Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Culture Is Part of Human Nature: Jesse Prinz and the Incest Taboo

According to Jesse Prinz, "every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait," because "every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment."  Consequently, "there is no sharp contrast between nature and nurture."  "Nurture depends on nature, and nature exists in the service of nurture" (367). 

Oddly, in saying this, Prinz does not realize that he is endorsing E. O. Wilson's sociobiological argument that the necessary interaction of genes and culture constitutes human nature.  If human culture is part of human nature, then it's hard to see how Prinz's argument for the importance of human culture takes us "beyond human nature."  Strangely, only a few sentences after stating that "nurture depends on nature," Prinz concludes his book by declaring that through nurture, "we transcend nature" (368). 

Here we see the fundamental contradiction that runs throughout Prinz's book--first rejecting the nature/nurture dichotomy as a false dichotomy, but then embracing the dichotomy and insisting that nurture transcends nature.

One of the best illustrations of the gene-culture coevolution of human nature is the incest taboo as explained by Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory.  Prinz's attempt to refute that theory shows the incoherence and deceptiveness of his reasoning.

Elaborating an idea first suggested by Darwin, Westermarck proposed that since inbreeding between close relatives tends to increase the risks of physical and mental defects that impede survival and reproduction, natural selection might have favored an emotional disposition to feel a sexual aversion to those with whom one has been raised in early childhood.  This natural aversion to incest could then create the moral disapproval that is expressed as an incest taboo.  Thus, Westermarck stood against Sigmund Freud's Oedipal theory of the incest taboo as a purely cultural construction that must repress the natural desires of human beings for incestuous sexual intercourse.

Since Prinz insists that the incest taboo is a purely cultural construction, we might think that he therefore agrees with Freud.  But Prinz is confusing on this point.  While he agrees with Freud that the incest taboo is cultural and not natural, he disagrees with Freud in that Prinz believes that there is a naturally evolved tendency for most people to avoid incest, because of the deleterious effects of close inbreeding (353, 355). 

Prinz criticizes the proponents of the Westermarck theory for failing to distinguish incest avoidance from incest taboos (353).  But he does not tell his readers that some of the proponents of the Westermarck theory have emphasized this distinction.  This is most clearly true for Arthur Wolf in his Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association (505-515) and in his Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo (10-14).  Most recently, in a book published after the publication of Prinz's book, Wolf has elaborated his account of the relationship between incest avoidance and the incest taboos as two aspects of human nature.

There are at least six kinds of evidence for the Westermarck theory.  First is the evidence that the inbreeding of closely related relatives increases the risks of physical and mental deficiencies. 

Second is the research surveying how people react to incest with emotional disgust. 

Third is the evidence that other primates, including chimpanzees, avoid incest. 

Fourth is the anthropological evidence that incest taboos are a human universal. 

Fifth is Wolf's studies of Chinese "minor marriages."  In the first half of the 19th century, one form of marriage in China was for families to adopt infant girls who would marry their sons.  Wolf found that these minor marriages had higher divorce rates and lower fertility rates than the more common form of marriage.  It seemed that in being reared together as siblings, these couples had developed an aversion to sexual attraction, just as Westermarck predicted.

Sixth is the history of the kibbutzim in Israel.  The children of the kibbutz were reared together from infancy in the "children's house."  On reaching maturity, it was expected that they would find their marital partners among those with whom they had grown up.  But this did not happen, because this seemed like incest to them.

Prinz is silent about the evidence from the kibbutzim and the evidence of incest avoidance among other primates.  He seems to accept the evidence for the risks from inbreeding among close relatives.  But he rejects the other three lines of evidence.

If people find incest emotionally disgusting, Prinz argues, that's only because they were taught by their parents that incest is taboo.  But he provides no evidence for this--that people develop no revulsion against incest if they have not been explicitly instructed that this is wrong.  The evidence from Chinese minor marriages and the kibbutzim seems to contradict this claim.

Prinz dismisses the evidence from Chinese minor marriages by arguing that their high divorce rates and low fertility rates could be caused by the fact that such marriages do not arise from love affairs, and that they come from poor families, so that their poverty could be source of stress.  But Prinz does not tell his readers that Wolf has responded to this criticism by pointing out that the unsuccessful minor marriages tend to occur when the girls are less than three years old at adoption.  The Westermarck effect requires that the children are reared together from a very young age.  Prinz says nothing about this.

Prinz dismisses the evidence that the incest taboo is a human universal by pointing out that there is great cultural variation in the incest taboo, particularly in whether cousin marriage is considered incest.  Prinz does not notice, however, that Westermarck's theory predicts this.  The Westermarck effect arises only for those people who have been reared together from an early age, and thus it tends to arise most strongly for the nuclear family--parents and their children--and whether the incest taboo extends to cousins will be determined by variable kinship systems.  In the United States, cousin marriages are legal in some states but illegal in others.

And yet, Prinz argues, the cultural variation in the incest taboo goes beyond cousin marriage.  In Ptolemaic Egypt (around 300 BC), brother-sister marriage was common among the Greco-Roman citizens.  Among the ancient Zoroastrians in Persia (224-651 AD), there were no incest restrictions at all.  It was a religious obligation for fathers to marry daughters, mothers to marry sons, and brothers to marry sisters (353-56).

