Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’: A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read

Edward O Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis Cambridge: Belknap, Harvard 1975

Sociobiology – The Field That Dare Not Speak its Name? 

From its first publication in 1975, the reception accorded Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ has been divided. 

On the one hand, among biologists, especially those specialist in the fields of ethology, zoology and animal behaviour, the reception was almost universally laudatory. Indeed, my 25th Anniversary Edition even proudly proclaims on the cover that it was voted by officers and fellows of the Animal Behavior Society as the most important ever book on animal behaviour, supplanting even Darwin’s own seminal On The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals

However, on the other side of the university campus, in social science departments, the reaction was very different. 

Indeed, the hostility that the book provoked was such that ‘sociobiology’ became almost a dirty word in the social sciences, and ultimately throughout the academy, to such an extent that ultimately the term fell into disuse (save as a term of abuse) and was replaced by largely synonymous euphemisms like behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology.[1]

Sociobiology thus became, in academia, ‘the field that dare not speak its name’. 

Similarly, within the social sciences, even those researchers whose work carried on the sociobiological approach in all but name almost always played down the extent of their debt to Wilson himself. 

Thus, books on evolutionary psychology typically begin with disclaimers acknowledging that the sociobiology of Wilson was, of course, crude and simplistic, and that their own approach is, of course, infinitely more sophisticated. 

Indeed, reading some recent works on evolutionary psychology, one could be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary approaches to understanding human behaviour began around 1989 with the work of Tooby and Cosmides

Defining the Field 

What then does the word ‘sociobiology’ mean? 

Today, as I have mentioned, the term has largely fallen into disuse, save among certain social scientists who seem to employ it as a rather indiscriminate term of abuse for any theory of human behaviour that they perceive as placing too great a weight on hereditary or biological factors, including many areas of research only tangentially connected to with sociobiology as Wilson originally conceived of it (e.g. behavioral genetics).[2]

The term ‘sociobiology’ was not Wilson’s own coinage. It had occasionally been used by biologists before, albeit rarely. However, Wilson was responsible for popularizing – and perhaps, in the long-term, ultimately unpopularizing it too, since, as we have seen, the term has largely fallen into disuse.[3] 

Wilson himself defined ‘sociobiology’ as: 

The systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior” (p4; p595). 

However, as the term was understood by other biologists, and indeed applied by Wilson himself, sociobiology came to be construed more narrowly. Thus, it was associated in particular with the question of why behaviours evolved and the evolutionary function they serve in promoting the reproductive success of the organism (i.e. just one of Tinbergen’s Four Questions). 

The hormonal, neuroscientific, or genetic causes of behaviours are just as much a part of “the biological basis of behavior” as are the ultimate evolutionary functions of behaviour. However, these lie outside of scope of sociobiology as the term was usually understood. 

Indeed, Wilson himself admitted as much, writing in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself of how: 

Behavioral biology… is now emerging as two distinct disciplines centered on neurophysiology and… sociobiology” (p6). 

Yet, in another sense, Wilson’s definition of the field was also too narrow. 

Thus, behavioural ecologists have come to study all forms of behaviour, not just social behaviour.  

For example, optimal foraging theory is a major subfield within behavioural ecology (the successor field to sociobiology), but concerns feeding behaviour, which may be an entirely solitary, non-social activity. 

Indeed, even some aspects of an organism’s physiology (as distinct from behaviour) have come to be seen as within the purview of sociobiology (e.g. the evolution of the peacock’s tail). 

A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read 

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ was a massive tome, numbering almost 700 pages. 

As Wilson proudly proclaims in his glossary, it was: 

Written with the broadest possible audience in mind and most of it can be read with full understanding by any intelligent person whether or not he or she has had any formal training in science” (p577). 

Unfortunately, however, the sheer size of the work alone was probably enough to deter most such readers long before they reached p577 where these words appear. 

Indeed, I suspect the very size of the book was a factor in explaining the almost universally hostile reception that the book received among social scientists. 

In short, the book was so large that the vast majority of social scientists had neither the time nor the inclination to actually read it for themselves, especially since a cursory flick through its pages showed that the vast majority of them seemed to be concerned with the behaviour of species other than humans, and hence, as they saw it, of little relevance to their own work. 

Instead, therefore, their entire knowledge of the sociobiology was filtered through to them via the critiques of the approach authored by other social scientists, themselves mostly hostile to sociobiology, who presented a straw man caricature of what sociobiology actually represented. 

Indeed, the caricature of sociobiology presented by these authors is so distorted that, reading some of these critiques, one often gets the impression that included among those social scientists not bothering to read the book for themselves were most of the social scientists nevertheless taking it upon themselves to write critiques of it. 

Meanwhile, the fact that the field was so obviously misguided (as indeed it often was in the caricatured form presented in the critiques) gave most social scientists yet another reason not to bother wading through its 700 or so pages for themselves. 

As a result, among sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, public intellectuals, and other such ‘professional damned fools’, as well as the wider the semi-educated, reading public, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ became a book much read about – but rarely actually read (at least in full). 

As a consequence, as with other books falling into this category (e.g. the Bible and The Bell Curve) many myths have emerged regarding its contents which are quite contradicted on actually taking the time to read it for oneself. 

The Many Myths of Sociobiology 

Perhaps the foremost myth is that sociobiology was primarily a theory of human behaviour. In fact, as is revealed by even a cursory flick through the pages of Wilson’s book, sociobiology was, first and foremost, a theoretical approach to understanding animal behaviour. 

Indeed, Wilson’s decision to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans as well was, it seems, almost something of an afterthought, and necessitated by his desire to provide a comprehensive overview of the behaviour of all social animals, humans included. 
 
This is connected to the second myth – namely, that sociobiology was Wilson’s own theory. In fact, rather than a single theory, sociobiology is better viewed as a particular approach to a field of study, the field in question being animal behaviour. 
 
Moreover, far from being Wilson’s own theory, the major advances in the understanding of animal behaviour that gave rise to what came to be referred to as ‘sociobiology’ were made in the main by biologists other than Wilson himself.  
 
Thus, it was William Hamilton who first formulated inclusive fitness theory (which came to be known as the theory of kin selection); John Maynard Smith who first introduced economic models and game theory into behavioural biology; George C Williams who was responsible for displacing a crude group-selection in favour of a new focus on the gene itself as the principal unit of selection; while Robert Trivers was responsible for such theories such as reciprocal altruismparent-offspring conflict and differential parental investment theory
 
Instead, Wilson’s key role was to bring the various strands of the emerging field together, give it a name and, in the process, take far more than his fair share of the resulting flak. 
 
Thus, far from being a maverick theory of a single individual, what came to be known as ‘sociobiology’ was, if not based on accepted biological theory at the time of publication, then at least based on biological theory that came to be recognised as mainstream within a few years of its publication. 
 
Controversy attached almost exclusively to the application of these same principles to explain human behaviour. 

Applying Sociobiology to Humans 

In respect of Wilson’s application of sociobiological theory to humans, misconceptions again abound. 

For example, it is often asserted that Wilson only extended his theory to apply to human behaviour in his infamous final chapter, entitled, ‘Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology’. 

Actually, however, Wilson had discussed the possible application of sociobiological theory to humans several times in earlier chapters. 
 
Often, this was at the end of a chapter. For example, his chapter on “Roles and Castes” closes with a discussion of “Roles in Human Societies” (p312-3). Similarly, the final subsection of his chapter on “Aggression” is titled “Human Aggression” (p 254-5). 
 
Other times, however, humans get a mention in mid-chapter, as in Chapter Fifteen, which is titled ‘Sex and Society’, where Wilson discusses the association between adultery, cuckoldry and violent retribution in human societies, and rightly prophesizes that “the implications for the study of humans” of Trivers’ theory of differential parental investment “are potentially great” (p327). 
 
Another misconception is that, while he may not have founded the approach that came to be known as sociobiology, it was Wilson who courted controversy, and bore most of the flak, because he was the first biologist brave, foolish, ambitious, farsighted or naïve enough to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans. 
 
Actually, however, this is untrue. For example, a large part of Robert Trivers’ seminal paper on reciprocal altruism published in 1971 dealt with reciprocal altruism in humans and with what are presumably specifically human moral emotions, such as guilt, gratitude, friendship and moralistic anger (Trivers 1971). 
 
However, Trivers’ work was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and therefore presumably never came to the attention of any of the leftist social scientists largely responsible for the furore over sociobiology, who, being of the opinion that biological theory was wholly irrelevant to human behaviour, and hence to their own field, were unlikely to be regular readers of the journal in question. 

Yet this is perhaps unfortunate since Trivers, unlike the unfortunate Wilson, had impeccable left-wing credentials, which may have deflected some of the overtly politicized criticism (and pitchers of water) that later came Wilson’s way. 

Reductionism vs Holism

Among the most familiar charges levelled against Wilson by his opponents within the social sciences, and by contemporary opponents of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, alongside the familiar and time-worn charges of ‘biological determinism’ and ‘genetic determinism’, is that sociobiology is inherently reductionist, something which is, they imply, very much a bad thing. 
 
It is therefore something of a surprise to find among the opening pages of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson defending “holism”, as represented, in Wilson’s view, by the field of sociobiology itself, as against what he terms “the triumphant reductionism of molecular biology” (p7). 
 
This passage is particularly surprising for anyone who has read Wilson’s more recent work Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, where he launches a trenchant, unapologetic and, in my view, wholly convincing defence of “reductionism” as representing, not only “the cutting edge of science… breaking down nature into its constituent components” but moreover “the primary and essential activity of science” and hence at the very heart of the scientific method (Consilience: p59). 

Thus, in a quotable aphorism, Wilson concludes: 

The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science” (Consilience: p59). 

Of course, whether ‘reductionism’ is a good or bad thing, as well as the extent to which sociobiology can be considered ‘reductionist’, ultimately depends on precisely how we define ‘reductionism’. Moreover, ‘reductionism’, how ever defined, is a surely matter of degree. 

Thus, philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, distinguishes what he calls “greedy reductionism”, which attempts to oversimplify the world (e.g. Skinnerian behaviourism, which seeks to explain all behaviours in terms of conditioning), from “good reductionism”, which attempts to understand it in all its complexity (i.e. good science).

On the other hand, ‘holistic’ is a word most often employed in defence of wholly unscientific approaches, such as so-called holistic medicine, and, for me, the word itself is almost always something of a red flag. 

Thus, the opponents of sociobiology, in using the term ‘reductionist’ as a criticism, are rejecting the whole notion of a scientific approach to understanding human behaviour. In its place, they offer only a vague, wishy-washy, untestable and frankly anti-scientific obscurantism, whereby any attempt to explain behaviour in terms of causes and effects is dismissed as reductionism and determinism

Yet explaining behaviour, whether the behaviour of organisms, atoms, molecules or chemical substances, in terms of causes and effects is the very essence, if not the very definition, of science. 

In other words, determinism (i.e. the belief that events are determined by causes) is not so much a finding of science as its basic underlying assumption.[4]

Yet Wilson’s own championing of “holism” in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ can be made sense of in its historical context. 

In other words, just as Wilson’s defence of reductionism in ‘Concilience’ was a response to the so-called sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 80s in which the charge of ‘reductionism’ was wielded indiscriminately by the opponents of sociobiology, so Wilson’s defence of holism in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself must be understood in the context, not of the controversy that this work itself provoked (which Wilson was, at the time, unable to foresee), but rather of a controversy preceded its publication. 

In particular, certain molecular biologists at Harvard, and perhaps elsewhere, led by the brilliant yet but abrasive molecular biologist James Watson, had come to the opinion that molecular biology was to be the only biology, and that traditional biology, fieldwork and experiments were positively passé. 

This controversy is rather less familiar to anyone outside of Harvard University’s biology department than the sociobiology debates, which not only enlisted many academics from outside of biology (e.g. psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and even philosophers), but also spilled over into the popular media and even became politicized. 

However, within the ivory towers of Harvard University’s department of biology, this controversy seems to have been just as fiercely fought over.[5]

As is clear from ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson’s own envisaged “holism” was far from the wishy-washy obscurantism which one usually associates with those championing a ‘holistic approach’, and thoroughly scientific. 

Thus, in On Human Nature, Wislon’s follow-up book to ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, where he first concerned himself specifically to the application of sociobiological theory to humans, Wilson gives perhaps his most balanced description of the relative importance of reductionism and holism, and indeed of the nature of science, writing: 

Raw reduction is only half the scientific process… the remainder consist[ing] of the reconstruction of complexity by an expanding synthesis under the control if laws newly demonstrated by analysis… reveal[ing] the existence of novel emergent phenomena” (On Human Nature: p11). 

It is therefore in this sense, and in contrast to the reductionism of molecular biology, that Wilson saw sociobiology as ‘holistic’. 

Group Selection? 

One of the key theoretical breakthroughs that formed the basis for what came to be known as sociobiology was the discrediting of group-selectionism, largely thanks to the work of George C Williams, whose ideas were later popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here).[6] 
 
A focus the individual, or even the gene, as the primary, or indeed the only, unit of selection, came to be viewed as an integral component of the sociobiological worldview. Indeed, it was once seriously debated on the pages of the newsletter of the European Sociobiological Society whether one could truly be both a ‘sociobiologist’ and a ‘group-selectionist’ (Price 1996). 

It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that the author of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, responsible for christening the emerging field, was himself something of a group-selectionist. 

Wilson has recently ‘come out’ as a group-selectionist by co-authoring a paper concerning the evolution of eusociality in ants (Nowak et al 2010). However, reading ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ leads one to suspect that Wilson had been a closet, or indeed a semi-out, group-selectionist all along. 

Certainly, Wilson repeats the familiar arguments against group-selectionism popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here), but first articulated by George C Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection (see p106-7). 

However, although he offers no rebuttal to these arguments, this does not prevent Wilson from invoking, or at least proposing, group-selectionist explanations for behaviours elsewhere in the remainder of the book (e.g. p275). 

Moreover, Wilson concludes: 

Group selection and higher levels of organization, however intuitively implausible… are at least theoretically possible under a wide range of conditions” (p30). 

 
Thus, it is clear that, unlike, say, Richard Dawkins, Wilson did not view group-selectionism as a terminally discredited theory. 

Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology… and Perhaps Evolutionary Psychology 

What then of Wilson’s final chapter, entitled ‘Man – From Sociobiology to Sociology’? 

It was, of course, the only one to focus exclusively on humans, and, of course, the chapter that attracted by far the lion’s share of the outrage and controversy that soon ensued. 

Yet, reading it today, over forty years after it was first written, it is, I feel, rather disappointing. 

Let me be clear, I went in very much wanting to like it. 

After all, Wilson’s general approach was basically right. Humans, like all other organisms, have evolved through a process of natural selection. Therefore, their behaviour, no less than their physiology, or the physiology or behaviour of non-human organisms, must be understood in the light of this fact. 

Moreover, not only were almost all of the criticisms levelled at Wilson misguided, wrongheaded and unfair, but they often bordered upon persecution as well.

The most famous example of this leftist witch hunting was when, during a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was drenched him with a pitcher of water by leftist demonstrators. 

However, this was far from an isolated event. For example, an illustration from the book The Moral Animal shows a student placard advising protesters to “bring noisemakers” in order to deliberately disrupt one of Wilson’s speaking engagements (The Moral Animal: illustration p341). 

In short, Wilson seems to have been an early victim of what would today be called ‘deplatorming’ and ‘cancel culture’, phenomena that long predated the coining of these terms

Thus, one is tempted to see Wilson in the role of a kind of modern Galileo, being, like Galileo, persecuted for his scientific theories, which, like those of Galileo, turned out to be broadly correct. 

Moreover, Wilson’s views were, in some respects, analogous to those of Galileo. Both disputed prevailing orthodoxies in such a way as to challenge the view that humans were somehow unique or at the centre of things, Galileo by suggesting the earth was not at the centre of the solar system, and Wilson by showing that human behaviour was not all that different from that of other animals.[7]

Unfortunately, however, the actual substance of Wilson’s final chapter is rather dated.

Inevitably, any science book will be dated after forty years. However, while this is also true of the book as a whole, it seems especially true of this last chapter, which bears little resemblance to the contents of a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology

This is perhaps inevitable. While the application of sociobiological theory to understanding and explaining the behaviour other species was already well underway, the application of sociobiological theory to humans was, the pioneering work of Robert Trivers on reciprocal altruism notwithstanding, still very much in its infancy. 

Yet, while the substance of the chapter is dated, the general approach was spot on.

Indeed, even some of the advances claimed by evolutionary psychologists as their own were actually anticipated by Wilson. 

Thus, Wilson recognises:

One of the key questions [in human sociobiology] is to what extent the biogram represents an adaptation to modern cultural life and to what extent it is a phylogenetic vestige” (p458). 

