Monday, August 31, 2009

Soul Murder

Here’s a bit of a paradox. I think Freudianism is largely bunk. That is, the anal, oedipal, oral etc theorising is false and distracting; the id, ego, superego structure either wrong or simplistic. But I have found material written by Freudians (such as the blogger Shrinkwrapped’s comments on therapeutic matters—as distinct from his other speculations—or Mark Epstein’s books on Buddhist psychology) very insightful and helpful.

But someone can be using a theoretical structure that is mostly wrong, and still be a good and insightful observer. And I certainly do think unconscious processes and childhood experiences are important in understanding behaviour.

Which brings me to the Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation by Freudian therapist Leonard Shengold.

The book is mostly about the more traumatic forms of childhood abuse. I found it insightful and informative, if only tangentially relevant to my own experience. The, admitted to be, speculative use of literary figures as famous “case studies” was done, not to “explain” them, but to provide accessible ways of looking at childhood abuse, deprivation and its effects. The periodic lapse into overt Freudianism was irritating—wasted verbiage on a clearly completely unnecessary level of interpretation. But such lapses were sufficiently rare, and the other material sufficiently interesting, for this to be a relatively minor matter.

The term soul murder is certainly an arresting one: a nice way to capture both the crime and the damage of serious childhood abuse. And it does provide a metaphor that allows Shengold to illustrate well the forms of abuse which occur, why they are damaging and how they are damaging. Soul Murder is an informative and insightful book, despite its Freudianism.

Before the Dawn

Humans and chimpanzees are the only (current) patrilocal primates. (That is, the males stay put and the females join a male-centred family group.) Humans and chimpanzees are the only primates where the males raid the territories of other groups. Defending territory gives advantages in fathering offspring, so natural selection works in its favour. Hence the raiding logic of patrilocality.

Archaeological and anthropological evidence indicates that human hunter-gatherers are about as murderous as chimpanzees. How murderous is that? If the C20th had had the same rate of war death as hunter-gatherers do, the total number of war dead in the C20th would have been two billion. As for the “myth” of cannibalism, our genetic structure incorporates quite old genetic protection against diseases from cannibalism.

Progress! Humans have become much less violent. One sign of which is that the gap in size between human males and females has shrunk.

The startling calculation above is from P.152 of Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, a splendid, and splendidly readable, examination of what genetics combined with archaeology and anthropology can tell us about our origins.

Human males find it easier to cooperate than do males of our chimpanzee cousins, since humans pair bond. Chimp males are in constant competition with all the other males in the group for the group’s females. “Free love” does not mean group happiness! (No economist would be greatly surprised that being in the public domain does not lead to better treatment or less conflict—they would predict worse treatment and more conflict.)

The greater ability to cooperate gave advantages that fed into the selection processes. The evolution of religion makes sense as a means of protecting against the free-loaders who are so destructive of social groups.

Human nature does change, but only very slowly.

Cooperation within groups often was selected for by advantages it gave in competition between groups. The ability to form dialects makes in group and out group membership easier to identify. When archaeologists talk about one culture replacing another in the archaeological record, that replacement was, almost certainly, not a nice process. Rousseauvian fantasies about noble savages do not survive the interrogation of science.

Nor do related fantasies about private property being the source of all social ills—trade gave us a reason to cooperate beyond kin groups.

I was particularly struck by the evidence that, within the Fertile Crescent, sedentism (permanent settlement) preceded the development of agriculture. (The pattern elsewhere seems to have been the other way around.)

The author, a science journalist for the New York Times, is very good at explaining the science clearly and well. Including the increasing evidence that there are notable genetic difference between human populations, including based on continent-groupings (also known as racial groups).

He does, however, seems to have not quite thought through the slowness with which farming was adopted. In discussing the Yanomamo people of the Amazon—a group of cheerful and charming killers—he mentions it only takes them about three hours a day of effort to feed themselves. The much harder work (and higher risk of disease and nutritional problems) of farming is naturally not attractive to them. Farming seems mainly to have spread through spread of farmers—its main advantage being it can support a lot more people.

Genetic studies also through a lot of light on history. For example, the Anglo-Saxon invaders of England clearly intermarried a lot. The basic population of the British Isles is divided between Celts and Anglo-Saxon-Celt hybrids. (Romans and Normans were too few to leave much genetic traces.)

The rate of faithfulness in wives in England over the centuries seems to have been quite high—only about 1% of the sons in each generation of one study extending back to the C14th seem to have had different fathers. So surnames can be quite good indicators of common ancestry. As for the fruits of conquest—there are estimated to be 16 million men living who are descendants of Genghis Khan. Have 500 wives and concubines and then lots of sons who have lots of sons (one had 40 acknowledged sons) and it can mount up pretty quickly. Of course, as Peter Turchin points out, a fast-breeding elite can be a major problem for an imperial system because of the intense competition it sets up among powerholders.

A very enjoyable, informative and well-written book.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation

There has been quite a wave of revisionist scholarship pointing out that Europe’s rise to global dominance was somewhat later, and owed much more to non-European influences, than is often realised. Scholars such as R. Bin Wong, Janet Abu Lughod, Kenneth Pomeranz have produced notable works in this field.

It is a reaction against scholarly narratives that stress longstanding European inventiveness and institutional advantage, with Eric Jones’ book on the puzzle of why growth in actual living standards was such a rare occurrence being something of an intermediate work between the two approaches.
For much of the period under review, the Europeans invented very little for themselves. They only genuine innovations that they made before the eighteenth century were the Archimedian screw, the crankshaft or camshaft and alcoholic distillation process.
So writes (Pp60-61) John M Hobson in Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Hobson seeks to establish that the West was a bunch of late (economic) developers who contributed very few original ideas before 1700 and did not become economically dominant or have a major impact on the global economy until after 1800. It is at once one of the most intriguing and one of the most deeply silly books I have ever read from a major historian.

The intriguing thesis is precisely how large the European debt to other societies (particularly China and then Islam) was, as encapsulated in the quote above. The deeply silly thesis is that the Europeans were successful because they were nasty and lucky.
The silly bits
Hobson argues that, in effect, we should stop being Eurocentric and become Europhobic—which is to say adopt a “good” Eurocentricism of European sin to replace a wicked Eurocentrism of European virtue.

He has a lot to overcome to defend his view of Europeans as particularly nasty.

Consider his citations of Europeans being impressed by themselves. Large civilisations tend to be full of themselves. The Chinese were (and are), the Japanese, Muslims similarly. Europeans are hardly standouts in this. Moreover, European civilisation became more systematically curious about other cultures and societies than any other civilisation (with the revealing exception of Japan).

Then there is his argument that Europeans needed to create a “racist identity” to justify and motivate imperialism. Imperialism is as old as government and was a normal condition thereof. More territory meant more wealth and power and the raiders were further away. The notion that there is some “proper” and “natural” boundaries to rulership is strictly a (late) European invention.

European imperialism was notable for its success, its relatively low application of resources (most European military forces squared off against other Europeans, not colonial peoples) and that it came to be contentious within European civilisation, to the extent that folk came to feel guilty about it. Thus, Gandhi’s entire strategy against British rule in India was to aim at the conflict between imperialism and classical liberalism.

Hobson wants to build up Western racism as the Great Sin of world history. Alas, he cannot tell the difference between a reason and a rationalisation. Western empire-builders in the New World had longstanding categories to rely on – Christian/heathen, civilised/uncivilised – that dated back centuries, have analogues in other cultures and which it is anachronistic to call "racist".

Nor does the chronology help his argument. Early in the C16th, the notion that the natives were inherently a lower form of life was explicitly rejected by Charles V. The ur-text of racist ideology is Gobineau’s essay, which is not published until the 1850s. The term ‘racist’ itself is not coined until the 1930s, in response to the rise of Nazism. The appeal of what we now see as racism was precisely to give an explanation of already existing European domination.

Hobson seeks to get around this rather basic chronological difficulty by appealing to the notion of implicit racism but, as previously noted, it is a concept so implicit that it is not actually racism. Just a device for turning claims of European or Western superiority into thoughtcrime.

Creating spurious concepts of shared identity Hobson regards as a habit of European history (but, apparently, no one else’s). Inventing identities such as ‘evil Islam’, a created threat, in order to justify and maintain the feudal order (pp 99-100).

