The Rising Waters of Human Tribal Nature


I’m excited to read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I’ve read every one one of his books except for The Stuff of Thought, and The Blank Slate is one of my favorite books of all time. I still remember how much of a page-turner The Language Instinct was for me back in the late 1990s. But I’m most excited about Enlightenment Now because I’m looking for a little hope. At this point, I am very pessimistic as to the prospects for the Enlightenment project.

This is pretty obvious to anyone who reads me closely. I’ve been writing and discussing with people on the internet, and in private, for many years now, and have come to the conclusion most people are decent, but they’re also craven and intellectually unserious outside of their domain specificity when they are intellectual. Many of our institutions are quite corrupt, and those which are supposedly the torchbearers of the Enlightenment, such as science, are filled with people who are also blind to their own biases or dominated by those who will plainly lie to advance their professional prospects or retain esteem from colleagues.

That’s why I laughed out loud when I saw this tweet:

In psychology, much of the replication crisis was simply due to personal self-interest (more publications). But some of it was obviously political (see stereotype threat). Similarly, look at the fiasco in nutrition science. Some of it was personal, but there were also political demands from on high that there be something done. So “scholars” set some guidelines that people followed for decades, even if later they were shown to be totally ineffective. I’m not even going to get into the travesty that is modern biomedical science, with professional advancement and institutional interests combined in a deadly cocktail.

Also, I enjoy science popularizing (or did, I don’t read science books much anymore) as much as the next person, but isn’t it interesting how much of modern science confirms the mainstream elite cultural norms of ~2020? Curiously, if you read science popularizations in newspapers in 1920 they would also confirm the elite cultural norms of 1920…. But this time we’re right!

Other institutions aren’t doing better. The media is going through economic collapse, and journalists and their paymasters are reacting by pandering to their audiences. Instead of illuminating, they’re confirming. That’s what the audience wants, and I’m sure it’s more satisfying to journalists anyway. But can you blame them with the economics that are before us?

This is 2017, Nazi-pizza

Don’t get me started on Facebook or Twitter.

I was having a discussion with a reasonably prominent pundit (you would recognize the name) today who bemoaned the reality that so many journalists are now driven to sating tribal passions and generating clicks for their paymasters. He was trying to argue against my pessimism, suggesting that the fever was starting to break. We’ll see. I hope I’m wrong.

People have always been biased and subject to motivated reasoning. We’ve had our disputes whatever our ideology, whether it be conservative, moderate, or liberal. But the Enlightenment perspective of critical rationalism, which took philosophical realism seriously, meant that ultimately people who disagreed often assumed that fundamentally they were trying to converge on the same facts, the same reality. Reality existed, and you couldn’t just wish it away. Discussion might forward two individuals to a convergence!

We’re not there anymore. Whether it be Bush-era contempt for “Reality-Based Community”, or the rising crest of “Critical Theory”, the acid of subjectivism is eroding the vast edifice of aspirational realism which grew organically in the wake of the Enlightenment. This isn’t a Left vs. Right phenomenon, it’s a human dynamic, because for most of human history what is true has been determined by what the tribe dictates to be true, and what the tribe dictates to be true has often not been based on a critical evaluation of facts and theories. What the tribe dictates to be true is computationally less intensive than thinking things through yourself, and, it’s often right-enough.

The reality is that this cultural cognition and conformity has always held. It’s just that it seems that for a few centuries substantial latitude was given in public to a relative amount of heterodoxy from broad tribal visions. And it was always a work in progress. But there was a goal, and an ideal, even if we habitually failed. We failed in the direction of truth.

We live in a post-modern age now. Feelings are paramount, facts must bow before them. But the curious fact is that the post-modern age is just the pre-modern age. When I first read the Christian author Alister McGrath I literally scoffed at his contention that atheism would fail before the ascendancy of post-modernism. Ten years on I will admit that I now believe he was right and I was wrong. Though I don’t think the New Atheism failed miserably, I do think that the problems it is encountering from the cultural Left are due to its cold modernist baggage.

No truth, no liberalism. No liberalism, and democracy become the mob. The passions of the mob do eventually fail, and its wake a more oligarchic and hierarchical system will emerge. We may simply be seeing the end of the liberal individualist interregnum, as history reverts to its despotic collectivist norm.

Art, the applied sciences of engineering, and many human endeavors will continue to develop in the new order. Illiberal societies, all societies until recently, can be cultured and civilized. My own preference is for the dignity of the individual and legal egalitarianism of the liberal world in which I grew up (but in which I was not born), but humans have flourished and continue to flourish in illiberal environments.

One way to think about the past century or so is that more or less the waters of human nature receded, and a great undersea world was exposed. But now human nature is rising, and that world is submerging before our eyes. But islands of the old world we grew up in will persist. We need to find each other out and cherish the values of critical inquiry as we have for thousands of years. An archipelago of learning for learning’s sake can sill maintain itself in a world where our values no longer hold the leash. But like the mammals during the Mesozoic, we will have to go back into the night and the shadows. There will hopefully be oligarchic patrons who sympathize with us, and despots like Frederick the Great who give us some latitude to work. Our values will fade and diminish, but they will not disappear.* One day they may come to the fore again!

Finally, understanding that most people don’t need to be right or utter the truth, but simply need to win, has made me much more cheerful and less sour observing everyday stupidities. It is no great insight to observe that I’ve never been one who has had much esteem for the admiration of my peers. I like to do my own thing. But tribal acclamation must be the best of all things for most humans, and now I understand why they fight unfairly and stupidly with such ease and naturalness: their aim not to be right in the eyes of nature, but to rise in the esteem their fellow human. That is the summum bonum.