Prinz does not tell his readers that Wolf and others have pointed out the dubious character of the evidence from ancient Egypt and Persia.  The Westermarck effect arises when children are reared in their first few years with siblings and other family members.  Many of the sibling marriages in the data from ancient Egypt are between siblings with considerable age differences, which suggests that they were not reared together in their earliest years, and consequently the inhibitions to sexual intercourse and reproduction would not have been acquired.  Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that some of the sibling marriages of people close in age were between people who could have been reared by wet nurses in their earliest years, which would have interfered with the Westermarck effect.  (The same is probably true for many of the patients that Freud saw in Vienna.)

Another problem with the data from Egypt is that it does not give us any evidence of the success or failure of these sibling marriages.  Did such marriages produce high rates of divorce, adultery, and infertility?  If they did, then they would follow the pattern that Wolf saw in Chinese minor marriages.

The same problems arise with the Persian evidence, which gives us no evidence that these marriages of nuclear family members were successful.  In fact, some of the documents quote remarks about such marriages being "difficult and hard."  Moreover, there is little evidence as to how frequent these marriages were.  There is some evidence, however, that many children of these marriages were born physically and mentally deformed.

Prinz is silent about all of this.

Some of my previous posts on the incest taboo can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Prinz's Deceptive Silence in His Arguments for Emotivism and Cultural Relativism

In Beyond Human Nature, Jesse Prinz argues for emotivism and cultural relativism in his account of human morality.  In doing this, he employs the rhetorical technique of deceptive silence.  What I mean by this is that in presenting the research relevant to his topic, he picks out those findings that seem to support his arguments, while passing over in silence those findings that contradict his arguments. 

For example, he sets up a stark debate between Kantian rationalism and Humean emotivism in explaining the basis of human morality; and he argues that empirical research supports emotivism by showing that moral judgment is purely emotional and not rational at all (293-95).  This is deceptive in two respects. 

First, he does not tell his readers that Hume argued for a combination of reason and emotion in explaining moral judgment.  When Hume declared that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions" (1888, 415), he was not promoting emotivist irrationalism.  As the context of this remark makes clear, he believed that reason can direct action but not motivate it: "The impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it" (1888, 414).  When our passions are accompanied by false judgments, reason can properly correct them: "The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means or passions yield to our reason" (1888,416).  "Reason and judgment may, indeed, be the mediate cause of an action, by prompting, or by directing a passion" (1888, 462).  Consequently, "reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions" (1902, 172).  For example, reason might instruct us as to how justice could be useful to society, but this alone would not produce any moral approbation for justice unless we felt a sentiment of concern for the happiness of society (1902, 285-87).

The second deception is in Prinz's reporting of the experimental research on moral judgment.  He correctly reports that that research shows the power of emotion in motivating moral judgment.  But he is silent about how that research shows the complex interaction of reason and emotion in ways that confirm Hume's position.  For example, Prinz reports the research by Joshua Greene and others who have used functional MRI to scan the brains of people as they make decisions about the Trolley Dilemma.  In the Switch Case, most people are willing to pull the switch to save five lives while taking one life.  But in the Footbridge Case, most people are unwilling to push the fat man onto the tracks to save five lives.  In judging the Switch Case, the more calculating parts of the brain are activated (including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), while in judging the Footbridge Case, the more emotional areas of the brain are active (including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex).  Here's Prinz's interpretation of this:
"In all these moral dilemmas, there are too options: you can save five people (that's good!), or you can do something that results in one person dying (that's bad!).  When you think about doing something good, you may have a positive emotional response; it feels good to help people.  When you think about doing something bad, your response is negative.  These two emotional forces battle it out in the brain and the stronger one wins." (297)
Prinz is silent, however, about the point made by Greene and his colleagues that there is no absolute separation between reason and emotion in the brain.  For example, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are interconnected, and this confirms Hume insight about the interconnectedness of reason and emotion in moral judgment.

Prinz is also silent about the point made by John Mikhail that the emotional responses to the Trolley Dilemma show an intuitive grasp of the rational principle of double effect.  Mikhail generalizes this principle to cover homicide and battery:  "the principle holds that an otherwise prohibited action, such as battery or homicide, which has both good and bad effects may be permissible if the prohibited act itself is not directly intended, the good but not the bad effects are directly intended, the good effects outweigh the bad effects, and no morally preferable alternative is available."

Most people think pushing the fat man is wrong because their emotional response against this embodies a rational principle by which a directly intended killing of an innocent person is wrong, while an indirect and unintended killing of an innocent person might be justifiable if it achieves a good effect that outweighs the bad effect.

Emotions are judgments about the world, and thus our emotions are shaped by rational judgments.  So, for instance, in the Switch Case, if we discovered that there was some other way to divert the trolley without killing the one innocent person, we would condemn throwing the switch.

Prinz is silent about all of this, because it contradicts his argument for emotivism.

Prinz is also silent about much of what Joseph Henrich and his colleagues have reported in their "Roots of Human Sociality Project," in which they have studied how people in diverse cultures around the world play the Ultimatum Game, the Dictator Game, and the Costly Punishment Game.  Prinz reports that people play these games very differently in different cultures, and this shows that there is no universal human nature expressed here, because it shows the cultural relativism of moral judgment.  For example, among the Machiguenga of Peru, the average offer in the Ultimatum Game is 26%, which is much lower than the average offer among Americans (310-12).