The first little difficulty is that Islam was a threat, one that came in waves. The Arab wave from mid C7th peaking at the battle of Calatañazor in 1002. And the Turkic wave from the mid C11th, especially the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, to the second siege of Vienna in 1683. Iberia also had the “Moorish” wave that peaked at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. That all the world should be in the House of Islam was a live idea. And it is not as if contemporary Islam is not showing a revived difficulty in interacting with other cultures.

Without romanticising the knightly order, the suggestion that it needed to create an identity of evil Islam to sustain an identity of good Christendom to keep going is simply deeply silly. It was a extremely practical system based on a “deal” of service for protection. Which is why a very similar system evolved in Japan.

Hobson is for ever denouncing Eurocentric scholars in accord with his good-people-have-good-ideas and bad-people-have-bad-ideas eschatology. Too often he does so via ascribing dubious claims without benefit of footnotes, such as (p.103):
Eurocentric scholars usually attribute the invention of the stirrup to to Charles Martel in 733.
I have read a lot of military history, some of it written in the C19th. I do not remember ever seeing such a silly claim. As for his inflation of the importance of stirrups, I have already had a rant about Hobson’s silly claims about stirrups. Which, by the way, also did not create the samurai just as they did not create the knights. (Japan is, once again, the great corrector for analysis: the similar geography of Europe and Japan has to be an important factor in why two such disparate societies developed such similar institutions.).

Hobson engages in irritating reifications where West and East are movable feasts shifting around as convenient to sustain the thesis.

When clever folk make deeply silly arguments as part of a general pattern, one is driven to the sociology of belief to explain why. Fairly clearly, Hobson is appealing to an academic milieu where West-is-bad and the-really-Virtuous-understand-how-bad. Hobson is just an extreme view of a widespread tendency. One very impressed with its own good intentions.

Yet, it is not as if intentions are such a terrific measure of human benefit. Apart from the exporting of the Eurasian disease pool to the Americas and Oceania, the most destructive thing the West ever did to the Rest was to export revolutionary socialism (in total deaths, the two greatest demographic disasters in history, though the former was proportionately much more disastrous). The socialist model of development was also fairly disastrous, though not on the same scale.

It is conspicuous that Hobson’s analysis makes no mention of property rights. He is very much committed to a technology-drives-history view. But technology does not have merely to be invented, it also has to be adopted, as contemporary differences between societies show very strongly.

One notices, for example, that intellectually serious proponents of liberal economics talk about such things as property rights, transaction costs and public goods: specific things that directly affect human behaviour. Opponents talk about markets (particularly that give-away phrase so-called free markets): that is, higher level abstractions. Yet market transactions come in two quite different varieties: self-enforcing transactions (swap money and goods on spot, transactions any bazaar can manage) versus transactions across time (which require high levels of trust and are crucial for selling most assets). Only bothering with higher level abstraction is a bit of an analytical problem when one of the most salient ways of differentiating societies is how safe or risky they are for the latter type of transaction. Instead, the technique one sees quite a lot (including in Hobson's book) is apparently to work out the conclusion you want, and then assemble the relevant premises to support it. Paying particular attention to things not to be included.

Hobson writing of C18th British society as being 'despotic' is another piece of egregious silliness. He is correct to point out that the C18th British state was larger, as a share of the economy, than its European contemporaries. This was also true of the C17th Dutch state and medieval Venice. Commercial polities had less problem with consent (so could tax more) and engaged in more provision of public goods (including, for example, protection of property rights) than other states precisely because the consent of the political nation was required for taxes. Government share of GDP is a very crude measure.

While there may well be differences between how the first folk achieved industrial take-off and what was required for the subsequent achievers thereof, there is a tendency among revisionist scholars, which Hobson shares, not to think about what the experience of the latter might tell us about the former.

Similarly, revisionists tend to be very willing to talk about slavery and its evils, without much grappling with the universality of slavery among major civilisations (Muslim slavers were still kidnapping and enslaving Europeans as late as the C18th). Nor thinking through Europe being the first civilisation to begin to abolish slavery since ancient times.

Yet the anti-slavery movement in C18th Britain was the first great modern political movement. The context in which it arose was one where Western science was an increasingly coherent universal analytic that increasingly had no parallel in other civilisations. The development of science, both feeding off and reflecting an increasingly global perspective, interacted with an already universalist religion (Christianity) to produce the Evangelical anti-slavery agitation of the late C18th and C19th which resulted in the 1832 abolition of slavery in the British Empire. It is no accident that the country that had come to dominate scientific advance, and was the most global in its perspective, also pioneered anti-slavery agitation.

The Euro-revisionists drive to belittle the Europe and the West creates inconsistencies. Such as the conquest of the Americas being a great ecological boon to Europe which was absolutely crucial to European take-off (the lucky bit in Hobson’s analysis of European success) yet Japan and China have to be understood as being as rich as Europe until at least the early C19th. So much is obscured by such comparisons at the best of times—such as Venice in 1330 having more sophisticated capital markets than Qing China in 1830.

Hobson shares the inconsistencies of the Euro-revisionists while engaging in a higher silliness. But if the book has a lot of deeply silly aspects to it, it also has some very useful and informative aspects.

The other bits
Hobson does make one think much more seriously about how much Europe was a late adaptor and late developer: how much Europe was reliant in picking up other folks ideas and taking them further. That part of his thesis is striking and informative.

When one considers the matter, it is no surprise that China tended to be the dominant source of key inventions for so long. Even if one assumes that human inventiveness is evenly spread across human populations, the Chinese were always such a significant proportion of the total human population that inventors were likely to be Chinese. But China had further advantages. A high level of cultural continuity, so inventions were less likely to be lost. It was a persistently sophisticated and complex society, so a wider range of problems to deal with and the resources to seek to solve them.

What Europe had going for it was much wider institutional variety than other civilisations and continuity in competitive jurisdictions. Which made Europeans avid adaptors. Once a new idea hit Europe, it was very likely to be taken up and improved. And Europe had more institutional forms “in play” so a wider range of possibilities for social selection to operate on. For example, the deliberative assemblies of the classical world and the representative assemblies of the medieval world seem to have no significant parallels in other civilisations. The institutional richness and diversity, including diversity of rule, of Latin Christendom is striking.

Islam, at least in its early centuries, also displayed a high level of adaptiveness and invention. But that again is not surprising. For centuries, they were the “bridge” civilisation, the civilisation that interacted with more other cultures than any other. Which meant they were more likely to pick up good ideas and more likely to put ideas together in new ways.

The pressure of competitive jurisdictions in Europe eventually led European civilisation to become the first civilisation that interacted with the entire globe. Europe became the ultimate “bridge” civilisation. It was this, operating on competitive jurisdictions and institutional variety, which really led to Europe’s take off. Bureaucratised autocracy (China) or militarised autocracy (Islam) did not generate the same pressure to innovate and adapt. With the scientific revolution, Europe became the first civilisation to, in a phrase David Stove liked to repeat, learn how to learn in a systematic way. All the good ideas and techniques across the globe became accessible to Europe. Invention (both technological and organisational) took off. By the C15th, Europeans were already creating the best armour and cannons. By the C16th, the best ships. By the C17th, the greatest trading networks and best weapons and science. By the C18th, the best armies. By the C19th, the strongest economies and industrial technology. By the C20th, the West had come to completely dominate intellectual invention. Europe became the first civilisation to genuinely escape from the land/population constraint shifting to the far less contrained effectively vistas of living standards being based on the capital/population ratio.

This is not a particularly difficult story. But neither it is a normatively reassuring one. Europeans, their ideas, religion and institutions, are neither unusually nasty nor unusually clever nor unusually virtuous. They are just folks who, through effort and circumstances, created a civilisation that achieved more than any previous civilisation.

