Politics and evolution

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A [URL = http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/000568.html]recent blog by Matt Young[/URL] has more than a few folk upset. I am not upset, exactly, but I do not agree with the way he characterised the political spectrum, or the general features of the parochial duopoly he has drawn from American party politics. Most of all, though, I object to the notion that biology, in particular evolution, has any warrant in such debates at all.

In the 1970s, as many will recall, sociobiology was all the go; even to the extent of getting a Time Magazine cover story. Sociobiology was almost rabidly attacked by the Left for being, as they saw it, an apologia for the Racist Right. The heat generated did not result in much subsequent light. We don’t need this played out again in the context of neurobiology or evolutionary psychology.

If there are social facts that depend upon biology, they apply equally for those on the right as for those on the left, as Peter Singer argued in his A Darwinian Left. Yes, one has to care to make a rational choice, as Damasio, quoted by Matt, noted. A totally inert reasoning device, whether human or not, will make no judgments at all, worse than Buridan’s Ass. But it does not follow that biology will determine the choices made.

Apart from the contextual and extremely local division of political views into “liberal” and “conservative” based on the American major parties, which in the rest of the world is regarded as a division between moderate conservatism and slightly less moderate conservatism, the idea there is some kind of psychological underpinning to such views is, to speak frankly, silly.

There are those who would change things, and those who would hold things as they are, but is this mappable to American political partisan politics? The Bush Administration has made a great many changes; often the Democrats, from a foreigner’s perspective, strive to maintain the status quo. Neither party seems to an outsider to have a monopoly on progressivist reform or serving special interest groups - the groups that are served are different, that is all.

Some time back, Frank Sulloway, a noted scholar of Darwinism and a psychologist, attempted to map political attitudes to birth order and family structure on the assumption that there was a single strategy in play that was employed to maximize parental investment (in [URL =http://www.sulloway.org/borntorebel.html] Born to Rebel, 1996[/URL]). Unlike the account Matt presents, that attitudes reflect one’s underlying personality traits - conservatives lack empathy, liberals have it), Sulloway stresses that we all have the same psychology, and we employ it to maximize our place in the family, and subsequent society. It at least does not make a monster of those we dislike.

But to demonize any political attitude, and worse, to identify support for a party on that basis, strikes me as questionable indeed. And unnecessary. The political landscape is much more complex, nuanced and overall complex than the simple split given here - political parties represent resources for expression of these complex ideas, not hard ideological positions. Hence they act as “attractor basins”, to use the jargon of chaos theory. Ending up in one party or another is no clear indicator of the sorts of ideas one holds; merely of the place where one began.

This is my opinion, which, like anyone else’s is worth what you paid for it, but given that Matt seems to be tying Darwinism in here with a particular political attitude, I thought it was worth saying.

And as a side note, there is no such thing as “social Darwinism” either, as the historian [URL = http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/rb[…]preface.html]Robert Bannister[/URL] argued in his 1978 book Social Darwinism: Science and Myth. Instead, he says, and backs up with historical documentation, it is a term used to demonize one’s opponents. And this is what is happening here, I suspect.

42 Comments

And as a side note, there is no such thing as “social Darwinism” either, as the historian Robert Bannister argued in his 1978 book Social Darwinism: Science and Myth. Instead, he says, and backs up with historical documentation, it is a term used to demonize one’s opponents. And this is what is happening here, I suspect.

I disagree strongly with this statement - there are some people who belives in social Darwinism, arguing that it is only proper that people who can’t manage on their own dies, as it will make for a stronger society. It might not be properly founded in biology, but as a political movement, it exists (though, thankfully it’s rare).

Thank you for a good and well-reasoned commentary. I quite agree, by the way, that the 2 American parties are near right and far right, and that is why I tried to define my terms the way I did - to include European social democrats as “liberals.” I realize that “liberal” elsewhere has a different meaning, but here in the US, where there is no functioning left wing, people who might have been considered moderate conservatives before the 1970’s or 80’s are now called liberals. If you don’t believe me, try to remember the last time you heard the term, “liberal Republican.” You don’t hear it any more because they are now called “Democrats.”

I did not mean to imply that biology is everything - just that it matters. The rational decision you think you are making is colored by your deep-held emotions. I think it was Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, who practically despaired of deciding who’s right because of the wide gulf between different people’s starting points. The left is not immune from self-interest, but I still think that the far right has a hypertrophied self-interest and fails to recognize the needs of, for example, wage earners. The first step in overcoming your self-interest is recognizing it.

“Impressionism” (in painting) was initially a derisive term coined by the enemies of impressionism. Therefore there is no such thing as impressionism? I think not. Likewise social Darwinism.

“Social Darwinism” always evaulates as a justification, used by those in positions of advantage, to justify those positions. One never finds those currently among the have-nots attributing their situation to inferiority of any kind except temporary misfortune. Nor is there any persuasive evidence that disadvantage is either permanent or biological. There are political and cultural structures that impose class systems, but “lower class” individuals and families relocated to more socially mobile societies do not long remain particularly low. I read that in the US, the bottom 20% economically experiences a turnover of over 90% every five years. So disadvantage is NOT a biological side-effect. It’s cultural.

Hopefully most people here have learned the lesson Gould’s Mismeasure of Man taught so clearly – any biological differences between members of different political persuasions are artifacts of a measurement methodology created to find such differences, whether or not they exist. There’s no indication they exist, and fairly clear indications that they do not. Individuals tend to become more conservative (in Matt Young’s terms) as they age, but not because of organic changes in the brain, but because of changes in economic circumstances.

Perhaps Matt Young is indeed young, and the day will come when he has an epiphany, and suddenly realizes that conservatives have an essential insight he wasn’t yet ready to see. Perhaps that insight is that one’s goal is not to “overcome” one’s self interest, but to implement it!

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Fiona:

Humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels, the spread of cities, the destruction of natural habitats for farmland and over-exploitation of the oceans are destroying Earth’s ability to sustain life

Well now, if this is true (and most of it surely is), then we are NOT acting in our self-interest. It’s a matter of how enlightened our self-interest is. I’m not persuaded by some people’s claims that their political leanings (yay!) somehow render them more enlightened than those of the enemy camp (boo! hiss!).

For my part, I started to make sacrifices years ago. I conserve water to an extent that shocks houseguests, I gave up driving and started walking, I refused to have children and adopt stray animals instead, I donate money I can barely afford to ecological charities, and on and on.

And in so doing, you are making a better world for everyone, right? I hope you understand that those this blog works so hard to combat tend to share your values. For them, evolution is mostly a symbol of humankind’s loss of those values, and our consequent fall into the immoral and short-sighted errors that True Christianity prevents. Because we have been victimized by atheistic humanism, we have forgotten how to make the noble sacrifices you have rediscovered. Bless you ever so much.

Of course, it’s also possible that behaviors like yours only postpone the inevitable, at which time it will be MUCH worse as a result. I can’t see the future, but I can certainly smell the unmistakable odor of pious self-righteousness. Maybe you are as much more enlightened than everyone else as you tell yourself you are. Maybe not.

Flint Wrote:

And in so doing, you are making a better world for everyone, right? I hope you understand that those this blog works so hard to combat tend to share your values. For them, evolution is mostly a symbol of humankind’s loss of those values, and our consequent fall into the immoral and short-sighted errors that True Christianity prevents. Because we have been victimized by atheistic humanism, we have forgotten how to make the noble sacrifices you have rediscovered. Bless you ever so much.

Given that some Christians are working towards, or at least hoping for, the End-of-Days (the Rapture I belive it is called), I think we can safely say that there is no inherent tendency in Christianity to protect the planet (nor is there among people who belives in Evolution, no matter their faith).

What a totally crazy series of posts.

Flint: Self-interest is the way to go. Fiona: I do things to help other people. Do you? Flint: By improving things you’re just making things worse. And you want to rub it in my face.

Steve:

I think you are missing the nuances here. In this context, there is simply no objective standard against which the notion of “improvement” can be measured. We DO know that most well-meaning behaviors tend to have effects quite different from the original intent, and sometimes the exact opposite. The “liberal” (in the sense we’ve been using the term) seeks to extend community (that is, tax-based) support to children of single parents who can’t do a proper job of raising them otherwise. The “conservative” (in our sense) sees government as *purchasing* illegitimate children by offering cash bonuses to whoever breeds one.

Or consider the well-intended practice of shipping food to people who are starving because of increasing desertification, which in turn results most directly from overpopulation. Are we doing these people any net favor by enabling the very behavior that causes their misfortune?

Consider the war against drugs, which has the effect (as opposed to the intent) of enriching the very people we seek to put out of business. Drug usage remains unaffected.

Or consider…well, I hope you get the idea. Our grasp of the long-term self-interest of OTHER people is notoriously lousy. So I suggest that a better goal is to work toward as enlightened a notion of our personal self-interest as we can, and hopefully get more enlightened as experience permits. The goal of “overcoming” your self interest can only be described as perverse. There is no other word that fits.

I do not mean to say that the attitudes that are classed by some as “social Darwinism” do not exist - of course they do. And they always have. Similar ideas existed in the early renaissance, in the middle ages, in the classical period (think: Spartans) and in classical philosophy. What does not exist, though, is the tradition of social Darwinism. There was one social Darwinian - Sumner. Spencer’s political views were established before Darwin wrote, and owe more to Malthus and Smith (and the anti-Poor Law movement of the 1830s) than to Darwin, and as Bannister argues, his views were not unalloyed “social Darwinism” either, as neither were the so-called “robber barons”, nor even Adam Smith. They all restricted their laissez faire economics with a social conscience of a kind.

Flint:

Or consider the well-intended practice of shipping food to people who are starving because of increasing desertification, which in turn results most directly from overpopulation. Are we doing these people any net favor by enabling the very behavior that causes their misfortune?

This is a classic example of the “we only do more harm by trying to help” fallacy. In Flint’s scenario the desertification is a consequence of overpopulation. The solution accomplished by not feeding the starving, then, is the rapid reduction of population, ie, wide spread deaths from starvation. But death from starvation is not in anyones interest. You do not help people by letting them starve.

Given that our interest is in helping those starving, Flint’s argument shows we ought to couple food aid with long term developmental aid, birth control programs, and (ideally) more liberal immigration programs for economic refugees. But to suggest that we don’t really help the starving by sending them food is both callous and specious.

