Category Archives: Human nature

Statism is a rationalization of power.

The basic definition of the State is that it is a monopoly of power over a territory, through legitimized (or as statists would say, actually legitimate) force. Anarchists add to this basic definition the fact that it is, like all institutions which deal in power (of whatever kind), hierarchical.

And yes, I do include “anarcho-capitalists,” voluntaryists, and other right-wing extremists in the category of statists. They still believe in a State, but their justification is absolute property rights instead of democratic elitism (as I’ve previously noted). The common pretense of these right-wing types to being anti-government, anti-statists, or even anarchists, is just that, a pretense. Sadly, thanks to the confusion that these types are hell-bent on sowing, it is necessary to reiterate this.

It is possible to define statism from a different angle, not as a belief in an institution but as a particular sort of prejudice. The prejudice can be expressed as such:
“People are self-interested, corrupt, and/or downright evil: you can’t count on people to do the right thing. That’s why we need a State composed of people whose job it is to redirect some of people’s energies towards the common welfare and common goals.”

This is a very persuasive argument, but its force lies not in its logic, but with how well it meshes with our current forms of democratic elitism. After all, the elites are ostensibly democratic (in practice, this is mostly not true), and not tyrannical, because their aim is not to exploit people but to help them. And democracy, which gets the credit for things like the welfare state and workplace laws (which were passed against the will of a large proportion of the democratic elite, not because of the democratic elite), can therefore pretend to exist for the common welfare.

The argument is illogical for many reasons. First of all, there is an origin problem (which I’ve discussed before, for example): if people are so self-interested or corrupt that they can’t do the right thing, then how did an organization (the State) arise that embodied the virtues of long-term planning and common goals? Where did these come from? Second, we do not know of any hierarchy where concentration of power causes more compassion to flow from the superiors to the inferiors. Concentration of power tends to have the opposite effect: the more power we have on others, the more we use that power for our own interests.

Compounding the illogic is the belief that the State is a “servant of the people” and is “accountable through democracy.” How can an institution which supposedly serves the common welfare against individuals who only seek their own self-interest be accountable to those same individuals? So this statist view is profoundly contradictory and ultimately must be incoherent, if it is to be logical at all.

I was talking to someone about the “magic hierarchies” concept. As it turns out, she worked in a hospital. I just kept asking her, which function of a hospital necessitates subverting people’s values? She could not answer this, but kept repeating that people just couldn’t run a hospital. But people do run hospitals. The fact that they do so as part of corporate or State hierarchies doesn’t change the fact that actual people are doing everything that is done in a hospital. The fact that some people control the rest is not necessary for any action that takes place in a hospital. Why would you need to subvert people’s values to run a hospital? People already want and need good hospitals.

So this woman was, in a sense, prejudiced, although it’s not a prejudice that we recognize or label. And I think this prejudice is unrecognized precisely because it lies at the core of statism, and is therefore so common that we don’t even look at it. In its more extreme form, it’s the “people are innately sinners/evil/corrupt” belief. In its general form, it consists of believing that “people” are incapable of self-management (for whatever reason), but that politicians and CEOs are somehow superior to them because they are capable of using their power to manage others fairly and efficiently, something that “people” could never do.

Somehow politicians are superior to “people.” But under democracy, we, the unenlightened ones, vote them into power. So apparently “we the people” are too stupid to manage ourselves but we’re smart enough to figure out which politicians are enlightened enough to do so. That makes about as much sense as saying that I don’t know anything about quantum physics but I can vote on which physicists have the “correct” interpretation of quantum physics.

The prejudice is also false. There have been plenty of societies and organizations based on self-governance. Historical evidence does not support the claim that self-governance does not work. The current self-managed businesses (like the recuperated factories in Argentina, or Mondragon corporation) are not failing. The evidence shows that self-management is at least as good as hierarchical management, and it does not involve subjecting anyone’s values.

How can we explain human behavior?

I have previously divided explanations of human behavior into three very general categories: anti-causalism (the belief in some non-material explanation, like a soul or free will/agency), adaptationism (the belief that evolutionary adaptations mold behavior), and constructionism (the belief that social conditioning, especially social constructs, mold behavior). I have done so because positions that fall under each category do share a lot in common, and so it is instructive to discuss about them in general terms before we get into the specific. I have gone into specifics, mostly against adaptationist beliefs, in other entries, but in this entry I want to talk about the general categories again.

So one question that adaptationists often raise about my constructionist position is, how would YOU explain why people do what they do? The trouble with adaptationist theories is that they offer a solution that is clear, simple, and completely wrong. It omits all the complexity of human life and turns it into a simple and abstract mechanism of genetic propagation which can be easily understood by thinking about what you imagine hunter-gatherer societies to be like. This is basically a Flintstones view of evolution used as a nice story that explains why people do what they do: they are compelled by their genes, and the genes seek their own “self-interest” (whatever that means for inanimate objects).

My constructionist view is more complicated, because human motivations are more complicated. To fully understand any behavior, we need to fully understand the person first, which is impossible. Anyone who claims to completely understand the motivations for a behavior is lying. We can talk about general incentives that are given to the individual in this or that context, but these are generalities which do not apply to everyone. The specific circumstances of subcultures one is raised in, education, personality, social networks, and so on, change everyone’s response to incentive systems, although those incentive systems are still the dominant influence. Basically, we all either follow, or react against, incentive systems and prevalent belief-systems.

Adaptationism also has its exceptions, but they don’t make much sense. When confronted by the many ways in which non-Western societies break their “evolutionary imperatives,” they say that this must be due to culture. But according to their own theory, culture is constructed by biology, and it makes no sense for certain cultures to somehow push people into doing things that go completely against our very DNA. So there’s really no explanation to be found along these lines.

Let’s just take one simple example, one that is supposed to be one of evolutionary psychology’s strengths: the double standard. They claim that it is genetically advantageous for men to sleep around and for women to seek stable monogamous relationships. However, they have little to reply to examples of non-Western societies, or even some Western examples, where men do not sleep around (or do not have sex at all) or where women do sleep around. From a constructionist perspective, culture is primary, and therefore does not suffer from these problems. Whatever the culture says the role of sex and gender are, most people will follow. In our societies, we are raised to believe that men should be virile and have sex, and that women should want to get married and have children, so that’s what we tend to do. Other societies, with different frameworks around sex and gender, entail different behaviors.

Does that mean that everyone will follow cultural principles? No, clearly not. There are many reasons for that. For instance, we’re all raised in different subcultures and social classes, which influences how we see ourselves and the parts of the culture we adopt or reject. A white boy from the upper class will have a different relation to the culture, to sex, and to gender, than a black girl from the lower class. Also, some small portion of our personality is of genetic origin.

Genetics are not completely irrelevant from the constructionist perspective, they just don’t provide most of the explanatory power needed. Because of the fact that we have human bodies, we generally want to eat, to socialize and share kinship, have sex, have status and admiration, and so on (although these things are not true for everyone). But this does not explain behavior. Human behavior is never simply “to eat” or “to share kinship,” it consists of eating specific things at specific times and in specific ways, of a kinship that is constructed in specific ways. Both of these things are a result of culture, which nearly completely erases the genetic factor.

