I first read this book shortly after its 1978 hardcover publication, and it was revelatory; elegantly written and insightful, it challenged conventional ideas about human nature, especially the one about the mind being a ‘blank slate’ completely molded by environment, education, and society. (In the late 1970s, for example, there were debates, and there are still, about whether giving toy trucks to boys and dolls to girls was simply a cultural cliché, or if boys and girls really have different interests and personalities.) More generally, the assumptions in psychology in the early part of the century were shaped by the ‘behavioralists’ like B.F. Skinner, who claimed that human behavior could be entirely molded by conditioning, the way you can train pets. You can understand why some on the left *wish* the human mind could be completely moldable — or rather, why they resisted the idea that there were pre-existing inclinations in humans, or differences between boys and girls — because they prioritize equality, and enforcing equality of opportunity would be easier and completely justifiable if all people are equal in actuality.

I’ve just this year reread the book, in the 2004 trade paperback edition with a new preface that explains why the book was controversial when it first appeared (and why Wilson was sometimes protested against when he spoke). It’s interesting to see the seeds of several later Wilson books in this first one written for general audiences. (And it won the Pulitzer Prize.)

Here’s my summary with some direct quotes from the book, with my aside comments [[ in italicized double brackets ]].


2004 Preface

When the book was first published, two conceptions of the human condition dominated: theologians saw humans as dark angels awaiting redemption; a mix of good and evil propensities, “which we must sort out with the aid of writings by ancient Middle Eastern prophets.” Intellectuals doubted that human nature existed at all; the brain as blank slate, culture entirely learned.

In contrast was the naturalistic view that the brain and mind are entirely biological in origin, the result of evolution by natural selection. This became known as sociobiology, or evolutionary biology.

Author [a professor at Harvard] had focused on the biology of ants, and of the biology of populations. He published The Insect Societies in 1971, then Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, with speculation at the end on how it all applies to humans. Many scholars were indifferent, or hostile, to these ideas.

Also in the 1970s the background culture was in turmoil: the Vietnam War; civil rights; academia was radically left. Any talk of race, or inheritance of IQ and human behavior, was controversial. There were legitimate concerns about the history of social Darwinism. Some saw it as a threat to Marxist ideology. The final chapter of the second book was inadequate; thus Wilson wrote the present book.

Ch1, Dilemma

The central questions said David Hume are: how does the mind work; why does it work in such a way and not another; and thus what is man’s ultimate nature?

The conclusion from biology is that humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection. This understanding entails two spiritual dilemmas: that no species possesses a purpose beyond the genetic imperative; the brain exists to promote survival and reproduction (and thus why physical reality is so mysterious). Everything is just part of a cycle. That is: [first dilemma] we have no particular place to go. Should all our problems be solved, what then? P3.6: “Traditional religious beliefs have been eroded, not so much by humiliating disproofs of their mythologies as by the growing awareness that beliefs are really enabling mechanisms for survival.”

The idea that western civilization is in decline – with long quote by Gunther Stent [[ that anticipates themes of Harari about the unemployable middle class ]] – because of the loss of traditional transcendental goals. A new morality will rely on an evolutionary understanding of the mind. Thus the second dilemma: if morality evolved as instinct, then we may soon be able to investigate the origin and meaning of human values, and ethics. Philosophers mostly consider consequences of ethical system, not their origins. Examples of Rawls and Nozick. The dilemma is: [second dilemma] if we understand the origins of morality, which censors and motivators should be obey, and while might be curtailed? [[ Wilson doesn’t suggest an answer to this, but based on Pinker et al, it might be to favor those that enable large multicultural societies—not libertarian lone hunters in the woods. ]]

The only way forward is a study of human nature through the integration of the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities. [[ thus the theme of author’s 1998 book CONSILIENCE. ]]

This will involve overcoming misunderstandings between the two cultures, in particular the various disciplines and antidisciplines – essentially, studies that work from top down, and those that work from top up, the latter presuming their opposite disciplines can be explained from below (e.g. life is merely atoms and molecules). Every scientist deals with disciplines at three levels, p8. Example of history of molecular biology, cytology vs. biochemistry. Both sides prevailed and illuminated each other. A similar blending will take place with biology and the social sciences.

The easy view is that science is limited to certain classes of information, and cannot illuminate the Dionysian life of the mind; science is too dehumanizing. No; this underestimates what the mind can accomplish. Science reduces multiple phenomena to fundamental principles; it also takes those principles and reconstructs the complexity, including emergent phenomena, where each level is consistent with all those beneath. Examples, e.g. how haplodiploidy allowed the development of advance social life (in insects).

It is wrong to fear some kind of deterministic reductionism; understanding the lower levels is not sufficient to understand the higher ones. Thus the social sciences are far richer than mere biology. And so the proper study of man is indeed man.

Ch2, Heredity

Life on earth is extremely diverse. We know of some one million species, and are discovering new ones all the time; the total may be from 3 to 10 million.

Thousands of these are social. Sociobiology is based on comparisons of social species, and can be applied to human beings. We look at humans from afar, in order to place them into context. Example from Nozick about aliens visiting earth; the test might be, anything that behaves like man is man. It’s not true that that social behavior can be shaped into virtually any form. Though known cultures are highly variable, they are all similar compared to the organizations of known social species, or those that can be imagined. The evidence that human social behavior is genetically determined is decisive.

The evidence is compelling when compared to social behavior of the great apes and monkeys, our evolutionary relatives. Examples:

  • Intimate social groups are on the order to 10 to 100, not 2, not thousands;
  • Males are larger than females;
  • The young are molded by social training first by the mother, then by children of the same age and sex;
  • Social play is strongly developed including role practice, mock aggression, sex practice, and exploration.

And there are further traits that distinguish us as a species—as in the list compiled in 1945, of characteristics that have been recorded in every culture known to history and ethnography – see list p22. [[ I can’t find this list online; but Wikipedia has an expanded list of them, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_universal ]]

[[ the famous list, worth revisiting in context of PvCs – see how many of them involve superstition or spiritual practices. One might predict that these will never go away, in a culture at large. The best one can expect is that individuals can become self-aware enough to realize these are cultural enablers, not truths about the universe. This is a new key point. Or: these are all the cultural traits that would be recreated, in different fashion, by any species reset. ]]

A similar, different list could be drawn up for insect societies, p22-23. It would be impossible for a group of humans to emulate the features of even a primate relative species. What of people raised from birth devoid of most cultural influences? They would create a new language, p24, and a host of other practices; quote by Robin Fox. [[ again this is identical to my PvC9 ]]

And thus we also see similarities between us and chimps, e.g. facial expressions, that we would expect from evolutionary descent. Chimps are especially close to us, even if at best they are like mentally retarded children. Considering language skills, and self-awareness in mirrors, even in social organization, and hunting strategies. And culture, e.g. play by infants to help use tools as adults. Other tool using behaviors show patterns of cultural transmission from various populations. Thus we have a little brother species, and these similarities are likely genetic.

How natural selection works: p32-33. It’s possible to have purely cultural sociobiology, involving learned social behaviors. But the genetic proposition also entails the validity of evolutionary theory in general. Given the time spans, wherein human genetic evolution within the past five million years—but before cultures evolved beginning 10,000 years ago – the human sociobiology is best tested in the hunter-gatherer societies that resemble those of the distant past—i.e. via anthropology.

A theory is measured by its ability to make predictions; by its success against rival theories; and to the extent it assembles an ever larger body of facts into explanatory schemes. Facts come from experimentation, or observations of undisturbed nature.

Various sociobiological explorations are explored in the following chapters. Two concise examples: incest taboos. There are traditional anthropological explanations. The Sociobio explanation concerns the physiological harm of inbreeding, which carry obvious natural selection costs. Thus the tendency for outbreeding. The second is hypergamy, whereby females marry men of equal or greater wealth. The principles also explain patterns of infanticide.

