if the preceding centuries of violence and warfare were not enough, the scales would surely have dropped from the eyes of even the most stubborn doubters after the genocide and mass slaughter of the 20th century.  Alas, bonobos are still in fashion, and we’re still not quite there yet.

I remain optimistic, however.  I have witnessed the paradigm shift referred to above in my lifetime.  The other shoe will eventually fall.  Facts are stubborn things.  They don’t go away, and we continue to accumulate them.  The Amity/Enmity complex is a fact.  As long as we retain the freedom to inquire and to research the truth, it will become, like innate human behavior, a fact that is increasingly difficult, and finally, impossible to ignore.  It may be that we will have to beat the last, recalcitrant, “progressive” psychologist over the head with the last quantum fluctuation in the last electron in the last molecule in the final neuron that proves, once and for all, that the Complex is real, but one day he, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world. 

Meanwhile, the manifestations of the Complex, countless as they are in our history, remain obvious to anyone with a mind open enough to look at them.  Besides much else that recommends it to the interested reader, there are many interesting examples in Niall Ferguson’s book, “The War of the World.”  For example, referring to anti-Semitic pogroms in pre-WWI Russia:

What happened between 1903 and 1906 was quite different in character… The catalyst was a classic “blood libel”, prompted by the discovery of the corpse of a young boy,…In the violence that ensued, hundreds of shops and homes were looted or burned. This time, however, many more people were killed… Between October 31 and November 11 there were pogroms in 660 different plances; more than 800 Jews were killed.

To the persecution of the “bourgeoisie” in the Russian Civil War:

The Bolshevik newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta declared: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood… let there be bloods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible.”… Between 1918 and 1920 as many as 300,000 such political executions were carried out.

and, finally, to the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Turks:

Like the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, the Armenians were doubly vulnerable: not only a religious minority, but also a relatively wealthy group… In the mid-1890s irregular Kurdish troops had been unleashed against Armenian villages as the Ottoman authorities tried to reassert the Armenians’ subordinate status as infidel dhimmis, or non-Muslim citizens. The American ambassador estimated the number of people killed at more than 37,000… The murderous campaign launched against the Armenians from 1915 to 1918 was qualitatively different, however; so much so that it is now widely acknowledged to have been the first true genocide… the men and boys older than 10 were massacred… The number of Armenian men, women and children who were killed or died prematurely may have been even higher than a million, a huge proportion of a pre-war population that numbered, at the very most, 2.4 million.

Is it really so hard to see the common thread here?  Is the truth really so difficult to recognize and accept?  The damage we have done to ourselves boggles the mind.  One day we will learn to understand ourselves, and grasp the reasons why we do these things.  May that day come sooner rather than later.

You should Decide to Read this Book: “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer

I find some of the books that are being published these days mind-boggling. “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, is one of them. Perhaps it’s not really the book that’s mind-boggling, fascinating as it is. What’s really astounding is the public reception it’s received. Consider, for example, its review in the New York Times. It’s positive, even enthusiastic, cites a few interesting tidbits from the book, and then closes with some suggestions about questions Lehrer might take up in future works. The astounding thing is that there is no allusion whatsoever to matters of political correctness, no suggestion that the author is a minion of fascism, no dark hints that his conclusions border on racism, and no tut-tutting about his general lack of moral uprightness.

All this is mind-boggling because it attests to a sea change in public attitudes, to a transformational change in the way certain seemingly obvious truths are received. Changes like that don’t happen over years. It takes decades, and I suspect you have to be around for decades yourself to notice them. Underlying every anecdote, every example, and every assertion in the book is the tacit assumption that our behavior, outside of such fundamental traits as hunger and sexual desire, is not just an artifact of our environment, a reflection of our culture, imprinted on minds of almost unlimited malleability. Rather, its underlying theme is that much of our behavior is conditioned by innate characteristics hard-wired in the circuitry of our brains. Forty or fifty years ago, many books with a similar theme were published by the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Robert Ardrey. Inevitably, whenever a new one turned up, secular religious fanatics of the Marxist and related schools began frothing at the mouth. Their authors were demonized and denounced as perpetrators of every sort of evil and immorality. Any suggestion that certain aspects of human nature were innate posed a threat to their plans to create an earthly paradise for us, and then “re-educate” us to like it. In a word, it threatened the whole concept of the “New Soviet Man.” They became just as furious as any fundamentalist Christian at the suggestion that the earth is more than 7,000 years old. Richard Dawkins has done a particularly able job of dissecting one of the literary artifacts of this school of thought, “Not in our Genes,” by R. Lewontin, et. al., demonstrating his virtuosity at dissecting secular as well as traditional religions.

