Buddhism, science, and the political mind

One of the complaints about science is that it does not offer any moral guidance. It can describe reality and causal relationships but it does not tell us how we should behave. One can accept such a situation as a fact of life but most people are drawn towards belief systems that do offer such moral guidance. What is interesting about Buddhism, or at least its more (modern) secular versions, is that it both seeks to understand reality and to offer moral and “spiritual” guidance as well. This of course presents a problem. Science also seeks to understand reality but the consensus is that if there is anything we are learning about reality it is that life has no objective meaning and the idea of objective, person-independent morality is an illusion.

One of the perplexing things about Buddhism is the assumption that gaining a correct understanding of Reality (typically written with a capital R) will trigger a corresponding change in our moral outlook. For example, when a person comes to realize that the “self” is an illusion, a lot of moral misconduct will disappear. Unfortunately, getting rid of such “illusions” about the self is neither sufficient nor necessary for moral progress. Great moral progress has been made in countries where people are firm believers in the existence of an unchanging self and many moral defects have been identified in countries where a belief in the illusion of the self is encouraged. In fact, the belief in a self is interesting because it has been both praised as a guard against nihilism and as an illusion that undermines morality.

Despite its appearance of being a secular open-minded belief system, Buddhism rests on a rather strong premise about the beneficial effects of seeing the “real” nature of reality. But contemporary science does not support such strong statements about reality. Like any other topic in science, our understanding of reality is subject to continuous revision. It might even be possible that we live in a computer simulation and “reality” outside of it is quite different from what Buddhists believe.

One of the most level-headed discussions of Buddhism and science is Donald S. Lopez’s Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. This book is a detailed exposition of the history of discussions about the compatibility of Buddhism and science. The author recognizes that the position that Buddhism  is compatible with, or even supported by, science is as old as Buddhism itself and provides reasons why Buddhism more than any other “religion” is prone to such statements. In the end, however, Buddhism is recognized as a rather diverse and dynamic belief system and whether it is compatible with science depends on what is exactly meant by “science” and “Buddhism.” It is clear that a lot of historical expositions of Buddhism contain claims that are now known to be scientifically incorrect.  This raises the question how much of Buddhism can be rejected before it is no longer Buddhism.

One of the most uncomfortable claims in Buddhism concern the origin and nature of the universe. As Lopez writes, “all of the religions of the world asserted that the world is flat. This belief, in turn, was held so tenaciously that when it was first suggested that the world is not flat, those who made such a suggestion were executed.” Most secular Buddhists would not mind claiming that the Buddha was wrong about this and that these beliefs are not the essential doctrines of Buddhism, but as Lopez writes, “yet once the process of demythologizing begins, once the process of deciding between the essential and inessential is under way, it often difficult to know where to stop.” Which raises, once more, the question of why not to reject Buddhism completely and embrace a thorough scientific, empiricist perspective on life.

A counter argument is that Buddhism offers things that science cannot offer such as deeper metaphysical insights into the nature of reality and ethical truths. But the modern scientific mind is exactly distinguished by claiming that no objective truths should be expected here. In particular, there is no credible method, to deduce such ethical truths from metaphysical “facts.” There are not many rigorous analytic philosophical treatments of Buddhism but those that exist, such as Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, have identified several problems and challenges. If Buddhism (even in its most modern, secular, form) is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Carnap, and Kant it is not likely that it can survive in its current form. At best it will be just another philosophical “school.”

A very sympathetic account of Buddhism, and its relation to contemporary (neuro)science and philosophy is Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Flanagan goes out of his way to give the most charitable reading of modern secular Buddhism but in the end he confesses, “I still do not see, despite trying to see for many years, why understanding the impermanence of everything including myself makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism.” Perhaps this is because there simply is no necessary, logical, connection between recognizing the nature of Reality and specific moral and lifestyle choices. While Buddhists usually do not like being accused of being negative and pessimistic it can hardly be denied that more cheerful, care-free, implications of the idea of impermanence can be imagined (and have been imagined).

How would Buddhism look like if it really would be serious about making adjustments to its (core) beliefs based on science? For starters, it would treat each belief as an hypothesis that is calibrated when new evidence becomes available. But how many Buddhist publications are really serious about this? Such work is typically done by sympathetic outsiders but the result never produces a full endorsement of core Buddhist beliefs. Although Buddhism seems to be able to survive in a modern secular society it still has its share of ex-Buddhists who feel that it is still too dogmatic and unscientific. In his article “Why I ditched Buddhism” John Horgan writes:

“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”

There is one element in Buddhist thinking, however, that can throw an interesting light on the “political mind.” Buddhism is not explicitly political although some followers have made attempts to politicize it, culminating in a rather artificial movement called “Engaged Buddhism.” Buddhism teaches that nothing in reality is permanent and emphasizes the continuous birth, transformation, and rebirth of things. What sets the political mind apart is that it looks at society as a whole and wants it to conform to an arbitrary idea about political justice or efficiency. While this aim can be even perceived as unrealistic and delusional for a small group, it borders on insanity for a world composed of billions of people. When political activists recognize that the world cannot be easily manipulated in such a fashion, or run into the unintended consequences of their policies, frustration, anger, and violence often ensue. This “thirst” for control of the external world has often been ridiculed by Zen Buddhist monks and this kind of “suffering” can be successfully eliminated if the ever-changing nature of reality is recognized.

There is a growing literature about the psychology and even neuroscience of political beliefs but much of this work does not examine the most basic questions. What exactly is a political belief (or ideology)? Why do some people choose political engagement and others seek to make less grandiose changes to their personal lives and environment? Can political ideals be satisfied or does the ever-changing nature of reality (and slight deviations from any ideal) suggest that politically engaged people chase an illusion and political happiness will be brief at best. To my knowledge, there have not been many publications in which Buddhist premises have been employed to argue against the idea of political ideology and “activism”, although it seems an interesting connection to make. Such a Buddhist argument would solely emphasize personal kindness instead of the (futile) desire to make the world conform to a specific idea (and the ensuing “suffering” if reality does not want to conform).

