Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Applying Barzel: cognition, belief, unions, class

It is a sign of how penetrating book of analysis is that it expands your understanding of matters beyond what the author consider directly in their book. I found that very much to be the case in Prof. Yoram Barzel’s Economic Analysis of Property Rights, which I reviewed in my previous post. So I consider below some applications of his analysis that occurred to me but did not figure in his book.

Consider Barzel’s notion that humans-as-maximisers is perfectly reasonable provided one takes in all applying constraints. Simple concepts of humans-as-maximisers analyse behaviour as if every decision will be fully considered on every occasion—that is, cognition and information are costless. But they are not. Thinking takes time and effort, as does gathering information. So, given such constraints, genuine maximisers will use habits and routines, saving on time and effort.

Moreover, the benefits of cognition depend on one’s capacity to do so. So, the less able one is at thinking, the more one will tend to rely on habits and routines and, in particular, the more one will tend to rely on “piggy-backing” on other folk’s decisions. (Hence John Stuart Mill’s observation that stupid people tend to be conservative: Walter Bagehot famously characterised British politics as the battle between the stupid party and the silly party.) There are all sorts of complexities here, however. Those less able at cognition are still going to tend to be much better informed about their own situation than someone else is. As the saying goes, a stupid man can put on his own trousers better than a wise man can do it for him.
The nature of the matter being considered is also important. Thus, the effects of of a belief for the believer will generally be much more subject to feedback to the believer than will the effects of implementing said belief on others. So beliefs that operate as status-markers will have much stronger feedback in terms of their status effect than in terms of their implications for other folk. Hence, dramatically increasing the number of folk who traffic in ideas (e.g. expanding higher education) but who are insulated from the consequences of their ideas for others (e.g. by having tenure, by working in tax-paid institutions) will tend to lower the quality of the ideas being trafficked in (in terms of wider social consequences) but, via feedback effects, increase their role as status-markers.

Transaction costs
Expressing a belief is a form of transaction. Barzel makes much of the characteristics of the transaction as being crucial to understanding how folk will behave. So, for example, as wages rise, workers will tend to move towards self-employment since they will be more able to cope with income variability (p.151).

Consider union officials (not an example Barzel uses). Union officials act as negotiation and risk management agents for workers. Union officials will prefer labour remuneration to be centralised (i.e. channelled through mechanisms they deal with) and complex (divided up into lots of allowances, benefits, etc, particularly deferred and contingent benefits). Complexity increases the union officials' importance to workers as managers of complexity and provide specific measures of their performance (in terms of identified allowances gained) while contingency (e.g. sick leave) and deferral (e.g. firm-specific superannuation) encourage workers to stay "in place".

Workers, however, will generally tend to prefer remuneration to be direct (less time-constraining), simple (easy for them to understand and manage directly) and flexible (so they can shift along various margins, such as hours of work, as convenient for them). So, the larger the aggregation of workers in similar situations (e.g. in manufacturing, construction, public service, etc), thereby having fewer coordination problems, the more unionised they are likely to be.

Thus—unless there are countervailing pressures—as the possibilities of employment diversity increase (particularly true for service industries) and wages (or, at least, household incomes) increase generally, workers will have less tolerance for the gap between their interests and those of union officials, whose utility as negotiation and risk management agents will decline. So unionisation will tend to decline (i.e. fewer workers with transact with union officials as their agents) and will do so more in the private sector than in the public sector.

Indeed, to the extent that union officials impede the application of capital to labour, unions will actually tend to reduce overall living standards and wages. Also, unions are, as coercive bodies, effectively substitutes for state action in the provision of various public goods to workers. The more “hostile” or “indifferent” the state, the more utility there is in union action for workers. The more services the state provides which are genuinely useful for workers—and not connected to union membership—and the more competition from other agents for such (e.g. lawyers), the less benefit unions can provide and the less workers will transact with union officials for services.

In Australia, Bill Kelty’s union amalgamations and centralisations aggravated the process, by increasing the distance between officials and members without any significant economies of scale gains—not a single union official position was abolished as a result of the amalgamations. Thus unionisation declined faster in the outlying States, with greater distance and difference between members and the Sydney or Melbourne headquarters.

Such declines in unionisation are not signs that workers are becoming more stupid, or some are more stupid than others, or that they are increasingly deluded. It is a rational response to shifting circumstances.

As Barzel demonstrates with a wide range of examples, transaction cost analysis has the capacity to greatly improve understanding. Classical Marxism missed the implications of marginal analysis, being stuck on the (false) labour theory of value, so all profit is exploitation, loss and risk of loss are, at best, minor issues, etc. Yet avoidance of loss and risk management are crucial to understanding economic behaviour, particularly commercial behaviour.

Marxism (and its Post-Marxism derivatives) also misses the implications of transaction cost analysis. Assuming, for example, that there are no coordination problems for classes so they can be analysed as coherent historical agents. So all capitalists act together, all landlords act together and so on, as coordination is costless—there are no search costs, no information costs, no monitoring costs, no divergent interests. Scarcity (e.g. of capital) can be unproblematically analysed as monopoly.

Which is nonsense, of course. A firm owner has rather more severe conflicts of interest with his or her competitors than with his or her workers (otherwise firms couldn’t exist). Conversely, the power of unions rests on excluding competing workers (known as “scabs”).

But, by assuming that all capital is held by capitalists and that capitalists have no coordination problems, it follows in Marxian economic logic that, since capitalism is very good at generating capital, the power of capitalists will increase against workers who will become poorer and poorer (either relatively or absolutely)—the immiseration thesis. Which is completely false. Capitalism does generate more and more capital, but that capital is held more and more widely. (So capitalists are, if anything, less and less able to coordinate as a group.) Labour becomes more and more scarce vis-a-vis capital. So the value of labour goes up and up via bidding processes as capitalists bid for increasingly scarce labour. So workers become wealthier and wealthier with higher and higher incomes. (Though, clearly, if women enter the workforce in significant numbers and there is large-scale migration, the scarcity effect for labour from growth in capital will be reduced, particularly for lower skilled workers.)

Note that there is nothing here that bars regularities in behaviour based on class. People in similar situations will tend to act in similar ways. Without such regularities in behaviour, society and social analysis would be equally impossible. But class is hardly the only socially significant line of commonality/difference

Of course, since coordination is a public good, the one body able to relatively easily provide that public good is the state. Hence the necessity of state action (or some other coercive body: organised crime is a coercive rival to state action) to produce genuine, systematic exploitation—and the state with the most overweening power (Stalin’s Soviet Union) was the most effectively exploitative, though North Korea is also extremely exploitative. (In developed societies, unions typically come second in power to enforce coordination, hence their utility for enforcing cartels, such as the Australian waterfront.)

These are just some of the ways Yoram Barzel’s transaction cost and property rights analysis can make the social world around us clearer.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Economic Analysis of Property Rights

Here’s an historical puzzle: slaves cannot own property, they are property. Yet slaves did, on occasion, buy their own freedom. How can someone not legally entitled to own anything assemble enough wealth to buy their own freedom?

Because there is a difference between property rights recognised by law and property rights in the sense of the ability to use or control something. If this was not so, there would be no point to theft.

The puzzle of slaves buying their own freedom is how Prof. Yoram Barzel (fulsome tribute here) introduces the reader to the Economic Analysis of Property Rights. (He expands on the economics of slavery later in the book.)

There is shift underway in economics from the analysis of decision-makers (firms, consumers, workers, etc) to the analysis of transactions and groups of transactions, based on Ronald Coase’s development of transaction cost analysis. Barzel’s work is very much part of that shift. Thus, for example, he has a nice critique of the production function analysis of firms (pp 66-67).

His book is a difficult read, partly because his language is somewhat technical (the book could do with a glossary) and partly because what he is trying to explain is a different way of looking at transactions, one that is comfortable with complexity. It is a sufficiently difficult, yet revealing, read that, having finished it, I immediately went back to the beginning and read it through again.
Barzel is very comfortable with the notion of agents as maximisers—provided we take into account all the constraints they are acting under. Consider cognition (not an example he uses). Simple concepts of humans-as-maximisers analyse behaviour as if every decision will be fully considered on every occasion—that is, cognition and information are costless. But they are not. Thinking takes time and effort, as does gathering information. So, given such constraints, genuine maximisers will use habits and routines, saving on time and effort.

Barzel’s first basic point is that the characteristics of the transaction are crucial to understanding how folk will behave. So, for example, as wages rise, workers will tend to move towards self-employment since they will be more able to cope with income variability (p.151). (I will discuss some applications of Barzel on transaction costs in my next post.)