Which is only a problem to deal with if you have created an identity of Virtue based on asserting yourself against that civilisation. But, if one defines virtue against success, one is setting oneself up to generate a lot of failure. Including analytical failure. Including a recoiling from “Eurocentrism” which turns into a “Europhobia” which is just a reverse Eurocentrism. Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation has much that is striking, useful and informative: pity it is wrapped in such silly pandering to fashionable contemporary prejudices.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Biological Exuberance

A journal article having the title A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera has a certain arresting quality. (Lepidoptera are butterflies, in case you didn’t know.) That was the title of a 1987 article published by W. J .Tennent in the Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation. It was about – shock, horror – male butterflies having it off with each other in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Observations of same-sex activity in animals are recorded in Greek literature. That certain animals were sexually deviant was part of medieval world views – indeed, was incorporated in heraldry. Keen records the great story (pp 130-1) of a certain gentleman, granted arms by the Earl of Salisbury for valour on the field, being given a device of three partridges,
a bird of aberrant and abhorrent sexual practices with the male being known to mount the male, whence ‘to bear partridges in arms betokens the first bearer to be a great liar or sodomite’.
Over the last two centuries, scientists have observed, and documented, a wide range of animal homosexuality. Alas, scientists are not immune from the prejudices of their time, so a considerable amount of obfustication has been engaged in to ignore, explain away, deny or avoid same-sex and other non-procreative sexual activity in animals. A particularly honest biologist reported of his beloved Bighorn Rams:
I still cringe at the memory of old D-ram mount S-ram repeatedly…True to form, and incapable of absorbing this realization at one, I called these actions of the rams aggrosexual behaviour, for to state that the males had evolved a homosexual society was beyond me. To conceive of these magnificent beasts as "queers"—Oh God! I argued for two years that in [wild mountain] sheep, aggressive and sexual behaviour could not be separated…I never published that drivel and I am glad of it…Eventually, I called a spade a spade and admitted that rams lived in an essentially homosexual society.
The above is quoted in (p.107) Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. Bagemihl both amusingly details said obfustication while providing a wealth of material on the startling sexual diversity of nature. The lightness of the scholarly touch is one of the best features of the book.

And nature has it all: virgin births (parthenogenetic reproduction) by female-only lizard species who engage in lesbian sex. Same-sex parenting, either by adoption or outside fertilisation. Using tools to masturbate. Using gestures to communicate over sex. Non-procreative heterosexual activity such as oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation. Transvestites (animals who mimic the opposite gender but don’t necessarily engage in same-sex activity). Transsexuals (animals who change gender). Step parents. Blended families. Courting rituals specific to same-sex couples. Intersex individuals (animals who mix male and female characteristics). It’s all there, in a riot of diversity
If one is looking to sexuality, including sexual diversity, or gender diversity as an item to differentiate homo sapiens from other species, you’re out of luck. And if you think heterosexuality has some monopoly on being natural (or even close to it), you’re out of luck too.

Bagemihl points out that, while modern science has had, at times, great difficulty in observing such ideologically-charged elements of nature accurately, many indigenous cultures were well aware of the diversity of nature, something reflected in both their myths and their understanding of human diversity. Hardly surprising, millennia of close observation probably is going to impart some knowledge. Such ‘new’ and ‘modern’ phenomena such as transgender and intersex individuals, same-sex bonding and so forth have plenty of indigenous antecedents. Even hyper-masculinity within contemporary gay culture has indigenous antecedents – some Amerindian cultures held that some ‘two-spirit’ males had an overflow of masculinity and made particularly good warriors.

Bagemihl is not pushing some gooey New Age romanticism. He just thinks looking for kernels of truth in indigenous beliefs concerning the world around them might be well worth doing (p.242). They might actually have noticed a few things about the world around them, a proposition for which he adduces much evidence.

The last two-thirds of the book is entitled A Wondrous Bestiary: Portraits of Homosexual, Bisexual and Transgendered Wildlife. In it, Bagemihl provides almost 400 pages of summaries of the data for a wide range of animals. It is for browsing and dipping.

The fun is in the first third of the book. Chapter 1 The Birds and the Bees establishes the startling diversity of nature. Chapter 2 Humanistic Animals, Animalist Humans demolishes delusions of homo sapiens’ uniqueness in this area. Animal breeders have often been much more aware of such activity than the scientific community, even developing special terminology (p.81). Chapter 3 Two Hundred Years of Looking at Homosexual Wildlife covers the long, troubled, history of scientific observation of such things (I particularly liked the studies which just assumed [p.94] that the animal on top was male and the animal on the bottom was female without checking further). Chapter 4 Explaining (Away) Animal Homosexuality looks at the attempts by scientists to pretend they weren’t seeing what they were seeing, or to reduce it to something else, to keep heterosexuality as the unchallenged norm or otherwise make the phenomena fit preconceived ideas. Chapter 5 Not for Breeding Only: Reproduction on the Periphery of Life is, in some ways, the most challenging chapter to conventional Darwinian viewpoints pointing out that a very wide variety of animal behaviour, including heterosexual behaviour, has absolutely nothing to do with reproduction, though that does not mean it does not have evolutionary benefits. Treating animals as a gene’s way of making more genes leaves out huge amounts of what goes on in nature. The issue is not what genes determine (they are a recipe not a mould) but what they permit. A wide range of behaviour, including sexual behaviour, clearly.

Chapter 6, A New Paradigm: Biological Exuberance in part takes us on a tour of indigenous beliefs about such things, concentrating on the anthropologically best-documented areas of New Guinea/Melanesia, Siberia/Artic and Amerindian cultures, demonstrating on how indigenous beliefs about sexual and gender diversity in other species do indeed often have a significant kernel of truth in them. This section I found to be heaps of fun.

Bagemihl then attempts to articulate a new way of looking at nature to incorporate this amazing diversity. Chaos theory and James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis get a guernsey. This is, as one might expect, the weakest bit of the book, though it has some striking quotes. I particularly liked
evolution is chaos with feedback (p.247).
Where I was more impressed was when he cited Georges Bataille’s theory of General Economy concerning excess energy needing to be discharged. Not because I have any time for Bataille, but because what of Bagemihl seems to be groping towards. The point about excess energy can be easily made more cogent.

For animals to have access to energy in excess of the needs of immediate survival is highly desirable for survival, as individuals who are constantly on the edge of starving would have very poor survival chances. Storing excess energy as fat is clearly a very limited option. Other ways to discharge such energy will be required. So species with access to energy optimal for survival will be able to support a wide range of behaviour that have nothing to do with either immediate survival or reproduction. Such behaviour can then be a ‘bank’ of displaceable energy able to be sacrificed if survival requires it. The selection pressure such behaviour will be subject to will be of a more ‘second-order’ variety due to their surplus-to-immediate-requirements nature: they already have a survival function. So a range of behaviour that is not about either immediate survival or reproduction will be supported without being genetically determined. Non-procreational sex and other forms of play would be particularly useful for this. They are pleasurable, so will be engaged in; redundant to immediate survival, so can sacrificed; and subject to motivational cut-offs, so will be sacrificed (hence hierarchy of motives as per Maslow). Being subject to ‘second-order’ selection, such behaviour is likely to tend towards considerable diversity. Hence biological exuberance way beyond simple niche-filling.

Rescuing natural selection from Malthus
Which means Bagemihl provides a compilation of striking evidence that Darwinism, as originally conceived, is false, an embarrassing truth despite (failed) attempts to prove it not so. But Bagemhil also points the way to the solution to the same. The problem for Darwinism as originally propounded (particularly in Darwin’s rhetoric) being that it is based on Malthus’s principle of population, which is false. Malthus’ principle of population is that food increases arithmetically while that population tends to increase geometrically. This is open to the elementary objection that food supplies are typically themselves populations. (This is hardly the only objection, nor a new one, but it will do.) The reverse also applies – populations are food supplies: a point not germane to Malthus’ original thesis as it only pertained to homo sapiens but very relevant if you want to extend it to other species.

Pausing here, I do not wish to deny the fact of evolution, still less the brilliant notion of natural selection. Merely that Darwin and Wallace wildly overstated the level of constraint organisms actually operate under, or need to operate under, to provide the motive power for natural selection.

All they needed was (1) inherited variance and (2) budget constraints. If individuals within species vary (as they do) and if some of the variances are heritable (as they are), then as long as there is some constraint on the resources available for sustaining life (as there is) there will be selection processes. The greater the constraint, the more intense the selection processes, but as long as there is some constraint, there will be (non-random) selection processes. Which is all you need for evolution. Particularly given the very long time-frames available. That Malthus’s principle of population is overstated does not mean that species never come up against resource limits, still less than they cannot. Darwin avoided the “arithmetic/geometric” problem by holding that all living populations can increase geometrically, it is the limitations of the natural world (sun, weather, moisture, extremes of hot and cold, seasons, etc) which generate the ultimate constraints.