The illusion of free will is itself an illusion

While debates about free will remain prevalent in theology, philosophy, and the popular imagination, the concept of free will does not do any meaningful work in modern science. Even philosophically-inclined neuroscientists who write about free will do not evoke this concept in their technical work about the brain. Similarly, we talk about “nature versus nurture” not “nature versus nurture versus free will.” According to writer, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, free will cannot be made conceptually coherent. In his little book “Free Will” he writes that “either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” Sam Harris is not the first person to debunk the idea of free will but what makes his treatment of the subject stand out from most hard determinists (or hard incompatibilists) is his no-nonsense treatment of “compatibilism” and his smart take on the view that free will is an “illusion.” He also has a talent for using effective metaphors to make his cases as evidenced by sentences such as, “you are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

Harris is not a “compatibilist” and follows philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (“wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery”) and William James (“quagmire of evasion”) in identifying this position as a (subtle) attempt to change the subject. About the vast compatibilist literature he writes that “more than in any other area of philosophy, the result resembles theology.” Compatibilists like Daniel Dennet have spent considerable time in twisting the meaning of free will and putting it in an evolutionary context but as some of his critics have noted, the “free will” that is compatible with determinism does not capture the kind of free agency and moral responsibility that philosophers feel is worth talking about (for example, see Paul Russell’s article “Pessimists, Pollyannas, and the New Compatibilism“). “Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings,” writes Harris.

Harris follows philosophers such as Derk Pereboom in noting that neither determinism nor indeterminism can give rise to free will or moral responsibility. This also includes more recent attempts to find “free will” in quantum mechanics. “Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility…how would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?

While Harris still recognizes free will as an illusion, there are some passages in his book that reveal that he does not seem to agree that disciplined introspection is a credible source for a belief in free will. “If you pay attention  to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process…I do not choose to choose what I chose…there is a regress here that always ends in darkness.” This is a distinctly refreshing perspective because most literature is plagued by the belief that regardless of whether free will exists (or can exist) it is nevertheless an illusion, or worse, a necessary illusion. This “illusion of the illusion of free will” remains a mainstay of most discussions of the topic, despite its shaky foundation in introspection or logical analysis. In a rather Buddhist perspective on the matter, Harris concludes his book by observing that

“our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

So what then gives rise to the belief in free will and the desire to prove its existence? According to Harris, a belief in free will is closely associated with the concept of “sin” and retributive punishment. One might also add that “compatibilist” philosophy arises from the recognition that most normative ethical theorizing requires some kind of compatibilism. It is not a coincidence that the most exotic treatments of free will can be found in theological, ethical, and ideological writings. Obviously, Harris denies that a belief in free will is necessary for morality and justice. “Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: everyone else will be better off this way.” The fact that no criminal has free will does not mean that all crime should be treated the same. The reason why we are interested in, for example, whether the cause of a crime can be attributed to a brain tumor or a psychopathic personality type is because it is important to know what kind of person we are dealing with and under which conditions we should expect such crimes most likely to occur. There is no need for a complete overhaul of our criminal system but in a society in which there would be less emphasis on free will there would be more room for intelligent treatment of crime instead of hatred and retribution.

There is a brief chapter in the book where Harris discusses free will in the context of politics. He identifies modern conservatism as embodying an unrealistic belief in free will, as evidenced by the tendency to hold people responsible for their own choices and to glorify “individualism” and the “self-made man.” It is certainly the case that the concept of free will has clouded the mind of many political thinkers. For example, two writers that are closely associated with radical capitalism, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, have offered rather obscure defenses of free will. Ultimately, however, most dominant ideologies can be restated without a belief in free will. A denial of free will in conjunction with postulating values such as”egalitarianism,” “impartiality,” and “universalism” can give rise to modern liberalism but a denial of free will is also compatible with an elitist, aggressive, anti-democratic pursuit of human enhancement through state coercion.

Libertarianism does not require a belief in free will either as evidenced by recent attempts to derive it from Hobbesian contractarianism (Jan Narveson) or economic efficiency arguments (David Friedman). Incoherent discussions of free will in moral and political theory are easy targets for ridicule, and often an indicator of belief in other mysterious concepts such as “natural rights.” In fact, libertarianism cannot only be restated without any appeals to “free will” or “natural rights” but it does not even require the postulation that “freedom” is valuable (or needs to be be maximized) as has been shown in the recent writings of Anthony de Jasay.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Summer 2012 issue of the Independent Review features my review essay (PDF) of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. There can be little doubt that this work constitutes one of the most ambitious and credible contributions to social science to date. Although the review essay was written from a classical liberal perspective, I think that one of the main criticisms of Pinker’s project can be sustained without any kind of “ideological” perspective. In fact, one of the concerns I have about his project is that insufficient attention has been given to providing a neutral definition of violence. Why is this important?

If we would go back in time and challenge some of the violence that was routine in those days inevitable objections would be that these acts of cruelty should not be condemned because they simply involved the execution of God’s will, proper punishment, served “the common good,” etc. One of the themes of Pinker’s book is that we have become less tolerant of these kinds of justification for violence and acts of extreme cruelty. Naturally, this raises the question of whether there are still many acts of violence, cruelty, and punishment that are being rationalized with poor reasoning. In my review I suggest that most of what we consider the normal operation of government, such as collecting taxes and “regulation,” is sustained through violence and threats of violence.

One might object that this perspective reflects a minority position on violence that does not conform to common use of the term violence. I do not believe that this response would be credible because the common opinion is not that government operates without threats of violence (and punishment if one fails to obey) but that in this case the use of force is legitimate and socially sanctioned. In that case, however, Pinker’s project would not be about the decline of violence but the decline in violence not approved by governments. Pinker does not go that far because he does not exclude warfare by democratic governments from his review of violence, but there is something rather arbitrary about what matters to him.

For example, Pinker writes that “early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other” but does not give good reason why we should view contemporary states much differently. In fact, one can even argue (as individualist anarchists like Lysander Spooner have done) that modern democratic states do not only extort protection money but in turn use this against the victim in the form of “regulation.”

I suspect that what makes Pinker exempt force associated with normal government operations is that the actual use of violence is rather rare. But that is not necessarily because most people prefer paying taxes or complying with regulations but because individual resistance is not rational. As Anthony de Jasay writes in his essay Self-Contradictory Contractarianism (collected in his book Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order).