Property rights

Barzel’s other basic point is that property rights are pervasive. Particularly if one realise the commodities are typically bundles of attributes that can be allocated in various ways. I was particularly taken with his analysis of insurance and warranties as methods of transferring ownership (pp 60-62). A fire insurer is someone paid to own the fire occurrence attribute of a building (which has negative value, hence the insurer has to be paid to own it). Insurance contracts make sense as ways of allocating attributes to those who are best able to efficiently deal with them. As do warranties. The manufacturer is the most efficient owner of, for example, the coolant-leak attribute of a fridge. Warranties assume ownership of such attributes with restrictions taking into account comparative risks to the parties and the likely behaviour of the other (similarly with insurance contracts).

Another striking Barzel example is property rights in wildlife (Pp145-7). In the UK, farms tend to be larger than habitats, so property rights to wildlife are largely held privately as habitats are largely encompassed within private holdings. In Canada and the US, farms tend to be smaller than habitats, so the state assumes much more control over wildlife, as habitats generally extend across several, or even many, holdings.

A central question with property rights is what rights are left in the public domain (and so often subject to wastage problems) and what are captured by private users. Such capture is not costless, so the more valuable the attribute and the easier rights are delineated, the more likely it is to be captured. The more attributes are allocated to their efficient owners, the more productive the social system is likely to be.

One of the general features of mainstream economics is that it typically has much more sophisticated analysis of public-private boundaries than what passes for such analysis in much of the (non-economic) Left. Barzel raises that sophistication to another level again. Thus, he explains how government-imposed restrictions can increase the value of an attribute against the presumption of many economists that all restrictions by government on property impede efficient allocation. For example, government restrictions on how water rights can be used in arid Western States of the US increases the value of the water rights held (Pp 118-121). But that is essentially an expansion on Barzel’s discussion of restrictions in contracts generally.

The application of Barzel’s analysis to prudential financial regulation seems likely to be fruitful, perhaps even urgent.

On restrictions increasing value, consider the difference between what Paul Krugman calls Zoned Zone, where land use is highly controlled, and Flatland where it is not. If official permission is required to use some plot of land for housing, then control of the attribute “suitable for housing” is shared between the landowner and an official. Clearly this, of itself, can only reduce the amount of land used for housing, it cannot increase it. Reducing supply raises prices, which makes incumbent housing more valuable, pleasing many voters; increases property and transaction taxes, increasing official revenue; and generates income for political parties from developers needing official access making donations. So officials have many reasons to be restrictive in approving housing construction. This creates a one-way bet in house values. Houses thereby become inflation-beating assets (which is by no means an automatic feature of them). Such apparent one-way bets in asset values being the classic basis of asset bubbles.

Barzel notes ironically that “command” economies were less able to keep air and water out of the public domain (i.e. region not controlled by anyone) than capitalist states, hence they were reduced to much lower value (i.e. suffered much worse pollution) than in capitalist states (p.135). But this is easily explained by applying his analysis.

Socialism pools attributes together. This is useful for the functional holder of the attributes—officials—as they are subject to much less restrictions and have much wider ambit of action thereby. (Barzel in his analysis rejects the notion that there is a nebulous “state” which acts, focusing instead on decision-makers. In his analysis, bureaucrats, like workers, have property rights—attributes they can control use of.) But socialism (in the sense of government ownership) pools together producing and regulating. So producers will clearly be subject to far less regulatory restraint and so capture far more of the public domain for their own benefit (e.g. pollute more thoroughly, produce lower quality goods, be less efficient in production, etc.). Though, as Barzel points out, they own (i.e. control) the public vocabulary, which helps obscure the effect (a phenomenon hardly unknown in Western society). Allocating the production and regulatory attributes to different bodies delineates rights much more clearly leading to public domain being less used for private purposes and hence better overall performance.

Barzel claims that, given constraints, all production is efficient (p.138): but efficient for the decision-makers, not necessarily for the wider society. The problem with socialism is precisely that its pooling of attributes impedes their efficient allocation for the wider society.

Barzel has a particularly striking analysis of equity capital (pp80-84). Equity capital is analysed as “guarantee capital”, providing the final guarantee for variability in income (since it is the owner who covers any shortfall in revenue: up to the point of the firm going bankrupt). A firm is defined by the scope of its equity guarantees. Since there is no definitive answer to which transactions will be market/priced and will be non-market/“in house" due to the variable circumstances of specific transactions, Barzel holds that it is better to concentrate on forms of organisations and allocation of attributes.

Taking that point further, government ownership makes taxpayers the residual claimants (the guarantors of income variability). But their ability to control the relevant attributes is extremely tenuous, as Victorian and South Australian taxpayers found to their cost with the Tricontinental, VEDC and State Bank of South Australia debacles. Hence it is generally better than such attributes be allocated to private shareholders with greater control (such as being able to exit by selling). Though Murray Horn’s analysis does suggest that—in cases where officials just cannot stop meddling—it might be better for the taxpayer’s to assume the ownership rather than forcing the costs thereof on private shareholders. (Telstra™ shareholders may have a view on this.)

To take another example of applying Barzel’s analytical structure, consider the tendency of large corporations to pay higher wages and salaries than small businesses. Large corporations are less able to determine attributes of workers and monitor their direct contribution to output than small businesses. They are also better able to absorb the risk of error and variability in attribution. Paying workers more means the workers have more to risk from loss of position, so are more self-policing than they would otherwise be. (Of course, on the imbalance-of-power analysis of exchange relations, corporations should typically pay less than smaller businesses, just as large supermarkets should price higher than corner shops. Which is clearly contradicted by how things actually work.)

Barzel is seeking to create a structure of analysis that can cope usefully with a complex world. It is one that seeks to focus careful attention on the actual characteristics of transactions, commodities, attributes and so forth. He is particularly interested in criticising economic analyses that either assume costless transactions (the simple Walrasian model, though he acknowledges its power in dealing with many aspects of capitalist economies) or which fail to specify where the costs of transactions lie.

But, as I will discuss further in my next post, Barzel’s analysis is even more powerful in undermining other forms of simplicity in analysis. Particularly policy preferences that have much less to do with the characteristics of the problems they are alleged solutions to and much more to do with the typical characteristics of the advocates (providers of easily or already politicised intellectual capital). Hence, whatever the purpose—helping workers, the poor, third world development, indigenous development or environmental protection—the solution advocated by the possessors of such capital is typically versions of the same—the government should do it since that maximises the ambit of action of such intellectual capital (and its status).

Which has not proved to be a notably successful path. Consider third world development. Typically, the most corrupt, exploitative and disfunctional element in developing countries is the state. Indeed, that is the largest single reason why they are poor countries. So, naturally, the advice has been that the state should do a whole lot more—and hasn’t that worked well? Systems which permit much more efficient allocation of attributes have worked much better in achieving increases in prosperity. But such systems do not give any particular premium to such forms of intellectual capital. Barzel’s approach of accepting a complex world and trying to carefully understand that while presuming folk are folk (that is, officials are people too, not magical purveyors of public purposes) is much more useful.

Barzel manages to cover a wide range of phenomenon, with many engaging examples which provoke one to extend his analysis to new examples. It is a powerful and striking structure of analysis.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

This Side of Nirvana

This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist is a personal memoir about a Southern American woman’s experience with dharma.

The back cover has a nice quote from the author, Sara Jenkins:
The path does not require that we approach it with noble intentions. What I brought to my spiritual seeking was the one thing I had going for me all along, although it took time to recognise its importance – the sincerity of my simple wish to be happy.
The book is about overcoming a deep restlessness and finding a place to be. We start with a brief descriptions of 1970s seeking (including the standard Hindu guru) before delving into the author’s steadily increasing engagement with Buddhism marked out by the people she meets on the way.

Two key figures are Jane, a Buddhist-oriented therapist and Cheri, a noted Buddhist teacher and guide. Sara thinks Jane is wonderful, and is devastated when Jane announces she will no longer act as Sara’s therapist. The book conveys the pain of this very well, but also Sara’s dawning realisation that, actually, Jane had a point – therapy should be an aid, not a permanent crutch.
I was struck by the suggestion of one teacher (p.54) that Jane explore the similarities between phenomenology and Buddhism, given that reading the analysis of Heidegger’s thought in Mark Lilla’s splendid The Reckless Mind, it seemed to be just ersatz Buddhism. (Further comments here.)

The appeal of This Side of Nirvana is very much in the familiarity and ordinariness of the author’s concerns.
You don’t have what you want, or you have it and now it’s not enough, or it’s fine but you are not enough? You can blame the world, you can make excuses or you can run away to that promised land where everything will be exactly as you want it, always and forever. The third option had always been my first choice.(p.58).
Her grappling with how to understand herself and the world around her, how to do and benefit from meditation are appealing in their sheer ordinary familiarity.