He thus anticipates the key evolutionary psychological concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA, whereby it is theorized that humans are evolutionarily adapted, not to the modern post-industrial societies in which so many of us today find ourselves, but rather to the ancestral environments in which our behaviours first evolved.

Wilson proposes examine human behavior from the disinterested perspective of “a zoologist from another planet”, and concludes: 

In this macroscopic view the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology” (p547). 

Thus, for Wilson: 

Sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis” (p4). 

Indeed, the idea that the behaviour of a single species is alone exempt from principles of general biology, to such an extent that it must be studied in entirely different university faculties by entirely different researchers, the vast majority with little or no knowledge of general biology, nor of the methods and theory of researchers studying the behaviour of all other organisms, reflects an indefensible anthropocentrism

However, despite the controversy these pronouncements provoked, Wilson was actually quite measured in his predictions and even urged caution, writing 

Whether the social sciences can be truly biologicized in this fashion remains to be seen” (p4) 

The evidence of the ensuing forty years suggests, in my view, that the social sciences can indeed be, and are well on the way to being, as Wilson puts it, ‘biologicized’. The only stumbling block has proven to be social scientists themselves, who have, in some cases, proven resistant. 

‘Vaunting Ambition’? 

Yet, despite these words of caution, the scale of Wilson’s intellectual ambition can hardly be exaggerated. 

First, he sought to synthesize the entire field of animal behavior under the rubric of sociobiology and in the process produce the ‘New Synthesis’ promised in the subtitle, by analogy with the Modern Synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics that forms the basis for the entire field of modern biology. 

Then, in a final chapter, apparently as almost something of an afterthought, he decided to add human behaviour into his synthesis as well. 

This meant, not just providing a new foundation for a single subfield within biology (i.e. animal behaviour), but for several whole disciplines formerly virtually unconnected to biology – e.g. psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, economics. 

Oh yeah… and moral philosophy and perhaps epistemology too. I forgot to mention that. 

From Sociobiology to… Philosophy?

Indeed, Wilson’s forays into philosophy proved even more controversial than those into social science. Though limited to a few paragraphs in his first and last chapter, they were among the most widely quoted, and critiqued, in the whole book. 

Not only were opponents of sociobiology (and philosophers) predictably indignant, but even those few researchers bravely taking up the sociobiological gauntlet, and even applying it to humans, remained mostly skeptical. 

In proposing to reconstruct moral philosophy on the basis of biology, Wilson was widely accused of committing what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy

This refers to the principle that, if a behaviour is natural, this does not necessarily make it right, any more than the fact that dying of tuberculosis is natural means that it is morally wrong to treat tuberculosis with such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination or antibiotics. 

In general, evolutionary psychologists have generally been only too happy to reiterate the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value chasm, not least because it allowed them to investigate the evolutionary function of such morally dubious, or indeed morally reprehensible, behaviours as infidelity, rape, war, sexual infidelity and child abuse, while denying they are thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question. 

Yet this begs the question: if we cannot derive values from facts, whence can values be arrived at? Can they be derived only from other values? If so, then whence are our ultimate moral values, from which all others are derived, themselves ultimately derived? Must they be simply taken on faith? 

Wilson has recently controversially argued, in his excellent Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, that, in this context: 

The posing of the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy” (Consilience: p273). 

Leaving aside this controversial claim, it is clear that his point in ‘Sociobiology’ is narrower. 

In short, Wilson seems to be arguing that, in contemplating the appropriateness of different theories of prescriptive ethics (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantian deontology), moral philosophers consult “the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain” (p3). 

Yet these same moral philosophers take these emotions largely for granted. They treat the brain as a “black box” rather than a biological entity the nature of which is itself the subject of scientific study (p562). 

Yet, despite the criticism Wilson’s suggestion provoked among many philosophers, the philosophical implications of recognising that moral intuitions are themselves a product of the evolutionary process have since become an serious and active area of philosophical enquiry. Indeed, among the leading pioneers in this field of enquiry has been the philosopher of biology Michael Ruse, not least in collaboration Wilson himself (Ruse & Wilson 1986). 

Yet if moral philosophy must be rethought in the light of biology and the evolved nature of our psychology, then the same is also surely true of arguably the other main subfield of contemporary philosophy – namely epistemology.  

Yet Wilson’s comments regarding the relevance of sociobiological theory to epistemology are even briefer than the few sentences he devotes in his opening and closing chapters to moral philosophy, being restricted to less than a sentence – a mere five-word parenthesis in a sentence primarily discussing moral philosophy and philosophers (p3). 

However, what humans are capable of knowing is, like morality, ultimately a product of the human brain – a brain which is a itself biological entity that evolved through a process of natural selection. 

The brain, then, is designed not for discovering ‘truth’, in some abstract, philosophical sense, but rather for maximizing the reproductive success of the organism whose behaviour it controls and directs. 

Of course, for most purposes, natural selection would likely favour psychological mechanisms that produce, if not ‘truth’, then at least a reliable model of the world as it actually operates, so that an organism can modify its behaviour in accordance with this model, in order to produce outcomes that maximizes its inclusive fitness under these conditions. 

However, it is at least possible that there are certain phenomena that our brains are, through the very nature of their wiring and construction, incapable of fully understanding (e.g. quantum mechanics or the hard question of consciousness), simply because such understanding was of no utility in helping our ancestors to survive and reproduce in ancestral environments. 

The importance of evolutionary theory to our understanding of epistemology and the limits of human knowledge is, together with the relevance of evolutionary theory to moral philosophy, a theme explored in philosopher Michael Ruse’s book, Taking Darwin Seriously, and is also the principal theme of such recent works as The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald D Hoffman. 

Dated? 

Is ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ worth reading today? At almost 700 pages, it represents no idle investment of time. 

Wilson is a wonderful writer even in a purely literary sense, and has the unusual honour for a working scientist of being a twice Pulitzer-Prize winner. However, apart from a few provocative sections in the opening and closing chapters, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ is largely written in the form of a student textbook, is not a book one is likely to read on account of its literary merits alone. 

As a textbook, Sociobiology is obviously dated. Indeed, the extent to which it has dated is an indication of the success of the research programme it helped inspire. 

Thus, one of the hallmarks of true science is the speed at which cutting-edge work becomes obsolete.  

Religious believers still cite holy books written millennia ago, while adherents of pseudo-sciences like psychoanalysis and Marxism still paw over the words of Freud and Marx. 

However, the scientific method is a cumulative process based on falsificationism and is moreover no respecter of persons.

Scientific works become obsolete almost as fast as they are published. Modern biologists only rarely cite Darwin. 

If you want a textbook summary of the latest research in sociobiology, I would instead recommend the latest edition of Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach or An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology; or, if your primary interest is human behavior, the latest edition of David Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

The continued value of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ lies in the field, not of science, but history of science In this field, it will remain a landmark work in the history of human thought, for both the controversy, and the pioneering research, that followed in its wake. 

Endnotes

[1] Actually, ‘evolutionary psychology’ is not quite a synonym for ‘sociobiology’. Whereas the latter field sought to understand the behaviour of all animals, if not all organisms, the term ‘evolutionary psychology’ is usually employed only in relation to the study of human behaviour. It would be more accurate, then, to say ‘evolutionary psychology’ is a synonym, or euphemism, for ‘human sociobiology’.

[2] Whereas behavioural geneticists focus on heritable differences between individuals within a single population, evolutionary psychologists largely focus on behavioural adaptations that are presumed to be pan-human and universal. Indeed, it is often argued that there is likely to be minimal heritable variation in human psychological adaptations, precisely because such adaptations have been subject to such strong selection pressure as to weed out suboptimal variation, such that only the optimal genotype remains. On this view, substantial heritable variation is found only in respect of traits that have not been subject to intense selection pressure (see Tooby & Cosmides 1990). However, this fails to be take into account such phenomena as frequency dependent selection and other forms of polymorphism, whereby different individuals within a breeding population adopt, for example, quite different reproductive strategies. It is also difficult to reconcile with the finding of behavioural geneticists that there is substantial heritable variation in intelligence as between individuals, despite the fact that the expansion of human brain-size over the course of evolution suggests that intelligence has been subject to strong selection pressures.

[3] For example, in 1997, the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, which had by then become, and remains, the leading scholarly journal in the field of what would then have been termed ‘human sociobiology’, and now usually goes by the name of ‘evolutionary psychology’, changed its name to Evolution and Human Behavior.

[4] An irony is that, while science is built on the assumption of determinism, namely the assumption that observed phenomena have causes that can be discovered by controlled experimentation, one of the findings of science is that, at least at the quantum level, determinism is actually not true. This is among the reasons why quantum theory is paradoxically popular among people who don’t really like science (and who, like virtually everyone else, don’t really understand quantum theory). Thus, Richard Dawkins has memorably parodied quantum mysticism as as based on the reasoning that: 

Quantum mechanics, that brilliantly successful flagship theory of modern science, is deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Eastern mystics have always been deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Therefore, Eastern mystics must have been talking about quantum theory all along.”

[5] Indeed, although since reconciled, Wilson and Watson seem to have shared a deep personal animosity for one another, Wilson once describing how he had once considered Watson, with whom he later reconciled, “the most unpleasant human being I had ever met” – see Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist. A student of Watson’s describes how, when Wilson was granted tenure at Harvard before Watson:

It was a big, big day in our corridor” as “Watson could be heard coming up the stairwell…  shouting ‘fuck, fuck, fuck” (Watson and DNA: p98)  

Wilson’s description of Watson’s personality in his memoir is interesting in the light of the later controversy regarding the latters comments regarding the economic implications of racial differences in intelligence, with Wilson writing: 

Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness.” 

In contrast, geneticist David Reich suggests that Watson’s abrasive personality predated his scientific discoveries and may even have been partly responsible for them, writing: 

His obstreperousness may have been important to his success as a scientist” (Who We are and how We Got Here: p263).

[6] Group selection has recently, however, enjoyed something of a resurgence in the form of multi-level selection theory. Wilson himself is very much a supporter of this trend.

[7] Of course, it goes without saying that the persecution to which Wilson was subjected was as nothing compared to that to which Galileo was subjected (see my post, A Modern McCarthyism in Our Midst). 

References 

Nowak et al (2010) The evolution of eusociality Nature 466:1057–1062. 

Price (1996) ‘In Defence of Group Selection, European Sociobiological Society Newsletter. No. 42, October 1996 

Ruse & Wilson (1986) Moral Philosophy as Applied SciencePhilosophy 61(236):173-192 

Tooby & Cosmides (1990) On the Universality of Human Nature and the Uniqueness of the Individual: The Role of Genetics and AdaptationJournal of Personality 58(1): 17-67. 

Trivers (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57 

Judith Harris’s ‘The Nurture Assumption’: By Parent or Peers

Judith Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Free Press, 1998.

Almost all psychological traits on which individual humans differ, from personality and intelligence to mental illness, are now known to be substantially heritable. In other words, individual differences in these traits are, at least in part, a consequence of genetic differences between individuals. 

This finding is so robust that it has even been termed by Eric Turkenheimer the First Law of Behviour Genetics and, although once anathema to most psychologists save a marginal fringe of behavioural geneticists, it has now, under the sheer weight of evidence produced by the latter, belatedly become the new orthodoxy. 

On reflection, however, this transformation is not entirely a revelation. 

After all, it was only in the mid-twentieth century that the curious notion that individual differences were entirely the product of environmental differences first arose, and, even then, this delusion was largely restricted to psychologists, sociologists, feminists and other such ‘professional damned fools’, along with those among the semi-educated public who seek to cultivate an air of intellectualism by aping the former’s affections. 

Before then, poets, peasants and laypeople alike had long recognized that ability, insanity, temperament and personality all tended to run in families, just as physical traits like stature, complexion, hair and eye colour also do.[1]

However, while the discovery of a heritable component to character and ability merely confirms the conventional wisdom of an earlier age, another behavioural genetic finding, far more surprising and counterintuitive, has passed relatively unreported. 

This is the discovery that the so-called shared family environment (i.e. the environment shared by siblings, or non-siblings, raised in the same family home) actually has next to no effect on adult personality and behaviour. 

This we know from such classic study designs in behavioural genetics as twin studiesadoption studies and family studies.  

In short, individuals of a given degree of relatedness, whether identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings, half-siblings or unrelated adoptees, are, by the time they reach adulthood, no more similar to one another in personality or IQ when they are raised in the same household than when they are raised in entirely different households. 

The Myth of Parental Influence 

Yet parental influence has long loomed large in virtually every psychological theory of child development, from the Freudian Oedipus complex and Bowby’s attachment theory to the whole literary genre of books aimed at instructing anxious parents on how best to raise their children so as to ensure that the latter develop into healthy, functional, successful adults. 

Indeed, not only is the conventional wisdom among psychologists overturned, but so is the conventional wisdom among sociologists – for one aspect of the shared family environment is, of course, household income and social class

Thus, if the family that a person is brought up in has next to no impact on their psychological outcomes as an adult, then this means that the socioeconomic status of the family home in which they are raised also has no effect. 

Poverty, or a deprived upbringing, then, has no effect on IQ, personality or the prevalence of mental illness, at least by the time a person has reached adulthood.[2]

Neither is it only leftist sociologists who have proved mistaken. 

Thus, just as leftists use economic deprivation as an indiscriminate, catch-all excuse for all manner of social pathology (e.g. crime, unemployment, educational underperformance) so conservatives are apt to place the blame on divorcefamily breakdown, having children out of wedlock and the consequential increase in the prevalence of single-parent households

However, all these factors are, once again, part of the shared family environment – and according to the findings of behavioural genetics, they have next to no influence on adult personality or intelligence. 

Of course, chaotic or abusive family environments do indeed tend to produce offspring with negative life outcomes. 

However, none of this proves that it was the chaotic or abusive family environment that caused the negative outcomes. 

Rather, another explanation is at hand – perhaps the offspring simply biologically inherit the personality traits of their parents, the very personality traits that caused their family environment to be so chaotic and abusive in the first place.[3] 

For example, parents who divorce or bear offspring out-of-wedlock likely differ in personality from those who first get married then stick together, perhaps being more impulsive or less self-disciplined and conscientious (e.g. less able refrain from having children from a relationship that was destined to be fleeting, or less able to persevere and make the relationship last). 

Their offspring may, then, simply biologically inherit these undesirable personality attributes, which then themselves lead to the negative social outcomes associated with being raised in single-parent households or broken homes. The association between family breakdown and negative outcomes for offspring might, then, reflect simply the biological inheritance of personality. 

Similarly, as leftists are fond of reminding us, children from economically-deprived backgrounds do indeed have lower recorded IQs and educational attainment than those from more privileged family backgrounds, as well as other negative outcomes as adults (e.g. lower earnings, higher rates of unemployment). 

However, this does not prove that coming from a deprived family background necessarily itself depresses your IQ, educational attainment or future salary. 

Rather, an equally plausible possibility is simply that offspring simply biologically inherit the low intelligence of their parents – the very low intelligence which was likely a factor causing the low socioeconomic status of their parents, since intelligence is known to correlate strongly with educational and occupational advancement.[4]

In short, the problem with all of this body of research which purports to demonstrate the influence of parents and family background on psychology and behavioural outcomes for offspring is that they fail to control for the heritability of personality and intelligence, an obvious confounding factor

The Non-Shared Environment

However, not everything is explained by heredity. As a crude but broadly accurate generalization, only about half the variation for most psychological traits is attributable to genes. This leaves about half of the variation in intelligence, personality and mental illness to be explained environmental factors.  

What are these environmental factors if they are not to be sought in the shared family environment

The obvious answer is, of course, the non-shared family environment – i.e. the ways in which even children brought up in the same family-home nevertheless experience different micro-environments, both within the home and, perhaps more importantly, outside it. 

Thus, even the fairest and most even-handed parents inevitably treat their different offspring differently in some ways.  

Indeed, among the principal reasons that parents treat their different offspring differently is precisely because the different offspring themselves differ in their own behaviour.  

Corporal punishment 

Rather than differences in the behaviour of different children resulting from differences in how their parents treat them, it may be that differences in how parents treat their children may reflect responses to differences in the behaviour of the children themselves. 

In other words, the psychologists have the direction of causation precisely backwards. 

Take, for example, one particularly controversial issue, namely the physical chastisement of children by their parents as a punishment for bad behaviour (e.g. spanking). 

Thus, some psychologists have sometimes argued that physical chastisement actually causes misbehaviour. 

As evidence, they cite the fact that children who are spanked more often by their parents or caregivers on average actually behave worse than those whose caregivers only rarely or never spank the children entrusted to their care.  

This, they claim, is because, in employing spanking as a form of discipline, caregivers are inadvertently imparting the message that violence is a good way of solving your problems. 