Secular religions have certain disadvantages not shared by the more traditional, “spiritual” varieties. For example, they promise heaven in this life instead of the next, and so are subject to fact-checking. The history of the Soviet Union is a case in point. They are also more vulnerable to demonstrable scientific facts, because they cannot point to a superhuman authority with the power to veto common sense, and they typically claim to be “scientific” themselves. All of these have contributed to the sea change in attitudes I refer to, but I suspect the great scientific advances of recent years in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have played the most decisive role. Many of those advances have been enabled by sophisticated scanning devices, with which we can now peer deep into the brain and watch its workings in real time down to the molecular level. Lehrer cites many examples in his book. The facts are there, in the form of repeatable experiments. Lehrer cites the evidence, treating the innate in human behavior, not as a heresy, but as a commonplace, obvious on the face of it. I can but wonder at how rapidly the transformation has taken place.

“How We Decide” is a pleasure to read, and it will surely make you think. I found the chapter on “The Moral Mind” particularly interesting. Among other things, it demonstrates the absurdity of the misperception, shared by so many otherwise highly intelligent people from ancient to modern times, that we will not act morally unless we have some rational reason for doing so, such as the dictates of a God, or the systems of philosophers. As Lehrer puts it,

Religious believers assume that God invented the moral code. It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a list of imperatives inscribed in stone. (As Dostoyevsky put it, “If there is no God, then we are lost in a moral chaos. Everything is permitted.”) But this cultural narrative gets the causality backward. Moral emotions existed long before Moses.

Lehrer also cites some of the many great thinkers who have, throughout our history, drawn attention to the remarkable similarities in our moral behavior that transcend culture, and came to the common conclusion that there was something innate about morality. For example, quoting from the book,

Although (Adam) Smith is best known for his economic treatise “The Wealth of Nations,” he was most proud of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” his sprawling investigation into the psychology of morality. Like his friend David Hume, Smith was convinced that our moral decisions were shaped by our emotional instincts. People were good for essentially irrational reasons.

What Smith and Hume couldn’t know was how morality is innate, or why. Now, as Lehrer shows us, we are finally beginning to find out.

Do yourself a favor and read the book.

Of Human Nature and Political Games

In my last post I noted with some gratification that phenomena as obvious as the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior are finally being accepted, in the popular media and elsewhere, as obvious, whereas 40 or 50 years ago they would have been furiously attacked as evidence of racism, fascism, or some similar social malady. In those days, such attacks came mainly from the left, with emphasis on the Marxist left. Well, hold on to your hats, dear readers, because it appears that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. Now it appears that the political right is turning its baleful glance on evolutionary psychology, and discovering that it is a font of nefarious schemes to subvert free will and human virtue.

We begin this story with an article that appeared on NPR’s website. It discussed the ideas of Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam regarding the interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind as set forth in his new book entitled “The Hidden Brain.” I have no certain knowledge regarding Mr. Vedantam’s political leanings, but, considering the fact that NPR has deigned to discuss his book and he writes for the Washington Post, I suspect that he probably stands rather to the left of Rush Limbaugh. Now, given the unfortunate history of attacks on proponents of innate predispositions by assorted Defenders of the Faith on the left, one would think that Mr. Vedantam’s embrace of evolutionary psychology would be grounds for loud huzzahs all ’round. For example, according to the NPR article, he notes the importance of innate aspects of human behavior in the development of social maladies such as racism, citing research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes. All this seems harmless and commonplace enough. All Vedantam is really saying is that there is such a thing as an Amity/Enmity Complex, that it can manifest itself as racism, and that, if we are to control such socially destructive behavior, it would behoove us to understand what causes it.  Fifty years ago, he would have been loudly denounced as a heretic by the High Priests on the left for stating such obvious truisms.  Today, we hear barely a whimper from that direction, but, alas, the time for rejoicing has not yet come.  It appears that the right has now discovered, in its turn, that evolutionary psychology is really a nefarious plot against mankind.

I cite as exhibit A an article written by Jeff G. at Protein Wisdom.  Instead of rejoicing at the return of the Prodigal Son from the left, it seems he has smelled a rat.  Mr. Vedantam, it appears, is not really a benign science writer for the Wapo, but a myrmidon of the left, a mere tool in a broader plot to seize control of our minds and reprogram us into latter day versions of Homo Sovieticus.  Let’s allow Jeff G. to set the tone.  Referring to the Montreal study, he says,

Of course, were the data reversed (had, for instance, the day-care center under review been located in the basement of Reverend Wright’s church, say) — with whites linked to negative attributes and blacks viewed positively — that data almost certainly wouldn’t be extrapolated out as normative the way it is here. In fact, such data would likely be used to exhort the force of identify politics to “empower” historically disenfranchised groups, the result being that we must now believe that identity politics is simultaneously ameliorative (when it empowers certain identity groups) and “racist” (when it empowers other identity groups), even as the mechanism is precisely the same.

