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’, and indeed Sayings of Redbeard, he coins countless quotable aphorisms, and his poetry, while sometimes clumsy, is oftentimes quite 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 of 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 abhors and excoriates. 

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 simply 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,[10] 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 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 ever 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, Redbeard lamentsin Sayings of Redbeard:

The ‘light’ that comes from Jerusalem is a wrecker’s beacon.

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

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.”

‘Put not your trust in princes’ is a saying old and true
‘Put not your hope in governments’ translateth it anew
.”

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 social contract 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.

Thus, he concludes in Sayings of Redbeard:

While statesmen are your shepherds ye shall not want for shearing.”[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.” 

On Women 

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. 

Women, Warriors and Polygyny

Indeed, far from hating women, Redbeard seems to see their biological instincts, especially with regard to mate choice, as fundamentally sound, eugenic and 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. 

Women, Warriors and Intersexual Selection

Yet, in extolling female mate choice, Redbeard surely goes too far when he writes: 

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, or perhaps even a deliberate attempt to play down this form of 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, at least 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!”. 

Similarly, in his poetry, Redbeard repeatedly compares men to other carnivorous predators such as wolves and lions, writing:

What are men but hungry wolves, a prowling on the heath?
If in a pack of wolves you hunt, you’d better sharp your teeth.

Life is strife for every man,
for every son of thunder;
Then be a lion not a lamb,
and don’t be trampled under.

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 excellent 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, in his defence, 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 avering in Sayings of Redbeard, 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 surely 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 have conquered, subjugated and enslaved only one another. Like all other peoples, then, the vast majority of Nordic Europeans must have been slaves, serfs or vassals

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 so successfully 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 weak, and 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 would not merely have been 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 diametrically-opposed 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 again 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, not 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 own so-called ‘Satanism is itself 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 read 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, socialism, 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] Both of these quotations are 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, also quoted above, 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 available is very 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 perverse and sentimental celebration of the working classes, and thence into a perverse and 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 would, of course, be 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.
Value , in the economic sense, is usually understood as being based on the free exchange of goods and services, rather than their focible capture. Could value really be measured by, say, the security costs expended on behalf of protecting property (e.g. security guards, burglar alarms, barbed wire fences), or the expenses incurred in the forcible taking of such property, rather than the value of the property for which one would be willing to exchange that property? This seems problematic.
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 and Herrenrasse of Hitler’s own demented imaginings.

[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 (somewhat) popular 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.
However, another reason to actually prefer the altered version is that, in terms of the poem’s metre or rhythmical structure, the changed version actually scans rather better than the original, the extra syllable in “Joshua”, as compared to “Genghis”, both breaking the iambic pentametre of the verse and making this line one syllable longer than the preceding line and most of the other lines in the poem.

[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.

[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. 

Donald Symons’ ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’: A Founding Work of Modern Evolutionary Psychology

The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Donald Symons (Oxford University Press 1980). 

Research over the last four decades in the field that has come to be known as evolutionary psychology has focused disproportionately on mating behaviour. Geoffrey Miller (1998) has even argued that it is the theory of sexual selection rather than that of natural selection which, in practice, guides most research in this field. 

This does not reflect merely the prurience of researchers. Rather, given that reproductive success is the ultimate currency of natural selection, mating behaviour is, perhaps along with parental investment, the form of behaviour most directly subject to selective pressures.

Almost all of this research traces its ancestry ultimately to Donald Symons’ ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ by Donald Symons. Indeed, much of it was explicitly designed to test claims and predictions formulated by Symons himself in this very book.

Age Preferences

For example, in his discussion of the age at which women are perceived as most attractive by males, Symons formulated two alternative hypotheses. 

First, if human evolutionary history were characterized by fleeting one-off sexual encounters (i.e. one-night standscasual sex and hook-ups), then, he reasoned, men would have evolved to find women most attractive when the latter are at the age of their maximum fertility

For women, fertility is said to peak around when a woman reaches her mid-twenties since, although women still in their teens have high pregnancy rates, they also experience greater risk of birth complications

However, if human evolutionary history were characterized instead by long-term pair bonds, then men would have evolved to be maximally attracted to somewhat younger women (i.e. those at the beginning of their reproductive careers), so that, by entering a long-term relationship with the woman at this time, a male is potentially able to monopolize her entire lifetime reproductive output (p189). 

