The Philosophy of Ragnar Redbeard

Might is Right or the Survival of the Fittest (1896) by Ragnar Redbeard
Sayings of Redbeard (1890) by Ragnar Redbeard  

Perhaps the most iconoclastic book ever written, a work so incendiary that it is widely dismissed as a parody, ‘Might is Right’ has, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely been ignored by mainstream philosophers and political theorists.[1]  

Written, like Thus Spake Zarathustra, in a pretentious pseudo-biblical style, sometimes deliberately paralleling biblical passages (“Blessed are the strong for they shall possess the earth”, “If a man smite you on one cheek, smash him on ‘the other’” etc.), ‘Might is Right’ is, unlike Nietzsche’s infamously incomprehensible screed, a straightforward, if rather repetitive, read. 

Indeed, Redbeard would, I suspect, attribute the failure of earlier thinkers to reach similar conclusions to a failure of The Will rather than The Intellect—a failure to face up to the reality of the human condition, or else, more likely, a deliberate desire to dissimulate and deceive. 

Interestingly, ‘Might is Right’ did come to the attention of some notable contemporaries, not least Alfred Wallace, the lesser-known co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, himself copiously quoted by Redbeard within the pages of his book.[2]

Wallace, a socialist, predictably disavowed Redbeard’s social Darwinism, but nevertheless acknowledged: 

Dr. Redbeard has given us a very brilliant and rhythmical poem‘The Logic of Today’ I admire his verse, but I decline to alter the meaning of such words as ‘justice’ and ‘right’ to make them accord with his theory that men are merely herds of brute beasts.” 

Here, Wallace, himself a keen amateur poet as well as a pioneering naturalist, is surely right. 

Thus, whatever his demerits as a political theorist or moral philosopher, Redbeard is a talented wordsmith – and has a better claim to being a great poet than he does to being a consistent or coherent moral philosopher.[3]

Throughout ‘Might is Right’, he coins countless quotable aphorisms, and his poetry, while occasionally clumsy, is often brilliant.

HL Mencken, a contemporary of Redbeard of similarly cynical, anti-Christian, social Darwinist and Nietzschean leanings, wrote, “Religion… like poetry, is simply a concerted effort to deny the most obvious realities” and “a device for gladdening the heart with what is palpably untrue” (A Mencken Chrestomathy: p7; p569). 

Redbeard would surely agree with Mencken with respect to religion. However, in regard of poetry, he disproves Mencken’s dicta with his own delightfully cynical social Darwinist verse, among which the twelve-stanza The Philosophy of Power (aka The Logic of Today) is indeed his masterwork.[4]

Amoralism, Moral Relativism or Morality of Power? 

At the core of Redbeard’s philosophy is his rejection of morality. On one occasion he opines: 

Conventional moral dogmas and political standards-of-value are, like wooden idols, the work of men’s hands.” 

Interestingly, at least in this passage, the critique is explicitly restricted to what Redbeard calls ‘conventional’ morality. It therefore holds out the possibility that Redbeard’s rejection of moral thinking does not necessarily apply to all forms of moral thinking, but only with conventional Christian moralisms. 

This interpretation is consistent with the fact that, as we will see, Redbeard does indeed seem to champion a form of morality, albeit a very different one that champions strength and conquest, much like that of Nietzsche, at other points during his treatise.[5]

Elsewhere, however, Redbeard is more absolute, emphatically rejecting all forms of morality, without exception. Thus, his treatise includes the following categorical pronouncements: 

All ethics, politics and philosophies are pure assumptions, built upon assumptions. They rest on no sure basis. They are but shadowy castles-in-the-air erected by day-dreamers, or by rogues upon nursery fables.” 

They are not even shadows; for a shadow implies a materialized actuality. It is somewhat difficult to define what is non existent. That task may be left to University professors and Sunday school divines. They are adepts at clothing their mental nudity in clouds of wonderous verbosity.” 

‘All moral philosophy is false and vain for man is unlimited… Good and Evil liveth only in men’s minds… Right and Wrong are no more than arbitrary algebraic signs, representing hypnagogic phantasies.” 

All rights are as transient as morning rainbows, international treaties, or clauses in a temporary armistice.” 

These passages suggest a wholesale rejection of all moral thinking, akin to that of amoralists like Richard Garner, Hans-Georg Moeller, Richard Joyce and JL Mackie

But Redbeard is nothing if not self-contradictory. Perhaps among the moral ideals that he rejects is that of intellectual consistency and internal coherence! 

Thus, elsewhere, he seemingly espouses instead a radical moral relativism.  

Yet, as always, Redbeard is insistent on going far further than other thinkers exploring similar ideas, and hence takes moral relativism to its logical conclusion, if not its reductio ad absurdum, by insisting, not only that conceptions of morality may differ as between different cultures and societies, and in different times and places, but also that even individuals within a single culture may legitimately differ in their moral ethos and philosophy. 

Indeed, for Ragnar, a single individual, not only can arrive at his own personal morality, quite different from that of his neighbours, but moreover that he must do so if he is to be truly free.[6]

Every age and nation must interpret Right and Wrong for itself. So must every man. It is each man’s manifest duty to invent his own Ethical Credo.” 

Here, morality is not abandoned altogether, but rather devolved to individual conscience. 

Moreover, the demand that each man must invent anew his own ethical credo becomes, in Redbeard’s formulation, itself a universal moral injunction. 

In other words, in insisting that each man must invent his own ethical credo afresh, Redbeard is propounding a universal moral law that in itself contradicts the very relativism that this moral law purports to insist upon. 

Thus, one might ask: If no man should accept any ethical credo unless he has arrived at it himself through his own reasoning power, does this then extend even to the very ethical credo that insists that no man should accept any ethical credo unless he has arrived at it himself by his own reasoning power? 

In other words, Redbeard’s envisaged moral ethos fails even by its own criterion for validity. 

Redbeard’s primary justification for his injunction against any man adopting the moral credo of another is that, by doing so, a person invariably renders himself vulnerable to exploitation at that other’s hands.  

A sensible man should never conform to any rule or custom, simply because it has been highly commended by others, alive or dead. If they are alive he should suspect their motives. If dead, they are out of Court. He should be a law unto himself in all things: otherwise he permits himself to be demonetized to the level of a domesticated animal.” 

He who ‘keeps the commandments’ of another is necessarily the slave of that other.” 

This suggests that the ultimate purpose of any moral system is to promote one’s own self-interest, and that self-interest is the ultimate moral good. 

Thus, a moral ethos promoted by a third-party is likely to reflect their self-interest, and hence must be rejected because it is likely to be in conflict with our own self-interest, which our own moral ethos would presumably promote. 

In practice, then, the ultimate moral end is one’s own self-interest, and any system of morality must be judged against this criterion. This, in effect, elevates the promotion of individual self-interest to a universal moral injunction, again contradicting Redbeard’s insistence that there are no universal moral moral laws.

Thus, Redbeard concludes: 

He abdicates his inherent royalty who bends before any human being or any human dogma – but his own.” 

However, this raises the question: Does this injunction against adopting the moral ethos expounded by a third-party extend even to the moral system expounded by Redbeard himself? 

For, elsewhere, Redbeard, contradicting himself yet again, does indeed champion a universal morality, albeit one very different to that of the Christian moralists and instead, like that of Nietzsche, idealizing strength, power and conquest.[7]

Thus, he writes: 

All ‘moral’ dogmatisms and religiosities are positive hindrances to the evolution of the Higher Manhood; inasmuch as men who honestly grasp at Morals, do not so energetically grasp at power – power being essentially non-moral.” 

Yet, here, in presuming that men ought to grasp towards power, Redbeard is implicitly elevating the pursuit of power itself to, itself, a moral ideal. 

Might Proves Right? 

If power, and the pursuit of power, is, then, the essence of Redbeard’s moral philosophy, what evidence does he present in support of this moral theory? 

More specifically, does not Redbeard’s own moral ethos, that of strength and the pursuit power, suffer from the precise same defect that he purports to uncover in all other moral credos – namely that, in Redbeard’s own words, it “rests on no sure basis” and is but “a shadowy castle-in-the-air”. 

To this objection, however, Redbeard has a ready response—namely that the superiority of his own moral system is proven by its real-world success in competition with other moral systems, in particular the Christian morality that he so excoriates and opposes. 

Thus, a man who acts in accordance with a morality that idealizes conquest and confrontation will, Redbeard argues, inevitably and overcome, conquer, annihilate or enslave a man who acts instead in accordance with Jesus’s admonition to ‘turn the other cheek’. 

Thus, Redbeard applies the notion of survival of the fittest, not only to competition as between individuals, or as between groups, populations or races, but also to competition as between ideas

Thus, just as different individuals compete to survive and reproduce, and only the ‘best’ survive, so the same is true of what Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, called ‘memetic’ selection among ideas, including, for Redbeard, conceptions of morality. 

Thus, Redbeard writes: 

Let a tribe of human animals live a rational life, Nature will smile upon them and their posterity; but let them attempt to organize an unnatural mode of existence an equality elysium, and they will be punished even to the point of extermination.” 

Let any nation throw away all ‘habits of violence,’ and before long it must cease to exist as a nation. It will be laid under tribute—it will become a province, a satrapy. It will be taxed and looted in a thousand different ways. Let any man abandon all property, also all overt resistance to aggression and behold, the first sun will scarcely have sunk down in the west, before he is a bondservant, a tributary, a beggar, or—a corpse.” 

This is, of course, the essence of so-called social Darwinism, whereby, in Redbeard’s own words:

Force governs all organic life
Inspires all right and wrong
It’s Nature’s plan to weed out man
And test who is the strong

Of course, for anyone with even a rudimentary schooling in the dogmas of contemporary moral philosophy, alarm bells will immediately start to sound in their mind on reading these passages.

Ah, they will insist, but Redbeard is committing the naturalistic fallacy, or appeal to nature fallacy. He is deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is and deducing facts from values and hence violating one of the most sacrosanct tenets and dogmas of contemporary moral philosophy. 

Yet, to his credit, Redbeard is not, it seems, entirely unaware of this criticism. On the contrary, he explicitly anticipates this objection and pre-emptively responds thusly – namely by denying outright that naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy is indeed truly a fallacy at all. 

Thus, Redbeard declares forthrightly and unapologetically: 

To be right is to be Natural, and to be natural is to be right.” 

Does Might Make Right? 

Thus, for Redbeard, the ultimate criterion of moral truth is to be found in the outcome of real-world conflict. 

This is, of course, quite different from most people’s conception of how moral truth is to be arrived at. 

Yet, for Redbeard, it is so obvious as barely to require supporting argumentation in the first place. Thus, he laments: 

That ‘Might is Master’ should require demonstrating is itself a proof of the mental and moral perversity that pervades the world.” 

Thus, Redbeard does not bother to justify his contention that morality is determined by force of arms. Instead, he insists that the fact this is so is so obvious and straight forward as not to require justification or supporting arguments. 

Readers may disagree with Redbeard on this matter, but, in one sense, Redbeard does indeed have a point. 

If, as most moral philosophers maintain, moral principles cannot be derived from facts, then it follows that moral principles can only be derived from other moral principles. Thus, one moral belief may be justified only on the basis of another, more fundamental, such principle.

However, whence then are our ultimate moral principles, from which all our other moral principles are derived, themselves to find justification? Ultimately, it seems, they must ultimately be taken on faith. 

Therefore, it follows that there can be no ultimate justification for preferring any one moral ethos over any other. Each is equally valid (and invalid). 

Therefore, Redbeard’s own proposed criterion for determining moral truth (namely, victory in battle) is quite as valid as any other such criterion – which is to say, not very valid at all. 

However, although Redbeard purports to believe his own ultimate moral axiom, namely ‘Might is Master’, so obviously true as to be scarcely even in need of justification were it not for the decadence and perversity of the age, this does not prevent him from nevertheless belabouring this same point, over and over, at several different points during his treatise. Thus, at various places during his diatribe, he writes: 

Might is victory and victory establishes rightness.” 

Ethical principles are decided by the shock of contending armies.” 

Right… can be logically defined… as the manifestations of solar energy, materialized through human thought and thew, upon battlefields—that is to say, in Nature’s Supreme Court.” 

The natural law is tooth and claw. All else is error.” 

Always, however, a better poet than he is a consistent or coherent moral philosopher, Redbeard expresses himself best in his poem, The Philosophy of Power (aka The Logic of Today), where he declares: 

Might is right when Caesar bled
Upon the Stones of Rome;
Might was right when Joshua led
His hordes through Jordan’s foam…
For Might is Right when empires sink
In storms of steel and flame;
And it is right when weakling breeds
Are hunted down like game.” 

In short, for Redbeard, might not only is right, but might makes right! 

Memetic Selection Among Moralities? 

Yet, if, as he claims, Redbeard’s own social Darwinist moral ethos will itself inevitably overcome and outcompete every other moral system, Christian morality very much included, then this raises the question as to how the latter body of moral thinking ever come to be so widely espoused and championed? 

