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.