Or consider … well, I hope you get the idea. Our grasp of the long-term self-interest of OTHER people is notoriously lousy. So I suggest that a better goal is to work toward as enlightened a notion of our personal self-interest as we can, and hopefully get more enlightened as experience permits. The goal of “overcoming” your self interest can only be described as perverse. There is no other word that fits.

Actually, our grasp on of the long term benefit of other people is very good in broad application. We know that people benefit by having food, water, air; by living in a respectfull society; by interacting productively with others. What we are lousy at is predicting detailed particular benefits; and (to a large extent) devising methods that will achieve the benefit we desire for others. But liberals are those who don’t want to predict or compel detailed particular benefits, while also ensuring ready access for all to the general benefits we know exist.

Finally, giving the benefit of others a value in the same ball park as that which you give to your own benefit is not perverse. In fact I would argue it is the foundation of ethics, a viewpoint I share with Kant, Ghandi and Jesus, amongst others.

One general benefit we know applies to all people is the benefit of being involved in mankind. To not learn this is to lead a stunted life.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

I didn’t miss that the law of unintended consequences can apply, but if there’s an actual problem, that doesn’t justify inaction. She asked if you did anything to help, and all you said was what she did might backfire. Then you accused her of having personality defects, which if you knew her (I do), you’d know she didn’t. It was more like a Bill O’Reilly, or Rush Limbaugh, exchange, than a TPT discussion.

The thought that politics and temperament are somehow related apparently occurs to nearly every one of us at some point, and is not entirely unfounded. However, at the very least, a great deal of evidence gathered in political science shows the relationship between temperament and political orientation to be extremely complex, and varying with various kinds of circumstances, not the least of which is the varying composition of each of the various historical parties. I’m not the first to notice with some irony that in the U.S. for example the party of Lincoln is also the party of Limbaugh.

Yet there are different ways that people think about the same issues, ways that can be reasonably linked to ideological vantage points. Different ways of defining such central abstractions as personhood, loyalty, fairness, justice, and human nature.

It seems likely to me that these are distinct traditions or styles of reasoning that are each coherent to their practitioners, the people that interact with each other using the same kind of reasoning. Political party leaders are people who rely paerticularly heavily on the abstractions of one style of reasoning and are motivated to avoid engaging different ones.

For most of us outside of politics, that is usually not the case. We are less politically polarized because we are less reliant on and immersed in a particular tradition of reasoning, although we may still tend to think more from a particular tradition most of the time when forced to make choices related to the relevant abstracts.

The challenge for intellectuals seems to me not to be to pick a tradition of political or moral reasoning and argue for it, but to recognize what each is talking about and translate it into common terms as far as possible so that more universal criteria of value can be applied to the reasoning. What it seems to take is to enter into a particular way of reasoning by interacting with people who reason in that way and picking up on the way they treat the various important abstractions.

This is an activity that probably cannot take place within the context of politics because political activism is neccessarily ideological and neccessarily dependent upon garnering a broad base of support, which requires a single coherent way of framing the “issues.”

We need to keep reminding ourselves that polarized thinking within each tradition of reasoning seems perfectly logical within each tradition, but is based on different ways of defining abstractions and thus distorts understanding of the underlying reality.

There need to be intellectuals and journalists who can translate between the different ways of thinking and help us see what each is saying, in order to make more intelligent choices between them rather than being driven mostly by fear mongering or radical idealism.

That is, if the ideal of intelligent civic responsibility is still worthwhile.

kind regards,

Todd

Tom Curtis:

That’s the problem with these political discussions; they assume so much.

Given that our interest is in helping those starving,

Why should this be a given, rather than something to be seriously evaluated and debated? Perhaps you have read about the efforts lots of people make to capture as many mammals as possible from a valley about to be flooded by a dam, and move them all to a neighboring valley. Yet a year or two later, we find the population density of these species in the neighboring valley unchanged from before the moving exercise. Isn’t that amazing? Do you suppose humans are permanently exempt from such forces, or only over a time period long enough so we can pretend otherwise?

Flint’s argument shows we ought to couple food aid with long term developmental aid, birth control programs, and (ideally) more liberal immigration programs for economic refugees.

All you are suggesting, then, is that the exact same problems should be spread over a greater territory. More liberal immigration programs are closely analogous to relocating organisms to the next valley. Long term developmental aid does not increase our global supply of arable land. Do you suppose there IS a theoretical carrying capacity of the planet for humans? If not, why not?

But to suggest that we don’t really help the starving by sending them food is both callous and specious.

This is a mischaracterization of my point. It’s entirely possible that we don’t help the many children and many many grandchildren of those we save from starvation today. We are clearly helping those starving today. So just how enlightened about long-term impacts should we be? How probable does a scenario need to be before we should consider it worth acting on? Should our personal values always override our best-fit population and economic models? These questions aren’t addressed by dismissing them as specious.

giving the benefit of others a value in the same ball park as that which you give to your own benefit is not perverse.

While I agree, this is not what was said. What was said was that we should “overcome our self-interest.” What you are saying is that the golden rule works well. It does. I argue that following the golden rule as well as we can is strongly in our enlightened self-interest. So once again, our self-interest isn’t something to be “overcome” but rather to be understood as accurately as possible. If a properly understood self interest is implemented, everyone gains.

Steve:

you accused her of having personality defects, which if you knew her (I do), you’d know she didn’t.

According to whom? I think that the actions she described could rather easily be considered to derive from a personality defect. I wonder if she actively moves mammals to the neighboring valley, or only subsidizes those who do. I am NOT willing to grant carte-blanche that her behavior is guaranteed to lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. I’m not that omniscient. I felt I was being preached it, and I’m allergic to that.

Let’s say for the sake of discussion that what I do for a living is develop more powerful and sophisticated weapons systems. Is my contribution positive or negative?

I think that the actions she described could rather easily be considered to derive from a personality defect.

Yeah, if you don’t know her at all. She’s a very nice and benevolent writer, when she’s not being insulted by strangers.

I am NOT willing to grant carte-blanche that her behavior is guaranteed to lead to the greatest good for the greatest number.

I don’t know who you’re responding to with this. It’s certainly not me.

Let’s say for the sake of discussion that what I do for a living is develop more powerful and sophisticated weapons systems. Is my contribution positive or negative?

Too little info here to answer the question. To answer the question intelligently, one would have to know at least who you’re developing them for, and really what the whole context is re arms races, opportunity cost, possible conflicts, etc.

I don’t see any reason to continue this, so I won’t. Opportunity cost and whatnot. Oh, and in case you want to insult me, base it on reality this time. Possible topics include:

1 ACLU member

2 physics / biophysics geek

3 Lihbrul

4 Thinks Bush is irrational

5 Considering switching to Mac (depending on your POV, this could mean I’m a dumbass any number of ways)

Steve:

I see no reason to insult you. I don’t know what you mean by “this time” since I haven’t insulted you in the past either. But in my case:

1) ACLU supporter 2) Computer firmware geek; graduate degree in government 3) Libertarian 4) Thinks Bush is irrational 5) Macs are fine by me. Whatever tool best does the job at hand and all that.

Flint:

Why should this be a given, rather than something to be seriously evaluated and debated?

It was implicit in your scenario that we were interested in helping the starving (which is different from being in our interest to help the starving). Given that we are interested in helping the starving, ie, that we desire to help, your argument is specious unless it is explicitly an argument that:

1) Helping the current starving will lead to more people starving later;

2) Our desire to help is not a particular desire to help the people currently starving, but rather the consequence of a general desire avoid starvation in people; in which case

3) Helping those currently starving will undermine our actual desire, and so is irrational.

But this argument is still unsound on several grounds. First, it only goes through if all policies to help the starving will result in more people starving in future. I have never seen this established, or even particularly argued for. Mostly I see the claim that a simple feeding program will have adverse long term effects with the conclusion immediately drawn that we should desist. That is the form your argument took, though given more space you MAY have presented a stronger argument.

Second, and far more importantly, it is not in general true that our desire to help starving people comes from a consequentialist desire to avoid suffering. It may come from simple sympathy for the people concerned. It may come from a deontological ethic. In either case, that feeding the hungry may result in more hungry mouths in future may give us reason to modify how we feed the hungry today, but it does not give us reason to not feed the hungry today.

All you are suggesting, then, is that the exact same problems should be spread over a greater territory. More liberal immigration programs are closely analogous to relocating organisms to the next valley. Long term developmental aid does not increase our global supply of arable land. Do you suppose there IS a theoretical carrying capacity of the planet for humans? If not, why not?

There is no theoretical limit (for practical purposes). The ability to produce food in volume is largely a function of energy use in the economy. Increase the energy use (or efficiency of use) and you increase the ability to produce food (as well as other primary products). If necessary, you can turn energy into food more or less directly by industrial size yeast vats; or by multi-story hydroponics farms with artificial lighting. (Of course, that would probably require commercial fusion power, but you did say theoretical.) In practical terms, the carrying capacity of the Earth while preserving a substantive standard of living has probably been passed many times over. However, that again misses the real practical point. The simple fact is that US and Australian citizens eat 5 to 10 times the volume of food eaten by people in the third world per capita. What is worse, much of the west’s diet consists grain fed protein, which inflates the grain consumption by a factor of 20. Consequently you could feed at least 100 third world citizens at subsistence level for the each first world citizen. Alternatively put, if the citizens of the west halved their food intake, and insisted on non-grain fed protein - they could end third world hunger immediately. This would only give a breathing space to solve other economic and population problems - probably around 15 to 20 years worth. There is no reason to think the problems could not be solved, or largely solved in that time.

This is not practical policy because the West will not give up its steaks in this manner. But it highlights the point that the fundamental policy constraints come from value choices, not from biological limits.

So just how enlightened about long-term impacts should we be? How probable does a scenario need to be before we should consider it worth acting on? Should our personal values always override our best-fit population and economic models? These questions aren’t addressed by dismissing them as specious.

The best-fit economic models assume a set of values will be acted on. Specifically, they assume people will act in a rationally self interested way. Because that assumption is built in, to use them to argue a particular course of action is impractical IS specious. What is at issue is the values we ought to pursue. Just because a course of action is impractical if we pursue only our self interest does not mean it is impractical simpliciter.