Prinz is silent about the claim of Henrich and his colleagues that their research show that "fairness and punishment show both substantial variability and reliable patterns across diverse populations."  There is great cultural variability, and yet there is a clear pattern in this variation that shows how human culture is constrained by human nature.  Offers in the Ultimatum Game near 50 percent were always the most acceptable offer.  There were very few offers above 50 percent.  No society showed an average offer above 60 percent.  So there are no societies where most people give more than half, or where most people give zero.  The Hadza foragers were the most selfish people, but even they are not completely selfish.  In the Dictator Game, 71 percent of the Hadza offered more than zero.  On the other end of the scale, neither do we see completely other-regarding behavior.  In the play of the Dictator Game, only three individuals out of 427 offered 100 percent.  So Hume was right: human beings are by nature on average neither completely selfish nor completely selfless.  Variation in human culture is constrained by the universal pattern of human nature.

Prinz is silent about this.  He is also silent about the report of Henrich and his colleagues that belief in a world religion (Islam or Christianity) and market integration promoted higher levels of fairness.

Some of my posts on the Trolley Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game research can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Does the Flynn Effect Show the Success of Scientific Enlightenment and Thus Refute Strauss?

According to Leo Strauss, there is a fundamental dispute between premodern philosophy and modern philosophy.  Ancient and medieval philosophers generally believed that there was a permanent conflict between the philosophic life as the quest for truth and the moral, religious, or political life as based on opinion.  As based on traditional opinions about the good life, no society could tolerate total freedom of thought and speech for philosophers in their quest for truth, because that quest would subvert the unquestioned opinions supporting social order.  Consequently, the premodern philosophers believed that a truly rational society--a society fully open to the rational pursuit of truth--was impossible.  This made it necessary for premodern philosophers to practice esoteric writing to convey their secret teachings to potential philosophers, while protecting themselves from persecution, and protecting society from being harmed by philosophic inquiry.

By contrast, according to Strauss, the modern philosophers have generally believed that this conflict between philosophy and politics could be resolved in a society with popular enlightenment, so that in a rational society, there could be complete freedom of thought and speech.  To achieve this, the traditional social order based on false moral, religious, and political opinions would have to be overthrown.  Esoteric writing would have to be practiced as part of the intellectual conspiracy for overthrowing traditional social orders.  But once the revolution was successful, esoteric writing would no longer be needed.  And, indeed, as Arthur Melzer has shown, esoteric writing did seem to disappear sometime around 1800, because by then the modern scientific enlightenment had succeeded in those largely liberal or open societies where complete freedom of thought and speech was no longer perceived as a threat to social order.

Strauss generally seemed to embrace premodern philosophy as superior to modern philosophy.  If that is so, then the apparent success of modern scientific enlightenment in achieving such liberal or open societies would seem to refute Strauss, because this would seem to indicate that the premodern philosophers were wrong in believing that no society could be fully open to the philosophic or scientific life of inquiry into the truth.

One dramatic indication of the success of the scientific enlightenment is the Flynn effect.  Political scientist James Flynn has pointed to the remarkable fact that over a century of IQ testing shows that average IQ scores have been increasing at the rate of 3 points every 10 years, which means an increase of two standard deviations every 30 years.  That suggests that compared with Americans today, most Americans at the beginning of the 20th century were mentally retarded!

Moreover, the increases in IQ scores have been almost exclusively in the two subtests that most require abstract reasoning--Similarities and Matrices.  The average scores for the subtests of Information, Arithmetic, and Vocabulary have not changed very much.  Here's an example from the Matrices section of an IQ test:


An example of a question from the Similarities section would be "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?"  If you correctly answer, "Both are mammals," Flynn says, you are thinking abstractly, and you are thus thinking like a scientist in classifying organisms by their type.  If you had said, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits," you have been thinking concretely and practically.  According to Flynn, the rising IQ scores for Matrices and Similarities over the past century show that people have learned to think more abstractly and theoretically rather than concretely and practically.  That is to say, the Scientific Enlightenment has succeeded in teaching more people to think like scientists.

To show how the thinking of people in modern societies has changed from the thinking of people in traditional societies, Flynn points to the research of the psychologist Alexander Luria in studying the reasoning abilities of Russian peasants in the early 20th century:
"The illiterate Russian peasants Luria studied were not willing to take the hypothetical seriously.  He said, 'Imagine that bears come from where there is always snow and imagine that if bears come from where there is always snow, they are white.  What color would the bears be at the North Pole?' and they would respond something like, 'I've only seen brown bears.  If an old man came from the North Pole and told me I might believe him.'  They were not interested in the hypothetical, or abstract categories.  They were grounded in concrete reality.  'There are no camels in Germany.  B is in Germany.  Are there camels there?'  They said, 'Well, it's big enough, there ought to be camels.  Or maybe it's too small to have camels.'  We have wonderful data from the Raven's Progressive Matrices tests from 1950 and 2010 showing that the Raven's games are entirely correlated with freeing your mind of the concrete reference of the symbols in order to take the relationship between the symbols more seriously."

What Flynn sees here is that in the societies shaped by modern scientific rationalism, people are being taught to view the world through "scientific spectacles," and thus they are leaving the prescientific world of traditional societies.  Moreover, in becoming better in their abstract reasoning, people in scientifically enlightened societies are also becoming better in their moral reasoning. 