Cheri seems full of perceptive common sense:
We tend to think, ‘Sitting is all well and good, but I have something important to do. I just don’t have the time.’ But the real trick of it is finding the willingness. When we’re willing, everything is easy. There’s plenty of time, plenty of opportunity, plenty of energy. A large part of finding that willingness is letting go of the notions about fitting our spiritual practice into a certain framework. We can’t fit spiritual training into our lives: we must fit our lives into spiritual training. When it begins to dawn on us that there is no life apart from spiritual training, then we begin to practice. (p.112)
Which is not a point about not having a life, not being a parent, husband, lover, friend or worker, but about pervading whatever we do with what we truly decide is important (and being open with ourselves about our real decision, as distinct from our pretences to ourselves).

Another of Cheri’s comments struck home to me:
I hardly ever recommend people read about Buddhism, because they tend to do that instead of meditating. But you might take a look at some of the original Buddhist texts. What little I’ve read in them sounds pretty psychological to me. It’s amazing to find all these things we experience today right there in teachings from twenty-five hundred years ago (p.200).
Again and again, the trick seems to be to keep asking why. To dig below the surface feeling, the surface belief, the surface claim (particularly those we make to ourselves) to see what is really going on. And to make sure that our asking is really examining, rather than a surreptitious (or not so surreptitious) surrender, a trapping within, which is itself the problem. Illusion, is not about the world not existing, but about our falling into certain standard cognitive traps about the world and ourselves. What is particularly engaging about This Side of Nirvana is precisely that the author makes no profound claims about herself: she simply has had a productive journey and is kind enough to share it with us.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Darwinian Fairytales

So You Think You're a Darwinian? is the title of a philosophical journal article by philosopher David Stove. Darwinian Fairytales is a posthumously published book of essays attacking Darwinism, including said article.

David Stove was a very great admirer of Charles Darwin. He believed that the theory of natural selection was an enormous contribution to science. He believed that it is overwhelmingly probable that humans evolved from some other animal. He further believed that Darwinism was, as applied to humans, an obviously false, and, indeed, a ludicrous, slander on human beings.

David Stove was an atheist. There is no solace for the religious in this book. (Indeed, it is rare to read a book so bluntly dismissive of religious claims.) He appreciates the power of the traditional argument from Design, which he thinks a very powerful argument. It is simply not true.
The attack on Darwinism (note, not on natural selection) in Darwinian Fairytales starts with the very first paragraph:
If Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition to survive: a competition in which only a few of any generation can be winners. But it is perfectly obvious that human life is not like that, however it may be with other species.
This inconsistency, between Darwin’s theory and the facts of human life, is what I mean by 'Darwinism’s Dilemma'.
In this first Essay (Darwinism’s Dilemma), Stove identifies three ways of dealing with the inconsistency: the Cave Man (human life used to be like that but, at some unspecified time, stopped being so); the Hard Man (actually, it still is, we are just deluding ourselves) and the Soft Man (we will just ignore the inconsistency). Both the first two responses are clearly false and last is obviously not a solution.

If, at any stage, one is inclined to think that people don’t actually believe such things, he has plenty of quotes (notably from Charles Darwin himself) to show that they do (or, at least, say they do): often at the start of the relevant essay. So, Essay I has Thomas Huxley:
…in the state of nature…[human] life was a continual free fight,
Essay II Charles Darwin:
every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers.
I trust none of my readers will be in any doubt that both these claims are false, and egregiously so.

Humans (and other animals) cooperate. Quite a lot. They play. Humans (and some other animals) exhibit altruism. Some humans embrace celibacy. Human mothers are not indifferent to baby snatching. (On strict Darwinian theory, mothers should be delighted if some other female is silly enough to invest in raising their child. Richard Dawkins—a frequent target of David’s intellectual demolition—actually noted that
it is, after all, to [a woman’s] advantage that her child should be adopted.
Humans simply do not behave as Darwinian theory says they do. Indeed, they do not come even close to behaving in such a way.

Which is not an argument against natural selection (natural selection merely requires heritable variance and constrained resources). Fairly clearly, what genes are passed on (or not) is determinative of how things evolve. They are, however, fatal objections to a particular conception of how animals, particularly humans, behave: and of how those selection processes work.

In Essay 2 Where Darwin First Went Wrong About Man, David identifies Thomas Malthus’s principle of population as where Darwin went wrong. Which is somewhat awkward, since it was reading Malthus’s Essay on Population (which I reviewed here) that gave Darwin (and A. R. Wallace) the mechanism to explain what drove natural selection.

The Malthus-Darwin theory is that organisms vary and that the population of organisms is always pressing on, or tending to multiply beyond, its supply of food. The latter generates the selection process upon the former to produce natural selection.

Now, that organisms are limited in number by the supply of food is obviously true. But they always multiply up to that limit is much more dubious the more cognitively complex the species in question and is obviously false for humans. Reading David Stoves’s critique of Darwinism brings out very clearly why folk believe false theories. Typically, because they are partly true. People latch on to the bits of evidence that seem to support the theory and ignore, or seek to explain away, the bits that don’t.

And since, as David Stove is at pains to point out, the explanatory power of the Malthus-Darwin theory is very great, there is a lot of truth to latch onto. Alas, there is also considerable amount of bits that aren’t to ignore or explain away.

Essay III provides further support for the proposition that the Malthus-Darwin position is that the struggle for existence is a struggle for food, which is what limits populations.

Essay IV looks at criticisms of Malthus’s proposition that there is never (or at least, not for very long) fewer people than the food supply can support and Malthus’s own retreat from the extreme version of his principle he started out with. David Stove notes, for example, that the poor tend to breed more than the rich: very un-Malthusian (or Darwinian) of the latter. (But very Beckerian of them: one of David Stove’s serious intellectual weaknesses was he tended to have a rather simplistic view of social processes. But that affects his asides far more than his substantive arguments.) A point William Godwin made against Malthus early on—if his principle of population were true, England would have become a people of nobles.

Essay V looks at how hugely overblown the Darwinian conception of the struggle for life is and its intellectual implications. (See also here.)

Essay VI starts with the Dawkins’s quote above and examines Darwinianism’s tedious revival of that sad old chestnut, the selfish theory of human behaviour: a theory that rests on confusing the difference between
no one acts intentionally except from motives of self-interest
no one acts intentionally except some motive or interest of his.
Shifting from the outrageous falsity of the former to the trivial truth of the latter as convenient. The “problem of altruism” is a problem generated by bad theory, it is not a genuine problem. A sensible theory of human nature would take altruism as a fact of human nature and seek to explain it, not explain it away. (Ditto with selfishness.) Trying to collapse one into the other is not a sensible approach. (The theory that human selfishness is just frustrated or distorted altruism is hardly less silly.)

David points out the overwhelming human need to communicate is one of our basic drives. (Which rather suggests that we are looking at consequences of cognitive complexity: a very plausible reason for an approach that explains microbes and pine cones very well having difficulty with humans.)

All this is great stuff, but the real fun begins with Essay VII Genetic Calvinism, or Demons and Dawkins. It begins his sustained attack on Dawkins’s allocation of the language of intention onto genes. Genes are simply not the sort of things that can have intentions. They are not selfish, they do not have intentional purposes, they do not manipulate. Nor is replication selfishness. That, no, this is not merely engaging rhetorical metaphors but a new version of that hardy perennial, puppetry theory. Which holds that we are in fact, the helpless causal puppets of greater causal powers: in this case, our genes.

Genetic puppetry does what puppetry theory does, it drains causal power from human intentions and allocates it somewhere else. (I argue that Dawkins’ teleological language helps Intelligent Design seem more plausible in the wider culture.)

David also engages in a scathing attack on Dawkins’s concept of memes, denying that it is other than a relabelling of well-known phenomena.

Essay VIII, starting with an opening quote from W. D. Hamilton:
…we expect to find that no-one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring], or four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins
savages the concept that shared genes explains altruism (so-called kin altruism). In the age of the suicide bomber, can anyone even begin to take such seriously?

Essay IX argues that neo-Darwinism is, in fact, a religion where genes play the role of gods—hidden, causally dominant powers with longevity way beyond their human pawns. It certainly throws into a new light Dawkins’ own proselytizing against conventional religion. Mary Midgely, a philosopher David admired and freely admitted learning from, has recently re-published her book on this general theme which I reviewed here.