If the cost of rebellion is high, if the expected (“risk-adjusted”) value of its success is not very much higher, and if the very possibility of collective action against the sovereign is problematical (at least in normal peacetime conditions), then two plausible conjectures suggest themselves. The equilibrium strategy of the sovereign will be to use its discretionary power to satisfy its preferences, perhaps by exploiting all its subjects in the service of some holistic end, perhaps by exploiting some of them to benefit others. The equilibrium strategy of the subjects will be, not to resist, but to obey, adjust, and profit from the opportunities for parasitic conduct that coalition forming with the sovereign at the expense of the rest of society may offer.

A potential rejoinder to this argument is that the operation of government is necessary to prevent even more violence. Leaving the usual problems with utilitarian arguments like this to the side, such a perspective can at best confer legitimacy to a very minimal form of government and would not exempt most other operations of government. If social order and peaceful commerce can arise without government, there is no reason at all to exempt any operations of government from a critical perspective. Pinker does recognize the existence of anarchist perspectives but his treatment of this topic does not indicate a thorough familiarity with the literature on conflict resolution without the state. This is problematic because reason and commerce (two of Pinker’s drivers of the decline in violence) may be sufficient for a peaceful society. In fact, the advantage of commerce versus government (or ‘democracy’) is that commerce itself is a peaceful activity.

One might further object that there is a difference between war and collecting taxes on the one hand and regulating on the other. In a real showdown between individuals and government officials, however, the priority of government is to prevail using as much force as necessary. As mentioned above, that does generally not require a lot of force because most individuals recognize the futile nature of individual resistance. In fact, it may be the increase of intelligence and individualism that Pinker also discusses in his book that makes more people less inclined to mount heroic but ineffective forms of resistance.

This does not mean that Pinker’s claims are completely arbitrary and dependent on whether one includes normal government operations in his definition of violence. For example, it is indisputable that the nature of violence and the cruelty of punishment has seen substantial changes since the middle ages. Also, in spite of the increase of public force associated with the growth of modern governments, the tolerance of people for violence is still declining. In fact, many public debates concern forms of harm that can hardly be construed as violence (discrimination, ‘hate speech’, insensitivity, poverty, etc.). This phenomenon itself raises a rather interesting question. How can the widespread tolerance of government force co-exist with increasing sensitivities about acts of human behavior that do not even involve physical harm (or threats thereof)?

There are a lot of other interesting topics in Pinker’s book such as his treatment of the sociobiology of violence, morality, and ideology. On the topic of morality he writes:

The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is not a treatise on (meta)ethics but Pinker’s evolutionary perspective leaves little room for grandiose moral theories and is more in line with classical liberal views in which morality is an emergent phenomenon that allows for peaceful human interaction, which is evidenced by his observation that “modern morality is “a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games” and that “assumptions of self-interest and sociality combine with reason to lay out a morality in which non-violence is the goal.”

He also observes that “to kill by the millions, you need an ideology.” At the same time he notes that “intelligence is expected to correlate with classical liberalism because classical liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself.” He does not discuss the potential tension between his (wholesale) rejection of ideology and his identification with classical liberalism. Perhaps Pinker believes, as does the author of this review, that classical liberalism, conceived in a non-dogmatic fashion, is not so much an ideology but a perspective that starts from the recognition that individuals have different interests and that reason can provide guidance to coordinate these interests to mutual advantage.

15 book recommendations

One of the best ways to communicate the general outlook of a website is to recommend a set of books that embody its perspectives on a variety of topics. Since its inception the outlook of this website has undergone some changes but there are a number of core interests that have remained the same: empiricism, non-cognitivism in ethics, an interest in (Hobbesian) contractarianism, philosophical anarchism, sociobiology, and a critical perspective on (electoral) politics. The following books reflect these topics and can command the recommendation of the writer of this website.

1. Hans Reichenbach – The Rise of Scientific Philosophy

Hans Reichenbach was one of the greatest 20th century empiricist philosophers and his brand of empiricism is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the probabilistic nature of knowledge and pragmatism. A more rigorous statement of his views can be found in his seminal scholarly work Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge.

2. Nassim N. Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Nassim N. Taleb is mostly known for his writings on Black Swan events, but of broader interest is his general skeptical outlook. In Fooled by Randomness Taleb documents how poorly we are equipped to deal with the probabilistic nature of the world and how our thirst for certainty and our tendency to see patterns everywhere leads us astray.

3. Edward Osborne Wilson – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward Osborne Wilson is the godfather of sociobiology and in this work (review here) he aims to bridge the gap between the biological and social sciences and seeks to resuscitate a project held dear by the early logical empiricists; the unification of science. Wilson is not trained in philosophy or philosophy of science but this “disadvantage” is mostly offset by his sane outlook on human nature.

4. Paul H. Rubin – Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and Paul Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics treats the topic of what we can reasonably expect in political and economic affairs based on our knowledge of human evolutionary biology.  Humans are poorly equipped to recognize the non-zero sum nature of capitalism and the futile nature of (electoral) politics.

5. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

In this book (review here) Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending drive another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans have not undergone meaningful genetic change. There is no reason to expect a “psychic unity of mankind” and social scientists who still embrace such notions do so at the cost of understanding human nature and human biodiversity. Also recommended is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (review here) who treats the deep history of humanity from a similar perspective.

6. L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

L.A. Rollins’ devastating critique of natural rights exposes the careless reasoning that has been employed by libertarians who argue that people have “rights” prior to any agreement or contract. As such, The Myth of Natural Rights (review here) is a sad reminder of how much time and effort libertarians (and conservatives) have wasted by arguing for nonsensical positions.

7. David Gauthier – Morals By Agreement

In what may constitute the most rigorous work in moral philosophy to date, David Gauthier uses decision- and game theory to develop a Hobbesian account of moral contractarianism. To prevent appeals to intuition and circular reasoning, Gauthier seeks to derive morality from a minimalist (instrumental) conception of rationality and shows how self-interested individuals seeking mutual advantage will accept moral constraints on their conduct.

8. Jan Narveson – The Libertarian Idea

Jan Narveson takes Occam’s razor to David Gauthier’s  moral contractarianism and aims to show that a general agreement to respect each other’s (negative) liberty is the only kind of agreement that can command general endorsement. Such an agreement excludes coercive income redistribution and raises questions about the legitimacy of government itself. This work presents the best introduction to libertarian philosophy that neither pursues natural rights nor utilitarianism.