While I agree, this is not what was said. What was said was that we should “overcome our self-interest.” What you are saying is that the golden rule works well. It does. I argue that following the golden rule as well as we can is strongly in our enlightened self-interest. So once again, our self-interest isn’t something to be “overcome” but rather to be understood as accurately as possible. If a properly understood self interest is implemented, everyone gains.

“Our enlightened self interest”? Have you now been endowed with the ability to prognosticate “… the long-term self-interest of OTHER people”?

I used the word “benefit” for a reason. The term “self interest” is too easilly confused with “the self’s interests”, and indeed, some people mean by it exactly that. Within limits imposed by biology (and society), we choose our interests - the things we think we will have benefited by gaining. If we take a purely instrumental view of rationality there is no limit on those interests we may choose so long as they are rationally composable. Hitler’s “interests” were not instrumentally irrational per se. They certainly were not consistent with the Golden Rule.

The only way a concept of rationality can rule Hitler’s interests as contradictory of his “self interest” is by imposing a pre-existing value, and that is, of course to impose a value system on the discussion.

Evenly commonly accepted views of self interest as in maximum utility (in the sense of utilitarianism) for your self, or maximum Darwinian success, do not result in a Golden Rule as the limit of enlightened self interest. Rather, the limit for such “interests” would be to impose the Golden Rule on everyone except yourself. The Golden Rule only becomes your ethic when you recognise that it, and your self interests go different ways - and choose to love others as much as you love yourself.

If you have those positive qualities, you’d get along with Fiona. She’s very cool and not at all self-righteous.

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Wow! What a wonderful argument and exchange of ideas. We have covered Social Darwinism, Evolution, Politics, Left, Right, Middle and uninformed. All of which constitutes arguments specifically related to our “Civilized Culture”. Are we in fact civilized? What does that actually mean? We once lived in a “Garden of Eden” for lack of a better term, where the food was free for the taking and denied to no one. It seems we have set a situation in progress where the food is now under tight control. It is now under lock and key and you don’t get any unless you pay for it. To do that we have to work at a job which may be likable but most often is not. Then we acquire the little pieces of paper we can bring to the lock-up and release some food for our families. This is pretty much the basis of our “Civilization”.

Now we have areas of peoples who for some reason cannot produce enough food for themselves. Either through lack of education or Political situations these people are denied what used to be free but is now tightly controlled. What are we to do? Of course we send them food. We have plenty of it. We produce more than we need so why not? It’s an altruistic gesture that is sure to be appreciated. Unfortunately we are what we eat. Don’t try to deny this because it’s very simple. Given a population of, oh, rats would suffice, if you only supply the same amount of food for sustenance that would support 100 of the specious then there number will remain at about 100 without any other artificial means to sustain them. Therefore giving starving people just enough food to keep them reproducing and starving does no help whatsoever. I know you are probably thinking what a hard ass I must be. I don’t care if people live or die. The truth is that people live and die every day depending on their particular situations. When did we become the “Almighty” who would say who would live and who would die?

We are now in a position to destroy the world for all species. This is what our “Civilization” has produced. You argue politics as if it was the most important thing to us but I assure you it is very low on the survival list. Politics is a by-product of “Civilization” by which I mean the total denial of who we are as belonging to this planet as apposed to conquering it. We are in the process of killing off the very things we need to survive. It won’t be much longer before we cannot sustain our population. If you think I am wrong then just do the math. Where will the population be in your lifetime and who is going to support it? We won’t have surplus food supplies in the very near future. You altruistic types won’t have anything to give soon.

So once again it comes down to we are what we eat. It’s all too simple. You have enough food or not. Your population depends on it. Of course we are running out of space, but that is another argument. When does the population start interfering with the growing space? Hmmmmmmmm . … . … .

Tom Curtis:

Thank you for the thoughtful reply. It’s discouraging when efforts at discussion are dismissed (by those who disagree) as not worth addressing, divorced from reality and insulting. Politics seems to be one of those areas where actual knowledge and experience are regarded as irrelevant, or even damaging.

But this argument is still unsound on several grounds. First, it only goes through if all policies to help the starving will result in more people starving in future. I have never seen this established, or even particularly argued for.

I’m not the expert you are in biology, but I read Darwin as saying that one of the canonical presumptions underlying natural selection is that all species overbreed, thus setting up selection pressures required for natural selection to do anything. My understanding was the Darwin considered starvation one of these factors. Population boom-and-crash cycles seem to be more the rule than the exception. I doubt people are exempt. I spoke of moving mammals to neighboring valleys to illustrate this point. We probably saved the lives of some individuals. We didn’t increase the total number of surviving individuals, because the habitat was fully populated. E. O. Wilson observed that over the last century, human breeding trends have been far more bacterial than mammalian. I share his concerns.

that feeding the hungry may result in more hungry mouths in future may give us reason to modify how we feed the hungry today, but it does not give us reason to not feed the hungry today.

You are jumping ahead of yourself here by phrasing the issue backwards. We aren’t looking for a reason NOT to feed the hungry, but rather a reason why we should do so. What do we gain? It’s important to answer this question well, because the answer shapes the resulting program. I could go into detail about the politics of starvation, but in this context it’s a tangent. I argue that we cannot conclude that we uniquely have no limits to population growth, simply because we don’t know where those limits lie. And further, that assuming there are no such limits leads to policy positions which may well be based on a false assumption. The loss we risk is possible (if not likely) widespread unnecessary misery and reduced average lifespan among the affected population. The gain we guarantee ourselves is, it makes us feel good. We have behaved altruistically and been morally sound.

There is no theoretical limit (for practical purposes).

I regard this as a statement of faith, and a rather unsupportable one at that. Of course there is a theoretical limit; the remainder of your argument doesn’t eliminate the limit, but rather proposes methods by which human overpopulation could be sustained for the longest boom possible before the inevitable largest bust possible. We see the consequences of all other species outrunning their resources, but (as with creationism) we see ourselves as special and somehow exempt.

This is not practical policy because the West will not give up its steaks in this manner. But it highlights the point that the fundamental policy constraints come from value choices, not from biological limits.

I agree that we run into value-based limits (for some of us) long before we run into biological limits (for all of us). My general argument is that it is a poor policy goal to maximize overpopulation. I speculate that our moral need to redistribute the excess wealth of the haves to subsidize the urgent lacks of the have-nots evolved in a very different context. People lived in small groups, which as a group had resources for everyone most of the time. At any given time, and temporarily, some individuals needed assistance with misfortune, or the entire group had to struggle through some hardship, from drought to flood. What we are doing is extrapolating twice - from intragroup to intergroup, and from temporary to permanent. The same morality may not produce the same benefits in this larger and different context.

The best-fit economic models assume a set of values will be acted on.

I hope you don’t propose that we adopt a value-free model! Even suggesting such a thing embodies a value. You seem to be saying that if only we adopt the “right” values (presumably yours?), we can make practical for ourselves what nature hasn’t found a way to manage for any other species. I’m deeply suspicious of the claim that if everyone adopts a personal policy of self-sacrifice, then everyone will be somehow better off. I doubt getting people to follow this policy would even be possible, and I doubt that it would have anything resembling your anticipated outcome even if it were possible. Politics is, among other things, an attempt to make the best (for everyone, in the opinion of everyone, net) of what people DO do, and attempts to get people to do what some of us think we should do but don’t, always lead to unfortunate consequences.

The only way a concept of rationality can rule Hitler’s interests as contradictory of his “self interest” is by imposing a pre-existing value, and that is, of course to impose a value system on the discussion.

Yes, I agree. There is no way to be value-neutral, though we might accept survival as a bottom line. Hitler’s perceived self-interest got himself killed fairly young. And the value within small groups was that feeding someone today might well result in him feeding you tomorrow. This visibly happened often enough to be obviously a good policy. Again, such a value system may not extrapolate well into different contexts.

Rather, the limit for such “interests” would be to impose the Golden Rule on everyone except yourself. The Golden Rule only becomes your ethic when you recognise that it, and your self interests go different ways

There have been some interesting discussions of this position. Just how social an animal are we? Certainly following the Golden Rule is strongly in our individual interests in a small group where reciprocation is the daily routine. And I doubt that (as an example) many people would regard stealing rather than purchasing their goods as being to their net benefit. One doesn’t need godlike perspective to see that this would lead quickly to negative consequences even without any police – soon enough, goods simply wouldn’t be available at all.

Are there in fact situations where following the Golden Rule produces results permanently to your perceived disadvantage? If so, does the problem lie with following the Rule, or with the limitations of your perception? Your answers seem to be yes, but the problem lies with our perception. Following the Rule might seem to work against you, but is a Good Thing in the long run, seen from the big picture. Not everyone shares this faith. I’m not comfortable with the implication that some values are “righter” than others. In some cases, we can trace the consequences of adopting and following certain values, but this does not mean we value those consequences alike.

So I favor a system that permits different values to compete as transparently as possible. Where we can all do what we think is best (however we define “best”), consistent with keeping conflict within manageable limits.

Flint:

I’m not the expert you are in biology, but I read Darwin as saying that one of the canonical presumptions underlying natural selection is that all species overbreed, thus setting up selection pressures required for natural selection to do anything.

I am not an expert on biology by any stretch of the imagination. However, Darwin’s view of nature does not directly apply to humans in one important respect. The major determinant of the human biological situation is culture. This has been true since the invention of agriculture, and is becoming increasingly the case. This does not mean humans have stopped evolving by Darwinian means (for that to happen we would need to reproduce at the limit of biological capacity, ie, around 20 mature offspring for every female). Nor does it mean that there are no biological, of physical limits on growth. It does mean that the level of those limits depends critically on culture. There was no change in the biological limits on human population in Europe in the 12th century, but the invention of the horse collar allowed a doubling of food production, and hence a doubling of population. There was no change to the biological limits in the 19th century, or 20th century, but use of first coal, then oil has allowed a tenfold increase in the population of Europe and the US. (Ball park figures of course.) Therefore, prognosticating the biological limits of growth cannot be uncoupled from prognosticating growth in energy (and other) technologies.

The reason I think the theoretical limit on human growth is so large as to be irrelevant for practical purposes is that I think commercial fusion power is a genuine possibility. Given that, in principle humans could populate every solid surface in the solar system. Given solar power with a unit cost equivalent to that of oil a year ago, we could populate the Earth, the moon and Mars. Thus, the in principle limit on human growth is in the 10s to 100s of trillions.