Note: I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong in 15 years. But as it is I think by then we’ll be dealing with the final breakdown of the institutions of the republic in the wake of a Left-wing attempt to forestall the economic immiseration of the middle-class that failed.

* The main reason I hated religion as a child is the mindless boredom of attendance at services. I quickly realized I didn’t believe any of that tripe and never had. But the liberty that I have to dissent from public values may not be a liberty we always have. Private dissent may come back and become the norm as it has been for much of human history.

Freedom of thought as a perpetual revolution

I mentioned offhand on Twitter today that I am skeptical of the tendency to brand the classically liberal emphasis on freedom of thought and speech as “centrist.” The implicit idea is that those on the Right and Left for whom liberalism is conditional, and a means at best, are radical and outside the mainstream.

This misleads us in relation to the fact that classical liberalism is the aberration both historically and culturally. Liberty of thought and speech have existed for time immemorial, but they were the luxury goods of the elite salons. Frederick the Great of Prussia had no use for religion personally, and famously patronized heretical philosophers, but he did not disturb the conservative social order of the polity which he inherited. For the masses, the discourse was delimited and regulated to maintain order and reinforce social norms.

The attempt to position the liberal stance as a centrist one is clearly historically and culturally contingent. It reflects the ascendancy of a particular strand of Anglo-American elite culture worldwide. But it is not universal. In the Islamic world and South Asia free expression of skepticism of religious ideas in public are subject to limits explicitly to maintain public order. The Islamic punishments for apostasy have less to do with the sin of individual disbelief and more to do with disruption to public norms and sedition against the state. Similarly, both China and Russia tap deeply into cultural preferences for state and elite paternalism in regards to public freedom of thought.

In fact, the classical liberal perspective on prioritizing freedom of conscience and the ability to explore the full range of ideas is probably counter to the “lowest energy state” of human cognitive intuitions. It reflects only a slice of the “moral foundations” which Jonathan Haidt explores in The Righteous Mind.

To explore some of the demographic correlates of classical liberalism I utilized the General Social Survey. As instruments to assess liberal attitudes toward free speech and thought I focused on two variables, SPKMSLM and SPKLRAC. For the first variable respondents were asked:

Now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

For the second:

Or consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. a. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

I assess the pro-free speech position by inspecting the subset who accept that both groups should be allowed to speak, and those who reject that either group should be allowed to speak. That is, these are people consistent in their attitudes when it comes to speech which conflicts with community norms.

For demographic variables, I looked at educational attainment (DEGREE), verbal intelligence (WORDSUM), and political ideology (POLVIEWS). For verbal intelligence scoring 0-4 out of 10 was below average, 5-7 was average, and 8-10 above average.

What is clear above is that those with more education and those who are more intelligent tend to support free speech more than those who lack education or are less intelligent. But it is also notable that moderates, in particular, are overrepresented among those who reject freedom of speech. Though tThe proportion of liberals goes up appreciably, the proportion of conservatives also goes up a bit!.

I ran a quick logistic regression model which attempts to predict the odds of two outcomes (support or reject free speech here) across a range of variables simultaneously. Statistically significant B coefficients are bolded. You can see that the demographics which support speech across the two are consistent:

B – Allow Muslim B – Allow racist Who supports free speech?
AGE 0.01 0.006 Younger people
SEI -0.008 -0.007 Higher SES people
POLVIEWS 0.061 0.072 Liberals
WORDSUM -0.306 -0.145 Smart people
DEGREE -0.274 -0.153 More education
INCOME -0.026 -0.026 Richer
SEX 0.45 0.24 Men
GOD 0.151 0.159 Less religious

From looking at the GSS data moderates are the less interested in politics overall, and also less educated and intelligent. In general, when they respond to a political issue they’re going with their gut. Humans are social animals and tend to not look favorably upon public disruption. The rationales for why one should discourage offensive and taboo speech are rather coherent. The liberal instrumental argument for freedom of thought as a social good tends to take a longer view that the proliferation of ideas will lead to greater prosperity and moral advancement.

This is a very Whig model of history. Whether the model is correct or not, it captures a particular moment in the Zeitgeist of the early modern West. The reason that classical liberalism is classical is that it in minimal terms it has never gone beyond its roots in the late 18th and early 19th century in relation to its preoccupations. Within the West many conservatives and reactionaries have argued against the presuppositions of classical liberal thought, which have tacitly been ascendant for the past two centuries (the fascists being the inchoate apotheosis of these reactive strands). Marxists and other radicals have gone beyond the liberal fixation on liberty narrowly defined, while modern Left-liberals tend to put as much emphasis on economic liberty through redistribution as upon civil liberty.

But I also want to suggest here that perhaps the classical liberal fixation on freedom of thought reflects the interests and preoccupations of a particular segment of society: those for whom ideas are fascinating and give sustenance and meaning to life. The Enlightenment can be thought of as the revolt of the middle class, broadly construed, from the mercantile high bourgeoisie down to the broad professional class. These are people for whom “post-materialist” considerations loom large because material considerations have faded into the background. For the poor and those in material want freedom of thought is less important by necessity. Similarly, the large segment of the population which is not interested in novel ideas may not care much about the importance of intellectual novelty. Finally, there are those with post-materialist values which may emphasize the importance of taboos and social conformity of the collective.

Though the majority of the population (at least in the West) seems inclined to go along with liberalism as part of the broader suite of post-Enlightenment Western culture, there is no guarantee that they will always hew to such a position. Classical liberalism understood to be fundamentally radical would be useful insofar as the elites for whom it is an ends, and not a means, would be less complacent and more motivated toward maintaining the primacy of the values which give meaning to their lives.