More specifically, males would have evolved to prefer females, not of maximal fertility, but rather of maximal reproductive value, a term borrowed from demography and population genetics which refers to a person’s expected future reproductive output given their current age. Unlike fertility, a woman’s reproductive value peaks around her mid- to late-teens.  

On the basis of largely anecdotal evidence, Symons concludes that human males have evolved to be most attracted to females of maximal reproductive value rather than maximal fertility.  

Subsequent research designed to test between Symons’s rival hypotheses has largely confirmed his speculative hunch that it is younger females in their mid- to late-teens who are perceived by males as most attractive (e.g. Kenrick and Keefe 1992). 

Why Average is Attractive 

Symons is also credited as the first person to recognize that a major criterion of attractiveness is, paradoxically, averageness, or at least the first to recognize the significance of, and possible evolutionary explanation for, this discovery.[1] Thus, Symons argues that: 

“[Although] health and status are unusual in that there is no such thing as being too healthy or too high ranking… with respect to most anatomical traits, natural selection produces the population mean” (p194). 

On this view, deviations from the population mean are interpreted as the result of deleterious mutations or developmental instability, and hence bad genes.[2]

Concealed Ovulation

Support has even emerged for some of Symons’ more speculative hunches.

For example, one of Symons’ two proposed scenarios for the evolution of concealed ovulation, in which he professed “little confidence” (p141), was that this had evolved so as to impede male mate-guarding and enable females select a biological father for their offspring different from their husbands (p139-141).

Consistent with this theory, studies have found that women’s mate preferences vary throughout their menstrual cycle in a manner compatible with a so-called ‘dual mating strategy’, preferring males evidencing a willingness to invest in offspring at most times, but, when at their most fertile, preferring characteristics indicative of genetic quality (e.g. Penton-Voak et al 1999). 

Meanwhile, a questionnaire distributed via a women’s magazine found that women engaged in extra-marital affairs do indeed report engaging in ‘extra-pair copulations’ (EPCs) at times likely to coincide with ovulation (Bellis and Baker 1990).[3]

The Myth of Female Choice

Interestingly, Symons even anticipated some of the mistakes evolutionary psychologists would be led into.

Thus, he warns that researchers in modern western societies may be prone to overestimate the importance of female choice as a factor in human evolution, because, in their own societies, this is a major factor, if not the major factor, in determining marriage and sexual and romantic relationships (p203).[4]

However, in ancestral environments (i.e. what evolutionary psychologists now call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA) arranged marriages were likely the norm, as they are in most premodern cultures around the world today (p168).[5]

Thus, Symons concludes: 

There is no evidence that any features of human anatomy were produced by intersexual selection [i.e. female choice]. Human physical sex differences are explained most parsimoniously as the outcome of intrasexual selection (the result of male-male competition)” (p203). 

Thus, human males have no obvious analogue of the peacock’s tail, but they do have substantially greater levels of upper-body strength and violent aggression as compared to females.[6]

This was a warning almost entirely ignored by subsequent generations of researchers before being forcefully reiterated by Puts (2010)

Homosexuality as a ‘Test-Case 

An idea of the importance of Symons’s work can be ascertained by comparing it with contemporaneous works addressing the same subject-matter.

Edward O Wilson’s  On Human Nature was first published in 1978, only a year before Symons’s ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. 

However, whereas Symons’s book set out much of the theoretical basis for what would become the modern science of evolutionary psychology, Wilson’s chapter on “Sex” has dated rather less well, and a large portion of chapter is devoted to introducing a now faintly embarrassing theory of the evolution of homosexuality which has subsequently received no empirical support (see Bobrow & Bailey 2001).[7]

In contrast, Symons’s own treatment of homosexuality is innovative. It is also characteristic of his whole approach and illustrates why ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality‘ has been described by David Buss as “the first major treatise on evolutionary psychology proper” (Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: p251).

