The Long View 2007-03-30: Human Nature, Human Rights, Iranian Motives, Goodbye Bees

This is a fun one: I hadn’t remember that John J. Reilly referenced Greg Cochran and John Hawks in 2007.

John also mentions a fairly standard criticism of any attempt to understand human behavior in terms of evolution, the Just So Stories of Kipling. It is sometimes true that such explanations are just ad hoc rationalizations in the mode of fiction, but the charge tends to get used regardless of the merits of the original argument.

A more interesting thing is that many of the most interesting arguments about understanding human behavior in light of evolution and genetics is that the best arguments are often taking advantage of final and formal causation to argue that we can understand something to be true without knowing a detailed mechanism, which then causes the truest of true believers in the supremacy of efficient causes to point and splutter.

Also, I find it a little sad that there have been rumors of war with Iran for the last twelve years at least. Give it up already.


Human Nature, Human Rights, Iranian Motives, Goodbye Bees

Conservatives can appropriate Darwinism in any of several ways. The least problematical is at the intersection of culture and demographics: certain cultural regimes seem to be inconsistent with maintaining the magic replacement-fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. In this sense, the conservative agenda will have succeeded in all essentials on the day when the phrase "The Darwin Award Agenda" principally calls to mind terms like "same-sex marriage" or "reproductive rights." However, there is also a Darwinian conservatism that aspires to make use of the full resources of sociobiology. Larry Arnhart's blog, Darwinian Conservatism, is an able presentation of this position.

There are two points that anyone interested in following this line of thought should consider. The first is one associated with most applications of "applied Darwinism": the explanations often look suspiciously like Just So Stories. There is also this point: maybe human nature ain't what it used to be:

Human evolution has been speeding up tremendously, a new study contends—so much, that the latest evolutionary changes seem to largely eclipse earlier ones that accompanied modern man’s “origin.” ....The authors are Cochran and anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin Madison. “Holocene [from -10K years ago] changes were similar in pattern and... faster than those at the archaic-modern transition,” A “thing that should probably worry people is that brains have been getting smaller for 20,000 to 30,000 years,” said Cochran. But brain size and intelligence aren't tightly linked, he added. Also, growth in more advanced brain areas might have made up for the shrinkage, Cochran said; he speculated that an al­most breakneck evolution of higher foreheads in some peoples may reflect this. A study in the Jan. 14 British Dental Journal found such a trend visible in England in just the past millennium, he noted, a mere eye­blink in evolutionary time. ...[I]n a 2000 book The Riddled Chain..[b]ased on computer models, [John McKee] argued that evolution should speed up as a population grows...Many of the changes found in the genome or fossil record reflect metabolic alterations to adjust to agricultural life, Cochran said. Other changes simply make us weaker.

In the June 2003 issue of the research journal Current Anthropology, Helen Leach of the University of Otago, New Zealand wrote that skeletons from some populations in the human lineage have undergone a progressive shrinkage and weakening, and reduction in tooth size, similar to changes seen in domesticated animals. Humans seem to have domesticated themselves, she argued, causing physical as well as mental changes.

Never let anyone scare you with visions of the human race being replaced by artifacts. We are the artifacts.

* * *

"Human Rights" has become an Orwellian term, according to Joseph Bottum First Things:

“Peace is a communist plot,” Irving Kristol used to observe back during the Cold War...every organization with the word peace in its title was a communist front...the equation holds as true now as did then: Human rights are a communist plot, and international human rights are an international communist plot...Well, maybe not communist...Some amorphous radical leftism is clearly afloat in the world. Generally undefined in philosophy, economics, or eschatology, it seems nonetheless able to unite the most unlikely bedfellows: terrorists, and sexual-transgression artists, and agitators for radical Islam, and abortion activists, and third-world dictators—anybody, anywhere, who thinks there’s an advantage to be gained from claiming that the West is wrong. And they can always join under a banner emblazoned with that noble phrase “human rights.”

There is something to this, particularly at those United Nations agencies where the foxes are in firm possession of the chicken coops. Still, we should remember the insistence by the United States that the Helsinki Accords of 1975 contain a human-rights plank. The Soviet Union had wanted the Accords to set in stone the Cold War division of Europe, but the human-rights plank delegitimized the European Marxist regimes in a mere 15 years.