Essay X, starting with an opening quote from G C Williams:
…the organism chooses its own effective environment from a broad spectrum of possibilities. That choice is precisely calculated to enhance the reproductive prospects of the underlying genes. The succession of somatic machinery and selected niches are tools and tactics for the strategy of genes
further attacks Dawkins & co’s re-introduction of the language of purposive intentionality into explanations of natural phenomena. (For an examination of how the real power of natural selection is precisely what it explains without recourse to teleology, see Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.) The essay includes a discussion of just how powerful the argument from design is.

Essay XI, with requisite relevant opening quote, this time from Darwin:
…we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed [by natural selection]
announces that we are all biological errors. For none of us are out there having as many descendants as possible. Silly us, don’t we know how to be good little Darwinians?

No, we don’t. Or, more precisely, it would be inhuman of us to be so. Which is David Stove’s point.

Darwinian Fairytales is often a deeply amusing book, but it is not a cheerful one. It is a work of intellectual demolition only. David Stove has no alternative theory to offer in place of Darwin’s. His only objection is that Darwin’s theory, at least as it applies to humans, is not true. Darwinian Fairytales thus does nothing—unlike Dawkins’s own meretricious puppeteering—to assuage the human wish for understanding how things are and came to be such. (As distinct from how they are not and did not come to be.)

The book does suffers from being lucid and demanding. One is both taxed to follow carefully what he is saying (the book rewards re-reading) yet also nagged by the thought that the propositions in question surely cannot be that simple. But the latter point is simply intellectual prejudice that somehow profundity has to be complex or obscure. The really powerful propositions are often simple ones, their simplicity in part gives them their power.

David Stove's assault also has the difficulty that folk often "adjust" propositions in their head to "get rid of the rough bits" and David Stove's attack gives such moves no credence. (This works both ways, with folk often construing theories they don't like in ways to increase, or even create, falsity.)

David Stove’s prejudices are not the common prejudices of the age, and some of his asides about social processes are merely glib—simplicity without the penetration. But Darwinian Fairytales is a great work of intellectual demolition and a fine read.

Friday, June 26, 2009

America Alone

Mark Steyn is a very witty writer, with a great turn of phrase, so America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It is a very funny read. It is also a deeply depressing read, arguing that demography is dooming Europe as fertility rates collapse, the unfunded liabilities of welfare states mount and the Muslim percentage of the population (particularly the military-age population) increases. A thesis first advanced by Steyn in a magazine article.

The book is, however, not sourced. Steyn just asserts his demographic claims and his numbers seem to be somewhat off. Which Johann Hari in his review of the book has lots of fun with before moving into a sad segue that Steyn is actually all about race. (He’s not: while Hari himself is also too critical of tendencies within Islam for some.) Steyn has his supporters, and those who think the issues he raises matter.
The book has been a bestseller. The paperback version has on its cover “Soon to be banned in Canada”, a reference to the Human Rights (sic) Commission action against it (or, rather, an extract in the magazine Macleans). Steyn won, in a victory that looks to going to rebound against the use in Canada of such tribunals to police speech. The action itself has attracted a fair bit of comment.

Steyn is right in thinking demographics matter, which is why making unsupported demographic claims and then basing your argument on them is a fairly disabling problem. A pity, because there are serious issues buried under the wit and shonky numbers. Not least is the attempt to close down criticism of people within Islam, such as using libel laws and “hate speech” laws to do the same. Steyn has spoken on the issue of press freedom and jihad. The notion that a whole range of opinion is illegitimate, and can only be advanced from bad motives, ends up in "hate speech" laws, university regulations, Human Rights (sic) Commission Star Chambers and so on. And then gets picked up by folk who smell weakness and who have deeply noxious ambitions.

There are issues about the implications of Catholic Europe’s collapsing fertility rates (Anglo and Nordic Europe are doing somewhat better), whether the social democratic states of Europe can fund their future liabilities, what are the implications of deciding that your societies and civilisation are not worth defending. Indeed, can’t be defended without being “racist”: the triumph of Saidian “analysis”. And there certainly are implications in importing large numbers of people who are disproportionately likely to support (in increasing likelihood) homicidal family relations, violent politics, think gays should be killed or oppose equality for women. Especially as, in a massive failure of integration, are likely to be more intensively committed to such politics if they were born in the new country. These implications magnify if people then also fail to be upfront about such ambitions being beyond the pale. Indeed, get all snarky when a political leader says that.

But asserting yourself against your own society has long since become the high road to conspicuous virtue and—as women and gay issues become more mainstream—being nice to Muslims has been providing much bigger virtue-brownie-points. Not to mention requiring far less moral (and physical) courage than standing up against what would otherwise be denounced as the patriarchal bullying and violence it is—if it were not Muslim and so “multicultural”.

Steyn certainly covers these issues wittily. But, alas, not very factually reliably. Steyn also has, as Hari points out, not a good track record of prediction.* The pundit-tracking site Lying In Ponds lists some failed Steyn predictions. Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept (which I have previously reviewed) is a much better book on issues that do matter.

*I have had personal experience with this. Chatting with Steyn and others at an event in Melbourne prior to the 2006 US elections, I suggested that the Democrats were likely to take back Congress. Steyn demurred, saying that, while he thought the Republican Congress was “disgusting”, the Democrats were 60:40 on the wrong side of too many issues. Clearly, I was the better prognosticator on that occasion.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Bible Unearthed

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by archaeologists Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein is a highly readable synthesis of discoveries of archaeology with Biblical scholarship.

I particularly appreciated the appendices at the back, which provide informative discussions of the development of scholarship and evidence.
As with Friedman, Silberman and Finkelstein see the demands of religious and state-building agendas in the kingdom of Judah after the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722BC as crucial in understanding the content of the Bible for the period up to the establishment of the Second Temple. Unlike Friedman, they accept (in passing) the common scholarly view that the writings of the Priestly source are mostly after the Babylonian destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586BC. Ironically, their discussion of the period from 722BC to 586BC, and the advance and retreat of the monotheist agenda, provides an alternative explanation to the internal inconsistency in Leviticus between passages which prescribe the death penalty for various transgressions, such as Leviticus 18:22 (which merely requires them to be outcasts), and those, such as Leviticus 20:13 which prescribes death for two men having sex. An obvious explanation for the inconsistency is that it reflects differences between when the enforcers of priestly taboos had judicial power and when they lacked it: such as during (no) and after (yes) the Babylonian exile. Alternatively, it could reflect whether strict monotheism held sway in Judah—so priestly anathemas were backed by judicial power—and more syncretic periods, when they weren’t

But Silberman and Finkelstein’s concern is with the historical claims in the Bible and whether the expanding archaeological evidence sustains them. Regarding the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, the conquests of Joshua, David and Solomon ruling a powerful kingdom uniting Israel and Judah, their conclusion is that the archaeological evidence provides no reasons to support claims that such things happened and considerable evidence against.

So, they argue, the early “history” of the Bible is extremely unreliable. Silberman and Finkelstein argue that such “history” is a poor reflection of the realities of the region when they were supposed to have occurred, but have very strong resonances with the realities of the region after 722BC: particularly during and after the reign of Josiah.

It is hard to judge these claims without the requisite background knowledge. K. A. Kitchen has powerfully and, at times, very acerbically, attacked their use of evidence and their main conclusions.

Some of the Biblical history fares better in Silberman and Finkelstein’s analysis. The king lists seem accurate, for example, and although the extent of the deportation of the population of Judah after the Babylonian conquest in 586BC seems to have been exaggerated, most of the Judahite elite does seem to have been deported.

Silberman and Finkelstein argue that what the early books of the Bible reflect is the concerns of the monotheist priests and their hopes of support from the Davidic dynasty of Judah plus trying to deal with the disaster of 586BC by telling a theological story to make sense of it all: the Bible as mythos (in Karen Armstrong’s terms) rather than logos.

Silberman and Finkelstein provide a very readable history of the period, though their tendency to write as if military and diplomatic reasons for events preclude religious ones is mildly irritating. It is highly readable and somewhat informative, but not a book to judge without looking at other analyses.

Evolution as a Religion

Mary Midgley is one of the great ornaments of contemporary philosophy, a graceful, clear, penetrating and sensible thinker and writer. So I expected to enjoy, and be enlightened by, her Evolution as a Religion and, mostly, it was so.

The book was originally published in 1985 and is now republished in a revised edition. It is a critique of the tendency for evolution to take over the functions of religion and other deformations of Darwin’s insights.