Rather than viewing all behaviours as necessarily adaptive (as critics of evolutionary psychology, such as Stephen Jay Gould, have often accused sociobiologists of doing),[8] Symons instead focuses on admittedly non-adaptive (or, indeed, even maladaptive) behaviours, not because he believes them to be adaptive, but rather because they provide a unique window on the nature of human sexuality.

Accordingly, Symons does not concern himself with how homosexuality evolved, implicitly viewing it as a rare and maladaptive malfunctioning of normal sexuality. Yet the behaviour of homosexuals is of interest to Symons because it provides a window on the nature of male and female sexuality as it manifests itself when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex.

On this view, the rampant promiscuity manifested by many homosexual men (e.g. cruising and cottaging in bathhouses and public lavatories, or Grindr hookups) reflects the universal male desire for sexual variety when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of women. 

This desire for sexual variety is, of course, obviously reproductively unproductive among homosexual men themselves. However, it evolved because it enhanced the reproductive success of heterosexual men by motivating them to attempt to mate with multiple females and thereby father multiple offspring.

In contrast, burdened with pregnancy and lactation, women’s potential reproductive rate is more tightly constrained than that of men. They therefore have little to gain reproductively by mating with multiple males, since they can usually gestate, and nurse, only one offspring at a time.

It is therefore notable that, among lesbians, there is little evidence of the sort of rampant promiscuity common among gay men. Instead, lesbian relationships seem to be characterized by much the same features as heterosexual coupling (i.e. long-term pair-bonds).

The similarity of heterosexual coupling to that of lesbians, and the striking contrast with that of male homosexuals, suggests that it is women, not men, who exert decisive influence in dictating the terms of heterosexual coupling.[9]

Thus, Symons reports:

There is enormous cross-cultural variation in sexual customs and laws and the extent of male control, yet nowhere in the world do heterosexual relations begin to approximate those typical of homosexual men This suggests that, in addition to custom and law, heterosexual relations are structured to a substantial degree by the nature and interests of the human female” (p300). 

This conclusion is, of course, diametrically opposite to the feminist contention that it is men who dictate the terms of heterosexual coupling and for whose exclusive benefit such relationships are structured.

It also suggests, again contrary to feminist assumptions of male dominance, that most men are ultimately frustrated in achieving their sexual ambitions to a far greater extent than are most women. 

Thus, Symons concludes: 

The desire for sexual variety dooms most human males to a lifetime of unfulfilled longing” (p228). 

Here, Symons anticipates Camille Paglia who was later to famously observe: 

Men know they are sexual exiles. They wander the earth seeking satisfaction, craving and despising, never content. There is nothing in that anguished motion for women to envy” (Sexual Personae: p19). 

Criticisms of Symons’s Use of Homosexuality as a Test-Case

There is, however, a potential problem with Symons’s use of homosexual behaviour as a window onto the nature of male and female sexuality as they manifest themselves when freed from the conflicting desires of the opposite sex. The whole analysis rests on a questionable premise – namely that homosexuals are, their preference for same-sex partners aside, otherwise similar, if not identical, to heterosexuals of their own sex in their psychology and sexuality.

Symons defends this assumption, arguing: 

There is no reason to suppose that homosexuals differ systematically from heterosexuals in any way other than their sexual object choice” (p292). 

Indeed, in some respects, Symons seems to see even “sexual object choice” as analogous among homosexuals and heterosexuals of the same sex.

For example, he observes that, unlike women, both homosexual and heterosexual men tend to evaluate prospective mates primarily on the basis their physical appearance and youthfulness (p295). 

Thus, in contrast to the failure of periodicals featuring male nudes to attract a substantial female audience (see below), Symons notes the existence of a market for gay pornography parallel in most respects to heterosexual porn – i.e. featuring young, physically attractive models in various states of undress (p301).

This, of course, contradicts the feminist notion that men are led to ‘objectify’ women only due to the sexualized portrayal of the latter in the media.

