Category: science

a response to “the dark side of the enlightenment”

I have seen more than a few people praise this piece, by Yoram Hazony, as having had some influence on them. So I figured I would respond to it.

The first sentence of Hazony’s piece betrays his biases. He says, “A lot of people are selling Enlightenment these days.” The use of the term “selling” here is a slight of hand, meant to convey both literal and metaphorical truth. It’s literally true that books about the Enlightenment are being sold. But more importantly, it’s metaphorically true that people don’t like being “taken in” by salespeople. Without saying anything at all, Hazony already has his readers primed for where he wants them: skeptical of those enlightenment hucksters.

Pinker addresses this form of criticism during his overview of the “negativity bias”, which psychologists have demonstrated we’re all prone towards, including Hazony. He discusses how pessimists are generally viewed as “trying to help” and having “moral seriousness”, while optimists are compared to “people trying to sell you something”. So it seems almost as though Pinker was prescient of the criticism that would eventually be thrown his way.

Much of the rest of Hazony’s piece is a strawman of Pinker’s position. For example, Hazony takes issue with Kant’s definition of reason as “universal, infallible and a priori” or “independent of experience”, but Pinker doesn’t ask us to believe in progress based on reason alone, his entire book is a masterpiece of empiricism.

He makes a case based on the data so far, and he “forecasts” rather than “prophesies” that we may see more improvements ahead if we continue employing the very same methods that have gotten us to this point. But Pinker also concedes that such progress may not come, because, “For now, we should keep in mind that a positive trend suggests (but does not prove) that we have been doing something right, and that we should seek to identify what it is and do more of it.”

Pinker’s tome is not a dogmatic embrace of any one enlightenment philosopher’s viewpoint, and so Pinker’s views should be taken up on their own terms. He recognizes that while the enlightenment made great contributions, it was hardly composed of perfect people.

He says, “The Enlightenment thinkers were all men and women of their age, the 18th century. Some were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders, or Duelists. Some of the questions they worried about are almost incomprehensible to us, and they came up with plenty of daffy ideas together with brilliant ones. Or to the point, they were born too soon to appreciate some of the keystones of our modern understanding of reality.”

Which is why when Hazony dismisses Pinker’s embrace of skepticism as a “paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge” by pointing out that some Enlightenment thinkers were as “rigid as the most dogmatic medievals”, he’s missing the forest for the trees. There’s variation in personality in every group, including enlightenment thinkers. So what? The point is that when Pinker refers to “enlightenment thought”, and embraces incrementalism over revolutionary change, and the scientific method over magical thinking, he is arguing for the antithesis of what Harzony is criticizing, which makes me wonder if Harzony read the book.

Harzony attempts to round out his piece by making some empirical claims of his own. He blames the breakdown of the family on enlightenment thinking, but he fails to explain what that means. It’s a hollow statement that’s emotionally compelling but empirically empty. He ignores the fact that stasis comes with consequences too, and that traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake cannot solve novel problems. He chastises the Elites for having contempt for the people, as if this is anything new and at all undermine’s Pinker’s argument.

He points out that many “reasonable” ideas and practices preceded the enlightenment, but then ignores the REASON-ableness of the ideas, implying that they are a product of traditionalism and non-enlightenment thinking (Kant did not invent reason, he critiqued it).

It doesn’t matter that Newton was religious, when he formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, he did so using the principles of science and reason. He did not come to the conclusion that he can fly, simply because a dream told him that the force pulling him down was but a fiction of his imagination.

Hazony concludes with a logical fallacy, the false dilemma. He says, “You can’t have both Enlightenment and skepticism. You have to choose.” Hazony is confused. There is no skepticism if there is nothing to be skeptical of. What an odd hill to die on.


coming to terms with our nature so we don’t kill each other

This form of anti-Muslim bigotry is truly horrifying. I condemn it in the loudest possible terms, and yes, bigotry of this sort is terrorism of the worst kind.

Which gets me to thinking about this and other types of attacks we are seeing across the West: there is a shared human nature that spans race and religion, and a secular understanding of that nature is crucial to developing the kinds of policies that will help to prevent our societies from devolving into a state that could have been far better, had we done a few things differently.