We can find people whose rational facilities have been impaired but who still function at the level of instinct. E.g., cultural retardates vs. noncultural retardates in institutions.

What about how much social behavior varies genetically within the human species? One possibility is that humanity has become completely uniform, with only cultural evolution occurring now. The other is that some genetic variation still exists. The evidence is strong that behavioral variation is genetic. Examples include variations of X and Y chromosomes and resultant behavior. Other evidence comes from studies of identical twins. Thus the psychic unity of mankind is a testable hypothesis. We should be able to identify genes that influence behavior.

We can even speculate about racial differences, aware that this is an explosive topic. We can ask about geographical variation. Some small effects have been noticed, e.g. infant behavior of Chinese vs. Europeans. Navajo babies are even more quiescent than Chinese.

We are a single species, with relatively minor hereditary influences recycling in ever changing patterns. It’s a unity that overwhelms the difference there would be between humans and australopithecines, if they still existed; or between our species and a mentally superior human species…

Ch3, Development

A description of what happens after conception, the growth of the embryo, how the newborn infant processes sight and sound. To what extend do the neurons, coded by genes, preordain the social development that follows? Is there a range, or only genetic determinism, the way a mosquito is an automaton?

In humans, genes prescribe a capacity for an array of traits; some arrays are limited, some vast and the outcome easily influenced. Examples of the former are handedness, and the condition called PKU, which leads to mental retardation unless treated in infancy. More typical is schizophrenia, a suite of behaviors influenced by many genes, but also by environment. The crude distinction between nature and nurture is archaic. It is more like a complicated topography. Thus every behavior will need to be analyzed separately.

Some behaviors are more easily analyzed than others, e.g. how human facial expressions seem to be universal. Some of the simplest may be genetically hard-wired. But consider language, where a ‘deep grammar’ may exist, but the outcomes are vast, in terms of particular languages.

Behaviorism, e.g. Skinner, has crumpled; rather the learning potential of a species is programmed by its brain. Thus some animals learn certain behaviors very quickly; blind kittens finding their mother; birds that navigate by learning circumpolar constellations only.

Humans are not so rigid, but it’s not true that we can learn anything. Children show certain specific developmental stages (Jean Piaget). Others have shown that children pass through a tight order of stages in the growth of moral codes. [[ Haidt discusses this in his much later book; the first level being obedience in the face of punishment, the basic motivation of the religious fundamentalist, who thinks without that fear of punishment, a person would have no morals. ]]

Thus the human mind is not a tabula rasa, a blank slate. We can see relative strictness on different types of behavior; those concerning the physical environment are more narrowly constrained than those that adapt to a social environment. Important decisions might be less rational and more emotional. [[ this anticipates Kahneman and others. ]] Phobias are an extreme example. Incest taboos are an example of a general rule that one type of social bond tends to preclude others. Rites of passage, and the tendency to divide the world into us vs. them, where others are inferior. These all make sense in terms of genetic advantage.

Ch4, Emergence

If genes are inherited and environment is a train of physical events, where is free will? Maybe only a self-delusion. Theoretically perhaps a coin flip could be predicted. Consider a honeybee, or a human. There are so many variables, and there are issues with the measurement interferes with what is being measured. There are also issues of how the brain processes raw sensual data. The mind can easily simulate reality by recall and fantasy. The self is the leading actor in this neural drama. The key problem in neurobiology is intentionality. A solution might lie in schemata or plans; we interpret sensory inputs with preexisting patterns. Will (or soul) may be a republic of schemata; we know feedback loops control most of our automatic behavior.

Even if purely mechanical, the mind is too complicated a structure to ever predict; thus we are free and responsible in a fundamental sense.

Still, behavior is partially determined within some kinds of bounds. Statistical properties of populations can be predicted. Cultural evolution can be anticipated. Cultural evolution is Lamarckian; biological evolution in Darwinian—description p79m. But they can’t diverge too much; biological traits can undermine the health of societies. An example is slavery, which in many examples passes through a life-cycle that ends in its destruction. Slaves under great stress persist in behaving like humans, rather than e.g. slave ants or gibbons.

We can gain clues to the course of history by studying hunter-gatherers. Bands of a hundred or less, extended families; sexual division of labor; otherwise egalitarian. Large prey size and social hunting are linked in humans and other carnivores. The prevailing theory of social behavior is an autocatalysis model: walking erect freed the hands, building artifacts became easier, etc.

The brain continued to expand about one cubic inch every hundred thousand years, until about a quarter million years ago, when it tapered off. Cultural evolution took off: the Mousterian; Paleolithic; agriculture; growth of knowledge and technology since 1400ad. Genetic changes can be substantial in only 100 generations. Still, it’s safe to assume that most changes since the hunter-gatherers of 40000 years ago have been cultural, not genetic. Thus the same genetics has influenced most cultural evolution, as societies have followed similar paths throughout history—see chart p90—Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Mexica, Central and South America. The key to the emergence of civilization is hypertrophy—the extreme growth of pre-existing structures. The subordination of women is one example.

Other examples: nationalism and racism, as outgrowths of simple tribalism. E.g. one group shows how “civilizations have raised self-love to the rank of high culture, exalted themselves by divine sanction and diminished others with elaborately falsified written histories.” P92.5

Modern societies require a person to fulfill multiple roles, out of thousands, sometimes several within one day. Thus the identity crisis; the yearning for a simpler existence.

Another example: how meat shortages affect religious beliefs. The societies of the New World did not have large game as in Africa and Asia, and so their religious evolved to sanctify human sacrifice—whose victims would be cut up for eating. India’s history led to the classification of the cow as a sacred animal. Thus we can explain pathways of religious evolution.

The most extreme hypertrophic segment is the gathering and sharing of knowledge. Vast computers [in 1978].

“Pure knowledge is the ultimate emancipator. It equalizes people and sovereign states, erodes the archaic barriers of superstition and promise to lift the trajectory of cultural evolution. But I do not believe it can change the ground rules of human behavior or alter the main course of history’s predictable trajectory. …”

Ch5, Aggression

Are humans innately aggressive? Yes. That’s why societies invent sanctions against rape, murder, etc. And some forms of human aggression are unique to our species. The rare society that seems entirely peaceful can be found to have violent histories, or become violent given the chance. Freud and Lorenz imagined that aggression is a human drive that needs periodic release; Fromm that man is subject to a unique death instinct. Both of these are wrong. Aggression is a suite of at least seven types of behaviors.

Not all species are aggressive; those that are are because of ecological reasons: crowding, access to food or shelter. Some species don’t experience these issues. Nor are humans the most violent of all. Example of hyenas. Ant wars. And the drive-discharge model is disproven by evidence that warlike cultures do not have reduced incidences of other violent behaviors.

Human aggressive behavior is both learned, and genetically prepared to be learned. If there are 23 types of aggressive behavior, A through W, we find that some species exhibit, say, only A through P, or one species only A and a similar species only B. Territoriality is one such behavior. Each culture develops particular traits to safe-guard property and space. Example of behavior around vacation residences near Seattle, p109-110.

War is the rupture of territorial taboos, driven by ethnocentrism and the reduction of enemies to subhuman status.

Durham analyzed data from a tribe of headhunters, whose challenge was a source of protein, with three hypotheses in mind, p112—no relation to genetic fitness; fitness of individuals; fitness of groups. In the case studied, the second hypothesis best fit. The warriors however were unaware of any fitness motive; headhunting was part of their culture. Particular forms of violence are not inherited. Another tribe was motivated by the availability of women.

While organized aggression evolved early in our species, as populations grew into chiefdoms and states this tendency became institutionalized. Warfare continued to evolve, since any group unilaterally renouncing it would fall victim. Thus a mode of natural selection was at work at the level of entire societies, p116. Advanced societies develop more sophisticated militaries; though recently, with nuclear threats, leaders have been able to turn back. Some cultures can back down, as the Maori in New Zealand when European firearms were introduced–within 20 years a quarter of the population died. By the 1840s they converted to Christianity and warfare ceased entirely.