Indeed, since Christian and egalitarian moral systems seem to be far more widely espoused, at least in the contemporary West, than is the ‘Might-is-Right’ social Darwinist ethic of Redbeard, this would surely seem to suggest that it is Christian ethics which actually has the higher memetic fitness

This, in turn, suggests that Redbeard’s moral system fails even in accordance with the very criterion for success espoused by Redbeard himself, namely survival of the fittest

Thus, a contemporary review for an Australian socialist publication protested: 

[Redbeard] overlooks the fact, however, that if the fittest individuality survives, so does the fittest idea. The very fact of its survival is proof of its fitness. So his condemnation of Socialism falls flat, for Socialism survives and flourishes, so does Christianity.[8]

Of course, we may doubt whether, as this reviewer claims, socialism did indeed flourish, in 1899 when the reviewer penned these words any more than it does today. On the contrary, time and time again, socialism, when put into practice, has proven, at best, economically inefficient, and, at worst, utterly unworkable and conductive to tyranny.[9]

Yet, in another sense, socialism does indeed flourish, even today in the twenty-first century long after the dissolution of Soviet communism. Thus, while socialism as an practical real-world economic and political system may have proven again and again utterly unworkable and disastrous, socialism as an ideology has proven remarkably resilient and impervious to repeated falsification, whether at the hands of economists or indeed of history itself. 

In other words, if socialism itself certainly does not flourish, socialist ideas surely do. 

The same is also true of Christian moral teaching, which has indeed proven of greater longevity and resilience even than socialism.

Yet, if taken literally, Christian teaching is just as unworkable and utopian, when put into practice, as is socialism, if not more so.

Thus, no society, save the smallest of utopian communes,<a id=”reff10><sup>[10]</sup></a> has ever successfully put into practice such ideas as turn the other cheek[11] or judge not lest you yourself be judged[12] – ideas that, taken literally, are incompatible with either an effective criminal justice system or an effective defense policy and hence inherently self-defeating, leading as they do to either internal anarchy and/or external conquest at the hands of a foreign power, and hence are as hopelessly utopian as communism.

Likewise, Christian morality is just as self-defeating at the individual level. Thus, whereas at the state level, the adoption of Christian principles leads to rampant crime, internal anarchy, and likely conquest by a foreign power, so, if an individual were to live by such principles as turning the other cheek and giving up one’s worldly possessions,[13] both of which are explicitly demanded by Jesus in the Gospels, so he would inevitably invite exploitation and destitution. 

Thus, crime novelist and long-term alumni of the American prison system Edward Bunker described, in a beautiful and poetically evocative metaphor, what was likely to happen if you tried turning the other cheek in the Californian prison system

If he turned the other cheek they’d have him bent over spreading both cheeks of his ass while making a toy girl of him—a punk” (Little Boy Blue: p193-4). 

Thus, ‘turning the other cheek’ results in anal rape – in a literal sense in the American prison system, but in a metaphoric sense in the world at large. 

In short, a Christly life is inherently self-defeating. As Redbeard himself observes: 

If we lived as Christ lived, there would be none of us left to live. He begat no children; he labored not for his bread; he possessed neither house nor home; he merely talked. Consequentially he must have existed on charity or stolen bread. ‘If we all lived like Christ’ would there have been anyone left to labor, to be begged from, to be stolen from. ‘If we all lived like Christ’ is thus a self-evident absurdity.” 

Yet, if Christian ideas are as unworkable as socialist ones, nevertheless Christianity as a belief system thrives, at least in the sense that people still profess to believe in its tenets, even if, in practice, their own behaviour almost invariably falls short. 

Indeed, Christian influences have seemingly outlived even Christianity itself. 

Thus, contemporary secularists, including militant atheists, continue to espouse a morality derived ultimately from Christian teaching, even though they have ostensibly abandoned the Christian scripture, and Christian God, in whom this morality formerly found its ultimate basis and justification. 

Thus, as John Gray argues in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (reviewed here), humanism replaces an irrational faith in an omnipotent God with an even more irrational faith in the omnipotence of Mankind himself.[14]

Much the same is true of the pseudo-secular political faiths of modernity, which derive ultimately from a thinly-veiled Christian eschatology. 

Thus, ostensibly secular Marxists replace the irrational Christian belief that we will ascend to heaven after death (or, in some versions, after Armageddon and the Day of Judgement) with the equally absurd and irrational Marxist belief that we will achieve communism (i.e. heaven-on-earth, in all but name) after the revolution

As Redbeard observes in Sayings of Redbeard

Rationalists in religion are numerous, but rationalists in politics are few. Nevertheless, salvation by politics is quite as much an insanity and a dream as salvation by the watery blood of a circumcised Jew. When his faith is analyzed the average Rationalist is even more irrational than the wildest Supernaturalist. What is politics but priestcraft in a new mask and cloak.” 

Morality as ‘Opiate of the Masses’ 

How then has Christian and egalitarian moral thinking come to acquire such a hold over the Western mind? And does not the popularity and resilience of these ideas prove their worth in accordance with the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ championed by Redbeard himself? 

While he does not address this objection directly, a careful reading of Redbeard’s writing suggests his likely response. 

For Redbeard, the popularity of Christian moral thinking is attributable to its cynical adoption by ruling elites as a method of indoctrinating and thereby pacifying the masses, by encouraging them to acquiesce in their own subjugation and exploitation. 

Thus, the masses are admonished by scripture to turn the other cheek[15] and render unto Caesar what is his[16] because, if persuaded to do so, they are more easily subjugated, taxed and thereby exploited and enslaved. 

Thus, Redbeard concludes: 

All moral principles… are the servitors, not the masters of the strong.” 

Thus, for Redbeard, ‘Might is Right’ in yet another sense⁠⁠—namely, ‘Might’ permits the mighty to dictate to, and instil in, the weak a false morality that serves the interests of the mighty. 

Here, Redbeard, despite his trenchant social Darwinism, actually echoes Marxist theory

Thus, just as Marx contended that religion was the opiate of the masses’, and functioned to keep the subjugated in a state of subjugation, happy in their lot, and content in the belief that, despite their suffering, they would get their due recompense in the next world, so Redbeard extends this analysis to morality itself. 

In a sense, then, he is simply taking the Marxist critique of bourgeois values to their logical conclusion—a conclusion that, ironically, undermines the very moral basis upon which the Marxist critique of capitalist exploitation rests. 

For, if morality is indeed a capitalist contrivance and example of a dominant ideology in the Marxist sense, then there can, of course, be no moral grounds for regarding capitalist exploitation as immoral, nor for viewing Marx’s own envisaged communist utopia as in any way morally preferable to capitalism, feudalism or any other economic system. 

Thus, American professor of philosophy Allen Wood writes of how: 

Marxists often express a contemptuous attitude towards morality, which (they say) is nothing but a form of illusion, false consciousness or ideology. But… the Marxists condemn capitalism for exploiting the working class and condemning most people to lives of alienation and unfilfilment [sic]. What reasons can they give for doing so, and how can they expect others to do so as well, if they abandon all appeals to morality?[17]

To the extent, then, that:

1) Morality is an example of capitalist dominant ideology designed to perpetuate the existing class system; and

2) Marxism is founded upon a moral critique of capitalism, and moral advocacy for communism;

Then, it naturally follows that Marxism itself is an indirect inadvertent outgrowth capitalist indoctrination. If, then, morality is a capitalist invention, it is surely one with the potential to be turned against its capitalist inventors.[18]

Thus, as Nietzsche and indeed Hitler were later to reiterate, Marxism is, for all its anti-Christian rhetoric and pseudo-secularism, the illegitimate offspring of Christianity itself.[19]

Given the inconsistency of Marxists, and of Marx himself, on this issue, therefore, Redbeard’s true precursor is not Marx, but rather the fictionalized Thrasymachus of Plato’s Republic, the latter anticipating both Marx and Redbeard in his famous pronouncement that: 

Justice is whatever is in the interests of the stronger party”. 

Social Contract Theory Debunked 

Ultimately, however, social order and obedience to the law depends, for Redbeard, not on indoctrination or brainwashing, but rather on force of arms. Thus, in the poem The Philosophy of Power (or Logic of Today), he boldly proclaims in one of his many quotable aphorisms: 

Behind all Kings and Presidents
All Government and Law,
Are army-corps and cannoneers
To hold the world in awe” 

Here, Redbeard echoes the sentiments of Thomas Hobbes, who maintained that: 

Covenants without the sword are but words.” 

Thus, Thomas Hobbes argued only a strong central government could pacify society by maintaining a monopoly on the use of force, which, by maintaining the peace, worked to the benefit of all.

Redbeard, in contrast, is no fan of peace and views all governmental power as based, ultimately, on subjugation and oppression. 

Thus, where Hobbes recommended ceding all rights and powers to a sovereign authority in order to maintain the peace, Redbeard insists that no man ought ever to acquiesce in subjugation before any higher authority than himself. Far from viewing a government maintaining a monopoly on the use of force as a good thing, Redbeard instead insists:

Unarmed citizens are always enslaved citizens, always.”

Thus, Hobbes, most cynical, hard-headed and realist of the great philosophers of the Western cannon (and a personal favourite of mine for this very reason), is revealed to be, at least in comparison with the unrelenting cynicism of Ragnar Redbeard, a hopelessly naïve and utopian romantic. 

Redbeard also rejects the social contract theory championed by Hobbes, as well as such other eminent luminaries as Rousseau and Locke, who each envisaged free men in a state of nature freely coming together to jointly agree the terms of their cohabitation in a community. 

In contrast, Redbeard insists that, far from arising through voluntary agreement, all polities ultimately arise through conquest and subjugation: 

How did the government of man by man originate? By force of arms. Victors became rulers.” 

‘Government’ arises from physical force applied by the strong to the control and exploitation of vanquished foes.” 

In terms of actual history, this strikes me as a far more realistic model of the origin of large modern states than the consensual model favoured by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.[20]

For Redbeard, therefore, all taxation is thus ultimately tribute extracted from the vanquished by their conquerors, and this is the ultimate function and purpose of all government: 

Forms of government change but the principle of government never changes: It is taxgathering.[21]

Moreover, if all taxation is ultimately tribute, so all laws originate ultimately from this same initial conquest and subjugation: 

When an army of occupation settles down upon an enemy’s territory, it issues certain rules of procedure for the orderly transference of the property and persons of the conquered into the absolute possession and unlimited control of the conquerors. These rules of procedure may at first take shape as orders issued by military generals but after a time they develop themselves into Statute Books, Precedents, and Constitutions.” 

Thus, in another of his poems, Redbeard counsels readers: 

Laws and rules imposed on you
From days of old renown
Are not intended for your good
But for your crushing down.” 

Similarly, he avers in one aphorism: 

Statute books and golden rules were made to fetter slaves and fools.[22]

Instead, Redbeard concludes: 

No man ought to obey any contract, written or implied, except he himself has given his personal and formal adherence thereto, when in a state of mental maturity and unrestrained liberty.” 

Yet this is, of course, manifestly not true of the US constitution which was agreed to, not by Americans alive today, but rather by men long dead even in Redbeard’s own time. Thus, Redbeard laments: 

We are ruled, in fact, by cadavers—the inhabitants of tombs”.[23]

Thus, for Redbeard, not only the constitution itself, but also all other laws, whether at the state or federal level, enacted ultimately thereunder, are invalid and of no moral force whatever. 

Indeed, on this ground, Redbeard dismisses the moral force, not only of the US constitution and legal system, and that of all other contemporary western polities, but also the influential school of political theory alluded to above known as social contract theory

In short, even if a polity and jurisdiction did indeed originate, not through conquest as Redbeard maintains, but rather through free men coming together to voluntarily relinquish their freedom and agree the terms of their cohabitation, as maintained by the social contract theorists, this is nevertheless an irrelevance. 

After all, any parties to such an agreement are long since dead. Why then should we, at most their distant descendants, be bound by the agreements of our distant ancestors? Thus, Redbeard forcefully maintains: 

It is only slaves that are born into contracts, signed and sealed by their progenitors. The freeman is born free, lives free, and dies free.” 

Democracy 

If conventional morality functions, as Redbeard maintains, to facilitate and disguise the subjugation of the masses, the same is also true, Redbeard contends, of democracy, or rather the façade of democracy that currently prevails in the West. 

I say the façade of democracy because, for Redbeard, real democracy does not exist and indeed simply cannot exist. It is, like socialism, a patent impossibility, defying the very laws of nature (or, at least, of human nature).

Redbeard thus summarily dismisses the notion of the people as sovereign

In all lunatic asylums may be found inmates who fancy themselves kings and queens, and lords of the earth. These sorrowful creatures, if only permitted to wear imaginary crowns and issue imaginary commands, are the most docile and harmless of all maniacs.[24]

By analogy, he recounts the (almost certainly apocryphal) tale of how a native chief in the Americas was invited by one of Columbus’s lieutenants: 

To don… a set of brightly polished steel manacles; it being cunningly represented to him, that the irons were the regalia of sovereignty… When the chains were firmly clasped around his limbs, he was led away, to die of vermin, turning a mill in a Spanish dungeon. What those glittering manacles were to the Indian Chieftain, constitutions, laws [and] moral codes… are to the nations of the earth.” 

Thus, Redbeard concludes: 

Cursed indeed are the harnessed ones! Cursed are they even though their harness be home made—even though it tinkle musically with silver bells—aye! even though every buckle and link and rivet thereof is made of solid gold.” 

Indeed, for Redbeard, it is the very glittering beauty of the “polished steel manacles” that ought to provoke our suspicion and put us on guard.

Thus, he maintains that the very exalted and poetic language of such documents as the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence is itself evidence of their deceptiveness, since: 

“It is notorious, universally so, that the blackest falsehoods are ever decked out in the most brilliant and gorgeous regalia. Clearly, therefore it is the brave man’s duty to regard all sacred things, all legal things, all constitutional things, all holy things, with more than usual suspicion.” 

