Thursday, 26 May 2016

“Innate” ≠ “inevitable”

I’m old enough, and Left enough, to remember when science was merely a tool of the patriarchal Western capitalist military-industrial hegemony. If you tried to argue a scientific point that seemed to be in conflict with leftist politics – even to demonstrate that it wasn’t, in fact, in conflict with leftist politics – people would refer you to Thomas Kuhn, assure you that a “paradigm shift” was on its way, and change the subject. I never could see why Kuhn was supposed to be so liberatory. If science is constrained by “paradigms” which are themselves determined by politics, then politics dictates what’s a fact and what’s not. This would imply that power controls the truth as it controls everything else, and therefore there can be no such thing as an inconvenient truth wherewith one might challenge power.

Thankfully science is much more accepted among people of my political persuasion now than it was fifteen years ago. Contrary to the dire warnings we Humanities students used to congratulate ourselves – sometimes for hours at a time – on grasping, we now seem as a result to be more critical, not less, of scientific concepts served up in the media. But this is an overall trend, not (hah) a paradigm shift. There are still plenty of people about who will criticize science on the basis that it doesn’t suit the Left and think they’re being helpful. And last week I came across one such criticism, in the form of this address by John Horgan to the Northeast Conference on Science and Scepticism.

I’m not going to pull apart the whole thing. That’s already been done by others, such as David Gorski and Steve Novella. Horgan has a bee in his bonnet about something he calls the “deep roots theory of war”, most famously promulgated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Broadly, this means the idea that human societies have always known war, going back to our common ancestor with chimpanzees. It’s hard to determine exactly what Horgan thinks is wrong with this idea; the goalposts in his discussions of it are stricken with chronic wanderlust. He’ll flag up particular archaeological sites where relatively few of the skeletons show signs of violence and go “Well, these people didn’t have deep roots of war in their nature!” He’ll flag up sites where there are a lot of signs of violence and say “This was murder, not war – yet another mark against the deep-roots theory!”

For the record, I disagree with Steven Pinker’s position on a lot of political questions. I don’t think warning women to dress conservatively reduces rape or sexual harassment. I’m broadly in favour of trigger warnings and safe spaces (without denying the possibility of excesses in their application). If crime rises when the police lose the public trust, then I think it is the police’s responsibility to win back that trust. I consider nuclear power at best a stop-gap measure against climate change, since uranium is unrenewable, and I fear that long-term accumulation of radioactive waste may seed a different, but equally acute, global environmental problem. I think disinvesting in fossil fuels is a good idea while we’re waiting for the world’s governments to divorce Big Oil and bring in a universal carbon tax. But I’m not going to dismiss Pinker’s contributions to the science of humanity just because politics would be easier if some of them weren’t true, and I’m especially not going to castigate him for two opposite and mutually incompatible faults, as Horgan does on the deep-roots-of-war issue.

Horgan gets away with this because he does it in two different places and in one of them he does it by insinuation. In the NECSS address, he says

The deep-roots theory is promoted by scientific heavy hitters like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Edward Wilson...
I hate the deep-roots theory not only because it’s wrong, but also because it encourages fatalism toward war...
But war is a really hard target. Most people – most of you, probably – dismiss world peace as a pipe dream. Perhaps you believe the deep-roots theory.

He doesn’t actually say that this is Pinker’s own position, but the implication is there, hanging in the air, and if you were unfamiliar with Pinker’s work it’s how you would naturally interpret what Horgan is telling you about him. Elsewhere, however, he contrasts Pinker with a guy called John Gray who also believes that war goes back into the pre-human past and, unlike Pinker, really does think that that makes it inevitable. In that piece, Horgan sums up Pinker’s position as

Pinker implies that all we have to do is sit back and conflict will continue to decline.

What Pinker actually says is

The decline [in violence through history], to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature p. xxi
Declines in violence are caused by political, economic, and ideological conditions that take hold in particular cultures at particular times. If the conditions reverse, violence could go right back up.
ibid. p. 361
As a scientist, I must be sceptical of any mystical force or cosmic destiny that carries us ever upward. Declines of violence are a product of social, cultural, and material conditions. If the conditions persist, violence will remain low or decline even further; if they don’t, it won’t.
ibid. p. 671

Pinker’s thesis on deadly violence in prehistoric non-state societies is based on the proportion of skeletal remains, across dozens of studies, that show signs of perimortem injuries inflicted by weapons. This proportion varies widely from one culture to another, but the average – even disregarding outliers – is orders of magnitude higher than for modern state societies. (This might be due to some kind of bias; that is, there might be a yet-undiscovered process that selectively preserves violently-killed skeletons, but only from non-state societies, across the world and throughout human prehistory. Want to bet?) Whether any particular killing is better categorized as war or murder is irrelevant to Pinker’s case, which is about the historical decline in violence generally. Horgan responds by arguing, repeatedly and at great length, against a proposition Pinker never made.

What could it even mean for human nature to have an “innate drive to war” as Horgan insists his opponents claim? I would have thought it meant that humans have instincts which, under some circumstances, lead us to try to kill one another. But that’s not the point Horgan’s arguing against, because in this article he concedes it:

Do our predispositions toward aggression underpin outbreaks of lethal violence, including war? Of course they do, but that doesn’t mean war is innate, any more than it means hockey is innate.

What could an “innate drive to war” possibly be, besides a predisposition towards potentially lethal aggression? War is when groups of people kill groups of other people. Does Horgan deny that people naturally collaborate in groups to achieve our aims? Or that we naturally (deplorably) treat outsider groups as homogeneous units less worthy of life and respect than our own? Perhaps Horgan thinks it doesn’t count as a “drive to war” unless all of those propensities are bound up into a single biological package, in which case he may pat himself on the back; they aren’t. But Horgan further argues that, therefore, war must be a “recent cultural innovation”. This doesn’t follow. If our pre-human ancestors had all the psychosocial factors which, combined, lead to war, then they will at least sometimes have gone down that path.