Summary p119. We can recognize the learning rules of violent aggression as obsolete and attempt to create political and cultural ties to create cross-binding loyalties.

Ch6, Sex

Sex is central to human biology, though it’s not designed primarily for reproduction—other species reproduce in simpler ways. Nor is sex about pleasure; most animal species do it mechanically. And sex is consuming and risky. It seems to offer no Darwinian advantage; in fact, it reduces the individual’s contribution to the next generation.

So why sex? Diversity, and adaptability. As a way to hedge bets against a changing environment. Example of combinations of traits. While many sexes are possible, the two seems to be the most efficient. Thus each fertilized egg has a new mixture of genes. The human egg is eighty-five thousand times larger than the sperm. This has consequences in human biology and psychology. Thus a female places a greater investment in her sex cells; she might generate 20 children in a lifetime. A man can theoretically inseminate thousands of women in his lifetime.

Thus in most animal species the males are aggressive, hasty, and undiscriminating; it pays for females to be coy, to identify males with the best genes, and who will stay around to raise the child. Humans obey this principle, even given the cultural variations in sexual roles.

We are moderately polygynous. About three-fourths of all societies permit the taking of multiple wives. The remaining monogamous societies exist with various extramarital stratagems in place. Women benefit by marrying upward in social position. Polygyny and hypergamy are complementary strategies. Prostitutes are despised for abandoning their reproductive investments to strangers.

Males, being heavier than women, are stronger and excel in most sports, by some 5 to 20 percent. The few sports where women excel are those farthest from primitive hunting and aggression.

Temperamental differences between the sexes have been amplified by culture to universal male dominance. Lineage is reckoned through the male line most of the time. And so on.

Can these be altered? First we need to understand the roles of heredity and environment. There are modest genetic differences between the sexes, leading to a divergence that can probably be canceled with careful planning, and a conscious decision.

Differences include the rate of smiling in girl vs boy infants; girls react with greater fright; they are more reluctant to leave their mothers in novel situations. Boys are more venturesome and aggressive.

Advocates of complete environmentalism would need to explain how these partly subconscious biases occur around the world. And evidence about hermaphrodites supports the genetic explanation. And examples of how hormone treatments led to tomboys, etc.

So there are three choices societies might make: exaggerate the difference (as most societies do now); train members to eliminate all differences in behavior; or provide equal opportunities but take no further action. The last option would allow disparities to remain, as has happened in Israeli kibbutzim, where enforced equality almost worked. These decisions are not easy and not everyone would agree.

Another issue is the traditional nuclear family, currently in decline. Will it disappear? Author thinks not; it’s a human universal, in the sense of a set of closely related adults and their children. History gives examples of family groups broken up that managed to reform, e.g. among slaves. Even in communes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, families reasserted themselves. Pseudo families form in female prisons.

[[ these issues are reflected in the current political divide, where of course conservatives want to retain, even enforce, the traditional gender roles, while progressives work toward equal opportunity. The usual irony is that conservatives are more likely to reject evolution, even as they insist on retaining differences in gender roles entirely explained by evolution. ]]

The sexual bond transcends sexual activity. One function may be the division of labor that helped early human species survive, as suggested by modern hunter-gatherer species. Humans have especially intense and varied sexual activity, and unlike most other species, female humans lack estrus; ovulation is hidden. This might have evolved to facilitate bonding, and reduce male aggression. Human courtship rituals are for bonding, not reproduction.

The significance of sex has been misinterpreted by Judaism and Christianity, based on natural-law theory derived from God. This theory is in error. Everything we’ve learned argues for a more liberal sexual morality, where sexual practices are understood first as bonding devices and only second as means for reproduction.

For example, homosexuals. We understand where the Old Testament prophets were coming from – “the prophets of an aggressive pastoral nation whose success was based on rapid and orderly population growth enhanced by repeated episodes of territorial conquest.” P142b. ff.

Yet there are many homosexuals, and it is common in virtually all cultures, even approved of in some. It may in fact be beneficial, carrying rare altruistic impulses. It is above all a form of bonding. But how would it be passed down? One answer is that their close relatives have more children; by helping their relatives’ children, or by playing special roles: shamans, artists. This is the ‘kin-selection’ hypothesis. Some evidence of heritability exists to support this, from twin studies. There are other clues in primitive societies and the roles played in modern ones. All of this isn’t conclusive, but it’s more consistent than the traditional Judeo-Christian view.

Ch7, Altruism

Generosity without hope of reciprocation is rare and cherished behavior. Sacrifice of oneself to save others is rewarded at the highest levels. Yet it is a puzzle for evolutionary biology, to simply dismiss it as the better side of human nature. A few other animals make altruistic gestures. Altruistic suicide appears in ant, bee, and wasp species. Bees routinely sacrifice themselves to protect the hive. But for humans, the basic problem is that fallen heroes do not have children. Simple Darwinism would suggest that selfish individuals would prevails in the long run. Insect altruism is explained by kin selection. Does it apply to humans, considering that in most of its history, humans lived in tight family groups? And among humans, there is often the expectation of reward, even personal immortality.

Hard-core altruism is directed unilaterally to others; soft-care altruism is selfish, with the altruist expecting reward for himself or close relatives, and can come about even through self-deception. Humans carry soft-core altruism to elaborate lengths, to fashion agreements upon which cultures and civilizations are built. But is it actually based on hard-core altruism, e.g. nepotism? This would be the enemy of civilization. Author suggests that true selfishness, given other constraints of mammalian biology, is the key to a more nearly perfect social contract. Evidence comes from tribalism. Consider where humans lie on a spectrum from extremely individualistic species, like sharks, and colony species, like jellyfish or the social insects. Human altruism is hard-core toward relatives, the remainder soft. “The predicted result is a mélange of ambivalence, deceit, and guilt that continuously troubles the individual mind.” P159. [[ it sounds to me as if these ideas matured later into Wilson’s formulation of the tensions between individual and group selection – see THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH and THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE. ]]

Examples from Jamaica and Guyana about how ethic groups shift their allegiance as history changes their circumstances. The deep structure of altruistic behavior is rigid and universal, generating predictable group responses that have been seen by social scientists. An important distinction is the ingroup vs the outgroup, but see how flexible this can be as in the formation of professional sports teams. Similar shifts play out in international politics, and religions. “The substance matters little, the form is all.”

What about Mother Theresa? But she worked in the service of a religion that condemns others, just as do other religions and ideologies like Marxism-Leninism. Thus the lines of good and evil cut through every human heart. Recall Kohlberg’s six states of ethical development, p166. Individuals can stop at any rung on the ladder. [[ as mentioned before, the first, lowest rung, obedience to avoid punishment, is the mindset of religious fundamentalists who think the 10 commandments are needed to avoid chaos. ]] Most of human development has worked at stage five (legalistic). Does stage 6, conscience allegiance to principles that might override the law, suggest that we can consciously manipulate those principles [the second great spiritual dilemma]. Probably not; genes hold culture on a leash. Human behavior is ultimately the means by which human genetic material is kept intact. Morality has no other ultimate function.

Ch8, Religion

Religious belief is complex and powerful and probably ineradicable. Skeptics like to think that religion, a tissue of illusions, will retreat in the light of knowledge. But this conception of human nature seems futile, in which advanced nations like the US are among the most religious. Traditional religion survives in the Soviet Union, despite that other religion, Soviet Marxism. Pockets of scientific humanists exist, trying to discredit religion and superstition, but their efforts “pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog” p171. People would rather believe than know.

Others have tried to compartmentalize—Newton, Whitehead. But theirs is abstruse, a world away from typical believers.