Work versus Warriorhood 

Today, contemporaries of all political persuasions champion the notion that work is somehow intrinsically liberating.

This is what I cheerfully call the Work Sets You Free mantra, by reference to the famous signs (Arbeit Macht Frei) displayed above the entrances to Nazi concentration camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz.

The idea is, of course, preposterous. Indeed, work is, perhaps by very definition, something one does, not because one enjoys the activity itself, but rather because of either the end product of such work, or the remuneration offered in recompense for doing it. 

Thus, for example, a person cleans their house, not because they enjoy cleaning their house, but rather because they enjoy living in a cleaner environment. On the other hand, a person does a salaried job, not because they enjoy doing the job, but rather because of the salary offered precisely in recompense for the fact that they don’t enjoy it. 

To put the matter bluntly, if people really enjoyed their work, then you wouldn’t have to pay them to get them to do it! 

Yet it is natural that governments and capitalists should espouse and encourage the notion that work is somehow uniquely liberating, since, by doing so, they encourage the masses to willingly submit themselves to work for the benefit of capitalists and government.[25]

Redbeard, however, has no time for such nonsense. For him, work is the mark of a slave: 

The very idea of labor is in chains and yokes. There is no dignity in a bent back – no glory in a perspiring brow – no honor in greasy, copper-riveted rags.” 

Cursed is the brow that sweats – for hire, and the back that bends to a master’s burden. Calloused hands imply calloused minds.” 

Indeed, he insists that hard continuous labour is, not only unpleasant, but also has a negative effect on the constitution, both physical and psychological:

Hard continuous methodical labor destroys courage, saps vitality and demoralizes character. It tames and subdues men, just as it tames and subdues the young steer and the young colt. Men who labor hard and continuously have no power to think. It requires all their mental force to keep their muscles in trim.” 

Thus, Redbeard concludes: 

The civilized city working-man and working woman are the lowest and worst type of animal ever evolved from dust slime and oxygen. They actually worship work: and bow down before law as an ox-team crouches and strains under the lash.” 

Instead, he extols warriorhood over work: 

In the strength of his arm man eats his bread; in the sweat of his brow (and brain), the slave earns bread – for a master.” 

The Labour Theory of Property Debunked 

In accordance with this celebration of warriorhood over work, Redbeard also challenges the so-called labour theory of property, famously espoused by the British philosopher John Locke

Thus, John Locke famously formulated and expounded the notion that private property rights ultimately derive from labour expended in the transformation of natural resources

Thus, while God, according to Locke, gave the world to all mankind in common, nevertheless, if a person expends labour in transforming some natural resource – say sculpting a rock into an statue, chopping down a tree in order to construct a wooden hut, clearing a wilderness in order to raise crops, or castrating a slave to produce a eunuch – he or she thereby acquires ownership over the resource in its transformed state. 

This is Locke’s famous labour theory of property, whereby a person acquires property rights by mixing his labour with the resource in question, which also represents the philosophical basis for the so-called homestead principle.[26]

In ‘Sayings of Redbeard’, however, the pseudonymous Redbeard rejects wholly this notion and replaces it with the more cynical and realistic notion that property rights derive ultimately from force of arms. 

In the history of nations, the sword at all times commands the plow, the hammer and the spade. Everywhere the soil must be captured before it can be cultivated.” 

“‘The laborer is entitled to the full fruits of his labor’… but only on condition that he… can successfully defend his product against any one and everyone who comes up against him. Whoever can defend a thing against ‘all the world’ is its natural and rightful owner.” 

“Upon land titles written in blood the entire fabric of modern industrialism is founded.” 

Women and Sexual Selection 

Predictably, in the current feminist-dominated political and intellectual climate, Ragnar’s views on women have drawn inevitable accusations of misogyny. Thus, among other things, Redbeard asserts:

Woman is two thirds womb. The other third is a network of nerves and sentimentality.” 

A woman is primarily a reproductive cell organism, a womb structurally embastioned by a protective, defensive, osseous network; and surrounded by antennæ and blood vessels necessary for supplying nutrient to the growing ovum or embryo.” 

Actually, however, these statements reveal an impressive understanding of the evolutionary basis for sexual differentiation. Indeed, they anticipate the great late-twentieth-century biologist Edward O Wilson’s infamous observation that: 

The quintessential female is an individual specialized for making eggs” (On Human Nature: p123).[27]

This certainly suggests a realistic view of human females, and arguably perhaps even an unflattering one, but it is certainly nothing amounting to a hatred of women, as suggested by the overused term misogyny

On the contrary, although Redbeard insists that women must be subservient to men, he nevertheless also insists in the very same breath that, among men’s duties with respect to women, are “providing for, and protecting them”. 

Indeed, far from hating women, he actually repeatedly refers to women as “lovable creatures” and even as “lovable always”.

Indeed, on the basis of these statements, one might even conclude that Redbeard is guilty of the same sentimental wishful-thinking of which he accuses the Christians and socialists. 

Certainly, it appears he has had the benefit of enjoying the company of rather different women to myself. 

In insisting that women are “lovable creatures”, whom men are responsible for “providing for, and protecting”, he could almost be accused of being a white knight male feminist

On the other hand, elsewhere Redbeard is, to his credit, altogether more realistic, or perhaps, once again, simply self-contradictory, writing: 

For innate cruelty of deed, no animal can surpass woman.” 

He also observes: 

In many respects women have proved themselves more cruel, avaricious, bloodthirsty and revengeful than men.” 

He also echoes Schopenhauer in observing that: 

“Women are also remarkably good liars. Deception is an essential and necessary part of their mental equipment… Without deception of some sort, a woman would have no defense whatever against rivals, lovers, or husbands.” 

Indeed, here, Redbeard seems to be directly drawing on Schopenhauer’s celebrated and insightful essay On Women, where the latter similarly observed that: 

Just as lions are furnished with claws and teeth, elephants with tusks, boars with fangs, bulls with horns, and the cuttlefish with its dark, inky fluid, so Nature has provided woman for her protection and defense with the faculty of dissimulation. 

Yet, far from hating women, Redbeard seems to see their biological instincts, especially with regard to mate choice, as fundamentally sound, and indeed conducive to the higher evolution of the species. 

Thus, he insists that, just as men are drawn to battle, so women are naturally drawn to warriors who have proven themselves in battle. 

Wherever soldiers conquer in war, they also conquer in love… Women of vanquished races are usually very prone to wed with the men who have slaughtered their kindred in battle.” 

This is surely true. Indeed, it is proven by population genetic studies of the ancestry of contemporary populations. 

Thus, among populations that have been the subject of violent conquest at some point in their history, their mitochondrial DNA, passed down the female line, is invariably more likely to have been inherited from the indigenous, conquered population, whereas their Y-chromosomes, passed instead down the male-line, are more likely to have been inherited from the conquering group.[28]

Indeed, one particularly successful military leader and conqueror, Genghis Khan, is even posited as the origin of a Y chromosome haplogroup now common throughout much of Asia and the world

Yet, in observing that “women of vanquished races are usually very prone to wed with the men who have slaughtered their kindred in battle,” Redbeard does not reproach women for their faithlessness, treachery or lack of patriotic feeling for ‘consorting with the enemy’. On the contrary, he applauds them for thereby acting in accord with biological law and hence contributing to the propagation of, if you like, ‘warrior genes’ and, as he sees it, the progressive evolution of the species.[29]

Yet curiously, Redbeard seems to reject the primary means by which sexual selection might bring about this outcome – namely polygyny

Readers must distinctly understand that sexual morality is nowise condemned in these pages.” 

Thus, while he castigates other aspects of Christian morality, Redbeard seemingly takes Christian monogamy very much for granted, writing: 

Second-class males are driven by necessity to mate with second-class males; and in strict sequence third class males select partners from feminine remainders. (Hence the stereotyped nature of servile Castes.) Superior males take racially superior women, and inferior males are permitted to duplicate themselves, per media of inferior feminines.” 

However, in a highly polygynous mating system, this is not true. Here, high-status males command exclusive access to all females, and females themselves, anxious to secure the superior genes, and superior resources, commanded by high-status males, are often only too ready to comply. 

Indeed, according to the polygyny threshold model, it is in the female’s interests to comply. Thus, as George Bernard Shaw observed: 

Maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first-rate man to the exclusive possession of a third-rate one.[30]

Thus, under polygyny, low-status males, even if not altogether exterminated, are nevertheless precluded from reproducing altogether, facilitating the evolutionary process that Redbeard so extols. 

Yet Redbeard surely goes too far in writing: 

Women instinctively admire soldiers, athletes, king’s nobles, and fighting-men generally, above all other kinds of suitors – and rightly so.” 

Certainly, the dashing soldier in his uniform has a certain sex appeal. However, “above all other kinds of suitor”? Surely not. 

Indeed, the sorts of ‘sex symbols’ fawned over and fantasized about by contemporary women and girls are more often actors or pop stars than they are soldiers – and the foppish movie star or pop icon is about as far removed from the rugged, battle-scarred warrior of Redbeard’s own erotic fantasies as it is possible to envisage.

Similarly, Redbeard also insists: 

Women congregate at athletic sports and gladiatorial contests; impelled by the same universal instinct that induces the lioness to stand expectantly by, while two more rival males are ripping each other to pieces in a rough-and-tumble – for her possession.” 

Yet, actually, the audiences at most sporting events are overwhelmingly male. Moreover, the more violent the sport in question (e.g. boxing and MMA) the greater, in my experience, the scale of the disparity.[31]

Here, perhaps Redbeard, in his enthusiasm for Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, fails to fully distinguish what the latter termed intrasexual and intersexual selection

This is rather ironic since, among his copious quotations from Darwin himself in ‘Might is Right’, Redbeard actually quotes the very passage from Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex where Darwin first made this distinction: 

The sexual struggle is of two kinds: in the one it is between the individuals of the same sex, generally the males, in order to drive away or kill their rivals, the females remaining passive; while in the other, the struggle is likewise between the individuals of the same sex, in order to excite or charm those of the opposite sex, generally the females, which no longer remain passive, but select the more agreeable partners.” 

Though actually, perhaps tellingly, the version of this passage quoted by Redbeard is subtly altered, omitting the parenthesis “in order to excite or charm those of the opposite sex”. This perhaps reflects his inability to adequately understand the nature of intersexual, as opposed to intrasexual selection

Thus, intrasexual selection involves one sex, usually males, fighting over access to the other, usually females, and seems to be the form of sexual selection that Redbeard primarily has in mind and so extols. 

Intersexual selection, however, involves, not male fighting, but, at most, male display and female choice, as in so-called leking species. 

Here, females, not males, are very much in control of the mating process and the result is not so much the mighty antlers of the stag, as the beautiful but, from Redbeard’s perspective, rather less than manly tail of the peacock

Thus, if male warriors like Genghis Khan did indeed enjoy the remarkable reproductive success that genetic studies suggest, then this may have been as much attributable to male coercion as to female choice,[32] and, to the extent it is a product of female choice, as much a reflection of the female preference for high-status males as for successful warriors per se.

Men, Sexual Selection and Carnivory 

Yet, if, in failing to fully understand sexual selection theory, Redbeard misjudges the nature of women, the same is no less true of his assessment of the fundamental nature of men 

Thus, though he disparages contemporary men as pale and decadent imitations of their noble warrior forbears, nevertheless his image of Man, in his original pristine state, is distinctly flattering to the average male ego. 

Man is, according to Redbeard, by nature, a warrior, conqueror and carnivore. Indeed, one of his chapters is even titled “Man – the Carnivore!”.  

Of course, humans are indeed apex predators, with the unique distinction of having driven many prey species to extinction,[33] as well as having caused great death and destruction among their own kind through warfare and conflict.

However, Redbeard surely exaggerates the purely physiological formidability of Man. Thus, he maintains: 

Structurally, men are fashioned for purposes of inflicting and suffering pain. Every human anatomy is an elaborate nerve and bone infernal machine – a kind of breathing, perambulating Juggernaut – a superb engine of lethal immolation that automatically stokes its furnace with its victims… Men’s anatomy, external and internal; his eyes, his teeth, his muscles, his blood, his viscera, his brain, his verebra; all speak of fighting, passion, aggressiveness, violence, and prideful egoism.” 

Here, Redbeard surely flatters himself and other men. 

Actually, our muscles and teeth are decidedly unimpressive compared to other carnivores occupying a comparable place in the food chain (e.g. lions and tigers). Indeed, even our closest extant relatives, the primarily frugivorous chimpanzee, has far greater average upper-body strength than the average human, or even the average athlete. 

Thus, compared to a lion or a bear, or even the largely herbivorous gorilla, even Mike Tyson in his prime, unarmed, could not, I suspect, put up much of a fight. 

It is only our ability to devise weapons, tools, and tactics that gives us a chance. In other words, our greatest weapons are not the muscles, claws, fangs or antlers, of which, compared to other carnivores, and even some herbivores, we are sorely lacking – but rather our brains.

As the ‘The Beast’ declares in the recent movie Shot Caller:

A warrior’s greatest weapon is his mind.”

Individualism vs. Nationalism

While popular among some more intellectually-minded (and sociopathic) white nationalists, Redbeard, far from nationalist, is actually a radical individualist, arguably influenced as much by Max Stirner as by Nietzsche. 

Indeed, Redbeard would surely reject all forms of nationalism, since nationalism invariably puts the survival and prospering of the group (i.e. the race or nation) above that of the individual. 

For Redbeard, this is anathema: No man should subordinate his own interests below those of another, be that other a rival, a monarch, a state, a nation or a race or volk.

