Great Shades of the Blank Slate; Evolutionary Biology Flirts with Ideology

I must admit that I felt a certain malicious glee on reading E. O. Wilson’s defense of group selection in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  After all, Richard Dawkins dismissed the life work of men like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in his The Selfish Gene because, in his words, they were “totally and utterly wrong” in defending group selection.  I happen to admire all three of them because they were the most influential and effective defenders of the existence of such a thing as human nature during the heyday of the Blank Slate.  It was good to see Dawkins hoisted on his own petard.  However, my glee has been dampened somewhat of late by what I see as an increasing tendency of some evolutionary biologists, and particularly those who have come out most strongly in favor of group selection, to adulterate their science with a strong dose of ideology.  Apparently, they have learned little from the aberration of the Blank Slate, or at least not enough to avoid repeating it.

Consider, for example a paper that recently turned up on the website of the Social Evolution Forum with the somewhat incongruous title, “Joseph Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. Cultural Evolution. The Evolution Institute,” by Peter Turchin, professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics.  A good part of it was a review of The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, which, Turchin informs us, he was about two-thirds of his way through.  He notes that “Stiglitz is sympathetic to Leftist ideas.  Actually, he is way out on the Left end of the political spectrum.”  This doesn’t seem to raise any red flags at all, as far as Turchin is concerned.  One wonders, “How can this be?”  Haven’t we just been through all this?  Were not the Blank Slaters who derailed the behavioral sciences for several decades also “way out on the Left end of the political spectrum?”  Did they not villify anyone who disagreed with their puerile notions about human nature as arch-conservatives, John Birchers, and fascists?  Did they not have powerful motives for making the “scientific facts” come out right so that they didn’t stand in the way of the drastic political and social changes they planned for us “for our own good?”  There is no reason that anyone on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum can’t do good science, but it goes without saying that, when one has strong ideological motivations for having the answers come out one way or the other, that bias must be taken into account and carefully controlled for.  That is particularly true when the answers always just happen to agree nicely with one’s ideological preconceptions.

None of this seems to occur to Turchin, who points out that Stiglitz “inveighs against the ‘Right’ on numerous occasions throughout the book.”  Apparently, we are to believe this is somehow remarkable and heroic, for he continues, “This is unusual for an economist, especially such an accomplished one who is (or, at least, has been) part of the ruling elite. Most economists know very well which side of their bread is buttered. It is curious how economic theories that yield answers pleasing to the powerful and wealthy tend to be part of the mainstream, while those yielding uncomfortable answers are relegated to the fringe…”  To this one can only say, “Surely you’re joking, Professor Turchin!”  Did not Paul Krugman, hardly noted as a conservative wingnut, just win the Nobel Prize in economics?  Has there been a sudden revelation that the economics professors at our great universities have issued a pronunciamiento in favor of the Republican ticket, with the exception of an insignificant “fringe.”  Where is the hard data demonstrating that “most economists” favor the rich elites?  Have all the leading economics journals suddenly gone hard over in favor of supply side economics while I wasn’t looking?

Citing a theme of bête noire of the left Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Turchin continues,

It is interesting to note that when the wealthy ‘defect,’ they actually not only make the overall situation worse, but it is actually a suboptimal outcome for them, too.  At least that is the message of The Spirit Level:  Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Among other things, Wilkinson and Pickett make a striking observation that the expectation of life among the wealthier segment of Americans is less than the median for many European societies that are much more egalitarian – and spend much less per capita on health.

“Much more egalitarian”?  Evidently the authors never lived in Europe.  I lived in Germany, and if they think that the society there is much more “egalitarian” than the United States just because the top 1% take home a smaller percentage of the national income, they’re dreaming.  The country is far more stratified according to social rank and power than the US, and the same families tend to control positions of power in government and industry year after year.  The presence of minorities in positions of political and economic influence is virtually imperceptible.  Think the situation is different in France, another nation that beats the US in terms of income equality?  Just ask any black in Paris whether they think their chances would be better there than here.  Other than that, where is the data on countries where the rich “defect”?  Has such a thing ever actually happened in the sense described in Rand’s novel?  What evidence is there that the health of the top earners in the US, whether better or worse than their European peers, has anything to do with “egalitarianism”?