Actually, however, I suspect children are more than capable of working out for themselves that violence is often an effective means of getting your way, at least if you have superior physical strength to your adversary. Unfortunately, this is something that, unlike reading, arithmetic and long division, does not require explicit instruction by teachers or parents. 

Instead, a more obvious explanation for the correlation between spanking and misbehaviour in children is not that spanking causes misbehaviour, but rather that misbehaviour causes spanking. 

Indeed, once one thinks about it, this is in fact rather obvious: If a child never seriously misbehaves, then a parent likely never has any reason to spank that child, even if the parent is, in principle, a strict disciplinarian; whereas, on the other hand, a highly disobedient child is likely to try the patience of even the most patient caregiver, whatever his or her moral opposition to physical chastisement in principle. 

In other words, causation runs in exactly the opposite direction to that assumed by the naïve psychologists.[5] 

Another factor may also be at play – namely, offspring biologically inherit from their parents the personality traits that cause both the misbehaviour and the punishment. 

In other words, parents with aggressive personalities may be more likely to lose their temper and physically chastise their children, while children who inherit these aggressive personalities are themselves more likely to misbehave, not least by behaving in an aggressive or violent manner. 

However, even if parents treat their different offspring differently owing to the different behaviour of the offspring themselves, this is not the sort of environmental factor capable of explaining the residual non-shared environmental effects on offspring outcomes. 

After all, this merely begs the question as to what caused these differences in offspring behaviour in the first place? 

If the differences in offspring behaviour exist prior to differences in parental responses to this behaviour, then these differences cannot be explained by the differences in parental responses.  

Peer Groups 

This brings us back to the question of the environmental causes of offspring outcomes – namely, if about half the differences among children’s IQs and personalities are attributable to environmental factors, but these environmental factors are not to be found in the shared family environment (i.e. the environment shared by children raised in the same household), then where are these environmental factors to be sought? 

The search for environmental factors affecting personality and intelligence has, thus far, been largely unsuccessful. Indeed, some behavioural geneticists have almost gone as far as conceding scholarly defeat in identifying correlates for the environmental portion of the variance. 

Thus, leading contemporary behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin in his recent book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, concludes that those environmental factors that affect cognitive ability, personality, and the development of mental illness are, as he puts it, ‘unsystematic’ in nature. 

In other words, he seems to be saying that they are mere random noise. This is tantamount to accepting that the null hypothesis is true. 

Judith Harris, however, has a quite different take. According to Harris, environmental causes must be sought, not within the family home, but rather outside it – in a person’s interactions with their peer-group and the wider community.[6]

Environment ≠ Nurture 

Thus, Harris argues that the so-called nature-nurture debate is misnamed, since the word ‘nurture’ usually refers to deliberate care and moulding of a child (or of a plant or animal). But many environmental effects are not deliberate. 

Thus, Harris repeatedly references behaviourist John B. Watson’s infamous boast: 

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” 

Yet what strikes me as particularly preposterous about Watson’s boast is not its radical environmental determinism, nor even its rather convenient unfalsifiability.[7] 

Rather, what most strikes me as most preposterous about Watson’s claim is its frankly breath-taking arrogance. 

Thus, Watson not only insisted that it was environment alone that entirely determined adult personality. In this same quotation, he also proclaimed that he already fully understood the nature of these environmental effects to such an extent that, given omnipotent powers to match his evidently already omniscient understanding of human development, he could produce any outcome he wished. 

Yet, in reality, environmental effects are anything but clear-cut. Pushing a child in a certain direction, or into a certain career, may sometimes have the desired effect, but other times have the exact opposite effect to that desired, provoking the child to rebel against parental dictates. 

Thus, even to the extent that environment does determine outcomes, the precise nature of the environmental factors implicated, and their interaction with one another, and with the child’s innate genetic endowment, is surely far more complex than the simple mechanisms proposed by behaviourists like Watson (e.g. reinforcement and punishment). 

Language Acquisition 

The most persuasive evidence for Harris’s theory of the importance of peer groups comes from an interesting and widely documented peculiarity of language acquisition

The children of immigrants, whose parents speak a different language inside the family home, and may even themselves be monolingual, nevertheless typically grow up to speak the language of their host culture rather better than they do the language to which they were first exposed in the family home. 

Indeed, while their parents may never achieve fluency in the language of their host culture, having missed out on the Chomskian critical period for language acquisition, their children often actually lose the ability to speak their parent’s language, often much to the consternation of parents and grandparents. 

Yet, from an sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, such an outcome is obviously adaptive. 

If a child is to succeed in wider society, they must master its language, whereas, if their parent’s first language is not spoken anywhere in their host society except in their family, then it is of limited utility, and, once their parents themselves become proficient in the language of the host culture, becomes entirely redundant (see The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewed herehere and here): p258). 

Code-Switching 

Harris suggests that the same applies to personality. Just as the child of immigrants switches between one language and another at home and school, so they also adopt different personalities. 

Thus, many parents are surprised to be told by their children’s teachers at parents’ evenings that their offspring is quiet and well-behaved at school, since, as they themselves report, he or she isn’t at all like that at home. 

Yet, at home, a child has only, at most, a sibling or two with whom to compete for his parents’ attention. In contrast, at school, he or she has a whole class with whom to compete for their teacher’s attention.

It is therefore unsurprising that most children are less outgoing at school than they are at home with their parents. 

For example, an older sibling might be able push his little brother around at home. But, if he is small for his age, he is unlikely to be able to get away with the same behaviour among his peers at school. 

Children therefore adopt two quite different personalities – one for interactions with family and siblings, and another for among their peers.

This then, for Harris, explains why, perhaps surprisingly, birth-order has generally been found to have little if any effect on personality, at least as personality manifests itself outside the family home. 

An Evolutionary Theory of Socialization? 

Interestingly, even evolutionary psychologists have not been immune from the delusion of parental influence. Thus, in one influential paper, anthropologists Patricia Draper and Henry Harpending argued that offspring calibrate their reproductive strategy by reference to the presence or absence of a father in their household (Draper & Harpending 1982). 

On this view, being raised in a father-absent household is indicative of a social environment where low male parental investment is the norm, and hence offspring adjust their own reproductive strategy accordingly, adopting a promiscuous, low-investment mating strategy characterized by precocious sexual development and an inability to maintain lasting long-term relationships (Draper & Harpending 1982Belsky et al 1991). 

There is indeed, as these authors amply demonstrate, a consistent correlation between father-absence during development and both earlier sexual development and more frequent partner-switching in later life. 

Yet there is also another, arguably more obvious, explanation readily at hand to explain this association. Perhaps offspring simply inherit biologically the personality traits, including sociosexual orientation, of their parents. 

On this view, offspring raised in single-parent households are more likely to adopt a promiscuous, low-investment mating strategy simply because they biologically inherit the promiscuous sociosexual orientation of their parents, the very promiscuous sociosexual orientation that caused the latter to have children out-of-wedlock or from relationships that were destined to break down and hence caused the father-absent childhood of their offspring. 

Moreover, even on a priori theoretical grounds, Draper, Harpending and Belsky’s reasoning is dubious. 

After all, whether you personally were raised in a one- or two-parent family is obviously a very unreliable indicator of the sorts of relationships prevalent in the wider community into which you are born, since it represents a sample size of just one. 

Instead, therefore, it would be far more reliable to calibrate your reproductive strategy in response to the prevalence of one-parent households in the wider community at large, rather than the particular household type into which you happen to have been born.  

This, of course, directly supports Harris’s own theory of ‘peer group socialization’. 

In short, to the extent that children do adapt to the environment and circumstances of their upbringing (and they surely do), they must integrate into, adopt the norms of, and a reproductive strategy to maximize their fitness within, the wider community into which they are born, rather than the possibly quite idiosyncratic circumstances and attitudes of their own family. 

Absent Fathers, from Upper-Class to Under-Class 

Besides language-acquisition among the children of immigrants, another example cited by Harris in support of her theory of ‘peer group socialization’ is the culture, behaviours and upbringing of British upper-class males.

Here, boys were, and, to some extent, still are, reared primarily, not by their parents, but rather by nanniesgovernoresses and, more recently, in exclusive fee-paying all-male boarding schools

Yet, despite having next to no contact with their fathers throughout most of their childhood, these boys nevertheless managed somehow to acquire manners, attitudes and accents similar, if not identical, to those of their upper-class fathers, and not at all those of the middle-class nannies, governoresses and masters with whom they spent most of their childhood being raised. 

Yet this phenomenon is by no means restricted to the British upper-classes. On the contrary, rather than citing the example of the British upper-classes in centuries gone by, Harris might just as well have cited that of contemporary underclass in Britain and elsewhere, since what was once true of the British upper-classes, is now equally true of the underclass

Just as the British upper-classes were once raised by governoresses, nannies and in private schools with next to no contact with their fathers, so contemporary underclass males are similarly raised in single-parent households, often to unwed mothers, and typically have little if any contact with their biological fathers. 

Here, as Warren Farrell observes in his seminal The Myth of Male Power (which I have reviewed here and here), there is a now a “a new nuclear family: woman, government and child”, what Farrell terms “Government as a Substitute Husband”. 

Yet, once again, these underclass males, raised by single parents with the assistance of the state, typically turn out much like their absent fathers with whom they have had little if any contact, often going on to promiscuously father a succession of offspring themselves, with whom they likewise have next to no contact. 

Abuse 

But what of actual abuse? Surely this has a long-term devastating psychological impact on children. This, at any rate, is the conventional wisdom, and questioning this wisdom is tantamount to contemporary heresy, with attendant persecution

Take, for example, what is perhaps the form of child abuse that provokes the most outrage and disgust – namely, sexual abuse. Here, it is frequently asserted that paedophiles were almost invariably themselves abused as children, which creates a so-called ‘cycle of abuse’. 

However, there are at least three problems with this claim. 

First, it cannot explain how the first person in this cycle became a paedophile. 

Second, we might doubt whether it is really true that paedophiles are disproportionately likely to have themselves been abused as children. After all, abuse is something that almost invariably happens surreptitiously ‘behind closed doors’ and is therefore difficult to verify or disprove. 

Thus, even if most paedophiles claim to have been victims of abuse, it is possible that they are simply lying in order to elicit sympathy or excuse or shift culpability for their own offending. 

Finally, even if paedophiles can be shown to be disproportionately likely to have themselves been victimized as children, this by no means proves that their victimization caused their sexual orientation. 

Rather, since most abuse is perpetrated by parents or other close family members, an alternative possibility is that victims simply biologically inherit the sexual orientation of their abuser. After all, if homosexuality is partially heritable, as is now widely accepted, then why not paedophilia as well? 

However, the finding that the shared family environment accounts for hardly any of the variance in outcomes among adults does not preclude the possibility that severe abuse may indeed have an adverse effect on adult outcomes. 

After all, adoption studies can only tell us what percent of the variance is caused by heredity or by shared or unshared environments within a specific population as a whole. 

Perhaps the shared family environment accounts for so little of the variance precisely because the sort of severe abuse that does indeed have a devastating long-term effect on personality and mental health is, thankfully, so very rare in modern societies. 

Indeed, it may be especially rare within the families used in adoption studies precisely because adoptive families are carefully screened for suitability before being allowed to adopt. 

Moreover, Harris emphasizes an important caveat: Even if abuse does not have long-term adverse psychological effects, this does not mean that abuse causes no harm, and nor does it in any way excuse such abuse. 

On the contrary, the primary reason we shouldn’t mistreat children (and should severely punish those who do) is not on account of some putative long-term psychological effect on the adults whom the children subsequently become, but rather because of the very real pain and suffering inflicted on a child at the time the abuse takes place. 

Race Differences in IQ 

Finally, Harris even touches upon that most vexed area of the (so-called) nature-nurture debate – race differences in intelligence

Here, the politically-correct claim that differences in intelligence between racial groups, as recorded in IQ tests, are of purely environmental origin runs into a problem, since the sorts of environmental effects that are usually posited by environmental determinists as accounting for the black-white test score gap in America (e.g. differences in rates of poverty and socioeconomic status) have been shown to be inadequate because, even after controlling for these factors, there remains a still unaccounted for gap in test-scores. 

Thus, as Arthur R. Jensen laments: 

This gives rise to the hypothesizing of still other, more subtle environmental factors that either have not been or cannot be measured—a history of slavery, social oppression, and racial discrimination, white racism, the ‘black experience,’ and minority status consciousness [etc]” (Straight Talk About Mental Tests: p223). 

The problem with these explanations, however, is that none of these factors has yet been demonstrated to have any effect on IQ scores. 

Moreover, some of the factors proposed as explanations are formulated in such a vague form (e.g. “white racism, the ‘black experience’”) that it is difficult to conceive of how they could ever be subjected to controlled testing in the first place.[8] 

Jensen has termed this mysterious factor the ‘X-factor’. 

In coining this term, Jensen was emphasizing its vague, mysterious and unfalsifiable nature. Jensen did not actually believe that this posited ‘X-factor’, whatever it was, really did account for the test-score gap. Rather, he thought heredity explained most, if not all, of the remaining test-score gap. 

However, Harris takes Jensen at his word. Thus, she announces: 

I believe I know what this X factor is… I can describe it quite clearly. Black kids and white kids identify with different groups that have different norms. The differences are exaggerated by group contrast effects and have consequences that compound themselves over the years. That’s the X factor” (p248-9). 

Interestingly, although she does not develop it, Harris’s claim is actually compatible with, and potentially reconciles, the conflicting findings of two of the most widely-cited studies in this vexed area of research and debate. 

First, in the more recent of these two studies, Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study, the same differences in IQ were observed among black, white and mixed-race children adopted into upper-middle class white families as are found among the respective among black, white and mixed-race populations in society at large (Scarr & Weinberg 1976). 

Moreover, although, when tested during childhood, the children’s adoptive households did seem to have had a positive effect on their IQ scores, by the time they reached the cusp of adulthood, the black teenagers who had been adopted into upper-middle-class white homes actually scored no higher in IQ than did blacks in the wider population not raised in upper-middle class white families (Weinberg, Scarr & Waldman 1992). 

This study is often cited by hereditarians as evidence for innate racial differences (e.g. Levin 1994Lynn 1994Whitney 1996). 

However, in the light of the findings of the behavioural genetics studies discussed by Harris in ‘The Nurture Assumption’, the fact that white upper-middle-class adoptive homes had no effect on the adult IQs of the black children adopted into them is, in fact, hardly surprising. 

After all, as we have seen, the shared family environment generally has no effect on IQ, at least by the time the person being tested has reached adulthood. One would therefore not expect adoptive homes, howsoever white and upper-middle-class, to have any effect on adult IQs of the black children adopted into them, or indeed of the white or mixed-race children adopted into them. 

In short, adoptive homes have no effect on adult IQ, whether or not the adoptees, or adoptive families, are black, white, brown, yellow, green or purple! 

But, if race differences in intelligence are indeed entirely environmental in origin, then where are these environmental causes to be found, if not in the family environment? 

Harris has an answer – black culture. 

According to her, the black adoptees, although raised in white adoptive families, nevertheless still come to identify as black, and to identify with the wider black culture and social norms. In addition, they may, on account of their racial identification, come to socialize with other blacks in school and elsewhere. 

As a result of this acculturation to African-American norms and culture, they therefore come to score lower in IQ than their white peers and adoptive siblings. 

But how can we test this theory? Perhaps we could look at the IQ scores of black children raised in white families where there is no wider black culture with which to identify, and few if any black peers with whom to socialize?  

This brings us to the second of the two studies which Harris’s theory potentially reconciles, namely the Eyferth study.  

Here, it was found that the mixed-race children fathered by black American servicemen who had had sexual relationships with German women during the Allied occupation of Germany after World War Two had almost exactly the same average IQ scores as a control group of offspring fathered by white US servicemen during the same time period (Eyferth 1959). 

The crucial difference from the Minnesota study may be that these children, raised in monoracial Germany in the mid-twentieth century, had no wider African-American culture with which to identify or whose norms to adopt, and few if any black or mixed-race peers in their vicinity with whom to socialize. 

This then is perhaps the last lifeline for the radical environmentalist theory of race differences in intelligence – namely the theory that African-American culture somehow depresses intelligence. 

Unfortunately, however, this proposition is likely almost as politically unpalatable to politically-correct liberals as is the notion that race differences in intelligence reflect innate genetic differences.[9] 

Endnotes

[1] Thus, this ancient wisdom is reflected, for example, in many folk sayings, such as the apple does not fall far from the tree, a chip off the old block and like father, like son, many of which long predate either Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Mendel’s work on heredity, let alone the modern work of behavioural geneticists.