Midgley is not against imagination or imaginative symbols in science: on the contrary, it is essential to it (p.4). What concerns her is the way physical scientists are often unpractised in general thinking, particularly historical thinking, and so can be vulnerable to specific deformities of thought in a way social scientists and practisers of humanities are not – Creationism for example (p.27). Midgley systematically critiques the smuggling of religious modes of thought into science: not that she is in favour of any presumed simple antipathy between science and religion (p.34).

Midgley takes us through some, alas, all too easy deformations of the Gaia hypothesis. Plus chiliastic delusions about using science to transform people and society. Or turning science into the only source of definitive thought (pp 104ff).
Midgley dissects and demolishes talking intentionally about genes – all that “selfish gene” nonsense (pp 136ff), or talk as if genes directly feed into behaviour (p.46). She is particularly against gene utopianism, as if direct creating a “genetic menu” for parents or whoever is other than a profoundly silly idea (p.54ff). The perversion of Darwin’s thought into various social nostrums – fatalism, exaggeration of conflict, denial of social motives, etc – is a persistent target (pp 138ff). As is sociobiology generally.

Dawkins being too clever by half
Richard Dawkins, Mr Selfish Gene, likely bears some responsibility for the Intelligent Design nonsense.

Dawkins, in his titles (most famously The Selfish Gene) and in his prose talks about genes as if they are purposive, as if they have intentions, rather than being simply functional. Moving from being functional to being intentionally purposive is the shift from something doing something in a purely functional sense to deciding to do something. The power of the concept of natural selection, what Daniel Dennett calls Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is that it shows how purely functional processes can produce outcomes which look purposive. Indeed, they can even produce actual purposive beings (us).

The trouble is, in order to grab our attention, sell more books and write in congenial ways, it is more fun to talk about genes as if they did have purposive intentions, rather than simply functions (which, if they are successful, get replicated to perform said functions all over again, and again, and again ...). Something philosopher David Stove also criticised Dawkins for.

But if you are going to talk about genes as if they have intentions, and genes are the central mechanisms of biological development, then the central elements of evolution are being talked about as if they have intentions. So Dawkins et al leave a bridge open in their use of intentional language that makes it easier for Intelligent Design folk to seem "scientific". All the Intelligent Design folk do is talk about a Macro intentional designer rather than a mob of micro intentional designers. But the language of intentional design has already been imported in via Richard Dawkins et al.

Selfish Gene indeed.

And, since the distinction between the gene-as-type and gene-as-instance (what philosophers call 'tokens' as per the type-token distinction) is also continually glided over, you even have effectively immortal intentional designers. So, in that sense they make life easier for Creationists-in-Scientists'-clothing. (Though one of the striking things is that Creationists clearly feel they have to try and don the garb of science, which says interesting things about what notions of authority are contemporaneously powerful.)

Comes from being clever instead of being accurate.

That Dawkins explains what he “really” means does not abolish the effect of resorting to such striking, because misleading, metaphors.

But there is another way Dawkins in particular has engaged in unintended (but fairly predictable) consequences. As Karen Armstrong argues in her very readable and perceptive The Battle for God, a lot of the fundamentalist impulse is, in fact, a defensive one: a feeling that the very notion of serious religious belief is under threat. Dawkins very much belongs to that group which delights in publicly humiliating and denigrating religious belief, and then gets all outraged when the religious start getting organised and fight back. If you go out of your way to poke an ant-hill with a stick, you shouldn't be all that surprise if some ants try to run up your leg.

So, if you argue natural selection somehow proves religion is wrong, it is an obvious move by the religious to try and blunt your weapon or (even better) turn it back against you. In which case, it is a really bad idea to hand them intentional-language "wiggle room".

Back to sense
It is a mark of Midgley’s virtues as a thinker that she sees how the apparent consequences of Darwinianism have driven people to Creationism and its derivatives:
The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral (p.172).
On the way through, Midgley has plenty of enlightening side discussions, such as the problems with moral scepticism (pp 96ff). That unbelief has its own characteristic vices – such as arrogance, perversity and self-dramatization (p.126). The virtues and limitations of social contract theories (pp 178ff).

I found these discussions enlightening and persuasive. What I was less impressed by was Midgley’s pervasive ecological and other pessimism. A pessimism that is very popular in intellectual circles but wildly overblown. In particular, her linking of capitalism to environmental damage is far too simplistic (actually existing socialism has a far worse record of ecological damage than liberal capitalism). It is obviously easy for tax-paid academics who never risk their own capital in commercial activity to agree that they are morally and intellectually superior to money-grubbing amoral merchants (philosophers have been playing that game since Plato and Kǒng Fūzǐ: medieval Christian priests loved playing it), but that does not make the prejudice against commerce any less tedious: indeed, sad in such a penetrating thinker.

After all, fears are far easier to invent than wants. When Midgley writes about folk consuming for symbolic and imaginative reasons, the same point can be made even more forcefully about the diet of fears and pessimism. Which are even more defined by imagined futures than the various genetic utopias and other deformations of Darwinism she so ably critiques.

But those are just irritating asides, not disabling flaws. Indeed, a failure to apply her critique and intellectual penetration widely enough, not a failure of the critique as such. Evolution as a Religion is a fine work of penetrating, yet accessible, philosophy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Murder in Amsterdam

Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance is the exploration by Dutch-born American writer and commentator Ian Buruma of the murder of Theo van Gogh – and the earlier murder of Pim Fortuyn – in the Netherlands.

It is a deeply informed, subtle and informative book. Buruma has a sharp eye for motivation and resentments. He has some particularly perceptive comments about the dynamics of Our Kind of People politics and the problems of welfare – the atomisation, the sense of entitlement, the disconnect from effort. Buruma notes that the harsher US system is rather better at integrating migrants than the European welfare states. No one knowledgeable about the social collapse in indigenous communities in Oz will be surprised by what Buruma writes here. (His comments about Our Kind of People politics and the problems of welfare are more surprising coming from a noted US liberal commentator, but Buruma has established a reputation for independent thought.)

Buruma describes a Dutch society that is adrift. The social revolution of the 1960s unsettled the staid Netherlands of the “pillars” (Protestant, Catholic, socialist). The new, secular, socially progressive Netherlands has also become multicultural Netherlands, with a rash of new (largely Muslim) immigrants poorly integrated into a Dutch society not very clear about what such integration would consist of: still less how it is to be done. The cavalier, bureaucratised compassion of the welfare state manages feebly. For example, it was frequently the habit of migrant parents to send delinquent sons back to their ancestral villages to be socialised into civil behaviour. Social workers apparently put a stop to that on the grounds it was “oppressive”. Their idea of such socialisation is apparently state-subsidised youth clubs subject to the normal erraticisms of bureaucratic delivery. (Now, apparently, migrant parents have absorbed the lesson of all entitlements and no responsibility.)
One such case of failed integration being Mohammad Bouyeri, who one day cycled to the centre of Amsterdam and murdered Theo van Gogh. Buruma stresses in many ways how Dutch Mohammad B. was: how alike in their narcissistic idealism, their status as "radical losers" both he and Volkert van der Graaf, the vegan animal rights activist who murdered Pim Fortuyn, were. Though Buruma spends far more space on Mohammad B. than van der Graaf.

Buruma examines in the detail the lives and public celebrity of the two murdered men, Fortuyn and van Gogh. They were both outrageously flamboyant, with a penchant for being publicly shocking. Buruma sees the Netherlands as a society that has lost any sense of civility in public life, full of over-the-top rhetoric. Yet also suffering a very complacent and increasingly out-of-touch political class – hence Fortuyn’s astonishing political success.

While the book is full of people, the two other personalities who are most closely examined are Mohammad B. himself and Ayaan Hirshi Ali. The radical loser who turned to a “pure” (that is, separated from community and traditional scholarship) Islam and the high profile, flagrantly successful migrant who is a harsh critic of Islam and a fervent public supporter of Enlightenment values.

Buruma’s treatment of all four is deeply ambivalent, concerned to see the positive and the negative in each. In the case of Ayaan Hirshi Ali, however, it seems to be an evolving ambivalence, an increasingly positive treatment as the book goes on. Indeed, the last lines of the text, in the Postscript about the revocation of her Dutch citizenship and emigration to the United States, are
And Ayaan Hirshi Ali has had to leave the scene. My country seems smaller without her.
But ambivalence pervades the book. Indeed, unresolved ambivalence seems to be Buruma’s take on just about every aspect of Dutch society. Particularly the ambivalence inherent in what is remembered and what is not about the World War Two experience and the disaster visited on Dutch Jews. Amsterdam may have been the only occupied city to go on strike in protest about the deportation of Jews: it is also true that Dutch Jews had one of the lowest survival rates and that postwar Netherlands made a great deal about Dutch suffering under Nazi occupation, but largely ignored the Jewish tragedy until the 1960s.