The ways in which Western elites have grown to fetishize difference without understanding how difference can cause the fringe of society, so weak and unable to cope with the rights of others, to act out against their fellow countrymen in this way is, in my mind, one of the most overlooked and under-discussed challenges in all of these debates about mass migration.

Yes, people of different backgrounds can live together peacefully. But I join with Jonathon Haidt and others in their call for Western governments to wake up and to begin to prioritize a discussion on these issues that takes far more seriously some of what the best science has to say about human nature. As such, those fields that derive their theories from the rejection of truth and objective human knowledge should be excluded, because they are part of the problem not the solution.

First and foremost, we must centralize our understanding of human behavior in the context of our evolved instincts, instilled in us through generations upon generations of natural selection. If anyone were to ask me upon which foundational texts such discussions would be based, I recommend two books as a starting point: The first book is On Human Nature by EO Wilson, and the second book is Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. A few others like Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Better Angels Of Our Our Nature would also be crucial.

But we can’t live in the clouds any longer. If our desire is to maintain any semblance of social trust and harmony, then it is upon all of us to educate ourselves on what the best science says about these issues and take part in the great debate in as productive as manner as possible. Otherwise, we leave the future of our societies in the hands of the directionless and untalented blowhards currently leading us all towards the brink.

how to raise a feminist son

How to Raise a Feminist Son?

Jason’s version

If you read The Upshot in the New York Times, congratulations, you are well on your way to raising a feminist son.  If you read The Upshot and articles about how to raise a feminist son speak to you, congratulations, you are several steps ahead of the average on your way to raising a feminist son.

Why that is?

Because children tend to take after their parents.  In other words, about half of who you are, assuming you were not raised in abject poverty, appears to be a result of what your parents passed down to you in the form of genes.  This is on average mind you, and of course the amount in which you are who you are because of your parents varies depending on the trait being measured.  But, as a whole, it is safe to say that about half of who you are comes from your genetic stock.  And assuming you and your spouse are more alike than different (which tends to be true), and assuming you are both staunch feminists, your boys already have an unfair advantage over boys raised in a more traditional household.

But here is the interesting part.  What science shows us is that the rest of who you are doesn’t seem to come from what your parents taught you, or how your parents raised you.  In social science they call that the “shared environment”, or what is common between yourself and your siblings.  But shared environment (or nurture) is not the only kind of environment.  The other kind of environment is called the non-shared environment, or experiences that are not shared between siblings.  And here is what’s crazy (and totally uncontroversial among the experts):  non-shared environment seems to matter far, far, far more than shared environment.  In other words, outside of what got passed down to you by your parents (your genes), what your parents taught you or how they raised you (assuming they didn’t physically abuse or starve you) seems to matter only an incy wincy bit.

What’s an example of non-shared environment that you can work with?  Apparently, peer group, among other things.  Children tend to want to fit into their peer groups more than they want to fit in with their parents.  And that makes sense, given that parents tend to love their children no matter what, while rejection from a peer group is quite traumatizing.  This is why children of immigrant parents adopt the native language and host country accent to the chagrin of culturally proud parents.  For more on this I recommend The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris (because you don’t want to take my word for it).

But in the end, if you want feminist children give them feminist friends.  I make no gauntness as to outcomes (especially if your spouse is a raging MRA), but I can promise you that it’s based on the best available evidence about what makes us who we are.

Otherwise, you can disregard what I say and continue to pretend that 2.8 million years of evolution seems to matter only a distant second as to whether you gave little Johnny an opportunity to play with dolls when he was two.

unnecessary proscriptions — on the persecution of homosexuals the world over

How unfortunate.  For anyone who is interested in what caning looks like, you’ll find plenty of examples on YouTube. I would, however, advise against it unless you are cursed with the same morbid (and unfortunate) curiosity about the darker sides of human nature, and its evolutionary/cultural causes, that I seem to posses.