Flynn tells the story of how he and his brother tried to persuade their Irish father to give up his traditional prejudices about black people.  They asked him: "What if you woke up one morning and discovered your skin had turned black?  Would that make you any less of a human being?"  He responded: "Now, that's the stupidest thing you've ever said.  Who ever heard of a man's skin turning black overnight?"  An uneducated man like their father was not inclined to think abstractly or hypothetically, and thus he was not open to being persuaded by abstract moral reasoning.

There is evidence that rising IQ is producing moral enlightenment.  So that there is a moral Flynn effect.  People with high IQ are less likely to commit violent crimes, more likely to be cooperative with others, and more inclined to adopt the tolerant values of an Enlightenment philosophy that stresses reason and individualism rather than traditional prejudices.

The evidence and argumentation supporting this idea of a moral Flynn effect was first stated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker's reasoning has recently been elaborated in Michael Shermer's new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).  The idea of the "moral arc" is taken from a line in Martin Luther King's famous speech in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 at the end of the march from Selma: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Does this apparent success of the modern Scientific Enlightenment refute Strauss in his premodern belief that an enlightened or rational society is impossible?

Melzer seems to deny this.  He denies that Strauss practiced esoteric writing, because there was no longer a conflict between philosophy and society, and so Strauss saw no need to try to overturn the modern liberal enlightenment, which is to say that he accepted the success of the modern liberal project as the refutation of the premodern belief that the conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life could never be overcome in an open liberal society. 

If this is what Melzer is implying, then he's identifying Strauss as a Midwest Straussian (in the terminology of Catherine and Michael Zuckert), who believed that modernity is good, and the premodern philosophers have been proven wrong.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jesse Prinz's Contradictions in His Account of Sex Differences

Two contradictions run throughout Jesse Prinz's argument for going "beyond human nature."

The first contradiction is that he begins his book by saying that biological determinism is a straw man, because almost none of the naturists defend biological determinism; but then throughout the book, he criticizes the naturists as biological determinists.

The second contradiction is that he insists that he never denies the importance of biology, because explaining human traits always requires that we see the interaction between biology and culture; but then he says that culture can eliminate biology.

Both of these contradictions arise in his account of gender differences.  First, even though he has said that naturists are not biological determinists (6), he declares: "Naturists tend to be biological determinists.  They tend to think that gender differences are indelibly etched in our genetic building blocks" (232).

He also shows the second contradiction.  He insists: "An adequate theory of gender differences in cognition must implicate both biology and socialization" (236).  But then two paragraphs later, he declares: "Culture can also erase biological differences" (237).

To explain how culture could do this, he asks us to imagine a culture in which musical skills would be important for everyone.  In such a "musical utopia," where everyone is trained in music, those without any natural musical talent will have the same musical ability as those with natural talent.  Apparently, in such a society, everyone would be a Mozart (237-38).

By implication, he is suggesting that in a "sexual utopia," all people would be unisex or androgynous:  men and women would be absolutely the same in their behavior.

Surprisingly, Prinz is completely silent about the utopian communities that have attempted to do this--such as the kibbutzim in Israel.  This silence about the kibbutzim is especially surprising, because while Prinz presents his whole account of gender differences as a refutation of Larry Summers famous speech about sex differences at Harvard in 2005 (213-14), Prinz says nothing about Summers' reference to the kibbutzim as showing the natural differences between men and women.  There was not supposed to be any distinction between the jobs taken by men and those taken by women.  Men should often work in the nurseries, and women should often work repairing the tractors.  But over time, the women preferred to work in the nurseries, and the mothers wanted more time with their children.

I have written about the kibbutzim in Darwinian Natural Right (95-101) as showing how a utopian attempt to abolish the natural differences between men and women and the bond between parents and children failed.  In some of the early journals of the kibbutzim, the "burden of rearing children" was said to be the root of what was called "the biological tragedy of women."  In 1950, one kibbutz journal proclaimed the achievement of sexual equality:  "We have given her [the woman] equal rights; we have emancipated her from the economic yoke [of domestic service]; we have emancipated her from the burden of rearing children; we have emancipated her from dependency on the husband, her provider and commander; we have given her a new society; we have broken the shackles that chained her hands."  But by the end of the 1950s, it was apparent that most women were resisting this attempt at an androgynous society and asserting their natural desire for taking a nurturing role in the rearing of children.

Presumably, Prinz must believe that the kibbutzim should have continued in their utopian project for creating an androgynous society.  But given his silence about this, I can't be sure.

If sexual identity as male or female is purely a cultural construction through socialization, as Prinz often suggests, then it should be possible for a genetic male (that is, a boy with a Y chromosome) to be turned into a girl by being socialized as a girl.  In fact, such an experiment has been conducted.  The most famous case is that of Bruce/Brenda/David Reimer--the Canadian boy who was reared as a girl by his parents.  For many years, this case was reported in psychology textbooks as proof that socialization is so powerful in constructing sexual identity that socialization can turn a boy into a girl.  But then the disastrous consequences of this experiment were revealed, and now the case is no longer mentioned in the textbooks.  I have written about this in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism.  Oddly, Prinz is silent about this case.

