Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Good, The Bad, and the Scientists Who Don't Know the Difference

     One of the things I’ve been giving a bit of thought to, as I begin to contemplate retiring and not doing the stuff that I’ve been doing for the last few decades, is the biggest gap in my own education. I take no responsibility at all for the gap, for it is totally not my fault: I am the victim of a good science education that gave me no moral education. Like other scientifically-trained scholars, moral arguments intimidate me, I don’t know how to construct them and I don’t know how to evaluate them. I just know, like other scientists, that I’m good and I'm right and that you are a fucking asshole for doubting it.

    Looking back on the beginning of my career, which is what one does at this stage, I realize that there were three things I was most concerned with thirty years ago, aside from my actual lab research. These were questions involving:

(1) Racist science  

(2) Dishonest science


(3) Colonial science

    In retrospect, all three of these were linked by the moral question in science. Right and wrong, good and evil.  But having no background in philosophy or theology, I lacked the intellectual framework to understand my own interests, much less any vocabulary with which to describe them. The point is that scientists are expected to develop into moral beings without any education in it, which seems opposed to the rest of both education and the history of our species.

    Yet the public positions I adopted early in my career, which made me a dangerous radical to the older farts in physical anthropology, aren’t so radical any more, at least within contemporary biological anthropology. But some of our colleagues in cognate fields are a bit behind us, and it can be very frustrating to argue about basic moral issues with biologists, who have as little training in the subject as I do. Many of them, after all, spend their lives torturing vermin like fruit flies in order to unravel the mysteries of life. Is it worth it? Sure, ok, yeah, torment the damn flies for the good of science. 

    Back in 1871, John Murray in London published a very important two-volume work on human ancestry. The intellectual times and context were important. There was an important question out there, being debated by first-generation evolutionary biologists.  The Bible clearly states that Adam and Eve were placed in a garden, to till the field. Where, then, did hunter-gatherers come from? Were modern foragers degenerate descendants of the biblical horticulturists? Or were the foragers primordial, and the biblical story simply wrong?

    That question had been definitively answered by Darwin’s neighbor, John Lubbock, in his Pre-Historic Times (1865). Those times had been times of foraging, and they preceded agricultural times.  But that raised a second question: What of the living hunter-gatherers? What’s the matter with them? Why are they even there? The first Darwinian answer to that question came from the German Darwinian, Ernst Haeckel, in 1868. To Haeckel, the difference between the “savage” and the European was zoological. They were different species altogether.  In fact, Haeckel argued, savages should not even be classified with people; they should be classified with apes. But don’t take my word for it. Here's the English translation of 1876.

If one must draw a sharp boundary between them, it has to be drawn between the most highly developed and civilized man on the one hand, and the rudest savages on the other, and the latter have to be classed with the animals.

Lovely guy, Haeckel. And a great Darwinian. A credit to his field. Remember that line when you admire his artwork. Now his explanation for the existence of savages has a lot of biopolitical implications, which we need not dwell on here. Suffice it to say that it was not regarded as a very satisfactory answer in much of the rest of the scholarly community. 

    The next year, 1869, another first-generation Darwinian took a crack at the question: Why were there still savages?  Alfred Russel Wallace acknowledged that savages were smart. In fact, he reasoned, they were too smart. The savage has a brain as large and powerful as that of an Englishman, reasoned Wallace, but the savage doesn’t need it. It doesn’t take much brains to be a savage. And yet the savage has a brain. Moreover, most of human prehistory involved brainy savages, who evolved by natural selection. And yet, natural selection can’t make an organ that the body doesn’t use. So if apes evolved into savages, that process must have involved the acquisition of a big brain that natural selection couldn’t make because the savages don’t need or use it. 

    So if natural selection didn’t produce the big powerful brain that separates savages from apes (and allies them with Europeans, contra Haeckel) then what did produce that big unused brain?

The brain of pre- historic and of savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power, distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.

You know what produced it. And Who. It was a miracle. From God.

    Charles Darwin wrote to him, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”

    So by 1870 the Darwinians were batting 0 for 2 in trying to explain the evolutionary relationship between savages and civilized people. Which brings us up to 1871 again, and the publication by John Murray of that very important two-volume work on human ancestry. Of course the author was Edward B. Tylor and the book was Primitive Culture.