While much of Murder in Amsterdam is perceptive and admirable, there are two vacancies in the book. One is a sense of Dutch liberal-democracy being worth defending in its own right. It is one thing to note uncertainties of identity, unresolved ambivalences, failures of policy and performance. But Buruma spends so much time on the flaws of various defenders, and of Dutch society, the sense of having positive to defend seeps away also. One exception is his respectful treatment of Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim-Dutch politician undertaking the lonely, frustrating, task of attempting to bridge the various communities.

The other vacancy is why alienated Muslims resort to political murder to an extent that alienated other migrants simply don’t. Amsterdam Councillor Aboutaleb, for example, has to travel everywhere with bodyguards. And he is hardly the only figure we meet in the book who needs such protection.

Buruma is keen to stress the common difficulties of migrant experience. And they are certainly a big part of the story. But the West has been taking in migrants for many years. No other migrant community generates the need for public figures to have bodyguards or live in hiding or publish under nom de plum’s. In John Howard’s blunt but true words (pdf):
You can’t find any equivalent in Italian or Greek or Lebanese or Chinese or Baltic immigration to Australia. There is no equivalent of raving on about jihad.
It is all very well, and perfectly true, to say that Islam is a varied religion, that Muslims are hugely varied. It is all very well, and perfectly true, to examine the failures of the Dutch state and society with regard to migrants. And yet, and yet, and yet. There is this specifically Muslim difficulty. Buruma touches on it, but he skirts, rather than fully examines. After all, he spends far more time on Mohammad B. rather than van der Graaf simply because Mohammad B. represents a much larger phenomenon. Van der Graaf may well represent political correctness gone absolutely toxic, but he is very much an isolated case. Mohammad B. is emblematic precisely because he isn’t an isolated case. It is all very well for Buruma to talk about the Dutchness of his life: but there is nothing specifically Dutch about the larger phenomena he represents.

Buruma also doesn’t tell us what role the media and intellectual life played in the complacency and remoteness of the political class. In particular, he does not consider whether fashionable multiculturalism – the demand that the locals adapt to the newcomers – may have created or exacerbated problems by not being anywhere near as concerned with how the newcomers adapt to the locals. Leaving a gap in both policy and public discourse to be filled by other ideas and actions.

Even with these cavils, Buruma has still written a very fine, very informative, subtle and illuminating book.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Me on Radio National

I will be on Counterpoint on Radio National at about 4.30pm Monday, EST talking about the medieval origins of Western civilisation. My appearance was prompted by host Michael Duffy reading this post.

ADDENDA: The podcast will turn up here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Anger at parents

While reading Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire: the Truth about what Buddha Taught (which I reviewed here), I came across the following passage:
If people have never felt loved or accepted by their parents, for example, they will be much more likely to find themselves in intimate relationships in which they continue to feel unloved. Then they try extra hard to make themselves lovable while continuing to feel there is something wrong with them.
This struck rather close to home. Epstein argues that a proper understanding of renunciation is helpful in such circumstances:
By voluntarily forsaking compulsive patterns of thought and behaviour, where there are ongoing but futile attempts to get unmet needs satisfied, it is possible to open up other pathways that prove more fulfilling … Renunciation can be the missing ingredient when patterns like these predominate. It takes force of will to create circumstances in which something new can happen.
Which certainly accords with my own experience.

Epstein then goes on to discuss Tibetan lamas reporting being surprised at how much anger at parents their Western followers express. This is Epstein’s explanation to a Tibetan lama of this pattern.
Western parents don’t feel that their children already are who they are—they feel it is their job to make them who they should be. They treat their children more as objects than as individuals who already are themselves. Children feel this as a burden … A pressure. And they develop armour to guard against it. Their anger is a reflection of that armour … All the energy is going into the resistance … But inside, the child feels empty. They don’t know who they are or what they want. They can’t feel their own desire, they know only anger. The anger that comes from being treated as an object … A child creates a false self to deal with excessive expectations or with early abandonment: too much parental pressure—or too little … there is not enough holding, not just physical holding , but emotional holding too.
Which very much fits with my own experience. Epstein continues:
The problem with this scenario … is that the child often loses touch with who they are on the inside. After a while, they know only the armour, the anger, fear or emptiness. They have a yearning to be known, found or discovered, but no means to make it happen, not trust that is can happen.
Which also very much fits with my own experience (aggravated by having the “wrong” sexuality). One of the lamas responds:
Parents seem to see raising their children only as a duty or a job. When the child is grown they just let go. They are finished. They’ve done their job, fulfilled their obligations. The child feels cut off—they need that thread.
Back in the main narrative, Epstein continues:
Parents sometimes feel that their only purpose is to help their children separate and individuate, but they think about it in objective terms, as another thing to accomplish. Once it has happened, such parents feel useless or obsolete. Often they divorce as soon as the child leaves for college, throwing the children into crisis just as they are needing to move more deeply into themselves.
Various people may feel this scenario is familiar.

Epstein continues:
Compounding the problem is the inevitable estrangement of adolescence , when the first stirrings of grown-up anger make themselves known. Many parents never recover from these upheavals. Their emotional connections with their offspring are so tenuous that when the first expressions of disdain are hurled at them, they retreat forever. Hurt by their children’s anger, they feel ignored and unappreciated, not understanding that the child, in addition to wanting to be known by the parents, also wants to know them in a real way.
Epstein suggests that meditative retreats:
… tended to put people in a place where they could not avoid how much unfinished business they had. Treated as objects by their well-meaning parents, they were still struggling for subjecthood, but their own tendencies to their parents as “bad objects” were holding them back from their goals … By relinquishing their attachment to achieving this milestone, they could learn from how not to make the same mistake. They could stop treating their parents as bad objects, and begin to explore themselves as subjects: breaking down the false self that obscured the light within.
Very enlightening.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Evolution’s Rainbow

Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People is a treatise on taking diversity seriously which starts with biology, moves on to biologically-grounded anthropology and concludes with biologically-grounded sociology.

Prof. Roughgarden is not, however, arguing for Sociobiology (or, as it generally known nowadays, evolutionary psychology): or, at least, not as it is generally presented. Evolutionary psychology (and psychology generally) gets a fair bit of stick. She has some particularly harsh comments about psychologists and therapists (p.262), appreciates population geneticist Jerry Coyne’s attack on evolutionary psychology (Pp 173ff) and compiles a list of errors evolutionary psychologists make (p.234). She is particularly not impressed by social scientists who refuse to listen to their subjects (p.382ff):
social scientists who cannot avoid being so judgmental about the subjects they study should find another occupation (p.384).
(Hear, hear: though it would devastate many faculties. Come to think of it, worth it for that alone.)

Her objection to evolutionary psychology is grounded in evidence and is not a blanket rejection—Roughgarden is impressed by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s theory that community interaction selected for higher cognitive capacity (Pp 232ff). Prof. Roughgarden does lapse by suggesting an evolutionary explanation (p.261) for something (the anathematisation of the same-sex active) that, as systematic behaviour, has not been documented in other species: it is specific to a minority of human cultures.
Roughgarden is very much concerned with, indeed celebratory of, individuality. As a transgendered woman, that is hardly surprising. What is more surprising is her critique of individualism. This becomes less so when one realises she is critiquing not individualism per se—there is nothing she has to say in her critique of what she calls ‘individualism’ that would be morally affronting to, for example, the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments—but egoism. That is, a particularly narrow construal of purposes and functions.

The book only contains a brief mention of Malthus (p.161), but I would argue that the use Darwin put Malthus’s population analysis to, encouraged a tendency to see ruthless egoism in natural selection.

This is a very personal book. Prof. Roughgarden connects diversity to her own experience as a transgendered woman (p.2) and ends the book with a short transgender political agenda (p.398) plus an Appendix of policy recommendations.

But is also very much a book concerned with defending and expanding science. She carefully distinguishes factual/biological claims from moral/evaluative ones (p.4). She is against poor science and in favour of good—that is, empirically grounded—science. So biology lapsing at times into derogatory language (p.98) is not only morally offensive, it gets in the way of seeing and understanding what is happening. As the penchant for seeing theft and deceit everywhere blinds biologists to other interpretations of animal behaviour (p.68): her discussion of the biological implausibility of “deceit” and “mimicry” theory (Pp 100ff) is above all a scientific critique.

Part I, Animal Rainbows, takes us through the sexual and gender diversity of nature. It is an excellent and accessible rendition of evolutionary theory, with the caveat that she provides various points against Darwin’s theory of sex selection well before she gets around to explaining said theory in detail.