Indeed, when military and political leaders demand that we sacrifice our lives for our race, tribe or nation, Redbeard would see this as representing, not the interests of the race, tribe or nation, but rather the individual interest of the military or political leader responsible for issuing the demand. 

Thus, Redbeard purports to admire the warrior ethos. Certainly, he extols the likes of Napoleon (“Darwin on horseback”) and Alexander the Great

However, Redbeard would, I get the distinct impression, have nothing but disdain for the ordinary soldier – the mere cannon-fodder who risked, and often lost, their lives in the service, not of their own conquest and glory, but rather the conquest and glory of their commanders, or, worse still, the economic interests of their rulers and exploiters. 

Indeed, Redbeard’s individualism is among his grounds for rejecting morality. Thus, he declares: 

All arbitrary rules of Right and Wrong are insolent invasions of personal liberty.” 

Yet, in purporting to reject morality on this ground, Redbeard is, in effect, not rejecting morality altogether, but rather, once again, championing a new moral ethos – namely, one which regards individual freedom as the paramount, if not the sole legitimate, moral end. 

Thus, in purporting to reject universalist morality on individualist grounds, Redbeard inadvertently transforms individualism itself into a universalist moral injunction. 

‘Every man for himself’ is the law of life. Every man for an Institution, a God or a Dogma, is the law of death.” 

Once again, the self-contradiction is obvious: If all universalist moralities are, in Redbeard’s words, “insolent invasions of personal liberty,” then this surely applies also to his own universal moral injunction (i.e. “the law of life”) that demands that we always act in our own individual self-interest. 

Moreover, such a moral system, if adopted by all, would obviously result only in anarchy and the impossibility of any sort of functioning society. 

Interpreted in this way, it would then seem to fail even by the criterion of ‘survival of the fittest’ that Redbeard himself espouses – since societies composed of group-minded altruists, who are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the benefit of the group as a whole, will inevitably outcompete societies composed of pure egoists, who look out only for themselves, and are all too ready to sell out their own group for individual advantage. 

However, it is clear, at least by implication, that Redbeard never envisaged his morality being adopted wholesale by all. Instead, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is envisaged as necessarily restricted to a select and elite minority. 

Nihilism? 

Predictably, Redbeard has been charged with nihilism by some of his detractors. However, this is far from an accurate portrayal of his philosophy. 

It is true that, as we have seen, Ragnar does indeed flirt, albeit inconsistently, with a form of moral nihilism

Moreover, he sometimes seems to go further, seemingly embracing a more all-consuming nihilism, as, for example, in his alternative beatitudes, where he writes: 

Blessed are those who believe in nothing—Never shall it terrorize their minds.” 

Yet, in Sayings of Redbeard, Redbeard rejects any notion of nihilism, writing: 

One must have faith and courage even to be a pirate. He who does not believe in anything does not believe in himself, which is atheism of the worst kind. A religion is essential. Nobility of action is impossible without it. Faith is an integral part of all heroic and noble nature… He must believe something or else sit down to contemplate his navel and rot into nothingness as the Buddhists teach. The negative life won’t do, remember that.” 

Exactly what one should believe in, other than oneself, he is not altogether clear. 

Certainly, like Nietzsche, he purports to prefer paganism over the Christianity that ultimately displaced it, even writing, in an extension of the famous Nietzschean dictum

Christ is dead. Thor lives and reigns.” 

But he clearly means this only in a metaphoric sense, just as Nietzsche meant the death of God in a metaphoric sense. In a literal sense, God could never die, simply because He had never existed, and hence never been alive in the first place. 

Ultimately, given his radical individualism, I suspect Redbeard believes that we must, in the last instance, believe ultimately only in ourselves

Thus, he would, I suspect, approve of the tenth century Viking, who, asked by a Frank, what religion he adhered to, reputedly replied: 

I believe in my own strength – and nothing else.[34]

In other words, to translate Redbeard into explicitly Nietzschean terms, we might say: 

God is dead; Long live the Ubermensch

Or, as Redbeard himself might have put it: 

Nietzsche said: ‘God is dead’.
Ragnar Redbeard says: ‘God is dead. Long Live Ragnar Redbeard!’ 

Racialism 

A particularly troubling aspect of ‘Might is Right’ for many modern readers of Redbeard’s treatise, even those otherwise attracted to his radical individualism and rampant social Darwinism, is Redbeard’s extreme racialism

Yet Redbeard’s racialism, though as overblown and exaggerated as everything else in his writing, is actually largely tangential his philosophy.[35]

Indeed, given that it was first published in 1896, when notions of white racial superiority were almost accepted as given (at least among whites), one suspects that Redbeard’s racialism, overblown and exaggerated though it is, was, for contemporaries, among the least controversial aspects of his thought. 

It is often objected that Redbeard’s racialism is incompatible with, and contradicts, his individualism.

However, I think this is a misreading of Redbeard. 

While individualism is indeed incompatible with nationalism (see above), it is not incompatible with racialism per se, only with racial nationalism

Thus, no individualist would sacrifice his own interests for those of his race or nation. However, an individualist is quite capable of also believing that different races differ in their innate aptitudes, temperaments and ability – including to such an extent as to make only individuals of certain races capable of true individualism, just as certain species (e.g. the social insects) are incapable of individualism. 

Thus, in my reading, Redbeard comes across as consistently individualist, but simply regards his individualism as applicable to, and within the capability of, individuals of only one particular race. 

Moreover, though he clearly regards black Africans, for example, as an inferior subspecies fit only for enslavement, this remarkably racist claim is, in the context of Redbeard’s philosophy as a whole, actually not quite as racist as it sounds, since he also thinks the same of the vast majority of all peoples, white Europeans very much included, at least in their current ostensibly degraded form. 

Thus, of his (white) American contemporaries, he writes: 

Never having enjoyed genuine personal freedom (except on the Indian border) being for the most part descendants of hunted-out European starvelings and fanatics (defeated battlers) they now stupidly thought they had won freedom at last by the patent device of selecting a complete outfit of new tax-gatherers every fourth year.” 

Yet, here, Redbeard is again rather inconsistent and contradictory. 

Thus, he often seems to suggest that all white Nordic Europeans, or at least all white Nordic European men, were once at least capable of the heroism and ruthlessness that he so extols. 

Thus, writing of the now almost universally-reviled Cecil Rhodes, one of the few contemporaries to earn his unreserved admiration, he claims: 

In days long gone by, such men were the norms of Anglo-Saxondom. Now! Alas! They are astounding exceptions.” 

Yet the entire thrust of Redbeard’s philosophy is that always, at all times, all societies are composed of, on the one hand, the conquerors and, on the other, those whom they conquer, the latter invariably vastly outnumbering the former and very much deserving of their fate. 

Yet, if this is true universally, then it must also be true of the indigenous societies of the Nordic European peoples themselves, before they came into contact with, and were hence able to conquer and enslave all those ostensibly inferior non-Nordic untermensch

Inevitably, then, at this time in history, or prehistory, they must of conquered, subjugated and enslaved only one another. Like all other peoples, then, the vast majority of Nordic Europeans must have been slaves. 

This suggests that the vast majority of all peoples, including Nordic Europeans themselves, have always been slaves, and that the superior class of man is to be found, only in the minority, if at all, among all peoples, Nordic Europeans very much included. 

Anti-Semitism, Philo-Semitism and Self-Contradiction 

Yet, if Redbeard’s racialism is peripheral to his broader themes, the same is not true of his anti-Semitism, which represents a recurrent theme throughout his writing. 

Yet, here again we encounter another of many contradictions in Redbeard’s thought. 

For, in addition to other anti-Semitic canards, Redbeard endorses the familiar anti-Semitic trope whereby it is claimed that, through nefarious political and financial machinations, and especially through usury or moneylending, Jews have come to secretly control entire western economies, governments and indeed the world. 

Thus, in one particularly dramatic passage, Redbeard declares: 

The Jew has been supinely permitted to do — what Alexander, Caesar, Nusherwan, and Napoleon failed to accomplish — crown himself Emperor of the World; and collect his vast tributes from ‘the ends of the earth’.” 

Yet, if Jews do indeed control the world, including the West, as Redbeard so dramatically asserts, then this surely seems to suggest Jews are anything but inferior to the white western goyim whom they have ostensibly subjugated, hence contradicting any basis for Redbeard’s anti-Semitism. 

Moreover, applying the ‘Might-is-Right’ thesis of Redbeard himself, the inescapable conclusion is that Jewish domination is necessarily right and just. 

Thus, anti-Semitism leads almost inexorably to its opposite – philo-Semitism and Jewish supremacism.[36]

Thus, in the footnote accompanying this passage in the Underworld Amusements Authoritative Edition, editor Trevor Blake observes: 

Not a few pages earlier, Redbeard wrote: ‘Among the vertebrates, the king of the herd (or pack), selects himself by his battle-prowess—upon the same ‘general principles’ that induced Napoléon to place the Iron Crown upon his own brow with his own hand.’ By Redbeard’s own words and reasoning ‘the Jew’ is not only Emperor of the World but justly so. A significant challenge to both those who consider ‘Might is Right’ to be antisemitic and those who consider ‘Might is Right’ to be consistent.[37]

Yet Redbeard himself is not, it seems, himself entirely oblivious of this necessary implication, since, on various occasions he comes close to accepting this very conclusion. 

Take, for example, the following stanza from The Philosophy of Power (aka The Logic of Today): 

What are the lords of horded gold—the silent Semite rings
What are the plunder patriots—High pontiffs, priests and kings?
What are they but bold masterminds, best fitted for the fray
Who comprehend and vanquish by—the Logic of Today.” 

Here, “the lords of horded gold” and, more specifically, “the silent Semite rings” are explicitly equated with “bold masterminds, best suited to the fray” who “comprehend and vanquish” in accordance with the tenets of Redbeard’s own philosophy of power. 

Likewise, Redbeard does not exclude from his pantheon of heroes those military leaders, historical or mythological, who conquered and vanquished in accordance with Redbeard’s theory merely on account merely of their Jewish ethnicity. 

Thus, in The Philosophy of Power he is unapologetic in declaring, “Might is Right when Joshua led his hordes o’er Jordan’s foam” and when “Gideon led the ‘chosen’ tribes of old”, just as much as when “Titus burnt their temple roofed with gold”.[38]

Yet, elsewhere, Redbeard evades the inescapable conclusion of his own arguments—namely that, if Jews do indeed control the world, this surely demonstrates that they are indeed the master race and hence that, according to Redbeard’s own philosophy, that their rule is just and right. He does so by asserting the current social, economic and political order, in which Jews are supposedly supreme, is a perversion of the natural order. 

Thus, he avers: 

What is viler than a government of slaves and usurious Jews? What is grander than a government of the Noblest and the Best – who have proved their Fitness on the plains of Death?” 

Thus, while he views democracy and Christian morality as merely a façade for a thinly veiled exploitation, inequality and subjugation no less insidious than that of the ancients, nevertheless Redbeard yearns for the return of a more naked manifestation of authority and exploitation. 

In other words, he seems to be saying: Might is Right—but only so long as the right ‘Might’ is currently in power! 

The Coming (Long Overdue) Armageddon? 

Yet as well as calling for the overthrow of the current corrupt social, political and economic system, Redbeard also believes we may not have long to wait—for, being unnatural, the current system is also, he insists, inherently unsustainable. 

Thus, a recurrent theme throughout ‘Might is Right’ is the coming collapse of Western civilization, which is, according to Redbeard, both inevitable and long overdue. Thus, he writes: 

The Philosophy of Power has slumbered long but whenever men of sterling are found, it must again sweep away the ignoble dollar-damned pedlarisms of today and openly, as of old, dominate the destiny of an emancipated and all-conquering race.” 

Over a century after Redbeard penned these words, this collapse has conspicuously yet to occur. On the contrary, the ostensibly decadent liberal democratic polities and capitalist economies that Redbeard so disparages have only continued to flourish and spread—and, in the process, become ever more decadent. 

Against Civilization 

Yet, although he anticipates the coming collapse of Western civilization, Redbeard is far from pessimistic about this outcome. On the contrary, it is something he, not only anticipates, but very much welcomes and, indeed, regards as long overdue. 

This then demonstrates, in case we still harbored any doubts, just how radical and transgressive Redbeard’s philosophy truly is. 

Thus, whereas conservatives and white nationalists usually pose as defenders of western civilization, Redbeard himself evinces no such conceit. 

He does not want to restore Western civilization or, to adopt a famous political slogan, Make America Great Again. Rather, he wants to do away with civilization altogether, American capitalist democracy very much included.

Civilization is, for Redbeard, inherently decadent and effeminate. Thus, he laments of contemporary society: 

This world is too peaceful, too acquiescent, too tame. It is a circumcised world. Nay! – a castrated world! It must be made fiercer, before it can become grander and better and – more natural.” 

Redbeard’s posited utopia is, then, any other man’s dystopia—a Hobbesian State of Nature or ‘war of all against all’. 

Thus, although, as we have seen, Redbeard views naked self-interest as underlying the façades of liberal democracy and Christian morality, he nevertheless pines for a government that relies openly on naked force rather than a pretense of democracy or egalitarianism

Thus, where Bertrand Russell famously disparaged Nietzsche’s philosophy as amounting to nothing more than, I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici, Redbeard prefers, not the civilization of Athens, but rather the barbarism of Vikingdom. 

Redbeard’s Racialism Revisited – and Debunked! 