Instead, Symons concludes: 

That homosexual men are at least as likely as heterosexual men to be interested in pornography, cosmetic qualities and youth seems to me to imply that these interests are no more the result of advertising than adultery and alcohol consumption are the result of country and western music” (p304).[10] 

However, this assumption of the fundamental similarity of heterosexual and homosexual male psychology has been challenged by David Buller in his book, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature.

Buller cites evidence that male homosexuals are ‘feminized’ in many aspects of their behaviour.

For example, one interesting recent study found that male homosexuals have more female-typical occupation interests than do heterosexual males (Ellis & Ratnasingam 2012).

Moreover, one of the few consistent early correlates of homosexuality is gender non-conformity in childhood and some evidence (e.g. digit ratios, the fraternal birth order effect) has been interpreted to suggest that the level of prenatal exposure to masculinizing androgens (e.g. testosterone) in utero affects sexual orientation (see Born Gay: The Pyschobiology of Sexual Orientation).

Indeed, Symons himself mentions the evidence of an association between homosexuality and levels of masculinizing androgens in utero (albeit in respect of lesbians rather than of male homosexuality) just a few pages before his discussion of the promiscuous behaviours of male homosexuals (p289).

As Buller also notes, although gay men seem, like heterosexual men, to prefer youthful sexual partners, they also appear to prefer sexual partners who are, in other respects highly masculine.[11]

Thus, Buller observes: 

“The males featured in gay men’s magazines embody very masculine, muscular physiques, not pseudo-feminine physiques” (Adapting Minds: p227).

Indeed, the models in such magazines seem in most respects similar in physical appearance to the male models, pop stars, actors and other ‘sex symbols’ and celebrities fantasized about by heterosexual women and girls.

How then are we to resolve this apparent paradox?

One possible explanation that some aspects of the psychology of male homosexuals are feminized but not others – perhaps because different parts of the brain are formed at different stages of prenatal development, at which stages the levels of masculinizing androgens in the womb may vary. 

Indeed, there is even some evidence that homosexual males may be hyper-masculinized in some aspects of their physiology.

For example, it has been found that homosexual males report larger penis-sizes than heterosexual men (Bogaert & Hershberger 1999). 
 
This, researchers Glenn Wilson and Qazi Rahman propose, may be because: 

If it is supposed that the barriers against androgens with respect to certain brain structures (notably those concerned with homosexuality) lead to increased secretion in an effort to break through, or some sort of accumulation elsewhere… then there may be excess testosterone left in other departments” (Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation: p80). 

Another possibility is that male homosexuals actually lie midway between heterosexual men and women in their degree of masculinization.  

On this view, homosexual men come across as relatively feminine only because we naturally tend to compare them to other men (i.e. heterosexual men). However, as compared to women, they may be relatively masculine, as reflected in the male-typical aspects of their sexuality focused upon by Symons.

Interestingly, this latter interpretation suggests the slightly disturbing possibility that, freed from the restraints imposed by women, heterosexual men would be even more indiscriminately promiscuous than their homosexual counterparts.

Evidence consistent with this interpretation is provided by one study from the 1980s which found that, when approached by a female stranger (also a student), on a University campus, with a request to go to bed with them, fully 72% of male students agreed (Clark and Hatfield 1989). 

In contrast, in the same study, not a single one of the 96 females approached by male strangers with the same request on the same university campus agreed to go to bed with the male stranger.

Yet what percentage of the female students subsequently sued the university for sexual harassment was not reported.

Pornography as a “Natural Experiment

For Symons, fantasy represents another window onto sexual and romantic desires. Like homosexuality, fantasy is, by its very nature, unconstrained by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex (or indeed by anything other than the imagination of the fantasist). 

Symons later collaborated in an investigation into sexual fantasy by means of a questionnaire (Ellis and Symons 1990). 

However, in the present work, he investigates fantasy indirectly by focusing on what he calls “the natural experiment of commercial periodical publishing” – i.e. pornographic magazines (p182).

