Tag Archives: Pinker

Evolution and Theodicy

“Why is there evil in the world?” This question has been asked by philosophers and theologians and ordinary men and women for millennia. Today scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary/neuropsychologists have joined the effort to explain evil: why do people indulge in violence, cheating, lies, harassment, and so on. There is no need here to itemize all the behaviors that can be labeled evil. What matters is the question of “why?”

The question of “why is there evil in the world?” assumes the premise that evil is abnormal while good however defined) is normal—the abnorm vs. the norm, if you will. Goodness is the natural state of man, the original condition, and evil is something imposed on or inserted into the world from some external, malevolent source. In Genesis, God created the world and pronounced it good; then Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptations of the Serpent and brought evil and therefore death into the world (thus, death is a manifestation of evil, immortality the natural state of good). Unfortunately, the Bible does not adequately account for the existence of the Serpent or Satan, so it was left to Milton to fill in the story. Gnostics, Manicheans, and others posited the existence of two deities, one good and the other evil, and constructed a vision of a cosmic struggle between light and darkness that would culminate in the triumph of good—a concept that filtered into Christian eschatology. The fact that Christian tradition sees the end times as a restoration to a state of Adamic or Edenic innocence underscores the notion that goodness is the natural, default state of man and the cosmos.

Contemporary secular culture has not escaped this notion of the primeval innocence of man. It has simply relocated Eden to the African savannah. When mankind was still at the hunter-gatherer stage, so the story goes, people lived in naked or near-naked innocence; they lived in egalitarian peace with their fellows and in harmony with nature. Alas, with the invention of agriculture and the consequent development of cities and civilizations, egalitarianism gave way to greed, social hierarchies, war, imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, all the factors that cause people to engage in violence, oppression, materialism, and so on; further, these faults of civilizations caused the oppressed to engage in violence, theft, slovenliness, and other sins. Laws and punishments and other means of control and suppression were instituted to keep the louts in their place. Many people believe that to restore the lost innocence of our hunter-gatherer origins, we must return to the land, re-engage with nature, adopt a paleo diet, restructure society according to matriarchal and/or socialist principles, and so on. Many people (some the same, some different from the back-to-nature theorists) envision a utopian future in which globalization, or digitization, or general good feeling will restore harmony and peace to the whole world.

Not too surprisingly, many scientists join in this vision of a secular peaceable kingdom. Not a few evolutionary biologists maintain that human beings are evolutionarily adapted to life on the savannah, not to life in massive cities, and that the decline in the health, intelligence, and height of our civilized ancestors can be blamed on the negative effects of a change in diet brought on by agriculture (too much grain, not enough wild meat and less variety of plants) and by the opportunities for diseases of various kinds to colonize human beings too closely crowded together in cities and too readily exposed to exotic pathogens spread along burgeoning trade routes. Crowding and competition lead to violent behaviors as well.

Thus, whether religious or secular, the explanations of evil generally boil down to this: that human beings are by nature good, and that evil is externally imposed on otherwise good people; and that if circumstances could be changed (through education, redistribution of wealth, exercise, diet, early childhood interventions, etc.), our natural goodness would reassert itself. Of course, there are some who believe that evil behavior has a genetic component, that certain mutations or genetic defects are to blame for psychopaths, rapists, and so on, but again these genetic defects are seen as abnormalities that could be managed by various eugenic interventions, from gene or hormone therapies to locking up excessively aggressive males to ensure they don’t breed and pass on their defects to future generations.

Thus it is that in general we are unable to shake off the belief that good is the norm and evil is the abnorm, whether we are religious or secular, scientists or philosophers, creationists or Darwinists. But if we take Darwinism seriously we have to admit that “evil” is the norm and that “good” is the abnorm—nature is red in tooth and claw, and all of the evil that men and women do is also found in other organisms; in fact, we can say that the “evil” done by other organisms long precedes the evil that men do, and we can also say, based on archaeological and anthropological evidence, that men have been doing evil since the very beginning of the human line. In other words, there never was an Eden, never a Noble Savage, never a long-ago Golden Age from which we have fallen or declined—and nor therefore is there any prospect of an imminent or future Utopia or Millennial Kingdom that will restore mankind to its true nature because there is nothing to restore.