Yet Redbeard’s preference for barbarism over civilization also, ironically, undercuts any plausible basis for his racialism and Nordic supremacism

After all, the main evidence cited by white supremacists in support of the theory that whites are superior to other races is the achievements of whites in the spheres of science, technology, art, democracy, human rights, architecture, mathematics and metallurgy (and on IQ tests) – in short, their achievements in all the spheres that contribute towards creating and maintaining successful, peaceful, stable and technologically-advanced civilization

Yet, if one rejects civilization as an ideal, then on what grounds can whites still be held up as superior? 

After all, blacks are quite as capable of being barbarians as are Nordic Vikings and Teutons. Indeed, these days they seem to be better at it! 

Thus, the high crime rates of blacks, and abysmal state of civilization in so much of sub-Saharan Africa, not to mention Haiti, Baltimore and Detroit, so often cited by racialists as evidence of black pathology, is, from the perspective of Redbeard’s inverted morality, converted into positive evidence for black supremacy! 

Blacks are, today, better barbarians than are whites. Therefore, from the perspective of Redbeard’s savage theory, they must be the true Herrenvolk

Against Intellectualism 

Finally, rejecting civilization leads Redbeard ultimately to reject intellectualism too: 

Intellectualism renders more sensitive. Sensitive persons are very excitable, timid, and liable to disease. Over cultivation of the brain cells undoubtedly produces… physical decay and leads on towards insanity.” 

Perhaps this excuses the intellectual inadequacy of, and rampant internal contradictions within, his own philosophical treatise⁠. 

However, it also begs the question as to why Redbeard ever chose to write a philosophical treatise in the first place—an inherently intellectual endeavour. 

Indeed, had Redbeard, whoever this pseudonymous author really was, truly believed in and followed the precepts of his own philosophy, then he surely would never have put pen to paper, since he would be far too busy waging wars of conquest and enslaving inferior peoples. 

Indeed, his writing of the book is not merely a distraction from more important activities (e.g. war, conquest), but also positively counterproductive—because the more people learn the truth from his book and are inspired to lead conquests of their own, then the less willing they will be to be conquered and enslaved by Redbeard, and the more competition he will have in his envisaged conquests.[39]

Yet, whatever the true identity of the pseudonymous author who wrote under the pen-name of “Ragnar Redbeard”, he was surely neither Napoleon nor Alexander the Great. (For one thing, the dates don’t match up.) 

Therefore, Redbeard, whoever he was, did not live, or die, by his own philosophy, which, like the Christian morality he so detests, sets impossibly high standards for its adherents. 

Indeed, even leaving aside the contradictions and inconsistencies, Redbeard’s philosophy is so extreme that almost no one could ever truly live by it. Indeed, it would be far easier to die by Redbeard’s theory than it would be to live by it. 

Thus, Redbeard admonishes readers in his poem, The Philosophy of Power (aka The Logic of Today): 

You must prove your Right by deeds of Might of splendor and renown.
If need-be march through flames of hell, to dash opponents down.
If need-be die on scaffold high on the morning’s misty gray is still
For Liberty or Death is still the Logic of To-Day.” 

Thus, for Redbeard, the only truly honourable outcomes are either an endless succession of conquests and victory, or death in the pursuit thereof. 

Far better for a free animal to be killed outright, than to be mastered, subordinated, and enchained.” 

Thus, inevitably failing to live up to his own impossibly high ideals, Redbeard, whoever he was, must, to the extent he truly believed in the ideals he espoused, have been consumed by insecurity and self-hate. 

Ragnar Redbeard”: An Alter-Ego or a Fictional Character of Arthur Desmond’s Invention? 

This leads me to consider a possibility that I first dismissed offhand—namely that ‘Might is Right’ is indeed, as some have claimed, a work of satire, a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the worst excesses of social Darwinism and Nietzscheanism. 

Yet this simply cannot be true. The very power of Redbeard’s words demonstrates that the author was at the very least sympathetic to the ideas he espouses.

I cannot believe any writer, howsoever gifted, could ever write such brilliant poetry, nor coin such memorable aphorisms, in support of a theory to which he was himself wholly opposed and had no attachment whatsoever.  

This leads me to a third possibility. Perhaps the author, almost certainly one Arthur Desmond, was adopting a persona, namely that of “Ragnar Redbeard”, in order to explore, and take to their logical if remorseless conclusion, ideas with which he had developed a fascination, but to which he was nevertheless unwilling to put his own name. 

Thus, other philosophers, notably the proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, have written under pseudonyms in order to explore alternative, often mutually contradictory, viewpoints. 

Perhaps then, in adopting the persona of Ragnar Redbeard, Arthur Desmond was doing the same thing. 

In other words, ‘Might is Right’ is neither an exposition of Desmond’s own views, nor still less a parody or critique of these views, but rather a kind of extended thought-experiment

Thus, just as Plato used his own fictionalized version of Socrates as a mouthpiece through which to expound ideas what were, in reality, almost certainly very much Plato’s own, so Arthur Desmond invented the entirely fictional figure, or alter-ego, of “Ragnar Redbeard” to espouse ideas which were, again, very much Desmond’s own, but to which he was nevertheless as yet unwilling to put his own name or entirely commit himself. 

This would make sense given the extremely controversial nature of the views expressed by Redbeard in his treatise. 

Clearly, Desmond was a bold, daring, radical, even extremist thinker, who could certainly never be accused of intellectual cowardice. However, to wholly commit himself to Redbeard’s severe and remorseless philosophy was perhaps a step too far even for him. 

After all, as we have seen, to truly live by Redbeard’s philosophy is almost an impossibility.  

Thus, by writing under pseudonym, Desmond would shield himself from the allegation that, in failing to lead any wars of conquest of his own, he was a hypocrite who failed to live up to the ideals of his own ideals. 

This idea, namely that Redbeard was, no so much a mere pseudonym or pen name, but an alter-ego or fictional character of Desmond’s own creation, might help explain why, although writing in a name other than his own, Desmond apparently made little if any effort to conceal his authorship, his own name often appearing on the same byline as that of his persona “Ragnar Redbeard” in the various obscure turn-of-the-century Nietzschean, anarchist and Egoist publications for which he wrote.[40]

Ragnar Redbeard” is not then a mere pen-name. Rather, he is an alter-ego or alternate persona, in whose voice the author chose to author this work. 

Thus, the views expressed are not necessarily, at least without reservation, those of the Desmond himself. But neither is there any evidence that Desmond opposed to these views either, let alone that he soughtt to parody or satirize such views. 

Rather, they are the views, not of Desmond, but of “Ragnar Redbeard”, a fictional character of Desmond’s own creation.

God is dead! Long live Ragnar Redbeard!

Endnotes

[1] To the extent it is remembered or widely read today, it is largely among, on the one hand, certain of the more intellectually-minded (and sociopathic) white nationalists, and, on the other, an equally marginal fringe of occultists and self-styled Satanists. Both associations are odd and actually contrary Redbeard’s philosophy. On the one hand, Redbeard is, despite his racialism, actually an egoist and radical individualist, influenced at least as much by Stirner as by Nietzsche and hence opposed to nationalism of any guise (see above). On the other, Redbeard is nothing if not a trenchant materialist, opposed to all forms of supernaturalism religion, occultism presumably very much included. (Admittedly, he does aver, in Sayings of Redbeard that “Christ is dead. Thor lives and reigns”. However, this is clearly meant in a metaphoric sense, as when Nietzsche declared the death of God, rather than an actual endorsement of paganism.) The curious association of Redbeard’s work with occultism seems to derive from the championing of his work, then apparently largely forgotten, by Anton Lavey, founder of the Church of Satan. Indeed, Lavey stands accused of lifting large sections of his own Satanic Bible directly from ‘Might is Right’. Perhaps among the aspects of conventional morality rejected by Laveyian Satanists is the prohibition on plagiarism. However, Lavey’s Satanism is resolutely nontheistic and indeed almost as trenchantly materialist as Redbeard’s own severe philosophy. 

[2] Leo Tolstoy was also familiar with Redbeard’s treatise, referring to it in name in his essay What is Art?’ and accurately summarizing its key tenets. Like Wallace, he has little time for Redbeard‘s philosophy. However, despite his literary background, Tolstoy, unlike Wallace, fails to show any appreciation of the brilliance of Redbeard’s verse, perhaps on account of his lack of fluency in English, which has also been suggested as a reason for his failure to appreciate the work of Shakespeare.

[3] Indeed, given that he, at times, rejects the whole notion of morality, it is doubtful whether Redbeard would indeed welcome being described as a moral philosopher anyway. As will become clear in the course of this essay, although with regard to his moral philosophy Redbeard is highly self-contradictory, I feel that, in addition to the brilliance of his poetry, Redbeard has much to offer as a political theorist.

[4] Admirers of his verse would do well to check out Sayings of Redbeard, a collection of poetry and aphorisms by the same author, including much poetry and other material omitted from ‘Might is Right’, and seemingly even less well known and widely read. As an example, I quote a shorter (seemingly untitled) piece from  Sayings of Redbeard

‘Let lions cease to prowl and fight,
Let eagles clip their wings,
Let men of might give up their right’,
The foolish poet sings.

‘Let lords of gold and Caesars bold
Forever pass away,
Enrich the slaves; enthrone the knaves,’
The base-born prophets say.

But I maintain with hand and pen
The other side of things,
The bold man’s right to rule and reign,
The way of gods and kings.

So capture crowns of wealth and power
(If you’ve the strength and can)
For strife is life’s eternal dower,
And nothing’s under ban. 

Ye, lions wake and hunt and fight,
Ye, eagles spread your wings;
Ye, men of might, believe you’re right
For you indeed are kings.

[5] Interestingly, although it is usually assumed that Redbeard is a disciple of, or at last influenced by, Nietzsche, the latter is never actually mentioned by name throughout the text, nor, to my knowledge, in any of Redbeard’s other published writings. Neither does Redbeard adopt such tell-tale Neitzschean neologisms as übermensch, slave morality etc. The ostensible editor of the original 1896 edition, one “Douglas K Handyside M.D. Ph.D.” (likely itself a pseudonym) makes, on Redbeard’s behalf, the interesting admission that:

Through his inability to read German, he [Redbeard] very deeply regrets that he cannot search thoroughly into the famous works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Felix Dahn, Alexander Tille, Karl Gutzkow, Max Stirner and other missionaries of what Huxley names ‘The New Reformation’.”

At the time Redbeard was writing, of course, English translations of many of these works were not widely available. Redbeard’s themes, however, do often echo, or at least mirror, those of both Nietzsche and Stirner in particular.

[6] Strictly speaking, presumably, for Redbeard, an individual’s own personal morality need not necessarily be wholly different from that of every other person, so long as it is arrived at independently. A person could, purely by chance, or by rather convergent reasoning, arrive at the same moral ethos as his neighbour. However, this is acceptable to Redbeard only so long as the convergence occurred without any coercion or indoctrination.

[7] Perhaps this apparent contradiction could be reconciled by claiming that, although each man must, for the sake of his freedom, determine anew his own version of morality, nevertheless, given the power of Redbeard‘s arguments, any intelligent, rational individual will inevitably arrive at the same conclusion as he himself. Interestingly in this light, although Redbeard usually regarded as having been influenced by Nietzsche in his views on morality, the latter is never actually cited or otherwise mentioned by name, or quoted, at any point within Redbeard’s text. Perhaps Redbeard is thereby attempting to emphasize that, howsoever much his ideas may converge with those of Nietzsche, they are nevertheless very much of his own, derived by way of independent reasoning.

[8] ‘The editors, ‘A bogus book ‘The Survival or the Fittest or The Philosophy of Power’ By Ragnar Redbeard’Tocsin, Thursday 23 March 1899. 

[9] This is certainly true of communism. Communism’s apologists typically claim that “‘true communism’ has never been tried, but this only illustrates the fact that there is a reason that true communism has never been achieved – namely, it is simply impossible and unworkable and therefore never could be achieved. Watered-down socialism, in the form of what is today called social democracy has proven workable and sustainable, albeit at some economic cost, in, for example, the, perhaps not unconincidentally, (until recently) racially and ethnically homogenous Nordic economies.

[10] Such small utopian communes sometimes succeed for a generation, because those drawn to them are highly committed to the ideology of the group, which is why they choose to join the group, and are thus a highly self-selected sample. However, they typically either break down, or, as in the case of Israeli kibbutzim, abandon many aspects of the original ideology and practice of the group, in succeeding generations, as those born into the group, though raised according to its precepts, nevertheless lack the commitment to its ideals of their parents. On the contrary, they often inherit their parents’ rebellious streak, the very rebellious streak that led their parent to join a commune, but which, in their offspring, leads them to rebel against the teaching of the commune. 

[11] Matthew 5 39-42; Luke 6: 27-31.

[12] Matthew 7.

[13] Giving up one‘s worldly possessions is explicitly commanded by Jesus in passages such as Mark 10:21Luke 14:33.

[14] In pinning their hopes on science for our liberation, secularists are, rather ironically, themselves following the biblical teaching that the truth shall set you free (John 8:32). In reality, the truth does not set us free: It merely reveals the truth of our own enslavement, namely precisely that which we were seeking to escape in the first place.

[15] Matthew 5 39-42Luke 6: 27-31.

[16] Matthew 22:21

[17] Wood, A (1990) ’Marx Against Morality’,in Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics (pp. 511- 524) Oxford: Blackwell.