Moreover, Darwin et al got their notion of constraint the wrong way around. Darwin clearly felt and, given the riotous variety of life, it was an understandable belief, that he needed some desperately powerful and restrictive motivating force to get natural selection to work. But this is not so. Consider (the admittedly controversial) notion of punctuated equilibrium. Development of new species is not necessarily a constant process. There appear to be periods when there is a sudden mass extinction followed by an explosion of new species. The best explanation is that some catastrophe occurs (a comet strike, say) which wipes out most species. That is to say, there is a sudden, catastrophic, increase in budget constraints so natural selection operates far more viciously than normal, selecting out vast array of species.

Darwin himself was arguing against a catastrophist (Noah’s flood) theory. Since he rejects the notion of past catastrophes suddenly wiping out lots of species (Noah’s flood scientised), he had evolution proceeding at a consistent, gradual, but inexorable pace varying over time only with any variance in the rate of mutation. In order to drive this inexorable change, Darwin characterised the struggle for existence as relentlessly intense.

After the major catastrophe has happened, there is an enormous loosening of the budget constraints facing species. Natural selection becomes positively indulgent and an explosion of new species occurs as all sorts of variations suddenly (in evolutionary terms) get a guernsey. Natural selection never becomes absolutely indulgent, of course. A certain basic functioning is required even in the most lush conditions. Natural selection is always operating, it just operates at different levels of intensity at different times. But far from the development of new species being favoured when natural selection is most intense, said development is favoured when natural selection is least intense.

Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Who is going to be the most innovative: the person on the margin of existence, with nothing spare, or the person with a reserve to fall back on if things go wrong? The question answers itself and is regularly demonstrated in human affairs. In the modern world, which are the most innovative societies, the wealthiest or the poorest? Again, the answer is obvious. The development of species seems inherently likely to be more frequent in lush conditions as beggars can’t be choosers. If things are desperate, you choose the first mate that comes along. If things are more relaxed, more discrimination is tolerable, so population drift would appear to be more likely. Biodiversity happens most in the lushest areas, not the most arid.

In the words of Richard Dawkins
natural selection exerts a braking effect on evolution. The baseline of evolution, in the absence of natural selection, is the maximum possible rate. That is synonymous with the mutation rate
which is a bit confused (since the mutation rate surely does not always operate at its maximum possible rate, even in the most favourable conditions), but will do.

Note that even the ‘populations are food, food are populations’ notion of species inter-actively policing each other’s numbers cannot get to you ceaseless struggle for existence. It can get you to it might happen at any moment (which is true) but it certainly can’t get you to it happens at all moments (which is false). No doubt the way constant and ceaseless can be ambiguous between always can and always does accounts for much of why a patent falsity is so widely adhered to.

And the problems of Darwinism that philosopher David Stove took such witty delight in demolishing flow from Darwin having picked a mechanism of excessive intensity – Malthus’s struggle for existence. All Darwin needed was a mechanism of constraint sufficient to have selection occur. Food is not unlimited, living beings have to be sufficiently functional to eat and reproduce, things can go wrong. That will do. You certainly don’t need a ceaseless struggle for existence or, in Darwin’s own words
every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers
owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, some age, season or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed
with a
constant struggle for life among conspecifics
which is just as well, because none of this is true.

And the existence of animal play proves they’re not true. If you’re constantly struggling for existence, particularly with your fellow whatevers, you don’t stop and play with them. Nor engage in non-procreative sex. And so on. So the phenomena that Bagemihl takes such enjoyable delight in enumerating show just how punctuated the so-called struggle for existence really is. And, what’s more, by drawing attention to the excess of energy beyond immediate survival available to living organisms he makes it easier to see that energy redundancy is beneficial to survival and will generate a riot of behaviour which is not, of itself, driven by a constant struggle for life but nevertheless is explicable in terms of natural selection.

So, natural selection (inherited variance + constraint) is true, Darwinism (inherited variance + Malthus) is not and Bagemihl helps us see both the former and the latter. Even better, it indicates why the Malthusian principle becomes less and less apposite the more complex organisms, and their behaviour, become.

I originally bought Biological Exuberance because of my interest in the homosexuality-is-unnatural argument. Biological Exuberance certainly shed very revealing light on that, and more, but above all, it is simply a lot of fun to read. Talk about the wonders of nature …

Friday, August 28, 2009

Moral universalism versus moral instrumentalism

One of the enduring divisions in the Western left has been between “anti-fascism” (that opposition to fascism is such an imperative any useful allies should be sought) and “anti-imperialism” (the central moral problem is the wrongness of the capitalist West).

The Euston Manifesto is a recent manifestation of the anti-fascism-is-trumps outlook. [So is Richard Just's recent essay in The New Republic (via Norm): he characterises the position as human rights being trumps, which is a more general label, though possibly somewhat American in terminology.] This outlook is one of moral universalism (i.e. a common set of moral principles for everyone) and having no truck with movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas nor regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s or the Assad's. [A nice statement of anti-imperialism not being enough is here. Clive James propounds a firm moral universalism and criticises the reticence of Western feminists and intellectuals over (dis)honourcide and non-Western repression of women here. In support of moral universalism, there is evidence that children engage in common moral reasoning across cultures.]

Marxist philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s book Empire is something of a flagship for the anti-imperialist tendency. One adherent of revolutionary socialism puts the matter very clearly:
To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).
As clear an example of “anti-imperialism” trumping “anti-fascism” as one could hope for.

Such a view also abandons any sense of moral universalism: the criteria of opposition to Western capitalism trumps all else. A form of what we can reasonably call moral instrumentalism: having some goal determining moral judgement.

This sort of view is often criticised as moral relativism, but that is not very accurate. So-called “moral relativists” typically conjoin moral absolutism about the evils of Western racism, sexism, global warming etc with moral relativism about other matters. What such folk are typically displaying is moral instrumentalism: the overriding goal in such cases usually being to establish their own membership of the moral elite. A form of moral instrumentalism entirely compatible with judging things according to the goal of the revolutionary transformation of society, for what are those who work for such glorious transformation other than a moral elite?

Buddhism and Christianity—both religions of moral order (i.e. their injunctions do not purport to be laws, however much they may hold that their moral perspectives should animate the content and implementation of laws)—are typically morally universalist religions. An example of this is Pope Paul III’s 1537 bull Sublimus Dei which held of the inhabitants of the Americas that:
… the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
A moral perspective that leads quite naturally to such statements as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Conversely, Islam, a religion of social order (i.e. it does purport to provide binding laws) is typically a religion of moral instrumentalism: the goal of universal submission to Allah as sovereign legislator of the universe is paramount. This leads to a very different perspective on what may be done to non-believers in the furtherance of this goal and to have a moral and legal order which rates people according to how much they adhere to this goal. [It also means that apostasy is a form of treason, hence its traditional penalty being death.] This moral instrumentalism also leads critics of Islam to make much of the doctrine of taqiyya or deception.

Bertrand Russell noted the similarity between Islam and Bolshevism:
Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam....Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahommet....Among religions, Bolshevism is to be reckoned with Mohammedanism rather than with Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity and Buddhism are primarily personal religions, with mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation. Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of this world".
Not only do they share having a universal goal, but they are also morally instrumentalist: making moral judgments about actions, institutions and people according to how much they adhere to their universal goal.
Judaism, as a religion of community order (having religious laws which bind the community of believers but do not have any authority over non-believers: Ismaili Islam has a similar perspective) is legalistic but is not morally instrumentalist. Indeed, the Noahide laws provide a form of moral universalism.

Edmund Standing has a post on the group blog Butterflies and Wheels on the far-left campaign to silence critics of Islam. Standing is referring to the phenomena whereby criticism of Islam is taken to be criticism of Muslims so analogous to (or a form of) racism: hence the term Islamophobia. An ostentatious moral concern displayed by people who would never worry about criticism of Christianity being criticism of Christians nor either being any form of racism. [A nice tongue-in-cheek check-list for "Islamophobia"].

The “Islamophobia” nonsense seems to be just a fairly grotesque form of ideological hypocrisy, but makes more sense if one examines the underlying worldview. Particularly if we see it as a manifestation of moral instrumentalism.