In practise, given that we want any reasonable standard of life, the limit is about 4 billion with a slow steady expansion as we colonise space. This could be increased to 8 to 10 billion if the unit cost of solar and wind power is reduced to around that of oil.

In practical terms this means we have currently exceded our limits of growth (ie, a crash is inevitable if nothing changes), but that in 20 to 100 years our limits of growth will increase to about the probable population of the Earth at that time.

The kicker is that our current energy resource (oil) is likely to become effectively exhausted in from 30 to 50 years. In that event, if we have not yet developed cheap, wide spread renewable energy, or commercial fusion power, the crash will come to soon. The West will experience an economic collapse that could bring down our civilization.

You are jumping ahead of yourself here by phrasing the issue backwards. We aren’t looking for a reason NOT to feed the hungry, but rather a reason why we should do so. What do we gain? It’s important to answer this question well, because the answer shapes the resulting program. I could go into detail about the politics of starvation, but in this context it’s a tangent. I argue that we cannot conclude that we uniquely have no limits to population growth, simply because we don’t know where those limits lie. And further, that assuming there are no such limits leads to policy positions which may well be based on a false assumption. The loss we risk is possible (if not likely) widespread unnecessary misery and reduced average lifespan among the affected population. The gain we guarantee ourselves is, it makes us feel good. We have behaved altruistically and been morally sound.

Given the “limits on growth” as I project them, we do risk widespread unnecessary misery by feeding the starving. However, we place ourselves at far greater risk of that misery by simply continuing our current life style. Fiona has done far more to reduce the risk of that collapse than could be achieved by letting a thousand Africans starve to death. If you want to save lives without increasing the likilihood of population colapse, cut they money you donate for food out of your meat budget. That way you have a direct economic transfer from grain to fatten cattle for consumption to grain to feed the starving. Want to do more to prevent the collapse? Buy a fuel/electric hybrid car, and spend half the fuel savings on third world sustainable economic development.

As to the question as to why we should feed the starving. I think I have shown there is no reason why we should not. And IF WE HAVE SYMPATHY for the starving, we have the best possible reason to feed them. They are starving! This discussion began with a claim that liberals are more sympathetic than are conservatives. Unless you wish to concede that point, the question as to whether we have reason to feed the starving simply does not arise.

Tom Curtis:

I wrote “I’m deeply suspicious of the claim that if everyone adopts a personal policy of self-sacrifice, then everyone will be somehow better off. I doubt getting people to follow this policy would even be possible, and I doubt that it would have anything resembling your anticipated outcome even if it were possible.”

I understand that you share neither my suspicions nor my doubts. You may be right, but I see no compelling evidence in that direction. In order to be right, we would need some truly powerful cultural and political changes. I admit that I consider Fiona’s behavior to be a perverse form of self-gratification, and we disagree about that as well. But let’s presume just for grins that she is correct, and that if everyone (or enough people) adopt similar practices, our population can grow without any effective limit, while everone remains well fed and happy as clams. Now, how can we get this to happen? Maybe through religion? But then, we’d need to convert everyone to the One True Religion, whatever it takes. Some people are already doing this (albeit perhaps for somewhat different policy goals). Had you noticed? Maybe as a first step we should, after all, abandon evolution and join hands in Christ in the interests of enlightened charity?

In any case, what you are doing is stacking the deck (with your own suspicions and doubts) by painting a context in which your peferred behaviors would (in your opinion) lead to results you think would be best for others in the long run as well as the short run. Then, you declare that this approach makes you so much more sympathetic than those whose understanding of how the world wobbles differs, that everyone else might as well throw in the towel. You have cornered the market on sympathy, if you do say so yourself.

But I hope our discussion has shown that in order to claim the Stanley Cup of Sympathy, it was necessary for you to construct a fairly dubious argument about carrying capacities, future technological developments, continued cheap energy, favorable climates (which you assumed without mentioning it, but it IS required), etc. The conservative’s harsh selfishness becomes less an attribute of character than a set of bad predictions. Or at least an incompetent analysis of cause and effect.

Flint, I think you are exaggerating my position to defend yours. While I do think “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the correct ethical rule, I do not intend to impose morality by law; nor have I been recommending that others obey exactly a rule I obey very imperfectly myself. “Love your neighbour as yourself” means, if taken literally, that your desire that your neigbour be well fed should equal your desire that you be well fed; that your desire that your neighbour have adequate shelter should equal your desire that you should have adequate shelter, and so on. When you write:

I wrote “I’m deeply suspicious of the claim that if everyone adopts a personal policy of self-sacrifice, then everyone will be somehow better off. I doubt getting people to follow this policy would even be possible, and I doubt that it would have anything resembling your anticipated outcome even if it were possible.”

you appear to accuse me of prescribing that level of self sacrifice as policy. If you look at what I have actually recomended, however, it has been that Westerners half their food intake and forgo grain fed meat. That you donate some money for starving people, and reduce your meat budget to do so. That you get a fuel/electric hybrid car instead of a standard gas guzzler. These are not big sacrifices. Further, I presented these as possible actions, not policy recomendations. Personally, I think an increase of US foreign aid from all sources (government and private) to around 5% of GDP would transform the world. It would certainly represent a drastic shift in sentiment in the US public. Current US aid from all sources is approximately 0.5% of GDP(Australia contributes only 0.25% from government, I do not have the private figures). (As a sidenote, on aggregate Third World nations now pay the West more in interest on previous “aid” than they now recieve in aid.)

A tenfold increase in US giving certainly would require some “truly powerfull political and cultural changes” but that is not because it represents a great deal of self sacrifice.

But those changes will not occur while people keep telling themselves (or are told) that trying to help the poor only makes them worse of in the long run. It is, I admit a wonderfully comforting doctrine if you are not much inclined to help the poor. However you were unable to support it when challenged. You say:

In any case, what you are doing is stacking the deck (with your own suspicions and doubts) by painting a context in which your peferred behaviors would (in your opinion) lead to results you think would be best for others in the long run as well as the short run.

Well, no. I described in broad outline the factors effecting the future as I see it. I did not form this picture, as you suggest, in order to justify my ethical beliefs. Further, it is not an implausible picture. It may only appear to be so because you insist on mischaracterising me as claiming that population growth can procede unchecked into the far future without adverse comment. My claim was that population growth needs to be checked, but that giving food aid gives a breathing space to solve food problems and check population growth before it becomes disastrous.

This misses the key point, however. That point is that you have NOT been able to paint a scenario in which failing to give aid reduces long term suffering except by excluding the possiblity of additional developmental aid and birth control programs from the picture. So let’s be generous and assume that neither of us has established his case. Imagine yourself in complete ignorance of the long term consequences for good or ill of giving aid. What then should you do? The only basis of making a decision at that point is whether you think alleviating short term suffering is a good thing, or not. IE, whether you are sympathetic, or not. I don’t think there is anyway around this, for all arguments that short term aid necessarily has long term ill effects either assume simplistic aid policies (ie, food aid, but no developmental aid); or else they assume limited generosity on behalf of the very people whose generosity they are arguing to limit.

Understand that I am not arguing (nor do I think anyone has been) that sympathy is a monopoly of liberals. There are many conservatives who are personally generous in charitable donations, some giving as much as 10 or 20% of their income. I think these people are wrong about politics, but certainly not lacking in sympathy. Many of them would have more sympathy than is typical of liberals. They are also exceptional. Flint, I do not know what category of conservative you fall under. For all I know you give far more of your income to charity than I do, and are deeply sympathetic to people in need. But for those conservatives who are not generous givers, and who oppose government programs to aid the poor, they do lack sympathy. If they believed what they preached, there correct responce to that charge is, “So what. Sympathy is not a virtue.” Alternatively, if they want to maintain a belief that they are sympathetic people, while not acting from sympathy either in policy or in private, they are simply decieving themselves.

Flint:

I feel that I have been dismissed as unworthy. I am not as well educated in politics as you seem to be and I have never been a person who has held interest in such studies. I was not trying to put forth the notion that politics is without merit or important but that it is a natural tendency of all humans or any species for that matter that have evolved to the point of self awareness as individuals. Politics have been with us a very long time but, as with many things, have evolved within our particular culture of agrarianism to the point of being an artificial means of creating an environment that allows us to live in relative harmony. (To me it is obvious that this is not working. The history of civilization is rife with warfare.) This was once done in a more natural way that didn’t impose restrictions for human behavior but instead allowed for it. Humans are creatures with many faults and have always been such but for thousands of years we have flourished on this planet. We were successful as a species because no laws were written to prevent normal human tendencies but instead we were allowed to be human. We had no “Thou Shalt Nots” but instead we had “If you do” to deal with the traits that inevitably cause friction between any individuals. There are still people who live with this system (although their numbers are dwindling fast) and they have no need for lawyers, psychiatrists, schools, washing machines or almost everything that our culture finds necessary. Why is that? We are witnessing the final gasps of a failed experiment that started about ten thousand years ago. That was the start of our agrarian civilization. From that point we set up a system that would ensure the continued growth of our population while systematically reducing and often eliminating those who would not comply with our way of thinking. We are now in the position, if we continue in this direction, to destroy ourselves and all other forms of life on our planet. Are politics important? Of course, but it is not the only answer to our impending problems.

Tom said: “However, Darwin’s view of nature does not directly apply to humans in one important respect. The major determinant of the human biological situation is culture.”

This is a good example of the belief system we set in place long ago, that we are exempt from the laws of nature because of our culture. We are no more exempt from these laws than we are from the laws of physics.

If you’ll look back, you’ll see that Flint distorted everyone’s arguments. So don’t be too upset, it’s apparently not personal.

John Wilkins Wrote:

Apart from the contextual and extremely local division of political views into “liberal” and “conservative” based on the American major parties, which in the rest of the world is regarded as a division between moderate conservatism and slightly less moderate conservatism, the idea there is some kind of psychological underpinning to such views is, to speak frankly, silly.

If you’re saying that there’s no psychological underpinning to specific policy goals as reflected by the current political spectrum, then I agree. However, I think there is definitely a psychological underpinning to people’s attitudes about each party (or ideology) and which one they identify with. And those attitudes are likely to remain the same regardless of policy.