Social constructs are an important part of constructionism, which is why I call it “constructionism,” because they constitute our identity. Everything that you see as uniquely “you” is a result of social constructs being imposed (or in some cases, not being imposed, like in non-religious families) on “you,” mostly through childhood socialization, but also from other sources such as the mass media and the education system.

The prevalent view about identification nowadays is a view related to adaptationism, in that it posits that our most important identifications are innate (although they would not call it adaptationist at all, and they do not seek evolutionary explanations). Race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, are all supposed to be innate, fixed attributes of the individual. Many, although they tend to be more right-wing, also equate social status as being innate.

The problem with this view is that all these things are social constructs, and that ignoring that fact makes it impossible to understand why people identify they way they do. Take a controversial example, that of gender. If you ask a liberal feminist or an SJW for an explanation of why people are the gender that they are, the answer will be: because that’s what their “innate” gender is, it’s what they really are.

Not only is this impossible (because gender is an extremely mutable concept, not just between societies but within the same society at different times), but it also doesn’t explain anything. All it does is transpose the previous uncertainty to another, equally uncertain concept (what that person’s “innate gender” is). An explanation is supposed to start from known data and use that data to show the cause and effect relationship that one is asking about, usually involving the word “because.” For instance, “we had to close down the theater because there was a small fire there.” On the other hand, “they are a man because they are innately a man” helps specify what they think gender is but it doesn’t explain it.

From the constructionist standpoint, gender is a social construct. That includes the gender roles, the gender stereotypes, the gender hierarchy, everything. We are all assigned a gender at birth based (arbitrarily) on our sex. We (for most people, if not all) have parts of our personality, or beliefs, which clash with the stereotype of our assigned gender, but we go along with it anyway. Some people refuse to go along with it to some extent (mostly due to being homosexual, which goes against both gender roles in the West), and they become gender rebels of one kind or another.

This view provides us with a basic explanation. If you know the gender stereotypes in their culture (or subculture, if their family is part of a subculture that has views on gender), and you know someone’s personality and beliefs to some extent, you can, to that extent, figure out how comfortable they would be with their assigned gender.

In general we can say that the categories through which people identify themselves are based around the kinds of social constructs that exist in their culture or subculture, and the way they identify comes as obedience to, or reaction against, those social constructs. Gender is only a point of identification because gender is an extremely important kind of social construct in our societies, and people identify as one gender or the other, or as no gender at all, depending on their reactions to the gender stereotypes they are taught.

I’ve mostly talked about constructionism and adaptationism. However, as readers of my blog know, I don’t think much of anti-causalism either. Religious anti-causalists blather on and on about how one’s soul can be saved or wicked, depending on what religion one “chooses” (how one comes to “choose” a specific religion over any other is never explained), and how people who do things they disagree with are demonic. Secular anti-causalists usually deploy the concepts of free will and agency, which are unfalsifiable and don’t explain anything either. But that’s to be expected, because the concept of the soul and the concept of free will are used to bury the truth in unnecessary verbiage, not to actually explain anything. Until someone proves that some non-material entity or process can somehow be measured and be shown to effect material bodies, I see no reason to believe in either of them.

Hierarchies, self-determinism, and PTSD.

There is a popular conception that PTSD mostly affects veterans, and a recent Internet posting sought to spread more awareness of the widespread nature of PTSD. The graph that was reblogged presented the following statistics for PTSD frequency:

Suburban police- 13%
Firefighters- 15%
Military veterans- 30%
Raped adults- 36%
Battered women- 45%
Abused children- 50%

The reference for these numbers doesn’t seem to exist any more, and I think this was more of a compilation of statistics. Either way, I took a look at individual studies by the NIH on PTSD and the numbers seem to be generally true.

Some people have looked at this study and said, look, soldiers are not by far the only ones who get PTSD, despite the popular narrative that says PTSD is mostly a military affliction. Yes, that’s a very good point, but I think there’s a lot more to look at here.

One thing I find particularly interesting is that, in almost all these cases except firefighters, we’re talking about situations where the people who get PTSD are in a position of complete lack of self-determinism:

* Abused children and battered women are being psychologically and physically controlled by someone who is generally stronger than they are.
* Raped adults may not be in constant relation with their rapist, but the situation again is one where the victim has little to no control.
* Soldiers and policemen have more control over themselves, but they are subservient to a strict hierarchy which imposes codes of conduct on them in a quite absolute way. Please do not interpret this as sympathy for such people, I am merely stating facts (incidentally, 40% of policemen are violent at home, which means they themselves inflict more PTSD on their wives and children).

To this list, I would also add cult members and prisoners, with the caveat that we don’t have clear statistics in either case. I have been unable to find any study regarding PTSD inflicted by cults, but it seems prevalent. In the case of prisoners, we have statistics ranging all the way from 4% to 48%, so the case isn’t clear. But these are both settings in which, again, people have no self-determinism and where PTSD occurrence is at least much higher than the average.

So what is the nature of this connection? I don’t think lack of self-determinism itself gives people PTSD, but what people make others do once they take control of them. You don’t take control over people to make them do things they’d do anyway, you take control over them to brainwash them, brutalize them or make them brutalize others. They say it takes religion to make good people do evil things, but I think any system that removes your self-determinism can do the trick. Religion just happens to be the most widespread one.

So that’s one perspective, but there’s another interesting set of studies concerning other primate species. Here they’re measuring stress levels, not PTSD. We find that they experience stress in a way that depends on their place in the hierarchy and how much control they have over their lives, in the same general way that humans do.

But there’s one interesting addendum. In his observation of baboon troops, Robert Sapolsky saw a troop get decimated by tuberculosis, killing the dominant males. The troop reorganized itself around a flatter and less aggressive hierarchy, and all the members saw their normal stress levels go down.

Another experiment done by Frans de Waal consisted of mixing up individuals from two species, one that lives under a strict hierarchy, rhesus macaques, and one that lives under a more loose hierarchy, stump tail macaques. The result was that the rhesus macaques eventually adopted the stump tail macaques’ social attitudes. This is only one experiment, but it seems that, at least in this case, lower stress was more appealing.

In general, the more strict the hierarchy, the more stressful, and one’s position in the hierarchy determines how stressful it gets (in profoundly unequal hierarchies, the subordinates are more stressed, while in flatter hierarchies the elite are more stressed).

In light of these results, the position that humans are hierarchical by nature doesn’t make much sense. If we were adapted to be in hierarchies, then they wouldn’t cause us so much stress. It seems more likely that some level of organization was adaptive but that stricter hierarchies arose from that out of purely social processes. Strict hierarchies cause stress because they put pressure on the individual to conform, to struggle for dominance, and to constantly keep one’s interests in check.

The connection between hierarchies and lack of self-determinism is not too surprising. Hierarchies are held together by control mechanisms, and control is only needed in order to make people do things they otherwise would not do. You can’t control someone into having more self-determinism, you can only control them into having less.

Now, there are plenty of cases where self-determinism can be momentarily taken away without there being a stable hierarchy behind it: usually small-scale crimes like a mugging or a break-in, for example. Likewise, not all cases of PTSD originate in hierarchies, and not all hierarchies cause PTSD. The more likely connection is that strict hierarchies are needed to bring into effect the attacks on self-determinism needed to put people in situations where they will get PTSD.

I imagine non-radicals may argue that there’s nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies, and that this is just a result of “excessive” hierarchies. I have argued for the nature of hierarchies being fundamentally evil before.