Standing is examining patterns among adherents of various forms of Marxism, so starts his analysis there:
Marxism is, at heart, to use the 'buzz words', a 'totalising narrative'. It is essentially based around a deterministic view of history which has much in common with conspiracy theory and theology. The Marxist historical vision incorporates disparate historical events into one unified narrative through the notion of class struggle. Where the religious see the 'plan' and guiding hand of God as the underlying reality that ultimately 'makes sense of' history, the Marxist sees the ongoing phenomenon of 'class conflict' as being the glue that binds historical events and social changes into an intelligible, explainable whole. As with all totalising narratives, the Marxist vision is at heart a simplistic and often black and white system of thought that can be used to 'explain' any social phenomena as having relevance to the Marxist understanding of history and politics.
While there are followers of Marx whose world-view is rather more sophisticated than that, Standing is describing a strong tendency within Marxism—particularly Leninism and its derivatives.

This outlook means that:
An immediate problem with Marx's analysis of religion is that it greatly oversimplifies the phenomenon of religious belief. In this view, religion is not an end in itself but must always be seen as a 'cover' for something else, something politically intelligible. Marxist materialism overcomes religion, then, not through criticising religious texts and doctrines but by looking beyond them to what is perceived to be their underlying 'cause': political and economic oppression.
Just as the more obsessive monotheist believers might see the hand of Satan everywhere, such ardent Marxists are always looking for the “underlying” class reality. Needless to say, this is a massively impoverished (indeed delusional) way of looking at the world. In either case, however, the seekers always seem to find what they look for.

Of course, we can all engage in dubious framings:
Many Marxists see the resurgence of political Islam not as part of a rising tide of irrationalism but rather as an essentially political and rational response to the supposedly oppressive and intrinsically 'racist' and 'imperialist' nature of Western liberal democracy.
The resurgence of political Islam can reasonably be seen as something other than part of a “rising tide of irrationalism”. But Standing’s point about the falsity in obsessively seeing the West as having such great causal potency that it trumps everything else is a sound one.

Seeing religion as a mere epiphenomenon on deeper class issues has natural consequences:
It is rare to see the Marxist writers who currently engage in a McCarthyite denunciation of critics of Islam and Islamist organisations actively engage with the religion of Islam itself. This is unsurprising, as their concern is not defending Islam but rather (supposedly) defending 'Muslims' (often seen as a monolithic block), who are seen to be the latest victims of the Western bourgeois Capitalist conspiracy. In the strange worldview of these Marxist campaigners against 'Islamophobia', almost any criticism of Islam, Islamist politics, or Muslim organisations is seen to be little more than a thinly veiled form of 'racism'. The fact that these writers apparently cannot distinguish between legitimate criticism of a religious belief system and its texts and outright expressions of racial hatred says a lot about the simplistic nature of their worldview and their underlying anti-intellectualism. There is something sinister and totalitarian about the far-left's campaign against critics of Islam. It is a dishonest campaign that seeks to silence dissent and critical thinking that does not conform to the 'party line' through demonisation and name calling.
This stream of thought then feeds into wider hypocrisies. Notably the “rednecks have no speech rights” attempts to legislate against “hate speech”—laws that are offensive both on freedom of speech grounds and in the patent hypocrisy of their implementation. In practice, it is clear that the guardians of such matters only care about some types of “hate speech”—those instances offensive to progressivist opinion.

Attempts to use the cry of “racism!” against dissent has lots of problems:
False accusations of racism can have very serious repercussions, and falsely equating criticism of religion with racism is not only slanderous towards anti-racist critics of Islam and Islamism but also risks trivialising the very real phenomenon of genuine racial prejudice and hatred.
But what is really going on is trying to shore up various worldviews and de-legitimise dissent there from. Widening the definition of ‘racist’ narrows the range of acceptable discussion.

In this case, the object is to keep the focus on Western sins (real, exaggerated and alleged) rather than dealing with things in their own terms. The perspective that was maintained by all those who followed Stalin’s lead from August 24 1939 to 22 June 1941. Of course, that did not work out so well for Stalin, who found the Nazis were a much more serious military threat than the Western allies: just as jihadis can recruit far more easily from a much greater population base than Western revolutionary socialists. Including people with sufficient commitment to kill and die. Islamic radicalism clearly has greater appeal within Europe as an “ideology of contestation” and has supplanted radical secularism in its activist appeal within Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere.

If the attempt to police public discourse is rational enough in an instrumental sense, the underlying world view is less so:
Far-left politics are not based on a realistic and rational assessment of the world. As I have argued previously, 'revolutionary' leftists are 'dreamers of the day': fantasists whose worldview is grounded in a conspiratorial and deterministic framework; black and white thinkers whose rigid idealism mirrors religious faith. Once this is understood, the current 'left-wing' campaign of demonising liberal, rationalist critics of Islam and Islamist politics is placed in its proper context. When liberal humanists and progressives find themselves routinely denounced for supposedly holding 'Islamophobic' (and by inference, 'racist') views, it is clear that the self-appointed witch finders throwing around such accusations have an underlying agenda – a political delusion based on faith in the existence an imagined 'racist imperialist' conspiracy and a conviction that they are a morally pure elite who will one day lead ' an aroused people' to revolutionary glory.
Yes, there is the animating sense of moral identity: that is very important to understand what is going on. But, as with religion, one has to understand that there are other hopes and fears involved. One of the notable features of our time is not merely the far-left effectively making common cause with jihadists (particularly Hamas and Hezbollah), it is people moving from Marxism to Islamism (including the full jihadi package). For Marxism and Islamism have a similar underlying appeal. What Francois Furet called the revolutionary illusion:
Modern society … is characterised by a lack of politics in relation to the private, individual existence. It is blind to the idea of the common good, since the members of society, consumed with relativism, have their own individual ideas of the common good and modern society can conceive of it only in terms of a taste for well-being, which divides its members rather than unifying them and thus destroys the community supposedly constructed in its name. The revolutionary idea is the impossible attempt to circumvent that calamity.
So is the Islamist idea.

Revolutionary Marxism and Islamism (including the jihadis) not only have common enemies, at the deepest level they have common ambitions and a common judgment that their end-goal is so worthy that it trumps all other considerations. They share a universalist ambition of achieving profound social harmony with moral instrumentalism and a sense of identity of being an elite validated by that. No wonder Islamism has been recruiting from former Marxists and no wonder so many Marxists (and similar) find even jihadis preferable to their mutual enemies. Deep calls to deep, as my old teacher David Stove would say.

Moral universalists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the chains of failing to understand what is going on.

ADDENDA This post has been updated, additions in [square brackets].

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I Am Not A Muslim

Muslim apostate Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not A Muslim is self-consciously titled in honour of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian.

There are some obvious differences. Death was not a possible risk to Russell from publishing his book (so he had no need of a nom-de-plume) and, in modern Western intellectual and academic circles, criticising Christianity gets you many more “cool kid” points than does criticising Islam.

In his Introduction, Ibn Warraq differentiates between Islam 1 (what the Prophet taught as contained in the Qur’an), Islam 2 (the religion as expounded, interpreted, and developed: Islam of the hadith and Shar’ia) and Islam 3 (what Muslims actually do and achieved—Islamic civilisation). His contention is that Islam 3
often reached magnificent heights despite Islam 1 and 2, not because of them (p.1).
Ibn Warraq begins with the Rushdie Affair. Many Islamic intellectuals understood, as so many Western intellectuals (who see West v Rest as the big divide: some, such as Fred Halliday, being honourable exceptions) did not, that the fatwa against Rushdie was aimed at them. But it is a consistent problem with multiculturalism that—by supporting traditionalist claims of cultural authority—it defends traditional oppressions. Ibn Warraq places the fatwa within a long-existing Islamic context of hostility to critical writing and critiques the tendency among contemporary Western intellectuals to whitewash, obfusticate or generally “go soft” on Islam and the consequent failure to support Rushdie. Not that said failures are all that surprising: such implicit celebration of the achievements of their own culture would undermine a status strategy which is based on critiquing the West (and thus sympathising with non-Westerners who do the same)—imagine the storm of criticism which would have erupted if a prominent Christian religious leader had called for the killing of an author.

There are also, as Ibn Warrag points out, those who defend Islam because, as Christians, they do not like the idea that any major religion be debunked.
The next four chapters—The Origins of Islam, The Problem of Sources, Muhammad and His Message, The Koran—apply the type of critical reading of religious and scriptural history to Islam which has long been standard in the West regarding Christianity but is almost entirely absent in Islam. That Christianity and Judaism have generally regarded the creation of Scripture as (at least in part) a process embedded in, and a product of, history gives more of an “in” to such activity than an Islam where the Qur’an is uncreated (that is, has always existed) so is, in a crucial sense, “outside” history.