9. Anthony de Jasay – Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order

Anthony de Jasay is the most important social philosopher of our time and all his writings are highly recommended. Against Politics is a collection of essays on a variety of topics such as political contractarianism, constitutionalism, income redistribution, and the economics of ordered anarchy. One of the great virtues of Jasay’s writings is his ability to reconcile academic rigor and common sense.

10. Bryan Caplan – The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

In The Myth of the Rational Voter economist Bryan Caplan employs economic reasoning and empirical evidence to explain why democracy leads to poor public policy. The average voter has a strong incentive to be rationally irrational about politics and the economic ignorance of elected politicians is evidence of this. This book provides no less than the microfoundations of political failure. Also recommended is Randall Holcombe’s From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Holcombe uses a public choice perspective to show how the rise of democracy leads to a decline of liberty.

11. David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to a Radical Capitalism

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is a fine example of modern anarcho-capitalism. This informally written book presents classic economic arguments to argue that the market does not just excel in the production of ordinary consumer goods but that the market should be expected to excel in providing justice, police, and defense as well. David Friedman’s article A Positive Account of Property Rights is highly recommended, too.

12. Edward Stringham (ed.) – Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice

Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice is an ambitious collection of classic articles on anarcho-capitalism, public goods, polycentric law, and criticism of minimal government.

13. Gregory Clark – A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is a Darwinian perspective on the rise of modern capitalism and the persistence of economic inequality between nations. The industrial revolution and rising living standards in the West are not explained by favorable geography or institutions but by natural selection (“survival of the richest”). An interview with Gregory Clark about his work is available here.

14. George A. Selgin – Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy

George Selgin is one of the most interesting economists working in the classical liberal tradition and his small book Less than Zero (PDF) outlines the case for a productivity norm that permits prices to respond to rising productivity or negative supply shocks as a superior alternative to zero-inflation or positive-inflation norms. Selgin’s discussion of  monetary disequilibrium and nominal income targeting has also contributed to the rise of market monetarism. His treatment of free banking can be found in another great work,  The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue.

15. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

One of the most ambitious contributions to social science ever written. Pinker makes a persuasive case that the rise of commerce, classical liberalism, and secular reason have greatly contributed to the decline in violence. Among the weaker points in the book are his treatment of the feasibility of ordered anarchy and his rather blasé attitude towards the violence and coercion that is associated with the normal operation of government. An extensive review essay of this book by this author is available here.

Humans are still evolving

A defining characteristic of ideologies is an implicit or explicit theory of human nature. For example, modern libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard derived bold normative conclusions from the fact that humans are endowed with reason. In such attempts, an abstract theory of human nature is made to do more work than it can possibly do; provide all humans with a set of normative guidelines for social interaction. The failure of such “rationalist” approaches to draw ideological conclusions from human nature does not mean that knowledge about human nature has no role to play in social philosophy or public policy at all. Absent deriving grandiose categorical imperatives, knowledge of human nature can provide us with knowledge about the limits of human malleability or the feasibility of specific public policy proposals. To be able to play this role, however, it needs to satisfy at least two criteria; it needs to be based on experimental evidence and it should be situated in an evolutionary context.

Many writers about human nature are aware of the social sensitivities surrounding this topic. As a consequence, most contemporary books that aim to provide a theory of human nature need to walk a fine line between providing a plausible evidence-based perspective and avoiding presenting an account of human nature with controversial social-political implications. What makes many books about human nature not entirely persuasive is the implicit premise that humans have stopped evolving since our descendents left Africa around 50,000 years ago. Stephen Jay Gould was quite explicit about this when he wrote that “there’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” One problem with these accounts is that genetic evidence keeps accumulating that humans not only kept evolving over the last 50,000 years, but that the pace might even have accelerated after the start of agriculture and modern civilization. Two books about human nature that explicitly depart from the view that humanity has not experienced meaningful genetic change over the last 50,000 years are Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) and Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2009). Before the Dawn provides a general evolutionary account of human origins and The 10,000 Year Explosion specifically aims to provide theoretical arguments and empirical evidence for recent genetic change and its implications. As such, The 10,000 Year Explosion can be read as a sustained, detailed treatment of one of the themes in Before the Dawn and constitutes a major contribution to the resuscitated field of “biohistory.”

Since both authors reject the theory that 50,000 years is too short for genetic changes to occur, both books discuss emerging evidence that diverging populations responded with different genetic adaptations to the environments they encountered. Nicholas Wade devotes a whole chapter to the view that the concept of race may have been abandoned without good scientific reason and that this concept can do meaningful work in population genetics, history, medicine, and forensic science. Such a perspective makes evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker uncomfortable. In an interview in New Scientist magazine he admits, “People, including me, would rather believe that significant human biological evolution stopped between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, before the races diverged, which would ensure that racial and ethnic groups are biologically equivalent.”

Commenting on Jared Diamond’s (mostly) environmentalist perspective, Wade writes, “If New Guineans adapted genetically by developing the intellectual skills to survive in their particular environment, as Diamond says is the case, why should not other populations have done exactly the same?” Both books argue that this is exactly what has happened, and give a number of examples. In particular, they discuss the hypothesis that the unique history of the Ashkenazi Jews triggered genetic adaptations that make them excel in cognitive tasks. In addition, Cochran and Harpending do not just argue that race is more than skin-deep, but also explain why similar traits can reflect different genetic adaptations. In the closing chapter they write, “If researchers in the human sciences continue to ignore the fact of ongoing natural selection, they will have thrown away the key to many important problems, turning puzzles into mysteries.”

Nicolas Wade also expresses concern over the tendency of many post-war archeologists and anthropologists to play down or even deny the prevalence of warfare (and other cruel practices) in primitive and pre-State societies. This theme has been treated in detail by Robert B. Edgerton in his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, and, more recently, in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Such wishful, or anti-Western, thinking not only obscures the progress that has been made in many modern societies, it also prevents scholars from properly assessing the role that warfare and competition has played in shaping human nature. In fact, in his book The Dawn Warriors: Man’s Evolution Toward Peace, Robert Sidney Bigelow dispels the myth of primitive harmony and proposes that continuous warfare gave rise to increased in-group cooperation and increased brain size.