“Our schizophrenic societies progress by knowledge but survive on inspiration derived from the very beliefs which that knowledge erodes.” P172. We can understand this paradox by considering, sociobiologically, through genetic advantage and evolutionary change. Yet though we might explain it, science can’t diminish the importance of its substance.

Consider the now-extinct Tasmanians, about which we know almost nothing. The British either slaughtered them or gave them syphilis. The last few were taken to a remote town and taught English manners and Calvinist religion. They grew somber and lethargic and stopped having children. The last male died in 1869.

We can understand a kind of cultural Darwinism among advanced religions, as they compete for members to enhance their welfare. Some are more oppressive to some degree, and religion seldom displays tolerance for other religions.

But finding a materialist basis for the religious process will difficult to decipher for two reasons. First, because religion seems unique to the human species, and so no animal studied can apply. Second, because religious motivations are probably subconscious, because it is a process in which individuals subordinate their own interests to those of the group. Including self-deception.

We can think of religion as being guided by natural selection at three levels: ecclesiastic, the rituals and conventions employed; ecological, so that such practices do not weaken their societies; and then the frequency of genes. The hypothesis is ecclesiastic preferences reflect gene frequencies, over many lifetimes; religious practices that enhance survival and reproduction will spread, even as the practices vary widely over cultures, in a gene-culture interaction. So, we can look at the effects of religious practices on the welfare of individuals and tribes.

Consider ritual: many examples, especially of the proneness of the human mind to binary distinctions. The witch-hunt, in which someone claims to be bewitched, is more puzzling, but explainable.

So is the readiness to be indoctrinated a learning rule that evolved through group selection among clans? One reason to think so is that religious allegiance can exist independent of theology, as in May Day rallies to the ideals of the Bolsheviks. Modern cults like Esalen and scientology are simple vulgar replacements of traditional forms. Sanctification is arbitrary, and invites reform, triggering repression and charges of blasphemy. This leads to the conflict of natural selection at the individual and group levels. Group selection brings about hard religiosity; individual selection a softer and more ambivalent religiosity. They need not be mutually exclusive. Quotation from Numbers.

The mechanisms of religion are objectification, defining reality using simple images and terms; commitment, pure tribalism, through self-surrender; and then myth, narratives to explain the tribe’s special place in the world, often in Manichaean terms involving two warring forces. Not all belief systems include high gods; those that do are usually pastoral. Monotheistic gods are always male; herding is usually the male’s responsibility. Thus the Bible speaks of sheep and shepherds.

We can see that Marxism is based on an inaccurate view of human nature; it is sociobiology with the biology. Marxist biologists believe that the human mind contains only structures that can be channeled to purposes of the state, and declare human nature off limits to further investigation.

Religion is not merely inaccurate; as its myths have been dismantled, it retreats toward the idea of a creator God.

Yet scientific materialism has defeated traditional religion, point for point in zones of conflict. Its myth extends from the evolution of the universe through the origin of the elements and the beginnings of life on earth, p192. All the way to the scientific explanation of religion itself. Theology may not survive, but religion will endure for a long time. The evolutionary epic denies immortality and divine privilege. So we can to the second dilemma: can we divert the power of religion to a new enterprise..?

[[ so Wilson does explicitly discuss group selection from time to time, as far back as 1978; this theme became more prominent in THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH and later books. What Wilson doesn’t seem to address are the effects of psychological biases toward seeing intent in inanimate objects, and so on, that Bering and others have explored; things which seem to provide the motivation for the supernatural claims made by religions. ]]

Ch9, Hope

Author reviews the first dilemma; and that the second dilemma is what conscious choices we might make. There’s a circularity: “we are forced to choose among the elements of human nature by reference to value systems which these same elements created in an evolutionary age now long vanished.” P196. We can break this through an exercise of will, 196b.

One consideration is the value of human genes in a common pool – think about the number of ancestors we have in 1700, or 1066. Given propensities toward selfishness and tribalism, we could consider the future of the entire species. Nobility.

A cardinal value should be diversity. “Individuals of truly extraordinary capacity will emerge unexpectedly in otherwise undistinguished families, and then fail to transmit these qualities to their children.” 198.2 [[ this is regression to the mean, but perhaps more ]] Image of Sisyphus; unless we can control heredity entirely, we should keep the entire gene pool in order to allow these rare geniuses.

A third value might be universal human rights, simply based on our mammalian values (which intelligent ants would find intrinsically evil).

Beyond these are values defined by our emotions – exploration, discovery, etc. – p199b:

The search for values will then go beyond the utilitarian calculus of genetic fitness. Although natural selection has been the prime mover, it works through a cascade of decisions based on secondary values that have historically served as the enabling mechanisms for survival and reproductive success. These values are defined to a large extent by our most intense emotions: enthusiasm and a sharpening of the senses from exploration; exaltation from discovery; triumph in battle and competitive sports; the restful satisfaction from an altruistic act well and truly placed; the stirring of ethnic and national pride; the strength of family ties; and the secure biophilic pleasure from the nearness of animals and growing plants.

These might be rechanneled in some sense, just as dreams “call up imagines from the memory banks and fabricating plausible stories.” In a similar way we construct morality, religion, and mythology.

We can admit that scientific mythology is itself a mythology defined in the noble sense, even as we have reasons to consider the scientific ethos superior to religion, p201t. Including the explanation of religion—which makes the solution of the second dilemma a practical necessity.

The core of scientific materialism, p201m:

The core of scientific materialism is the evolutionary epic. Let me repeat its minimum claims: that the laws of the physical sciences are consistent with those of the biological and social sciences and can be linked in chains of causal explanation; that life and mind have a physical basis; that the world as we know it has evolved from earlier worlds obedient to the same laws; and that the visible universe today is everywhere subject to these materialist explanations. The epic can be indefinitely strengthened up and down the line, but its most sweeping assertions cannot be proved with finality.

Which is to say, the evolutionary myth is the best we will ever have. We can meet the mythopoeic requirements of the mind with this myth, without dogma. We must cultivate the relationships between the sciences and the humanities. The origin of the universe as we understand it is far more awesome than the first chapter of Genesis. Quote from Job – Jehovah’s challenges have been met. p202b:

The physical basis of life is known; we understand approximately how and when it started on earth. New species have been created in the laboratory and evolution has been traced at the molecular level. Gene can be spliced from one kind of organism into another. Molecular biologists have most of the knowledge needed to create elementary forms of life. Our machines, settled on Mars, have transmitted panoramic views and the results of chemical soil analysis. Could the Old Testament writers have conceived of such activity?

(And that was in 1978!) And yet the high culture of Western civilization ignores the natural sciences, as in the journals (The New York Review of Books; The New Republic, et al.) that read as if basic science halted in the 19th century. Modern science is regarded as a problem-solving activity. The few who try to bridge the gap are regarded as ‘popularizers’. [[ this is Wilson’s theme of consilience again ]]

Recall the dialectic of disciplines. As this syncretism proceeds, a true sense of wonder will reinvade broader culture, 204b. We need to speak more explicitly about things we do not know. We realize that in many places economic and social problems are overriding. And this view will be rejected by those whose emotional needs are satisfied by religions, even if their origins are revealed. Their rituals are too embedded in our cultures.

And science might explain art, but will never replace it. And author does not suggest that scientific naturalism should be an alternative to organized formal religion. P207:

Man’s destiny is to know, if only because societies with knowledge culturally dominate societies that lack it. Luddites and anti-intellectuals do not master the differential equations of thermodynamics of the biochemical cures of illness. They stay in thatched huts and die young. Cultures with unifying goals will learn more rapidly than those that lack them, and an autocatalytic growth of learning will follow because scientific materialism is the only mythology that can manufacture great goals from the sustained pursuit of pure knowledge.

The historical theorists – Spencer, Spengler, Toynbee et al—had no understanding of the basis of human nature. The possibilities of human cultures are constrained; we know some ideas are biologically impossible.