Chapter 6, The Totalitarian Nature of Islam, starts with quotes from Bertrand Russell noting the similarities of Bolshevism and Islam. Ibn Warraq’s larger point is that there is no separation of Church and State in Islam and its strictures cover all areas of life—Shar’ia is political, civil and criminal law as well as basic morality, courtesy, food taboos, etc. There is no area of life, no realm of social action, it does not purport to cover (hence the enormous number of fatwas Islamic religious authorities issue).

Chapter 7, Is Islam Compatible with Democracy and Human Rights?, is an extended argument for the virtues of secularism. The next two chapters, Arab Imperialism, Arab Colonialism and The Arab Conquests and the Position of Non-Muslim Subjects consider the record of Islamic imperialism and rule. The myth of “tolerant Islam” does not survive critical examination: yes, there were periods when dhimmi were merely treated as the thoroughly second-class subjects Shar’ia set out. And there were also massacres and repressions, even in al-Andalus. (Of course, the enduring myth that there is some morally superior Other is a longstanding weapon of critique.)

There are repeated patterns: the three days of slaughter, rape and pillage that Constantinople was subjected to when it fell in 1453 was the same as that handed out to the port of Debail during the Arab conquest of Sindh in 712. The systematic slaughters of men of military age during the conquest of Sindh was the same as the Prophet’s murder of all the males of the Jewish Banu Qurayzah tribe in Medina, the women and children being sold into slavery.

In terms of killing and cultural destruction, Muslim (particularly Arab) rule was, in fact, generally much more destructive, oppressive (and longer lasting) than later Western imperialism. Ibn Warraq goes into considerable detail just how very second-class the status of non-Muslims was—as per the religious injunctions of Islam. Throughout the book, Ibn Warraq relies on lengthy quotes from scholars and they are much cited in this section.

In Chapter 10, Heretics and Heterodoxy, Atheism and Freethought, Reason and Revelation, Ibn Warraq examines the rather fraught history of philosophical and theological debate in Islam. In Chapter 11, Greek Philosophy and Science and Their Influence on Islam, he examines the huge influence Greek thought had on Islamic civilisation, the intellectual flowering that occurred in early Islam and the slow strangling of science by religious orthodoxy. He concludes that Islamic science flourished despite Islam and was eventually killed by it. In Chapter 12, Sufism or Islamic Mysticism, he notes the very latitudinarian strains in Sufism, contrasting that with the rather broader use of accusations of heresy to suppress dissent.

Chapter 13 is a celebration of the work and life of al-Ma’arri, a sceptical poet and rationalist thinker who managed to navigate the perils of such scepticism quite successfully. Chapter 14, Women in Islam finds, unsurprisingly, the treatment of women in Islam to have been much less than satisfactory. He does note various Westerners (such as Sir Richard Burton) who argued that erotic works and the sex-positive nature of Islam shows a high regard for women. Ibn Warraq disagrees strongly, holding such views to be more about male sexual fantasies than the actual circumstances of women in Islam. Ibn Warraq argues that it is far from clear that Islam improved the situation of women compared to that in pagan Arabia. He then systematically delineates all the ways women are put in inferior roles in Islam. He concludes by using Pakistan as a case study of how “Islamization” made the situation of women worse. He particularly singles out how the Shar’ia requirement for four (male) witnesses to prove an accusation of rape becomes a license to rape, since, not only does it make rape near impossible to prove, it also means that any woman making an accusation of rape that does not fulfill this requirement is deemed to have confessed to adultery, particularly if she becomes pregnant: adultery being a punishable offense. He backs up his analysis with a series of short, grim, case studies.

Chapter 15, Taboos: Wines, Pigs and Homosexuality, examines both the onerous burden Islam’s system of taboos puts on people and how widely said burden is evaded. Indeed, apart from under the early “Rightly Guided” Caliphs and the contemporary era, homosexuality was far more tolerated in Islam than in the Christian West. In Chapter 16, Final Assessment of Muhammad, Ibn Warraq assesses Muhammad as being a mixture of very attractive traits and very unattractive ones, not to be put on the same moral plane as Buddha, Socrates, Confucius or Jesus. He particularly singles out the Prophet’s insistence that the Qur’an was the literal word of God, true once and for all, as profoundly inimical to free thought and intellectual progress.

In the final chapter, Islam in the West, Ibn Warraq critiques what he sees as various betrayals of liberal and democratic values by those pandering to very illiberal and anti-democratic Muslim demands. But, Western civilisation is always an acceptable “Other” for those whose sense of status is based on critiquing their own societies: who are therefore far more likely to pander to convergent critiques (such as those from Muslims) than to critically examine the implications of such. Hence, the notion that one should criticise one’s own society (or culture) first—as that is where one has most influence—strangely does not get demanded, or even suggested, of intellectuals in non-Western societies and cultures. Such gives Muslim claims a level of acceptance among the conspicuously compassionate that, for example, Christian claims do not.

Ibn Warraq, by contrast, thinks the same moral and epistemic principles for all is much preferable. That Islam and Islamic claims should be subject to the same critical scrutiny as Christianity and Christian claims. Why I Am Not A Muslim is an informed and useful corrective to the obfustication and condescending pandering that seems so prevalent within contemporary Western intellectual circles.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Patterns of Development

A friend suggested that I write up for publication my point about silver flows and the similarity between C16th and C17th Iberian politics with contemporary Arab politics. Asking economic historian Eric Jones for advice, he recommended I look up the resource curse literature. So I purchased a (second hand) copy of Richard M. Auty’s Patterns of Development: Resources, Policy and Economic Growth, a ten-year old text on development economics. (It does suffer a little from being written before the 1997 Asian crisis.)

It proved to be readable and informative survey of what has been learned from 60 years or so experience with developing nations. Precisely because all parts of the globe are dealt with, one gets a much more coherent view of what does, and does not, work, rather than the cherry-picking of congenial cases which, alas, often passes for analysis.
My original interest was in the effect of massive resource flows on the political institutions of countries. Auty is more concerned with issues of economic development, but there is useful overlap.

Auty’s thesis is that we now have a fairly good idea of what does not, and what does, work for development policy. He essentially agrees with the list compiled by K. Griffin in a 1989 book:
Investment in human capital (i.e. education)
Early redistribution of key productive assets (notably land)
Pursuit of an employment-intensive development policy
Sustained rapid growth of aggregate per capita income
Encouragement of local participation in the choice and implementation of social and economic projects.
What is notable about this list is they are “general” policies—i.e. they provide general benefits and services. What comes across very strongly, is that discretionary interventions (particularly discretionary control over market entry) have a consistently poor record (which is true locally as well). They are highly prone to capture by discrete interests and to deform policy into rent-seeking. This is particularly so for autarkic policies (using state power to foster local import-substitution industries). Often, they become devices for urban-based interest groups to rip off the rural majority. The only cases that suggest “infant industry” approaches have much value, are cases where such assistance was limited in time and specifically aimed at creating products for export.

A caveat about land reform that Auty does not bring out but is fairly clear from his discussion is that it works far better if done in ways that encourages confidence in the resilience of property rights. If it is just a “revocable game”, its effects are likely to be much less beneficial than when it is done in ways which reinforce, rather than undermine, property rights.

Auty presents evidence that circumstances are not destiny—that good or bad policy choices can profoundly affect results. Nevertheless, it is clear that strong natural resource endowments tend to encourage poor policy because they present apparently “easy” choices.

Something else that comes across is that, while there are plenty of instances of poor advice from economists (often due to being over simplistic), the track record of other social science disciplines is notably worse. Economists are at least not prone to the mad idea that the central concern for public policy is to frustrate, control or stop capitalist acts between consenting adults. On the contrary, that is, in general, precisely what is to be encouraged for economic development—the contrast between the productivity of China’s peasants after Deng’s reforms gave them effective property rights as compared to the declining productivity under collective ownership is a particularly striking example. Indeed, Auty brings out how declining productivity is the normal pattern of public ownership. The demonstrable, and general, dangers of policy capture is very much a concern that runs through Auty’s analysis.