I should point out that the contradictions in Prinz's writing are similar to the contradictions that can be found in the writing of Louann Brizendine, who argues for the naturist claim that the brains of men and women are innately different.  So both sides in this debate are guilty of similar contradictions.  My posts on Brizendine can be found here, here, and here.

There is another contradiction in Prinz's writing that one does not find in Brizendine's writing.  Since Brizendine is a feminist naturalist, she can appeal to women's nature--their natural desires--as a standard for judging cultural practices as better or worse in how they conform to those natural desires, and thus she can condemn patriarchal prejudices that frustrate women's natural desires.  But Prinz cannot do this.  As a culturalist relativist who believes that sexual identity is a cultural construction, he has no natural standard for judging the culture of sexual identity. 

And yet he does exactly that.  He quotes some crude statements of patriarchal attitudes from the 19th and early 20th century--statements about women being inferior to men.  He then identifies this as "prejudice" and indicates the need to support "the struggle for equal treatment" (214-16).  This contradicts his cultural relativism.  If there is no standard of human nature beyond culture--if our sexual identity is determined by our cultural socialization--then it's impossible to have any natural standard for judging a cultural tradition to be mere "prejudice."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Jesse Prinz's Mistaken Account of the IQ Debate

In my course on "Biopolitics and Human Nature" this semester, we have begun with the debate over human nature, or we might call it the nature-nurture debate.  The two main readings for this debate are my Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, which advocates an appeal to biological human nature as a moral and political standard, and Jesse Prinz's Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind, which criticizes any such appeal to biological human nature.  One might think that we are on opposite sides of this debate; but I can't be sure about this, because Prinz often contradicts himself, and sometimes he seems to be in complete agreement with me.

I argue that the nature-nurture dichotomy is a false dichotomy, because there's always a complex interaction between nature and nurture; and almost no one argues either for the extreme of genetic determinism or the extreme of cultural determinism.  Prinz agrees when he says that the biological determinist and the blank slate are straw men, because almost no one argues for such extreme positions (6).

But then Prinz affirms a naturist/nurturist dichotomy.  Although naturists and nurturists are not absolutely opposed to one another, they are different, but their difference is just a matter of emphasis.  Naturists do not say that biology is everything, and culture is nothing.  But they do say that biology is more important than culture.  Nurturists do not say biology is nothing, and culture is everything.  But they do say that culture is more important than nature (6-8).

And yet, as Prinz takes up various issues in this debate, he often ends up agreeing totally with the conclusions of the naturists.  For example, Prinz concludes that in the gene-environment interactions that explain schizophrenia, personality traits, and IQ the split is probably about 50% genes and 50% environment (26, 41, 50).  But that's exactly the conclusion reached by those naturists that Prinz the nurturist is supposed to be debating!  So now it seems there no real opposition between the naturists and the nurturists.

This point is sometimes obscured, however, because Prinz often suggests that the naturists really are genetic determinists, despite his claim that this is a straw man.  This becomes evident in his mistaken account of the debate over Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve.

Prinz says that Herrnstein and Murray claim that "difference in IQ cannot be affected by education," because "IQ differences are biologically fixed."  Thus, he identifies Herrnstein and Murray as biological determinists, and he rejects their position as "patently false" (71).

This is not true.  Herrnstein and Murray emphasize that IQ is not biologically fixed, because the genetic component of IQ is unlikely to be higher than 60%, and the rest is environmental (Bell Curve, 105-106).  They have a long section in their book on raising IQ through education (393-402, 414).  "Moving a child from an environment that is the very worst to the very best may make a big difference."  Unfortunately, however, in the United States, "what most interventions accomplish is to move children from awful environments to ones that are merely below average" (109).

Prinz points to the fact that students can increase their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test by taking preparatory courses, and he presents this as a refutation of Herrnstein and Murray's biological determinism.  But he doesn't tell his readers that Herrnstein and Murray acknowledge this improvement in SAT scores from coaching (Bell Curve, 400-402).

Prinz says that Herrnstein and Murray "argue that we disband affirmative action programmes" (62).  But he doesn't tell his readers that Herrnstein and Murray argue for returning "to the original intentions of affirmative action: to cast a wider net, to give preference to the members of disadvantaged groups, whatever their skin color, when qualifications are similar," as a way to achieve "progress toward a healthy multiracial society" (Bell Curve, 448).

Prinz cites a study finding that "infants transferred from poor homes into affluent homes increase scores by 12 to 16 points" (64).  But he doesn't tell his readers that Herrnstein and Murray recommend adoption and equalizing environments as a way to raise IQ scores (Bell Curve, 410-416).

Prinz illustrates the importance of environment by asking us to imagine having some genetically identical seeds, half of which we plant in "nutrient soil" and half in "bad soil."  The seeds planted in the bad soil will grow into plants much shorter than the plants in the good soil.  We can then explain the black/while IQ gap by saying that "black Americans are raised in bad soil" (64-67).  But he doesn't tell his readers that Herrnstein and Murray use exactly the same analogy: they suggest imagining two handfuls of genetically identical seed corn with one handful planted in the Mojave Desert and the other in Iowa.  "The seeds will grow in Iowa, not in the Mojave, and the result will have nothing to do with genetic differences" (298).