For example, one country might be far more nationalist than another country, but within each, there will be a spectrum of attitudes, with some people favoring the more nationalist view, and others favoring the more internationalist view. And I think the direction one leans in is influenced by one’s underlying psychology. The fact that it’s all relative just means that people adopt their views in relation to others in society, regardless of the actual makeup of the spectrum. So it’s possible for someone with an internationalist viewpoint in country A to be more nationalist than someone with a nationalist viewpoint in country B, but they’re still either “left or right” within the context of their own political cultures.

Tom Curtis:

In some ways, I think we are agreeing violently, in others we may see things genuinely differently. This makes discussion difficult, because I’m not sure where to place emphasis. If I miss the target, it’s not for lack of aiming.

Flint, I think you are exaggerating my position to defend yours. While I do think “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the correct ethical rule, I do not intend to impose morality by law

We do agree here, I think. I may have misunderstood your position. I think there is a qualitative difference in goals between a) favoring policies of doing without more so my neighbor can do without less; and b) favoring policies so that neither of us has to do without at all. The traditional difference of (at least aiming at) growing a larger pie rather than redistributing a smaller pie. Most attempts at redistribution end up actually shrinking the total pie, because the recipients fail to leverage what they receive.

you appear to accuse me of prescribing that level of self sacrifice as policy. If you look at what I have actually recomended, however, it has been that Westerners halve their food intake and forgo grain fed meat. That you donate some money for starving people, and reduce your meat budget to do so. That you get a fuel/electric hybrid car instead of a standard gas guzzler. These are not big sacrifices.

If you read what I wrote, you will notice that I specified no level of sacrifice. I spoke of “a personal policy of self-sacrifice” which I interpret to mean the perception of doing without what one would prefer not to do without. What I was trying to communicate was the perception and not the level. I recall when Johnny Carson got a divorce, his ex-wife later sued him (this was 30 years ago!) because as part of the divorce agreement Carson was paying her only $45,000 a month, and she just simply couldn’t make ends meet. The judge agreed. Self-sacrifice isn’t some fixed level of subsistence; what matters is that you think you are doing without. I don’t think the widespread level of perceived sacrifice (even at Carson’s wife’s level) is a politically stable condition.

As for foreign aid, this is always problematic. Rarely if ever is such aid applied as we would prefer, even if we attach strings. (Consider food stamps, which can’t be spent on cigarettes or booze. But all they do is free up money which then IS spent on cigarettes and booze. Strings don’t work). There are parallels between foreign aid to nations, and transfer payments to poor individuals - they money is spent, but the condition doesn’t improve. There is some evidence that US foreign aid indirectly contributes to political instability, since whoever rules the recipient nation gets to pocket the aid. This is a generic problem - it implies that the needy aren’t in that situation by accident or unavoidable bad fortune; it is an engineered condition money cannot cure. The history of poor lottery winners also illustrates this propensity. Conversely, those who actually do suffer misfortune consistently recover without aid (though the aid helps these people). I think it’s fairly clear that on balance, such aid (foreign or domestic) is *purchasing* poverty. Do not confuse what could be done with such aid, with what is done. Changing what is done isn’t a matter of financial aid, but instead a change of goals and values.

But those changes will not occur while people keep telling themselves (or are told) that trying to help the poor only makes them worse of in the long run. It is, I admit a wonderfully comforting doctrine if you are not much inclined to help the poor. However you were unable to support it when challenged.

I don’t know what you would consider support. There is a general principle that when you subsidize something, you get more of it. This applies to poverty perfectly well. I am NOT saying the poor cannot be helped, I hope you understand. I’m saying giving the poor a fish every single day is an inappropriate method. Much better to create and enforce a system where effort and ability are very clearly rewarded. When I spoke of stacking the deck, one thing I was referring to was the implication that poverty can be cured by pouring money at it. Hasn’t worked. The US has had wave after wave of impoverished immigrants, all of them initially facing serious social resistance. All of these waves assimilated within 2 generations or so, without any welfare. Perhaps our inability to boost the social mobility of welfare recipients very much is due to other (and maybe stronger) factors, but transfer payments have not noticeably helped. A good education helps. Parental conviction that a good education is invaluable helps much more. Clear and common examples of the efficacy of education lead to such parental conviction. Bill Cosby has a powerful message. I hope people are listening. I also hope you don’t consider Cosby unsympathetic.

My claim was that population growth needs to be checked, but that giving food aid gives a breathing space to solve food problems and check population growth before it becomes disastrous.

Good point. I had been assuming (based on current aid policies) that giving food aid all by itself does nothing but reinforce the behaviors that had led to the need for such aid in the first place. What you might be saying is that food aid can make an effective carrot to induce starving people to change something about their lifestyle so that the same problems won’t repeat. And you may be right. But the flip side is unavoidable - failure to make a properly directed effort results in not getting any carrot. A policy of rewards-for-nothing doesn’t change problems.

Imagine yourself in complete ignorance of the long term consequences for good or ill of giving aid. What then should you do? The only basis of making a decision at that point is whether you think alleviating short term suffering is a good thing, or not. IE, whether you are sympathetic, or not.

Permit me to decline here. I don’t think your viewpoint is strongly supported by your insistence that it must be based on ignorance of reality. All else being equal, I agree it’s best to alleviate suffering whenever possible, because in a working society this action is regularly reciprocated. Think of it as analogous to paying school taxes even though you are childless. You get to live in an educated society, which is greatly to your benefit even if your resources did not directly subsidize your own immediate family. However, when something is not working, doing even more of it generally works even worse, whatever the motivations or however selfless and moral we may feel because we’re doing more of it. The conservative (I don’t place myself in this category) might mischaracterize the situation by thinking he favors what does work, while the liberal favors what he wishes would work. But I believe the important difference isn’t in the methods used, but in the differential valuation of the results. Which is better, a world population of 2 billion well-fed people, or of 10 billion well-fed people?

If they believed what they preached, their correct response to that charge is, “So what. Sympathy is not a virtue.” Alternatively, if they want to maintain a belief that they are sympathetic people, while not acting from sympathy either in policy or in private, they are simply decieving themselves.

Most of this position is a function of how you define sympathy. Let’s say you are a parent who is unsympathetically intolerant of your child’s poor grades, or desire to skip out on his homework, or acts of vandalism, or poor diet. In opposing such behaviors, you are surely acting against your child’s perceived interests, and frequently making him very unhappy. Someone might easily accuse you of being unsympathetic, and within your child’s context, you are indeed being unsympathetic. Are you being virtuous? Well, YOU think so. Who is right? You believe that you are acting in your child’s long-term best interests, and that someday your policies will pay off. Are you deceiving yourself? My understanding is that both conservatives and liberals wish to act in such a way that, if everyone acted the same way, everyone would be better in the long run. They have different notions of “better” of course, but also very different expectations of the outcomes of given behaviors. Nor is it usually easy to trace the causative trail between actions and results, because there are simply too many variables. Is it better to fund stem cell research to save or repair lives here on earth, or better to withhold funding in the interests of avoiding eternal torture of our immortal souls? Which policy is more sympathetic?

Any policy that fits into a slogan and is regarded as “obviously” better is unrealistically simplistic. Neither conservatives nor liberals are overrepresented with simpletons.

Robert Domingue:

I don’t want you to feel dismissed, but sometimes I don’t know how to respond.

I was not trying to put forth the notion that politics is without merit or important but that it is a natural tendency of all humans or any species for that matter that have evolved to the point of self awareness as individuals.

I’m not sure what your point is here. Politics generally is a process by which every member of the polity (those involved in the struggle) seeks a situation of better advantage. If done well, conflict is minimized and cooperation is maximized. There is such a thing as healty competition as well. None of this relates to self awareness in my mind.

Politics have been with us a very long time but, as with many things, have evolved within our particular culture of agrarianism to the point of being an artificial means of creating an environment that allows us to live in relative harmony.

I don’t think politics relates to agrarianism in any way. Nor are politics artificial; even chickens have pecking orders. I think a case could be built that a general moral sense has evolved biologically (based on the cross-cultural ubiquity of basic moral precepts). At the very least, humans are a gregarious species, and all such species have rules that let groups work as groups.

To me it is obvious that this is not working. The history of civilization is rife with warfare.

You draw a line where I don’t. War is a political tool. The methods that work within a community often have the opposite impact between communities. What Tom Curtis seeks (I think) is rules that might lead all people to regard themselves and one another as members of the same community. I’m concerned that his rules might not scale up to this level.

This was once done in a more natural way that didn’t impose restrictions for human behavior but instead allowed for it.

I seriously doubt this. People evolved in small (50-200 individual) groups. In communities that size, where everyone knows everyone, social forces can be applied that are useless in a larger group where anonymity is possible and where people can be strangers to one another. And in those days (I’d estimate at least 10,000 years ago) we have evidence that war was as common between communities as cooperation was within them.

We were successful as a species because no laws were written to prevent normal human tendencies but instead we were allowed to be human.

I don’t know what to make of this. We’ve been successful as a species for many reasons, probably primary among them being our ability to control our environment. There are always “laws” (although you might want to call them customs, traditions, or social structure). Social structures don’t “allow us to be human” but rather inform our behavior in ways that permit the community to function. I think you’re right that requirements contrary to “human nature” fail sooner or later. And this is part of what Tom Curtis and I are discussing. People will always act in their perceived self interest. To change human behavior in some way, you must change the perception of the self interest, rather than trying to get people to act against it. That’s a blueprint for failure, however much those who wish it pat themselves on the back for being more sympathetic and compassionate.

We had no “Thou Shalt Nots” but instead we had “If you do” to deal with the traits that inevitably cause friction between any individuals.

Wanna bet? Social cohesion is built on limits to behavior - thou canst use thy own judgement provided Thou Shalt Not violate specified prohibitions. No community can possibly exist without such strict prohibitions.

There are still people who live with this system (although their numbers are dwindling fast) and they have no need for lawyers, psychiatrists, schools, washing machines or almost everything that our culture finds necessary. Why is that?

This is an illusion. Even the most primitive tribes teach their children carefully, deal with interpersonal conflicts, appeal to community authorities and their rules, plead extenuating fact situations (there are no one-size-fits-all laws). A community MUST have these functions. The washing machines are something different - technology can be readily adopted without changing cultural rituals or values, nor political practices.