[18] For more on this interesting topic, see Wood, A (1990) ’Marx Against Morality’,in Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics (pp. 511- 524) Oxford: Blackwell; Rosen, M. (2000). The Marxist Critique of Morality and the Theory of IdeologyMorality, Reflection and Ideology, 21-43.

[19] Thus, Nietzsche observed in The Anti-Christ

The anarchist and the Christian have the same ancestry” (The Anti-Christ). 

Hitler was later to reiterate the same point in his Table Talk, albeit with added (or at least more explicit) anti-Semitism, writing:

The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew” (Hitler’s Table Talk).

Here, Hitler directly echoes, and indeed combines, not only the quotation from Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ that I have quoted just above but also passage from The Anti-Christ, where Nietzsche anticipates Hitler by lamenting:

Christianity remains to this day the greatest misfortune of humanity” (The Anti-Christ).

Clearly, if Marxism, anarchism and Christianity share the same ancestry, so perhaps do Nietzsche and Hitler – and perhaps Redbeard too.

[20] After all, throughout history, conquest and subjugation has been a frequent occurrence. However, only rarely have states or peoples voluntarily entered into unions with other states or peoples in order to form a new state or people. On the contrary, peoples, with their inevitable petty hatreds against even their close neighbours (indeed, especially against close neighbours) are almost always reluctant to surrender their own traditions and identity, howsoever petty and parochial, and be subsumed into larger monolithic ethnic grouping. Moreover, when such unified polities have been voluntarily formed, this has typically been either to facilitate or forestall conquest, as when a group of smaller polities join together to protect themselves against a potential conqueror through force of numbers, or when they join together to facilitate the conquest of a third-party power. Even voluntary unions, then, are typically formed for the purposes of conquest or resisting conquest. Thus, as Herbert Spencer wrote: 

Only by imperative need for combination in war were primitive man led into cooperation” (quoted in: Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny: p56). 

Indeed, Robert Wright goes so far as to suggest: 

This is almost like a general law of history…formerly contentious Greek states form the Delian league to battle Persia, five previously warring tribes forming the Iroquois league (under Hiawatha’s deft diplomacy) in the sixteenth century after menacing white men arrived in America; American white men, two centuries later, merging thirteen colonies into a confederacy amid British hostility… The loosely confederated tribes [of Israel] transform[ing] themselves into a unified monarchy [under threat from the Philistines]” (Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny: p58). 

[21] This quotation is taken, not from ‘Might is Right’, but rather from Sayings of Redbeard, a separate collection of aphorisms and poetry by the same author.

[22] This quotation comes from ‘Might is Right’. Another formulation on the same theme, and an extension of the same rhyming couplet, is found in Sayings of Redbeard, where the author writes: 

Poison lurks in pastor preachments,
Satan works through golden rules,
Hell is paved with law and justice,
Christs were made to fetter fools.”

[23] Perhaps first-generation immigrants are an exception, having chosen to migrate to the jurisdiction of their choosing and hence voluntarily agreed to be bound by its laws. However, even this decision is hardly made “in a state of… unrestrained liberty”, the stringent condition demanded by Redbeard. After all, there are only a limited number of jurisdictions to choose from, most of them with legal systems, and bodies of law, rather similar to one another, such that the actual choice is even more limited. Incidentally, Arthur Desmond, the likely real person behind the pseudonymous Redbeard, was himself a migrant, having migrated from New Zealand to the USA at the time he authored this book. 

[24] Thus, Redbeard concludes:

The ‘Voice of the People’ can only be compared to the fearsome shrieks of agony that may now and then be heard, issuing forth from the barred windows of a roadside madhouse.” 

[25] For socialists to champion work is, however, altogether odder. Indeed, the very essence of leftist ideology implicitly presumes that work is something to be avoided. Thus, those who are obliged to work, through coercion or circumstance (i.e. slaves, wage-slaves, serfs and the aptly-named ‘working-classes) are, by virtue of this fact alone, presumed to be oppressed and exploited, while those who are exempt from work (the idle rich and leisure class) are regarded as privileged, if not as exploitative oppressors, on precisely this account. Yet somehow leftist agitation on behalf of workers was corrupted into a sentimental celebration of the working classes, and thence into a sentimental celebration of work itself as somehow ennobling. A cynic, of course, would suggest that this curious transformation was deliberately engineered by the capitalist employers and government themselves, and would also observe that ostensibly socialist governments tend to be as exploitative of, and parasitic upon, the working population as are every other form of government. This is, of course, the view of Redbeard himself.

[26] Interestingly, at one point in the same discussion, Redbeard seems to go yet further, rejecting not only the labour theory of property, but also the so-called labour theory of value. This is the idea, long discredited among serious economists, but still held to as a sacrosanct dogma by unreconstructed Marxists and other such professional damned fools, that the value or price of a commodity is determined by the labour expended in creating it. Thus, Redbeard seemingly attempts to argue that, not just ownership, but also economic value is somehow determined by force of arms:

“The sword, not labor, is the true creator of economic values.” 

I am, of course, like all right-thinking people, all in favour of gratuitous sideswipes at Marxism. Moreover, the labour theory of value is indeed largely discredited. However, the idea that value, in the economic sense, can be created by force of arms seems to me even more wrongheaded than the idea that value of a commodity is determined by the labour expended in creating it, and it is difficult to envisage how this idea would work in practice. At any rate, whatever the merits of this admittedly novel and intiguing idea, to justify such a notion, some sort of sustained argument is clearly required. Redbeard’s single throwaway sentence clearly does not suffice.

[27] Of course, a Darwinian perspective is arguably no more flattering to males. If the quintessential female is specialized for making eggs, then the quintessential male is an organism specialized to compete to fertilize as many such eggs as possible. Males, therefore, are destined to compete for access to females. This, of course, does not mean that for a either a man or a woman, or a male or female of any other species, to devote their life to such an endeavour is necessarily the morally right thing to do, nor even that it is necessarily the most psychologically rewarding course of action. 

[28] For example, James Watson reports that, whereas 94% of the Y-chromosomes of contemporary Colombians are European, mitochondrial DNA shows a “range of Amerindian MtDNA types” (DNA: The Secret of Life: p257). Thus, he concludes, “the virtual absence of Amerindian Y chromosome types, reveals the tragic story of colonial genocide: indigenous men were eliminated while local women were sexually ‘assimilated’ by the conquistadors” (Ibid: p257). Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon and Viking invaders to Britain made a greater contribution to the Y-chromosomes of the English than they did to our mitochondrial DNA (see Blood of the Isles).

[29] I put the phrase ‘warrior genes’ in inverted commas because Redbeard was actually writing before the modern synthesis i.e. before importance of Mendel’s pioneering work regarding the mechanism of heredity, what is today called genetics, was widely recognized. Redbeard himself therefore does not refer to ‘genes’ as such. 

[30] Shaw GB (1903) Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists

[31] Indeed, perhaps the only exception to this general principle is in respect of those sporting events in which women are also themselves the competitors, since most men are, in my experience, uninterested in female sports. Yet this is clearly totally contrary to Redbeard’s theory of sports as an arena for female mate choice. For a more sophisticated evolutionary theory of competitive sport, see Lombardo (2012)  On the Evolution of Sport Evolutionary Psychology 10(1).

[32] In referring to “male coercion”, I do not have in mind primarily outright rape, though this did indeed likely play some small part in the propagation of warrior genes as it is a recurrent feature of war and conquest. Rather, I have in mind more subtle and indirect mechanisms of coercion such as, for example, arranged marriages.

[33] Other predators rarely drive their prey to extinction, since, once the prey species starts to become rare, then the predator species either switches to a different source of food (e.g. a different prey species) or else, bereft of food, starts to dwindle in numbers itself, such that, one way or another, the prey species is able to recover somewhat in numbers. Humans are said to be an exception because, in human cultures, there is often prestige in successfully capturing an especially rare prey, such that humans continue to hunt an endangered species right up to the point of extinction even when, in purely nutritional terms, this is a sub-optimal foraging strategy: see Hawkes K (1991) Showing off: Tests of an hypothesis about men’s foraging goals Ethology and Sociobiology 12(1): 29-54.

[34] Quoted in: Brownworth, L The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings: p20.

[35] Thus, Anton Lavey, in lifting material from ‘Might is Right’ for his own so-called Satanic Bible, largely cut out the racialist and anti-Semitic content, and, in doing so, produced a philosophy that was at least as consistent and coherent as Redbeard’s own (which is to say, not very consistent or coherent at all).

[36] As Robert, a character from Michel Houellebecq’s Platform, observes: 

All anti-Semites agree that the Jews have a certain superiority. If you read anti-Semitic literature, you’re struck by the fact that the Jew is considered to be more intelligent, more cunning, that he is credited with having singular financial talents – and, moreover, greater communal solidarity. Result: six million dead.” 

Indeed, even Hitler in Mein Kampf came close to conceding Jewish superiority, writing:

The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew. In hardly any people in the world is the instinct of self-preservation developed more strongly than in the so-called ‘chosen’. Of this, the mere fact of the survival of this race may be considered the best proof. Where is the people which in the last two thousand years has been exposed to so slight changes of inner disposition, character, etc., as the Jewish people? What people, finally, has gone through greater upheavals than this one – and nevertheless issued from the mightiest catastrophes of mankind unchanged? What an infinitely tough will to live and preserve the species speaks from these facts” (Mein Kampf, Manheim translation).

Thus, Nazi propaganda claimed that Jews controlled banking, moneylending, whole swathes of the German economy and dominated the legal and medical professions. Yet, if Jews, who composed only a tiny fraction of the Weimar population, did indeed dominate the economy to the extent claimed by the Nazis then, this not only suggested that Jews were far from inferior to their ‘Aryan’ hosts, but also that the Germans themselves, in allowing themselves to be dominated by a group so small in number, were anything but the Aryan Übermensch of Hitler’s own imagining.

[37] Might is Right: The Authoritative Edition: p259.

[38] In the authoritative edition, the editor, Trevor Blake, suggests that, just as Anton Lavey, in plagiarizing ‘Might is Right’, omitted the racialist and anti-Semitic elements, so, in editions produced by some white nationalist presses, these favourable references to Jewish figures are omitted. He does not, however, cite any specific examples of alterations from the text. Interestingly, however, the first version of the poem The Philosophy of Power (aka The Logic of Today) with which I became familiar did just that, replacing “Might is Right when Joshua led his hordes o’er Jordan’s foam” with “Might is Right when Genghis led his hordes o’er Danube’s foam”. Indeed, a google search for this version reveals nearly as many hits as for the correct, original wording, perhaps because this version was also used as the lyrics for a song by nineties white power band, Rahowa in their album, ‘Cult of the Holy War. Perhaps, from a white nationalist perspective, praising a non-white Asian military conqueror is more acceptable than praising a mythical Jewish military conqueror.

[39] From a social Darwinist perspective, however, this is to be welcomed, since it increases the competition between prospective despots and dictators, and hence ensures that only the greatest conqueror will prevail. However, among the many contradictions in ‘Might is Right’ is that Redbeard vacillates between championing a radical individualist egoist morality, and a social Darwinist ethos. Social Darwinism is actually, in a sense, a collectivist ideology, since, although it champions conflict between individuals, it does so only so that the only most superior individuals survive and reproduce, hence resulting in a eugenic benefit to the group or species as a whole. This is, of course, diametrically opposed to an individualist egoist ethos.

[40] So, at least, it is claimed here, by Underworld Amusements, publishers of what purports to be, with no little justification, The Authoritative Edition of the book. 

Peter Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’

Peter Singer, ‘A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation’, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1999.

Social Darwinism is dead. 

The idea that charity, welfare and medical treatment ought to be withheld from the poor, the destitute and the seriously ill so that they perish in accordance with the process of natural selection and hence facilitate further evolutionary progress survives only as a straw man sometimes attributed to conservatives by leftists in order to discredit them, and a form of guilt by association sometimes invoked by creationists in order to discredit the theory of evolution.[1]

However, despite the attachment of many American conservatives to creationism, there remains a perception that evolutionary psychology is somehow right-wing

Thus, if humans are fundamentally selfish, as Richard Dawkins is taken, not entirely accurately, to have argued, then this surely confirms the underlying assumptions of classical economics. 

Of course, as Dawkins also emphasizes, we have evolved through kin selection to be altruistic towards our close biological relatives. However, this arguably only reinforces conservatives’ faith in the family, and their concerns regarding the effects of family breakdown and substitute parents

Finally, research on sex differences surely suggests that at least some traditional gender roles – e.g. women’s role in caring for young children, and men’s role in fighting wars – do indeed have a biological basis, and also that patriarchy and the gender pay gap may be an inevitable result of innate psychological differences between the sexes

Political scientist Larry Arnhart thus champions what he calls a new ‘Darwinian Conservatism’, which harnesses the findings of evolutionary psychology in support of family values and the free market. 

Against this, however, moral philosopher and famed animal liberation activist Peter Singer, in ‘A Darwinian Left’, seeks to reclaim Darwin, and evolutionary psychology, for the Left. His attempt is not entirely successful. 

The Naturalistic Fallacy 

At least since David Hume, it has an article of faith among most philosophers that one cannot derive values from facts. To do otherwise is to commit what some philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy

Edward O Wilson, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was widely accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, by attempting to derive moral values form facts. However, those evolutionary psychologists who followed in his stead have generally taken a very different line. 