We might face a final, third dilemma—we can change the genetic foundation of social behavior. What will we choose? Last paragraph, p209:

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.

Posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Religion | 1 Comment

The Blish/Lawrence Star Trek adaptations

In January 1967 – only four months after the show debuted on NBC – Bantam published STAR TREK, by James Blish, a noted science fiction writer since the early 1950s and winner of a Hugo Award for the novel A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. The book consisted of seven short stories, each based on an episode of the series. A second book followed in February 1968, with eight stories; a third in April 1969, with seven stories. While the first two books contained stories from 1st season episodes, the third had six from the 2nd season and one from the 3rd. The fourth book came in July 1971, with stories from all three seasons of Trek. The next four books were all published in 1972, and then three more books came in ’73, ’74, and November 1977, by which time Blish had died, so that the final book was finished by his wife, J.A. Lawrence. A final book, MUDD’S ANGELS by Lawrence alone, appeared in May 1978, containing two episodes about Harry Mudd, from the 1st and 2nd seasons, with the second half of the book being an original story by Lawrence about Harry Mudd.

As far as I know books of adapted scripts like these were unprecedented. Certainly there were other original books published in that era, the mid-1960s, that tied-in with existing TV shows or movies, and some were by noted SF authors. There were two TIME TUNNEL novels by Murray Leinster, who also did three LAND OF THE GIANTS novels; there was a LOST IN SPACE novel by Dave Van Arnam and Ron Archer, there were two books by Keith Laumer based on THE INVADERS (with a third by Rafe Bernard). But these were all original stories, based only very loosely on the TV series and not adapted from particular scripts. There was even a Trek novel like this, by Mack Reynolds, called MISSION TO HORATIUS, but it was published for kids and no one cared.

In contrast, Theodore Sturgeon did a reportedly faithful adaptation (I haven’t read it) of Irwin Allen’s TV movie VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA in 1961, that explicitly credits the original screenplay.

Similarly, James Blish’s STAR TREK books contained stories based on specific episodes of the series, and each book dutifully credits the scriptwriters of those shows.

Blish’s stories were adaptations, though, not transcriptions, and while the plots and much of the dialogue from the episodes is kept intact, some scenes are omitted or condensed, so that a story seen on TV that lasted 52 minutes becomes 15 to 20 pages of print. Blish sometimes changed the story titles (“The Man Trap” became “The Unreal McCoy”) and sometimes the stories resolved quite differently than the TV episode originals (“Operation—Annihilate!”).

As the books went on the story versions got longer, 25 pages or more, with the stories in ST11 and ST12 running 35 to 40 pages each. And by about mid-way through the series the adaptations got much more literal, with only minor changes in dialogue or plot from the broadcast scripts, and the final books included much internal monologue revealing (sometimes questionable) character insights.

For years I had assumed that Blish, as a professional science fiction writer, took liberties with the earlier scripts he adapted to make them better science fiction stories, and that over the years he restrained those impulses to give readers what they wanted – as close to literal print versions of the episodes they had seen years ago, perhaps only in syndication. Several of the stories in the first couple books did seem noticeably improved from their script sources, while as noted by the midpoint in the series they stayed more literal. Blish even thought this was an improvement: in a preface to ST9, Blish writes, “From ST 6 on, I’m greatly indebted to Muriel Lawrence, who began by doing a staggering amount of typing for me, and went on from there to take so much interest in Star Trek itself that her analyses, suggestions, and counsel have made the adaptations much better than they used to be.” And ST11 is dedicated “to Muriel Lawrence for labors in the vineyard.”

Hmm. Only in the past couple of years, first by reading Marc Cushman’s books about the production of the show, and more recently by rediscovering that ST9 preface and figuring out who Muriel Lawrence was, have I understood what went on to produce the books that got published.

First, the primary reason stories in the first couple books varied from their broadcast sources is… that Blish was often sent preliminary versions of the scripts. As Cushman’s books detail, scripts often go through many versions, over weeks or months, from outline to first draft to drafts revised by the producers, with some changes made during filming and never even captured in script form. Apparently in 1966 and 1967 the studio, Desilu, was blasé about which script versions they packed up to ship to Blish (who was living in New York at the time). And so Blish worked with what he had.

Second, Blish took the job of doing adaptations of the show for Bantam Books for the money. He didn’t care about the show, and regarded the job of adapting someone else’s material as hackwork that would possibly be damaging to his career. He did it anyway, but he didn’t bother to watch the show. To correct an assumption I made elsewhere, Blish wasn’t living in Britain when the show was broadcast in the US, though he did relocate to Britain in 1969; he was living in the US and just didn’t bother to watch the show.

This page, https://memory-beta.fandom.com/wiki/James_Blish, at fan site Memory Beta, makes that point.

The fact is that until April, 1969, Blish lived in the United States, and if he had never seen Star Trek, it was because he didn’t want to.

Third, which I just discovered this week, Blish apparently didn’t actually write the Trek books himself past ST 5. The Memory Beta page also quotes a book about Blish — a book I don’t have, but which can be seen on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Imprisoned-Tesseract-Life-James-Blish/dp/0873383346/) by SF scholar David Ketterer, thus:

“Blish, in Josephine Saxton’s words, ‘affected to despise Star Trek‘ and, in fact, he had not written Star Trek 10. Judith Blish has revealed that Star Trek 6-11 (all of which appeared under Blish’s name except the last where J. A. Lawrence appears as collaborator) were essentially written by Judith Blish and her mother Muriel Lawrence.” (Ketterer; 25)

So–! Apparently Blish farmed out the task of cranking out Trek books – remember how four came out in 1972 alone? – to his wife and mother-in-law! It might be noted that Judith Ann Lawrence Blish never published any work of her own, beyond the Trek books that credited her.

Oddly, there are infelicities of description and word choice in the adaptations in the late books that makes one wonder whether Lawrence and her mother had ever actually seen the show, either. Those details are in the individual posts.


Finally, with that background in mind, some generalizations about the Trek books can be summarized, thus:

  • In the early books by Blish, stories are told from a single point of view, Kirk’s, so that broadcast scenes where Kirk was not in the room are simply omitted or at best summarized as context.
  • Blish worked from scripts that were often not final drafts, so that in some cases the outcome of the story is quite different from the broadcast version, an extreme example being “Operation—Annihilate!”
  • Blish did improve some of the stories with his own science fictional and scientific expertise (he studied microbiology and zoology), a good example being in “Miri,” in which the description of the development of a disease cure is much more elaborate than in the broadcast version.
  • The later books by Lawrence & Lawrence stay more closely to the source scripts than Blish’s did, and generally present every scene from the source scripts (whether Kirk was there or not). These adaptations are therefore on average longer than Blish’s. Still, there are variations in dialogue wording in most, as if they too did not always receive final script drafts, or had no way of knowing what changes were made during production that weren’t reflected in the script. The interest in the later adaptations is to find lines of dialogue, and sometimes entire scenes, that were presumably scripted but not shot, or shot and then edited out for time.
  • Evidence suggest that neither Blish nor his wife and mother-in-law were familiar with the show from actually seeing it, given various infelicities in the texts.
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Kinsley: OLD AGE

Michael Kinsley’s OLD AGE: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE (Crown/Tim Duggan Books 2016) is another slender book that, like part of Junger’s, was originally published as various magazine pieces.

Kinsley is known for his ‘law’ — “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” — and for being one of the founders of the online magazine Slate. (After that he was an editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times for a while.) He’s well-known for having Parkinson’s Disease, for 23 years now, though he stresses that this book isn’t about that; it’s about the Baby Boomer generation and their ambitions. What were they? To have the most toys? Years of good health? A good reputation? For the latter, just live as a good person.