In many respects, this approach is preferable to a survey because, even in an anonymous questionnaire, individuals may be less than honest when dealing with a sensitive topic such as their sexual fantasies. On the other hand, they are unlikely to regularly spend money on a magazine unless they are genuinely attracted by its contents.

Before the internet age, softcore pornographic magazines, largely featuring female nudes, commanded sizeable circulations. However, their readership (if indeed ‘readership’ is the right words, since there was typically little reading involved, save of the one-handed variety) was almost exclusively male.

In contrast, there was little or no female audience for magazines containing pictures of naked males. Instead, magazines marketed towards women (e.g. fashion magazines) contain, mostly, pictures of other women.

Indeed, when, in the 1970s, attempts were made, in the misguided name of feminism and ‘women’s liberation’, to market magazines featuring male nudes to a female readership, one such title, Viva, abandoned publishing male nudes after just a few years due to lack of interest or demand, then subsequently went bust just a few years after that, while the other, Playgirl, although it did not entirely abandon male nudes, was notorious, as a consequence, for attracting a readership composed in large part of homosexual men.

Symons thus concludes forcefully and persuasively: 

The notion must be abandoned that women are simply repressed men waiting to be liberated” (p183). 

Indeed, though it has been loudly and enthusiastically co-opted by feminists, this view of women, and of female sexuality – namely women as “repressed men waiting to be liberated” – represents an obviously quintessentially male viewpoint. 

Indeed, taken to extremes, it has even been used as a justification for rape.

Thus, the curious, sub-Freudian notion that female rape victims actually secretly enjoy being raped seems to rest ultimately on the assumption that female sexuality is fundamentally the same as that of men (i.e. indiscriminately enjoying of promiscuous sex) and that it is only women’s alleged sexual ‘repression’ that prevents them admitting as much.

Romance Literature 

Unfortunately, however, there is notable omission in Symons’s discussion of pornography as a window into male sexuality – namely, he omits to consider whether there exists any parallel artistic genre that offers equivalent insight into the female psyche.

Later writers on the topic have argued that romance novels (e.g. Mills and Boon, Jane Austin), whose audience is as overwhelmingly female as pornography’s is male, represent the female equivalent of pornography, and that analysis of the the content of such works provides insights into female mate preferences parallel to those provided into male psychology by pornography (e.g. Kruger et al 2003; Salmon 2004; see also Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality, co-authored by Symons himself).

Symons touches upon this analogy only in passing, when he observes that:

Heterosexual men are, of course, aware that the female sexuality portrayed in men’s magazines reflects male fantasy more than female reality, just as homosexual women are aware that the happy endings of stories in romance magazines exist largely in the realm of fantasy” (p29).

Female Orgasm as Non-Adaptive

An entire chapter of ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’, namely Chapter Three (entitled, “The Female Orgasm: Adaptation or Artefact”), is devoted to rejecting the claim that the female orgasm represents a biological adaptation.

This is perhaps excessive. However, it does at least conveniently contradicts the claim of some critics of evolutionary psychology, and of sociobiology, such as Stephen Jay Gould that the field is ‘ultra-Darwinian’ or ‘hyper-adaptionist’ and committed to the misguided notion that all traits are necessarily adaptive.[12]

In contrast, Symons champions the thesis that the female capacity for orgasm is a simply non-adaptive by-product of the male capacity to orgasm, the latter of which is of course adaptive.

On this view, the female orgasm (and clitoris) is, in effect, the female equivalent of male nipples (only more fun).

Certainly, Symons convincingly critiques the romantic notion, popularized by Desmond Morris among others, that the female orgasm functions as a mechanism designed to enhance ‘pair-bonding’ between couples.

However, subsequent generations of evolutionary psychologists have developed less naïve models of the adaptive function of female orgasm.

For example, Geoffrey Miller argues that the female orgasm, and clitoris, functions as an adaptation for mate choice (The Mating Mind: p239-241).