But beyond that, the hierarchies I’ve listed at the beginning are all commonplace: parenting and families, the police, and the military. These are all widely accepted as necessary for the functioning of society, and as generally beneficial. And they are all the source of incredible brutality (in fact, the brutality is the desired end result, despite complaints by advocates that it’s just “bad apples” perpetrating it).

When I talk about a strict hierarchy, I mean a hierarchy where there is a (relatively) greater power differential between the top and the bottom, where the superiors are able to exert (relatively) greater control over their inferiors, and where there is greater surveillance/coercion/regimentation over people’s lives.

Strict hierarchies are the most unegalitarian and therefore the most undesirable. Even if we assume that hierarchies are desirable in select cases (an assumption which remains completely unproven in practice), we still have a strong incentive to search for the most egalitarian solutions. People’s self-determinism is always more important than whatever controlling people is supposed to achieve.

The concept of civility as a veneer over evil.

The concept of the “veneer of civility” is a pretty popular metaphor. It conjures up the image of a thin layer covering up something more sinister, and when that layer cracks, the “true nature” of humanity comes up and takes over.

Bill Moyers expresses the majority view:

Civilization is but a thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen. And that’s not easy.

I think there is a lot of elitism and imperialism hiding behind such sentences. After all, we’ve spent centuries calling other cultures “uncivilized” and assuming that they must be more violent and evil than we are, but such assertions are now completely discredited (some people still spout such propaganda).

My inspiration here is an entry by Ursula LeGuin where she debunks the whole metaphor exactly perfectly:

If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.

What is this substance?

Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?

Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?

Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.

Furthermore, the metaphor reveals crucial limitations. We are assuming that human nature is the substance and civilization is a veneer over it. But presumably civilization was created by human beings with this same human nature, so how did it arise? How do we go from a state of individual confusion to a state of uniform order?

LeGuin is correct in stating that morality is innate. The order imposed by civilization is really the artificial production and reproduction of hierarchies and their attendant institutions and constructs. I think the metaphor does still work in a certain way, but only if we understand the true nature of civilization.

Take emergency situations, for example. In such situations, there is a veneer that comes off, but it’s not morality. Rather, I think it’s hierarchy. People no longer see each other or themselves as social roles but as human beings that need to survive. There is something inherently non-hierarchical about emergency situations, because social roles, titles, status or money don’t count for anything when the immediate concern is physical survival.

The Internet is another example. We have this conception that the Internet somehow releases people’s inhibitions, but I think it’s really that being on the Internet puts us in an environment where social mores are not as salient as they would be otherwise. In that sense, the release of hatred and hostility online is simply the result of people revealing more of their inner monologue. It’s brutal and it’s ugly, but it tells us more about the psyche of our fellow humans that would otherwise remain hidden.

You have an inner destructive drive, I’m just cranky.

You will note that the title of this entry is similar to that of an earlier one. This is no coincidence, as the topics are also similar, but I hope this entry can shed light from a somewhat different angle.

My starting point on this one is from Alice Miller’s book Banished Knowledge. For those of you who don’t know her work, Alice Miller was a tireless worker for children’s rights and believed that child abuse must be identified and acknowledged by society. Despite being a mother herself, she attacked pedagogy itself and showed how even seemingly irrelevant verbal abuse can have consequences for a child’s future well-being.

In Banished Knowledge, she says:

It is only from adults that an unloved child learns to hate or torment and to disguise these feelings with lies and hypocrisy. That is why, when the child has grown up, he or she will say that children require norms and disciplining: this lie provides access to adult society, a lie that permeates all pedagogy and, to this day, psychoanalysis. The young child knows no lies, is prepared to take at their face value such words as truth, love, and mercy as heard in religious instruction in school. Only on finding out that his naivete is cause for ridicule does the child learn to dissemble. The child’s upbringing teaches him the patterns of the destructive behavior that will later be interpreted by experts as the result of an innate destructive drive. Anyone daring to question this assertion will be smiled at for being naive, as if that person had never come in contact with children and didn’t know “how they can get on your nerves.” For at least since the days of Sigmund Freud, it has been known in “progressive” circles that children come into this world with a death drive and might kill us all if we didn’t ward off “the first indications.”

(bold mine)

It’s easy to recognize in Miller’s pointed analysis the dichotomy between constructionism and some form of innate evil. I will not use the label adaptationism for the latter, since there are many contra-causal positions which believe in innate evil as well (e.g. Christianity), but the argument can be adapted to adaptationism as well (no pun intended).

In the entry I linked above, I noted the following double standard: that we claim “we” believe things on the basis of free willed thinking, and we claim “they” believe things on the basis of unreasoning reflex. “Our” beliefs are the result of free will, which is “good,” and “their” beliefs are determined, which is “bad.”

The actual truth of the matter is that everyone’s beliefs are determined by who they are and the circumstances they live through, and there’s no substantial difference between how “we” (the “good guys”) form beliefs and how “they” (the “bad guys”) form beliefs. The double standard is an excuse to not question our beliefs and to justify hating our enemies.

Miller talks about this “innate destructive drive” that people commonly believe children possess. Actual scientific observation has shown that children are born with the same ethical mechanisms (like empathy and fairness) that we all have: those are innate and don’t just pop up after a certain age, and, since they are feelings and not reasoned propositions, neither are they the kind of thing that you can learn. Children are human beings, with all that it implies; the fact that we consider children to be subhuman partially explains why we fall prey to such ridiculous beliefs as “children have a destructive drive.”

But there is a further part to this discussion. Children are essentially powerless bundles of need whose lives depend on their parents exactly as much as if they were still in the womb. They need food, sleep, heat, space to live and experiment, but they also need affection, care, a sense of belonging, love. Deprived of any of these elements, they will fail to develop as they should and may become “destructive.”

This is not normal and should not be interpreted as normal; it is the result of neglect and abuse. Try to understand a baby’s situation. The baby cannot feed itself, cannot move on its own, is only beginning to comprehend the world, and its life is dominated by two human beings who tower over it and control its activities. Adult slaves do not live through such a level of powerlessness, let alone your average adult. For those who have blocked their childhood experiences, even grasping a fraction of what it means to have such an existence is a daunting task.

Because they block understanding of this situation, adults become ridiculously judgmental and hostile to their own children. We routinely hear about parents who take their two year old, three year old, four year old, five year old to the task for not fulfilling the parents’ needs.

To put it as mildly as I can, this is batshit insane. I don’t know why anyone expects a toddler to process information the same way an adult would. But most importantly, a toddler does not exist to fulfill the parents’ needs, the parents exist to fulfill the toddler’s needs.

I imagine some parents may argue “well you don’t have children, you don’t know how it is.” Alice Miller had children and she knew how it was, and that didn’t stop her from denouncing parents in the most direct way. Child abuse and neglect by parents is caused by the parents; children can never be responsible for being neglected or abused. I don’t need to be a parent to understand that, any more than I need to be a murderer to be against murder.

The flip side of the “innate destructive drive” is that parents who neglect or abuse their children are said to be justifiably cranky or weak. You will note that unlike a drive, being cranky or weak is a temporary state which does not define the person. Children are evil by nature, parents are evil because of specific circumstances; in no way can pedagogy, or the person of the parent, be attacked. To do so is one of the biggest taboos in our societies (again, because we hate children and therefore the children are always held responsible except in extreme cases).