If natural selection is still at work in humans, an obvious question is where we are heading, or could be heading, if we allow for the possibility that humans may soon have real control over their genetic destiny. This topic is treated in a very interesting manner in the last chapter of Before the Dawn. Nicholas Wade discusses the current trend that the rich and more intelligent tend to have fewer children but without reaching a firm conclusion whether this will produce natural selection to act against genes that promote intelligence. Even if such a scenario would occur it might be offset by new technologies that allow genetic human enhancement. Such developments could even produce new post-human species who are not capable of breeding with modern humans. “Our previous reaction to kindred species was to exterminate them, but we have mellowed a lot in the last 50,000 years,” writes Wade. Whether un-enhanced humans will survive in the long run is an open question.

An extensive 5-part interview with Gregory Cochran is available here:
Part One

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Richard von Mises: Positivism – A Study in Human Understanding

Unlike his rationalist brother Ludwig von Mises, Richard von Mises had strong empiricist leanings, which found expression in hisfrequency interpretation of probability and his qualified endorsement of logical positivism (or logical empiricism).  His Kleines Lehrbuch des Positivismus was published in 1939 and translated and revised in English in 1956 as  Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding and carried the following subtitle, “How the aims and attitudes of science apply to all the intellectual endeavors of mankind – whether in science, the arts, or ethics.” Sadly, the last edition of the book was published in 1968 and has long been out of print, a fate which sets him apart from other major 20th century empiricists such as Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Alfred J. Ayer, whose major expositions of their views are still in print. The preface of the English edition of Positivism closes with a remembrance of Otto Neurath, one of the co-authors of the original Vienna Circle statement, The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle, and one of the most passionate advocates of empiricism and the unity of the sciences.

Contrary to popular opinion, 20th century empiricism was not a rigid set of beliefs, and many of the original logical empiricists kept revising their views in response to the reception of their work and further investigations. What united the original logical positivists was an unwavering commitment to empiricism and a firm rejection of dualism in the scientific method. In a sense, one could argue that many of the core beliefs of the Vienna Circle have become so accepted among many scientific practitioners that there is no longer a need to argue for them. On the other hand, the worldviews of public opinion makers and public officials are still largely shaped by modes of thought and superstitions that have remained fairly immune to the rise of  the experimental method and the rejection of metaphysics. In the case of politics, there is little reason to be surprised about this, because politics encourages irrational thinking, conformism, and atavism. Interestingly, Richard von Mises also offers his views on economic methodology and political economy and it will be rewarding to return to these views at the end of this review.

Positivism starts with a discussion of language. According to von Mises, many philosophical mistakes reflect misunderstandings about the function and limitations of language. He writes, “many problems of school philosophy are of this type: expressions, referring in ordinary language to a very vague and varying content of experience, are supposed to have some “objective” meaning and then attempts are made to “disclose” this meaning by kind of a definition.” For example, there is no God-given definition of the word “rationality.” But when a group of academics (such as economists) converge on the use of the word, it is a misunderstanding of the function of language to insist on a different definition of the word because its current use is “wrong.” Of course, when science evolves there is often a recognition that the original  language is too crude and finer distinctions are being introduced to replace the older vocabulary. One of the defining characteristics of positivist philosophy is clarification of the use and abuse of language.

Like most authors in the positivist tradition, von Mises is interested in the question of what distinguishes true, false, and meaningless statements. He rejects the idea (which he attributes to Rudolf Carnap) that statements that do not satisfy the rules of logical grammar should be considered “meaningless” because it is not “possible to anticipate the rules of language in any exhaustive manner before knowing the sentences that will have to be tested by them in order to decide their admissibility or inadmissibility.” As an alternative, von Mises proposes the concept of “connectibility.”  A sentence is connectible if  it is compatible with a system of statements that regulate the use of language in that system. The statements of metaphysics, at best, only connect to each other in a very narrow range (they do not connect to the rules of formal logic, the natural sciences, ordinary language, etc.) and are of little practical use. Using this concept of connectibility makes it possibles to characterize the movement for a “unified science” in terms of connectibility of all scientific statements. Positivism concerns itself largely with the exposition of the concept of connectibility.

Von Mises then devotes two chapters to Mach’s elements and protocol sentences. Despite his own admission that “it is utopic to think that, starting from a given complex of element sentences, one could, by carefully following all the syntactic rules, arrive at an “encyclopedia of the sciences” which could command a validity of higher rank than that possessed by any of the existing  individual sciences” he seems quite occupied with identifying the nature and structure of such element sentences. Instead of looking for such an Archimedean point it might be more practical to decide in favor of the language of the sciences that have been successful in understanding and predicting the observable world. Statements of chemistry can be reduced to statements in physics, statements in biology can be reduced to statements in (bio)chemistry, statements about behavior and psychology can be reduced to statements in biology etc. The remaining (social) sciences contain either statements that are of little descriptive or predictive value, or contain statements that have been successful in understanding and predicting human behavior but still cannot be connected to the statements of the exact sciences. The use of game theory in both the biological and economical sciences is a good example of an attempt to bridge that gap. As von Mises himself notes, “All we can attempt to do is by analysis and continuous criticism of linguistic usage to further the connectibility.”

In the chapter about probability, von Mises introduces his frequency interpretation of probability and distinguishes it from the use of probability in ordinary language and alternative conceptions of probability (subjective probability, logical probability). In this chapter, von Mises is quite insistent upon the view that an exact theory of probability can only refer to mass phenomena and repetitive events. It does not make sense to use the probability calculus for future unique events or single cases probabilities. He takes issue with attempts of logical empiricists like Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap to apply probability far beyond its range of validity. Considering the generally hostile attitude of Austrian economists towards positivism and empiricism, it is interesting to note that prominent Austrian economists who work in the Misesean tradition have endorsed Richard von Mises’ strict frequency interpretation of probability. In an article called The Correct Theory of Probability Murray Rothbard writes:

“While probability theory is generally thought of as a branch of mathematics, its foundations are purely philosophic, and Richard von Mises, in his great work Probability, Statistics, and Truth, developed the correct, objective, or “frequency” theory of probability….if one holds to the objective Mises theory, it is unscientific and illegitimate to apply probability theory to any situations where the events (like the tossing of a die) are not strictly homogenous, and repeated a large number of times. And since, outside of die tossing or roulette, all the events of human action, economic or political or in daily life are clearly not homogeneous and therefore not repeatable, the Mises view demonstrates that all use of probability theory in social science is illegitimate.”