[2] It is important to emphasize here that this applies only to psychological outcomes, and not, for example, economic outcomes. For example, a child raised by wealthy parents is indeed likely to be wealthier than one raised in poverty, if only because s/he is likely to inherit (some of) the wealth of his parents. It is also possible that s/he may, on average, obtain a better job as a consequence of the opportunities opened by his privileged upbringing. However, his IQ will be no higher than had s/he been raised in relative poverty, and neither will s/he be any more or less likely to suffer from a mental illness. 

[3] Similarly, it is often claimed that children raised in care homes, or in foster care, tend to have negative life-outcomes. However, again, this by no means proves that it is care homes or foster care that causes these negative life-outcomes. On the contrary, since children who end up in foster care are typically either abandoned by their biological parents, or forcibly taken from their parents by social services on account of the inadequate care provided by the latter, or sometimes outright abuse, it is obvious that their parents represent an unrepresentative sample of society as a whole. An obvious alternative explanation, then, is that the children in question simply inherit the dysfunctional personality attributes of their biological parents, namely the very dysfunctional personality attributes that caused the latter to either abandon their children or have them removed by the social services.

[4] Likewise, the heritability of such personality traits as conscientiousness and self-discipline, in addition to intelligence, likely also partly account for the association between parental income and academic attainment among their offspring, since both academic attainment, and occupational success, require the self-discipline to work hard to achieve success. These factors, again in addition to intelligence, likely also contribute to the association between parental income and the income and socioeconomic status ultimately attained by their offspring.

[5] This possibility could, of course, be ruled out by longitudinal studies, which investigate whether the spanking preceded the misbehaviour, or vice versa. However, this is easier said than done, since, unless relying on the reports by caregivers or children themselves, which depends on both the memory and honesty of the caregivers and children themselves, it would have to involve intensive, long-term, and continued observation in order to establish which came first, namely the pattern of misbehaviour, or the adoption of physical chastisement as a method of discipline. This would, presumably, require continuous observation from birth onwards, so as to ensure that the very first instance of spanking or excessive misbehaviour were recorded. To my knowledge, such a careful and intensive long-term study of this sort has yet to be conducted, if even it is possible.

[6] The fact that the relevant environmental variables must be sought outside the family home is one reason why the terms ‘between-family environment’ and ‘within-family environment’, sometimes used as synonyms or alternatives for ‘shared’ and ‘non-shared family environment’ respectively, are potentially misleading. Thus, the ‘within-family environment’ refers to those aspects of the environment that differ for different siblings even within a single family. However, these factors may differ within a single family precisely because they occur outside, not within, the family itself. The terms ‘shared’ and ‘non-shared family environment’ are therefore to be preferred, so as to avoid any potential confusion these alternative terms could cause.

[7] Both practical and ethical considerations, of course, prevent Watson from actually creating his “own specified world” in which to bring up his “dozen healthy infants”. Therefore, no one is able to put his claim to the test. It is therefore unfalsifiable and Watson is therefore free to make such boasts, safe in the knowledge that there is no danger of his actually being made to make good on his claims or being proven wrong.

[8] Actually, at least some of these theories are indeed testable and potentially falsifiable. With regard to the factors quoted by Jensen (namely, “a history of slavery, social oppression, and racial discrimination, white racism… and minority status consciousness”), one way of testing these theories is to look at test scores in those countries where there is no such history. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in Haiti and Jamaica, blacks are not in the majority, and are moreover in control of the government. Yet the IQ scores of the indigenous population of Africa is actually even lower than among blacks in the USA (see Richard Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence: reviewed here). True, most such countries still have a history of racial oppression and discrimination, albeit in the form of European colonialism rather than racial slavery or segregation in the American sense. However, the lower scores for black Africans is true even in those few sub-Saharan African countries that were not colonized by western powers, or only briefly colonized (e.g. Ethiopia). Moreover, this merely begs the question as to why Africa was so easily colonized by Europeans. Also, other minority groups ostensibly subject to racial discrimination and oppression (e.g. Jews, Overseas Chinese) actually score very high in IQ, and are economically successful. As for “the ‘black experience’”, this meanly begs the question as to why the ‘black experience’ has been so similar, and resulted in the same low IQs, in so many different parts of the world, something implausible unless unless the ‘black experience’ itself reflects innate aspects of black African psychology. 

[9] Thus, ironically, the recently deceased James Flynn, though always careful, throughout his career, to remain on the politically-correct radical environmentalist side of the debate with regard to the causes of race differences in intelligence, nevertheless recently found himself taken to task by the leftist, politically-correct British Guardian newspaper for a sentence in his recent book, Does Your Family Make You Smarter, where he described American blacks as coming from a “from a cognitively restricted subculture” (Wilby 2016). Thus, whether one attributes lower black IQs to biology or to culture, either answer is certain offend leftists, and the power of political correctness can, it seems, never be appeased.

References 

Belsky, Steinberg & Draper (1991) Childhood Experience, Interpersonal Development, and Reproductive Strategy: An Evolutionary Theory of Socialization Child Development 62(4): 647-670 

Draper & Harpending (1982) Father Absence and Reproductive Strategy: An Evolutionary Perspective Journal of Anthropological Research 38:3: 255-273 

Eyferth (1959) Eine Untersuchung der Neger-Mischlingskinder in WestdeutschlandVita Humana, 2, 102–114 

Levin (1994) Comment on Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study. Intelligence. 19: 13–20 

Lynn, R (1994) Some reinterpretations of the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study. Intelligence. 19: 21–27 

Scarr & Weinberg (1976) IQ test performance of black children adopted by White familiesAmerican Psychologist 31(10):726–739 

Weinberg, Scarr & Waldman, (1992) The Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study: A follow-up of IQ test performance at adolescence Intelligence 16:117–135 

Whitney (1996) Shockley’s experiment. Mankind Quarterly 37(1): 41-60

Wilby (2006) Beyond the Flynn effect: New myths about race, family and IQ? Guardian, September 27.

A Modern McCarthyism in our Midst

Anthony Browne, The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain (London: Civitas, 2006) 

Western civilization has progressed. Today, unlike in earlier centuries, we no longer burn heretics at the stake

Instead, according to sociologist Steven Goldberg, himself no stranger to contemporary heresy, these days: 

“All one has to lose by unpopular arguments is contact with people one would not be terribly attracted to anyway” (Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences: p222). 

Unfortunately, however, Goldberg underplays, not only the psychological impact of ostracism, but also the more ominous consequences that sometimes attach to contemporary heresy. 
 
Thus, bomb and death threats were issued repeatedly to women such as Erin Pizzey and Suzanne Steinmetz for pointing out that women were just as likely, or indeed somewhat more likely, to perpetrate acts of domestic violence against their husbands and boyfriends as their husbands and boyfriends were to perpetrate acts of domestic violence against them – a finding now replicated in literally hundreds of studies (see also Domestic Violence: The 12 Things You Aren’t Supposed to Know). 
 
Similarly, in the seventies, Arthur Jensen, a psychology professor at the University of California, had to be issued with an armed guard on campus after suggesting, in a sober and carefully argued scientific paper, that it was a “not unreasonable” hypothesis that the IQ difference between blacks and whites in America was partly genetic in origin. 
 
Political correctness has also cost people their jobs. 

Academics like Chris BrandHelmuth NyborgLawrence SommersFrank EllisNoah Carl and, most recently, Bo Winegard have been forced to resign or lost their academic positions as a consequence of researching, or, in some cases, just mentioning, politically incorrect theories such as the possible social consequences of, or innate basis for, sex and race differences in intelligence

Indeed, even the impeccable scientific credentials of James Watson, a figure jointly responsible for among the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, did not spare him this fate when he was reported in a newspaper as making some controversial but eminently defensible comments regarding population differences in cognitive ability and their likely impact on prospects for economic development.  

At the time of (re-)writing this piece, the most recent victim of this process of purging in academia is the celebrated historian, and long-term controversialist, David Starkey, excommunicated for some eminently sensible, if crudely expressed, remarks about slavery. 

Meanwhile, as proof of the one-sided nature of the witch-hunt, during the very same month as that in which Starkey was excommunicated from public life, a non-white leftist female academic, Priyamvada Gopal, tweeted the borderline genocidal tweet: 

“White lives don’t matter. As white lives.[1]

Yet the only repercussions the latter faced from her employer, Cambridge University, was to be almost immediately promoted to a full professorship

Cambridge University also, in response, issued a defence of their employees right to academic freedom, tweeting that: 

“[Cambridge] University defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial”

This is indeed an admirable and principled stance – if applied consistently. 

Unfortunately, however, although this tweet was phrased in general terms, and actually included no mention of Gopal by name, it was evidently not of general application. 

For Cambridge University is, not only among the institutions from which Starkey was forced to tender his resignation this very same year, but also itself the very same institution that, only a year before, had denied a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson, the eminent public intellectual, for his controversial stances and statements on a range of topics, and which, only two years before, had denied an academic fellowship to researcher Noah Carl, after a letter calling for his dismissal which was signed by, among others, none other than the loathsome Priyamvada Gopal herself. 

The inescapable conclusion is the freedom of “academics to express lawful opinions which others might find controversial” at Cambridge University applies, despite the general wording of the tweet from which these words are taken, only to those controversial opinions of which the leftist academic and cultural establishment currently approves. 

Losing Your Livelihood 

If I might be accused here of focusing excessively on freedom of speech in an academic context, this is only because academia is among the arenas where freedom of expression is most essential, as it is only if all ideas, however offensive to certain protected groups, are able to freely circulate, and compete, in the marketplace of ideas that knowledge is able to progress through a selective process of testing and falsification.[2]

However, although the university environment is, today, especially intolerant, nevertheless similar fates have also befallen non-academics, many of whom have been deprived of their livelihoods on account of their politics. 

For example, in The Retreat of Reason, first published in 2006, Anthony Browne points to the case of a British headmaster sacked for saying Asian pupils should be obliged to learn English, a policy that was then, only a few years later, actually adopted as official government policy (p50). 

In the years since the publication of ‘The Retreat of Reason’, such examples have only multiplied. 

Indeed, today it is almost taken for granted that anyone caught saying something controversial and politically incorrect on the internet in his own name, or even under a pseudonym if subsequently ‘doxed’, is liable to lose his job.

Likewise, Browne noted that police and prison officers in the UK were then barred from membership of the BNP, a legal and constitutional political party, but not from membership of Sinn Fein, who until quite recently had supported domestic terror against the British state, including the murder of soldiers, civilians and the police themselves, nor of various Marxist groups that advocate the violent overthrow of the whole capitalist system (p51-2). 

Today, meanwhile, even believing that a person cannot change their biological sex is said to be a bar on admission into the British police.

Moreover, employees sacked on account of their political views cannot always even turn to their unions for support. 
 
Instead, trade unions have themselves expelled members for their political beliefs (p52) – then successfully defended this action in the European Court of Human rights by citing the right to freedom of association (see ASLEF v UK [2007] ECHR 184). 

Yet, ironically, freedom of association is not only the precise freedom denied to employers by anti-discrimination laws, but also the very same freedom that surely guarantees a person’s right to be a member of a constitutional, legal political party, or express controversial political views outside of their work, without being at risk of losing their job. 

Browne concludes:

One must be very disillusioned with democracy not to find it at least slightly unsettling that in Europe in the twenty-first century government employees are being banned from joining certain legal political parties but not others, legal democratic party leaders are being arrested in dawn raids for what they have said and political parties leading the polls are being banned by judges” (p57). 

Of course, racists and members of parties like the BNP hardly represent a fashionable cause célèbre for civil libertarians. But, then, neither did other groups targeted for persecution at the time of their persecution. This is, of course, precisely what rendered them so vulnerable to persecution. 
 
Political correctness is often dismissed as a trivial issue, which only bigots and busybodies bother complaining about, when there are so many more serious problems and suffering around in the world. 

Yet free speech is never trivial. When people lose their jobs and livelihoods because of currently unfashionable opinions, what we are witnessing is a form of modern McCarthyism. 
 
Indeed, as American conservative David Horowitz observes: 

“The era of the progressive witch-hunt has been far worse in its consequences to individuals and freedom of expression than was the McCarthy era… [not least because] unlike the McCarthy era witch-hunt, which lasted only a few years, the one enforced by left-wing ‘progressives’ is now entering its third decade and shows no signs of abating” (Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey).[3] 

Yet, while columnists, academics, and filmmakers delight in condemning, without fear of reprisals, a form of McCarthyism that ran out of steam over half a century ago (i.e. anti-communism during the Second Red Scare), few dare to incur the wrath of the contemporary inquisition by exposing a modern McCarthyism right here in our midst.  

Recent Developments 

Browne’s ‘The Retreat of Reason’ was first published in 2006. Unfortunately, however, in the intervening decade and a half, despite Browne’s wise counsel, the situation has only worsened. 

Thus, in 2006, Browne rightly championed New Media facilitated by the internet age, such as blogs, for disseminating controversial, politically-incorrect ideas and opinion, and thereby breaking the mainstream media monopoly on the dissemination of information and ideas (p85). 

Here, Browne was surely right. Indeed, new media, such as blogs, have not only been responsible for disseminating ideas that are largely taboo in the mainstream media, but even for breaking news stories that had been suppressed by mainstream media, such as the racial identity of those responsible for the 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany

However, in the decade and a half since ‘The Retreat of Reason’ was published, censorship has become increasingly restrictive even in the virtual sphere. 

Thus, internet platforms like YouTubePatreon, Facebook and Twitter increasingly deplatform content providers with politically incorrect viewpoints, and, in a particularly disturbing move, even some websites have been, at least temporarily, forced offline, or banished to the darkweb, by their web hosting providers.

Doctrinaire libertarians respond that this is not a free speech issue, because these are private business with the right to deny service to anyone with whom they choose not to contract.

In reality, however, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are far more than private businesses. As virtual market monopolies, they are part of the infrastructure of everyday life in the twenty-first century.

To be banned from communicating on Facebook is tantamount to being barred from communication in a public place.

Moreover, the problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the few competitors seeking to provide an alternative to these Big Tech monopolies with a greater commitment to free speech are themselves de-platormed by their hosting providers as a direct consequence of their commitment to free speech.

Likewise, the denial of financial services, such as banking or payment processing, to groups or individuals on the basis of their politics is particularly troubling, effectively making it all but impossible those afflicted to remain financially viable. The result is effectively tantamount to being made an ‘unperson’.

Moreover, far from remaining a hub of free expression, social media has increasingly provided a rallying and recruiting ground for moral outrage and repression, not least in the form of so-called twittermobs, intent on publicly shaming, harassing and denying employment opportunities to anyone of whose views they disapprove.

In short, if the internet has facilitated free speech, it has also facilitated political persecution, since today, it seems, one can enjoy all the excitement and exhilaration of joining a witchhunt without ever straying from the comfort of your computer screen.

Explaining Political Correctness 

For Browne, PC represents “the dictatorship of virtue” (p7) and replaces “reason with emotion” and subverts “objective truth to subjective virtue” (xiii). 

Political correctness is an assault on both reason and… democracy. It is an assault on reason, because the measuring stick of the acceptability of a belief is no longer its objective, empirically established truth, but how well it fits in with the received wisdom of political correctness. It is an assault on… democracy because [its] pervasiveness… is closing down freedom of speech” (p5). 

Yet political correctness is not wholly unprecedented. 
 
On the contrary, every age has its taboos. Thus, in previous centuries, it was compatibility with religious dogma rather than leftist orthodoxy that represented the primary “measuring stick of the acceptability of a belief” – as Galileo, among others, was to discover for his pains. 
 
Although, as a conservative, Browne might be expected to be favourably disposed to traditional religion, he nevertheless acknowledges the analogy between political correctness and the religious dogmas of an earlier age: 

Christianity… has shown many of the characteristics of modern political correctness and often went far further in enforcing its intolerance with violence” (p29).iv 

Indeed, this intolerance is not restricted to Christianity. Thus, whereas Christianity, in an earlier age, persecuted heresy with even greater intolerance than even the contemporary left, in many parts of the world Islam still does.  

As well as providing an analogous justification for the persecution of heretics, political correctness may also, Browne suggests, serve a similar psychological function to religion, in representing: 

A belief system that echoes religion in providing ready, emotionally-satisfying answers for a world too complex to understand fully and providing a gratifying sense of righteousness absent in our otherwise secular society” (p6).

Defining Political Correctness 

What, then, do we mean by ‘political correctness’? 

Political correctness evaluates a claim, not on its truth, but on its offensiveness to certain protected groups. Some views are held to be not only false, indeed sometimes not even false, but rather unacceptable, unsayable and beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion. 

Indeed, for the enforcers of the politically correct orthodoxy, the truth or falsehood of a statement is ultimately of little interest to them. 

Browne provides a useful definition of political correctness as: 

An ideology which classifies certain groups of people as victims in need of protection from criticism and which makes believers feel that no dissent should be tolerated” (p4). 