Prinz claims that the white/black IQ gap is explained by the effects of racist black stereotypes.  He cites one study to support this: "a group of good black and white students were asked to take a test, and half the students were asked to write down their race.  White students who specified their race did just as well as white students who did not specify their race.  Black students who did not specify their race performed just as well as whites, but black students who specified their race dramatically underperformed. . . . When black students are made aware of their race, their performance declines" (66-67).  He thus conveys the impression that this study showed that when black students are not afraid of confirming racist stereotypes about their race, the white/black IQ gap disappears.

But Prinz does not tell his readers that this impression is false, although it has been widely reported in psychology textbooks.  Anyone who reads the original article by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson--"Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (1995): 797-811--will see that it does not show that eliminating the stereotype threat eliminates the black/white IQ gap.  In the experiments by Steele and Aronson, black and white students were statistically equated on the basis of prior SAT scores, so that high-scoring blacks were matched with high-scoring whites.  In the sample studied, therefore, there were no differences between the groups in prior SAT scores.  Introducing a stereotype threat induced the black students to perform below the white students.  Removing the stereotype threat returned the scores to the prior level of no difference.  It is a misrepresentation of this experiment to conclude that eliminating stereotype threat eliminates the black/white IQ gap.  This has been pointed out by Paul Sackett, Chaitra Hardison, and Michael Cullen in "On Interpreting Stereotype Threat as Accounting for African-American-White Differences on Cognitive Tests," American Psychologist 59 (January 2004): 7-13.  This article is followed by an article by Steele and Aronson who agree that this is a good correction of a popular misrepresentation of their 1995 article.  Prinz does not bring any of this to the attention of his readers.

Some of my posts on The Bell Curve debate can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

I will be writing some more posts on Prinz.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Strauss, Slavery, and Darwinian Natural Right

        
     Ant slave rebellion?  Enslaved ants destroying a pupa of the slave-making colony


In Natural Right and History, Strauss doesn't give many examples of natural right.  But one example that appears repeatedly is slavery (23, 103-104, 118, 121, 159).  In speaking about conventionalism, Strauss observes: "what is natural comes into being and exists without violence.  All violence applied to a being makes that being do something which goes against its grain, i.e., against its nature. . . . the unnatural character of slavery seems to be obvious: it goes against any man's grain to be made a slave or to be treated as a slave" (103).  The unnatural character of slavery might be an illustration of natural right that can be defended against the relativism of both historicism and positivism.

The historicist relativist would point out that slavery has been practiced for thousands of years in many societies, which shows that our moral judgment of slavery is historically determined by the prevailing opinions of our time and place, and thus there is no natural standard for judging slavery as right or wrong.  After all, even philosophers like Aristotle defended slavery as natural, because that was the common opinion in the ancient Greek world.  And so later defenders of slavery, like the slaveholders of the American South, could cite Aristotle as supporting their position (Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery, 1858, 17).

Strauss responds to this by arguing that it is untrue that Aristotle could not have conceived of the injustice of slavery, because in fact he did (23).  Most slavery in the ancient Greek world was based on the convention that people taken prisoner in war and not ransomed can be enslaved.  Such slavery is merely conventional, not natural (104).  By making the distinction between natural and conventional slavery in The Politics, Aristotle conveys an exoteric teaching that slavery is natural, which appears to conform to prevailing opinions; but he also conveys an esoteric teaching to his careful readers who will notice that by Aristotle's standards slavery as actually practiced in ancient Greece is purely conventional and not natural.

When the Spanish conquerors of the New World enslaved the Indians in the sixteenth century, this provoked a debate in Spain over the justice of this enslavement.  Juan Gines de Sepulveda appealed to Aristotle in arguing that the American Indians were natural slaves.  But then Bartolome de Las Casas condemned the enslavement as contrary to natural right.   Las Casas argued that by Aristotle's standard of natural slavery, the only natural slaves would be those few individuals who are born mentally deformed without the normal human nature of rational and political animals; and by this standard, the American Indians were clearly not natural slaves.  Their enslavement was merely conventional, because they had been defeated in war.  To treat them as natural slaves was contrary to their nature as human beings.  This argument by Las Casas can be seen today as one of the first statements of the modern conception of human rights--that all human beings have natural rights by virtue of their universal human nature.

This example of natural right does not depend on a cosmic teleology that has been refuted by modern science.  This example of natural right depends only on the immanent teleology of human nature, which can be supported by modern biological science.  As Strauss says, "however indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions" (94).  If we can "distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are natural and those which originate in conventions," then we can judge natural right as that which conforms to natural human desires and inclinations.  If Darwin was right that an evolved moral sense is part of our evolved human nature, and that our moral sense condemns slavery, then we might see slavery as contrary to Darwinian natural right.  We can see that slavery frustrates the natural human desires of the slave, especially the desire to be free from exploitation.

But then the positivist relativist (like Max Weber) might object that in trying to draw moral conclusions from our knowledge of human nature, we are violating the distinction between facts and values, or between the is and the ought, because we fail to see the fallacy in deriving moral values from natural facts (NRH, 38-48).  As historians or scientists, we can describe the facts of human slavery: that slavery has been practiced for thousands of  years, that this has satisfied the natural desire of masters for dominating and exploiting their slaves, and that this has frustrated the natural desire of slaves to be free from exploitation.  But judging whether this is right or wrong is not a factual judgment but a moral judgment. 