But he does, first thing, address the strategies for dealing with news of a serious illness: acceptance, confrontation, or denial. Americans admire confrontation — learning everything you can about a disease; fighting back — but in the author’s case denial was easy, given his age and no visible symptons. He just kept working, confiding in only a very few, then a few more. When he finally ‘came out’ he signed onto a Speakers’ Bureau to travel around talking about his illness. Because of his age, or his illness, he found that he fell off the list of potential candidates for various positions. Here’s an example of Kinsley’s self-deprecating wit:

For a while in the 1990s, I was on the short list for all sorts of journalism jobs. After I went public with the Parkinson’s, that pretty much stopped. Maybe I’ had my run. Maybe I fell off the list due to some kind of unwritten term limit under which you can only be mentioned for so long before your name begins to seem shopworn. Or maybe I became radioactive for reasons I’m unaware of or too vain to see. (You’re supposed to say, “On, no, Mike. That can’t possibly be it.” Louder, please.) This is one of those things that happen to everybody in their sixties or seventies but happened to me in my fifties.

The next section talks about a procedure called deep brain stimulation, DBS, involving wires into the brain from batteries implanted in the chest. Author pondered what his first words would be upon awakening, and settled on “Well, of course. When you cut taxes, government revenue goes up. Why couldn’t I see that before?”

Seated on a plane next to Robert McNamara inspires thoughts about how life isn’t fair. Illness or death anywhere between 60 to 90 is considered ‘normal,’ while billionaires like Larry Ellison spend money on life extension. How if you’re 65 now, average life expectancy is 82.9. He discusses the idea of a tontine – a mutual pool that is won by the last surviving member. Social security is like that. If you imagine a group of 100 colleagues your age, how old until on average one of them dies every year? 63. He discusses symptoms of Parkinson’s, and goes on again about stem cells and how those opposed to using them nevertheless don’t lobby to shut down fertility clinics. He feels like a scout for his generation, experiencing the trials of old age when only in his 50s.

And then he talks about the possibility of dementia, or Alzheimer’s, and how you’re the least qualified person to assess your own brain. So the game isn’t about long life, it’s about living long and having your marbles. He discusses famous people who’ve had Parkinson’s, how the disease goes along with socially withdrawn, rigid, introverted people. He has a cognitive assessment, with mixed results.

Then there’s reputation. Author quotes Mark Twain about how quickly most humorists are forgotten. But almost all writers are doomed to obscurity. E.g. newspapermen like Joseph Kraft and Walter Lippmann. How for 40 years some novelist named Mary Brunton was regarded more highly than Jane Austen — but Austen’s family kept her reputation alive. By now it’s assumed that anything popular in its own time *won’t* have an enduring reputation. The test for immortality is perhaps 100 years.

The final section — as Kinsley explores the various options for the goals of the baby boomers — looks back at the ‘Greatest Generation’ who won World War II. The boomers came after the Greatest Generation, and had it relatively comfortable. They ducked Vietnam, engaged in self-indulgence in the ’60s, and cynicism about two presidents spread to cynicism about everything. Some boomers now apologize for their generation—squandering the legacy of the GG. But it can be spun the other way—the GG created problems that the boomers got us out of; the boomers expanded rights and created a culture that swept the world, created a technological revolution, and are now stuck supporting their own adult children.

And now we’re out in the world killing again. American exceptionalism – “the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us” – got us into Vietnam, but this realization lasted only a decade before we started invading other countries again.

So what can the boomers do to redeem its generation? Legalize marijuana? A national service program? Too late for that. How about paying off the national debt? Assume that’s a good thing to do. And invest in research, repair the infrastructure. It would be the boomers’ gift to the country, once and for all.

Americans expect more from their government than anyone—but they don’t want to pay for it. It can’t go on. But how to pay for it? Well, you could tax inheritances. More broadly and at lower rates than current inheritance taxes. Let moderately wealthy couples give back all the social security they took in, rather than passing it on to their kids. Or adjust the health care system to avoid spending so much at the end of lives. It won’t be simple. But it can’t be harder than D-Day.

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Junger: TRIBE

Sebastian Junger’s TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging (Grand Central/Twelve 2016) is one of several short, relatively ‘incidental’, books I’ve read in the past month — ‘incidental’ in that they’re mostly off-topic to my more serious themes of science, philosophy, and the future, as were the books I wrote up here in February. Though as it’s turned out, every one of the books I’ve read recently does has something to contribute to my thinking on the big matters.

Junger is a journalist and author, whose book The Perfect Storm became a film and contributed a lasting phrase to the English language. According to this book’s flap, Junger is *defending* tribes — “small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding” – as necessary to our psychological survival.

This may well be, but I came into the book wondering how he would square this psychological tendency of our human nature with the modern dangers of tribalism, that in the US has led to such divided and corrosive politics, where only belonging matters and not, say, facts and evidence. I’m not sure he did square it, but he had many interesting stories and observations anyway.

For example, a story, in the introduction: How the author hitchhiked across the northwest US in 1986. He grew up in Boston suburbs where neighbors didn’t know each other, and nothing required them to band together, or form any kind of solidarity. In Gillette, Wyoming, standing alongside the highway with his backpack, he was approached by a man he thought might rob him, but who instead gave him, Junger, his lunchbox.

‘Tribe’ might mean the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. This book is about why that sentiment is rare in modern society, and what we can learn from tribal societies. Modern society makes people not feel necessary.

The first of four sections is about how, as Europeans settled America and drove back the native tribes, it was not uncommon for European men to leave their own society and join the Indians — and virtually never vice versa. Indian society was egalitarian, and marked by extreme loyalty to the tribe; they work less than ‘civilized’ people, are virtually never alone. While modern socities emphasize authority, and leave individuals alone even beginning in infancy.

Moral behavior derives from evolutionary group pressure, where bad actions, like hording and selfishness, are punished, and cooperation is rewarded. The anonymity of modern culture makes it easy to cheat, not just in small ways, but in huge ways, e.g. insurance fraud and the financial crisis. (And despite that crisis, legal correctives, e.g. forcing CEOs to reveal their pay ratios, have been blocked by Republicans.)

Comment: note the conservative resistance. Why wouldn’t conservatives be interested in making it more difficult for cheaters to cheat? Because it’s about rigging the system for themselves?

The second is about the author’s contact with war, as a journalist in Sarajevo as it was besieged by the Serb. War, like natural disasters, makes everyone equal, and their behavior changes, as in the Blitz, when those trapped together in shelter instintly began cooperating, forming ad hoc laws, and outside mundane life went on, without the hysteria officials had feared would occur. The war actually had a positive effect on mental health. the modern world protects us through police and fire forces, so that an individual may never experience a catastrophic situation in his entire life. The effect of the war on Britain led to social movements in the UK that brought about national health care and a strong welfare state. That lasted decades, until Thatcher came into power. Catastrophes force self-interest to be subsumed in group-survival. Thus in a way some people miss wartime.

Comment: He makes a key point that people in war or natural catastrophes typically cooperate, at least while the disaster is in place – they don’t, as in so many catastrophe novels and movies, go hysterical and become dysfunctional. How many SF catastrophe novels and movies depict this apparently instinctive cooperation? Aren’t they usually about the breakout of chaos? Because that’s so much more dramatically interesting.

The third section is about PTSD, which even author — a journalist and not a soldier — experienced upon returning home. PTSD was diagnosed only after Vietnam; before that it was shell shock or simply cowardice, something resulting in execution. Rates of PTSD are at historic highs, though partly this may be because it’s easy to rig the system. Still, what’s so dispiriting about modern society? Many soldiers miss the war after it’s over. The US fares poorly in three factors that affect a combatant’s transition to civilian life: the cohesiveness and egalitarianism of society, not being seen as victims (as when getting lifelong payments for having PTSD); and feeling as necessary and productive back home as when at war.