Refining this, I would say that, for an opinion to be politically incorrect, two criteria must be met:

1) The existence of a group to whom the opinion in question is regarded as ‘offensive’
2) The group in question must be perceived as ‘oppressed’

Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to disparage and offend supposedly ‘privileged’ groups (e.g. males, white people, Americans or the English), but groups with ‘victim-status’ are deemed sacrosanct and beyond reproach, at least as a group. 
 
Victim-status itself, however, is rather arbitrarily bestowed. 
 
Certainly, actual poverty or deprivation has little to do with it. 

Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to denigrate the white working-class. Thus, pejorative epithets aimed at the white working class, such as redneck, chav and ‘white trash’, are widely employed and considered socially-acceptable in polite conversation (see Jim Goad’s The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats).

Yet the use of comparably derogatory terms in respect of, say, black people, is considered wholly beyond the pale, and sufficient to end media careers in Britain and America.

However, multi-millionaires who happen to be black, female or homosexual are permitted to perversely pose as ‘oppressed’, and wallow in their own ostensible victimhood. 
 
Thus, in the contemporary West, the Left has largely abandoned its traditional constituency, namely the working class, in favour of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and feminists.

In the process, the ‘ordinary working man’, once the quintessential proletarian, has found himself recast in leftist demonology as a racist, homophobic, wife-beating bigot.

Likewise, men are widely denigrated in popular culture. Yet, contrary to the feminist dogma which maintains that men have disproportionate power and are privileged, it is in fact men who are overwhelmingly disadvantaged by almost every sociological measure.

Thus, Browne writes: 

Men were overwhelmingly underachieving compared with women at all levels of the education system, and were twice as likely to be unemployed, three times as likely to commit suicide, three times as likely to be a victim of violent crime, four times as likely to be a drug addict, three times as likely to be alcoholic and nine times as likely to be homeless” (p49). 

Indeed, overt discrimination against men, such as the different ages at which men and women were then eligible for state pensions in the UK (p25; p60; p75) and the higher levels of insurance premiums demanded of men (p73) are widely tolerated.[4]

The demand for equal treatment only goes as far as it advantages the [ostensibly] less privileged sex” (p77). 

The arbitrary way in which recognition as an ‘oppressed group’ is accorded, together with the massive benefits accruing to demographics that have secured such recognition, has created a perverse process that Browne aptly terms “competitive victimhood” (p44). 

Few things are more powerful in public debate than… victim status, and the rewards… are so great that there is a large incentive for people to try to portray themselves as victims” (p13-4) 

Thus, groups currently campaigning for ‘victim status’ include, he reports, “the obese, Christians, smokers and foxhunters” (p14). 

The result is what economists call perverse incentives

By encouraging people to strive for the bottom rather than the top, political correctness undermines one of the main driving forces in society, the individual pursuit of self-improvement” (p45) 

This outcome can perhaps even be viewed as the ultimate culmination of what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values

Euroscepticism & Brexit

Unfortunately, despite his useful definition of the phenomenon of political correctness, Browne goes on to use the term political correctness in a broader fashion that goes beyond this original definition, and, in my opinion, extends the concept beyond its sphere of usefulness. 

For example, he classifies Euroscepticism – i.e. opposition to the further integration of the European Union – as a politically incorrect viewpoint (p60-62). 

Here, however, there is no obvious ‘oppressed group’ in need of protection. 
 
Moreover, although widely derided as ignorant and jingoistic, Eurosceptical opinions have never been actually deemed ‘offensive’ or beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion.

On the contrary, they are regularly aired in mainstream media outlets, and even on the BBC, and recently scored a final victory in Britain with the Brexit campaign of 2016.  

Browne’s extension of the concept of political correctness in this way is typical of many critics of political correctness, who succumb to the temptation to define as ‘political correctness’ as any view with which they themselves happen to disagree. 
 
This enables them to tar any views with which they disagree with the pejorative label of ‘political correctness’. 
 
It also, perhaps more importantly, allows ostensible opponents of political correctness to condemn the phenomenon without ever actually violating its central taboos by discussing any genuinely politically incorrect issues. 

They can therefore pose as heroic opponents of the inquisition while never actually themselves incurring its wrath. 

The term ‘political correctness’ therefore serves a similar function for conservatives as the term ‘fascist’ does for leftists – namely a useful catchall label to be applied to any views with which they themselves happen to disagree.[5]

Jews, Muslims and the Middle East 

Another example of Browne’s extension of the concept of political correctness beyond its sphere of usefulness is his characterization of any defence of the policies of Israel as ‘politically incorrect’. 
 
Yet, here, the ad hominem and guilt-by-association methods of debate (or rather of shutting down debate), which Browne rightly describes as characteristic of political correctness (p21-2), are more often used by defenders of Israel than by her critics – though, here, the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ is substituted for the usual refrain of ‘racism’.[6]
 
Thus, in the US, any suggestion that the US’s small but disproportionately wealthy and influential Jewish community influences US foreign policy in the Middle East in favour of Israel is widely dismissed as anti-Semitic and roughly tantamount to proposing the existence of a world Jewish conspiracy led by the elders of Zion. 
 
Admittedly, Browne acknowledges: 

The dual role of Jews as oppressors and oppressed causes complications for PC calculus” (p12).  

In other words, the role of the Jews as victims of persecution in National Socialist Germany conflicts with, and weighs against, their current role as perceived oppressors of the Palestinians in the Middle East. 

However, having acknowledged this complication, Browne immediately dismisses its importance, all too hastily going on to conclude in the very same sentence that: 

PC has now firmly transferred its allegiance from the Jews to Muslims” (p12). 

However, in many respects, the Jews retain their ‘victim-status’ despite their hugely disproportionate wealth and political power

Indeed, perhaps the best evidence of this is the taboo on referring to this disproportionate wealth and power. 
 
Thus, while the political Left never tires of endlessly recycling statistics demonstrating the supposed overrepresentation of ‘white males’ in positions of power and privilege, to cite similar statistics demonstrating the even greater per capita overrepresentation of Jews in these exact same positions of power and privilege is deemed somehow deemed beyond the pale, and evidence, not of leftist sympathies, but rather of being ‘far right’. 
 
This is despite the fact that the average earnings of American-Jews and their level of overrepresentation in influential positions in government, politics, media and business relative to population size surely far outstrips that of any other demographic – white males, and indeed White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, very much included.

The Myth of the Gender Pay Gap 

One area where Browne claims that the “politically correct truth” conflicts with the “factually correct truth” is the causes of the gender pay-gap (p8; p59-60). 
 
This is also included by philosopher David Conway as one of six issues, raised by Browne in the main body of the text, for which Conway provides supportive evidence in an afterword entitled ‘Commentary: Evidence supporting Anthony Browne’s Table of Truths Suppressed by PC’, included as a sort of appendix in later editions of Browne’s book. 
 
Although still standard practice in mainstream journalism at the time his book was written, it is regrettable that Browne himself offers no sources to back up the statistics he cites in his text.

This commentary section therefore provides the only real effort to provide sources or citations for many of Browne’s claims. Unfortunately, however, it covers only a few of the many issues addressed by Browne in preceding pages. 
 
In support of Browne’s contention that “different work/life choices” and “career breaks” underlie the gender pay gap (p8), Conway cites the work of sociologist Catherine Hakim (p101-103). 
 
Actually, more comprehensive expositions of the factors underlying the gender pay gap are provided by Warren Farrell in Why Men Earn More (which I have reviewed here, here and here) and Kingsley Browne in Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (which I have reviewed here and here). 
 
Moreover, while it indeed true that the pay-gap can largely be explained by what economists call ‘compensating differentials’ – e.g. the fact that men work longer hours, in more unpleasant and dangerous working conditions, and for a greater proportion of their adult lives – Browne fails to factor in the final and decisive feminist fallacy regarding the gender pay gap, namely the assumption that, because men earn more money than women, this necessarily means they have more money than women and are wealthier.

In fact, however, although men earn more money than women, much of this money is then redistributed to women via such mechanisms as marriage, alimony, maintenance, divorce settlements and the culture of dating.

Indeed, as I have previously written elsewhere:

The entire process of conventional courtship is predicated on prostitution, from the social expectation that the man will pay for dinner on the first date, to the legal obligation that he continue to provide for his ex-wife through alimony and maintenance for anything up to ten or twenty years after he has belatedly rid himself of her.

Therefore, much of the money earnt by men is actually spent by, or on, their wives, ex-wives and girlfriends (not to mention daughters) such that, although women earn less than men, women have long been known to researchers in the marketing industry to dominate about 80% of consumer spending
 
Browne does usefully debunk another area in which the demand for equal pay has resulted in injustice – namely the demand for equal prizes for male and female athletes at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships (a demand since cravenly capitulated to). Yet, as Browne observes: 

Logically, if the prize doesn’t discriminate between men and women, then the competition that leads to those prizes shouldn’t either… Those who insist on equal prizes, because anything else is discrimination, should explain why it is not discrimination for men to be denied an equal right to compete for the women’s prize.” (p77) 

Thus, Browne perceptively observes: 

It would currently be unthinkable to make the same case for a ‘white’s only’ world athletics championship… [Yet] it is currently just as pointless being a white 100 metres sprinter in colour-blind sporting competitions as it would be being a women 100 metres sprinter in gender-blind sporting competitions” (p77). 

International Aid 

Another topic addressed by both Browne (p8) and Conway (p113-115) is the reasons for African poverty. 

The politically correct explanation, according to Browne, is that African poverty results from inadequate international aid (p8). However, Browne observes: 

No country has risen out of poverty by means of international aid and cancelling debts” (p20).[7]

Moreover, Browne points out that fashionable policies such as “writing off Third World debt” produce perverse incentives by “encourag[ing] excessive and irresponsible borrowing by governments” (p48), while international aid encourages economic dependence, bureaucracies and corruption (p114).

Actually, in my experience, the usual explanation given for African underdevelopment is not, as Conway suggests, inadequate international aid as such. After all, this explanation only begs the question as to how Western countries such as those in Europe achieved First World status back when there were no other wealthy First World countries around to provide them with international aid to assist with their development.

Instead, in my experience, most leftists blame African poverty and underdevelopment on the supposed legacy of European colonialism. Thus, it is argued that European nations, and indeed white people in general, are themselves to blame for the poverty of Africa. International aid is then reimagined as a form of recompense for past wrongs. 

Unfortunately, however, this explanation for African poverty fares little better. 
 
For one thing, it merely begs the question why it was that Africa was colonized by Europeans rather than vice versa?

The answer, of course, is that much of sub-Saharan Africa was ‘underdeveloped’ (i.e. socially and technologically backward) even before colonization. This was indeed precisely what allowed Africa to be so easily and rapidly conquered and colonized during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. 
 
Moreover, if European colonization is really to blame for the poverty of so much of sub-Saharan Africa, then why is it that those few African countries largely spared European colonization, such as Liberia and Ethiopia, are among the most dysfunctional and worst-off in the whole sad and sorry continent? 

The likely answer is that they are worse off than their African neighbours precisely because they lack the infastructure (e.g. roads, railroads) that the much-maligned European colonial overlords were responsible for bequeathing other African states.

In other words, far from holding Africa back, European colonizers often built what little infrastructure and successful industry sub-Saharan Africa still has, and African countries are poor despite colonialism rather than because of it.

This is also surely why, prior to the transition to black-majority rule, South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) enjoyed some of the highest living-standards in Africa, with South Africa long regarded as the only ‘developed economy’ in the entire continent during the apartheid-era.

Further falsifying the assumption that the experience of European colonialism invariably impeded the economic development of those regions formerly subject to European colonial rule is the experience of former European colonies in parts of the world other than Africa.

Here, there have been many notable success stories, including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, even India, not to mention Canada, Australia, New Zealand, all of which were former European colonies, and many of which gained their independence around the same time of African polities.

An experience with European colonization is, it seems, no bar to economic development outside of Africa. Why then has the experience in Africa itself been so different?

Browne and Conway place the blame firmly on Africans themselves – but on African rulers rather than the mass of African people. The real reason for African is simply “bad governance” on the part of Africa’s post-colonial rulers (p8).

Poverty in African has been caused by misrule rather than insufficient aid” (p113).

Unfortunately, however, this is hardly a complete explanation, since it only merely begs the question as to why Africa has been so prone to “misrule” and “bad governance” in the first place.

It also begs the question as to why regions outside of Africa, but nevertheless populated by people of predominantly sub-Saharan African ancestry, such as Haiti and Jamaica (or even Baltimore and Detriot), are seemingly beset by just the same problems (e.g. chronic violent crime, poverty).

This latter observation, of course, suggests that the answer lies, not in African soil or geography, but rather in differences between races in personality, intelligence and behaviour.[8]

However, this is, one suspects, a conclusion too politically incorrect even for Browne himself to consider.

Is Browne a Victim of Political Correctness Himself? 

The forgoing discussion converges in suggesting a single overarching problem with Browne’s otherwise admirable dissection of the nature and effects of political correctness – namely that Browne, although ostensibly an opponent of political correctness, is, in reality, neither immune to the infection nor ever able to effect a full recovery. 
 
Brown himself observes: 

Political correctness succeeds, like the British Empire, through divide and rule… The politically incorrect often end up appeasing political correctness by condemning fellow travellers” (p37). 

Indeed, this is indeed a characteristic feature of witch-hunts, from Salem to McCarthy, whereby victims were able to partially absolve themselves by ‘outing’ fellow-travellers to be persecuted in their place. 
 
However, Browne himself provides a neat illustration of this very phenomenon when, having deplored the treatment of BNP supporters deprived of employment on account of their political views, he nevertheless issues the almost obligatory disclaimer, condemning the party as “odious” (p52).

In doing so, he thereby ironically perfectly illustrates the very appeasement of political correctness which he has himself identified as central to its power. 
 
Similarly, it is notable that, in his discussion of the suppression of politically incorrect facts and theories, Browne nevertheless fails to address any of the most incendiary such facts and theories, such as those that resulted in death threats to the likes of Jensen, Pizzey and Steinmetz
 
After all, to discuss the really taboo topics would not only bring upon him even greater opprobrium than that which he already faced, but also likely deny him a mainstream platform in which to express his views altogether. 
 
Browne therefore provides his ultimate proof of the power of political correctness, not through the topics he addresses, but rather through those he conspicuously avoids. 
 
In failing to address these issues, either out of fear of the consequences or genuine ignorance of the facts due to the media blackout on their discussion, Browne provides the definitive proof of his own fundamental thesis, namely the political correctness corrupts public debate and subverts free speech.

Endnotes

[1] After the resulting outcry, Gopal insisted she stood by her tweets, which, she insists, “were very clearly speaking to a structure and ideology, not about people”, something actually not at all clear from how she expressed herself, and arguably inconsistent with it, given that it is only people who have, and lose, “lives”, not institutions or ideology, and indeed only people, not institutions or ideology, who can properly be described as “white”.

At best, her tweet was incendiary and grossly irresponsible in a time of increasing anti-white animosity, violence and rioting. At worst, they could be interpreted as a coded exhortation to genocide. Similarly, as far-right philosopher Greg Johnson points out: 

“When the Soviets spoke of ‘eliminating the kulaks as a class’, that was simply a euphemism for mass murder” (The White Nationalist Manifesto: p21). 

Similarly, the Nazis typically referred to the genocide of European Jewry only by such coded euphemisms as resettlement in the East and the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. In this light, it is notable that those leftists like Noel Ignatiev who talk of “abolishing the white race” but insist they are only talking of deconstructing the concept of ‘whiteness’, which is, they argue, a social construct, strangely never talk about ‘abolishing the black race’, or indeed any other race than whites, even though, according to their own ideology, all racial categories are social constructs invented to justify oppression and hence similarly artificial and malignant.

[2] Thus, according to the sort of evolutionary epistemology championed by, among others, Karl Popper, it is only if different theories are tested and subjected to falsification that we are able to assess their merits and thereby choose between them, and scientific knowledge is able to progress. If some theories are simply deemed beyond the pale a priori, then clearly this process of testing and falsification cannot properly occur.

[3] The book in which Horowitz wrote these words was published in 2003. Yet, today, some seventeen years later, “the era of the progressive witch-hunt”, far from abating, seems to be going into overdrive. By Horowitz’s reckoning, then, “the era of the progressive witch-hunt” is now approaching its fourth decade.