In general, I would just recommend that most of you simply take my word for it, and trust that when I say watching an elderly woman writhe over in pain for an offense as harmless as selling alcohol, a high degree of emotional empathy is not something one feels so fortunate to possess (at least not at that moment).
Anyway, there are a lot of seemingly stupid things humans do as a matter of course, even though there might be rational explanations for why we do them. Mostly, behaviors such as caning help to regulate society toward some end goal, often for reasons that appear at first to have little to do with the behavior being regulated.
For example, certain foods may be considered forbidden (and usually a religious explanation is given), but the real cause for why such foods lost favor in a given society has more to do with the fact that rival tribes consume them. To maintain group cohesion and regulate against out-group marriage, forbidding the consumption of the culinary delights of one’s enemies makes it more difficult for one’s progeny to engage in the “breaking of bread” with the “oh Romeo, oh Romeo” just across the way.
This is so because the emotion of “disgust” against foreign, but otherwise edible, food types emerges during childhood as an evolved way of protecting against food poisoning. We feel disgust for food that is more likely to be dangerous to eat, and the more disgust we feel, the less likely we may end up consuming that which puts us on our death bed (or heaved over the toilet). So the regulation against out-group foods takes advantage of disgust to reduce the likelihood that Romeo and Juliet will ever enjoy caviar under the moonlight, because Juliet would rather puke her guts out than consume caviar.
Anyway, proscriptions against homosexuality in religious texts probably also have similar evolutionary/cultural explanations. Mostly, in cases where a society needed to procreate at high numbers–such as during periods of military conquest, where changing the local demographics of an area was far more practical and advantageous than trying to rule, from afar, the out-groups who lived in those places–having every able bodied man and every able bodied woman getting it on in the style most likely to generate babies was the fastest way towards accomplishing the socially desirable ends of demographic conquest through demographic expansion. This is just one explanation, mind you, but it’s one I find compelling.
It’s also the only one that seems to make the most sense for why the Christian God and his Islamic variant, “Allah”, would want to forbid that which comes natural to approximately 3-10% of the world’s population, namely: “lying with a man as with a woman [when one is a man (and vise versa when one is a woman)].”
Obviously, there might be some more sophisticated theological reasons for why God/Allah would want to implement such totally unnecessary strictures, and of course those would offer some version of the “mysterious god” acting in “mysterious ways” argument — but really, in the end, I struggle to find why a just god would be so sadistic as to invent a whole sexuality that would develop in billions of his creation (including humans and non-human animals), and then outlaw it in the human animal only.
But needless to say, those verses were inscribed within these texts in a way that, today, results in an untold number of unnecessary brutality, in some countries, and tragically torn families in others. And while I am not a religious person, I would hope that, as more information becomes known about the natural causes for the great diversity in human sexuality (fact), today’s “tribal leaders” might soon find such unnecessary interdictions to be worthy of explaining away. Because the line of reasoning behind them rears it’s ugly head far too often around the world on a daily basis, and many millions of otherwise innocent, harmless people have their lives torn apart for doing nothing more than being who they are (and harming nobody for it). How sad that is.

grapes give you cancer (and climate change is a serious problem)

97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that humans are causing it.  And this consensus holds even in response to anonymous surveys, which is salient because it indicates that the scientists are not simply self-censoring their true views due to political pressure.  In other words, 97% of the people who actually know what they are talking about believe climate change is a real thing.

Substitute “climate scientists” with oncologists, and make climate change cancer, and how would you feel if 97% of oncologists believed that eating grapes increases your chances for some type of fiercely deadly cancer by 60%?  How often would you continue to eat grapes?  Would you say, “Well, we need more science into whether grapes really do give people cancer?” – and go on eating the same amount of grapes you ate before?  Or would you reduce the amount of grapes you ate, if not stop eating grapes altogether?  More than likely, you’d probably change your behavior (assuming you like living).

Now, within the community of climate scientists, there is a wide range of views as to just how severe we can expect climate change to be.  While some are skeptical that it will be as severe as the consensus predicts, the vast majority believe that the data says we should be concerned.  So, in other words, the vast majority of oncologists are screaming, “probably want to worry about them grapes!”, even though some (but only some!!!) of them are saying, “Although the cancer may not be as bad as our current models are predicting.”

Therefore, since we can’t reverse the effects of human caused global warming, and because there are no other viable planets for our species to relocate to if the high end projections for anthropogenic climate change turn out to be true, it makes sense that only our best and brightest climate minds should be responsible for government agencies charged with managing our policy responses to this human problem.  It also makes sense that we take a conservative approach to how we interpret the data, and assume that the more severe projections are worth worrying about.  Again, because we can’t reverse the effects.