What's the difference between "human rights" as principles that protect freedom and "human rights" as an ideology that justifies enslavement and promotes extinction? About this, Dinesh D'Souza was perfectly correct: the civil liberties that the Founding Fathers understood are workable and almost universally attractive; the social engineering projects that come out of the transnational human rights industry are disliked and dysfunctional. Could the distinction be as simple as the one that Oliver Wendell Holmes proposed, that between procedural and substantive rights?

* * *

Speaking of catchy turns of phrase, was Vox Day the first to refer to the US presidency as The Cherry Blossom Throne?

* * *

About the Iranian seizure of British sailors in the Persian Gulf, Time Magazine has this to say in connection with the question, Is a U.S.-Iran War Inevitable?:

This week Iranian diplomats are telling interlocutors that, yes, they realize seizing the Brits could lead to a hot war. But, they point out, it wasn't Iran that started taking hostages — it was the U.S., when it arrested five members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Erbil in Northern Iraq on January 11. They are diplomats, the Iranians insist. They were in Erbil with the approval of the Kurds and therefore, they argue, are under the protection of the Vienna Convention.

Iranian grievances, real and perceived, don't stop there. Tehran is convinced the U.S. or one of its allies was behind the March 2006 separatist violence in Iranian Baluchistan, which ended up with 20 people killed, including an IRGC member executed. And the Iranians believe there is more to come, accusing the U.S. of training and arming Iranian Kurds and Azeris to go back home and cause problems. Needless to say the Iranians are not happy there are American soldiers on two of its borders, as well as two carriers and a dozen warships in the Gulf. You call this paranoia? they ask.

Actually, I would call the Iranians mendacious, and I would call the editors of Time that, too, were not honest stupidity a more economical explanation. Surely the only explanation the incident requires is that the recent votes in the US Congress to, in effect, lose the war in Iraq by a date certain show that US hegemony is evaporating; the Iranians took the sailors to demonstrate that Iran can now act with impunity, and the states of the region should restructure their foreign policies accordingly.

I suspect that that Iran will release the sailors in short order; the Iranians probably believe their point has been made. Of course, it is possible that Iran wants a war now, believing that, however much damage they suffer at first, the US and UK will be unable, for domestic reasons, to sustain it for more than a few days.

* * *

Any reader of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy can read these reports only with great distress:

Across the country, honey bees are disappearing by the thousands. ...

“This is unique in that bees are disappearing,” Hayes said. “The hives are empty. You don’t see dead bodies. The colony, over time, dwindles until you don’t see anything left in the colony.”

So long, thanks for all the gardens?

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-07-17: More on Chesterton & Harry Potter

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

It is a fun thought experiment to imagine what G. K. Chesterton would have said about the Iraq War of 2003. John was right to note that Chesterton was no kind of pacifist. After all, he wrote a poem commemorating the Battle of Lepanto. However, he also had a fierce love of the small and local, and a great distaste for the grandiose and puffed up. Thus, he loved England, and wasn't overly fond of the British Empire.

Chesterton was a supporter of the Great War, even though his younger brother Cecil was among its casualties. At this remote distance, that war seems like it was a really, really bad idea. On the other hand, he was also a fierce critic of the Boer War, which was a nasty little imperial war that richly deserved skewering. Ultimately, I'm not sure I know what Chesterton might have thought.

I do think that Chesterton would have shared John's horror of chaos and anarchy. And like John, I think Mad Max is becoming the future we are more likely to face than 1984.


More on Chesterton & Harry Potter

Continuing in my reading of G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography for insight into the Anti-Terror Wars, I find that it would be misleading to equate his "anti-imperialism" with that of the critics of US policy today. His ideas on the subject would not at all please the folks at Antiwar. He was, in fact, far more belligerent than Samuel Huntington, who merely described the "clash of civilizations" without actually advocating it. Consider this passage:

[H. G. Wells] defends the only sort of war I thoroughly despise, the bullying of small states for their oil or gold; and he despises the only sort of war that I really defend, a war of civilizations and religions, to determine the moral destiny of mankind.

If Chesterton were alive today, he would have opposed the war in Iraq if he thought that it was primarily about oil. That was much the reason he opposed the Boer War, which really was chiefly about gaining complete control of southern Africa's gold and diamonds. If he were convinced that the Iraq campaign were part of a larger war against Islamicism, he would certainly have supported it. He would also have relished the way the war outraged the world's progressives. In his view, there "is only a thin sheet of paper between" internationalists and imperialists.