As for “progressive” analyses, the general pattern is they are often quite good at identifying key issues, patchy on the diagnosis of the causes and generally very poor at solutions. Not least because they tend to be very selective about the policy capture issue—they are generally quite keen on policy capture, as long as it is policy capture for folk like them (or folk they can project as being like them) pushing ideas like their’s. The notions that good public policy is a discovery process and that a fool can put on his own trousers better than a wise man can do for him not being normal parts of the mindset. Hence the obsession with controlling, frustrating or stopping capitalist acts between consenting adults. Or, to put it another way, the possessors of intellectual capital are very prone to recommending approaches which increase the status/prospects of possession of intellectual capital.

I liked Auty's discussion of the development over time of various lines of argument and analysis. I was particularly taken, for example, with the discussion of the Baldwin thesis about tropical versus temperate agriculture (pp 216ff). R. E. Baldwin argued (in 1956, examining the American South versus Midwest) that tropical (i.e. plantation) agriculture involved high initial capital investment (so had higher barriers to market entry), used unskilled labour and had limited ability to substitute capital for labour. The combination of a "rigid" production function, narrow export focus and very unequal social structure undermined economic dynamism.

Examining the global application of the Baldwin thesis, W. A. Lewis (in 1978) noted that there were two streams of labour migration prior to 1914. The first was white and increasingly expensive flowing from Europe to temperate lands. The second was coloured and cheap and flowed in tropical countries. White workers applied considerable political pressure to keep the two streams separate to protect their (rising) wages (the effect of subsituting capital for labour, since it makes labour relatively more scarce). In the tropics, cheap labour undermined the incentive to substitute capital for labour, so failure to substitute capital for labour was a price effect, not an inherent quality of tropical agriculture. Low wages meant limited local purchasing power, which discouraged local investment in manufacturing. Lewis noted that the high initial capital investment typical of tropical crops discouraged switching staple crops, increasing the tendency to be stuck with a product of declining value. Temperate crops, on the other hand, typically involved much less capital investment so could be changed in response to price changes much more easily. A good example of iterative progress in scholarly understanding.

There are, of course, always quibbles. I thought using government expenditure ratio to GDP as a measure of intervention (p.214) was fairly poor, since the level of expenditure says almost nothing about, for example, transaction costs or about barriers to market entry.

Auty concludes with a sensible discussion of the importance of environmental issues, and different approaches thereto. An informative book.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Double Lives

There is a myth on the Left that the Popular Front era from Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was somehow the epitome of the true anti-fascism of the Left. A myth that was largely destroyed by the Pact itself, but resurrected when Hitler turned on Stalin on June 22 1941.

Novelist Stephen Koch’s Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals demonstrates that the Popular Front was indeed the epitome of the anti-fascism of the Left, but not in the way it is typically portrayed.

The opening of the Moscow archives allowed much information to come to light which helps put the period in much clearer perspective. The Popular Front was from beginning to end a lie. At no point did Stalin confront Hitler directly. He could be energetic against Fascists Hitler also hated, such as Dollfuss. He could posture and manipulate against figures Hitler supported, such as Franco. But against Hitler, the avenues for making a deal were always kept open.

Koch explains much that is otherwise odd and mysterious. Such as the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. The Nazis seized Georgi Dimitri, heat of the Western European section of the Comintern. A man full of useful information. Yet the Nazis did not interrogate him. He was put on trial – and acquitted and later released. It was part of the shadow fencing between Hitler and Stalin. For they had various joint interests – such as destroying Rohm and the power of the SA.
The shadow fencing continued. The Nazis were helpful when Stalin wanted to destroy Marshal Tukhachevsky supplying forged evidence that he was a German agent. They both desired the same thing – a weakened Red Army.

For that was the single greatest usefulness of the Popular Front to Stalin – providing cover for the Great Purges. The Popular Front made fellow travelling OK and provided a cover against any criticism of Stalin, the show trials and the Soviet Union – for such criticism betrays the anti-Fascist cause. It is a profound to delusion to think that the Popular Front was the ‘true’ Left and the ‘real’ reaction to Nazism. It was merely a temporary, and profoundly dishonest, interlude before Stalin reverted to Lenin’s policy of splitting the Left into the bit they could control or manipulate and the part they denounced because they couldn’t.* An accommodation with Hitler was always Stalin’s hope, because that way he could send his two enemies – Hitler and the Western democracies – at war with each other. (And, of course, hope to pick up the pieces afterwards: which he did, but not quite the way he originally intended.)

Hence also Stalin’s policy towards the Spanish Civil War. Stalin was a great deal less helpful to Republican Spain than Hitler and Mussolini were to Franco. It was much more important that Spain be looted for all he could get (such as the Spanish gold reserves) and that any independent Left revolutionary activity be destroyed than the Republicans win. Indeed, Franco’s victory was convenient since it strengthened the Fascist powers against the West and made the clash between the two that Stalin wanted more likely. Soviet policy in Spain looks hamfisted until one frees oneself of the delusion that Stalin’s prime goal was a Republican victory.

Koch has a novelist’s eye for character and motivation. Part of the joy of the book is the insight into historical figures, based on voluminous research. The book provides yet more evidence, if any was needed, on how utterly vile Lenin was. One of Willi Munzenberg’s first jobs as a Soviet apparatchik was to organise “proletarian” assistance for the Volga famine. (For centuries, Russia had been a food exporter: one of the first “achievements” of the Bolshevik regime was to completely destroy that capacity – hence jokes such as if the Soviet Union took over the Sahara, within five years there would be a shortage of sand.) Lenin presumed that the capitalist West would react the same way he would to such an event – think the death by starvation of millions was a small price to pay to discredit and undermine an enemy. (He had welcomed a much smaller famine in 1891 on the grounds it would weaken the peasants’ attachment to the Church.) Lenin was highly embarrassed when the West and the Orthodox Church organised huge relief efforts.

Anyone who understands the logic of the politics of total control understands what happened next to the non-Bolshevik Soviets involved in this humanitarian effort. They were shot or imprisoned of course. Lenin had the “bourgeois” organisers arrested, launched a brutal attack the Orthodox Church, the local helpers of Western agencies were persecuted. Their great crime? Providing an alternative source of moral authority to the Bolsheviks. (Anyone who thinks the persecution of Falun Gong is not inherent in the logic of Leninism has not been paying attention.)

Lenin updated Robespierre’s political model without making Robespierre’s mistake – he never permitted a source of power and authority he did not control.

Koch is very good in explaining the notions of lying for the Truth and oppressing for Liberation. Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 weren’t imagination, they were reportage (as so many commentators from out of the Soviet bloc reported).

The Revolution was such a profound goal, such a Higher Truth, that any action was permitted to advance it. The release from tiresome “bourgeois” morality was clearly a profound release: I am so moral I am released from any obligations of morality. I am an Agent of History. I am part of Wisdom and Understanding Personified. The attraction was deep and, to many, clearly irresistible.

The passing parade of historical characters is also very much part of the fun of the book. Thomas Mann comes out very well, loathing Nazism and Stalinism with equal intensity and being perceptive about both. John Dos Passos was faced with a test of moral courage in his trip to Spain and passed magnificently. Fritz Lang seems to have been a well-meaning innocent. Andre Gide was ultimately his own man.

Others come out much less well. Hemingway’s womanising, vanity and sadism made him easily manipulated. Lillian Hellman comes across as completely vile: Mary McCarthy’s damning
every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'
seems to have been about right. The various second-rank characters which found their metier in conspiracy also come across as quite despicable.