Here Jeff G. invents the first in a series of strawmen, attacking Mr. Vedantam for what he “almost certainly” would have done if the racial shoe had been on the other foot.  Apparently, he is unaware of the absurdity of attacking someone for a misdeed they haven’t actually committed, but which he has concluded they would have committed in some hypothetical alternate reality.  Continuing with the article,

And here you have the last two maneuvers: 1) It is silly to call children as young as 3 bigots, Vedantam will (pretend to) concede; and yet they are showing bigoted behavior — like, for instance, they draw “bigoted associations” or make “racist statements” — which transgressions Vedantam will trace to “culture and upbringing”. Are these children responsible for their own culture? Their own upbringing? Of course not, the argument will suggest. And so their bigotry, which is undeniable (given the “associations” drawn by the kids in one Montreal day-care center) must come from somewhere else, and must be lodged somewhere outside of the conscious reach of these children (where presumably it could be corrected).

Certainly culture plays a role in determining whether we perceive specific racial characteristics in a positive or negative light, but where, exactly, does Mr. Vedantam imply that these associations are “lodged somewhere outside of our conscious reach?”  The logical process by which Jeff G. arrives at the conclusion that this “must be” is beyond me.

Once we are here — once we begin to give power to deeply-seeded attitudes learned through acculturation and rote indoctrination (and buried deep in our “sub-conscious”) while simultaneously divorcing the conscious mind from the unconscious mind in such a way that the unconscious mind is no longer a part of the intentional “we” — it is an easy next step to argue 2) that “we” are not responsible for any kind of unconscious racism or bigotry; thus, we can say racist things, or make racist associations, without those associations or statements being intentionally racist. More, we can’t be expected to recognize in ourselves such unconscious bigotry precisely because it lies in our unconscious mind, which is the “autopilot” to our “we,” and as such stands apart from our conscious control over it. Which means we’ll have to rely on others to spot our bigotry for us. God bless ‘em.

Now the strawmen are really starting to come out of the woodwork.  Whoever said that our racial attitudes are “buried deep in our sub-conscious,” beyond our conscious control?  Whoever came up with the idea that our conscious and unconscious minds are “divorced” from each other?  Whoever suggested that it is impossible for us to become conscious of our own “unconscious racism” because our “unconscious minds” aren’t part of our “We?”  Mr. Vedantam certainly makes no such claims in the NPR article, nor does he imply anything of the sort.  In fact, these are all fantasies invented by Jeff G. himself.  Of course, they are necessary fantasies if we are to give any credence to the central theme of his article, which is that Mr. Vedantam is part of a larger conspiracy to convince us that “we must rely on others to spot our bigotry for us.”  Why the insidious leftist elites Mr. Vedantam supposedly serves would want us to believe this becomes clear later in the article.  As Jeff G. puts it,

The upshot of all this is that we are left with an obvious way to fight “racism”: change society and culture in such a way that our “unconscious” mind — over which we have limited ownership (or rather, something akin to a rental agreement) — learns the “correct” lessons. We need to be taught which kinds of associations are acceptable and which are not. Our speech and thought needs to be cleansed; our autopilot re-educated.

Well,  not exactly.  Nowhere does Mr. Vedantam claim that it is even possible to “re-educate our autopilot,” and this must be dismissed as another of Jeff G.’s fantasy strawmen.  Far from implying that we have no control over our autopilot, he specifically states exactly the opposite.  Quoting from the NPR article:

“Our hidden brains will always recognize people’s races, and they will do so from a very, very young age,” Vedantam says. “The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways.”

There is no suggestion here that the associations be “reprogrammed,” but simply that children be made aware of their existence, and the fact that they can manifest themselves as social evils such as racism.  Returning to the NPR article,

Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it’s not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, “The Hidden Brain,” is about how to “take back the controls.

In other words, far from suggesting that we need to be “re-educated,” because we can’t control our “autopilot” by our own volition, Vedantam is again saying exactly the opposite; that our conscious minds are really in overall control, and that we are quite capable of dealing with asocial manifestations of unconscious behavior such as racism on our own, without the need for any “re-education” by cliques of leftist illuminati.  No matter, Jeff G. has already left reality far behind, and can’t be bothered to read what Vedantam is actually saying.  he continues,

On offer here is the following prescription: you can only know your autopilot by learning what culture and society have imprinted upon you. Once there, you can only “take back control” by changing what culture and society imprint. Because otherwise, nothing else Vedantam writes makes sense: if you could consciously control your unconscious, that would be a form of consciousness that robs the unconscious of its (presumed) power; so the answer is that you must control your unconscious mind by consciously decided what is appropriate for it to learn in the first place.

Which is to say, you can only take back control by giving over control to those who will properly teach you.

Here one can only shake one’s head.  Nowhere does Vedantam suggest that “you can only ‘take back control’ by changing what culture and society imprint.”  Far from claiming that you cannot consciously control your unconscious, he actually explicitly states exactly the opposite.  Nowhere does he suggest that its even possible to “correctly” program the unconscious mind by “giving over control to those who will properly teach you.”