Of course, at first glance, experiencing orgasm during coitus may appear to be a bit late for mate choice, since, by the time coitus has occurred, the choice in question has already been made. However, given that, among humans, most sexual intercourse is non-reproductive (i.e. does not result in conception), the theory is not altogether implausible.

On this view, the very factors which Symons views as suggesting female orgasm is non-adaptive – such as the relative difficultly of stimulating female orgasm during ordinary vaginal sex – are positive evidence for its adaptive function in carefully discriminating between suitors/lovers to determine their desirability as father for a woman ’s offspring.

Nevertheless, at least according to the stringent criteria set out by George C Williams in his classic Adaptation and Natural Selection, as well as the more general principle of parsimony (also known as Occam’s Razor), the case for female orgasm as an adaptation remains unproven (see also Sherman 1989; Case Of The Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution).

Out-of-Date?

Much of Symons’ work is dedicated to challenging the naïve group-selectionism of Sixties ethologists, especially Desmond Morris. Although scientifically now largely obsolete, Morris’s work still retains a certain popular resonance and therefore this aspect of Symons’s work is not entirely devoid of contemporary relevance.

In place of Morris‘s rather idyllic notion that humans are a naturally monogamous ‘pair-bonding’ species, Symons advocates instead an approach rooted in the individual-level (or even gene-level) selection championed Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (reviewed here).

This leads to some decidedly cynical conclusions regarding the true nature of sexual and romantic relations among humans.

For example, Symons argues that it is adaptive for men to be less sexually attracted to their wives than they are to other women – because they are themselves liable to bear the cost of raising offspring born to their wives but not those born to other women with whom they mate (e.g. those mated to other males).

Another cynical conclusion is that the primary emotion underlying the institution of marriage, both cross-culturally and in our own society, is neither love nor even lust, but rather male sexual jealousy and proprietariness (p123). 

Marriage, then, is an institution borne not of love, but of male sexual jealousy and the behaviour known to biologists as mate-guarding.

Meanwhile, in his excellent chapter on ‘Copulation as a Female Service’ (Chapter Eight), Symons suggests that many aspects of heterosexual romantic relationships may be analogous to prostitution.

As well as its excessive focus on debunking sixties ethologists like Morris, ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ is also out-of-date in a more serious respect Namely, it fails to incorporate the vast amount of empirical research on human sexuality from a sociobiological perspective which has been conducted since the first publication of his work.

For a book first published thirty years ago, this is inevitable – not least because much of this empirical research was inspired by Symons’ own ideas and specifically designed to test theories formulated in this very work.

In addition, potentially important new factors in human reproductive behaviour that even Symons did not foresee have been identified, for example role of levels of fluctuating asymmetry functioning as a criterion for, or at least correlate of, physical attractiveness.

For an updated discussion of the evolutionary psychology of human sexual behaviour, complete with the latest empirical data, readers should consult the latest edition of David Buss’s The Evolution Of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating.

In contrast, in support of his theories Symons relies largely on classical literary insight, anecdote and, most importantly, a review of the ethnographic record.

However, this latter focus ensures that, in some respects, the work remains of more than merely of historical interest.

After all, one of the more legitimate criticisms levelled against recent research in evolutionary psychology is that it is insufficiently cross-cultural and, with several notable exceptions (e.g. Buss 1989), relies excessively on research conducted among convenience samples of students at western universities.

Given costs and practicalities, this is inevitable. However, for a field that aspires to understand a human nature presumed to be universal, such a method of sampling is highly problematic.

The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ therefore retains its importance for two reasons. 

First, is it the founding work of modern evolutionary psychological research into human sexual behaviour, and hence of importance as a landmark and classic text in the field, as well as in the history of science more generally. 

Second, it also remains of value to this day for the cross-cultural and ethnographic evidence it marshals in support of its conclusions. 

Endnotes

[1] Actually, the first person to discover this, albeit inadvertently, was the great Victorian polymath, pioneering statistician and infamous eugenicist Francis Galton, who, attempting to discover abnormal facial features possessed by the criminal class, succeeded in morphing the faces of multiple convicted criminals. The result was, presumably to his surprise, an extremely attractive facial composite, since all the various minor deformities of the many convicted criminals whose faces he morphed actually balanced one another out to produce a face with few if any abnormalities or disproportionate features.