So why is the Trump administration considering a radio talk show host and non-scientist “climate skeptic” (I put that in serious quotes since he likely doesn’t actually know much at all about the actual science part) in charge of a USDA post that oversees research into climate change?  A position, mind you, that is supposed to be headed by an actual scientist?  Perhaps because the Trump administration has demonstrated a profound disregard for expert knowledge, or knowledge in general?

There is a difference, of course, between being an expert skeptic, and being a radio talk show host who believes that climate change is “simply a mechanism for transferring wealth from one group of people to another.”  Keep in mind that, as stated above, 97% of the actual scientists agree that climate change is a real thing.  So the oncologists are saying, “grapes give you cancer”, and Trump is considering the appointment of a radio talk show host and “grapes give you cancer” skeptic in charge of the government division responsible for the research into whether many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands (or even billions) of people’s livelihoods may be at risk by grape eating.  Let me just say that this seems pretty stupid.


human questions

The science of human nature is often a contentious topic because of the negative, and occasionally vitriolic, reactions it elicits in people.  This is due to the fact that the scientists of human nature are not just dispassionately studying the mating habits of African bonobos, or the altruistic behavior in honeybees of the southeastern United States, or the territorial aggression of the spotted hyena — but, rather, because the researcher is becoming the researched, the inevitable conflicts of interest are bound to occur (for the same general reasons that medical doctors don’t treat their children).

I distinguish between the science of human nature, or an attempt to otherwise understand the biological (or evolutionary) basis for human behavior, and the study of human biology or physiology for, say, medicinal purposes, which is often far less controversial (except when it ties back into the study of human nature).  After all, nobody wants to halt the progress in the search for a cure to cancer, right?

Of course, the same theoretical foundations for understanding why, say, you need to get a flue shot every year as opposed to just once a lifetime (because bacteria and viruses rapidly evolve according to evolutionary principles, leading to antibody resistance), or how mutations in the genome can lead to genetic diseases such as Huntington’s Disease, or why we can test new drugs for humans so effectively in animals, also helps us to understand the behavioral patterns of many non-human animals — like intergroup conflict in chimpanzees.  

And of course those same principles are also why breeders have a job, because they are able to “breed true” the traits they want in dogs, cats, horses and plants using the breeders equation (R [Response to selection] = h^2 [Narrow-sense heritability] * S [Selection differential]).

And since, after all, human minds are but biological components of the human body, for which we have no trouble studying, and because medical doctors are but veterinarians who specialize in people, it logically follows that if it works for the human body (apart from the mind) and for chimps, dogs, cats, horses and plants–it probably also works for the human mind, and human behavior, just the same.

But when it comes to the science of human nature (why we are the way we are), people suddenly become far more timid and less amenable to the findings.  Basic facts and observations about the world that would otherwise be banal in every other context become a threat to our sacred sense of self (where the mind and body are dual systems existing apart from one another).

Never mind the fact that the implications for a more comprehensive understanding of the origins of human behavior are every bit as pressing as curing cancer.  Never mind that by allowing scientists to ask difficult questions we allow ourselves to make breakthroughs that may not have otherwise been thought possible (such as our ability to greatly reduce violence, crime, and other forms of anti-social behavior).  

But even as our difficulty with uncovering the basic truths for the fundamental drivers of human behavior may sometimes bump up against the realities of our self imposed limitations, biases, politics, and pride, it is still worth trying.  Because there are also costs to not trying, and many times, those who believe by limiting our ability to study human nature, they are advancing a more ethical framework for a more ethical world, in fact end up unknowingly causing far more harm than good. 

It is for this reason that I advance the position that our study of human nature should be allowed to progress forward with as few limitations as possible (within an appropriate ethical framework built around it and supported by ethicists and philosophers).  And that scientists should be able to ask difficult questions about that nature, with as little protest as possible.  And that anyone who should protest the study of certain sensitive topics, like the heritability of IQ, would also first consider the ethical implications for not allowing such studies to progress, since there are consequences for not studying as much as there are for studying.