Slave masters will say that slavery is right because it satisfies their natural desires.  Slaves will say that slavery is wrong because it frustrates their natural desires.  To say that one side is right and the other wrong is not an objective judgment of fact but a subjective judgment of value.  Scientific knowledge must be value-free, because while we can have an empirical and rational knowledge of facts, we cannot have any genuine knowledge of values.  The values of human beings are arbitrary preferences that conflict with one another, and there is no rational way to say that one set of values is better than another.  Reason cannot tell us that anti-slavery values are better than proslavery values.

The idea of Darwinian natural right is mistaken, therefore, because it fallaciously infers moral values from natural facts.  Darwin was vehement in his condemnation of slavery, and much of his book on human evolution--The Descent of Man--was written to refute the proslavery argument that the human races were separate species, that some species were naturally inferior, morally and intellectually, to others, and that these inferior species were naturally adapted for slavery (Desmond and Moore 2009). 

But the positivist relativist will suggest that Darwin was wrong if he thought that his personal value judgment condemning slavery could be grounded in his natural science.  After all, Darwin in The Origin of Species recognized that slavery was a naturally evolved adaptation for some ant species that have a "slave-making instinct," which shows that slavery can arise by natural evolution.  In the first edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that this ant instinct for making slaves was "extraordinary and odious" (1859, 220).  In the second edition of his book, he struck out the word "odious."  Perhaps he did this because he realized that this word was only an expression of his moral emotions--his hatred of slavery--and not a scientific description of the facts.

The proslavery American southerner Thomas Cobb pointed to ant slavery as a natural fact showing that slavery conforms to the law of nature.  "It is a fact, well known to entomologists," Cobb observed, "that the red ant will issue in regular battle array, to conquer and subjugate the black or negro ant, as he is called by entomologists," and "that these negro slaves perform all the labor of the communities into which they are thus brought, with a patience and an aptitude almost incredible" (8-9).

Some religious believers will argue that this shows how a Darwinian science of nature and human nature cannot provide any standard of right and wrong for judging that slavery is wrong, because our knowledge of right and wrong depends on a religiously informed cosmic teleology like that suggested in the Declaration of Independence.  If it is self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then we can see that slavery is wrong because it violates God's law in denying the equal dignity of all human beings as created in God's image.  That's the argument of John Hare, Carson Holloway, and Benjamin Wiker.  The positivist relativist would see this as a religious value judgment that cannot be derived from our empirical knowledge of the facts of nature.

Strauss objects to this positivist fact-value distinction by insisting that a value-free social science is impossible, because the social phenomena studied by the social scientist are "constituted by value judgments," and all social scientists must strive to make "objective value judgments" about the social phenomena they study (NRH, 53-57).  So, for example, a military historian studying the actions of statesmen and generals must necessarily make value judgments in which he judges whether these actions were successful or mistaken.  A general who loses a battle because of a blunder in some tactical maneuver must be judged to be a bad general, because he has not correctly chosen the right means for achieving his ends.  All human actions are purposeful--aimed at some end--and so we can judge the success or failure of those actions in achieving their ends. 

We don't need a cosmic teleology for our value judgment here, because we have an immanent teleology of human action.  Strauss explains: "It is impossible to understand phenomena of this kind without being aware of the standard of judgment that is inherent in the situation and accepted as a matter of course by the actors themselves; and it is impossible not to make use of that standard by actually evaluating" (54).

As opposed to nonliving things, all living organisms have standards of value inherent in their nature as the kind of organism that they are.  To live, every animal must act, either consciously or unconsciously, to achieve the goals set by its nature.  An animal either succeeds or fails in this, and its relative success or failure will decide whether it lives or dies, and whether its life is satisfying or not.  This not true for inanimate entities.  We might explain a thunderstorm, for instance, as a physical and chemical system that sustains itself for a period of time and then dissipates, but we could not properly speak of its relative success or failure in achieving its goals.  In all animal behavior, by contrast, there are natural goals, which are standards of achievement that we can identify as values or goods.  If we define value or good in relational terms as whatever satisfies a desire, then all animals have values, because they all have natural desires that they strive to satisfy as they gather information about their world.  This includes human beings, who are unique only in the complexity of their desires and the complexity of the information they gather to satisfy their desires (Binswanger 1990, 1992; Herrick 1956; Polanyi and Prosch 1975).

If Darwin is right about human evolution, human beings have evolved to be social animals, who desire the praise of those around them and fear their blame.  They have evolved to have a natural desire for justice as reciprocity in their social life, so that they are naturally inclined to feel love and gratitude in return for benefits conferred on them, they are inclined to feel anger and hatred in return for injuries inflicted on them, and they are inclined to feel guilt and shame when they violate their reciprocal obligations to others.  If this is so, then we can expect that slave masters will feel the injustice of their exploitation of their slaves, and they will try to hide that injustice by pretending that slavery is good for the slaves.  So, when Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, it's depiction of the brutal exploitation of slaves by masters was denied by many defenders of slavery as a false account.

In fact, Abraham Lincoln argued, anyone with "ordinary perceptions of right and wrong" can see the injustice of slavery, because anyone can see how it frustrates the natural human desire to be free from exploitation.  Even in the American South, Lincoln observed, slave-traders are despised: it is considered improper for a gentleman to shake hands with them, because the buying and selling of human beings as property elicits a feeling of disgust (1953, 2:264-65).  What Lincoln called "ordinary perceptions of right and wrong" might correspond to what Strauss called "those simple experiences regarding right and wrong which are at the bottom of the philosophic contention that there is a natural right" (NRH, 31-32, 105).