The evolutionary function of “evil” is summarized in the term “natural selection”: the process by which death winnows out the less fit from the chance to reproduce (natural selection works on the average, meaning of course that some who are fit die before they can reproduce and some of the unfit survive long enough to produce some offspring, but on average fitness is favored). Death, usually by violence (eat, and then be eaten), is necessary to the workings of Darwinian evolution. An example: When a lion or pair of lions defeat an older pride lion and take over his pride, they kill the cubs of the defeated male, which has the effect of bringing the lionesses back into heat so that the new males can mate with them and produce their own offspring; their task is then to keep control of the pride long enough for their own cubs to reach reproductive maturity. Among lions, such infanticide raises no moral questions, whereas among humans it does.

There is no problem of evil but rather the problem of good: not why is there “evil” but rather why is there “good”? Why do human beings consider acts like infanticide to be morally evil while lions do not? Why do we have morality at all? I believe that morality is an invention, a creation of human thought, not an instinct. It is one of the most important creations of the human mind, at least as great as the usually cited examples of human creativity (art, literature, science, etc.), if not greater considering how much harder won it is than its nearer competitors, and how much harder it is to maintain. Because “good” is not natural, it is always vulnerable to being overwhelmed by “evil,” which is natural: Peace crumbles into war; restraint gives way to impulse, holism gives way to particularism, agape gives way to narcissism, love to lust, truth to lie, tolerance to hate. War, particularism, narcissism, etc., protect the self of the person and the tribe, one’s own gene pool so to speak, just as the lion kills his competitor’s cubs to ensure the survival of his own. We do not need to think very hard about doing evil; we do need to think hard about what is good and how to do it. It is something that every generation must relearn and rethink, especially in times of great stress.

It appears that we are in such a time today. Various stressors, the economy, the climate, overpopulation and mass migrations, religious conflict amid the dregs of moribund empires, are pushing the relationship of the tribes versus the whole out of balance, and the temptations are to put up walls, dig trenches, draw up battle lines, and find someone other than ourselves to blame for our dilemmas. A war of all against all is not totally out of the question, and it may be that such a war or wars will eventuate in a classic Darwinian victory for one group over another—but history (rather than evolution) tells us that such a victory is often less Darwinian than Pyrrhic.

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Is Ignorance Like Color Blindness?

By ignorance I do not mean stupidity or prejudice, even though ignorance is often used as if it were a synonym of those two words. Stupidity in its strict sense is an incapacity to know, a kind of mental defect, though to use it in that sense today is considered rude and discriminatory. Mostly it is now used to indicate willful refusal to acknowledge the truth or to inform oneself of the facts. Some liberals like to refer to Trump voters as stupid, thereby dismissing them and their concerns as not worthy of attention.

Stupidity is often used as a synonym of prejudice, whose common meaning is basically to dislike anything or anyone not like oneself (with occasionally the added caveat that, if only the prejudiced person would just get to know whatever or whoever they dislike, they would lose their prejudice and even become a fan—if you’re afraid of pit bulls, for example, well, just get to know one and you will see what fine dogs they actually are). Prejudice in the strict sense, however, means to prejudge, to make a judgment before knowing anything or very much about a person or thing, and while often wrong, not always so. The child staring at broccoli on his plate for the first time, noting its cyanide green color and musty, death-like odor, is likely prejudiced against putting it in his mouth. Prejudice of the kind that is synonymous with stupidity is not always from lack of familiarity. Racist whites in the South were quite familiar with African-Americans, for example; their “prejudice” came from sources other than unfamiliarity.

Ignorance is simply absence of knowledge, and all of us are ignorant in a multitude of ways, even at the same time as we are knowledgeable about others. I am knowledgeable about the novels of Henry James but wholly ignorant of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. This kind of ignorance, as opposed to that kind mentioned above, is akin to color blindness. The color-blind husband knows that he is color blind, so when dressing in the morning he will ask his color-sighted wife if the suit he plans to wear is blue or gray. He will probably also ask her to hand him his red tie, because he knows (because she has told him) that the green tie doesn’t go with either gray or blue. And would she please check that his socks match? He knows that there are colors even though he cannot see them, because people have told him that colors exist and that they can see them. He knows that he is color blind, even though he does not experience being color blind.

That sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it. But I think it’s true in a particular sense, a metaphorical sense. Genuine ignorance is like color blindness in that it can’t really be experienced. It’s not a state of being. What could ignorance feel like? What does color blindness feel like?