To be sure, wars between tribes or bands differ in a significant way from wars between chiefdoms or states. In either one, if you’re a warrior or a soldier facing an enemy warrior or soldier, the best outcome (seeing as he’s your enemy) is that you live and he dies, and the worst outcome is that he lives and you die. But there’s a big difference in the relative value placed on the two intermediate outcomes, where both of you live or both of you die. Other things being equal, humans naturally prefer the we-both-live scenario. Tribal and band warfare therefore typically proceeds on that basis. Pitched battles between such small-scale societies tend to involve more shouting and intimidation than actual violence.

Anthropologists have witnessed these events and come away with the false impression that tribal warriors don’t do much killing – false, because most of the killing happens in ambushes and surprise raids, where the risks are highly asymmetric, and where anthropologists are generally not invited. In larger societies, warmongering chiefs and governments reverse the natural preference (so that two deaths are better than none) by using pretty-sounding words like “courage” and “sacrifice” and instilling fierce group loyalty in their soldiery. That is a recent cultural innovation, on the timescale of our species. Unfortunately Horgan has made it clear that that’s not what he means.

Between Horgan’s bluster and the nomadic goalposts in his arguments, I am quite certain that his opposition to the “deep-roots theory” has nothing to do with whether it is true or not. In his NECSS address he attributes to his audience an egregious, and woefully widespread, scientific error. I am unclear whether he himself commits it or whether he has despaired of curing his audience of it. He makes it explicit immediately after the passage I quoted above. Here it is:

Most people – most of you, probably – dismiss world peace as a pipe dream. Perhaps you believe the deep-roots theory. If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?

Let me just draw it out for you again.

If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?

No. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. That doesn’t follow at all. It is a complete, utter, thoroughgoing non sequitur. It is not remotely the case that whatever is innate is therefore inevitable. There is not the slightest sliver of truth to it. Present-day public discourse on any issue that falls within the overlap of politics and human behavioral science – be it war, be it sexual violence, be it IQ, be it gender roles – constantly revolves around this false dichotomy between “Bad outcome X has biological roots, therefore it is inevitable and we just have to put up with it” and “We shouldn’t have to put up with bad outcome X, therefore it is a social construct with no biological basis”. Over and over again the innate-equals-inevitable fallacy has prevented us from moving ahead and finding real solutions. I am sick of it. I have had enough. I want to stop playing intellectual Whack-a-Mole with it now, please.

Is that emphatic enough yet? Not remotely. It’s time for me to stop reiterating and start presenting supporting arguments, but I want you to be clear that that isn’t because I have now made my point sufficiently strongly. I haven’t. Here’s an example of a thing which is innate and biological but not remotely inevitable:

That’s me in the middle, on my second day in Japan about six months ago now. My partner took this photo while we three in the frame were looking at a different camera belonging to a friend of the other two people pictured. You’ll notice a big difference between my face and theirs, which is probably the main reason they wanted the photo. (I soon learned to recognise the word ō-hige and to respond with the explanation “Kesa shēbingu wasuremashita.”) In the case of the people shown in this image, I’d bet good money that that difference is solely due to biology. On Horgan’s logic, therefore, we would have to conclude that beards are a tragic but inevitable fact of life. But wait! What is this?

A slightly older photo. This is me and my brother (I’ll let you guess which is which) on the day of his wedding. I can assure you that he has exactly the same biological propensity to beardedness as I do. This is overwhelming evidence that the deep-roots-of-beardedness hypothesis is deeply flawed. Beardedness varies widely by culture and can change quickly with fashion, as we in the English-speaking world have seen in the last three years or so. Surely, then, beards are socially and culturally constructed, and any biological hypothesis needs to be subjected to acute poststructural academic critical scrutiny and then rejected.

I wouldn’t be employing such heavy-handed sarcasm if this concept didn’t, in my experience, need it. Have I got my point across now? Do we accept that it is possible (and common, and unparadoxical) for something to be both biological and cultural? Can we move on?

Of course that’s only half the battle. Some biological phenomena are easily altered by personal choice and therefore amenable to cultural transformation; others are less so. If I chose to I could become a beardless person in five minutes in my own bathroom with only superficial tissue damage. But what if I decided to exchange my bass singing voice for soprano? There nothing short of major surgery and lifelong hormone treatment would suffice. Aggression and groupishness might be like beards, easy to sculpt; or they might – if you didn’t know anything else about them – be like a bass voice, something you’re stuck with. How do we tell?

Well, we tell by comparing violence and groupish behaviour in different societies with different cultural, economic, and geographical conditions. This is what Pinker has done, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and what Horgan has failed to do with all his sniping at the “deep roots theory”. If Pinker is right, war has been whittled away by democracy, trade, international cooperation, modern communications technology, and the increasing presence of women in political power. (He considers and rejects the idea that nuclear weapons have helped.) The major obstacle to peace is not that war has biological roots; it’s that the first guy to put his gun down is a sitting duck. Whether Pinker has correctly identified the social and cultural factors that reduce violence is a question which he himself admits is still open. But there is no longer any doubt that there exist some social and cultural factors that reduce violence. Can they be pushed to the point where there is no more war? It’s got to be worth a try.

In the meantime, can we please remember that the time when the Left scorned science and put values ahead of facts was also the time when it lost political relevance and ceded power to the neoliberal Right for a generation?

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