But then the critics of Darwinian natural right will say that what we see here is a conflict between evolved natural desires with no standard beyond those desires to resolve the conflict.  The slave masters' desire to exploit their slaves is opposed to their desires for reciprocity and sympathy.  But there is no standard here for determining that one desire is better than the other.  The slave masters are free to suppress their sense of the injustice of slavery by deceiving themselves and others to believe that slavery is actually just.

Some of the critics will argue that the standard we need for recognizing the injustice of slavery is a transcendent standard that goes beyond evolved human nature--a religiously-informed cosmic teleology by which we can see that slavery violates God's moral law.  But if this is an appeal to the Biblical God, then it's not obvious that this gives us a clear and reliable standard for judging slavery, because Christian defenders of slavery have cited the Bible as supporting slavery (Cobb 1857; Ross 1857). 

That's why the American Civil War became a theological crisis: the theological dispute between proslavery Christians and anti-slavery Christians was settled by force of arms (Noll 2006).  Lincoln pointed to this in his Second Inaugural Address:  "Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

Some readers of Strauss would object to the assumption here that Strauss views the injustice of slavery as a good example of natural right.  In Natural Right and History, when Strauss speaks of the injustice of slavery, it's not always clear that he is speaking for himself.  At times, Strauss seems to intimate that if there is natural right, the only clear principle of natural right is the supremacy of the philosophic life of those few who can live it as the only naturally good life (NRH, 36, 74-79, 110, 112-13, 115, 126-27, 143, 151-52, 156).

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Evolution of America's Cognitive Elite Through Assortative Mating

The cover story for the January 24th issue of The Economist is "America's New Aristocracy."  Although there is no reference to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994), what is reported in these articles confirm Herrnstein and Murray's controversial claim about the evolution of a cognitive elite in America, which is an hereditary meritocracy of intelligence.

In America's increasingly complex and technological society and economy, we see the increasing market value of brains, so that the top 5% of people in cognitive ability are becoming a new upper class that is isolated from the rest of America, while a new lower class is sinking into despair.  The separation in these classes is not just economic but moral.  Those in the cognitive elite show the moral virtues of self-discipline, hard work, stable marriages, and attentive parental care for children, but those in the new lower class do not.  This separation of classes is even becoming genetic insofar as the ruling class is arising through assortative mating, with those of high cognitive ability marrying others like themselves and thus passing on their cognitive endowments through their offspring.

One chapter of The Bell Curve was on racial differences in IQ scores, including the black/white gap in IQ, and this was enough to provoke the charge that Herrnstein and Murray were racists.  But it's clear in The Bell Curve and even more clear in Murray's later book Coming Apart that this separation of social classes based on cognitive ability is happening to white America, because over the past 50 years, a new white underclass of people with low cognitive ability is stuck at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

We have to wonder whether this contradicts the American ideals of Jeffersonian democracy.  Thomas Jefferson argued that liberty and equality in American life would support not an "artificial aristocracy of wealth and birth" but a "natural aristocracy of virtue and talents."  The problem, however, with America's new cognitive aristocracy is that it's a mixture of both, because it's rooted both in wealth and virtue and both in birth and talents.

Through the 20th century, the economy of the United States and other advanced economies has become based less on physical labor and more on intellectual achievement, so that economic success depends ever more on educational and cognitive achievement.  Those who lack the intellectual capital to handle mentally challenging jobs fall to the bottom.

The opening up of opportunities for women to enter the highest levels of academic and professional achievement has made it easier for pairs of young men and women with high cognitive ability to get together and marry.  They then pass on their cognitive ability to their children both through their genetic endowment and through the family environment that they create.  Between 1960 and 2005, the proportion of men with university degrees who married women with university degrees increased from 25% to 48%.  The young men and women with the highest intellectual capacity are recruited by the elite universities, while those of lesser capacities attend the non-elite universities, and those with the lowest capacities struggle to graduate from high school or a community college. 

Couples who meet at the elite universities tend to become wealthy, and they tend to conceive bright children and rear them in stable homes.  Only 9% of college-educated mothers who give birth each year are unmarried, in contrast to 61% of high-school dropouts.  College-educated couples also have low divorce rates.  The children of college-educated couples receive much more intellectual stimulation from their parents, who talk with them and read to them, than do the children of parents on welfare.  The college-educated couples can also use their greater wealth to pay for their children's education, ranging from elite kindergartens to elite universities.

In the United States, there is a strong correlation between average SAT scores and family-income.  Those people coming from the wealthiest families tend to score high, while those coming from the poorest families tend to score low.  The high-scorers will go to the best universities, develop the highest intellectual skills, enter the highest levels of professional achievement in mentally challenging jobs, and earn the highest incomes.  These children of the wealthy will then pass on their advantages to their own children.

Is such a cognitive meritocracy consistent with democratic equality?  If the ruling class really is a cognitive elite, then it seems that their wealth and power have been earned by talent and brain work.  But insofar as this cognitive ability has become heritable, it seems unearned and thus unfair.

Posts on Charles Murray's arguments can be found here, here, and here.