We are witnessing the final gasps of a failed experiment that started about ten thousand years ago. That was the start of our agrarian civilization. From that point we set up a system that would ensure the continued growth of our population while systematically reducing and often eliminating those who would not comply with our way of thinking. We are now in the position, if we continue in this direction, to destroy ourselves and all other forms of life on our planet.

I disagree. People haven’t changed their nature for probably at least 100,000 years. We have of course devised technologies (from the wheel to fire to agriculture) that permit larger communities to exist effectively. But at least as I read it, complying with tribal practices has always been a requirement. And primitive tribes, according to our current understanding, did and do hunt their prey to extinction and then move on, engage in slash and burn agriculture to get perhaps 2 seasons of crops and then slash new land because the old land is no longer productive. And fight wars (with primitive but nonetheless deadly weapons) often resulting in the extermination of every single member of the opposing community. The Old Testament records exactly this and glories in it (because the text was written by the winners). So nothing has changed except the sheer scope of the same old behaviors.

Are politics important? Of course, but it is not the only answer to our impending problems.

I would instead argue that politics is the only workable answer to our problems. But perhaps we visualize politics dfferently. When two monkeys want the same banana, what follows is a political procedure.

This is a good example of the belief system we set in place long ago, that we are exempt from the laws of nature because of our culture. We are no more exempt from these laws than we are from the laws of physics.

We may not be able to alter the laws of nature, but we can certainly turn them to our (temporary) advantage. Remember what I wrote about our ability to manipulate our environment. We do the same with the laws of physics (we fly!). I think Tom is half right, our culture permits us to postpone Darwinian consequences, but not finesse them indefinitely.

Demsbki Watch

Check out this article in The Christian Post “written” by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Guess who just had to move to this bible college in the Kentucky hills?

William Dembski was forced to move to move to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky because his contract wasn’t renewed at Baylor University.

As Mark Edwards, spokesman for the Discovery Institute, put it in his contemptuous statement about Bible-following Kentuckians:

We wanted to talk about science, and they wanted us to do Sunday school. The final episode paints a picture that the only critics of Darwinian theory are these guitar-strumming hillbillies in Kentucky who are creationists, and that’s just not true. We’re glad we’re not part of that stereotype.

The image of Bill Dembski a-settin’ and a-strummin’ creationist lyrics on his porch in Lousiville is just too rich.

Flint,

Thank you for responding to my post. It would seem that Tom and yourself are far more educated in the sociopolitical sciences than I. Nevertheless I have what I believe to be compelling arguments addressing the nature of our culture and the possible outcomes of our future as a species. My basic premise is that we went terribly wrong when we decided to alter our relationship with nature. We now seem to believe that we are the masters of our domain. This is an allusion. We cannot master nature no matter how technologically advanced we get. As I said, there are natural laws that are as compelling as physical laws. Yes we fly but it is not by ignoring physics it is by understanding it. We do not seem to understand the natural laws at all. Our history of flight is full of failed experiments as is our history of civilization. The Anisazi disappeared because there experiment failed. They didn’t die off they just gave it up as a dead end and were able to return to a more successful way of life. They moved on. Some of the Mayan cultures exhausted their resources to create the white lime to build their structures, which were demanded by their rulers. They eventually had to give it up to survive as a species and willingly did so.

“I’m not sure what your point is here. Politics generally is a process by which every member of the polity (those involved in the struggle) seeks a situation of better advantage. If done well, conflict is minimized and cooperation is maximized. There is such a thing as healty competition as well. None of this relates to self awareness in my mind.”

I thank you for the definition. I truly need them sometimes. Yes politics is always about advantage. No argument there but what you ascribe as political behavior is tainted with your own biases of it. You are aware of only our particular brand of politics. Some of what you presume is politics is in fact instinct for survival that has been tested and refined over eons of time. This would include the pecking order of chickens.

“I don’t think politics relates to agrarianism in any way. Nor are politics artificial; even chickens have pecking orders. I think a case could be built that a general moral sense has evolved biologically (based on the cross-cultural ubiquity of basic moral precepts). At the very least, humans are a gregarious species, and all such species have rules that let groups work as groups.”

I don’t think that biological evolvement is even remotely connected to morality. Morality is specifically our own cultures invention. I don’t see any evidence of a morality-based society anywhere but with humans and only with those humans who have adopted our specific way of living. I would say that the ancient hunter-gatherers had a system of morality but it in no way resembled our own. This is where our laws (politics) become artificial. We suppress the very nature of humanness with laws of technology. There were no prisons before civilization. As for agrarianism, I meant our specific type. It’s true that there were agrarian societies in the distant past but they would still move on as requirements for fresh land dictated. Still, they didn’t destroy the land they simply cycled their growing through different areas.

“You draw a line where I don’t. War is a political tool.”

War as a tool. That is a tough one. Battles between tribes were a tool, which allowed for strengthening of any particular groups and also as a means to keep the gene pool from becoming polluted. Very seldom did one group try to annihilate another for this was not in their best interest. They had their territory, skirmished from time to time and pretty much left each other in peace. They would no more think of eliminating their neighbors as we would.

“I don’t know what to make of this. We’ve been successful as a species for many reasons, probably primary among them being our ability to control our environment. There are always “laws” (although you might want to call them customs, traditions, or social structure). Social structures don’t “allow us to be human” but rather inform our behavior in ways that permit the community to function. I think you’re right that requirements contrary to “human nature” fail sooner or later. And this is part of what Tom Curtis and I are discussing.”

This is an important point. We were successful as a species before we had the illusion that we could control our environment. We cannot control it. You cannot defy the laws of gravity and you cannot defy the laws of nature. We cannot stop volcanoes or typhoons or meteors. We do not have the final say on how we are to survive but only a basis to live within these given parameters. It seems we have chosen one that defies the very qualities of not only our planet but ourselves.

“Wanna bet? Social cohesion is built on limits to behavior - thou canst use thy own judgement provided Thou Shalt Not violate specified prohibitions. No community can possibly exist without such strict prohibitions.”

Many communities have succeeded without such strict guidelines. You are referring to the social cohesion of our society not of the many that came before. Yes some of them had prohibitions but most did not. Most had rules governing the after affects of any given indiscretion. These rules were designed to make said indiscretions tolerable to the parties involved. How many parties involved in our present court system are satisfied?

“This is an illusion. Even the most primitive tribes teach their children carefully, deal with interpersonal conflicts, appeal to community authorities and their rules, plead extenuating fact situations (there are no one-size-fits-all laws). A community MUST have these functions. The washing machines are something different - technology can be readily adopted without changing cultural rituals or values, nor political practices.”

I agree on one point, that we can be technologically advanced and still live within the laws of nature. As for primitive tribes teaching their children the fundamentals of tribal society and life itself is a major difference from what we do in our civilization. We hold our children back from learning what they need to know to survive. Our school system is set up to restrain rather than teach. Of course being one of the largest consumer groups in this culture it wouldn’t do to have them released to early into their careers. The primitive child knows enough to survive within the first seven years of life. He/She has the support of the whole clan as opposed to being thrust into the arms of strangers so that their parents can go to work to earn money and unlock some food for them.

My Apologies. I am tired and getting a little fussy headed. I would have tried to refute some of your other statements but I think you get my point. We, as humans, are not faulty. We don’t need fixing. Our civilization, which is based on faulty premises, is the culprit. We need to apply our formidable creative abilities to change our direction to one that is in sync with our environment. I am certain this is possible.

bob

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Great post John!

Steve Reuland Wrote:

However, I think there is definitely a psychological underpinning to people’s attitudes about each party (or ideology) and which one they identify with.

So what? That’s just saying that people’s views of the world, or their behavior, is influenced by psychology. Which is influenced by genes and the environment. Big deal - we already knew that. Matt was trying to imply that a particular group of people (US conservatives, loosely defined), at a particular point in time (the latter part of the 20th century/early part of the 21st century), are somehow emotionally deficient, which explains their policital preferences. But on what basis does he judge them to be deficient? If they are not deficient, then what was the point of his post? As John said, the idea that there is some kind of significant biological or physiological difference between US political conservatives and liberals is preposterous.

The only options for this kind of argument are 1) a vague general statement that doesn’t explain anything (i.e. behavior is influenced by psychology) or 2) a ludicrous statement that doesn’t explain anything and is not supported by any data (i.e. conservatives are emotionally different than liberals)

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Tom Curtis:

I’m sure your grasp of ecology exceeds mine; it’s not my area of expertise at all. I quite agree with your assessment of what we need to sustain current (and still growing!) global population levels. My reading is that the signs are everywhere, from the discouraging amount of seawater being pumped into Middle Eastern oil fields to flush out the remaining oil, to the great windrows of death stretching across the Pacific Ocean, to the global deforestation now past 50% of “original” forest and accelerating, to the dwindling effectiveness of pesticides and fertilizers to keep boosting crop yields on ever-decreasing acreage of arable land, and on ad nauseum. As David Suzuki says, we are burning medieval masterpieces to cook tonights meal, borrowing madly from tomorrow at ever increasing rates. Some days I get depressed.

But I don’t really expect a catastrophic crash. What I expect to happen is that things will get more expensive, some things faster than others, and people will generally reallocate their resources accordingly. Politicially, this puts me in an uncomfortable middle - the conservative side wishes to avoid contributing to future problems, seeing the do-gooder as a poker player staying in a hand he can’t stand to lose, in the hopes of drawing to an inside straight. The liberal side agrees that helping others is a good way to buy time, provided that the time in turn is being spent fixing what’s wrong, rather than just making it worse. I don’t want to see anyone starve today. It’s hard to convince myself that I’m not just trading a bad situation now for a worse one later.

As I wrote earlier, most starvation is currently political. Contrary to Robert Domingue’s appealing fantasies, what African tribes have is age-old animosities held in check by logistical limitations that American aid suddenly unbalances. The result is often genocide. Who gets into power and gets the aid (which is weapons directly or indirectly) gets to exterminate the hereditary enemy. Food aid rots on the docks controlled by the tribe in political power, because those starving are of the enemy tribe and feeding THEM would be sheer insanity! The world can still feed everyone fairly easily, assuming some workable distribution mechanism. I think a fairly free market would work fine, if it were allowed to operate despite tribal antipathies.

And yet, desertification is happening, and efforts to pump ever more water out of draining aquifers is failing. If God doesn’t hie Himself down here and start magicking pretty damn soon, His worshipers are going to start breeding at below replacement levels. Whether they like it or not.