Along the same lines, Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes approvingly that for Ludwig von Mises “there is no such thing as a priori probability. Nor is there such a thing as the probability of a singular event. Probability statements refer to “objective” probabilities of collectives (classes). They are based on empirical observations. And they are corrigible by such observations.” Whether the positions of Mises, Rothbard and Hoppe constitute a partial endorsement of positivism in case of the probability is a complicated matter because it is not unambiguously clear what the proper empiricist interpretation of probability should be, and in this chapter Richard von Mises is too partial to his own views (and too dismissive of the works of other empiricists) to offer a more systematic treatment of the question of the relationship between probability and his general positivist outlook.

In the chapters about deterministic physics, statistical physics, and miracles von Mises argues quite persuasively that positivism should not be identified with a set of dogmatic prohibitions or should rule out certain observations about reality when they do not conform with materialism or a deterministic outlook. What we should require from extraordinary statements (or miracles) is that they are subjected to the same kind of scientific investigation and corroboration as we expect from other claims to knowledge. This approach harks back to von Mises’s concept of “connectibility.” His open mindedness in this chapter is reminiscent of a statement by Rudolf Carnap in his seminal article Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology (1950):

The acceptance or rejection of abstract linguistic forms, just as the acceptance or rejection of any other linguistic forms in any branch of science, will finally be decided by their efficiency as instruments, the ratio of the results achieved to the amount and complexity of the efforts required. To decree dogmatic prohibitions of certain linguistic forms instead of testing them by their success or failure in practical use, is worse than futile; it is positively harmful because it may obstruct scientific progress.

Perhaps the most interesting chapters in Positivism deal with his positivist outlook on the social sciences and ethics. Von Mises rejects methodological dualism; the idea that the approach and methods that are used in the physical sciences are inappropriate for the sciences that study man: “We find in all fields  a progression from single observations to comprehensive generalization which corresponds to the essence of scientific work…”.  As other logical  positivists writing in the same period, von Mises recognized that one day human action could be analyzed and explained by “organic processes,” but the rather premature state of fields like neuroscience in his age prevented von Mises from stating his position much more strongly than is possible now.

Today, when we compare the progress in fields that study man from a biological perspective with fields that claim a unique approach for the humanities,  it is clear that the case for dualism has further weakened. Humans are not exempt from the laws of physics and disciplines that recognize that fact clearly such as biochemistry, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, have made significant progress in understanding man. Von Mises notes that progress in the study of man is slower because of “retardations due to organized prejudices.” In many places in the world (including the United States) evolution is still widely contested and it is only quite recently that scholars who approach human psychology from an evolutionary perspective are no longer meeting major obstacles to disseminating their work.

Richard von Mises has a distinctly different perspective on social science and economics than his brother Ludwig von Mises.  He has little patience for the idea that economic theories are not subject to empirical testing: “mental reconstructions of observed facts must be tested to determine how far their consequences agree with continued observations.” Similarly, he does not reject the use of mathematics in economics and actually credits mathematical economics for offering “promising starting points for a rational treatment of economic problems.” In particular, von Mises praises John von Neumann and O. Morgenstern for introducing strategic behavior and expectations into economic theory. New Classical economists like Robert Lucas, Jr., later recognized that expectations cannot be ignored in macroeconomics either.

Von Mises closes his book with a number of chapters on morals, law, and religion. Not surprisingly, von Mises states that “…in spite of centuries of endeavor  one has so far not been successful in demonstrating any substantial ethical theorems that would enjoy unanimous recognition; and there is no hope that the goal of a “normative” ethic will be reached in in the future.” He argues against the idea that reason can discover objective normative rules and highlights the conventional and pragmatic nature of morals.  There is little in these chapters that could not have been written by contemporary authors. He ends his book by situating his perspective in the broader empiricist tradition and with a succinct summary of his own perspective.

It is fair to say that this book cannot compare with the rigorous writings of scholars like Rudolf Carnap or Hans Reichenbach, but it is doubtful that he aimed at such a work. His book is basically a plea for the scientific view of the world and how this approach applies to various topics. As such, his basic outlook on knowledge deserves study and recognition.

Richard von Mises has now been largely forgotten as a writer about knowledge but his general outlook is still alive. For example, despite the fact that the writings of his brother have seen multiple editions and reprints, there is a broad consensus that economics, or any social science, should be conducted as an empirical science. On matters of morality, serious scholars have become more interested in the evolutionary, psychological and social sources of moral conduct than the futile search for categorical imperatives. Most of all, much progress has been made in connecting the physical sciences and the humanities through modern evolutionary biology. In this sense, Richard’s perspective has clearly prevailed, albeit not to the degree that he would have preferred.

The atheist conservatism of Gustave Le Bon

As more scholars start recognizing the emerging “Secular Right” (or atheist conservatism) there will be increased research into the historical precedents of this phenomenon. There can be little doubt that these scholars will take a renewed interest in Gustave Le Bon.

Aside from the obligatory nod to his work on crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon is all but forgotten in the history of science and political thought. This is quite ironic since Le Bon’s prolific output was in no small measure motivated by his desire to establish broad recognition for his work. His writings were quite well read during his lifetime by the French population and (conservative) politicians, but, with the exception of his anti-clericalism, the core ideas that make up Le Bon’s work are now surrounded by great controversy and taboos.

It should not be surprising that mainstream conservatives have largely ignored Gustave Le Bon. Like most conservatives, Le Bon was hostile to socialism and big government. However, one of the defining characteristics of his oeuvre is that he identifies socialism as the modern expression of religious instinct. To Le Bon, Socialism and Christianity reflect the same kind of backwards irrational human psychology.

One would think that such an outlook would make him more acceptable to classical liberals, and indeed, there has been some interest from those quarters in Le Bon’s work. For example, in 1979, Liberty Fund published a selection of his works called Gustave  Le Bon: The Man and His Works, with an introduction by Alice Widener.  There is little evidence that this publication was a great success. Yes, Le Bon was horrified by the growth of government and the welfare state, but he was not a starry-eyed optimistic rights-based liberal either. As such, he has little in common with the rationalist Rand-Rothbard strand of libertarianism that has dominated classical liberalism to date.