It is possible to have reproduction in higher animals without sex, as self-cloning, all-female varieties of geckoes prove (p.16). So, why waste all those resources on producing males? By far the most common form of reproduction among animals is males with females. The answer seems to be that diversity is valuable. There is no evidence for the “bad gene” elimination theory of sexual selection (p.20).

Prof. Roughgarden provides a clear discussion of the difference between sex (a biological category) and gender (a social category) (Pp 23ff). The only definition of male and female that does not admit of awkward exceptions is that males produce small gametes (sperm) and females produce large gametes (eggs). Two gamete sizes being near universal: why is not known (p.26).

Prof. Roughgarden defines gender as:
the appearance, behaviour and life history of a sexed body (p.26).
Various species (particularly fish) have more than two genders. Genuine hermaphroditism is rare—female spotted hyenas, who have penises, are not hermaphroditic, they are intersexed (p.38).

Taking diversity to be the empirical reality, rather than an analytical inconvenience, is the basis for an enlightening discussion of reproduction and mating. Prof. Roughgarden examines parental investment levels in reproduction (p.44) and how relative investment affects supply and demand for each sex (p.46)—i.e. who chases whom. She distinguishes economic monogamy (raising offspring together) from reproductive monogamy (only mating together). Monogamy emerges when building opposite-sex relationship is more advantageous to males than building same-sex connections and more advantageous to the female than going alone or with other females (Pp 56ff).

A key point in understanding animal interactions is the need to consider care of offspring—reproductive fitness is not merely producing offspring, but producing offspring who themselves produce offspring (Pp 106ff). Hence the need for cooperation, hence the potential importance of relationships both between and within sexes. Prof. Roughgarden produces a nice list of what sex does—facilitate sharing, aid reconciliation, help integration, build coalitions, be a basis for exchange. And it is also used for reproduction (Pp 149-50).

mating is then more about maintaining the between-sex and same-sex relationships needed to provide food and safety for the young than about sperm transfer as such (p.176).
Prof. Roughgarden argues that females choose well-connected males (p.125). Interactions are about buying support when and if it is needed (Pp 120ff). This is very much against Darwin’s sex selection theory, which defines the purpose of mating as being to exchange semen (p.122).

Darwin’s is the first universal theory of gender in biology (p.164). Darwin was working from limited information and setting aside awkward cases, such as the hermaphrodite barnacles he studied in detail (Pp 166ff). Prof. Roughgarden lists 10 grounds that falsify sex selection theory as template (Pp 165ff). She uses empirical evidence to demolish the “sex selection” theory of rape (Pp 173ff).

The broader analysis is embedded in extensive discussion of the empirical evidence. From the specific—all male garter snakes engage in same-sex copulation every Spring (Pp 96ff)—to the general: why there are species where females look like males (Pp 112ff).

Prof. Roughgarden notes that biologists have been reluctant to acknowledge homosexuality in nature (p.128). But lots of animals engage in same-sex activity: too many to be merely aberrant (p.136ff). It is not mere substitution—for example, same-sex oriented sheep really prefer male sheep sex partners (p.140).

Primate homosexuality is so “in your face” that it is extensively documented back to the 1970s (p.144). But, as Prof. Roughgarden points out, while non-breeding is an evolutionary problem, same-sex sexual activity per se is not (p.156).

Prof. Roughgarden is very much in favour of taking animals seriously—that is, taking what they choose to do seriously. So she is against presenting motherhood as punishment for sex rather than desirable in itself (p.172). She particularly wants to biologists to take cooperation between animals seriously. Nature is pervaded by cooperation as well as competition. Biologist Lyn Margolis established in the 1970s that all plants and animals above the level of bacteria are partnerships at the cellular level (p. 162). Prof. Roughgarden notes that social inclusion mechanisms would help species differentiation (p.180)

Biologically-grounded anthropology
The second Part, Human Rainbows, examines the biology of human diversity. Prof. Roughgarden starts with an “embryonic narrative”—how a person (specifically her) begins from the point of few of egg then sperm then embryo to birth. Then she moves onto the biology of determining sex, with all its interesting diversities—such as ovotestes among females in some species (p.202).

Followed by the biology of sex differences. Prof. Roughgarden argues against assuming uniformity as “the” mode and for facing the reality of diversity between and within groups (Pp 207ff). She explains how the XY system of sex determination is fully compatible with transgender bodies (Pp 214ff). That hormones need the right receptors leads to varied reactions to hormone treatment (Pp 216ff).

Then the biology of gender followed by that of sexual orientation. Prof. Roughgarden argues that sexual orientation is too complex a behaviour to be genetically determined. Which seems entirely reasonable: genes are a recipe, not a mould.

Her discussion of the very limited evidence for genetic influences on sexual orientation (pp 246ff) has a major flaw, however, in that congenital effects that are not genetic are not considered. That something is congenital does not mean that it is genetic: genes are a recipe, not a mould. For example, do twins have exactly the same experience in utero? Does it follow that they would?

Prof. Roughgarden notes that the simple binary model for the brain is breaking down (pp 239ff). The presumptive hostility to variation is further critiqued (Pp 233 et al). One can see that biology has suffered from the male perspective being taken as authoritative, as the template. Darwin may have included female choice, but it was still females responding to males and largely on male terms.

Biology having problems with homosexuality is clearly, in biological theory terms, because sex was about exchanging semen for mating and homosexuality + monogamy = will not breed. But, of course, monogamy does not follow as actual behaviour. Prof. Roughgarden notes that we have insufficient data to show that same-sex attraction in humans is reproductively deleterious (p.258).

On patterns of sexual orientation, Prof. Roughgarden argues that the degree of sexual flexibility itself varies (pp 256ff), which makes sense. (That is, some folk have shifting orientation, others constant; some have narrow sexual interest, others wider, etc.)

She cites evidence that homosexual behaviour is more common in bigger social groups and agrarians than hunter-gatherers (p.260). I hope the study controlled for group size, given that agrarians live in bigger groups than hunter-gatherers.

Prof. Roughgarden provides a useful discussion of what constitutes a genetic disease or defect and the mathematics thereof (Pp 280ff). Taking a 5 out of 100 figure, same-sex attraction is way too common to be a genetic disease or defect (p.284).

Even at 1 in a 1000, transgender identity is also way too common to be a genetic disease or defect (p.286).

So, just as well the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off list of diseases in 1973 and the American Psychoanalytic Association rejected reparative therapy in 1998 (p.294).

Engaging empirical data frames her discussion. We discover that, in an area in the Dominican Republic, children born intersex were left in a “gender holding pattern” until they decided their gender identity (Pp 241-2). Prof. Roughgarden can also display a nice eye for irony—Nazi genetic purification strategy, if carried through, would have put the “Aryan” population at considerably greater risk by attacking genetic diversity (pp 306-7).

Biologically-grounded sociology
The third Part, Social Rainbows, builds on the biology (and anthropology) to look at the sociology of human diversity. Particularly gender diversity.

Gender re-assignment surgery has history taking back centuries: indeed millennia. Such as the nirvan ceremony performed by hijra of India (p.346). That what has often be classed as castration may have been deliberate gender re-assignment is enlightening. The transgender perspective informs her discussion of variations in eunuchs in classical antiquity (p.352).

The transgender perspective on Jeanne d’Arc choosing—within the limits of her society—a male gender identity is similarly enlightening (pp 366ff). I liked her discussion of how Greek perspectives on proper same-sex activity enforced their concept of gender differences (p.369).

Prof. Roughgarden sets out just how much gender =/= sexuality. Gender and sexuality are not chosen. They are expressed (though what is being expressed may change).

Obviously much of this goes against traditional religious perspectives. In her discussion of Leviticus and St Paul, she reads them “down” (pp 369ff) so as to reduce the difficulties. Charming idea, but, alas, the wider context suggest her strategy here does not work. Monotheism really does have an endemic problem with same-sex activity.

Prof. Roughgarden discusses violence against transgenders (Pp 388ff) and argues that excluding transgenders makes gay rights more “special” rights than human rights (p.391). On the “alphabet scrabble” issue, she holds that GLBTI (gay lesbian bisexual transgender intersex) is as far as is needed to go (p.392).

The biological reality of transgender humans is that they have always existed, though we may never fully know why (Pp 394ff).