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with evolutionary biology?  According to Turchin, one of Stiglitz major “shortcomings” is that he “is apparently unaware of the great progress that cultural evolution and cultural multilevel selection theory made in the last decade or so.”  One wonders what, exactly, he is referring to when he speaks of “cultural” multilevel selection theory.  One of the authors he cites in support of this contention, David Sloan Wilson, is certainly well known for his work on multilevel selection.  However, his most cited work is on genetic, and not cultural evolution.  Regardless, Turchin’s point is that science is to be used as a tool to support preconceived ideological truisms.  That tendency to assume that “science” would always get the “right answer” contributed heavily to the debacle of the blank slate.

Turchin continues:

I had a similar experience in the conference the Evolution Institute organized last December in Stanford on Nation-Building and Failed States. One of the participants was Francis Fukuyama, who had recently published a book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he was clearly interested in engaging with evolutionary thinking. Yet he had to resort to appeals to the two tired (and badly wrong) models of human sociality – reciprocal altruism and kin selection.

Here we’ve come back to the point I made at the beginning of this article; the recent marked tendency of group selectionists to adulterate their science with ideology.  As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not particularly fond of Dawkins, Pinker, and some of the other major advocates of reciprocal altruism and kin selection.  However, when Turchin claims that they are “tired and badly wrong” he is just blowing smoke.  The jury is still out, and he has no basis on which to make such a judgment.  On what knowledge does he base this assurance that these theories are “badly wrong”?  Nowak’s “complex mathematical models”?  I was a computational physicist for much of my career, and while Nowak’s models are interesting, the idea that they account for all of the relevant data so thoroughly that they can serve as a basis for the conclusion that inclusive fitness theory is “badly wrong” is laughable.

Turchin is hardly the only one publishing such stuff.  I’ve read several others authors recently who argue in favor of group selection without giving any indication that they have even an inkling of the complexity of the subject, and who rain down furious anathemas on the supposedly “debunked” proponents of inclusive fitness, associating them with evil ideological and political tendencies in the process.  Their tone is typically one of outraged virtue rather than scientific detachment.  Do we really need to go through all this again?  Perhaps instead of declaiming about the philosophy of Kropotkin and crying up the moral superiority of their version of “equality,” advocates of group selection would do well to make sure they have the science right first.

Evolutionary Psychology and Group Selection

Steve Davis has recently been championing group selection and lobbing rocks at Richard Dawkins and his fellow gene-centrists over at Science 2.0. He writes with a certain moralistic fervor that ill befits a scientist, but so does Dawkins and a good number of his followers. The problem isn’t that he takes issue with Dawkins and his inclusive fitness orthodoxy. The problem is that he associates evolutionary psychology with that orthodoxy, as if it would evaporate without a kin selection crutch. Not only is that untrue, but it stands the whole history of the science on its head. For example, referring to the book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene by philosopher Mary Midgley in an article entitled “Evolutionary Psychology – As it Should Be,” Davis writes,

Not only does the book have wide implications for debates in evolutionary psychology, it overturns that school of thought completely, as it presents a comprehensive rebuttal of the selfish gene hypothesis on which evolutionary psychology (as we know it) is based.

In a later article entitled “Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics,” he adds,

When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at (anthropologist and anarchist political theorist Peter) Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”)But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought.


As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based.  Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.

Of course the issue of group selection in all its various flavors is actually very complex.  For anyone interested, I recommend the excellent discussion of group selection that illustrates that complexity in J. van der Dennen’s The Origin of War.  However, the real problem with these articles is their association of the entire field of evolutionary psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now.   That association is fundamentally false.  To demonstrate that fact, one need look no further than the first chapter of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  For example, quoting from the book,

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

Who were Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt?  Well, to begin with, they all supported the theory of group selection.  They were also the most prominent evolutionary psychologists of their day.  I use the term “evolutionary psychology” in the vernacular, that is, a science based on the hypothesis that there is such a thing as human nature.  The vernacular term that meant the same thing in the heyday of the above three was “ethology.”  Later it became “sociobiology.”  The original sociobiologist was, of course, E. O. Wilson.  He never fully accepted Dawkins’ gene-centric views, and, of course, recently came out of the closet as a firm believer in group selection.  As for The Selfish Gene, it isn’t just about Dawkins theory of gene-centric evolution.  It is also a full-fledged attack on the evolutionary psychologists of its day.  The above quote is hardly unique, and is followed by many others attacking Lorenz and Ardrey for their support of group selection.

Davis’ misconception that there is some kind of an indissoluble bond between evolutionary psychology and Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution is understandable.  EP has come of age during a time when Dawkins opinion represented scientific orthodoxy, and reflects that environment, in a manner no different from any of the other biological sciences.  However, the fact that many evolutionary psychologists happened to also accept gene-centric orthodoxy hardly implies that the whole field is dependent on or derived from that point of view.