Certain persons like to refer to periods long in the past, say before the Enlightenment, as times when ignorance was rife in the land, as if it were a kind of plague from which those superstitious and benighted people unnecessarily suffered. This is an instance when “ignorance” is used in the pejorative, yet the question is, what in God’s name are those peoples of the past supposed to have known but didn’t? Were they willfully ignorant? Did they make no efforts to know what their modern critics think they should have known? What exactly is it that studious monks of the twelfth century should have known? Quantum physics? Germ theory? That God does not exist? If everyone were color blind, who would tell us of color?

Metaphorically speaking, we live in a world today when most people are color blind and only a few can see colors. Like the color-blind husband, we should listen to what the color-sighted have to say. Only a relative handful of people in the world understand the mathematics that is necessary to understand today’s physics; when they attempt to tell us in our language the truths of that physics, we really have little choice but to believe what they say, to place our trust in their vision. There is a larger, but still very much a minority, group of people who understand climate science sufficiently to make the determination that the world is warming and that human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is the primary, perhaps only, cause of that warming. We could draw up a long list of knowledge fields in which most of us are color blind. The husband who ignores his wife’s admonitions and walks out the door wearing one red sock and one green one is willfully stubborn. Those of us who reject the expertise of climate scientists are willfully ignorant. That’s stupid.

The Credulous Skeptic: Michael Shermer’s Moral Arc

The Credulous Skeptic:  Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc

The thesis of Michael Shermer’s new book is that morality is about the flourishing of sentient beings through the application of science and reason; in this, he follows in the footsteps of Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.  All three consider science to be the arbiter of all things, and at least Pinker and Shermer argue that moral progress has been made only in the last 500 years or so, i.e., the modern period of scientific discovery and advancement and the Enlightenment.  As far as Shermer is concerned, all that preceded this period is superstition, ignorance, and darkness.  Religion, and especially Christianity, are not only of no use in their projects but in fact actually harmful.

Shermer argues that great strides in moral behavior have occurred since the Enlightenment, particularly in freedom and the abolition of slavery, women’s and gay rights, and animal rights, and that these advances are the direct result of a scientific and materialist worldview and an indirect result of the material prosperity afforded by the industrial revolution, capitalism, and democracy.  He marshals an impressive quantity of evidence to support his claims, and any reader is likely to concede that he has made a compelling case.  That is, if said reader is already sympathetic to Shermer’s libertarianism and as worshipful of science, the Founding Fathers, and the Enlightenment.

Any less naïve reader, however, is likely to notice a number of problems with Shermer’s book, not least of which is its Western bias.  Although early in the book Shermer refers to the moral progress of our species, virtually all his evidence and examples come from Western Europe and the United States, as if “we” were all that needed to be said about the species in general—even though the populations of Europe and the United States taken together constitute a minority of the world population, and this minority status applies even when the white populations of Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere are factored in.  Thus it would seem that in order to establish that the “species” has made moral progress since the Age of Enlightenment, data from non-Western societies would have to be taken into account.  In other words, Shermer is guilty of a sampling bias.

Compounding this problem—or perhaps the source of the problem—are his naïve and simplistic views of history.  Apparently, Shermer believes that the Enlightenment arose by spontaneous generation, for he dismisses everything that preceded it, most especially religion.  Or rather, Christian religion, which apparently has no moral tradition or intellectual history worthy of the name (never mind the moral and intellectual traditions of any other religious tradition, such as Buddhism or Hinduism).  In fact, Shermer’s notion of Christianity appears to be limited to that version with which, as a former born-again, he is most familiar, American evangelical fundamentalism.

For example, in his chapter on slavery, Shermer reads Paul’s letter to Philemon without any sense of the context in which Paul was writing and in fact explicitly dismisses contextual interpretations.  In this, he is more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists.  He is also guilty of presentism, i.e., the logical error of reading the past through the lens of the present; because “we” (Westerners) today abhor slavery, it must therefore be that any moral person at any time in history, regardless of how long ago or of what culture or civilization, should also explicitly abhor slavery and also openly call for its abolition.  Never mind that at the time of Paul’s writings, Christians were a distinct minority in the Roman world, no more than a few thousands out of a total population of millions; Christianity had barely begun, and it would be centuries before it had built up anything like a coherent intellectual tradition or widespread influence.  Meanwhile, Paul lived under the Roman system, which was exploitative and brutal in a way we today would find extreme.  Paul was certainly smart enough to know that calling for the abolition of slavery, by a small group of marginal people following a bizarre new religion, would have no impact on anything.  Thus when he urges Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as a brother, he is making as radical statement as one could imagine, in context.  He was not asking Philemon to do anything useless or dangerous—he was asking him to treat Onesimus as a fellow human being, a radical idea at the time, but in doing so Paul planted the seed that eventually grew into the Western ideal of the individual, an ideal which is at the center of Shermer’s own libertarianism.