We use this same “innate destructive drive” excuse to explain away hardened criminals. If we can convince ourselves that criminals are born that way, then we can be reassured that there was nothing society could have done to prevent their crimes. “There is nothing we could have done” is always the clarion call of the “we live in the best of all worlds” delusion which is so necessary for all of us to keep living in our evil and corrupt Western societies. I do not argue that this is not a necessary delusion; the trouble is when people start taking the delusion as reality.

There is, however, a racial and genderist distinction. When white men kill, they are usually labeled crazed, mentally ill (which is an insult against the mentally ill, who are no more violent than the rest of the population), temporarily insane; only the serial killers and mass murderers are called “monsters,” which is just another way to evade reality. When black men kill, when women kill, no one shies away from the responsibility of the murderers.

Since my previous entry was about determinism, I think I should mention it in this entry as well, since it may yield some confusion. The concept of an “innate destructive drive” is not specifically deterministic: indeed, as I already pointed out, many free will beliefs include a belief in innate drives. It’s important to distinguish between determinism and adaptationism: the former is an obvious logical deduction, the latter is a formidable mine of pseudo-science. Despite what some people think, determinism doesn’t mean we can completely predict people’s behavior; that’s the hallmark of a quack who has no interest in the subtleties of, and numerous conscious and unconscious influences on, human behavior.

Evolutionary psychology: the confront of the bully.


From ebbits (click to enlarge).

The “results” of evolutionary psychologists (which has nothing to do with either actual evolution or actual psychology) are full of just-so stories referring to a Pleistocene era about which they know very little in order to justify their belief in the naturalness and immutability of the traditional Western and neo-liberal values they enshrine. They start with an imaginary hunter-gatherer society out of the Flintstones, make up an imaginary solution to a problem they assume these imaginary people might have had, and call that scientific evidence.

But those are not the most important stories they tell. Here are what I think are the two greatest stories made up by evolutionary psychologists:

1. They are dispassionate scientists looking for the truth about human action, and they are the only ones who can do it because they wield the “cold light of scientific realism.”

2. Their opponents are evil socialists or “blank slaters” who want to inject their corrupt and unrealistic values in what should be the “cold light of scientific realism.”

These two stories are woven together into one conclusion: the evolutionary psychologist is the light of reason, science triumphant, and his opponents are demagogues who, deep down, hate science.

Evolutionary psychologists characterize themselves as a beleaguered minority. In language that resonates with that of the conservative right, they see themselves victimized by what Harvard Professor Steven Pinker calls “an establishment” of “elite” “intellectuals.” Evolutionary psychology is the “real” science, seemingly the only real human science that is capable of dealing soberly with the obvious and cold hard facts of the human situation. Pinker contrasts evolutionary psychologists with their opponents, who are “biased by politics” or “romantics” in the thrall of “feel-good moralism.”

Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics

Edward Hagen, after answering the criticism that evopsych cannot explain change in human societies:

[E]volutionary psychologists are keenly interested in the cognitive abilities that underlie the rich political behavior of people everywhere. The considerable research on ‘cheater detection modules’ represents the first baby steps in this direction. Further, the ‘politically incorrect’ assertions of evolutionary psychologists (e.g., that youth is a component of female mate value) are based on considerable empirical evidence. Critics are welcome to challenge the evidence or provide testable alternative explanations for it.

The founders of evopsych, Cosmides and Tooby:

Three decades of progress and convergence in cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience have shown that this [social constructionist] view of the human mind is radically defective. Evolutionary psychology provides an alternative framework that is beginning to replace it. On this view, all normal human minds reliably develop a standard collection of reasoning and regulatory circuits that are functionally specialized and, frequently, domain-specific. These circuits organize the way we interpret our experiences, inject certain recurrent concepts and motivations into our mental life, and provide universal frames of meaning that allow us to understand the actions and intentions of others.

The little problem with these grandstanding assertions is that the scientific inquiry done outside of evopsych’s little domain, like anthropology, neurology, sociology and evolutionary biology, all stunningly disprove evopsych’s foundational premises. Anthropology tells us that the traits that evopsychs take as universal and immutable (such as the sexual double standard or kinship as genetic closeness) are actually non-existent in many non-Western societies. Neurology tells us that the brain does not have fixed “circuits,” but is highly plastic. Sociology tells us that social constructionism is the correct view, and that the evopsych assumption that gender, race and class are “natural” is incorrect. Evolutionary biology disproves the evopsychs’ spurious analogies between humans and other (carefully selected) species.

But there is something more here beyond pseudo-science; there is a sort of bravado that evopsychs take when their conclusions are found aberrant (e.g. when they try to justify spousal murder, rape or racism as healthy adaptations). They get in your face and tell you that they’re scientists and have the reputation of science behind them, so if you find them “politically incorrect,”
what are you going to do about it, punk? Provide better evidence? I don’t think so (although it doesn’t seem hard to provide better evidence than no evidence).

[Gender essentialist writers] are fond of presenting themselves as latter-day Galileos, braving the wrath of the political correctness lobby by daring to challenge the feminist orthodoxy that denies that men and women are by nature profoundly different. Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of The Essential Difference, explains in his introduction that he put the book aside for several years because “the topic was just too politically sensitive”. In the chapter on male-female differences in his book about human nature, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker congratulates himself on having the courage to say what has long been “unsayable in polite company”. Both writers stress that they have no political axe to grind: they are simply following the evidence where it leads, and trying to put scientific facts in place of politically correct dogma.

Deborah Cameron

Evolutionary psychologists argue that, however tough it is to acknowledge the darker side of that nature, someone has to do it, and their job is to shed the cold light of scientific realism on human nature, including its more unsavory bits… The “disturbing side of human mating [jealousy, rape, incest, violence, etc.] must be confronted,” Buss argues, “if its harsh consequences are ever to be ameliorated.”

Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics

Buss views evopsych not only as a “candle in the dark” against the harshness of the unsavory part of human nature, but as the only real possible solution to human woes! Take note of the mental contortion now; the way to end sexism is not to attack the social construction of gender and how it creates a hierarchy which hurts the people who aren’t on top. No, that’s a naive “blank slate” view, because gender is engraved in our brains. Instead, we must naturalize jealousy, rape, spousal murder, male promiscuity and the female virgin/whore paradigm, the double standard, and so on, and doing so will…

Will what? What’s the game plan here? Alcoholics who join AA have to believe they’re powerless and that they can’t be cured, which is self-defeating. Making the silly argument that evopsych is the only solution to the social woes that evopsych itself naturalizes and justifies is equally self-defeating. Having a just-so story on why men kill their wives does not help us stop men from killing their wives. There is absolutely nothing that one can do with this fabricated “information.”

What we can do to help eradicate social woes is to change the social context: mentalities, ideologies, institutions, laws, and yes, armed conflict. Those methods, while still fallible, do occasionally work in bringing about social change. No social change has ever been brought about by evopsych, which only started in the 1970s as a reaction to the sexual revolution and mainly persists as a way for older professors to con their students into fucking them; if evopsych is necessary for social change, then how did all that change before the 1970s happen? As I’ve also pointed out before, the biggest change in the history of human societies, the agricultural revolution, took place after the Pleistocene era: this fact alone is enough to prove the ultimate absurdity of this dogma.