Koch’s novelist’s eye is expressed in lucid prose. Koch ponders the connection between Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt:
In preparing this book, I have met many agents of influence who worked for various governments within the Munzenberg tradition. More than one has left me with a troubling, nameless after-image, the sense of some shadow hovering over our talk. I’m tempted to call that lingering shade the ghost of Guy Burgess. Repeatedly, it comes cropping up again and again: the same glib charm. The same startling but too-glancing erudiction and intellectual range. The same enthralling capacity for gossip; the breezy knowing of everybody and everything. Often, the same elegance—though often a failed elegance, growing a tad seedy, a little dirty or sloppy, or out of date, or somehow off. Often the same sexual gamesmanship—whether heterosexual or homosexual is incidental. Often, a small river of alcohol flowing nearby. These men (the ones I have met have all been men) who began life dazzling everyone with their promise. Like Guy, they set out with the very grandest of connections in the world of politics, the intellect and the arts. And then—
We might be tempted to call it the Burgess curse. The same desolation, often accompanied by alcoholism. The same deepening obscurity covered by one lurching move from one doubtful option to another, and the same shabbiness of promises worn down, then worn thing, and at last worn out. They strike one as men whose double lives were born in a fatal disjunction between their great expectations and their true secret selves. For them, failure began virtually at the moment of early success, back when splashy debuts looked like achievement. Their failure would be failure felt before it was seen as promise and loss mingled in bafflement.
For many such people, work in the secret world can be wonderfully restorative. It places them in the realm of power. It is almost like the old days of promise. Once again, their hand is on the pulse. Secretly, they can feel it, there again. Except by that time, the work of ruin is very nearly complete. Those whom the gods have wrecked with promise, they next make spies.
But if Guy Burgess was failure’s tragic creature, Blunt was spiritually tied, and absolutely so, to success. He could not, would not, and did not fail: ever. Success defined Blunt’s life as firmly as failure defined Burgess’s. It may well be that the secret of his prolonged shadowy love for Burgess can be located in this odd coupling of shabby ruin with the impeccably achieved.(Pp227-8.)
Koch is also very alive to the power of Munzenberg’s efforts as the organiser of Popular Front propaganda and manipulation of intellectuals resting on kernels of truth, big and small. Nazism, after all, was vile and worth opposing.

And to other subtleties: the point of fellow travelling was precisely not to be mere mouth pieces, but to be convenient mouth pieces. Given who they were and where they lived, ideas that undermined the Western democracies were much more valuable than extolling the Soviet Union. Much of the book is based on interviews with Munzenberg’s widow, Babette Gross. She rattled off the memes of fellow travelling:
You do not endorse Stalin. You do not call yourself a Communist. You do not declare your love for the regime. You do not call on people to support the Soviet Union. Ever. Under any circumstances.
You claim to be an independent-minded realist. You don’t really understand politics, but you think the little guy is getting a lousy break. You believe in open-mindedness. You are shocked, frightened by what is going on right here in your own country. You are frightened by the racism, by the oppression of the workingman. You think the Russians are trying a great human experiment and you hope it works. You believe in peace. You yearn for international cooperation. You hate fascism. You think the capitalist system is corrupt.
You say it over and over again. You say nothing, nothing more. “Ja, Ja,” she ended wearily, “You say all of that”. (Pp240-1.)
Memes that have had lasting resonance long after the Soviet Union was no longer a plausible beacon of anything. They operate today as the West confronts an enemy entirely analogous to Nazism (except with greater ambitions, though less resources) and the Left is divided, as it was then, between those for whom September 1 1939 was enough and those for whom June 22 1941 hasn't happened yet.

Much is set out in the book. Stalinism was active in Hollywood. Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. (Which does not make, of course, Joe McCarthy any less a vile buffoon.)

Koch is also perceptive on the role of Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury circle into distilling and setting in motion what might be called elitist progressivism, where one simultaneously commits oneself to “progressive” causes but does so in a way which actually buttresses one’s sense of belonging to an elite. (Partly because, as Koch points out, they did belong to an elite in a genuine sense.)

As I read about various intellectual tropes that Munzenberg invented or manipulated, and disseminated with such proficient ease, how little things have changed was quite striking. The dynamics of hard left thought and propaganda are essentially the same (Tariq Ali provides a contemporary example.)

It also struck me how one can identify two different types of ex-communists. There have been those who reacted in horror at what they tied themselves to as events, great or personal, opened their eyes from Kronstadt onwards. Then there are ex-communists who drifted away because it was not a satisfactory vehicle: not, in various senses, good enough for them (or perhaps merely inconvenient).

The former became stalwarts of the opposition to communism (Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham …). The latter major players in cultural institutions (in Australia, people like Philip Adams, Prof. Stuart Macintyre, Allan Ashbolt).

One of the fundamental differences in political understanding is between those who are still lost in the “good intentions” model of Leninism and the Soviet Union and those who see its story as profoundly revealing. Who count lives and actions as more important than failed purposes.

The book is about far more than Willi Munzenberg. Yet his story is at the centre of it. Munzenberg had a fatal disability. He had a connection to Lenin that did not go through Stalin. In the world of Stalinism, that was almost invariably a death-sentence – Stalin’s great innovation to Leninism being to apply to fellow Bolsheviks the political techniques Lenin applied to everyone else. No alternative source, or even patina, of moral authority was permitted. As Stalin moved towards consummating the desired deal with Hitler, Munzenberg became increasingly a marked man: especially after the fall of his patron Karl Radek. Munzenberg struggled against his fate, building up his visibility even further, ignoring the increasingly urgent summonses to Moscow, breaking with Stalin, establishing links with Western secret services (aware that their penetration by Soviet agents made that a difficult game). He disappeared after the Fall of France. In October 1940, his hanged, decomposing body was found by French hunters in a forest. Koch thinks suicide is possible (a final act of control and defiance) but, on the evidence, murder by the NKVD more likely.

An indispensable “Munzenberg man” who remained true to Stalin was Otto Katz. He survived his boss’s fall and helped organise the Stalinist takeover of Czechoslovakia. He then became dispensable and was arrested as part of the post-war purges. He understood the role – apparently, when arrested, he confessed in the lift. He was tortured anyway, made his standard confession in the dock and was hanged the next day. The image of the ashes of him and his fellow “conspirators”, dumped in a rubbish heap and blowing away in the wind, is the final image of this very revealing book.

*After the Sydney University Philosophy Department had split into the “conservative” Department of Traditional and Modern Philosphy and the radical-Left Department of General Philosophy, Professor David Armstrong of Trad&Mod told Imre Lakatos of the split. That is very good, Lakatos opined. When David Armstrong queried why it was good to have a seceding radical-Left Department, Lakatos replied with mordant émigré humour about the seceders, When the Revolution comes, they will be shot first.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Genes, Peoples and Languages

Genes, Peoples and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is an enthralling brief history of the current state of knowledge of human movement and original cultural development. Cavalli-Sforza endorses an interdisciplinary approach (genetic, anthropological, archaeological, linguistic), on the grounds that that increases the range of evidence and thus the reliability of conclusions. Apart from the flag-waving ‘racism is evil’ essay at the beginning (pp 3-8), including a comment about American racism which shows he doesn’t understand the US (p.7), a silly comment (p.177) about monarchies:
History shows that hereditary monarchies last only a short time …
(Cavalli-Sforza seems not to have noticed that of the three oldest institutions on the planet—the Papacy, the English Crown, the Japanese Throne—two are hereditary monarchies: hereditary monarchy actually has a much better track record of survival than democracy or republics) and an irritating factual lapse that puts the Ottoman failure before Vienna in the C18th rather than the C17th, he is very nicely matter of fact. His discussion of hybrid vigour is enough in itself to demolish much racist nonsense about race purity.

He is particularly good on the neolithic transition (‘revolution’ is a silly term for something that has taken millennia) from hunter-gatherer to farming existence. It is pretty clear that farming advanced by ‘demic diffusion’—i.e. from the spread of farmers. It took about 3,000 years to reach the far edge of Europe from the Middle East via Anatolia, advancing about 1 kilometre a year.

Hunter-gatherers have extremely low population growth rates – they have to carry everything, including children. Farmers on the other hand, despite living a less healthy existence (one reason why hunter-gatherers don’t immediately go ‘what a great idea!’), breed children as in-house labour force and old-age pension. Give them a chance and their population will grow rapidly. So farmers supplant hunter-gatherers (including a significant amount of intermarriage), a process that has been going on since agriculture was first developed 10,000 years ago. The European invasion of Australia was simply one of the final acts in the process. Though not the final one, as hunter-gatherers continue to be squeezed out in various rain forest areas. (So, the “neolithic transition” hasn’t yet finished.)

Agriculture itself was probably developed as a response to population pressure, since hunter-gathering requires very low population density – for most of human history, the population of farming New Guinea exceeded that of hunter-gatherer Australia.

I found the discussion of the evidence of the spread of the human species fascinating. Australia was settled by homo sapiens before Europe (homo sapiens entered Europe about 40,000 years ago, compared to 50-60,000 years ago for Australia). The original wave of Amerindians (maybe 35,000 years ago maybe 15,000 years ago) may have been as few as a dozen people. Europeans are, genetically, about one-third African and two-thirds Asian. Africa, as the original home of the species, is more genetically diverse than any other continent. The Basques are probably the remnant of the original paleolithic inhabitants of Europe.

There’s lots more, it’s a great and enlightening read.