Shermer has built a career on being a skeptic (even editing a magazine of that name), but his skepticism tends to be selective (in the same way, ironically as a fundamentalist is selectively skeptical—of evolution, or climate change, i.e., of things he already rejects).  This selective skepticism is displayed not only in his tendentious reading of Paul but also in his takedown of William Wilberforce, one of the most successful abolitionists, whom he characterizes as “pushy and overzealous” in his “moralizing” and as worrying “excessively about what other people were doing, especially if what they were doing involved pleasure [and] excess.”  Meanwhile, Shermer’s Enlightenment heroes get a complete pass:  he never mentions Locke’s rationalization of the taking of American Indian lands for white settlement (because the Indians did not have “property”), nor that Jefferson, whom Shermer hero-worships, and Washington owned slaves (which would certainly be relevant to his chapter on slavery), or that Franklin favored using war dogs against Indians who were too stubbornly resisted white theft of their real estate.  One has to wonder:  What has Shermer ever read of American history?  Why does he apparently take his heroes at their written word, without investigating the context in which they wrote?  Would that reveal that his idols have feet of clay?  Why is he skeptical of Wilberforce but not of Jefferson?

When Shermer turns to the issue of animal rights, he seems at first to be on firmer ground.  There certainly does seem to be a positive movement in the direction of extending at least the right not to suffer at human hands to domesticated animals.  Animal welfare groups have proliferated, laws protecting animals from harm continue to be expanded, and more people are embracing a vegetarian lifestyle—in the United States today, somewhat more than 7 million people are vegetarians, which is an impressive number until one realizes that they represent only 3.2% of the American population (however, that compares unfavorably to India, where 42% of households are vegetarian).  While Shermer does recognize the cruelties of industrialized meat production, he misses an opportunity to connect some dots.  One of the effects of industrialization is to specialize the production of goods and services, and the effect of that is to remove the means by which things get done from the view of most people.  In an urbanized world, for example, the making of a ham or a pound of ground beef is invisible to the typical supermarket shopper, who never has to raise an animal from birth, slaughter it, carve up its corpse, etc., so that a cook can look at a hunk of muscle from a steer and call it a beautiful piece of meat; our farming ancestors knew what that hunk of meat really was from firsthand experience.

Likewise, an urbanized population can keep cats and dogs as pets solely for their companionship, can even confer on them the status of humans in fur because dogs and cats (and to some extent horses) no longer have any utilitarian function; thus giving them moral status of the kind promoted by animal welfare groups and PETA is something we can afford.  We don’t need them to aid in the hunt, keep down rodent pests, or herd our sheep anymore.  Yet every year we kill 2.7 million unwanted dogs and cats, not to mention those that die from neglect, and while those numbers are down, one has to wonder how long we can afford to keep excess animals alive.  However, the point here is that the mistreatment of animals is removed from most Westerners daily lives.

As is violence to other human beings.  As the nation state grew, it appropriated violence to itself and diminished individual violence; justice has replaced revenge, most of the time.  But we have also exported violence, outsourced it so to speak, so that most of our official military violence is committed overseas.  Shermer might do well to read a few books on that:  perhaps those by Chalmers Johnson, or Andrew Bacevich, to name just two authors worth consulting.  Or he might refresh his memory of our involvement in the death of Allende and our moral responsibility for the deaths caused by Pinochet, or of the numbers of Iraqi civilians who died in the second Iraq war (approximately 150,000).  He also could consider the number of people who died as the result of the partitioning of India (about a million).  And since Shermer claims to be speaking on behalf of the species, perhaps he should consider the deaths and oppression of people in, say, China or North Korea, or many other places in the non-Western world.

In some ways, we Westerners are like our pets—domesticated and cuddly.  But remove the luxuries of domestication and, like feral cats and dogs, we will quickly revert to our basic instincts, which will not be fluffy.  The “long peace” since World War II has not been all that peaceful, and certainly not, within historical time, very long.  As Peter Zeihan (The Accidental Superpower) and others are warning us, the post-World War II global order is fraying, and disorder and its symptoms (e.g., violence) could once again rise to the surface.