My main point, however, is not that evopsychs are hucksters, but that they are bullies. Every single failure of evopsych is a reason for them to get in people’s faces and gloat that they don’t care about the “politically correct,” only about pure, hallowed science. And their pretensions about being scientists mean they don’t even have to address mainstream criticism, because after all those critics are not scientists and therefore cannot possibly know anything about how to disprove such a scientific field as evopsych.

But most importantly, they bully women, people of color, poor people, and everyone else whose exploitation is “explained” by evopsych as a human adaptation, but this bullying is done under the guide of science and cloaked in scientific lingo.

In this and other ways, it reminds me of Creationism, who are also bullies who use pseudo-science to dazzle and confuse uneducated people. And Creationism supports the ideologies which state that God created men and women to form a gender hierarchy, that God creates the human races to form a race hierarchy, and so on. A pitiless god is replaced by an imbecilic natural process, which is about standard for non-religious whackjobs.

Creationists also use just-so stories. They tell us, for instance, that before the Fall animals were made to chew grass, and that the Fall somehow changed their DNA so they’d develop pointy teeth, digestive systems, and so on. Well isn’t that convenient. God, like imaginary conceptions of the Pleistocene era, is a slot machine of stories that just happen to exactly fit what you believe.

But this is not the only similarity between evopsychs and Creationists. Creationists also accuse their opponents of being afraid of “real science” (which they call “observational science”). Creationists also follow ridiculously invalid fundamental premises. Creationists are also, by and large, right-wing bigots who seek to naturalize their bigotry.

But even if there are many similarities, Creationists are motivated primarily by religious beliefs, and their bigotry is secondary. In this way, Creationists are actually morally superior to evopsychs.

Despite their claims to be on the side of “real science” and of their ability to confront uncomfortable facts, neither of them are really able to confront the truth, and they both confuse bullying for confront. Evopsychs are unable to confront the real science which disproves their cherished beliefs, they are unable to confront that their just-so stories are the products of their imagination, and they are unable to confront the fact that their work is political in nature and, like all other human activities, value-laden.

Like all intellectual bullies, evopsychs have to paint their opponents as disingenuous agents of a conspiracy to suppress the great truths they are “discovering”: Creationists have “scientific materialism” (see the Wedge Document) and evopsychs have the “blank slaters” and “feel-good moralists.” Like all crackpots, they rail against the “orthodoxy” and the “scientific establishment” because science is not on their side.

Over the years, the technological metaphor used to describe the structure of the human mind has been consistently updated, from blank slate to switchboard to general purpose computer, but the central tenet of these Empiricist views has remained the same. Indeed, it has become the reigning orthodoxy in mainstream anthropology, sociology, and most areas of psychology.

Also like many crackpots, they use the “they laughed at Galileo!” argument. Of course they think they’re Galileo fighting the evil establishment (no one to my knowledge has ever claimed to be like the Catholic Church, except I guess the Catholic Church).

In 1632, Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican was published in Florence. The Dialogue effectively argued that Copernican theory was the factually superior theory of cosmology. Because the major moral/political power of the day, the Catholic Church, had grounded its authority in a Ptolemaic (i.e., Aristotelian) view of the physical world, Galileo’s Dialogue was obviously quite threatening…

Today, apparently, a number of thinkers have, like the Catholic Church, also grounded their moral and political views in certain scientific assumptions about the world. In this case, these are scientific assumptions about human nature (mainly that there isn’t one). Consequently, any body of theory and research which calls these assumptions into question will be seen as quite threatening.

You may notice the heavy projection; they portray their opponents as a sinister cabal threatened by the rise of real science, but this is an accurate description of evopsychs themselves. They accuse their opponents of lacking confront, but evopsychs are unable to confront reality.

Bullies are bullies precisely because they are unable to confront reality or dealing with others; in the case of ideological bullies, they are unable to gain respectability because their ideology is fundamentally irrational, therefore they use non-intellectual arguments (like projection, playing the victim, ad hoc replies, just-so stories, claiming they have the “real truth,” and so on and so forth ad nauseam) and use intimidation in order to appear stronger than they really are. Again the comparison with Creationists comes to mind here.

Just so I’m clear, my point in this entry was not to refute evopsych (I have done a summary of the case against it in a previous entry). I don’t think evopsych is worth refuting because it is not scientific and demonstrates a complete ignorance of actual science. I think evopsych needs to be analyzed at the level of its motivations and techniques, because it is a right-wing movement which leads (whether unconsciously or consciously, but their intent does not concern me at all) to the naturalization of neo-liberalist and traditional Western social constructs, and therefore supports institutional tyrannies, the Patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and so on.

“You’re just a science denialist!”

Evolutionary psychology has been getting blasted in atheist circles for its unscientific nature and for supporting the status quo. In response, the battle cry of the evolutionary psychologist has been nothing but: “you’re a science denialist!”

This term is derived from “Holocaust denialism”; Holocaust deniers are people who deny that the Holocaust happened despite the historical evidence presented. At least, that was the original use of the term. Nowadays, “denialism” is used more and more widely, to attack “climate change denialism,” “AIDS denialism,” “evolution denialism.”

Granted, these positions can be seen as denying a body of evidence, so the use of “denialism” there is not entirely objectionable. But what body of evidence is being denied by people who object to evolutionary psychology?

Evolution is true, and humans are the product of evolution. That much is beyond the shadow of a doubt and is not being denied. That we have a (human) psychology is not being denied either. But the concept that our concrete behaviors are the result of evolution, which is what evopsych proponents declare as their foundation, is very much under contention. They do not propose any scientific evidence to demonstrate this as a fact; they simply posit that our brain evolved specific behaviors as solutions to Pleistocene problems and assume from there.

What is important to understand here is that evolutionary psychology papers do not provide any evidence of the truth of evolutionary psychology itself. All evopsych “researchers” assume that our behaviors are evolved as the implicit principle behind their research.

As it turns out, it’s easy to falsify evopsych and show it to be pseudo-science. According to evopsych, based on their unproven assertions about behaviors being evolved, there should be individual, separate modules in our brains that regulate specific behaviors. But no such modules have ever been shown to exist. Evolutionary psychology is not a science, it is dangerous, politically-motivated charlatanism poorly dressed up as science.

So when we are told that people who debunk evolutionary psychology are “science denialists,” we must make clear three things:

1. Evolutionary psychology is not science. Its premises are false and its methods are circular. It is based on no measurable observations and contradicts observations of the human brain.

2. Attacking evolutionary psychology is not “science denialism” because, unlike the Holocaust, climate change, evolution and HIV research, there is no body of evidence demonstrating the validity of evolutionary psychology. Neither can evolutionary psychology explain anything in a novel way or shed new light on any problem.

3. Evolutionary psychology is a political position, not a scientific position. Its objective is to support the status quo on issues of gender, sexuality, race, class and power.

Illustrating these three points is the following evopsych explanation for homosexuality:
(and before you accuse me of choosing the most embarassing evopsych position, this is the very first result on Google right now, as I am writing this in September 2013, for “evolutionary psychology explanation for homosexuality”)

Overly simplified, this “tipping-point” model (originally introduced by G. E. Hutchinson in 1959, and then later popularized by Jim McKnight in 1997 and Edward Miller in 2000) posits that genes associated with homosexuality confer fitness benefits in their heterosexual carriers. If only a few of these alleles are inherited, a males’ reproductive success is enhanced via the expression of attractive, albeit feminine traits, such as kindness, sensitivity, empathy, and tenderness. However, if many of these alleles are inherited, a “tipping point” is reached at which even mate preferences become “feminized,” meaning males are attracted to other males.