The final section ties these themes together. Story: an incident at a bar in Spain in which drunk Spaniards and Moroccans seemed about to fight, until passing wine around made them happy and convivial; as if male conflict and male closeness are two facets of the same quality.

Modern society is complex, so that most Americans are disconnected from all the things that keep the nation going, from farming to oil production. Those who build our infrastructure are less regarded than stockbrokers. And so people cheat.

Rampage shootings in the US occur generally in affluent towns or rural majority-white Christian towns. After 9/11 there were no rampage shootings for two years, and rates of crime and suicide declined. So what behaviors are missing from day-to-day life? America is split across so many boundaries, it helps understand how soldiers feel coming home. Here’s a striking paragraph, p124:

Today’s veterans often come home to find that, althought they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country–a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.

In the dispute between liberals and conservatives, both sides represent ancient evolutionary concerns: on the one side, freeloaders who threatened survival; on the other, a culture of compassion in which all were cared for. “Each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.” P127

And so the author wraps up. How to make veterans feel their society is worth fighting for? Focus on shared humanity, not how people are split by differences. American politics is undermining the tribe by trying to excommunicate others from the group.

Examples: Sergeant Bergdahl’s desertion was an outrage; but nothing compared to the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008. Unemployment, and suicides, went up. Yet none of the CEOs were charged; they got huge bonuses. Neither political party has denounced those men.

Better example: of another businessman, who gave up his salary until his company recovered. That’s the kind of service and self-sacrifice that society needs.


So: I don’t think Junger has a solution. Rather, this book is an example, or illustration, of an inescapable quandary: how our human nature, forged over millions of years living on the Savannah, doesn’t adjust easily to live in a multicultural society, or a world society. Junger seems to be aware of these evolutionary issues, as Wilson and Pinker have explored, but — there’s no easy solution.

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Links and Comments: Petty Rage; EO Wilson; Rutger Bregman; Conservative Causes; Zealots

Paul Krugman’s March 11 column, The Power of Petty Personal Rage discusses incidents about plastic straws, hamburgers, and Captain Marvel.

The point is that demented anger is a significant factor in modern American political life — and overwhelmingly on one side. All that talk about liberal “snowflakes” is projection; if you really want to see people driven wild by tiny perceived slights and insults, you’ll generally find them on the right. Nor is it just about racism and misogyny. Although these are big components of the phenomenon, I don’t see the obvious connection to hamburger paranoia.

Just to be clear: To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I’m not saying that most conservatives are filled with rage over petty things. What I’m saying instead is that most of those filled with such rage are conservatives, and they supply much of the movement’s energy. Not to put too fine a point on it, pathological pettiness almost surely put Donald Trump over the top in the 2016 election.

What caught my eye was the Mill quote, in which one could replace ‘stupid’ with numerous other characteristics – racist; xenophobic; paranoid; scientifically illiterate – and the formulation would also be true.


Here’s the NY Times Book Review weekly Q&A from February 28th, with E.O. Wilson: By the Book: Edward O. Wilson. What caught my eye was his comment about what he reads or does not read.

I read about writers of fiction but I almost never read fiction. I’ve always felt, as I believe T. S. Eliot put it, that the artist is engaged in a continual self-sacrifice, a loss of the personal perception of reality. It depends on someone else’s emotional responses. The surprise in nature and the understanding of reality that science provides offer the only real independence.

Because, as evidenced by his recent book The Origins of Creativity, he certainly sees a lot of movies! In that book, which I’ll summarize here eventually, he has a chapter on archetypes — the hero, the monster, etc. — with examples for each that are almost entirely films, many of them SF films. (He does mention a book, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, but in a way that suggests he hasn’t read it himself.)


Profile of Rutger Bregman — He Took Down the Elite at Davos. Then He Came for Fox News. — author of the book Utopia for Realists, which I read recently and will discuss soon, a book that puts forth ideas about universal basic income, a 15-hour-work-week, and the inadequacy of the GDP as a measure of social health.

A highlight of the profile is how in an interview for Fox News he so enraged Tucker Carlson that the interview almost didn’t air.


Op-ed: Do American Women Still Need an Equal Rights Amendment?. Sidebar: We’re already living in Phyllis Schlafly’s nightmare. Sidebar in the print version: “Much of what Phyllis Schlafly warned against in the 1970s has come to pass.” And the world hasn’t ended! Recalls Stephen Prothero’s book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections), in which his explanation is that by the time conservatives become aware of a trend they don’t like and rally around it, the cause is already lost.


Here’s a cartoon citing part of a famous Abraham Lincoln quote to explain the support for Donald Trump, a notion that I’ve had for some time.


And here’s an article about a radio host in Britain who argues with supporters of Brexit: Fighting Brexit, One Caller and 100,000 YouTube Clicks at a Time. The point here is that zealots for a cause aren’t rational; they will hear your evidence and arguments and simply dismiss it.

Typical was a recent exchange with a caller named Julian, who contended that the Tory government had failed to convince the bloc that it was ready to leave without a deal — a common lament among Brexiteers unhappy with the government’s negotiating tactics.

Not true, Mr. O’Brien countered.

“March 2018, the European Union published 80 ‘no deal’ notices explaining the preparations they were making,” Mr. O’Brien said. “That’s nearly a year ago.”

Julian was unpersuaded. Mr. O’Brien repeated his case, then dropped the placating approach. He raised his voice and brought out the shiv.

“For you to sit here on national radio and say we never really made them fear that no deal was a possibility, it’s not even silly, Julian,” Mr. O’Brien said, barely suppressing his anger. “It’s like arguing that the moon is made of cheese” — and the next words he seemed to put in italics — “while sitting on the moon.”

There was a long pause.

“I don’t agree,” said Julian.

“Oh, my days, man!” Mr. O’Brien exclaimed. And on it went.

Posted in Changing One's Mind, Conservative Resistance, Lunacy, Politics | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Anti-Vaxxers

From Sunday’s New York Times, essay by Frank Bruni: The Real Horror of the Anti-Vaxxers, subtitled “This isn’t just a public health crisis. It’s a public sanity one.” (The print title was “The Anti-Vaxxers’ War on Truth”.)

How many studies do you have to throw at the vaccine hysterics before they quit? How much of a scientific consensus, how many unimpeachable experts and how exquisitely rational an argument must you present?

That’s a trick question, of course. There’s no magic number. There’s no number, period. And that’s because the anti-vaccine crowd (or anti-vaxxers) aren’t trafficking in anything as concrete, mundane and quaint as facts. They’re not really engaged in a debate about medicine. They’re immersed in a world of conspiracies, in the dark shadows where no data can be trusted, nothing is what it seems and those who buy the party line are pitiable sheep.

And, boy, are they living at the right time, when so much information and misinformation swirl by so quickly that it’s easy to confuse the two and even easier to grab hold and convince yourself of whatever it is you prefer to believe. With Google searches, you find the ostensible proof you seek. On social media, you bask in all the affirmation you could possibly want.

This is a key point:

I should also add that alternative facts had currency long before Kellyanne Conway christened them such and that junk science, nutty hypotheses and showy apostasies have been around forever. Humans aren’t rationalists. We’re romantics, and the world is wondrous when you believe that you belong to some brave and special tribe and have experienced enlightenment — about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, about the existence of extraterrestrials, about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, about vaccines — that all the less perceptive, more gullible conformists out there simply can’t comprehend.

And so they are

Beneficiaries of wisdom that prior generations lacked, they toss it away, wasting and mocking progress itself.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Lunacy, Psychology | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: The Smart Ones Figure It Out; Coyne on Yet Another Religious Apologetic

I’ve mentioned before how I think “the smart ones figure it out,” even as traditionally it’s been impolite to discuss it. The smart ones are generally smart enough not to make an issue of it; to not challenge their friends or loved ones for the sake of getting along in the world; it’s a private revelation, broached in scandalous books by intellectuals like Voltaire and Thomas Paine for centuries, but in the broader culture only in the past 10 or 15 years, as we see in the rise of the “nones.”