Ethics and Human Nature

It is an unhappy characteristic of our age that certain ignoramuses have been elevated to the ranks of “public intellectual,” a category which seems to consist of men and women who provide sweeping theories of everything, especially of everything they know nothing about. Into this category fall certain writers whose sweeping theory is that, prior to the Enlightenment, everyone lived in abject superstition and physical misery. With the Enlightenment, reason and science began the process of sweeping away misery and ignorance, clearing the field for the flowers of prosperity and knowledge. Such a sophomoric view of human history and thought has the virtue (in their minds only) of rendering it unnecessary for them to acquaint themselves with a deep and nuanced knowledge of the past, an error which permits them to attribute all that is good in human accomplishment to the age of science and all that is bad to a dark past best forgotten.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent fad for publishing books and articles claiming that science, particularly evolutionary science, provides the necessary and sufficient basis for ethics.

To read the article, click here.

Boehm’s “Social Selection”

Christopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (Basic Books, 2012) is yet another sad example of the futility of the widespread hope that Neo-Darwinism, as over extended by evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, can ever be a theory of everything, particularly a theory that explains modern human behavior and values. It is not science. It is an ideology, or perhaps merely a hope, dressing up in a sloppy imitation of science.

Boehm’s thesis is that human moral values, the virtue, altruism, and shame of his subtitle, evolved through a process of what he calls “social selection,” which can be defined as the selecting out of socially uncooperative individuals (whom Boehm equates with psychopaths) and the selecting in of cooperative ones. Lengthy as the book is (at 362 pages of text), with its elaborate arguments and numerous examples, Boehm fails to support his thesis with anything more than supposition and false analogies.

First let’s consider what social selection would have to do in order to affect the evolution of human beings:

1) It would require a concerted effort species-wide over a great swath of time to define, identify, and eliminate socially uncooperative individuals (psychopaths and free riders).

2) In order to affect the gene pool, undesirable individuals would have to be identified very early in life, before they had the chance to reproduce. Killing the parent without killing the child does not eliminate the parent’s genes.

3) The criteria for determining whom to eliminate would not only have to be clear but consistent over many generations. Any change in the standards midstream would ruin the whole scheme. Yet any historian can tell you that standards have changed over time, sometimes quite sharply.

There is no evidence that any of this obtained at any time in human history or prehistory. There is also no evidence that if it did occur it would have had a significant impact on human evolution. Prior to modern medicine and germ theory, infant and child mortality, not to mention plagues and epidemics that affected adults as well, would have had an impact many times that of social selection, effectively diminishing its proportionally infinitesimal effects.

In order to compensate for the serious lack of evidence, Boehm resorts to highly suppositional phrasing and subjunctive grammar. The following examples from pages 80 and 81 are illustrative of far too much of the book:

“prehistoric forager lifestyles could have generated distinctive types of social selection” (Perhaps they could have, but science wants to know if they actually did.)

These types of social selection “could have supported generosity outside the family at the level of genes.” (Again, did they actually do so?)

“were likely to have”
“could have become”
“It’s even possible . . . if”
“may have begun to differ”
“it’s likely that”
“would have been”
“would not have negated”
“they would have”
“were likely to have been”
“what could have happened”
“very likely”

And all these from just two pages! The careless or naïve reader might not notice this suppositional language and therefore mistakenly believe that Boehm is solidly establishing his argument; but the careful reader will find these to be crippling stumbling blocks.

There are also problems of self-contradiction. For example, Boehm seems to be saying that social selection eliminates psychopaths, but then states that psychopaths constitute a significant percentage of modern day populations. He claims that “People very significantly [psychopathic] probably number as high as one or more [vague: how many more?] out of several hundred in our total population,” which may not seem all that many, but perhaps too many if humans began socially selecting these people out thousands of years ago. Other sources put the percentage as low as 2% and as high as 4%, but no doubt problems of definition affect the numbers. Whatever the true number may be, I think Boehm does need at the very least to clarify just how effective social selection really is.

The examples he pulls from contemporary forager societies are also contradictory of his thesis. He cites the example of Cephu, a Mbuti Pygmy who, as recounted by Colin Turnbull, let his greed overcome his responsibility to the rest of his group. His colleagues caught him in the act of helping himself to more game than he was entitled to and subjected him to an intense course of humiliation—but they did not kill him or his progeny, and after he had adequately apologized and humbled himself, he was readmitted to the group. The story of Cephu, meant to illustrate the book’s thesis, actually proves its opposite. Cephu’s behavior was corrected not genetically, but culturally.