I found Evolution’s Rainbow to be a profoundly enlightening book. Both on biology and evolutionary theory in general and transgender issues in particular. It is also highly readable. It does not merely inform, it educates.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Wisdom of Desire

One of the long-term blocks for me against Buddhist thought was that I was not interested in renouncing desire, which always seemed too much like renouncing one’s humanity. But that, as therapist Mark Epstein shows in Open to Desire: the Truth about what Buddha Taught, his latest rendering of the insights of Buddhist psychology for Western audiences, is not an accurate rendition of Buddha’s teaching.

Buddha renounced asceticism. The question is far more how to think of desire and how to experience it. Words (and thoughts) are abstractions, simplifications from reality. Thus, Zen Buddhism talks about mind-to-mind transmission of Buddha’s understanding from master-to-master, outside of the limitations of words and thoughts. Hence the story of Buddha holding up a flower, all his monks looking puzzled except for one (Kasyapa) who smiled and to whom Buddha then announced the passing of dharma.

Thus also the collision between the purity of desire and the messiness of reality. To put it another way, the (misleading) simplicity of desire and the (actual) complexity of reality. Do we focus on the desire and what it provides and teaches, or the satisfaction, with all its potential to fall short of our “pure” imaginings?
Epstein is interested in the ‘left-handed path’, most notoriously expressed by Tantric ideas (which are a strong part of the Buddhist tradition, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism), which accept that, in Epstein’s words:
There is a drive for transcendence that is implicit even in the most sensual of desires.
Basic to Buddha’s teaching is that there is no “self” over and above the thinking and experiencing person. So, Epstein argues:
When desire is not denied or suppressed, but instead allowed to grow in the light of there being no ultimately satisfying self or object, a tremendous development of inner life is possible.
Epstein divides the book into four sections—one on desire, one on desiring going wrong, one on how to let go of such “clinging” and the final part on how to get the most out of desire rather than being used by it.

Desire comes from incompleteness so, in Epstein’s words:
... it is a natural reaction to the human predicament … In searching outside of ourselves for wholeness, however, we set ourselves up for clinging.
To give the object of desire (person or thing or whatever) more reality (that is more psychic power) than they actually have.

Epstein connects the idea of hungry ghosts—beings always seeking nourishment that they are not equipped to digest—with transference—the experiencing of the traumas of old, unfinished, relationships in new ones: which, of course, they cannot satisfy or deal with (particularly if one is unconscious of the source of the behaviour). Thus, were renunciation comes out of self-awareness, the effect is not to dampen desire but to liberate it. It becomes itself, rather than what it cannot be or do. I was, as I have already posted, particularly struck by this in connection with interactions between parents and children and the consequences thereof.

By living in the moment as it is, rather than as it can imagined to become or be a substitute for, we get far more out of desire. Modern psychology of happiness suggests that no-mind is the way to happiness. It is also the best way to learn new physical skills.

Epstein suggests it is dangerous both to think of emotions as not being part of us—repressing them—but also to think of them as us—surrendering to them, as if there is nothing more to us.

Epstein provokes thought and understanding. He points out that Buddhism (alone of the great evangelical religions) did not spread by conquest. Buddhism also co-habits with other religions much more readily than the other evangelical religions do. Yet, as a friend reminded me in a conversation on MSN™, in Japan, Zen Buddhism became part of a package that (to use his words) generated kill-bots to an extent rivalled only by contemporary Islam (see also my review of Zen at War). All religions have their shadows and misuses.

I have found wrestling with Epstein enormously productive. From simple things like sitting in a waiting room being mind-stilling time rather than mind-agitating time. To much more profound matters, like getting over depression.

It is not a magic wand, one has to work at it. And one can have periods where understanding is blocked and progress is frustrated. That is usually because one is trapped within one’s beliefs and self-image, not willing to step outside it, to stop clinging.

Which can, of course, be quite scary. But it can so easily block oneself off from being open to sense of wholeness, energy, well-being.

Epstein uses Buddhist, Hindu (particularly the Ramayana), ancient Greek, Judaic references interweaved with his cases from therapeutic practice and his own experiences to make his points. This, along with his pellucidly clear proses, creates a sense of openness and connectedness, as if understanding can flow from many places and is open to all.

A very helpful text.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who Wrote the Bible(’s first five books)

Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible is a highly accessible explication of (his) version of the Documentary Hypothesis about the authorship of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) or Torah. Given that the books include a description of the death of Moses, the claim—enforced by religious authority for centuries—that they were written by Moses is hardly sustainable, simply on internal evidence. Friedman’s outline of the history of investigations into who wrote the Books of Moses provides a notable history of intellectual courage and authoritative folly, as religious and state authorities punished those who, for example, suggested that Moses could not have authored a description of his own death.

Over the last century, many scholars came to accept that they were written by a series of authors – designated J, E, P and D – before being putting together during or after the Babylonian exile by the Redactor (in Friedman’s judgment, probably Ezra).
The German scholar who did the most to established the Documentary Hypothesis, Julius Wellhausen identified the various inferred authors (the Jahwist, the Elohim source, the Priestly source, the Deutronomist). He also argued that P wrote after the Babylonian Exile, a point Friedman argues against. Even though Friedman does not deal with the logical reality that, if a set of words appears in both A and B, either could be quoting the other (or they might both be quoting some third source) as well as he might, his argument is persuasive.

About Leviticus
My main interest is concerning the Levitical prohibitions on man-to-man sex, therefore in the Priestly source, since P is the identified author of almost all of Leviticus including the Holiness Code. If P had written after the Babylonian exile, then Zoroastrian influence is extremely likely. In the absence of evidence that the Redactor inserted Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 into the Holiness Code, such influence is less likely.

All the Middle Eastern monotheisms—Zoroastrianism (technically dualist but the spirit of darkness is not worshipped), Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have anathematised sexual acts between males. The transfer between the last three is obvious—to the extent that Muhammad took Jewish and Christian commentary on Genesis 19 and gave it Scriptural authority.

(There is no support in the Gospels or Jewish Scripture that the central crime of Sodom was boy-boy sex: that was an interpolation of later commentary. Which makes Leviticus crucial, especially as St Paul’s term arsenokoitai seems to be an allusion to the language of the Greek version of the Torah.)

It would be nice to have evidence that the first of the Middle Eastern monotheisms had exported its anathematisation of same-sex acts (discussed by Plato in the Symposium) to the Jews. But persuasive evidence seems to be lacking.

There are four features of Friedman’s discussion I did find of interest on this matter. The first is that the Priestly source is almost certainly a Priest and is very concerned with rules, and rules that make priests important. The second is that the Priestly source does not portray God as merciful. This is a God of taboos, with priests as the authoritative enforcers of taboos, the definers of the Godly and the ungodly: very much what the Catholic Church (especially), Pentecostal and conservative evangelical Christianity are about on matters sexual. It is also precisely this form-driven rule-based intolerance that Christ denounces in Matthew 15 and Mark 7, reflecting a division that goes right back to the start of the Biblical tradition, since both J and E write of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The third is that the Priestly source portrays God as transcendent. A transcendent One God is not sexual. Human are not “in God’s image” by being sexual, but by being procreative. Catholic doctrine—which bars all sex acts that are not open to the gift of life*—expresses this particularly clearly.

(* Of course, if the husband is sterile or the wife post-menopausal, none of their acts are so “open” in their nature [the crucial aspect: miraculous intervention by God is not part of the justification, since God could equally allow two men to engender a child], but such consistency would be far too confronting. This is a set of taboos being enforced, with the alleged underlying principle of sex-only-being-procreative being adjusted so as to be not “too big an ask” for straight married folk.)

Finally, the Priestly source is very much in favour of centralising worship of God in the city of Jerusalem and is probably writing at a time when refugees from the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel are flooding into Jerusalem. Given the same-sex oriented are only likely to achieve significant concentrations in cities, urban disorientation is likely to be a significant factor in encouraging anathematisation of same-sex acts: particularly if, like the Aaronid priesthood of Jerusalem or Muhammad, you are city-dwellers preaching to largely rural folk. Dissociating oneself from the confronting diversity of city life would be good preaching strategy. St Paul (who produces the only New Testament criticism of same-sex acts) seems to have mainly preached in cities, since that is where people were usefully concentrated and Christian believers could hide more easily.

The idea that the sin of Sodom—the ultimate expression of urban wickedness and its righteous punishment—was boy-boy sex arose during the period when Jews tended to be concentrated in the cities of the pagan Roman Empire. It gained further theological intensity during the prolonged economic boom in medieval Europe from about 1050 to about 1310: another period of increased urbanisation in a society still strongly rural.

Friedman himself is not concerned with how sex is dealt with, but it is a measure of the book that it is still useful on such matters. I found Friedman’s book to be highly readable and informative, bringing both textual scholarship and the history of Biblical Israel and Judah alive.