Davis’ conflation of kin selection and evolutionary psychology is also understandable in view of the extensive scrubbing of the history of the field.  According to this “history,” as represented, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, what became EP began with a mythical “big bang” with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.  In fact, as far as the reason for that book’s notoriety is concerned, its embrace of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature, it was just an afterthought.  There is nothing in it that was not written more than a decade earlier by the likes of Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, most prominently, Robert Ardrey.  To fact check this statement, one need only read Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves, published in 1968, and still available on Amazon for about a dollar the last time I looked.  I suspect one of the reasons the history of EP has been “revised” is the fact that, when it came to Ardrey’s claim that there is such a thing a human nature, the fundamental theme of all his work, he was right, and the lion’s share of “experts” in the behavioral sciences, at least in the United States, were wrong.  Ardrey, you see, was a mere playwright.  Hence the “big bang” myth.

The claim that the imaginary link with kin selection that Davis refers to does exist with evolutionary psychology “as we know it,” or in its current incarnation, is also wrong.  E. O. Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Martin Nowak are among the most prominent, if not the most prominent, evolutionary psychologists in the field of evolutionary morality as I write this.  All three have come down firmly and publicly in favor of group selection.

Frank Salter’s Ethic

Of all the hopeless new moralities that are being cobbled together to promote “human flourishing” and related chimeras, anthropologist Frank Salter’s adaptive utilitarianism, as set forth in his book On Genetic Interests, at least has the merit of being logically consistent.  It’s premise is that a “good” act is one that increases or protects the fitness of the greater number.  That seems reasonable given that virtually all of our physical and mental traits, including the ones that give rise to morality, only exist because, at least at some time in the past, they enhanced our genetic fitness.  However, Salter’s morality is a non-starter for the same reasons as all the rest.  David Hume pointed them out back in the 18th century:

There has been an opinion very industriously propagated by certain philosophers, that morality is susceptible of demonstration; and tho’ no one has ever been able to advance a single step in those demonstrations; yet ’tis taken for granted, that this science may be brought to an equal certainty with geometry or algebra.

If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralities abound.

Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such influence.  Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.  Reason of itself is utterly impotent in the particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of reason…

…reason can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence.  Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable.

Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cites Hume’s dictum that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” and reviews recent experimental demonstration of the existence of these “passions,” and the way in which they influence moral judgment.  Noting that there are not just one, but six innate “foundations” of moral judgment, he adds,

…we believe that moral monism – the attempt to ground all morality on a single principle – leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.

It goes without saying that philosophers don’t create moral systems to apply only to themselves.  Unless it is applied to others as well, morality is pointless.  It is the source of moral judgment, and the basis of what Haidt identifies as a very fundamental human behavioral trait; self-righteousness.  That is another Achilles heel of the cobblers of moral systems; all moralities imply self-righteousness, but self-righteousness can never be objectively legitimate.  We all judge others, because it is our nature to do so.  However, the idea that there can ever be some objective basis for those judgments that renders them valid in themselves is nonsense.  We have certainly evolved to experience them as valid in themselves, but that is hardly a proof that they actually are.  In my opinion, that is actually one of the more comforting aspects of the philosophy of Hume and the science of evolutionary morality.  We are no longer burdened by any tiresome obligation to take the pathologically pious among us seriously.  It becomes quite reasonable for us to view them as buffoons.  Of course, in saying that, I am expressing a moral sentiment of my own.

It seems to me Salter’s ideas work much better as a source of a personal sense of purpose than as a source of ethics.  There is no objective reason why we “ought” to do anything.  Our reasons must be entirely subjective.  It may not work for everyone, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t, for that matter, but serving what Salter refers to as my genetic interests works for me.  I find it very satisfying as the “purpose of life.”  While I can hardly provide a rational objective basis for this “ought,” the same could be said of any other “ought” anyone could come up with.  I look at it this way.  I exist because everything about me has promoted my genetic survival.  If my conscious acts and my conscious purpose are not in harmony with the reasons for my existence, I am, in a sense, ill and defective.  The thought of being ill and defective is not pleasing to me.  Hence, my “purpose in life.”  It’s entirely subjective and I can’t reasonably apply it to anyone else, I know, but that’s the beauty of it.  It’s not at all troubling to me that most other people don’t appear to have a similar purpose in life, unless, of course, they happen to be close relatives.