To go through the three points again:

1. The premise of this “research” is that homosexual behavior has evolved for some reason, and we need to find that reason. No attempt has been made to establish whether any specifically homosexual behavior was in fact evolved or not. It is entirely possible that any given behavior is not an adaptation in itself but rather the by-product of an adaptation (as morality is) or is completely unrelated to any adaptation. The latter is due to genetic drift, and while there is no consensus on how important genetic drift is to evolution as a whole, we know for a fact that genetic drift can have a profound impact on the development of species, especially on small populations.

“The ground rule – or perhaps doctrine would be a better term – is that adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should be used only where it is really necessary.”

As is clear to most evolutionary biologists, and other interested skeptical parties who are less than enamoured by the efforts of Evolutionary Psychologists, the approach described… above is rarely followed and instead these scientists appear to fire off adaptive explanations with reckless abandon, with their work often consisting of nothing more than folk wisdom and a post hoc just-so story explanation.

2. Even if the explanation is true, how does it advance our understanding? It still does not explain what makes one hetereosexual or homosexual (how are these genes transmitted to any specific individual? have any studies confirmed that homosexuals come from “feminine” families?). It also does not acknowledge that there are many more sexual orientations than heterosexual or homosexual, and so does not explain reality as we know it.

3. The association of homosexuality with feminine traits, as well as the association of “kindness, sensitivity, empathy, and tenderness” (that is to say, passivity and slavish support of males) with femininity as opposed to aggression as masculine trait, are Patriarchal constructs which perpetuate sexism and homophobia. There, then, is the real objective of this “research”: to perpetuate gender roles and homophobia. Of course the writers flippantly deny this:

These recent findings are scientifically intriguing and they likely have profound implications for the LGBT community (which we purposefully skirted here as we are donning our science and description hats and not our policy and prescription caps).

Here we see again the myth that science is “value-neutral” and that one can neatly separate fact from value, leaving only cold logic (a “male” trait). This of course is a lie. But by making the dichotomy between “science”/”description” (of facts) and “policy,” the writers are omitting the fact that description itself plays off on the meanings already existing in society. If I describe homosexuality as feminine or women as caring, I am in fact perpetuating already existing hierarchies, even if it’s “description” and not “policy.”

It makes it a lot easier for evopsych proponents to slip their support for hierarchies under the door if they first convince people that their research is “scientific” and “descriptive.” People think that racism or sexism can’t be racist or sexist if it’s “scientific” (see the IQ-race debate for example). So you get into the whole “objectivity” game, as in “I’m being objective and you’re not.” That’s a game for suckers if there ever was one.

Evopsychs may accuse us of being science denialists, but they are behavioral creationists.

Three categories of explanation of human behavior.

There are three basic kinds of explanations for human behavior:

1. Human behavior is the result of a contra-causal entity or process (which we call “free will”). I will call this position “anti-causalism,” with the two variants being either “random anti-causalism” or “soul anti-causalism,” depending on whether I am talking about people who believe the uncaused entity or process is a random process or some kind of mind-like entity like a soul. Soul anti-causalists are mostly Christians and other theists, while random anti-causalists don’t, as far as I can see, tend to take any particular ideological stance.

2. Human behavior is the result of genotypical differences (“nature”), as expressed in phenotype. Because nowadays it is mostly grounded in evolution, I will call this position “adaptationism.” The most popular form of this belief is evolutionary psychology, which holds that our genotype is adapted for the Pleistocene era of homo sapiens, and that therefore human behavior is directly explained as reproductive advantage in that environment. Adaptationists are generally conservatives or otherwise defenders of the status quo.

3. Human behavior is the result of social conditioning and incentives (“nurture”) acting on the individual and molding individual personality, desires, and so on. This position holds that most motives of human behavior that we consider real (such as social roles, gender, race, country, sexual identity, property, the market, authority, to name only these) are actually social constructs, so I will call this position “[social] constructionism.” Constructionists tend to be leftists and some moderate right-wingers.

I have discussed these three kinds of explanations extensively in some form or other during the past months, so I suppose this entry is a kind of summation of everything so far. I do, however, want to make very clear that I call them “kinds of explanations,” not “explanations,” because they are mostly issues of emphasis: they are not mutually exclusive and should not be seen as such.

I do not know of any person who holds that any category precludes the other two:

* Generally, anti-causalists do not believe that genetics and culture have no influence on the operation of free will (Christians believe the soul, while contra-causal, is attracted by the snares of “the world”).

* Generally, adaptationists do not deny that actions occur in a social context and that sociability is part and parcel of our decisions (Tooby and Cosmides, the originators of modern evolutionary psychology, have clearly stated that “every feature of every phenotype is fully and equally codetermined by the interaction of the organism’s genes… and its ontogenetic environments”).

* Generally, constructionists do not deny that the human brain is a product of evolution and that this has an effect on our decisions (in his famous debate with Foucault, Chomsky argues that in order to be effective activists, we must first have an understanding of human nature and how it influences people’s decisions: otherwise it would be impossible to plan the consequences of our actions).

So the debate cannot be resolved at such a simple level. But still, that won’t stop the most idiotic in each camp from believing it’s a sufficient argument to debunk their opposition. For instance, less sophisticated adaptationists routinely accuse constructionists of being eeeeevil socialists who want to retool humanity in their image (for example). Vulgar anti-causalists accuse their opponents of reducing human beings to the state of “soulless” automatons which are incompatible with moral judgment, and that this absence of moral judgment will cause the downfall of human civilization (for example). Some simplistic criticisms of evolutionary psychology by constructionists have likewise argued as if it entailed that genes code directly for behavior, instead of (supposed) brain modules which inform behavior.

Note also that this is not the same kind of debate as the one about blank slate, which concerns the state our brain starts in. One can hold to any of the three positions and believe in blank slate or human nature, with the notable exception that one cannot logically be an adaptationist and believe in blank slate. I will elaborate more on human nature at the end of this entry.

What argument does each position wield against the opposition? It is clear that each position forms a powerful dichotomy with its opposing positions. To the anti-causalists, opponents are dead-set on denying individual responsibility and morality itself. To the adaptationists, opponents are science denialists who argue for ideological reasons. To the constructionists, opponents are reactionaries who use pseudo-science as a weapon against egalitarian commitments.

As a constructionist, I see this debate as fundamentally an ethical one, not a scientific one. The scientific evidence for adaptationism and anti-causalism is slim to none. For one, scientific evidence of anti-causalism is impossible since science is predicated on understanding cause and effect: the best we’ve gotten from their side is vague and fallacious presuppositionalist arguments, as well as god-of-the-gaps arguments about the limits of understanding the human mind.

Adaptationism does not fare much better. As I said, I do not deny the fact that the human brain is a product of evolution, and no one should. However, this is not nearly enough to demonstrate that human behavior must be always, or even generally, explained as an evolutionary adaptation. Let me take evolutionary psychology as an example, since it is the most developed of the series of ideologies which have sought to use genetics as the source of behavior.