What’s your best prospective new technology to avoid these difficulties? Fusion power? Beamed solar power from big orbital collectors? Abiotic oil discoveries? Running turbins from creationist hot air?

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Flint:

I must agree that we can only postulate on much of what occurred to any individual group of pre-history although the anthropologists are doing an enviable job of modeling the most probable events leading to the disappearance of some of these mysterious people. You are most likely correct about the Mayans for I see evidence of their survival in many of the faces I see around me. It is also true about droughts being a global problem in small areas but these people ranged very far at times. I also worry that these things will truly be on a global scale if the population remains unchecked. This was one of my original points.

You say that the Mayan didn’t give anything up but failed despite desperate measures. This is an example of a culture trying to ignore the natural laws and it just wouldn’t work when their technology fell behind the demands placed on it. With all the technology we have and will surely develop we will someday find ourselves in a similar position only will have nowhere to go. We won’t have any unused fresh land from which to start over.

Yes I guess we disagree on politics. According to you’re definition it would seem that all life is political in some sense. I see it as the manifestation of self-aware individuals and their penchant for possessions and power. Communism would have worked well in small groups and it did for millennia, they just didn’t call it communism.

You mention the Old Testament and I find this interesting. All of what you described is true but it has all occurred since the onset of our particular brand of agrarianism. Post 9000 BCE. That would be our present culture. Before then no one group had an interest in annihilating any other group just as the hyenas wouldn’t try to annihilate the buzzards. Competition is healthy. When God banished humans from the Garden of Eden his punishment was to make it so that they would have to work by the sweat of their brows (farming). Cain (farmer) killed his brother Abel (shepherd). This is a wonderful example of the struggle between the new agrarian society and the old nomadic one. The new society was able to produce more food than it needed allowing for an increase in population therefore demanding more room, growing more crops, proliferating, needing more room, ad infinitum. The nomads were holding their own with their population but were finding less and less land to use and eventually were assimilated or killed off.

I think you are confusing control with adaptation. As you said earlier we can fly. We do this not by ignoring the laws of physics but through understanding we can use them. Clothes don’t stop the cold. Houses don’t stop the storms. Crops and livestock were here aplenty before we started growing and raising. We are still at the mercy of the Gods.

You really believe that a child out of high school is able to survive in today’s world? We have more drug abuse, suicide, rampant sex, homeless, undereducated and confused children graduating from these institutions than at any other time in our history. Maybe you mean the colleges. They are not much better off because most see a bleak future . They have the same problems as stated above. Maybe you mean post-grads. Well, survival rate is getting better now but the numbers are getting much smaller. How many of our citizens are even getting a rudimentary education?

Lastly if you believe being human we cannot follow any course but one of continued technological growth and therefore population growth then we will surely be doomed as a species. If we insist on conquering our environment instead of being a part of it the results will be catastrophic.

Tom:

You seem to have an understanding of what I am trying to say and it may be idealistic in many ways. Perhaps there is a way to maintain a highly advanced society and yet remain natural to our environment. Primitive societies may have had short life spans but that didn’t get much better until recently. We now have a longer life expectancy through medicine but not necessarily a better life. Nasty and brutish, I don’t think they were nastier and more brutish than some of the people I have seen just in my lifetime. Now we can show our brutishness on a very large scale indeed. I will agree to primitives having strict moral codes but they worked for the group and were accepted by them. We, on the other hand, seem to have lost all moral grounds. I said earlier that primitive morality was very different from our own and now I realize why. We have none.

Of course we could never support a hunter-gatherer lifestyle now. We would need about eight more planets to do that given our current population. That is just not workable but we have to realize we are going to outstrip our resources and outrun our technology at our present pace. I only suggest that we learn from what worked in the past and try to apply some of the fundamentals of living in accordance with nature. For one thing we need to stop eliminating species of any form. We need to hold our food production down. It sounds harsh but this will naturally hold our population in check. I guess I’ll be labeled a Social Darwinist for that suggestion.

Robert D posted

We need to hold our food production down. It sounds harsh but this will naturally hold our population in check. I guess I’ll be labeled a Social Darwinist for that suggestion.

“Social Darwinist”? Nope. Much worse.

Stalin used that approach very effectively in Ukraine and the North Caucasus in 1932-33. Something on the order of 7 million people died in the artificially induced famine then. ‘Course, that’s just a drop in the bucket today, You’d need to starve a lot more than the measly 25,000 people per day who died in Stalin’s famine at its height to have any significant effect on world population growth.

RBH

Bob:

With all the technology we have and will surely develop we will someday find ourselves in a similar position only will have nowhere to go. We won’t have any unused fresh land from which to start over.

I agree this is a concern. I used an operational definition of global as “as far as we can transport food and still eat it.” For the Anisazi, this was a couple days walk, which bounded their world. For us, it is the entire planet. So if our technology does not catch up with our birthrate, where will 10 billion people go? Even if, as one scenario, the US is able to defend its borders during Tom’s catastrophe, the US still doesn’t exist in economic isolation; a healthy percentage of our wealth is imported. There may be no hiding place.

All of what you described is true but it has all occurred since the onset of our particular brand of agrarianism. Post 9000 BCE. That would be our present culture. Before then no one group had an interest in annihilating any other group just as the hyenas wouldn’t try to annihilate the buzzards.

Allow me to doubt this. Over even the last century, the outside world has discovered small non-agrarian tribes in the jungles of Malaysia, Brazil, even the Congo. And these tribes universally see exterminating their neighbors as a Good Thing, prevented only by logistical limitations. We SEE genocide on a large scale when US weapons can be pointed at the heriditary enemy. I don’t know why you pretend this isn’t true. (Also, the hyenas would have ahhihilated the buzzards long ago, if only they could. Occasionally they DO catch a buzzard, and they eat it quite happily.)

I think you are confusing control with adaptation. As you said earlier we can fly. We do this not by ignoring the laws of physics but through understanding we can use them. Clothes don’t stop the cold. Houses don’t stop the storms. Crops and livestock were here aplenty before we started growing and raising.

Hard to know how to phrase this. The temperature is indeed controlled inside your clothing, much as the storm is controlled inside your house. This is called controlling the environment. Crops were not “aplenty” before agriculture. Yes, plants grew wherever they could find resources, but people replaced some plants with others they found more useful. That’s environmental control. People are not biologically adapted to live in polar regions, but they live there by creating small (building and clothing-sized) temperate regions to live in.

You really believe that a child out of high school is able to survive in today’s world?

Survive, yes. Contribute? Very little. Advance our knowledge? No.

We have more drug abuse, suicide, rampant sex, homeless, undereducated and confused children graduating from these institutions than at any other time in our history.

This is a policy position not supported by the evidence. I agree we do have more reporting of these things than ever before, but your knowledge of history seems limited to what you’ve seen on TV in your lifetime, most of which pays no attention to cultures other than your own. You need to control for certain factors. Even in my father’s day, in most of the US, people graduating from rural high schools was far more the exception. My cousin was the first graduate ever from his rural high school, after nearly 50 years it had existed. There are indications that unwanted pregnancies are declining, as is homelessness and suicide.

If we insist on conquering our environment instead of being a part of it the results will be catastrophic.

I’m not sure what you mean. To control our environment is to be human. Being human may be fatal to our species for environmental reasons, but if so that’s how it will be. We aren’t going to become chimpanzees.

Nasty and brutish, I don’t think they were nastier and more brutish than some of the people I have seen just in my lifetime.

You weren’t there. You are like Johnny Carson’s wife, comparing a mere $45,000 a month to the million a month she USED to enjoy, and finding the deprivation intoleraby brutish and nasty. I suggest you spend some time in sub-Saharan Africa. Then come back and tell us what nasty and brutish really means.

We, on the other hand, seem to have lost all moral grounds. I said earlier that primitive morality was very different from our own and now I realize why. We have none.

This is simply silly. Instead of having none, we have too many moral viewpoints. Recall what I said about the meta-rules? Morality is what informs the meta-rules. We may disagree, but we AGREE to disagree. That’s meta-agreement. We aren’t required to agree on this blog, but we ARE required follow the rules of posting. Those who violate the rules (like the occasional spammer) get disappeared. When people have sufficiently different morality, they don’t share this level of agreement. Entirely moral on their own terms, they regard one another as being immoral. This becomes a political issue.

Consider the abortion debate. Those not favoring outlawing abortion are operating according to a powerful moral value - the value of freedom and liberty, of letting people make their own decisions when Big Brother has no compelling State need to force them against their will. Those favoring prohibition of abortion ALSO operate according to a powerful moral value - not to kill the innocent for any reason, ever. So which is “more moral”, freedom or preventing murder? Those on one side don’t consider abortion to be murder, those on the other side don’t think choice is freedom, but only license. This is a meta-disagreement, resulting from the application of incompatible moral standards. There is no shortage of morality here, but there IS a shortage of tolerance, compromise and accommodation.

I see a compelling need for humans to control their population voluntarily, because otherwise I have little doubt it will be controlled involuntarily. But not all control methods are created equal. Much better to reduce births than increase deaths. And much better if people perceive it to be in their inherent self-interest to do so (as happens in Western nations) than have birth control imposed on people who desperately despise it (as in China).

Now, how can we move toward this goal? Perhaps exporting education and knowledge beats exporting food.

Bob:

With all the technology we have and will surely develop we will someday find ourselves in a similar position only will have nowhere to go. We won’t have any unused fresh land from which to start over.

I agree this is a concern. I used an operational definition of global as “as far as we can transport food and still eat it.” For the Anisazi, this was a couple days walk, which bounded their world. For us, it is the entire planet. So if our technology does not catch up with our birthrate, where will 10 billion people go? Even if, as one scenario, the US is able to defend its borders during Tom’s catastrophe, the US still doesn’t exist in economic isolation; a healthy percentage of our wealth is imported. There may be no hiding place.

All of what you described is true but it has all occurred since the onset of our particular brand of agrarianism. Post 9000 BCE. That would be our present culture. Before then no one group had an interest in annihilating any other group just as the hyenas wouldn’t try to annihilate the buzzards.

Allow me to doubt this. Over even the last century, the outside world has discovered small non-agrarian tribes in the jungles of Malaysia, Brazil, even the Congo. And these tribes universally see exterminating their neighbors as a Good Thing, prevented only by logistical limitations. We SEE genocide on a large scale when US weapons can be pointed at the heriditary enemy. I don’t know why you pretend this isn’t true. (Also, the hyenas would have ahhihilated the buzzards long ago, if only they could. Occasionally they DO catch a buzzard, and they eat it quite happily.)