[4] Discrimination against men in the provision of insurance policies remains legal in most jurisdictions (e.g. the USA). However, sex discrimination in the provision of insurance policies was belatedly outlawed throughout the European Union at the end of 2012, due to a ruling of the European Court of Justice. This was many years after other forms of sex discrimination had been outlawed in most member-states. For example, in the UK, most other forms of gender discrimination were outlawed almost forty years previously under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. However, section 45 of this Act explicitly exempted insurance companies from liability for sex discrimination if they could show that the discriminatory practice they employed was based on actuarial data and was “reasonable”. Yet actuarial data could also be employed to justify other forms of discrimination, such as employers deciding not to employ women of childbearing age. However, this remained unlawful. This exemption was preserved by Section 22 of Part 5 of Schedule 3 of the new Equality Act 2010. As a result, as recently as 2010 insurance providers routinely charged young male drivers double the premiums demanded of young female drivers. Yet, curiously, the only circumstances in which insurance policy providers were barred from discriminating on the grounds of sex was where the differences result from the costs associated with pregnancy or to a woman’s having given birth under section 22(3)(d) of Schedule 3 – in other words, the only readily apparent circumstance where insurance providers might be expected to discriminate against women rather than men. Interestingly, even after the ECJ ruling, there is evidence that indirect discrimination against males continues, simply by using occupation as a marker for gender.

[5] Actually, the term ‘fascist’ is sometimes employed in this way by conservatives as well, as when they refer to certain forms of Islamic fundamentalism as Islamofascism or indeed when they refer to the stifling of debate, and of freedom of expression, by leftists as a form of ‘fascism’. 

[6] This use of the phrase ‘anti-Semitism’ in the context of criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians is ironic, at least from a pedantic etymological perspective, since the Palestinian people actually have a rather stronger claim to being a ‘Semitic people’, in both a racial and a linguistic sense, than do either Ashkenazi or Sephardi (if not Mizrahi) Jews.

[7] Actually, international aid may sometimes be partially successful. For example, the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Europe is sometimes credited as a success story, though some economists disagree. The success, or otherwise, of foreign aid seems, then, to depend, at least in part, on the identity of the recipients.

[8] For more on this plausible but incendiary theory, see IQ and the Wealth of Nations by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen and Understanding Human History by Michael Hart.

John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’: In Praise of Pessimism

‘Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals’, by John Gray, Granta Books, 2003.

The religious impulse, John Gray argues in a later work elaborating on the themes first set out in ‘Straw Dogs’, is as universal as the sex drive. Like the latter, when repressed, it re-emerges in the form of perversion.[1]

Thus, the Marxist faith in our passage into communism after the revolution represents a perversion of the Christian belief in our passage into heaven after death or Armageddon – the former, communism (i.e. heaven on earth), being quite as unrealistic as the otherworldly, celestial paradise envisaged by Christians, if not more so. 

Marxism is thus, as Edmund Wilson was the first to observe, the opiate of the intellectuals

What is true of Marxism is also, for Gray, equally true of what he regards as the predominant secular religion of the contemporary West – namely humanism. 

Its secular self-image notwithstanding, humanism is, for Gray, a substitute religion that replaces an irrational faith in an omnipotent god with an even more irrational faith in the omnipotence of Man himself (p38). 

Yet, in doing so, Gray concludes, humanism renounces the one insight that Christianity actually got right – namely the notion that humans are “radically flawed” as captured by the doctrine of original sin.[2]

Progress and Other Delusions

Of course, in its ordinary usage, the term ‘humanism’ is hopelessly broad, pretty much encompassing anyone who is neither, on the one hand, religious nor, on the other, a Nazi. 
 
For his purposes, Gray defines humanism more narrowly, namely as a “belief in progress” (p4). 

More specifically, however, he seems to have in mind a belief in the inevitability of social, economic, moral and political progress. 

Belief in the inevitability of progress is, he contends, a faith universal across the political spectrum – from neoconservatives who think they can transform Islamic tribal theocracies and Soviet Republics into liberal capitalist democracies, to Marxists who think Islamic tribal theocracies and liberal capitalist democracies alike will themselves ultimately give way to communism

Gray, however, rejects the notion of any grand narrative arc in human history.

Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds” (p48). 

Scientific Progress and Social Progress 

Although in an early chapter he digresses on the supposed “irrational origins” of western science,[3] Gray does not question the reality of scientific progress. 
 
Instead, what Gray questions is the assumption that social, moral and political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress. 
 
Progress in science and technology, does not invariably lead to social, moral and political progress. On the contrary, new technologies can readily be enlisted in the service of governmental repression and tyranny. Thus, Gray observes: 

Without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no Holocaust” (p14). 

Thus, by Gray’s reckoning, “Death camps are as modern as laser surgery” (p173).
 
Scientific progress is, he observes, unstoppable and self-perpetuating. Thus, if any nation unilaterally renounces modern technology, it will be economically outcompeted, or even militarily conquered, by other nations who harness modern technologies in the service of their economy and military: 

Any country that renounces technology makes itself prey to those that do not. At best it will fail to achieve the self-sufficiency at which it aims – at worst it will suffer the fate of the Tasmanians” (p178). 

However, the same is not true of political, social and moral progress. On the contrary, a nation excessively preoccupied with moral considerations would surely be defeated in war or indeed in economic competition by an enemy willing to cast aside morality for the sake of success. 
 
Thus, Gray concludes:

Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world” (p14). 

Thus, Gray anticipates: 

Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war” (p123). 

This leads him to predict: 

If one thing about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on humanity by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it” (p14). 

Human Nature

This is because, according to Gray, although technology progresses, human nature itself remains stubbornly intransigent. 

Though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive animal that is also one of the most predatory and destructive” (p4). 

As a result, “The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves” (p28). 
 
Thus, the fatal flaw in the humanist theory that political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress is, ironically, its failure to come to grips with one particular sphere of scientific progress – namely progress in the scientific understanding of human nature itself. 
 
Sociobiological theory suggests humans are innately selfish and nepotistic to an extent incompatible with the utopias envisaged by reformers and revolutionaries
 
Evolutionary psychologists like to emphasize how natural selection has paradoxically led to the evolution of cooperation and altruism. They are also at pains to point out that innate psychological mechanisms are responsive to environmental variables and hence amenable to manipulation. 
 
This has led some thinkers to suggest that, even if utopia is forever beyond our grasp, nevertheless society can be improved by social engineering and well-meaning reform (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left: which I have reviewed herehere and here). 

However, this ignores the fact that the social engineers themselves (e.g. politicians, civil servants) are possessed of the same essentially selfish and nepotistic nature as those whose behaviour they are seeking to guide and manipulate. Therefore, even if they were able to successfully reengineer society, they would do so for their own ends, not those of society or humankind as a whole.

Of course, human nature itself could itself be altered through genetic engineering or eugenics. However, once again, those charged with doing the work (scientists) and those from whom they take their orders (government, big business) will, at the time their work is undertaken, be possessed of the same nature that it is their intention to improve upon. 
 
Therefore, Gray concludes, if human nature itself is remodelled: 

It will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (p6). 

It will hence reflect the interests, not of humankind as a whole, but of rather those responsible for undertaking the project. 

The Future

In contrast to the optimistic vision of such luminaries as Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now and Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist (which I have reviewed here), Gray’s vision of the future is positively dystopian. He foresees a return of resource wars and “wars of scarcity… waged against the world’s modern states by the stateless armies of the militant poor” (p181-2).

This is an inevitable result of a Malthusian trap

So long as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it. There is only one way that humanity can limit its labours, and that is by limiting its numbers. But limiting human numbers clashes with powerful human needs” (p184).[4]

These “powerful human needs” include, not just the sociobiological imperative to reproduce, but also the interests of various ethnic groups in ensuring their survival and increasing their military and electoral strength (Ibid.). 

Zero population growth could be enforced only by a global authority with draconian powers and unwavering determination” (p185). 

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective), he concludes: 

There has never been such a power and never will be” (Ibid.). 

Thus, Gray compares the rise in human populations to the temporary “spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats” (p10). Thus, he concludes: 

Humans… like any other plague animal…cannot destroy the earth, but… can easily wreck the environment that sustains them” (p12). 

Thus, Gray darkly prophesizes, “We may well look back on the twentieth century as a time of peace” (p182). 

As Gray points out in his follow-up book: 

War or revolution… may seem apocalyptic possibilities, but they are only history carrying on as it has always done. What is truly apocalyptic is the belief [of Marx and Fukuyamathat history will come to a stop” (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p67).[5]

Morality

While Gray doubts the inevitability of social, political and moral progress, he perhaps does not question sufficiently its reality. 

For example, citing improvements in sanitation and healthcare, he concludes that, although “faith in progress is a superstition”, progress itself “is a fact” (p155). 
 
Yet every society, by definition, views its own moral and political values as superior to those of other societies. Otherwise, they would not be its own values. They therefore view the recent changes in moral and political values that led to their own moral and political values as a form of moral progress. 
 
However, what constitutes moral, social and political progress is entirely a subjective assessment
 
For example, the ancient Romans, transported to our times, would surely accept the superiority of our science and technology and, if they did not, we would outcompete them both economically and militarily and thereby prove it ourselves. 

However, they would view our social, moral and political values as decadent, immoral and misguided and we would have no way of proving them wrong. 
 
In other words, while scientific and technological progress can be proven objectively, what constitutes moral and political progress is a mere matter of opinion. 
 
Gray occasionally hints in this direction (namely, moral relativism), declaring in one of his many countless quotable aphorisms 

Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats” (p103). 

He even flirts with outright moral nihilism, describing “values” as “only human needs and the needs of other animals turned into abstractions” (p197), and even venturing, “the idea of morality” may be nothing more than “an ugly superstition” (p90). 
 
However, Gray remains somewhat confused on this point. For example, among his arguments against morality is that observation that: 

Morality has hardly made us better people” (p104). 

However, the very meaning of “better people” is itself dependent on a moral judgement. If we reject morality, then there are no grounds for determining if some people are “better” than others and therefore this can hardly be a ground for rejecting morality. 

Free Will

On the issue of free will, Gray is more consistent. Relying on the controversial work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, he contends: 

In nearly all our life willing decides nothing – we cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dream, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so… We just act and there is no actor standing behind what we do” (p69). 

Thus, he observes, “Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams then the enactments of conscious selves” (p38) and “Our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs – by fear, hunger and, above all, sex” (p43). 
 
Rejection of free will is, moreover, yet a further reason to reject morality. 
 
Whether one behaves morally or not, and what one regards as the moral way to behave, is, Gray contends, entirely a matter of the circumstances of one’s upbringing (p107-8).[6] Thus, according to Gray “being good is good luck” and not something for which one deserves credit or blame (p104).

Gray therefore concludes: 

The fact that we are not autonomous subjects deals a death blow to morality – but it is the only possible ground of ethics” (p112). 

Yet, far from truly free, Gray contends: 

We spend our lives coping with what comes along” (p70). 

However, in expecting humankind to take charge of its own destiny: 

We insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious control of its existence” (p38). 

Self-Awareness

For Gray, then, what separates us from the remainder of the animal kingdom is not then free will, or even consciousness, but rather merely self-awareness.
 
Yet this, for Gray, is a mixed blessing at best. 
 
After all, it has long been known that musicians and sportsmen often perform best, not when consciously thinking about, or even aware of, the movements and reactions of their hands and bodies, but rather when acting ‘on instinct’ and momentarily lost in what positive psychologists call flow or being in the zone (p61). 

This is a theme Gray returns to in The Soul of the Marionette, where he argues that, in some sense, the puppet is freer, and more unrestrained in his actions, than the puppet-master.

The Gaia Cult

Given the many merits of his book, it is regrettable that Gray has an unfortunate tendency to pontificate about all manner of subjects, many of them far outside his own field of expertise. As a result, almost inevitably, he sometimes gets it completely wrong on certain specific subjects. 
 
A case in point is environmentalist James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which Gray champions throughout his book. 

According to ‘Gaia Theory’, the planet is analogous to a harmonious self-regulating organism – in danger of being disrupted only by environmental damage wrought by man. 

Given his cynical outlook, not to mention his penchant for sociobiology, Gray’s enthusiasm for Gaia is curious.

As Richard Dawkins explains in Unweaving the Rainbow, the adaptation of organisms to their environment, which consists largely of other organisms, may give the superficial appearance of eco-systems as harmonious wholes, as some organisms exploit and hence come to rely on the presence of other organisms in order to survive (Unweaving the Rainbow: p221). 
 
However, a Darwinian perspective suggests that, far from existing in benign harmony, organisms are in a state of continuous competition and conflict. Indeed, it is paradoxically precisely their exploitation of one another that gives the superficial appearance of harmony. 
 
In other words, as Dawkins concludes: 

Individuals work for Gaia only when it suits them to do so – so why bother to bring Gaia into the discussion” (Unweaving the Rainbow: p225). 

Yet, for many of its adherents, Gaia is not so much a testable, falsifiable scientific theory as it is a kind of substitute religion. Thus, Dawkins describes ‘Gaia theory’ as “a cult, almost a religion” (Ibid: p223).

It is therefore better viewed, within Gray’s own theoretical framework, as yet another secular perversion of humanity’s innate religious impulse. 
 
Perhaps, then, Gray’s own curious enthusiasm for this particular pseudo-scientific cult suggests that Gray is himself no more immune from the religious impulse than those whom he attacks. If so, this, paradoxically, only strengthens his case that the religious impulse is indeed universal and innate.

The Purpose of Philosophy

Gray is himself a philosopher by background. However, he is contemptuous of most of the philosophical tradition that has preceded him. 

Thus, he contends:  

As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs” (p37). 

In former centuries such conventional beliefs were largely religious dogma. Yet, from the nineteenth century on, they increasing became political creeds emphasizing human progress, such as Whig historiography, and the theories of Marx and Hegel.

Thus, Gray writes:  

In the Middle Ages, philosophy gave intellectual scaffolding to the Church; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress” (p82). 

Today, however, despite the continuing faith in progress that Gray so ably dissects, philosophy has ceased to fulfil even this function and hence abandoned even these dubious raisons d’être.

The result, according to Gray, is that:

Serving neither religion nor a political faith, philosophy is a subject without a subject-matter; scholasticism without the charm of dogma” (p82). 

Yet Gray reserves particular scorn for moral philosophy, which is, according to him, “an exercise in make-believe” (p89) and “very largely a branch of fiction” (p109), albeit one “less realistic in its picture of human life than the average bourgeois novel” (p89), which, he ventures, likely explains why “a philosopher has yet to write a great novel” (p109). 

In other words, compared with outright fiction, moral philosophy is simply less realistic. 

Anthropocentrism

Although, at the time ‘Straw Dogs’ was first published, Gray held the title ‘Professor of European Thought’ at the London School of Economics, he is particularly scathing in his comments regarding Western philosophy. 

Thus, like Schopenhauer, his pessimist precursor, (who is, along with Hume, one of the few Western philosophers whom he mentions without also disparaging), Gray purports to prefer Eastern philosophical traditions. 

These and other non-Western religious and philosophical traditions are, he claims, unpolluted by the influence of Christianity and hence view humans as merely another animal, no different from the rest. 

I do not have sufficient familiarity with Eastern philosophical traditions to assess this claim. However, I suspect that anthropocentrism and the concomitant belief that humans are somehow special, unique and different from all other organisms is a universal and indeed innate human delusion. 

Indeed, paradoxically, it may not even be limited to humans. 
 
Thus, I suspect that, to the extent they were, or are, capable of conceptualizing such a thought, earthworms and rabbits would also conceive of themselves as special and unique over and above all other species in just the same way we do.

Death or Nirvanva?

Ultimately, however, Gray rejects eastern philosophical and religious traditions too – including Buddhism
 
There is no need, he contends, to spend lifetimes striving to achieve nirvāna and the cessation of suffering as the Buddha proposed. On the contrary, he observes, there is no need for any such effort, since: 

Death brings to everyone the peace Buddha promised only after lifetimes of striving” (p129). 

All one needs to do, therefore, is to let nature take its course, or, if one is especially impatient, perhaps hurry things along by suicide or an unhealthy lifestyle.

Aphoristic Style

I generally dislike books written in the sort of pretentious aphoristic style that Gray adopts. In my experience, they generally replace the argumentation necessary to support their conclusions with bad poetry.

Indeed, sometimes the poetic style is so obscurantist that it is difficult even to discern what these conclusions are in the first place. 
 
However, in ‘Straw Dogs’, the aphoristic style seems for once appropriate. This is because Gray’s arguments, though controversial, are straightforward and not requiring of additional explication. 
 
Indeed, one suspects the inability of earlier thinkers to reach the same conclusions reflects a failure of ‘The Will’ rather than ‘The Intellect’ – an unwillingness to face up to and come to terms with the reality of the human condition. 

A Saviour to Save us from Saviours’?

Unlike other works dealing with political themes, Gray does not conclude with a chapter proposing solutions to the problems identified in previous chapters. Instead, his conclusion is as bleak as the pages that precede it.

At its worst, human life is not tragic, but unmeaning… the soul is broken but life lingers on… what remains is only suffering” (p101).