[2] More recent research in this area has focused on the related concept of fluctuating asymmetry.

[3] However, recent meta-analyses have called into question the evidence for cyclical fluctuations in female mate preferences (Wood et al 2014; cf. Gildersleeve et al 2014), and it has been suggested that such findings may represent casualties of the so-called replication crisis in psychology. It has also been questioned whether ovulation in humans is indeed concealed, or is actually detectable by subtle cues (e.g. Miller et al 2007), for example, changes in face shape (Oberzaucher et al 2012), breast symmetry (Scutt & Manning 1996) and body scent (Havlicek et al 2006).

[4] Another factor leading recent researchers to overestimate the importance of female choice in human evolution is their feminist orientation, since female choice gives women an important role in human evolution, even, paradoxically, in the evolution of male traits.

[5] Actually, in most cultures, only a girl’s first marriage is arranged on her behalf by her parents. Second- and third-marriages are usually negotiated by the woman herself. However, since female fertility peaks early, it is a girl’s first marriage that is usually of the most reproductive, and hence Darwinian, significance.

[6] Indeed, the human anatomical trait in humans that perhaps shows the most evidence of being a product of intersexual selection is a female one, namely the female breasts, since the latter are, unlike the mammary glands of most other mammals, permanently present from puberty on, not only during lactation, and composed primarily of fatty tissues, not milk (Møller 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016

[7] Wilson terms his theory “the kin selection theory hypothesis of the origin of homosexuality” (p145). However, a better description might be the ‘helper at the nest theory of homosexuality’, the basic idea being that, like sterile castes in some insects, and like older siblings in some bird species where new nest sites are unavailable, homosexuals, rather than reproducing themselves, direct their energies towards assisting their collateral kin in successfully raising, and provisioning, their own offspring (p143-7). The main problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that homosexuals do indeed devote any greater energies towards assisting their kin in this respect. On the contrary, homosexuals instead seem to devote much of their time and resources towards their own sex life, much as do heterosexuals (Bobrow & Bailey 2001).

[8] As we will see, contrary to the stereotype of evolutionary psychologists as viewing all traits as necessarily adaptive, as they are accused of doing by the likes of Gould, Symons also argued that the female orgasm and menopause are non-adaptive, but rather by-products of other adaptations.

[9] This is not necessarily to say that rampant, indiscriminate promiscuity is a male utopia, or the ideal of any man, be he homosexual or heterosexual. On the contrary, the ideal mating system for any individual male is harem polygyny in which the chastity of his own partners is rigorously policed (see Despotism and Differential Reproduction: which I have reviewed here and here). However, given an equal sex ratio, this would condemn other males to celibacy. Similarly, Symons reports that “Homosexual men, like most people, usually want to have intimate relationships”. However, he observes:

Such relationships are difficult to maintain, largely owing to the male desire for sexual variety; the unprecedented opportunity to satisfy this desire in a world of men, and the male tendency towards sexual jealousy” (p297).  

It does indeed seem to be true that homosexual relationships, especially those of gay males, are, on average, of shorter duration than are heterosexual relationships. However, Symons’ claim regarding “the male tendency towards sexual jealousy” is questionable. Actually, subsequent research in evolutionary psychology has suggested that men are no more prone to jealousy than women, but rather that it is sorts of behaviours which most intensely provoke such jealousy that differentiate the sexes (Buss 1992). However, many gay men practice open relationships, which seems to suggest a lack of jealousy – or perhaps this simply reflects a recognition of the difficulty of maintaining relationships given, as Symons puts it, “the male desire for sexual variety [and] the unprecedented opportunity to satisfy this desire in a world of men”. 

[10] Indeed, far from men being led to objectify women due to the portrayal of women in a sexualized manner in the media, Symons suggests:

There may be no positive feedback at all; on the contrary, constant exposure to pictures of nude and nearly nude female bodies may to some extent habituate men to these stimuli” (p304).

