The Left and Human Nature
Here are some remarks I delivered at the 2014 conference of The Mencken Club in Baltimore, MD.
I was told I was to be on a panel discussion. I never quite know what that means. Should I prepare something? Or wing it? Or wait for other people to say something? So I've just prepared a few remarks, in a discursive kind of way, to approach the topic: The Left and Human Nature. And here's the introduction.
The introduction is from last week's news. I'm an avid reader of news sites because I do a little podcast every weekend called Radio Derb, which of course should be "Radio Darb," but it's kind of established now.
So every morning I get up and I read through a whole bunch of news websites to see what's been happening; and not just current affairs-type news, but also news from the human sciences, and from mathematics, in which I have an interest, and so on.
This is from one of the human-science websites, actually it's the website www.medicalnewstoday.com from last week [October 31, 2014]. Headline: Child's Later Life Intelligence Not Influenced by Parenting. Text:
Many parents believe that interaction with their children, whether it is reading them a story at bedtime or having family meals each evening, will have some influence on their intelligence later in life; but a new study suggests this is not the case, and their later life intelligence may be more dependent on genetics. The research tem led by Kevin Beaver, a Criminology professor at Florida State University, published their findings in the journal Intelligence.
That's the opening of the story.
Now, this is not new. Any of you who follow the human sciences will remember how — oh, almost 25 years ago now — Judith Rich Harris caused something of a stir with her book The Nurture Assumption. Ms Harris, who's been a semi-invalid for much of her adult life … which means she had plenty of time to reflect, had a job collating and organizing research articles in properly peer-reviewed scientific journals about child development; and after being elbow-deep in this material for several years she started to notice that there was something missing.
She would read her 200th article on how aggressive parents produced aggressive children. You slap your kids around, and they grow up and slap their kids around! You made them do it, by slapping them around! She started thinking: Well, maybe: or maybe there's some innate disposition to aggression which is heritable. Your kids are not aggressive because you made them aggressive by example, but because you passed on that disposition to them by the ordinary rules of ordinary biology.
And she wrote a book called The Nurture Assumption about child-raising which came to the conclusion that all of the literature that she'd been reviewing all those years left out something important; and that the finished human adult is probably about 50 percent formed by genetics, probably about 45 percent by something called "nonshared environment," which seems to be mostly peer groups, and zero-to-five percent by parenting.
Her most controversial statement — it's at the very end of the book — is that if you took an ordinary American suburban street and took out all the kids from the families and randomly reassigned them to other families, their adult outcomes would probably be pretty much unchanged.
That caused a lot of fuss; although as Judith Rich Harris noted, what she was saying conformed pretty well with folk psychology. If you put the word "folk" in front of something it degrades it intellectually; but in fact we human beings have been observing each other for a quarter-million years, and the conclusions we've come to shouldn't be altogether discounted.
When I was a kid growing up in a working-class suburb in England, if people came out wrong, what everybody said was either "bad in the bone," or "ran with a bad crowd." Very occasionally, a little more in the sixties and seventies, you started to hear: "I blame the parents."
Those three paradigms: the "bad in the bone" — genetics, "ran with a bad crowd" — nonshared environment, "I blame the parents" — parenting … It pretty much agrees with Judith Rich Harris's observations, and with this latest news item.
Now: the Left and human nature. Faced with a news story like that, about the very slight effect of parenting on the finished adult, a person of the Left, reading that, will frown and shake his head. A person of the Right is much more likely to murmur: "Well, yes, of course," and nod his head.
I think we all understand that broad and general notions about human nature "travel with" political orientation; and this is especially true regarding the malleability of human nature — how easy it is to change human nature, and how far it is possible to change human nature.
The Left — which I'm using to mean, approximately, people who want a more egalitarian society — the Left believe that the causes of human inequality are external to the individual human being. If you fix the external causes then you get a more equal society.
The Right, who are more tolerant of inequality, believe that big components of human nature are innate. Customary and traditional social arrangements that are not obviously harmful shouldn't be disturbed for projects of human improvement that are likely to prove futile.
Both sides have a case.
The Left has a case. Human nature has somewhat improved. Rigid hereditary social hierarchies, of the kind that a conservative of 200 years ago would have fought to the death for, proved to be not as necessary as they thought. Most human beings, most places, no longer enslave, eat, or publicly torture each other judicially.
The Right also has a case; and much of the strength of that case comes from the last few decades of research in the human sciences. Individual personality seems to resemble what physicists call "shape-memory alloys." These are metal alloys you can construct that remember their shape. So you can take a bar of this stuff and bend it into a knot; and when you heat it up, it unbends itself and remembers its original shape. They're called "shape-memory alloys," and human nature seems to be much like that. You can push people in certain directions during childhood and adolescence, but the finished adult human being seems to follow the Judith Rich Harris model: fifty percent heredity and the rest environment.
We've seen this in American social science in the past twenty years. I'm sure some of you know that last month was the 20th anniversary of the publication of Murray and Herrnstein's landmark book The Bell Curve, and there have been a number of commemorative articles on human-science websites and human-biodiversity websites.
The Grand Metaphysician of the human-biodiversity movement, Steve Sailer, pucblished what I thought was a very witty comment about it. He said there's been a complete change in our understanding of, for example, educational attainment. Statistically, twenty years ago, there was a definite hierarchy of educational attainment. At the top you had Orientals; below them you had Caucasians; below them you had Chicanos; and below them you had blacks, on average statistical attainment.
Now things are completely different. Now there's a new hierarchy. At the top you have Asians; second you have Whites; third you have Hispanics, and fourth you have African Americans.