Indeed, recognition that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy has proven very useful to evolutionary psychologists, since it has enabled them investigate the possible evolutionary functions of such morally questionable (or indeed downright morally reprehensible) behaviours as infidelityrape, warfare and child abuse while at the same time denying that they are somehow thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question.[2] 

Singer, like most evolutionary psychologists, also reiterates the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value dichotomy

Thus, in attempting to construct his ‘Darwinian Left’, Singer does not attempt to use Darwinism in order to provide a justification or ultimate rationale for leftist egalitarianism. Rather, he simply takes it for granted that equality is a good thing and worth striving for, and indeed implicitly assumes that his readers will agree. 

His aim, then, is not to argue that socialism is demanded by a Darwinian worldview, but rather simply that it is compatible with such a worldview and not contradicted by it. 

Thus, he takes leftist ideals as his starting-point, and attempts to argue only that accepting the Darwinian worldview should not cause one to abandon these ideals as either undesirable or unachievable. 

But if we accept that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy then this only raises the question: If it is indeed true that moral values cannot be derived from scientific facts, whence can moral values be derived?  

Can they only be derived from other moral values? If so, how are our ultimate moral values, from which all other moral values are derived, themselves derived? 

Singer does not address this. However, precisely by failing to address it, he seems to implicitly assume that our ultimate moral values must simply be taken on faith. 

However, Singer also emphasizes that rejecting the naturalistic fallacy does not mean that the facts of human nature are irrelevant to politics. 

On the contrary, while Darwinism may not prescribe any particular political goals as desirable, it may nevertheless help us determine how to achieve those political goals that we have already decided upon. Thus, Singer writes: 

An understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals… as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so” (p15). 

Thus, in a memorable metaphor, Singer observes: 

Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood, Instead they will examine the material with which they are to work and modify their design in order to suit its grain…Those seeking to reshape human society must understand the tendencies inherent within human beings, and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them” (p40). 

Abandoning Utopia? 

In addition to suggesting how our ultimate political objectives might best be achieved, an evolutionary perspective also suggests that some political goals might simply be unattainable, at least in the absence of a wholesale eugenic reengineering of human nature itself. 

In watering down the utopian aspirations of previous generations of leftists, Singer seems to implicitly concede as much. 

Contrary to the crudest misunderstanding of selfish gene theory, humans are not entirely selfish. However, we have evolved to put our own interests, and those of their kin, above those of other humans. 

For this reason, communism is unobtainable because: 

  1. People strive to promote themselves and their kin above others; 
  2. Only coercive state apparatus can prevent them so doing; 
  3. The individuals in control of this coercive apparatus themselves seek to promote the interests of themselves and their kin and corruptly use this coercive apparatus to do so. 

Thus, Singer laments: 

What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders?” (p39). 

Or, alternatively, as HL Mencken put it:

“[The] one undoubted effect [of political revolutions] is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another.” 

In addition, human selfishness suggests, if complete egalitarianism were ever successfully achieved and enforced, it would likely be economically inefficient – because it would remove the incentive of self-advancement that lies behind the production of goods and services, not to mention of works of art and scientific advances. 

Thus, as Adam Smith famously observed: 

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 

And, again, the only other means of ensuring goods and services are produced besides economic self-interest is state coercion, which, given human nature, will always be exercised both corruptly and inefficiently. 

What’s Left? 

Singer’s pamphlet has been the subject of much controversy, with most of the criticism coming, not from conservatives, whom one might imagine to be Singer’s natural adversaries, but rather from other self-described leftists. 

These leftist critics have included both writers opposed to evolutionary psychology (e.g. David Stack in The First Darwinian Left), but also some other writers claiming to be broadly receptive to the new paradigm but who are clearly uncomfortable with some of its implications (e.g.  Marek Kohn in As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind). 

In apparently rejecting the utopian transformation of society envisioned by Marx and other radical socialists, Singer has been accused by other leftists for conceding rather too much to the critics of leftism. In so doing, Singer has, they claim, in effect abandoned leftism in all but name and become, in their view, an apologist for and sell-out to capitalism. 

Whether Singer can indeed be said to have abandoned the Left depends, of course, on precisely how we define ‘the Left’, a rather more problematic matter than it is usually regarded as being.[3]

For his part, Singer certainly defines the Left in unusually broad terms.

For Singer, leftism need not necessarily entail taking the means of production into common ownership, nor even the redistribution of wealth. Rather, at its core, being a leftist is simply about being: 

On the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider” (p8). 

However, this definition is obviously problematic. After all, few conservatives would admit to being on the side of the oppressor. 

On the contrary, conservatives and libertarians usually reject the dichotomous subdivision of society into oppressed’ and ‘oppressor groups. They argue that the real world is more complex than this simplistic division of the world into black and white, good and evil, suggests. 

Moreover, they argue that mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, rather than exploitation, is the essence of capitalism. 

They also usually claim that their policies benefit society as a whole, including both the poor and rich, rather than favouring one class over another.[4]

Indeed, conservatives claim that socialist reforms often actually inadvertently hurt precisely those whom they attempt to help. Thus, for example, welfare benefits are said to encourage welfare dependency, while introducing, or raising the level of, a minimum wage is said to lead to increases in unemployment. 

Singer declares that a Darwinian left would “promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61).

Yet many conservatives would share Singer’s aspiration to create a more altruistic culture. 

Indeed, this aspiration seems more compatible with the libertarian notion of voluntary charitable donations replacing taxation than with the coercively-extracted taxes invariably favoured by the Left. 

Nepotism and Equality of Opportunity 

Yet selfish gene theory suggests humans are not entirely self-interested. Rather, kin selection makes us care also about our biological relatives.

But this is no boon for egalitarians. 

Rather, the fact that our selfishness is tempered by a healthy dose of nepotism likely makes equality of opportunity as unattainable as equality of outcome – because individuals will inevitably seek to aid the social, educational and economic advancement of their kin, and those individuals better placed to do so will enjoy greater success in so doing. 

For example, parents with greater resources will be able to send their offspring to exclusive fee-paying schools or obtain private tuition for them; parents with better connections may be able to help their offspring obtain better jobs; while parents with greater intellectual ability may be able to better help their offspring with their homework. 

However, since many conservatives and libertarians are as committed to equality of opportunity as socialists are to equality of outcome, this conclusion may be as unwelcome on the right as on the left. 

Indeed, the theory of kin selection has even been invoked to suggest that ethnocentrism is innate and ethnic conflict is inevitable in multi-ethnic societies, a conclusion unwelcome across the mainstream political spectrum in the West today, where political parties of all persuasions are seemingly equally committed to building multi-ethnic societies. 

Unfortunately, Singer does not address any of these issues. 

Animal Liberation After Darwin 

Singer is most famous for his advocacy on behalf of what he calls animal liberation

In ‘A Darwinian Left’, he argues that the Darwinian worldview reinforces the case for animal liberation by confirming the evolutionary continuity between humans other animals. 

This suggests that there are unlikely to be fundamental differences in kind as between humans and other animals (e.g. in the capacity to feel pain) sufficient to justify the differences in treatment currently accorded humans and animals. 

It sharply contrasts account of creation in the Bible and the traditional Christian notion of humans as superior to other animals and as occupying an intermediate position between beasts and angels. 

Thus, Singer concludes: 

By knocking out the idea that we are a separate creation from the animals, Darwinian thinking provided the basis for a revolution in our attitudes to non-human animals” (p17). 

This makes our consumption of animals as food, our killing of them for sport, our enslavement of them as draft animals, or even pets, and our imprisonment of them in zoos and laboratories all ethically suspect, since these are not things generally permitted in respect of humans. 

Yet Singer fails to recognise that human-animal continuity cuts two ways. 

Thus, anti-vivisectionists argue that animal testing is not only immoral, but also ineffective, because drugs and other treatments often have very different effects on humans than they do on the animals used in drug testing. 

Our evolutionary continuity with non-human species makes this argument less plausible. 

Moreover, if humans are subject to the same principles of natural selection as other species, this suggests, not the elevation of animals to the status of humans, but rather the relegation of humans to just another species of animal. 

In short, we do not occupy a position midway between beasts and angels; we are beasts through and through, and any attempt to believe otherwise is mere delusion. 

This is, of course, the theme of John Gray’s powerful polemic Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed hereherehere and here). 

Finally, acceptance of the existence of human nature surely entails recognition of carnivory as a part of that nature. 

Of course, we must remember not to commit the naturalistic or appeal to nature fallacy.  

Thus, just because meat-eating may be natural for humans, in the sense that meat was a part of our ancestors diet in the EEA, this does not necessarily mean that it is morally right or even morally justifiable. 

However, the fact that meat is indeed a natural part of the human diet does suggest that, in health terms, vegetarianism is likely to be nutritionally sub-optimal. 

Thus, the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy is not always entirely fallacious, at least when it comes to human health. What is natural for humans is indeed what we are biologically adapted to and what our body is therefore best designed to deal with.[5]

Therefore, vegetarianism is almost certainly to some degree sub-optimal in nutritional terms. 

Moreover, given that Singer is an opponent of the view that there is a valid moral distinction between acts and omissions, then we must ask ourselves: If he believes it is wrong for us to eat animals, does he also believe we should take positive measures to prevent lions from eating gazelles? 

Economics 

Thus, bemoaning the emphasis of neoliberals on purely economic outcomes, he protests:

From an evolutionary perspective, we cannot identify wealth with self-interest… Properly understood self-interest is broader than economic self-interest” (p42). 

Singer is right. The ultimate currency of natural selection is not wealth, but rather reproductive success – and, in evolutionarily novel environments, wealth may not even correlate with reproductive success (Vining 1986). 

Thus, as discussed by Laura Betzig in Despotism and Differential Reproduction, a key difference between Marxism and sociobiology is the relative emphasis on production versus reproduction

Whereas Marxists see societal conflict and exploitation as reflecting competition over control of the means of production, for Darwinians, all societal conflict ultimately concerns control over, not the means of production, but rather what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words, women, their wombs and vaginas

Thus, sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observed: 

“The ultimate measure of human success is not production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p165). 

Production is ultimately, in Darwinian terms, merely by which to gain the necessary resources to permit successful reproduction. The latter is the ultimate purpose of life. 

Thus, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx, in his emphasis on economics (‘production’) at the expense of sex (‘reproduction’), was just another Victorian sexual prude

Competition or Cooperation: A False Dichotomy? 

In Chapter  Four, entitled “Competition or Cooperation?”, Singer argues that modern western societies, and many modern economists and evolutionary theorists, put too great an emphasis on competition at the expense of cooperation. 

Singer accepts that both competition and cooperation are natural and innate facets of human nature, and that all societies involve a balance of both. However, different societies differ in their relative emphasis on competition or cooperation, and that it is therefore possible to create a society that places a greater emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former. 

Thus, Singer declares that a Darwinian left would: 

Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61) 

However, Singer is short on practical suggestions as to how a culture of altruism is to be fostered.[6]

Changing the values of a culture is not easy. This is especially so for a liberal democratic (as opposed to a despotic, totalitarian) government, let alone for a solitary Australian moral philosopher – and Singer’s condemnation of “the nightmares of Stalinist Russia” suggests that he would not countenance the sort of totalitarian interference with human freedom to which the Left has so often resorted in the past, and continues to resort to in the present (even in the West), with little ultimate success, in the past. 

But, more fundamentally, Singer is wrong to see competition as necessarily in conflict with cooperation. 

On the contrary, perhaps the most remarkable acts of cooperation, altruism and self-sacrifice are those often witnessed in wartime (e.g. kamikaze pilotssuicide bombers and soldiers who throw themselves on grenades). Yet war represents perhaps the most extreme form of competition known to man. 

In short, soldiers risk and sacrifice their lives, not only to save the lives of others, but also to take the lives of other others. 

Likewise, trade is a form of cooperation, but are as fundamental to capitalism as is competition. Indeed, I suspect most economists would argue that exchange is even more fundamental to capitalism than is competition. 

Thus, far from disparaging cooperation, neoliberal economists see voluntary exchange as central to prosperity. 

Ironically, then, popular science writer Matt Ridley also, like Singer, focuses on humans’ innate capacity for cooperation to justify political conclusions in his book, The Origins of Virtue

But, for Ridley, our capacity for cooperation provides a rationale, not for socialism, but rather for free markets – because humans, as natural traders, produce efficient systems of exchange which government intervention almost always only distorts. 

However, whereas economic trade is motivated by self-interested calculation, Singer seems to envisage a form of reciprocity mediated by emotions such as compassiongratitude and guilt
 
However, sociobiologist Robert Trivers argues in his paper that introduced the concept of reciprocal altruism to evolutionary biology that these emotions themselves evolved through the rational calculation of natural selection (Trivers 1971). 

Therefore, while open to manipulation, especially in evolutionarily novel environments, they are necessarily limited in scope. 

Group Differences 

Singer’s envisaged ‘Darwinian Left’ would, he declares, unlike the contemporary left, abandon: 

“[The assumption] that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case” (p61). 

Instead, Singer admits that at least some disparities in achievement may reflect innate differences between individuals and groups in abilities, temperament and preferences. 

This is probably Singer’s most controversial suggestion, at least for modern leftists, since it contravenes the contemporary dogma of political correctness

Singer is, however, undoubtedly right.  

Moreover, his recognition that some differences in achievement as between groups reflect, not discrimination, oppression or even the lingering effect of past discrimination or oppression, but rather innate differences between groups in psychological traits, including intelligence, is by no means incompatible with socialism, or leftism, as socialism and leftism were originally conceived. 