Evolutionary psychology is based on three premises:

1. The brain adapted to the conditions homo sapiens lived in during the Pleistocene era; these conditions are collectively called the EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness). There hasn’t been enough time for evolution to operate on problems that have appeared since then.

2. The brain adapted to these conditions through the emergence of various discrete modules that solve specific problems (such as, for instance, choosing a mate).

3. We can discover these modules by looking at problems that exist in the EEA, guess at what adaptations would best solve the problems, and examine if present-time humans possess these supposed adaptations.
Proponents of evolutionary psychology who don’t care about evidence do it in reverse: they start with a specific present-time behavior which they glibly assume is universal, and then they try to imagine any evolutionary reason for it. Those people are loathsome and are worthy of all the criticism and rants directed at them.

But none of these points are justified. The main reason for this is that neutral structures have great plasticity and are mainly sculpted by our experiences. It is not “solutions” that are adapted, but rather “organisms with certain neurological and behavioral tendencies in particular environments,” to quote Chuck Ward (Evolutionary Psychology and the Problem of Neural Plasticity, 2008). In certain environments, a certain solution may be more conducive to success; in a different environment, the opposite solution may play that role instead. And to deepen the problem, neural plasticity also means that change in solutions can take effect within relatively short periods of time, destroying the Pleistocene EEA hypothesis.

Another fatal problem is that it is impossible, even in theory, to conclude that any given behavior is determined by genetic factors, as opposed to social conditioning or, for anti-causalists, irreducible human “choice.”

Suppose an evolutionary psychologist imagines that promiscuity is an evolutionary advantage for men but not for women, looks at eir society, and concludes that the guess is correct. But this means that the anti-causalist conclusion that men are more promiscuous because they “choose” to do so, and that the constructionist conclusion that men are more promiscuous because they are conditioned to be such in patriarchal societies, must both be false as well. But there is no a priori reason for the evolutionary psychologist, on the basis of his method, to declare this to be the case. It remains an unproven guess.

My point in paying particular attention to evolutionary psychology is not to only debunk evolutionary psychology but rather to discredit adaptationism as a whole. Adaptationists who wish to follow a viable, scientific direction must change their thinking in the direction of giving more and more importance to the social context, and I believe eventually such change would collapse into some form of constructionism.

So I stated that I think the debate is mostly an ethical or political one, and I should now explain what I mean. If you look at the two main axes of conflict right now, free will (anti-causalism) v determinism (adaptationism/constructionism) and adaptationism v constructionism, you find ethical and political issues in a central position.

Proponents of free will argue that without free will we lose our incentive for punishment and revenge as exemplified by our “justice” systems, and that this would be disastrous. As I’ve pointed out before, some religious people argue that widespread materialism would lead to the downfall of civilization. It is also argued that without belief in free will the ignorant masses (i.e. “those damn unwashed people who dare to not be as smart as we are”) would be demoralized, stop caring about morality, and would commit crimes rampantly, as ignorant masses are wont to do if they are not kept in line1. Here is one such brazen statement (emphasis mine, to highlight the totalitarian 1984-ness of it all):

To put it bluntly: people as a rule ought not to be fully aware of the ultimate inevitability of what they have done, for this will affect the way in which they hold themselves responsible… We often want a person to blame himself, feel guilty, and even see that he deserves to be punished. Such a person is not likely to do all this if he internalises the ultimate hard determinist perspective, according to which in the actual world nothing else could in fact have occurred — he could not strictly have done anything else except what he did do.

Some proponents of adaptationism argue that constructionism is something socialists do, that it is a purely political debate. Other proponents of adaptationism actually agree that the debate is political and stake their claim. Here are two examples:

In my experience, most knee-jerk criticisms of evolutionary psychology are motivated by the following (incorrect) syllogism:

“I [the critic] want political change. Political change requires changing people. Evolutionary psychologists argue that people have innate and unchangeable natures. Evolutionary psychologists are therefore opposed to social or political change, and are merely attempting to scientifically justify the status quo. More generally, all scholars, particularly ‘scientific’ social scientists, need to acknowledge the ideological underpinnings of their work.”

[W]hat could Moran’s motive be for bleating such [anti-evopsych] nonsense with the rest of the sheep? It’s always been obvious enough. It’s the same motive that convinced an earlier generation of benighted graduate students that they would be serving the greater good of mankind by physically attacking someone as benign as E. O. Wilson for suggesting there actually is such a thing as human nature…

Socialism requires what evolutionary psychology precludes; that human behavior be infinitely malleable.

This belief that constructionism = socialism = human malleability (infinite or not) seems to always be the main line of attack. I am not sure why that is, especially since there is nothing in socialism that requires particularly high human malleability. On the contrary, it seems more obvious that capitalism requires a great deal of malleability, whether physical (factory work) or psychological (profit motive, competition, obedience).

But does adaptationism inherently seek to preserve the status quo? This seems like a logical consequence. The argument goes something like this: if behavior originates in genetics, and genetics is largely unchangeable, then behavior is largely unchangeable. If this is the case, then one must be extremely pessimistic about the possibility of social change2, because social change requires changes in behavior (e.g. acting cooperatively instead of competitively). The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ tries to answer this objection:

Consider a hypothetical population of organisms whose ‘natures’ are completely genetically specified and unchangeable and, just to keep things simple, whose natures are identical. Suppose, further, that these organisms have a number of (identical) preferences, desires, what-have-you (all unchangeable), but, because resources are limited (say), they often find that social circumstances are at odds with their preferences and not all individuals can fulfill their desires. In other words, these creatures are often in conflict with one another. Finally, suppose that these organisms have the ability to negotiate with one another by offering and withholding benefits, and perhaps by imposing costs. It is not hard to see that even if individuals’ natures are unchangeable, social outcomes are not! Because our hypothetical organisms are able to negotiate, they are able to form social arrangements that are (potentially) equitable. They can come to agreements that fairly divide resources, etc., and punish individuals who violate these agreements. When circumstances change, new agreements can be forged. Because circumstances will change, social change is inevitable.

The author here seems to be describing the formation of a society or social group. But surely no one disputes that societies would form under the adaptationist view, so this argument tells us nothing new. The issue is not whether society can form or not, but rather whether societies can change, or more exactly whether societies can break away from this unchangeable and identical nature and how much they can do so. Whatever happens, it seems that society would keep oscillating around some natural form of organization, a path of least resistance.

This, however, remains a purely academic argument which hides the fact that this is a debate about (and mostly against) egalitarian commitments. As I’ve already pointed out, anti-causalists and adaptationists consciously adopt a reactionary agenda, and are profoundly hostile to social change. While there are some evolutionary psychologists and anti-causalist Christians who could be described as having egalitarian commitments, they are a tiny minority. Proponents of anti-causalism make a grand stand for punishment and revenge against leftist conceptions of justice and fairness:

Retribution, by the way, is not revenge; retribution is giving people what they deserve. And the theory of retribution is, when people intentionally and without justification or excuse inflict harm on their fellow human beings they deserve to have some kind of negative reaction… there’s meant to be some negative sanction. It doesn’t mean you’re harsh or you’re nasty… it just says that they should get what they deserve. Now suppose, as I do, that if you treat people as potentially desert-bearing creatures that you increase human dignity, that you increase the notion of a life worth living, is that something that science tells me I have to give up? It doesn’t and it can’t.