Perhaps a comparison would clarify the problems with Boehm’s thesis. There is another form of behavior that one might think would have been socially eliminated fairly early in human evolution, male homosexuality. It is not, after all, conducive to reproductive survival, and has often been punished, quite horribly in many instances, not only with shunning and shaming techniques but with imprisonment, torture, and execution; yet it has persisted through thousands of years, in part because homosexuals can camouflage themselves but also because efforts of social selection to eliminate the behavior have proven to be ineffectual—just as has been, I would argue, social selection to eliminate socially uncooperative individuals. This analogy suggests that social selection is a very weak hook on which to hang the hope that biology and genetics can account for all human behavior in terms of “fitness.”

Finally, we should note that throughout history there have been people we would today label as psychopaths who have been quite successful leaders, often revered not only in their own times but long after their deaths. One thinks of Napoleon Bonaparte, killer of millions yet romanticized and admired by other millions, credited with the Napoleonic Code and sympathized with in his exile. One also thinks of Genghis Khan, the great butcher who, far from being selected out of the gene pool, is now thought to be the ancestor of as many as 16 million people living today. Of course, being a psychopathic great leader is no guarantee of reproductive success; Hitler, fortunately, had no children, and though he did have nieces and nephews, none of them has followed his example. While Boehm believes that psychopaths and free riders were (at least to some extent) weeded out of the gene pool through social selection, it may be that such individuals were selected for because in some ways that we 21st century Americans may not comprehend, they were in fact socially useful. Perhaps they made good warriors, or maybe they built the great empires that encouraged the arts and sciences, or maybe they made their liege lords great fortunes (perhaps Cortez and Pizarro were useful psychopaths, enriching the Spanish treasury while taking all the risks). What we can say is that they have been, and are, legion.

What’s the Matter with Matter?

I have been intrigued for some time by the nature vs. nurture controversy and have read numerous books and articles that take one side or the other, or that try to find a compromise between the two.  The debate seems to date back at least to the time of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-originators of the modern theory of evolution, though in different costume the question probably goes back much further, to the origin myths of ancient peoples.  For example, the doctrine of original sin posits that humans are evil because of a terrible sin committed by Adam and Eve which passed on to all their descendents.  That original sin was to defy God’s will concerning man’s correct, designated place in Creation; Adam and Eve aspired to be as the gods.  (In this regard it is interesting to reflect on a stained-glass window in the cathedral of Milan that depicts Adam and Eve before the fall as having hairy bodies, which suggests that they were more akin to animals than to gods or angels.)  In Greek myth, of course, there is the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people, thus enabling civilization.  These and other ancient stories articulate the sense that early people had of being something more than animals yet something less than gods, an acknowledged conflicted condition that generated questions such as what is human nature (“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”) and do men have any degree of freedom or are we condemned to the irrational and incomprehensible turnings of the wheel of fortune.  In Christian terms, given the fatefulness of original sin, do we have free will, and if we do, to what extent?

Click here to read the article.

Nature, Nurture, and Thought

Nature, Nurture, and Thought

Those of us who pay attention to such things know that what is commonly called the nature vs. nurture debate continues to generate interest and controversy and that, despite claims to the contrary by advocates of one side or the other, it is neither settled nor ever likely to be. This lack of resolution will persist because underlying what may or may not be scientific arguments for one or the other is something far more important at stake:  ideological supremacy.  It is no accident that those I will call “naturists” generally tend to be right of center politically while “nurturists” tend to be left of center.  If one holds that human nature is largely predetermined by one’s genetic inheritance and that therefore social or cultural learning or experience are comparatively unimportant, then one can at the least argue that society, especially government, should not engage in “social engineering,” because trying to change a person’s nature is doomed to failure.  A more extreme position would argue that, nature being what it is, the best social policy is not to have social policies at all, but rather to let the “market” or some other supposedly neutral or unbiased mechanism sort out individual (and in some cases, racial) successes or failures. Why throw more money at educating the poor when, because of poor genetic backgrounds, they cannot benefit from it?  And it is, of course, the definition of human nature which is at stake—no one really cares if nature or nurture predominates among animals, except insofar as animal models might provide convincing analogies in the debate about human nature.

On the other hand, if one holds that genetics is not destiny and that a person’s society, culture, family, and education are the determining factors in an individual’s or group’s success or failure, society, especially government, should intervene where needful to reshape the environments in which people develop in order to improve their lives.  Thus, devoting more money to education, social and family services, regulations, and so forth (and if necessary raising taxes to fund such ventures) is the best way to improve individuals and society.  We can see that deciding whether it is nature or nurture that decides a person’s or group’s fate also decides whether “taxing the rich” makes sense or is confiscating the fruits of the labor of the naturally superior in order to support the incompetent in a form of parasitism.