Does this mean that he could have been a happy contributor to The Weekly Standard, or even The Daily Telegraph? Possibly not. Certainly he was leery of the principle of preemption in foreign policy. He tells a parable about a householder who shoots a burglar, whom the householder discovered in his garden. Chesterton finds this use of force commendable, but he distinguishes the case from preemption:

If [the householder] had gone out to purify the world by shooting all possible burglars, it would not have been a defensive war. And it would not have been a defensible one.

There is no satisfaction in arguing with the dead: the silliest title in my library is A Challenge to C.S. Lewis, written more than a decade after Lewis died. Still, I might say to Chesterton's shade that he was right, but his example is beside the point. For the most part, the burglars in other people's gardens are no concern of the private householder. On the other hand, when you pay taxes to support a police force, you are in effect waging war against all possible burglars. Also, some societies have legal systems that rely on the self-organization of citizens. Ancient Iceland worked like that; so does the international system today. It is possible to be responsible for other people's burglars. The question is: who is the legitimate authority?

Chesterton was not pleased at the prospect of such an authority on a global scale, unless perhaps it were the Vatican. Ever the anti-pacifist, he was a keen supporter of the First World War from the beginning. He never wavered from that position, even after most of his friends had decided the war was a mistake or a crime. However, for him the war was about the defense of small nations, and the need to humble the pride of Prussia. He resisted rationales that were more, well, global:

But I am far from certain that a War to End War would have been just. I am far from certain that, even if anybody could prevent all protest or defiance under arms, offered by anybody anywhere under any provocation, it would not be an exceedingly wicked thing to do.

Anyone who has read H. G. Wells's Things to Come (1933) knows exactly the wickedness that Chesterton had in mind. That book is essentially a retelling of The War of the Worlds, except that the conquerors are armed Fabians, and their victory is complete, permanent, and, in Wells's view, the best possible outcome. The problem with Chesterton's objection is that it is not an objection to world government, but to government.

Possibly because of the period in which I grew up, anarchy has to me to be the greater danger. When I was a small child, too young to read 1984, the H. G. Wells world of totalitarian regimentation no doubt seemed a pressing danger. By the time the year 1984 arrived, however, the real danger seemed to be the world of Mad Max. It still does.

* * *

A final note about Chesterton: For someone who did not purport to be a systematic thinker, GKC actually did a pretty good job of not contradicting himself. Nonetheless, he rarely expressed his basic insights in sustained argument. He would have been outraged at the comparison, no doubt, but his style was really not so different from Nietzsche's: heavy on the aphorisms and paradoxes, short on theory. Nietzsche favored aphorisms because he was skeptical about the thought itself. Chesterton, in contrast, was a sort of Thomist: he was ideologically committed to the principle that abstract formulas can embody reality. His reluctance to make sustained theoretical argument seems to have grown out of his attachment to the particular, the local, the personal. One of the advantages to Thomism is that it provides assurance that the finite can indeed reflect the infinite.

* * *

Perhaps there has already been enough discussion of the deep significance of Harry Potter, but I could not resist following a link to this title: Harry Potter and the Future of Europe. The article, by Jeff Fountain, argues on the basis of personal experience that the Potter books really are a sign of the times:

While using techniques of magic and mythical creatures, Christian fantasy writers like Lewis and Tolkien develop their imaginary worlds within their own personal commitment to orthodox Christian belief in a sovereign God. Rowling does not share that commitment. Although she denies any personal belief in the magic her books portray, she still tells her readers, "It’s important to remember that we all have magic inside of us."

Unlike these Christian fantasies, Harry Potter is a post-Christian creation set within an occult cosmology. And his phenomenal popularity among young and old signals where our western culture seems to be headed.

This is very similar to the point about the the resilience of the "Perennial Philosophy" that I raised some years ago in a review of Robertson Davies' book, The Cunning Man. In fact, back in 1986, Owen Thomas suggested in Christianity Today that the real competitor for Christianity in the West was never Marxism or materialism, but a sort of neoplatonism.

Was Quidditch all it took to get Plotinus to the best-seller slot on Amazon?

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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