I think you are confusing control with adaptation. As you said earlier we can fly. We do this not by ignoring the laws of physics but through understanding we can use them. Clothes don’t stop the cold. Houses don’t stop the storms. Crops and livestock were here aplenty before we started growing and raising.

Hard to know how to phrase this. The temperature is indeed controlled inside your clothing, much as the storm is controlled inside your house. This is called controlling the environment. Crops were not “aplenty” before agriculture. Yes, plants grew wherever they could find resources, but people replaced some plants with others they found more useful. That’s environmental control. People are not biologically adapted to live in polar regions, but they live there by creating small (building and clothing-sized) temperate regions to live in.

You really believe that a child out of high school is able to survive in today’s world?

Survive, yes. Contribute? Very little. Advance our knowledge? No.

We have more drug abuse, suicide, rampant sex, homeless, undereducated and confused children graduating from these institutions than at any other time in our history.

This is a policy position not supported by the evidence. I agree we do have more reporting of these things than ever before, but your knowledge of history seems limited to what you’ve seen on TV in your lifetime, most of which pays no attention to cultures other than your own. You need to control for certain factors. Even in my father’s day, in most of the US, people graduating from rural high schools was far more the exception. My cousin was the first graduate ever from his rural high school, after nearly 50 years it had existed. There are indications that unwanted pregnancies are declining, as is homelessness and suicide.

If we insist on conquering our environment instead of being a part of it the results will be catastrophic.

I’m not sure what you mean. To control our environment is to be human. Being human may be fatal to our species for environmental reasons, but if so that’s how it will be. We aren’t going to become chimpanzees.

Nasty and brutish, I don’t think they were nastier and more brutish than some of the people I have seen just in my lifetime.

You weren’t there. You are like Johnny Carson’s wife, comparing a mere $45,000 a month to the million a month she USED to enjoy, and finding the deprivation intoleraby brutish and nasty. I suggest you spend some time in sub-Saharan Africa. Then come back and tell us what nasty and brutish really means.

We, on the other hand, seem to have lost all moral grounds. I said earlier that primitive morality was very different from our own and now I realize why. We have none.

This is simply silly. Instead of having none, we have too many moral viewpoints. Recall what I said about the meta-rules? Morality is what informs the meta-rules. We may disagree, but we AGREE to disagree. That’s meta-agreement. We aren’t required to agree on this blog, but we ARE required follow the rules of posting. Those who violate the rules (like the occasional spammer) get disappeared. When people have sufficiently different morality, they don’t share this level of agreement. Entirely moral on their own terms, they regard one another as being immoral. This becomes a political issue.

Consider the abortion debate. Those not favoring outlawing abortion are operating according to a powerful moral value - the value of freedom and liberty, of letting people make their own decisions when Big Brother has no compelling State need to force them against their will. Those favoring prohibition of abortion ALSO operate according to a powerful moral value - not to kill the innocent for any reason, ever. So which is “more moral”, freedom or preventing murder? Those on one side don’t consider abortion to be murder, those on the other side don’t think choice is freedom, but only license. This is a meta-disagreement, resulting from the application of incompatible moral standards. There is no shortage of morality here, but there IS a shortage of tolerance, compromise and accommodation.

I see a compelling need for humans to control their population voluntarily, because otherwise I have little doubt it will be controlled involuntarily. But not all control methods are created equal. Much better to reduce births than increase deaths. And much better if people perceive it to be in their inherent self-interest to do so (as happens in Western nations) than have birth control imposed on people who desperately despise it (as in China).

Now, how can we move toward this goal? Perhaps exporting education and knowledge beats exporting food.

RBH:

I wasn’t suggesting starving any individual groups of people. I was saying that with proper handling of the present food supplies we could sustain our population at its present level. Natural attrition will always occur. Stalin was trying to kill those people not trying to control population. That was a political maneuver and had nothing to do with trying to make life better for the Russians.

Flint:

I see that we agree on the effects of a population left unchecked. I think you are correct in asserting that knowledge is one of the keys to an effective answer to this problem. It would seem that zero population growth and education are indeed related. I also understand your viewpoint that political environments are preventing the flow of foodstuffs to the people who actually need them most. It would seem our efforts at trying to save certain groups from starvation are stymied by their very governments or rebels of said governments. The “Oil for Food” in Iraq comes to mind.

You doubt that a species would not kill off its competitors if given the chance. This is what I was talking about as a natural law. The Hyenas can’t kill off the buzzards. Unfortunately humans can do this but never tried to before we settled down into localized civilizations. At that point it became necessary to enable for expansion. I don’t pretend that we can’t cause total annihilation NOW. This is the point where we can and I sincerely hope we don’t.

Yes it is true we can control our environment locally. I still maintain this is simple adaptation. Stop the flow of oil to this country and how many of us would be able to continue their control of their personal environments?

I guess we are in somewhat of an agreeing point of view as to how our children are being prepared for their futures. Perhaps the problems associated with our society are better communicated than before and perhaps the frequency once again points to the larger numbers.

“ I’m not sure what you mean. To control our environment is to be human. Being human may be fatal to our species for environmental reasons, but if so that’s how it will be. We aren’t going to become chimpanzees.”

I don’t think being human has to be fatal. That would make our whole race a mistake although I do agree that we can easily make it fatal to ourselves and many other species. Does knowledge and technology necessarily have to run rampant over the world? I don’t know what you think of the possibilities of there being advanced, space traveling, societies but if there are any then they must have come to a similar crossroads in their evolution.

I’m sure life is nasty and brutish in the sub-Saharan but these are conditions brought about by our particular brand of politics.

As for morality, well I guess you’ve got me there. There are any number of religions, sects, alternate lifestyles, dogmas, and special agendas out there to choose from. I guess the difference is that we have to many differing opinions of what is moral. This was not a problem of the primitives. They agreed or left. Of course that’s not a possibility now. We have opened the floodgates and must deal with the rising waters.

Robert:

Well, just a few comments, since we seem to be repeating ourselves and going nowhere in particular.

Unfortunately humans can do this but never tried to before we settled down into localized civilizations.

The evidence is that human tribes not only tried, but often succeeded. We’re not going to agree that prehistoric (before written history) humans were somehow pastoral, peaceful, and cooperative between tribes. They were not.

Yes it is true we can control our environment locally. I still maintain this is simple adaptation.

Then I don’t know what you mean by adaptation. Humans live in more different climates than any other kind of mammal, and perhaps any other kind of anything, except what we carry with us. We don’t do this by “adapting” to different environments in a biological sense. We do this by forcing small parts of those environments to fit our requirements.

I don’t think being human has to be fatal. That would make our whole race a mistake

Existing has been fatal for every species not now living, and will surely be fatal for all current species as well. Our theories tell us that species go extinct for failure to compete effectively. The referee of this competition is the environment. But extinction isn’t a “mistake” (who would have made such a mistake? Nature? Nature simply is. The idea of a mistake implies intent, and nature has no intent). My concern is that we are altering our environment for our short-term gain and long-term disadvantage. We are in this respect perhaps similar to a too-virulent virus, which kills its hosts so quickly that it doesn’t have time to spread.

I’m sure life is nasty and brutish in the sub-Saharan but these are conditions brought about by our particular brand of politics.

Nope. These are conditions where technological fixes have NOT been applied. In those parts of the world, you are looking at as close to a “state of nature” as can any longer be found. Do you think that if the aliens were to bar all non-Africans from entering or influencing that continent in any way, that the nomadic tribes would suddenly invent air conditioners?

Flint:

It seems we are repeating ourselves and will probably not agree on many issues except that of the population and the problems associated with it.

“The evidence is that human tribes not only tried, but often succeeded. We’re not going to agree that prehistoric (before written history) humans were somehow pastoral, peaceful, and cooperative between tribes. They were not.”

I don’t know what evidence you are referring to and I never implied they were pastoral, peaceful and cooperative although I’m sure some tribes were. Trade has been around far longer than history. I maintain that whether they new it or not they allowed there competition to exist because it was an integral part of that ecologic system. They certainly new enough so as not to exhaust their food supplies.

“Then I don’t know what you mean by adaptation. Humans live in more different climates than any other kind of mammal, and perhaps any other kind of anything, except what we carry with us. We don’t do this by “adapting” to different environments in a biological sense. We do this by forcing small parts of those environments to fit our requirements.”

I guess if you see adaptation as purely biological then I must be wrong. I see technological adaptation also. Remove the technology or the resources fueling it then it will end quickly.

“Existing has been fatal for every species not now living, and will surely be fatal for all current species as well. Our theories tell us that species go extinct for failure to compete effectively. The referee of this competition is the environment. But extinction isn’t a “mistake” (who would have made such a mistake? Nature? Nature simply is. The idea of a mistake implies intent, and nature has no intent). My concern is that we are altering our environment for our short-term gain and long-term disadvantage. We are in this respect perhaps similar to a too-virulent virus, which kills its hosts so quickly that it doesn’t have time to spread.”

Boy, that’s a mouthful. Strangely enough I have often wondered if the human race is some sort of a virus or plague. We are acting like one in relation to our ecosystem. You say species go extinct for failure to compete. That does not apply to us. We are the kings of competition. We can and probably will destroy all life on this planet and ourselves also. My whole premise is that we haven’t failed to compete but that we have become far to good at it. That is why the only competition left is ourselves. You also imply that nature just is and not able to make a mistake. We will become extinct naturally. How does this figure with you’re theory that we control the environment. If this is true we will simply not allow it to make us extinct.

“Nope. These are conditions where technological fixes have NOT been applied. In those parts of the world, you are looking at as close to a “state of nature” as can any longer be found. Do you think that if the aliens were to bar all non-Africans from entering or influencing that continent in any way, that the nomadic tribes would suddenly invent air conditioners?”

I don’t think these people care about air conditioners. Leave them alone and they will survive. Leave them enough land and don’t try to hunt down their food and they will survive as they always have without our help or our moral values which debases them as humans.

This debate has bee a pleasure. I look forward to more in the future.

bob

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This page contains a single entry by John S. Wilkins published on October 22, 2004 9:42 PM.

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