Personally, however, I found it refreshing that, unlike other self-important, self-appointed saviours of humanity, Gray does not attempt to portray himself as some kind of saviour of mankind. On the contrary, his ambitions are altogether more modest.

Moreover, he does not hold our saviours in particularly high esteem but rather seems to regard them as very much part of the problem. 
 
He does therefore consider briefly what he refers to as the Buddhist notion that we actually require “A Saviour to Save Us From Saviours”. 

Eventually, however, Gray renounces even this role. 

Humanity takes its saviours too lightly to need saving from them… When it looks to deliverers it is for distraction, not salvation” (p121). 

Gray thus reduces our self-important, self-appointed saviours – be they philosophers, religious leaders, self-help gurus or political leaders – to no more than glorified competitors in the entertainment industry.

Distraction as Salvation?

Indeed, for Gray, it is not only saviours who function as a form of distraction for the masses. On the contrary, for Gray, ‘distraction’ is now central to life in the affluent West. 
 
Thus, in the West today, standards of living have improved to such an extent that obesity is now a far greater health problem than starvation, even among the so-called ‘poor’ (indeed, one suspects, especially among the so-called ‘poor’!). 
 
Yet clinical depression is now rapidly expanding into the greatest health problem of all. 
 
Thus, Gray concludes: 

Economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production… [but rather] to distraction” (p162). 

In other words, where once, to acquiesce in their own subjugation, the common people required only bread and circuses, today they seem to demand cake, ice cream, alcohol, soap operas, Playstations, Premiership football and reality TV!

Indeed, Gray views most modern human activity as little more than distraction and escapism. 

It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance” (194). 

Indeed, for Gray, even meditation is reduced to a form of escapism: 

The meditative states that have long been cultivated in Eastern traditions are often described as techniques for heightening consciousnessIn fact they are ways of by-passing self-awareness” (p62). 
 

Yet Gray does not disparage escapism as a superficial diversion from serious and worthy matters. 
 
On the contrary, he views distraction, or even escapism, as the key to, if not happiness, then at least to the closest we can ever approach to this elusive but chimeric state.

Moreover, the great mass of mankind instinctively recognizes as much:

Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure” (p142). 

Thus, in a passage which is perhaps the closest Gray comes to self-help advice, he concludes: 

Fulfilment is found, not in daily life, but in escaping from it” (p141-2). 

Perhaps then, escapism is not such a bad thing, and there is something is to be said for sitting around watching TV all day after all. 
____________ 

 
By his own thesis then, it is perhaps as a form of ‘Distraction’ that Gray’s own book ought ultimately to be judged. 
 
By this standard, I can only say that, with its unrelenting cynicism and pessimism, ‘Straw Dogs’ distracted me immensely – and, according to the precepts of Gray’s own philosophy, there can surely be no higher praise!

Endnotes

[1] John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p7; p41. 

[2] John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p8; p44. 

[3] John Gray, ‘Straw Dogs’: p20-23.

[4] Of course, the assumption that human population will continue to grow contradicts the demographic transition model, whereby it is assumed that a decline in fertility inevitably accompanies economic development. However, while it is true that declining fertility has accompanied increasing prosperity in many parts of the world, it is not at all clear why this has occurred. Indeed, from a sociobiological perspective, increases in wealth should lead to an increased reproductive rate, as organisms channel their greater material resources into increased reproductive success, the ultimate currency of natural selection. It is therefore questionable how much faith we should place in the universality of a process the causes of which are so little understood. Moreover, the assumption that improved living-standards in the so-called ‘developing world’ will inevitably lead to reductions in fertility obviously presupposes that the so-called ‘developing world’ will indeed ‘develop’ and that living standards will indeed improve, a obviously questionable assumption. Ultimately, the very term ‘developing world’ may turn out to represent a classic case of wishful thinking. 

[5] Thus, of the bizarre pseudoscience of cryonics, whereby individuals pay private companies for the service of freezing their brains or whole bodies after death, in the hope that, with future advances in technology, they can later be resurrected, he notes that the ostensible immortality promised by such a procedure is itself dependent on the very immortality of the private companies offering the service, and of the very economic and legal system (including contractual obligations) within which such companies operate.

If the companies that store the waiting cadavers do not go under in stock market crashes, they will be swept away by war or revolutions” (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p67).

[6] Actually, heredity surely also plays a role, as traits such as empathy and agreeableness are partly heritable, as is sociopathy and criminality.

Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’: Selfish Genes, Selfish Memes and Altruistic Phenotypes

[In the process of resurrecting this long inactive blog, I have decided to start posting, among other things, full extended versions (i.e. vastly overlong versions) of my Amazon and Goodreads book reviews, since these, being vastly overlong, usually have to edited in order to comply with the amazon and Goodreads word-limits. I start, however, with a relatively shorter review (by my standards) of a favourite book, namely Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’.]
_____________________________
‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Selfish Genes ≠ Selfish Phenotypes

Richard Dawkins’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ is among the most celebrated, but also the most misunderstood, works of popular science.

Thus, among people who have never read the book (and, strangely, a few who apparently have) Dawkins is widely credited with arguing that humans are inherently selfish, that this disposition is innate and inevitable, and even, in some versions, that behaving selfishly is somehow justified by our biological programming, the titular ‘Selfish Gene’ being widely misinterpreted as referring to a gene that causes us to behave selfishly.

Actually, Dawkins is not concerned, either directly or primarily, with humans at all.

Indeed, he professes to be “not really very directly interesting in man”, whom he dismisses as “a rather aberrant species” and hence peripheral to his own interest, namely how evolution has shaped the bodies and especially the behaviour of organisms in general (Dawkins 1981: p556).

‘The Selfish Gene’ is then, unusually, if not uniquely, for a bestselling work of popular science, a work, not of human biology nor even of non-human zoology, ethology or natural history, but rather of theoretical biology.

Moreover, in referring to genes as ‘selfish’, Dawkins has in mind not a trait that genes encode in the organisms they create, but rather a trait of the genes themselves.

In other words, individual genes are themselves conceived of as ‘selfish’ (in a metaphoric sense), in so far as they have evolved by natural selection to selfishly promote their own survival and replication by creating organisms designed to achieve this end.

Indeed, ironically, as Dawkins is at pains to emphasise, selfishness at the genetic level can actually result in altruism at the level of the organism or phenotype.

This is because, where altruism is directed towards biological kin, such altruism can facilitate the replication of genes shared among relatives by virtue of their common descent. This is referred to as kin selection or inclusive fitness theory and is one of the central themes of Dawkins’ book.

Yet, despite this, Dawkins still seems to see organisms themselves, humans very much included, as fundamentally selfish – albeit a selfishness tempered by a large dose of nepotism.

Thus, in his opening paragraphs no less, he cautions:

If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from our biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish” (p3).

The Various Editions

In later editions of his book, namely those published since 1989, Dawkins tempers this rather cynical view of human and animal behaviour by the addition of a new chapter – Chapter 12, titled ‘Nice Guys Finish First’.

This new chapter deals with the subject of reciprocal altruism, a topic he had actually already discussed earlier, together with the related, but distinct, phenomenon of mutualism,[1] in Chapter 10 (entitled, ‘You Scratch My Back, I’ll Ride on Yours’).

In this additional chapter, he essentially summarizes the work of political scientist Robert Axelrod, as discussed in Axelrod’s own book The Evolution of Co-Operation. This deals with evolutionary game theory, specifically the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, and the circumstances in which a cooperative  strategy can, by cooperating only with those who have a history of reciprocating, survive, prosper, evolve, and, in the long-term, ultimately outcompete  and hence displace those strategies which maximize only short-term self-interest.

Post-1989 editions also include another new chapter titled ‘The Long Reach of the Gene’ (Chapter 13).

If, in Chapter 12, the first additional chapter, Dawkins essentially summarised the contents of of Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation, then, in Chapter 13, he summarizes his own book, The Extended Phenotype.

In addition to these two additional whole chapters, Dawkins also added extensive endnotes to these post-1989 editions.

These endnotes clarify various misunderstandings which arose from how he explained himself in the original version, defend Dawkins against some criticisms levelled at certain passages of the book and also explain how the science progressed in the years since the first publication of the book, including identifying things he and other biologists got wrong.

With still more recent new editions, the content of ‘The Selfish Gene’ has burgeoned still further. Thus, he 30th Anniversary Edition boasts only a new introduction; the recent 40th Anniversary Edition, published in 2016, boasts a new Epilogue too. Meanwhile, the latest so-called Extended Selfish Gene boasts, in addition to this, two whole new chapters.

Actually, these two new chapters are not that new, being lifted wholesale from, once again, The Extended Phenotype, a work whose contents Dawkins has already, as we have seen, summarized in Chapter 13 (‘The Long Reach of the Gene’), itself an earlier addition to the book’s seemingly ever expanding contents list.

The decision not to entirely rewrite ‘The Selfish Gene’ was apparently that of Dawkins’ publisher, Oxford University Press.

This was probably the right decision. After all, ‘The Selfish Gene’ is not a mere undergraduate textbook, in need of revision every few years in order to keep up-to-date with the latest published research.

Rather, it was a landmark work of popular science, and indeed of theoretical biology, that introduced a new approach to understanding the evolution of behaviour and physiology to a wider readership, composed of biologist and non-biologist alike, and deserves to stand in its original form as a landmark in the history of science.

However, while the new introductions and the new epilogue is standard fare when republishing a classic work several years after first publication, the addition of four (or two, depending on the edition) whole new chapters strikes me less readily defensible.

For one thing, they distort the structure of the book, and, though interesting in and of themselves, always read for me rather as if they have been tagged on at the end as an afterthought – as indeed they have.

The book certainly reads best, in a purely literary sense, in its original form (i.e. pre-1989 editions), where Dawkins concludes with an optimistic, if fallacious, literary flourish (see below).

Moreover, these additional chapters reek of a shameless marketing strategy, designed to deceive new readers into paying the full asking price for a new edition, rather than buying a cheaper second-hand copy or just keeping their old one.

This is especially blatant in respect of the book’s latest incarnation, The Extended Selfish Gene, which, according to the information of Oxford University Press’s website, was released only three months after the previous 40th Anniversary Edition yet includes two additional chapters.

One frankly expects better from so celebrated a publisher such as Oxford University Press, and indeed so celebrated a biologist and science writer as Richard Dawkins, especially as I suspect neither are especially short of money.

If I were recommending someone who has never read the book before on which edition to buy, I would probably advise them to get a second-hand copy of any post-1989 editions, since these can now be picked up very cheap, and include the additional endnotes which I found personally very interesting.

On the other hand, if you want to read three additional chapters either from or about The Extended Phenotype then you are probably best to buy, instead, well… The Extended Phenotype – as this is also now a rather old book of which, as with ‘The Selfish Gene’, old copies can now be picked up very cheap.

The ‘Gene’s-Eye-View’ of Evolution

The Selfish Gene is a seminal work in the history of biology primarily because Dawkins takes the so-called ‘gene’s-eye-view’ of evolution to its logical conclusion. To this extent, contrary to popular opinion, Dawkins’ exposition is not merely a popularization, but actually breaks new ground theoretically.

Thus, John Maynard Smith famously talked of ‘kin selection’ by analogy with ‘group selection’ (Smith 1964). Meanwhile, William Hamilton, who formulated the theory underlying these concepts, always disliked the term ‘kin selection’ and talked instead of the ‘direct’, ‘indirect’ and ‘inclusive fitness’ of organisms (Hamilton 1964a; 1964b).

However, Dawkins takes this line of thinking to its logical conclusion by looking – not at the fitness or reproductive success of organisms or phenotypes – but rather at the success in self-replication of genes themselves.

Thus, although he certainly stridently rejects group-selection, Dawkins replaces this, not with the familiar individual-level selection of classical Darwinism, but rather with a new focus on selection at the level of the gene itself.

Abstract Animals?

Much of the interest, and no little of the controversy, arising from ‘The Selfish Gene’ concerned, of course, its potential application to human behaviour. However, in the book itself, humans, whom, as mentioned above, Dawkins dismisses as a “rather aberrant species” in which he professes to be “not really very directly interested” (Dawkins 1981: p556) are actually mentioned only occasionally and briefly.

Indeed, most of the discussion is purely theoretical. Even the behaviour of non-human animals is described only for illustrative purposes, and even these illustrative examples often involve simplified hypothetical creatures rather than descriptions of the behaviour of real organisms.

For example, he illustrates his discussion of the relative pros and cons of either fighting or submitting in conflicts over access to resources by reference to ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ – but is quick to acknowledge that these are hypothetical and metaphoric creatures, with no connection to the actual bird species after whom they are named:

The names refer to conventional human usage and have no connection with the habits of the birds from whom the names are derived: doves are in fact rather aggressive birds” (p70).

Indeed, even Dawkins’ titular “selfish genes” are rather abstract and theoretical entities. Certainly, the actual chemical composition and structure of DNA is of only peripheral interest to him.

Indeed, often he talks of “replicators” rather than “genes” and is at pains to point out that selection can occur in respect of any entity capable of replication and mutation, not just DNA or RNA. (Hence his introduction of the concept of memes: see below).

Moreover, Dawkins uses the word ‘gene’ in a somewhat different sense to the way the word is employed by most other biologists. Thus, following George C. Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection, he defines a “gene” as:

Any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection” (p28).

This, of course, makes his claim that genes are the principle unit of selection something approaching a tautology or circular argument.

Sexual Selection in Humans?

Where Dawkins does mention humans, it is often to point out the extent to which this “rather aberrant species” apparently conspicuously fails to conform to the predictions of selfish-gene theory.

For example, at the end of his chapter on sexual selection (Chapter 9: “Battle of the Sexes”) he observes that, in contrast to most other species, among humans, at least in the West, it seems to be females who are most active in using physical appearance as a means of attracting mates:

One feature of our own society that seems decidedly anomalous is the matter of sexual advertisement… It is strongly to be expected on evolutionary grounds that where the sexes differ, it should be the males that advertise and the females that are drab… [Yet] there can be no doubt that in our society the equivalent of the peacock’s tail is exhibited by the female, not the male” (p164).

Thus, among most other species, it is males who have evolved more elaborate plumages and other flashy, sexually selected ornaments. In contrast, females of the same species are often comparatively drab in appearance.

Yet, in modern western societies, Dawkins observes, it is more typically women who “paint their faces and glue on false eyelashes” (p164).

Here, it is notable that Dawkins, being neither an historian nor an anthropologist, is careful to restricts his comments to “our own society” and, elsewhere, to “modern western man”.

Thus, one explanation is that it is only our own ‘WEIRD’, western societies that are anomalous?

Thus, Matt Ridley, in The Red Queen, proposes that maybe:

Modern western societies have been in a two-century aberration from which they are just emerging. In Regency England, Louis XIV’s France, medieval Christendom, ancient Greece, or among the Yanomamö, men followed fashion as avidly as women. Men wore bright colours, flowing robes, jewels, rich materials, gorgeous uniforms, and gleaming, decorated armour. The damsels that knights rescued were no more fashionably accoutred than their paramours. Only in Victorian times did the deadly uniformity of the black frock coat and its dismal modern descendant, the grey suit, infect the male sex, and only in this century have women’s hemlines gone up and down like yo-yos” (The Red Queen: p292).

There is an element of truth here. However, I suspect it partly reflects a misunderstanding of the different purposes for which men and women use clothing, including bright and elaborate clothing.

Thus, it rather reminds me of Margaret Mead’s claim that, among the Tschambuli of Papua New Guinea, sex-roles were reversed because, here, it was men who painted their faces and wore ‘make-up’, not women.

Yet what Mead neglected to mention that the ‘make-up’ in question that Mead found so effeminate was actually war-paint that a Tschambuli warrior was only permitted to wear after killing his first enemy warrior (see Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior: p152).

Of course, clothes and makeup are an aspect of behaviour rather than morphology, and thus more directly analogous to, say, the nests (or, more precisely, the bowers) created by male bowerbirds than the tail of the peacock.

However, behaviour is, in principle, no less subject to natural selection (and sexual selection) than is morphology, and therefore the paradox remains.

Moreover, even focusing exclusively on morphology, the sex difference still seems to remain.

Thus, perhaps the closest thing to a ‘peacock’s tail’ in humans (i.e. a morphological trait designed to attract mates) is a female trait, namely breasts.

Thus, as Desmond Morris first observed, in humans, the female breasts seem to have been co-opted for a role in sexual selection, since, unlike among other mammals, women’s breasts are permanent, from puberty on, not present only during lactation, and composed primarily of fatty tissues, not milk (Møller 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016).