[11] Admittedly, some aspects of body-type typically preferred by gay males (especially the twink) do reflect apparently female traits, especially a relative lack of body-hair. However, lack of body-hair is also obviously indicative of youth. Moreover, a relative lack of body-hair also seems to be a trait favoured in men by heterosexual women. For a discussion of the relative preference on the part of (heterosexual) females for masculine versus feminine traits in male sex partners, see the final section of this review.

[12] Incidentally, Symons also rejects the theory that the female menopause is adaptive, a theory which has subsequently become known as the grandmother hypothesis (p13). Also, although it does not directly address the issue, Symons’ discussion of human rape (p276-85), has also been interpreted as implicitly favouring the theory that rape is a by-product of the greater male desire for commitment free promiscuous sex, rather than the product of a specific rape adaptation in males (see Palmer 1991; and A Natural History of Rape: reviewed here). 

References 

Bellis & Baker (1990). Do females promote sperm competition?: Data for humans. Animal Behavior, 40: 997-999 
Bobrow & Bailey (2001). Is male homosexuality maintained via kin selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 22: 361-368 
Bogaert & Hershberger (1999) The relation between sexual orientation and penile size. Archives of Sexual Behavior 1999 Jun;28(3) :213-21. 
Buss (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12: 1-49
Ellis & Ratnasingam (2012) Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Occupational Interests: Evidence of Androgen Influences. Mankind Quarterly  53(1): 36–80
Ellis & Symons (1990) Sex differences in sexual fantasy: An evolutionary psychological approach, Journal of Sex Research 27(4): 527-555.
Gildersleeve, Haselton & Fales (2014) Do women’s mate preferences change across the ovulatory cycle? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin 140(5):1205-59.
Havlíček, Dvořáková, Bartos & Fleg (2006) Non‐Advertized does not Mean Concealed: Body Odour Changes across the Human Menstrual Cycle. Ethology 112(1):81-90.
Havlíček et al (2016) Men’s preferences for women’s breast size and shape in four cultures. Evolution and Human Behavior 38(2): 217–226 
Kenrick & Keefe (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15: 75-133. 
Kruger et al (2003) Proper and Dark Heroes as Dads and Cads. Human Nature 14(3): 305-317 
Manning et al (1997) Breast asymmetry and phenotypic quality in women. Ethology and Sociobiology 18(4): 223–236 
Miller (1998). How mate choice shaped human nature: A review of sexual selection and human evolution. In C. Crawford & D. Krebs (Eds.), Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues, and Applications (pp. 87-129). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Miller, Tybur & Jordan (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrous? Evolution and Human Behavior. 28(6):375–381 
Møller et al (1995) Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success. Ethology and Sociobiology 16(3): 207-219 
Palmer (1991) Human Rape: Adaptation or By-Product? Journal of Sex Research 28(3): 365-386 
Penton-Voak et al (1999) Menstrual cycle alters face preferences, Nature 399 741-2. 
Puts (2010) Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans. Evolution and Human Behavior 31 157-175 
Salmon (2004) The Pornography Debate: What Sex Differences in Erotica Can Tell Us About Human Sexuality. In Evolutionary Psychology, Public Policy and Personal Decisions (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004) 
Scutt & Manning (1996) Symmetry and ovulation in women. Human Reproduction 11(11):2477-80
Sherman (1989) The clitoris debate and levels of analysis, Animal Behaviour, 37: 697-8
Wood et al (2014). Meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferencesEmotion Review, 6(3), 229–249.

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

‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Selfish Genes ≠ Selfish Phenotypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Various Editions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Gene’s-Eye-View’ of Evolution

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

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

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

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

Abstract Animals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Selection in Humans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Genes to Memes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escaping the Tyranny of Selfish Replicators?

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

Thus, his final paragraph ends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Endnotes

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

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

[3] Thus, Edwin Bowman writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, according to this view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As John Tooby and Leda Cosmides observe:

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

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

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

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Møller et al (1995) Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success, Ethology and Sociobiology 16(3): 207-219.

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

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