    What Tylor did in Primitive Culture (1871) was to give yet a third explanation for the difference between the savage and civilized person. It was not a distinction of biological evolution, as Haeckel had it in 1868. Nor was it a distinction of supernatural evolution, as Wallace had it in 1869. Nope, in 1871 it was a distinction of cultural evolution. That was the correct, and ultimately paradigmatic, answer.

    Also, Darwin published The Descent of Man that year. And sadly, it doesn’t stand up much better under a modern reading than Tylor’s Primitive Culture does. They’re both quaint, insightful, and important in their time and place, and dated now. But what makes them all of those things? Graduate students should definitely try to find out with careful, critical readings.

    And that brings me to the direct inspiration for this rant. A few weeks ago, Agustín Fuentes, with whom I agree on the great majority of things I hold a professional opinion about, published an editorial in Science. Science is the leading scientific journal in America, and a guest editorial in it is way up high on the prestige scale. You can bet they vetted the essay pretty carefully. And they published it with some of Fuentes's pretty uncontroversial assessments, like these.

“Descent” is often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious. Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking in describing human evolutionary outcomes. But for much of the book, he was not. “Descent,” like so many of the scientific tomes of Darwin's day, offers a racist and sexist view of humanity....

Today, students are taught Darwin as the “father of evolutionary theory,” a genius scientist. They should also be taught Darwin as an English man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience.

No book on any science from 1871 stands up scientifically today. If you read a science book from 1871 you are probably reading it because someone told you it was important, and maybe it was. But you will have to probe to find what identifies it as a classic, and while you get there, you will struggle through the intellectual primitiveness of the work itself. And it will hopefully be a rewarding exercise, and then you can go back to reading the pdfs on line of the articles that aren’t even published yet in your favorite journals.

    Alas, there are some scientists out there who don’t countenance any critical reading of Darwin. Any criticism of Darwin is fodder for creationists, and therefore he must be defended at all costs. Which is pretty much what the Darwinian All-Stars managed to splutter out in their angry letter to the editor

    But first, let's go over the Darwinian All-Stars lineup. Leading off? Psychologist Andrew Whiten. Second, Walter Bodmer. That's right, Sir Walter Fucking Bodmer. Third, the geneticists: Brian and Deborah Charlesworth and Jerry Coyne. Next, psychologist Frans de Waal. And then six more of them, because, one supposes, something about group selection. And what is their top complaint?

We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices... 

    Now if you bothered to read Fuentes's essay (and here's the link again), you may be puzzled by their use of the adjective "vituperative". Let's just assume for the sake of parsimony that they don't know what the word means.

    So anything that we perceive as critical of Darwin must be suppressed, because it may aid the creationists. That is about the most pathetic admission of abject failure on the part of science educators that I have ever encountered. These scientists have been so unsuccessful in convincing the American public we evolved from apes, that they are going to respond by placing Darwin on a pedestal and reading his 19th century sexist and colonialist views uncritically. Good lord, could they possibly sound more like a cult?

    Without belaboring the essay or the response, I want to shift back to the general moral question in science. I’m expending a little bit of mental energy here pondering what appears to be scientists trying to shield students from confronting sexism, racism, and colonialism in scientific literature. That is an amazing corner to paint yourself into, rather like being anti-antifa, which would seem to be the equivalent of pro-fascist. 

    But to return to the moral question. While Darwin was rewriting the Journal of Researches (aka The Voyage of the Beagle) there was a lot going on politically, and the 1845 second edition contains a digression about how slavery really and truly sucks: 

if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin... It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

And folks have from time to time, trotted out that passage to show what a socially concerned and morally advanced fellow Darwin was.

    But let’s look a bit more closely at that thought. I think we would agree with Darwin (and even with his imaginary interlocutors, who are trivializing slavery by comparing it to mere poverty) that if the misery of the poor is due to our institutions, then great is our sin. But let’s turn the thought around. Suppose the misery of the poor is indeed actually due to the laws of nature. Then what? Fuck them and their misery, because at least we haven’t sinned?