In contrast, men possess no obvious equivalent of the ‘peacock’s tail’ (i.e. a trait that has evolved in response to female choice) – though Geoffrey Miller makes a fascinating (but ultimately unconvincing) case that the human brain may represent a product of sexual selection (see The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature).[2]

Interestingly, in an endnote to post-1989 editions of ‘The Selfish Gene’, Dawkins himself tentatively speculates that maybe the human penis might represent a sexually-selected ‘fitness indicator’.

Thus, he points out that the human penis is large as compared to that of other primates, yet also lacks a baculum (i.e. penis bone) that facilitates erections. This, he speculates, could mean that the capacity to maintain an erection might represent an honest signal of health in accordance with Zahavis handicap principle (307-8).

However, it is more likely that the large size, or more specifically the large width, of the human penis reflects instead a response to the increased size of the vagina, which itself increased in size to enable human females to give birth to large-brained, and hence large-headed, infants (see Bowman 2008; Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: pp61-70).[3]

How then can we make sense of this apparent paradox, whereby, contrary to Bateman’s principle, sexual selection appears to have operated more strongly on women than on men?

For his part, Dawkins himself offers no explanation, merely lamenting:

What has happened in modern western man? Has the male really become the sought-after sex, the one that is in demand, the sex that can afford to be choosy? If so, why?” (p165).

However, in respect of what David Buss calls short-term mating strategies (i.e. casual sex, hook-ups and one night stands), this is certainly not the case.

On the contrary, patterns of everything from prostitution and rape to erotica and pornography consumption confirm that, in respect of short-term ‘commitment’-free casual sex, it remains women who are very much in demand and men who are the ardent pursuers (see The Evolution of Human Sexuality: which I have reviewed here).

Thus, in one study conducted on a University campus, 72% of male students agreed to go to bed with a female stranger who approached them with a request to this effect. In contrast, not a single one of the 96 females approached agreed to the same request from a male questioner (Clark and Hatfield 1989).

(What percentage of the students sued the university for sexual harassment was not revealed.)

However, humans also form long-term pair-bonds to raise children, and, in contrast to males of most other mammalian species, male parents often invest heavily in the offspring of such unions.

Men are therefore expected to be relatively choosier in respect of long-term romantic partners (e.g. wives) than they are for casual sex partners. This may then explain the relatively high levels of reproductive competition engaged in by human females, including high levels of what Dawkins calls ‘sexual advertising’.

Reproductive competition between women may be especially intense in western societies practising what Richard Alexander termed ‘socially-imposed monogamy’.

This refers to societies where there are large differences between males in social status and resource holdings, but where even wealthy males are prohibited by law from marrying multiple women at once.[4]

Here, there may be intense competition as between females for exclusive rights to resource-abundant ‘alpha male’ providers (Gaulin and Boser 1990).

Thus, to some extent, the levels of sexual competition engaged in by women in western societies may indeed be higher than in non-western, polygynous societies.

This, then, might explain why females use what Dawkins terms ‘sexual advertising’ to attract long-term mates (i.e. husbands). However, it still fails to explain why males don’t – or, at least, don’t seem to do so to anything like the same degree.

The answer may be that, in contrast to mating patterns in modern western societies, ‘female choice’ may actually have played a surprisingly limited role in human evolutionary history, given that, in most pre-modern societies, arranged marriages were, and are, the norm.

Male mating competition may then have taken the form of ‘male-male contest competition’ (i.e. fighting) rather than displaying to females – i.e. what Darwin called intra-sexual selection’ rather than ‘inter-sexual selection’.

Thus, while men indeed possess no obvious analogue to the peacock’s tail, they do seem to possess traits designed for fighting – namely considerably greater levels of upper-body musculature and violent aggression as compared to women (see Puts 2010).

In other words, human males may not have any obvious ‘peacock’s tail’, but we perhaps we do have, if you like, ‘stag’s antlers’.

From Genes to Memes

Dawkins’ eleventh chapter, which was, in the original version of the book (i.e. pre-1989 editions), the final chapter, is also the only chapter to focus exclusively on humans.

Entitled ‘Memes: The New Replicators’, it focuses again on the extent to which humans are indeed an “aberrant species”, being subject to cultural as well as biological evolution to a unique degree.

Interestingly, however, Dawkins argues that the principles of natural selection discussed in the preceding chapters of the book can be applied just as usefully to cultural evolution as to biological evolution.

In doing so, he coins the concept of the ‘meme’ as the cultural unit of selection, equivalent to a gene, passing between minds analogously to a virus.

This term has been enormously influential in intellectual discourse, and indeed in popular discourse, and even passed into popular usage.

The analogy of memes to genes makes for an interesting thought-experiment. However, like any analogy, it can be taken too far.

Certainly ideas can be viewed as spreading between people, and as having various levels of fitness depending on the extent to which they catch on.

Thus, to take one famous example, Dawkins famously described religions to ‘Viruses of the Mind’, which travel between, and infect, human minds in a manner analogous to a virus.

Thus, proponents of Darwinian medicine contend that pathogens such as flu and the common cold produce symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and diarrhea precisely because these behaviours promote the spread and replication of the pathogen to new hosts through the bodily fluids thereby expelled.

Likewise, rabies causes dogs and other animals to become aggressive and bite, which likewise facilitates the spread of the rabies virus to new hosts.[5]

By analogy, successful religions are typically those that promote behaviours that facilitate their own spread.

Thus, a religion that commands its followers to convert non-believers, persecute apostates, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and indoctrinate your offspring with their beliefs is, for obvious reasons, likely to spread faster and have greater longevity than a religious doctrine that commands adherents become celibate hermits and that proselytism is a mortal sin.

Thus, Christians are admonished by scripture to save souls and preach the gospel among heathens; while Muslims are, in addition, admonished to wage holy war against infidels and persecute apostates.

These behaviour facilitate the spread of Christianity and Islam just as surely as coughing and sneezing promote the spread of the flu.[6]

Like genes, memes can also be said to mutate, though this occurs not only through random (and not so random) copying errors, but also by deliberate innovation by the human minds they ‘infect’. Memetic mutation, then, is not entirely random.

However, whether this way of looking at cultural evolution is a useful and theoretically or empirically productive way of conceptualizing cultural change remains to be seen.

Certainly, I doubt whether ‘memetics’ will ever be a rigorous science comparable to genetics, as some of the concept’s more enthusiastic champions have sometimes envisaged. Neither, I suspect, did Dawkins ever originally intend or envisage it as such, having seemingly coined the idea as something of an afterthought.

At any rate, one of the main factors governing the ‘infectiousness’ or ‘fitness’ of a given meme, is the extent to which the human mind is receptive to it and the human mind is itself a product of biological evolution.

The basis for understanding human behaviour, even cultural behaviour, is therefore how natural selection has shaped the human mind – in other words evolutionary psychology not memetics.

Thus, humans will surely have evolved resistance to memes that are contrary to their own genetic interests (e.g. celibacy) as a way of avoiding exploitation and manipulation by third-parties.

For more recent discussion of the status of the meme concept (the ‘meme meme’, if you like) see The Meme Machine; Virus of the Mind; The Selfish Meme; and Darwinizing Culture.

Escaping the Tyranny of Selfish Replicators?

Finally, at least in the original, non-‘extended’ editions of the book, Dawkins concludes ‘The Selfish Gene’, with an optimistic literary flourish, emphasizing once again the alleged uniqueness of the “rather aberrant” human species.[7]

Thus, his final paragraph ends:

We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (p201).

This makes for a dramatic, and optimistic, conclusion. It is also flattering to anthropocentric notions of human uniqueness, and of free will.

Unfortunately, however, it ignores the fact that the “we” who are supposed to be doing the rebelling are ourselves a product of the same process of natural selection and, indeed, of the same selfish replicators against whom Dawkins calls on us to rebel. Indeed, even the (alleged) desire to revolt is a product of the same process.[8]

Likewise, in the book’s opening paragraphs, Dawkins proposes:

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.” (p3)

However, this ignores, not only that the “us” who are to do the teaching and who ostensibly wish to instil altruism in others are ourselves the product of this same evolutionary process and these same selfish replicators, but also that the subjects whom we are supposed to indoctrinate with altruism are themselves surely programmed by natural selection to be resistant to any indoctrination or manipulation by third-parties to behave in ways that conflict with their own genetic interests.

In short, the problem with Dawkins’ cop-out Hollywood Ending is that, as anthropologist Vincent Sarich is quoted as observing, Dawkins has himself “spent 214 pages telling us why that cannot be true”. (See also Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals: which I have reviewed here and here).[9]

The preceding 214 pages, however, remain an exciting, eye-opening and stimulating intellectual journey, even over thirty years after their original publication.

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Endnotes

[1] Mutualism is distinguished from reciprocal altruism by the fact that, in the former, both parties receive an immediate benefit from their cooperation, whereas, in the latter, for one party, the reciprocation is delayed. It is reciprocal altruism that therefore presents the greater problem for evolution, and for evolutionists, because, here, there is the problem policing the agreement – i.e. how is evolution to ensure that the immediate beneficiary does indeed reciprocate, rather than simply receiving the benefit without later returning the favour (a version of the free rider problem). The solution, according to Axelrod, is that, where parties interact repeatedly over time, they come to engage in reciprocal altruism only with other parties with a proven track record of reciprocity, or at least without a proven track record of failing to reciprocate. 

[2] Certainly, many male traits are attractive to women (e.g. height, muscularity). However, these also have obvious functional utility, not least in increasing fighting ability, and hence probably have more to do with male-male competition than female choice. In contrast, many sexually-selected traits are positive hindicaps to their bearers, in all spheres except attracting mates. Indeed, one influential theory of sexual selection claims that it is precisely because they represent a handicap that they serve as an honest indicator of fitness and hence a reliable index of genetic quality.

[3] Thus, Edwin Bowman writes:

As the diameter of the bony pelvis increased over time to permit passage of an infant with a larger cranium, the size of the vaginal canal also became larger” (Bowman 2008).

Similarly, in their controversial book Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation and Infidelity, Robin Baker and Mark Bellis persuasively contend:

The dimensions and elasticity of the vagina in mammals are dictated to a large extent by the dimensions of the baby at birth. The large head of the neonatal human baby (384g brain weight compared with only 227g for the gorilla…) has led to the human vagina when fully distended being large, both absolutely and relative to the female body… particularly once the vagina and vestibule have been stretched during the process of giving birth, the vagina never really returning to its nulliparous dimensions” (Human Sperm Competition: p171).

In turn, larger vaginas probably select for larger penises in order to fill the vagina (Bowman 2008).

According to Baker and Bellis, this is because the human penis functions as a suction piston, functioning to remove the sperm deposited by rival males, as a form of sperm competition, a theory that actually has some experimental support (Gallup et al 2003; Gallup and Burch 2004; Goetz et al 2005; see also Why is the Penis Shaped Like That).

Thus, according to this view:

In order to distend the vagina sufficiently to act as a suction piston, the penis needs to be a suitable size [and] the relatively large size… and distendibility of the human vagina (especially after giving birth) thus imposes selection, via sperm competition, for a relatively large penis” (Human Sperm Competition: p171).

However, even in the absence of sperm competition, Alan Dixson observes:

In primates and other mammals the length of the erect penis and vaginal length tend to evolve in tandem. Whether or not sperm competition occurs, it is necessary for males to place ejaculates efficiently, so that sperm have the best opportunity to migrate through the cervix and gain access to the higher reaches of the female tract” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p68).

[4] In natural conditions, it is assumed that, in egalitarian societies, where males have roughly equal resource holdings, they will each attract an equal number of wives (i.e. given an equal sex ratio, one wife for each man). However, in highly socially-stratified societies, where there are large differences in resource holdings between men, it is expected that wealthier males will be able to support, and provide for, multiple wives, and will use their greater resource-holdings for this end, so as to maximize their reproductive success (see here). This is a version of the polygyny threshold model (see Kanazawa and Still 1999).

[5] There are also pathogens that affect the behaviour of their hosts in more dramatic ways. For example, one parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, when it infects a mouse, reduces the mouse’s aversion to cat urine, which is theorized to increase the risk of its being eaten by a cat, facilitating the reproductive life-cycle of the pathogen at the expense of that of its host. Similarly, the fungus, ophiocordyceps unilateralis turns ants into so-called zombie ants, who willingly leave the safety of their nests, and climb and lock themselves onto a leaf, again in order to facilitate the life cycle of their parasite at the expense of their own. Another parasite, dicrocoelium dendriticum (aka the lancet liver fluke) also affect the behaviour of ants whom it infects, causing them to climb to the tip of a blade of grass during daylight hours, increasing the chance they will be eaten by cattle or other grazing animals, facilitating the next stage of the parasite’s life-history

[6] In contrast, biologist Richard Alexander in Darwinism and Human Affairs cites the Shakers as an example of the opposite type of religion, namely one that, because of its teachings (namely, strict celibacy) largely died out.

In fact, however, Shakers did not quite entirely disappear. Rather, a small rump community of Shakers the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village survives to this day, albeit greatly reduced in number and influence. This is presumably because, although the Shakers did not, at least in theory, have children, they did proselytise.

In contrast, any religion which renounced both reproduction and proselytism would presumably never spread beyond its initial founder or founders, and hence never come to the attention of historians, theorists of religion, or anyone else in the first place.

[7]  As noted above, this is among the reasons that ‘The Selfish Gene’ works best, in a purely literary sense, in its original incarnation. Later editions have at least two further chapters tagged on at the end, after this dramatic and optimistic literary flourish.

[8] Dawkins is then here here guilty of a crude dualism. Marxist neuroscientist Steven Rose, in an essay in Alas Poor Darwin (which I have reviewed here and here) has also accused Dawkins of dualism for this same passage, writing:

Such a claim to a Cartesian separation of these authors’ [Dawkins and Steven Pinker] minds from their biological constitution and inheritance seems surprising and incompatible with their claimed materialism” (Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology: p262).

Here, Rose may be right, but he is also a self-contradictory hypocrite, since his own views represent an even cruder form of dualism. Thus, in an earlier book, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature, co-authored with fellow-Marxists Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin, Rose and his colleagues wrote, in a critique of sociobiological conceptions of a universal human nature:

Of course there are human universals that are in no sense trivial: humans are bipedal; they have hands that seem to be unique among animals in their capacity for sensitive manipulation and construction of objects; they are capable of speech. The fact that human adults are almost all greater than one meter and less than two meters in height has a profound effect on how they perceive and interact with their environment” (passage extracted in The Study of Human Nature: p314).

Here, it is notable that all the examples “human universal that are in no sense trivial” given by Rose, Lewontin and Kamin are physiological not psychological or behavioural. The implication is clear: yes, our bodies have evolved through a process of natural selection, but our brains and behaviour have somehow been exempt from this process. This of course, is an even cruder form of dualism than that of Dawkins.

As John Tooby and Leda Cosmides observe:

This division of labor is, therefore, popular: Natural scientists deal with the nonhuman world and the “physical” side of human life, while social scientists are the custodians of human minds, human behavior, and, indeed, the entire human mental, moral, political, social, and cultural world. Thus, both social scientists and natural scientists have been enlisted in what has become a common enterprise: the resurrection of a barely disguised and archaic physical/mental, matter/spirit, nature/human dualism, in place of an integrated scientific monism” (The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture: p49).

A more consistent and thoroughgoing critique of Dawkins dualism is to be found in John Gray’s excellent Straw Dogs (which I have reviewed here and here).

[9] This quotation comes from p176 of Marek Kohn’s The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science (London: Vintage, 1996). Unfortunately, Kohn does not give a source for this quotation.

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References

Bowman EA (2008) Why the human penis is larger than in the great apes Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(3): 361.

Clark & Hatfield (1989) Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2:39-53.

Dawkins (1981) In defence of selfish genes, Philosophy 56(218):556-573.

Gallup et al (2003). The human penis as a semen displacement device. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 277-289.

Gallup & Burch (2004). Semen displacement as a sperm competition strategy in humans. Evolutionary Psychology, 2, 12-23.

Gaulin & Boser (1990) Dowry as Female Competition, American Anthropologist 92(4):994-1005.

Goetz et al (2005) Mate retention, semen displacement, and human sperm competition: a preliminary investigation of tactics to prevent and correct female infidelity. Personality and Individual Differences, 38: 749-763

Hamilton (1964) The genetical evolution of social behaviour I and II, Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1-16,17-52.

Havlíček et al (2016) Men’s preferences for women’s breast size and shape in four cultures, Evolution and Human Behavior 38(2): 217–226.

Kanazawa & Still (1999) Why Monogamy? Social Forces 78(1):25-50.

Manning et al (1997) Breast asymmetry and phenotypic quality in women, Ethology and Sociobiology 18(4): 223–236.

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Puts (2010) Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in humans, Evolution and Human Behavior 31:157-175.

Smith (1964). Group Selection and Kin Selection, Nature 201(4924):1145-1147.