So, bottom line there, not much has changed. Where the Left favors a belief in high levels of malleability, reality doesn't seem to agree.
My approach to all this comes from my own background. I was trained as a scientist and mathematician, so my approach is empirical and rationalist. My inner empiricist always asks: "What does the data say?" My inner rationalist always asks: "What should we reasonably expect from the known laws of biology?"
The laws of biology have to come into play. We are creatures of biology. We are a branch on the tree of life. We may be other things — I don't want to offend anyone's religious sensibilities — we may be other things than that, but we are at least that. And taking those two approaches, the empirical and the rational: The empirical data says that individuals are innately different, in ways that can only be changed to some degree; and not only individual human beings, but populations, inbreeding populations, are different.
This shouldn't be any news. As well as [this year] being the 20th anniversary of The Bell Curve, we also recently, in 2009, had the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. If you actually read that book, you will know that he drew some of his conclusions from the experiences of animal breeders. And we are, again, one branch on the Tree of Life; and what they found out should apply to some degree to us.
A few years ago I was reviewing some literature on the inheritance of personality. Most of the features of personality are now known to be heritable. We know this from twin studies and sibling studies and so on. I wrote a popular article summarizing some of that, and among the emails I got was one from a lady who identified herself as a dog breeder; and her email said, short summary, "Duh. If personality was not heritable, I'd be out of business."
So this is what the data tells us. Individuals are innately different; breeding populations are innately different; it may even be that social classes in stable, long-established societies, have innate differences. I refer you to the recent work of economic historian Greg Clark, [to] his two books: the first one is called A Farewell to Alms — he has a Hemingway fixation — and the second one is called The Son Also Rises.
That's the empirical evidence. On the rationalist side, what can we deduce from general principles? Evolutionary psychology, as we're now supposed to call it — it started out as "sociobiology," which I think is a much niftier term, but, all right — evolutionary psychology strongly suggests that, for example, harsher climates select for socializability. People are more easily socialized when they have to co-operate in groups for the sake of survival.
And it suggests other things. It suggests there will be higher fertility in environments that have a heavy disease load; like equatorial climtes, where there's lots and lots of nasty diseases — something also in the news recently — you'll have higher levels of fertility.
These are just straightforward deductions from general biological principles, which are themselves very well supported by evidence.
And some of the things that anthropologists have notied: the "dads and cads" divergence, for example. Dads … Again, in harsh environments, parental investment, especially paternal investment, needs to be more intensive, whereas in kinder environments, where food is easy to come by, the men can sort of wander off and impregnate women more or less at will.
But those are my own inclinations, and the problem with human science is that it's a hall of mirrors. It's a hall of mirrors because the person contemplating the human sciences is himself a human being. My own inclinations towards empiricism and rationalism are colored by my own personality.
So it's a hall of mirrors. "The proper study of mankind is Man"; but we bring our own inclinations and our own prejudices to that study. I have faith that the spirit of science can overcome this — the spirit of science as a social activity where we exchange views and review each other's work and try to duplicate each other's findings. I have faith that that can overcome the "hall of mirrors" aspect of the human sciences, but I have no illusions that it's easy to do so.
When I talk to human scientists … I was recently talking for example to Jonathan Haidt, the NYU researcher who wrote a very good book called The Righteous Mind a couple of years ago, about our innate dispositions to hold one political position or another. A very good book, The Righteous Mind — and a very honest researcher, who started out as a fairly conventional liberal, but who, when I talked to him, doesn't sound like a liberal at all any more.
He actually got into the news three years ago, in 2011, at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which is an academic society. From the podium he polled the audience, asking them how many — so these were all people …, again, it's the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, these are all academics laboring in those vineyards — he polled the audience, asking them how many considered themselves politically liberal. He estimated that about 80 percent of the hands went up. He asked for centrists and libertarians, and got, he says, about three dozen hands. Then when he asked for conservatives in that hall, which had about a thousand people in it, he got three.
And he said, Johnathan Haidt said: "This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity." And he actually succeeded — and this is a real achievement — he actually succeeded in embarrassing this academic society, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and they actually changed their mission statement a bit after his criticisms.
They had a clause in their mission statement boasting of their diversity. "We are diverse! We welcome …" and advertising to people who wanted to attend their conference, they would have reduced rates for travel and hotel and so on for people from disadvantaged minorities, and they listed them, and you know who they were. After Haidt's address at the 2011 conference they changed that mission statement a little bit.
Instead of saying "underprivileged minorities, like blacks, Hispanics, transgender," and all the rest of it … instead of "disadvantaged minorities, i.e. blacks, etc." they changed the "i.e." to "e.g." …
So there are honest researchers in the human sciences, and they can bend the human sciences to some degree to a more reality-based, a more honestly empirical and rational posture; but it's uphill work, because it remains a hall of mirrors, and the kind of people who go into the social sciences tend rather strongly to be of a certain inclination.
So it may be that even my faith in an honest scientific approach to human sciences is misplaced, and is merely a reflection of my own prejudices, I don't know. But I hope not.
I think we're finding out more and more. As the news item I started with from last week's news illustrates, we're constantly finding out more and more true facts about human nature; and the true facts that we find out almost always — there are some exceptions, and if you want to see the exceptions, google "situationists" — but almost always suggest that the conservative view of human nature is closer to the truth than the leftist view; and that certainly the extreme leftist view, voiced very explicitly by the late Mao Tse-tung, who once said, quote, "Human nature does not exist," the extreme leftist view is complete fantasy.