Thus, it is worth pointing out that, while contemporary so-called ‘cultural Marxists‘ may decry the notion of innate differences in ability and temperament as between different racessexesindividuals and social classes as anathema, the same was not true of Marx himself

On the contrary, in famously advocating from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, Marx implicitly recognized that people differed in “ability” – differences which, given the equalization of social conditions envisaged under communism, he presumably conceived of as innate in origin.[7]

As Hans Eysenck observes:

“Stalin banned mental testing in 1935 on the grounds that it was ‘bourgeois’—at the same time as Hitler banned it as ‘Jewish’. But Stalin’s anti-genetic stance, and his support for the environmentalist charlatan Lysenko, did not derive from any Marxist or Leninist doctrine… One need only recall The Communist Manifesto: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. This clearly expresses the belief that different people will have different abilities, even in the communist heaven where all cultural, educational and other inequalities have been eradicated” (Intelligence: The Battle for the Mind: p85).

Thus, Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, points to the theoretical possibility of what he calls a “Hereditarian Left”, arguing for a Rawlsian redistribution of resources to the, if you like, innately ‘cognitively disadvantaged’.[8] 

With regard to group differences, Singer avoids discussing the incendiary topic of race differences in intelligence, a question too contentious for Singer to touch. 

Instead, he illustrates the possibility that not “all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning” with the marginally less incendiary case of sex differences.  

Here, it is sex differences, not in intelligence, but rather in temperament, preferences and personality that are probably more important, and likely explain occupational segregation and the so-called gender pay gap

Thus, Singer writes: 

If achieving high status increases access to women, then we can expect men to have a stronger drive for status than women” (p18). 

This alone, he implies, may explain both the universalilty of male rule and the so-called gender pay gap

However, Singer neglects to mention another biological factor that is also probably important in explaining the gender pay gap – namely, women’s attachment to infant offspring. This factor, also innate and biological in origin, also likely impedes career advancement among women. 

Thus, it bears emphasizing that never-married women with no children actually earn more, on average, than do unmarried men without children of the same age in both Britain and America.[9]

For a more detailed treatment of the biological factors underlying the gender pay gap, see Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality by professor of law, Kingsley Browne, which I have reviewed here and here.[10] ;See also my ;review of Warren Farrell’s Why Men Earn More, which can be found here, here and here.

Dysgenic Fertility Patterns? 

It is often claimed by conservatives that the welfare system only encourages the unemployed to have more children so as to receive more benefits and thereby promotes dysgenic fertility patterns. In response, Singer retorts:

Even if there were a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment, to say that these genes are ‘deleterious’ would involve value judgements that go way beyond what the science alone can tell us” (p15).

Singer is, of course, right that an extra-scientific value judgement is required in order to label certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as deleterious or undesirable. 

Indeed, if single mothers on welfare do indeed raise more surviving children than do those who are not reliant on state benefits, then this indicates that they have higher reproductive success, and hence, in the strict biological sense, greater fitness than their more financially independent, but less fecund, reproductive competitors. 

Therefore, far from being deleterious’ in the biological sense, genes contributing to such behaviour are actually under positive selection, at least under current environmental conditions.  

However, even if such genes are not ‘deleterious’ in the strict biological sense, this does not necessarily mean that they are desirable in the moral sense, or in the sense of contributing to successful civilizations and societal advancement. To suggest otherwise would, of course, involve a version of the very appeal to nature fallacy or naturalistic fallacy that Singer is elsewhere emphatic in rejecting. 

Thus, although regarding certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as undesirable does indeed involve an extra-scientific “value judgement”, this is not to say that the “value judgement” in question is necessarily mistaken or unwarranted. On the contrary, it means only that such a value judgement is, by its nature, a matter of morality, not of science. 

Thus, although science may be silent on the issue, virtually everyone would agree that some traits (e.g. generosity, health, happiness, conscientiousness) are more desirable than others (e.g. selfishness, laziness, depression, illness). Likewise, it is self-evident that the long-term unemployed are a net burden on society, and that a successful society cannot be formed of people unable or unwilling to work. 

As we have seen, Singer also questions whether there can be “a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment”. 

However, in the strict biological sense, unemployment probably is indeed partly heritable. So, incidentally, are road traffic accidents and our political opinions – because each reflect personality traits that are themselves heritable (e.g. risk-takers and people with poor physical coordination and slow reactions probably have more traffic accidents; and perhaps more compassionate people are more likely to favour leftist politics). 

Thus, while it may be unhelpful and misleading to talk of unemployment as itself heritable, nevertheless traits of the sort that likely contribute to unemployment (e.g. intelligenceconscientiousnessmental and physical illness) are indeed heritable

Actually, however, the question of heritability, in the strict biological sense, is irrelevant. 

Thus, even if the reason that children from deprived backgrounds have worse life outcomes is entirely mediated by environmental factors (e.g. economic or cultural deprivation, or the bad parenting practices of low-SES parents), the case for restricting the reproductive rights of those people who are statistically prone to raise dysfunctional offspring remains intact. 

After all, children usually get both their genes and their parenting from the same set of parents – and this could be changed only by a massive, costly, and decidedly illiberal, policy of forcibly removing offspring from their parents.[11]

Therefore, so long as an association between parentage and social outcomes is established, the question of whether this association is biologically or environmentally mediated is simply beside the point, and the case for restricting the reproductive rights of certain groups remains intact.  

Of course, it is doubtful that welfare-dependent women do indeed financially benefit from giving birth to additional offspring. 

It is true that they may receive more money in state benefits if they have more dependent offspring to support and provide for. However, this may well be more than offset by the additional cost of supporting and providing for the dependent offspring in question, leaving the mother with less to spend on herself. 

However, even if the additional monies paid to mothers with dependent children are not sufficient as to provide a positive financial incentive to bearing additional children, they at least reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with rearing additional offspring.  

Therefore, given that, from an evolutionary perspective, women probably have an innate desire to bear additional offspring, it follows that a rational fitness-maximizer would respond to the changed incentives represented by the welfare system by increasing their reproductive rate.[12]

A New Socialist Eugenics?

If we accept Singer’s contention that an understanding of human nature can help show us how achieve, but not choose, our ultimate political objectives, then eugenics could be used to help us achieve the goal of producing the better people and hence, ultimately, better societies. 

Indeed, given that Singer seemingly concedes that human nature is presently incompatible with communist utopia, perhaps then the only way to revive the socialist dream of equality is to eugenically re-engineer human nature itself so as to make it more compatible. 

Thus, it is perhaps no accident that, before World War Two, eugenics was a cause typically associated, not with conservatives, nor even, as today, with fascism, but rather with the political left

Thus, early twentieth century socialist-eugenicists like H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Margaret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw may then have tentatively grasped what eludes contemporary leftists, Singer very much included – namely that re-engineering society necessarily requires as a prerequisite re-engineering Man himself.[13]

_________________________

Endnotes

[1] Indeed, the view that the poor and ill ought to be left to perish so as to further the evolutionary process seems to have been a marginal one even in its ostensible late nineteenth century heyday (see Bannister, Social Darwinism Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought). The idea always seems, therefore, to have been largely, if not wholly, a straw man.

[2] In this, the evolutionary psychologists are surely right. Thus, no one accuses biomedical researchers of somehow ‘justifying disease’ when they investigate how infectious diseases, in an effort maximize their own reproductive success, spread form host to host. Likewise, nobody suggests that dying of a treatable illness is desirable, even though this may have been the ‘natural’ outcome before such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination and antibiotics were introduced.

[3] The convenional notion that we can usefully conceptualize the political spectrum on a single dimensional left-right axis is obviously preposterous. For one thing, there is, at the very least, a quite separate liberal-authoritarian dimension. However, even restricting our definition of the left-right axis to purely economic matters, it remains multi-factorial. For example, Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom classifies fascism as a left-wing ideology, because it involved big government and a planned economy. However, most leftists would reject this definition, since the planned economy in question was designed, not to reduce economic inequalities, but rather, in the case of Nazi Germany at least, to fund and sustain an expanded military force, a war economy, external military conquest and grandiose vanity public works architectural projects. The term ’right-wing‘ is even more problematic, including everyone from fascists, to libertarians to religious fundamentalists. Yet a Christian fundamentalist who wants to outlaw pornography and abortion has little in common with either a libertarian who wants to decriminalize prostitution and child pornography, nor with a eugenicist who wants to make abortions, for certain classes of person, compulsory. Yet all three are classed together as ’right-wing’ even though they share no more in common with one another than any does with a raving unreconstructed Marxist.

[4] Thus, the British Conservatives Party traditionally styled themselves one-nation conservatives, who looked to the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than what they criticized as the divisive ‘sectionalism’ of the trade union and labour movements, which favoured certain economic classes, and workers in certain industries, over others, just as contemporary leftists privilege the interests of certain ethnic, religious and culturally-defined groups (e.g. blacks, Muslims, feminists) over others (i.e. white males).

[5] Of course, some ‘unnatural’ interventions have positive health benefits. Obvious examples are modern medical treatments such as penicillin, chemotherapy and vaccination. However, these are the exceptions. They have been carefully selected and developed by scientists to have this positive effect, have gone through rigorous testing to ensure that their effects are indeed beneficial, and are generally beneficial only to people with certain diagnosed conditions. In contrast, recreational drug use almost invariably has a negative effect on health.

[6] It is certainly possible for more altruistic cultures to exist. For example, the famous (and hugely wasteful) potlatch feasts of some Native American cultures exemplify a form of competitive altruism, analogous to conspicuous consumption, and may be explicable as a form of status display in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle. However, recognizing that such cultures exist does not easily translate into working out how to create or foster such cultures, let alone transform existing cultures in this direction.

[7]  Indeed, by modern politically-correct standards, Marx was a rampant racist, not to mention an anti-Semite

[8] The term Rawlsian is a reference to political theorist John Rawles version of social contract theory, whereby he poses the hypothetical question as to what arrangement of political, social and economic affairs humans would favour if placed in what he called the original position, where they would be unaware of, not only their own race, sex and position in to the socio-economic hierarchy, but also, most important for our purposes, their own level of innate ability. This Rawles referred to as ’veil of ignorance’. 

[9] As Warren Farrell documents in his excellent Why Men Earn More (which I have reviewed here, here and here), in the USA, women who have never married and have no children actually earn more than men who have never married and have no children and have done since at least the 1950s (Why Men Earn More: pxxi). More precisely, according to Farrell, never-married men without children on average earn only about 85% of their childless never-married female counterparts (Ibid: pxxiii). The situation is similar in the UK. Thus, economist JR Shackleton reports:

“Women in the middle age groups who remain single earn more than middle-aged single males” (Should We Mind the Gap? p30).

The reasons unmarried, childless women earn more than unmarried childless men are multifarious and include:

  1. Married women can afford to work less because they appropriate a portion of their husband’s income in addition to their own
  2. Married men and men with children are thus obliged to earn even more so as to financially support, not only themselves, but also their wife, plus any offspring;
  3. Women prefer to marry richer men and hence poorer men are more likely to remain single;
  4. Childcare duties undertaken by women interfere with their earning capacity.

[10]  Incidentally, Browne has also published a more succinct summary of the biological factors underlying the pay-gap that was first published in the same ‘Darwinism Today’ series as Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’, namely Divided Labors: An Evolutionary View of Women at Work. However, much though I admire Browne’s work, this represents a rather superficial popularization of his research on the topic, and I would recommend instead Browne’s longer Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (reviewed here) for a more comprehenseive treatment of the same, and related, topics. 

[11] A precedent for just such a programme, enacted in the name of socialism, albeit imposed consensually, was the communal rearing practices in Israeli Kibbutzim, since largely abandoned. Another suggestion along rather different lines comes from Adolf Hitler, who, believing that nature trumped nurture, is quoted as proposing: 

The State must also teach that it is the manifestation of a really noble nature and that it is a humanitarian act worthy of all admiration if an innocent sufferer from hereditary disease refrains from having a child of his own but bestows his love and affection on some unknown child whose state of health is a guarantee that it will become a robust member of a powerful community” (quoted in: Parfrey 1987: p162). 

[12] Actually, it is not entirely clear that women do have a natural desire to bear offspring. Other species probably do not have any such natural desire. Since they are almost certainly are not aware of the connection between sex and child birth, such a desire would serve no adaptive purpose and hence would never evolve. All an organism requires is a desire for sex, combined perhaps with a tendency to care for offspring after they are born. (Indeed, in principle, a female does not even require a desire for sex, only a willingness to submit to the desire of a male for sex.) As Tooby and Cosmides emphasize: 

Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers.” 

There is no requirement for a desire for offspring as such. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence of so-called broodiness, and the fact that most women do indeed desire children, despite the costs associated with raising children, suggests that, in human females, there is indeed some innate desire for offspring. Curiously, however, the topic of broodiness is not one that has attracted much attention among evolutionists.

[13] However, there is a problem with any such case for a ‘Brave New Socialist Eugenics’. Before the eugenic programme is complete, the individuals controlling eugenic programmes (be they governments or corporations) would still possess a more traditional human nature, and may therefore have less than altruistic motivations themselves. This seems to suggest then that, as philosopher John Gray concludes in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed here):  

“[If] human nature [is] scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of the struggles in the murky world where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).

References  

Parfrey (1987) Eugenics: The Orphaned Science. In Parfrey (Ed.) Apocalypse Culture (New York: Amoc Press). 

Trivers 1971 The evolution of reciprocal altruism Quarterly Review of Biology 46(1):35-57 

Vining 1986 Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiologyBehavioral and Brain Sciences 9(1), 167-187.

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