    Darwin’s moral thinking here isn’t very moral at all. It’s weirdly amoral. The point Darwin is making is that slavery is much worse than mere poverty, no matter how much some people may try to equate them. Fair enough. But isn't there a problem with poverty too? The proper reaction to the misery of the poor is to work to alleviate it, not to try and figure out who to blame for it. Darwin is less concerned with the suffering and misery of the poor than he is about the cleanliness of his own soul, and perhaps that of his entire economic class (“our”).  And here is the moral problem for future generations: If the issue is who caused the misery, not how do we alleviate the misery, then that places a scientific premium on showing that at least you aren’t the cause of that misery.

    Which is why Charles Davenport blamed genes, C. C. Brigham blamed IQ scores, and Charles Murray blames them both. The important thing is to somehow blame the misery of the poor on “the laws of nature,” rather than on “our institutions”. For then, not only is “our” social class blameless, but we have used science to answer the unthreatening question we posed, yet actually done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor, regardless of why the fuck it’s there.

    The suffering is the problem, its etiology is secondary.

    That is a moral statement, however, and I don’t know how to defend it. Which is why I’m angry at my scientific education. And from the look of things, at a lot of other people’s scientific education as well.

    But this is funny. What had gotten me interested in scientific fraud was the DNA hybridization work of Sibley and Ahlquist back in the 1980s. Sibley is long dead, but Jon Ahlquist only expired recently, and his passing was noted ruefully by the creationists. You see, after a career falsifying data and committing scientific sins, it seems as though Ahlquist gave his life to Jesus, to absolve himself and atone for them.

    Well, that was convenient.


  1. Do you think there is still a lingering belief that the Neolithic revolution - and subsequent "civilizations" were caused by smarter people, or people who were making better use of their brains? If so, might this account for the continuing attempts to debunk the evidence that hunter-gatherer economies supply more than competent?

    The consensus that they are generally egalitarian, offer more than adequate food and leisure, associated with knowledge of ecological principles only now being rediscovered by "modern" science. I once interviewed a women in the Kalahari who was over a hundred years old, and she described to me, in detail, how elephants redistributed marula trees, and how their flocking to go to groves of these trees, to get drunk on fallen fermented fruit, meant that hunting elephants was a bad idea. People, "like us" - she explained, indicating the households in her camping party - "want marula fruit too!". Then she told me about having to cover herself in dirt and elephant dung in order to pass by the encampments of BaTswana soldiers in the valley below to get water from the nearest pan.

    I looked it up in the archives, and found that there had been a number of battles between Two neighbouring Tswana tribes in that area in the 1890s. This woman was a young teenager at that time, and, like the other women going to fetch water, did not want to be sexually targeted.

    Does any of this sound like the behaviour of empty-headed savages? And yet certain archaeologists have suggested that what we learn from Kalahari hunter-gatherers gives no insight, provides no basis for interpretation of prehistoric hunter-gatherers because they are not "pristine". Other anthropologists claim that the ranking, that emerges in more sedentary (delayed return) hunter-gatherer economies, is proof of incipient inegalitarian tendencies. I looked into this among pastoral and horticultural economies, organized into ranked lineages, in West Africa, and found that high social rank did not indicate wealth or power, but rather responsibility to manage surpluses so that no one in the community was ever without food or shelter, even in longer droughts. So indigenous "tribal" people in nomadic pastoralist, and slash and burn farming, economies appear to have developed ranking as collective risk insurance. Very committed to egalitarian principles, I think. And yet people in all these pre-agricultural/pre-state political economies were the ones called "savages" and demeaned, and not just by European colonialists. People in every "civilization" appear to have developed unflattering language and beliefs about the people they were about to exploit or overrun in order to keep sucking resources into the black holes constituted by urban centres and the ruling classes that emerged there.

    1. Oh, there are definitely economists out there trying to demonstrate genetic differences between the gene pools of post-inustrial nations and the rest of the world. And if you read the internet blog comments about Fuentes's Science essay, with the scientists mocking "wokeness" and "post-modernism," you can legitimately ask where on earth they think they are positioning themselves politically and morally.

  2. oops.. I tried to edit that last line int he first paragraph but it seems to have disappeared. It should read:
    If so, might this account for the continuing attempts to debunk the evidence that hunter-gatherer economies are more than competent at suppying food and health?