What really makes Le Bon’s work problematic for modern conservatives and libertarians, not to mention progressives, is that it is heavily informed by biological concepts and extensive discussions about race. To Le Bon, it makes little sense to talk about “politics” or “the economy” without situating these topics in their specific ethnic and cultural context. This was not controversial during the time he was writing, but the strong emphasis he puts on these concepts does not make him the poster-child of the kind of blank slate universalism that informs most political ideologies. What also does not help Le Bon’s case is his generous use of medical pathological terminology to characterize developments in society and politics. Le Bon was deeply concerned about the prospect that democracy and universal suffrage would give rise to an unhealthy combination of populism and socialism, culminating in the general decline of society.

To my knowledge, little serious analysis of his work has been conducted in the English language. A notable exception is Robert Allen Nye’s dissertation, An Intellectual Portrait of Gustave Lebon: a Study of the Development and Impact of a Social Scientist in his Historical Setting (1969). This work contains a lot of interesting biographical and bibliographical information about Le Bon, but the rather explicit left-wing aim for writing this study excludes a more balanced approach.

For a writer who published around 40 volumes and 250 articles, not much is known about the youth of Le Bon. Nye even mentions that there has been some controversy about the question of whether he was really a medical doctor or not, but adds that some of the claims to the contrary may have been motivated by political animosity. It is a fact, however, that Le Bon published widely on biological and medical matters and even conducted ongoing experimental research throughout his life (reportedly, costing him his eyesight during his old age). In a letter to Albert Einstein he even claimed to have anticipated relativity. In turn, Einstein responded that no experimental nor mathematical proofs were being offered by Le Bon. Such confrontations with specialists in other fields were a defining feature of Le Bon’s productive life. Nye mentions that it was typical of Le Bon that he corrected the proofs of his last published article on the very morning of his death.

One of the tensions in Le Bon’s work is his explicit aim to be an objective scientist (of the secular, positivist variety) and his obvious atheist-conservative leanings. Unlike most people with political ideals, Le Bon thought that free will is an unscientific metaphysical construct that has no place in the study of man and society. This perspective, combined with his evolutionary outlook, explains why Le Bon had little confidence in the transformative nature of grandiose abstract ideas.

His physiological investigations led him to reject the fashionable view that all men are equal and only separated by educational opportunities. In fact, his work anticipates the current debate about the “education bubble” when he argues that most modern education has few lasting benefits (while creating a mass of potential public servants and resentment against capitalism) and should be replaced by more emphasis on real science, practical matters, and vocational skills. He has little confidence in the emerging science of sociology and advocates the study of physical anthropology and the comparative psychology of people instead. Le Bon has little sympathy for the works of Rousseau and associated theories about the innocence of primitive cultures. Interestingly, his hereditarian outlook also makes him suspicious of attempts to impose abstract political Western ideas on other cultures.

Advocates of the idea of natural rights will return empty handed from consulting his works. Ness quotes from Le Bon’s L’Homme et les Societies:

The idea that an individual has certain rights by the very virtue of the fact that he has entered the world is one of those infantile conceptions which easily take root in the brains of ignorant socialists.

It would be a mistake to assume that Le Bon’s interests in ethnic diversity were confined to making superficial general statements. During his lifetime he conducted experimental investigations into comparative physiology and skull size, published book-length studies on the Indian and the Arabian people, and even envisioned a ten volume Histoire des Civilizations. He also published a small volume of his work in differential social psychology called Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des Peuples (translated in English as The Psychology of Peoples), which, reportedly, was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite works.

With such a non-trivial output (most of which remains untranslated), it is difficult to exactly define Le Bon’s views on the role of the State. Le Bon was clearly influenced by the English classical economists and writers such as Herbert Spencer. In his view, “the true role of law is to codify custom” and the law should not be used to legislate happiness, impose confiscatory tax rates on the productive, or excessively interfere in people’s lives. Le Bon believed that by enforcing common law, which itself is the product of a gradual evolution to reconcile conflict of interest between people, the state will unify instead of divide people – as opposed to doctrines like socialism that preach inevitable conflict of interests between social classes. Nye writes, “the anti-socialist quest was, for Le Bon, something of a permanent character trait. It is not surprising that he became the symbol for many members of the French political and intellectual community of the struggle against collectivist ideology.”

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Vilfredo Pareto and even Ludwig von Mises (on von Mises and fascism, see Ralph Raico’s article), Le Bon at some point found himself forced to choose between Bolshevism and the growing fascist counter-movement. Not surprisingly, Le Bon sided with Benito Mussolini but his support was conditional and he retained his preference for a different kind of government:

It is better to undergo the anonymous dictatorship of the law than that of a chief – those who will not accept the first are compelled to undergo that of the second.

He hoped that the Fascism of Italy would simplify “the administrative machinery” while leaving “the maximum of liberty to private initiative.” Mussolini himself seemed to have been quite enamored with the works of Gustave Le Bon, strongly recommended his work to others, and considered The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, “an excellent work, to which I frequently refer.”

Le Bon’s writings on crowd psychology have often been associated with the rise of fascism and modern propaganda techniques. And indeed, Le Bon himself was hopeful that his insights could be used favorably by politicians who shared his outlook. But a closer inspection of his output reveals that Le Bon was not a stereotypical advocate of the totalitarian state but an atheist conservative with strong individualist and anti-collectivist tendencies. His secular social outlook, which aimed to merge the biological and social sciences, combined with a distinct Burkean skepticism about radical social change, fits right in with the concerns of today’s Secular Right.

What became of the degenerate?

In 1956, Richard D. Walter wrote a peculiar article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences called What Became of the Degenerate? A Brief History of a Concept, in which he reviews the use of the term degenerate as a biological and social concept. Most of the literature on this topic was produced in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the field of sociology the topic of social degeneration was treated by Max Nordau in his famous book Entartung [Degeneration] (1892). Naturally, when this term is used in a social context there is room for vigorous debate. Nicholas Murray Butler, who wrote an introduction to a book called Regeneration, a reply to Max Nordau (1896), considered Nordau himself “an abnormality and a pathological type.”

The subject of degeneration was also important to the early 20th century eugenicists in books such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong’s The Survival of the Unfittest (1929).