Given what is at stake, one can naturally assume that knowing with some certainty which prevails, nature (genetics) or nurture (environment), is very important.  If nature predominates, social policy and politics should logically follow in one direction, but if nurture predominates, then policy and politics should logically follow in the other.  However, I suspect that it is policy and politics, as expressions of ideological positions, that comes first, and that one’s belief in either nature or nurture follows from those.  In other words, I do not believe that the nature/nurture debate is a scientific one, but rather tends to be camouflaged in scientific terms.

In her excellent book The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture, Evelyn Fox Keller, a physicist turned biologist, sorts through the history of the nature vs. nurture debate and pins the blame for its endurance and irresolvability on the problems of language, particularly on the ambiguity and slippage of the meanings of words, especially when those words are used over long periods of time by different people in different disciplines and when their popular usage is quite different from their specialized usages in specific disciplines.  She writes that “our difficulty in maintaining [ . .  . ] conceptual distinction[s] is sustained, if not caused, by the words we use.”  She notes that an author does not need to specifically state certain inferences or assumptions because “they are carried by the language that [we] conventionally deploy.”  Imprecision in language certainly does account for a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding in every complex debate, but I was equally struck by her overview of the history of the nature vs. nurture debate, in which self-justification seems to have been as strong a motive as disinterested science.  It is certainly interesting that many Victorians of the privileged classes almost immediately appropriated Darwin’s theory of natural selection to justify not only their class privileges but the supposed superiority of Europeans (especially the British) over other peoples. Such “reasoning” underlies more recent screeds on the intellectual superiority of Caucasians over Africans (e.g., The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life  by Herrnstein and Murray).  Thus, as much as I agree with Keller’s thesis of the importance of our use of language in  this and other debates (see also her book Making Sense of Life:  Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines), I am not convinced that confusion of language is sufficient to explain the persistence and wrong-headedness of the nature vs. nurture controversy.  I do agree with Keller when she writes, “It depends on politics.”

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is ubiquitously cited as one of the recent examples of a strong scientific argument for the naturist position, but as its subtitle suggests, the book is not really about the science behind that position. “The Modern Denial of Human Nature” alerts the reader that Pinker intends to tackle something more ideological than mere science, and he quickly gets to it:  the modern deniers of human nature are, in sum, liberal-leftist-Marxists, ranging from such obvious nonscientists as Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin to such eminences as Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, and R. C. Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist and geneticist. Mixing questionable social commentators who have particular political axes to grind with recognized scientists, some of whom grind the same axes, is a rhetorical ploy to damn the science of the latter with the goofiness of the former.  But it also might cause the reader who considers Pinker’s qualifications to note that he is a psychologist by training, not a biologist or geneticist, and that his references to genes and genetics are infrequent and display an amateur knowledge of genetics little better than that of a regular reader of the New York Times Tuesday science section. In other words, Pinker cannot adequately argue the science of the naturist position because he is not enough of a scientist to do so, so he blinds the reader with a snowstorm of vilification of people whose politics he dislikes.

The inadequacy of the science behind the naturist position is best summed up by Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb in their book Evolution in Four Dimensions:  Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life:

One of the things that molecular studies have reinforced is something that had already been accepted by modern geneticists:  the popular conception of the gene as a simple causal agent is not valid. The idea that there is a gene for adventurousness, heart disease, obesity, religiosity, homosexuality, shyness, stupidity, or any other aspect of mind or body has no place on the platform of genetic discourse.  Although many psychiatrists, biochemists, and other scientists who are not geneticists (yet express themselves with remarkable facility on genetic issues) still use the language of genes as simple causal agents, and promise their audience rapid solutions to all sorts of problems, they are no more than propagandists whose knowledge or motives must be suspect.  (Italics in original.)

Note that the title of their book includes “epigenetics,” a term which is not to be found in Pinker’s book, yet epigenetics complicates the genetic picture exponentially and cannot be ignored in any consideration of the interaction of genetics and environment in the development of organisms.[i]

Nonetheless, that “nature” cannot be said to be the determining factor in “human nature” (however defined) does not mean that “nurture” carries the day by default.  Human beings are biological organisms, as much creatures of flesh and blood as any other animal, bodies whose shape and functions are determined first by genes. I am blue-eyed and light-skinned because of my genetic ancestry, not because of what schools I attended or what books I read or what experiences I have or have not had.  And no amount of wishing or hard work can change the color of my skin and eyes or the position of my liver or the basic structure of my brain. I have neurons because my genes directed the development of neurons well before I was born.  As a wise man once said, “Who by taking thought can add a cubit to his height?”