He Went from Fundamentalist Christian to Vocal Atheist. Here’s How.

One could see how this guy’s rather Sheldon Cooper-like smarminess might put people off; but it’s his nerdy self-confidence that has enabled his YouTube channel.


It’s always fun to see yet another religious apologetic, like this NYT op-ed, What Science Can Learn From Religion, by David DeSteno, and then see how clearer-minded folks like Jerry Coyne respond: New York Times op-ed: Science can learn from religion. With data. And a long response that discusses how the points in DeSteno’s essay are not necessarily religious.

As for the other two, I am not so sure they come from religion. Ritual probably long preceded present-day religions, and may have had little to do with belief in divine beings. The origins of ritual are lost in the irrecoverable past of our species. Indeed, religion may have adopted rituals like singing and dancing from the teenage phase of our evolutionary history.

And, of course, there are other ways of bonding. Do soccer fans derive their chants and solidarity from observing religion? I don’t think so. There are many things that help us bond, and many rituals that facilitate that, and surely some of those don’t come from religion. I won’t go into this in detail as readers can think of these on their own. But why not write an article like “What science can learn from soccer”?

(I’m always impressed by how Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago, finds time to write such lengthy posts like this, sometimes more than once a day.)

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Links and Comments: Scientific Humanism; the Socialist Menace; Border Crisis

Michael Shermer’s final Scientific American column, in January, summarizes The Case for Scientific Humanism, a “blending of scientific naturalism and Enlightenment humanism,” echoing my own Provisional Conclusion #5:

Modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the adoption of scientific naturalism—the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that are knowable, that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, and that human cognitive, social and moral phenomena are no less a part of that comprehensible world. In the 18th century the application of scientific naturalism to the understanding and solving of human and social problems led to the widespread embrace of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that esteems science and reason, eschews magic and the supernatural, rejects dogma and authority, and seeks to understand how the world works. Much follows. Most of it good.

Human progress, which has been breathtaking over the past two centuries in nearly every realm of life, has principally been the result of the application of scientific naturalism to solving problems, from engineering bridges and eradicating diseases to extending life spans and establishing rights.


Paul Krugman on how Trump and conservatives are demonizing the idea of socialism: Trump Versus the Socialist Menace, subtitled, “The Commies are coming for your pickup trucks.”

And in case you haven’t been there, the Nordic countries are not, in fact, hellholes. They have somewhat lower G.D.P. per capita than we do, but that’s largely because they take more vacations. Compared with America, they have higher life expectancy, much less poverty and significantly higher overall life satisfaction. Oh, and they have high levels of entrepreneurship — because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know that they won’t lose their health care or plunge into abject poverty if they fail.

On the other hand, we should never discount the power of dishonesty. Right-wing media will portray whomever the Democrats nominate for president as the second coming of Leon Trotsky, and millions of people will believe them. Let’s just hope that the rest of the media report the clean little secret of American socialism, which is that it isn’t radical at all.


And Thomas L. Friedman on why “Building a border wall won’t solve our immigration problem”: What if Trump Could Explain as Well as He Inflames?

He explains how a real president would explain how the so-called border crisis is the result of numerous historical forces, among them corruption and gang warfare in Central American countries, and…

That’s why, among other things, a smart U.S. immigration policy would promote family planning in rural areas in Central America. Letting America’s religious right limit U.S. family planning assistance abroad is stupid.

The only thing more stupid is not working to mitigate climate change, which Trump refuses to do. Extreme weather has been disrupting small-scale farming in Central America. And when small-scale farming weakens or collapses, people leave the countryside and flock to the city. And if they find high unemployment and high crime rates there, they head to America.

But of course demagogues like Trump reduce everything to simplistic talking points: build wall because scary brown people. Appealing to fear, and tribalism.

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Oliver Sacks on Forster and Rees

There’s a short essay by the late Oliver Sacks in current issue of The New Yorker: The Machine Stops.

He muses about people walking down the street staring at their phones.

Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine…. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”

And then contemplates whether the Earth will go on or face catastrophe, citing Marin Rees.

Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass. This idea is explicit in Pope Francis’s encyclical and may be practiced not only with vast, centralized technologies but by workers, artisans, and farmers in the villages of the world. Between us, we can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour. 

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THE ONCE AND FUTURE LIBERAL: After Identity Politics (Harper, 2017) is by Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, and is much more explicitly about politics than most books I read. (Because my concerns extend far outside the relatively narrow realm that divides the political parties in the US.) But it links to the previous books reviewed in its reaction to the current president.

And it’s a critique about the side I’m on, and I need to know where or if my side needs to improve. It’s a theme that’s become common; Francis Fukuyama has a recent book on this subject called IDENTITY, and the theme is a recurrent refrain in David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times, where he expresses regret at the loss of common American values of community. (Which I don’t think ever existed, in the MAGA formulation, precisely because the population of the US has become more multicultural and inclusive of anyone other than heterosexual Protestant white families.)


The author’s thesis is that liberals have ‘abdicated’ their traditional role of leading the country, despite notes of ‘resistance’ to Trump and his right-wing media complex. The basic reason is that liberals have become the party of identity, wherein recognizing differences is more important than finding a unified set of values. [I’ll give him that point – it’s hard to win elections without having some kind of unifying set of values for the electorate to rally around.]

He considers the past century or so as having been formed by two ‘dispensations’ – the first was Roosevelt’s, which set a tone and set of expectations that lasted until the ‘60s disrupted them; and then Reagan’s. Despite changes in presidencies, these two eras are distinct. One was about shaking hands; the other about a rainbow. Neither side now has any common goals; they live in caves. Compare the homepages of the Republicans – a list of values – and Democrats – a list of constituencies.

It *should* be about shared citizenship. The liberals need a new orientation.

P21. Recalls how it felt when Reagan was elected, denying the malaise detected by Carter. And then in ’89, when the Berlin Wall came down. Reagan’s themes were about self-reliance, building wealth, the free market, and that government *was the problem* — i.e. the individual, the entrepreneur, was the most important element of society. This trend got worse under Clinton; Republicans became hysterical, shutting down the government, impeaching Clinton for trivia, and became even worse under Obama, reacting to the recession, and giving the likes of Glenn Beck audiences for conspiracy theories.

P59. Liberals responded largely by retreating to the universities. The original American identity was to both country and church. With the civil rights movements, personal identity became more important. Images from the 1950s—suburbs, traditional families—led to early ‘60s ‘identity crisis’. It was a political romanticism, 71b, the search for meaning, that everything connects.

And so in universities, both students and curricula focused on personal issues – not wider ones, not engagement with the world. Personal brands became important, the Facebook model.

And the locution “Speaking as an X…” as if one’s identity as an X made one immune from criticism or argument. There was no objective basis for discussion. [ The latest book by Jonathan Haidt, with Greg Lukianoff, which I haven’t read yet, The Coddling of the American Mind, seems to be precisely on this topic. ] At least Marx looked at the big picture, the historical forces, p92.

P99. Now neither side has a political vision of American destiny. Liberals have an opportunity under Trump, but are sabotaging themselves by the continued focus on identity. It could be a ‘reset moment.’

Author offers four lessons: about institutional vs. movement politics (i.e. it’s about winning elections); the priority of democratic persuasion over self-expression; the priority of citizenship over personal identity. And the need for civic education in an increasingly individualistic nation.

Thus: Black Lives Matter is not the way. Most voters are clueless—Trump’s followers are mobs, not citizens who could pass a citizenship test. Both sides now actively undermine the idea of citizens.

And so: passion and commitment, knowledge and argument, curiosity about the world outside your head and about people unlike yourself. Willingness to sacrifice for fellow citizens; ambition to imagine a common future.

Now if only he dared image what that common future might be – what would make both sides happy? Harari’s humility might be a step…

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