Well, I can only offer Mr. Vedantam my sincere sympathy, and express the hope that, in future, those who attack his book will take the trouble to read it first. 

 The political animals on both the right and the left will always have their ideological axes to grind.  Meanwhile, we continue to learn.  That which is true will remain true whether it happens to be politically desirable and expedient or not.  Let us seek the truth.

“The Evolution of Morality” and Innate Human Behavior

There has been an incredible (and gratifying) sea change in attitudes towards and acceptance of the idea that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions that are genetically programmed in our brains since the 60’s and 70’s. In those days, proponents of the idea were relentlessly attacked by so-called “scientists” who were actually ideologues defending Marxism and related secular religions. These attacks generally included vilification and demonization via slanderous accusations of “racism,” “fascism,” or some similar right wing sin. At the time, academics in such related fields as anthropology, psychology, etc., either cheered on the ideologues, or stood discretely aside, collaborating in a secular variant of religious obscurantism. In the meantime, there have been great advances in our knowledge of the inner workings of the brain. The proponents of innate behavior have been vindicated, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the basic truth of their arguments, and maintain any claim to scientific respectability at the same time. It would be difficult for anyone who hasn’t been around long enough to have witnessed these changes to appreciate their magnitude or significance.

A recently published book entitled “The Evolution of Morality,” by the philosopher Richard Joyce, is one more striking example of the change, among many others. In it one finds the remarkable passage,

There is one traditional complaint against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that has, thankfully, receded in recent years: that the program would, if pursued, lead to unpleasant political ends. It shouldn’t be forgotten that much of the tone-setting early invective against these research programs was politically motivated. In their withering and influential attack on sociobiology, “Not in Our Genes,” Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin are, if nothing else refreshingly honest about this, admitting that they share a commitment to socialism, and that they regard their “critical science as an integral part of the struggle to create that society” (1984: ix). Elsewhere, Lewontin and Richard Levins proudly made this declaration: “…we have been attempting with some success to guide our research by a conscious application of Marxist philosophy” (Levins and Lewontin 1985: 165). It is not these disturbing confessions of political motivation that I mean to highlight here – intellectually repugnant thought they are (and should be even to Marxists) – but rather the bizarre presupposition that a Darwinian approach to human psychology and behavior should have any obvious political ramifications.

There is much else of interest in Joyce’ book, not the least of which is a quote of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus regarding innate ideas of good and evil at the start of the introduction. I highly recommend it to the interested reader. The fact that it, and many other writings in both the popular and scientific literature, now treat the idea of innate behavior as commonplace and generally accepted, except by such latter day Trofim Lysenkos as Lewontin, Levins, and Kamin, et.al., would surely seem bizarre to a Rip van Winkle ethologist of the late 60’s who suddenly woke up 50 years later. It is encouraging evidence that the obscurantism of the high priests of secular religions like Marxism is as vulnerable to the advance of human knowledge as the obscurantism of the fanatical devotees of the Book of Genesis.

All this begs the question, however, of how it is that such supposedly “scientific” fields as psychology and anthropology are so often hijacked by the purveyors of ideological snake oil and pseudo-scientific fads, to the point that they develop an immune response to new ideas that happen to be in conflict with the prevailing sacred cows. It seems to me that shame would be an appropriate response, but I’m not holding my breath. However, perhaps a little self-criticism wouldn’t be too much to ask before we charge ahead to the next fad. I would suggest that, for starters, those active in fields relating to something as complex as the human brain refrain from promoting their theories as established scientific truths until we understand the brain well enough to support such claims.

Take, for example, the theories of Sigmund Freud. Without a thorough knowledge of the detailed functioning of the brain, the idea that such theories should have the status of established facts is absurd. No such knowledge, or anything close to it was available at the time they were proposed, yet those theories were, for many decades, treated by many as established truths that only the ignorant would question.

If there is insufficient evidence to support a given hypothesis, would it not be reasonable to continue to identify it as such, until such evidence is forthcoming? Would it not be wise to refrain from claiming that we perfectly understand this or that phenomenon, and admit that there are some things that we just don’t know, until the facts are forthcoming to support such claims? When new ideas are proposed that are both plausible and supported by the available evidence, would it not be wise to allow discussion and investigation of those ideas without vilifying those who propose them?

Realistically, I suppose human beings will always be subject to such shortcomings. We prefer the comfortable illusion that we know to the humbling admission that we don’t yet understand. It is in our nature, so to speak. Happily, as is now so apparent in the field of evolutionary psychology, the problem will tend to be self-correcting as long as human knowledge continues to expand. The only thing we need to fear is that the paths to greater knowledge and understanding will be obstructed. Let us see to it that they remain open.