It is true that I speak English, that I hold certain values to be self evident, and that if I had been born elsewhere or in a different historical time, I would speak a different language and hold noticeably different values, but it is also true that I could not have been born anywhere else nor at any other time, even should I wish I had, because this body which is me could only be the product of the particular man who is my father making love to the particular woman who is my other on the particular day on which I was conceived.  A week earlier or later, and someone else would have been born (same egg, different sperm cell).  I also had little choice or control over many aspects of my social and cultural environments, including which elementary and high schools I attended and which religion I was raised in, and it cannot be denied that those schools and that religion greatly influenced my life and continue to do so today.  My parents made many of those choices for me, as did my teachers and preachers.  Clearly, to whatever degree the human mind or personality is malleable, able to be shaped by culture (nurture), much of that shaping occurred without either my knowledge or consent.

And it is in the matter of consent (or rather its absence) where nature and nurture come into alignment, for both nature and nurture as traditionally discussed are deterministic.  They are deterministic in the sense that they are external to and beyond the control of the individual, whether they be natural causes such as genes and climate or human causes such as parents or teachers.  B. F. Skinner infamously said, “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything,” and in so doing encapsulated not only the extreme nurturist view but expressed that which naturists find most alarming about nurturism and its cognates such as constructivism and social engineering.  If naturists are determinists in a pseudo-Darwinist sense, they often at least recognize the integrity of the individual over against what they consider the busy-body interference of misguided do-gooders; on the other hand, if nurturists are determinists in an opposing sense, they at least recognize that individuals are not condemned or chosen from birth to be bad or good, failures or successes.

What neither side bothers to consider is the role of thought in shaping human life—the thought of the individual as well as the shared thought of generations of men and women.  To paraphrase what Marilynne Robinson wrote in a somewhat different but related context, in both naturism and nurturism, the experience, testimony and reflection “of humankind is not to be credited.”[ii]  Even so thoughtful a writer as Evelyn Fox Keller never mentions “thought” in Mirage of a Space, even though her book is exemplary of what human thought is and does.  I suspect that thought is neglected because it is not amenable to scientific study at more than a trivial level (such as the discovery, if that’s what it really is, that drivers move their foot to the brake pedal before the thought to do so arises in their consciousness—but that used to be called reflex action). Science, or at least evolutionary science, falls into an awkward silence when faced with the philosophy of Kant, the novels of Henry James, or the frescoes of Piero della Francesca.  There is no Darwinian explanation for any of these things and never will be.  Darwinism is a powerful theory, but it is not a theory of everything.  Likewise, cultural explanations of human behavior do explain a lot, but again, they do not explain everything.  There could be no such thing as originality if culture determined all, yet throughout human history, originality has pushed human beings forward.[iii]  The first person to realize he could create a blade by chipping away at a chunk of stone had neither genes nor traditions to guide him in that enterprise:  he had to think about it, he had to imagine how to do it before he could do it.  That we can think may be explainable by evolution; what we think cannot.


[i]
Note that while Pinker’s book was published in 2002, The New York Times has published articles on epigenetics since at least 1998 and the term has been used in its contemporary sense since well before that.

[ii]
Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010)

[iii]
Lest the reader mistake this sentence as stating an evolutionary position, I should note that I am making a chronological statement here, not an evolutionary one.  I prefer not to muddy the meaning of the term “evolution” by applying it to every change over time and prefer to limit it to biological evolution as best expressed by Darwinism.

Evolution and Creationism: Consider the Botfly

In the United States at least, the argument from design has traditionally been used to support a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation (setting aside the fact that Genesis offers two versions), and there remain today many people who believe in the “young earth theory” and that fossils and other indications of great swaths of geologic and cosmic time are simply erroneously interpreted by scientists or deliberate deceptions by God meant to trip up the proud and faithless.  Other creationists, however, conceding to the scientific evidence for great stretches of time and for evolution, resort to the dodge of Intelligent Design.  One has to fan away a great deal of smoke before one can get to the fundamental theses of the proponents of ID, and even then one may not be sure exactly what they believe.

Go to the Evolution and Creationism page to read the full essay.