Walter concludes that “though the original concepts of Morel, Lombroso, and Nordau have become obsolete, the phenomena that degeneracy attempted to explain are still of great current interest and far from completely understood. In today’s concepts of the etiology of psychiatric disease, the old dichotomy of nurture versus nature still appears under more subtle terms, though today’s emphasis is upon nurture. This also applies to the subject of criminology, as well as the larger areas termed race and culture.”

In a 1902 textbook of zoology the authors can still write on the topic of human degeneration:

Human degeneration. It is not proposed in these  pages to discuss the application of the laws of animal life  to man. But each and every one extends upward, and can  be traced in the relation of men and society. Thus, among  men as among animals, self-dependence favors complexity  of power. Dependence, parasitism, quiescence favor degeneration. Degeneration means loss of complexity, the  narrowing of the range of powers and capabilities. It is  not necessarily a phase of disease or the precursor of death.  But as intellectual and moral excellence are matters associated with high development in man, dependence is unfavorable to them.

Degeneration has been called animal pauperism. Pauperism in all its forms, whether due to idleness, pampering,  or misery, is human degeneration. It has been shown that  a large part of the criminality and pauperism among men  is hereditary, due to the survival of the tendency toward  living at the expense of others. The tendency to live without self-activity passes from generation to generation.  Beggary is more profitable than unskilled and inefficient  labor, and our ways of careless charity tend to propagate  the beggar. That form of charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful is an incentive toward degeneration. Withdrawal from the competition of life, withdrawal  from self-helpful activity, aided by the voluntary or involuntary assistance of others these factors bring about degeneration. The same results follow in all ages and with all races, with the lower animals as with men.

One can only wonder what the authors would  think about contemporary society in light of such phenomena as the “withdrawal from the competition of life” and “charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful.”

Liberal creationism, the unity of nature, and ideology

In his book Feminism and Freedom the philosopher Michael Levin writes:

One usually thinks of creationism as a doctrine for religious fundamentalists, but from a methodological point of view, belief in the special creation of the human species is entailed by any refusal to apply evolutionary theory to man. It is irrelevant whether this refusal is sustained by a literalistic reading of scripture or committment to a secular ideology. Indeed, a case can be made that religious critics of Darwin display a stronger sense of the unity of nature than do scientific critics of innateness in man. This is most especially true of scientists like Richard Lewontin and Steven Jay Gould, who take a wholly naturalistic stance toward all living creatures apart from man (and are prepared to use the theory of evolution polemically in ideological debate), yet reject all but the most trivial comparisons of other living creatures to man. (p. 66-67)

In ‘Who is Against Evolution?’, the economist David Friedman also discusses the phenomenon that most people who are against teaching creationism tend to avoid and discourage discussing the human implications of evolution:

People who say they are against teaching the theory of evolution are very likely to be Christian fundamentalists. But people who are against taking seriously the implications of evolution, strongly enough to want to attack those who disagree, including those who teach those implications, are quite likely to be on the left.

To them evolution is good for explaining animal behavior, but using the same tools to explain human behavior, let alone letting it influence public policy, is considered repulsive. It may not be a coincidence that the taboo on discussing human behavior in an evolutionary context parallels the growth of government. A strict “environmentalist” position is more compatible with large scale tinkering  and calls for “change” than a view of human nature that accepts limits to the malleability of man.

In fact, all three major political ideologies mostly ignore man as a biological organism. Most conservatives object to evolutionary arguments due to religious convictions or out of fear of being labeled “reductionist.” Progressives generally abhor (and often suppress) biological arguments in political philosophy and public policy altogether. And libertarian-leaning economists feel more comfortable with discussing man as an undifferentiated rational agent despite the clear fact that biology (and associated disciplines like genetics and neuroscience) stands on much firmer scientific ground than many other sciences that inform contemporary public policy. One wonders whether this phenomenon should be attributed to a general aversion of ideologues to biology or whether this is just a transient, irrational, response to the abuse of biological arguments by totalitarian regimes during the first half of the 20th century.

Into the Darkness

In 1940 the American author Lothrop Stoddard published an account of wartime Nazi Germany called “Into the Darkness.” Although the book is supposed to be an objective account, it is not difficult to note the restraint the author needs to exercise to not be more critical, if not scathing, about many aspects of the Nazi regime. But with a few exceptions, the style of the book is clinical and dry, which make his descriptions of the effects of the Nazi economy even bleaker.

Because Stoddard devotes a lot of space to describe Germany as it is experienced by the average German family, we learn a lot about the  effects of the socialist war economy on the freedom and wealth of its citizens. Stoddard wrote his account in 1939 and one can only imagine the devastation the socialist war state was about to inflict on its citizens when the accumulated effects of socialism,  repression, war, and international isolation fully materialized. As such, Stoddard’s book makes a good empirical companion to Ludwig von Mises’ “Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. (1944),” a classical liberal critique of Nazi Germany.

The title of the book refers both to the perception of Nazi Germany in the US and the war imposed blackouts. The blackouts, the winter cold, and the shortages of even the most basic necessities (let alone luxury goods) do not always produce a content journalist. It is telling that when the author expresses sincere enthusiasm, it is when he leaves Nazi Germany for neutral Hungary:

“Until we reached the border, of course, the windows were kept tightly curtained. Then the train stopped, started, stopped once more. Cautiously I peeked past a corner of the curtain. We were in a brilliantly lighted station bearing the big neon sign Hegyeshalom. On the platform stood policemen and railway officials in strange uniforms. Through the uncurtained windows of the station I could see a restaurant with counters laden with foodstuffs. I was in Hungary–a land of peace and plenty! Standing up in my compartment, I gave three loud Ellyens! Which is Magyar for Hooray!

To enter Hungary from wartime Germany is literally to pass from darkness into light. The sense of this grew upon me with every kilometer the train made toward Budapest, the Hungarian capital….Another wonder was the approach to Budapest–a great city twinkling and sparkling with lights. To one fresh from blacked-out Germany, it seemed like fairyland.”

In the final chapter the author reflects:

There are so many genial aspects of American life which we thoughtlessly take for granted until we are suddenly deprived of them and are plunged into alien surroundings where we have to fuss and plan and almost fight to get the bare necessities of existence.