You can always quote an extreme case and there certainly are some pretty extreme cases out there. But the vast majority of it is really dealing with people who know how to follow rules, can follow rules, and they choose not to follow rules. And there should be a consequence for that. I think we’ve just gone way over in the other direction in the thinking that we understand mechanisms that would excuse somebody from following those rules

I argue that even though hard determinists might find it morally permissible to incarcerate wrongdoers apart from lawful society, they are committed to the punishment’s taking a very different form from common practice in contemporary Western societies. Hard determinists are in fact committed to what I will call funishment, instead of punishment. But, by its nature funishment is a practical reductio of hard determinism: it makes implementing hard determinism impossible to contemplate. Indeed, the social practices that hard determinism requires turn out to be morally bad even according to hard determinism itself.

Why do otherwise sane people make such arguments? There certainly is an intuition of fairness behind this nonsense: they see it as “fair” that people who commit crimes get punished, even, in the first example, going so far as refusing to call it revenge (because revenge is obviously not fair). Other say that criminals deliberately forfeit their human rights (a nonsensical concept), which may have to do with loyalty to one’s in-group (the nation-state, for example) and seeing the criminal as a traitor to that in-group.

In the same way, we already know that conservatives believe that poor people deserve to be poor because of their choices, or even, in the case of utter nutcases, that poor people are part of a class conspiracy against the privileged.

This is a utopian vision. Spend a little more money and poverty will disappear. But, poverty will exist so long as people make bad personal decisions. As long as government creates barriers to economic advancement. And as long as people lack sufficient skills to thrive in a market economy.

Given free will, some people will choose to work hard, some will choose to be lazy, some will choose to be honest, some will choose to steal. Some will squander their resources on alcohol and drugs, others will choose to use their resources to create other resources. Some will choose to become rich, some will choose to be poor. The greater the amount of free choice, the wider the wealth distribution (the gap between rich and poor) will be.

Such people are “conservative” in the most profound sense of the word: to paraphrase Voltaire, they literally believe that all is for the best in the best of all possible societies, because everyone’s values are being fulfilled. Poor people want to be poor, rich people want to be rich, criminals want to be criminals, good citizens want to be good citizens, and so on. Therefore it is good to punish criminals and poor people, because they deserve it. The punishment itself is for the best in the best of all possible societies, too.

Free market rhetoric is also like this, although on a smaller scale, insofar as it participates to the same voluntary=just rationale. It is said that the fact that in a real free market people have complete freedom of choice indicates that the free market necessarily returns optimal, just outcomes.

Anti-causalism, either in its Christian or voluntaryist form, is entirely, and rather explicitly, reactionary.

I’ve already argued that adaptationism, by its very nature (no pun intended), rationalizes the status quo. If, for instance, humans are genetically hierarchical, then experiments in anarchist organization, such as the recycled factories in Argentina or the Spanish Revolution, should have collapsed of their own unnatural weight. Under the adaptationist paradigm, social change is possible but unsustainable: we could no more change from a monarchy to a democracy than ants can.

Constructionism, on the other hand, is compatible with the profound social changes we observe in human history, as well as the general inertia of any political system. Its basic thesis is that our decisions, while limited by biology, are channeled by the incentive systems that issue forth from social institutions and permeate our culture. Constructionists mainly disagree on which institutions, if any, are the most influential or harmful.

Constructionism appeals to egalitarians because it resonates with their belief that the inequalities of Western societies are maintained by the hierarchical, self-serving institutions which serve the interests of the power elite, and that if we remove the sick incentives provided by those institutions, we can achieve a new world.

A belief which circulates about constructionism is that we’re all fanatics who believe in blank slate and in infinitely mutable human beings who we want to mold, against human nature, to our desires. As far as I can tell, this is a straw man, although it’s such a persuasive straw man that even I thought such people existed until I realized that I’ve never talked to any. Perhaps some postmodernists would fit the bill, but I wouldn’t know.

No, I acknowledge the existence of human nature and that this human nature was molded by evolution. However, this disproves the other positions rather than confirming them. It disproves anti-causalism because there is no mechanism by which evolution can bring about something contra-causal. Whatever comes about through evolution comes about because of its causal relations with other parts of the body and with the organism’s environment. Without such causal relations, there’d be no way for the process or entity to be favoured by natural selection. So how could a contra-causal process or entity possibly come about?

It also disproves adaptationism because human nature is not, as they claim, a set of fixed problem-solving “modules,” but rather a general adaptation of the brain to varying conditions. Our brain is plastic; it develops not in a fixed modular way but through a process of synaptic pruning in response to the environment, and neurons rewire themselves in response to change in stimuli or brain damage. We are not adapted for the Pleistocene, or for any other era of prehistory, but rather for different solutions to a wide variety of environments.

Another argument for constructionism is the incapacity of other positions to justify their own existence. It’s impossible for anti-causalists to explain why they are anti-causalists, because by definition they don’t believe in decisional cause and effect. It’s impossible for adaptationists to explain why they believe in adaptationism, because the ideology of adaptationism must surely be too sophisticated to have any usefulness to prehistoric humans.

For constructionists, the problem is complex but not unsolvable. Constructionism is part and parcel of many leftist belief systems, and anyone who joins these belief systems will be under some pressure to adopt it. There are counter-pressures from society at large to adopt anti-causalist beliefs (especially as an explanation to crime), but they are fairly low compared to the importance of constructionism to leftists and how it complements their other beliefs.

In making this argument I am not trying to be glib. All I am saying is that surely a position which seeks to explain human behavior should be able to explain human behavior. Yet I fail to see how a position which by definition excludes the laws of causality can serve to explain causal relations. To me this is a non-answer. You can repeat “I chose to do it” over and over, you’re not explaining anything… until you bring in causal elements, in which case you are moving away from the contra-causal.

One final argument I want to raise here is that both adaptationists and anti-causalists are utterly unable to explain why people commit undesirable actions, including genocide. Why did Adolph Hitler do what he did? The adaptationists have no answer except “because he was a bad person,” but that’s not only asinine, it also does not explain anything new. The anti-causalists can only answer that he is purely responsible for his actions, but again that doesn’t explain anything. These are not answers but labels applied on Hitler, and they do not answer the question any more than renaming an apple “orange” proves that apples are like oranges.

Constructionists, on the other hand, can point to concrete facts about a person’s life that leads them in certain directions. They can demonstrate that one’s personality is not a magical product of some supernatural self or a brute fact, but rather the result of what a person goes through and how it changes them. For one example of constructionist analysis about Adolph Hitler, see For Your Own Good by Alice Miller (p142-197).

Finally, note that this entry is not meant as anything but a very general overview of the subject; reams and reams have already been written regarding each of the specific points I’ve raised, and there is much that remains to be said. This is mainly my personal attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I hope it can be of some usefulness to others as well.


1 I hope my sarcasm is well taken. I am merely extrapolating from the thinly veiled contempt that shows through the writings of the more fanatical free will advocates.
2The most important change in the history of mankind, the spread of agricultural societies, took place after the Pleistocene. This alone should kill evolutionary psychology’s input into social change. Since this section is not about evolutionary psychology specifically, I thought I should rather put it in a footnote.