But regardless of what you think, this conversation needs to take place, because we are on the precipice of great advancements in our knowledge and understanding about the biological basis for human behavior (even if we refuse to apply it outside of the laboratory).  Advancements in genetics, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, biology, and other fields, and the resulting scientific consilience that is inevitable will require that we be prepared to face these difficult ethical dilemmas.  And it is my hope that we will chose the path of knowledge over the path of self imposed ignorance, but only time will tell.

no more tabula rasa

The coming years will show that “tabula rasa” was just a ruse, it turns out humans are actually not “blank slates”, and we’ve been fooled by our own wishful thinking into believing something that could never be. What science is now showing is that we might actually be influenced to think and behave the way we do in part because of our nature. Wait. Humans have a nature? It turns out we do. In time this knowledge will become more apparent to us, and as additional information becomes known we will inevitably hear voices who claim that we are “biologically determined” little creatures — which is to say that we cannot improve outside of what our genes have bestowed upon us. This clunky line of reasoning may inspire some people into a depressing and incorrect form of deterministic thinking. But biological determinism is as fallacious as cultural, linguistic and/or environmental determinism. Of course, there are limits to who we can become, but that’s true even if biology plays no role whatsoever. But within that we have choices we can make that can improve who we are, regardless of our genetic makeup or environmental circumstances. There’s nothing depressing about biology playing a role in who we are, in fact, it’s somewhat liberating to know we are not solely determined by the shackles of our own cultural or environmental circumstances, and that in fact there are more components to what makes us unique, and thus more avenues to find room to improve our lot.

But which is more important? Do we turn out the way we do primarily because of the environment and culture from which we are raised? or do we find ourselves to be who we are mostly because of our genes? The short answer is that it’s complicated. The long answer is that virtually all human traits are partly heritable, and this includes ability and behavioral traits that we like as well as those we don’t like. But this does not mean that we are determined by nature, anymore than it means we are determined by nurture. Thus, a person born with a particularly unattractive behavioral propensity in one environment might be led to a more genteel framework in another, but we should still allow ourselves to consider how biology plays a role in order to mitigate its effects where we can.

Currently, some in the social sciences heavily prioritize everything but biology as it pertains to human outcomes. Lest anyone accuse me of strawman construction, rest assured I am not coming from a position of outsider ignorance (outsider, yes, ignorance, no). I have read their papers, this is something that exists. A social scientist of this persuasion will point to the vast number of studies that have been done demonstrating the importance of family environment and culture in how we turn out. But all they’ve done is proven that these things matter. In a similar fashion, I could demonstrate the importance of wheels to why cars move. I could perform any number of studies to show that, without wheels, cars get nowhere, but those cars with wheels are highly mobile. In general, cars with wheels are correlated with successful transport of humans and cargo. But if one asked me what’s under the hood, I could say that it doesn’t matter, or perhaps it hardly matters, because ultimately wheels are far more relevant to car performance. If we place good wheels on all cars, we’ll have more effective cars, and to some degree I’d be right. But I’d also be incredibly wrong.

While we have some understanding about the degree to which nature, nurture and environment influence us — thanks mostly to twin studies — we are kidding ourselves to say that we know, with certainty, that one is more important than the other. Any claims as such are moral/political in nature, not based on actual fact. However, we are denying ourselves tremendous progress when we prioritize the question — as it pertains to nature, nurture or environment’s effect on human outcomes — of “which is more important” over the question of “in which way does each matter”. And it’s precisely for human outcomes that we should want to know more, not less, about all of the components that come together to make each one of us who we are. To limit ourselves to only one or two areas, and to minimize whole categories of other relevant information is nothing more than a fools errand — even if it’s done with good intentions.

It’s time to be done with the tabula rasa. Concerns about what will happen if we do are unfounded, and mostly based on historical precedent that is unlikely to be repeated in our current culture, with an already sound ethical framework developing for how to discuss these issues. There is greater risk if our culture were to continue to drink the Kool-aide, since science is showing more and more the relevance of DNA to who we are. The next great strides in human development will depend on our ability to harness this information for the good, even if that means we have to fight off those who may seek to harness it for the bad. Because as with all good things, there is some risk, but I am confident that we are prepared to confront it. And I am confident that humanity will be better as a result. But even if we stick our heads in the sand as a society, the information will continue to come in and confront us, and we will be less prepared to address it if the taboo around discussing the issue remains in place. Which is why I am discussing it, because we have far more options when we are right than when we choose to be wrong out of fear or uncertainty.