Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness

Even people who are inclined to believe in a universal, objective foundation for morality are sometimes prone to the impression that in certain situations invoking “moral” arguments is rather insincere. For example, moral arguments in favor of (income) equality are often dismissed by libertarian-leaning individuals as just a sanitized expression of resentment and envy by “losers.” But can this argument be generalized? Is moral rhetoric simply a way of pulling someone’s leg, and often employed when faced with a poor bargaining position? In a remarkable experimental philosophy paper, Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness: Experimental Clues for an Ancient Puzzle (1997), Yanis Varoufakis throws some much-needed light on this topic.

A series of elegant games were designed to test the hypothesis that the “strong” would have a tendency to maximize their strategic advantage and the “weak” would have a tendency to choose “quasi-moral acts,” even when this is clearly against their own interests. In all three variants of the game, the cooperative solution was dominated by the solution to “cheat” but, quite remarkably, as the incentive of the “strong” to “cheat” increased, the “weak” displayed even more “cooperating” behavior. In the third version of the game, the tendency of the “weak” to cooperate slightly declined but this was only because the payoff for the “strong” to cheat was decreased (but still a dominating strategy). Since the participants of the game alternated between being “strong” and being “weak,” and long-term reputation effects were ruled out by not allowing the same pair of players to play the game twice in a row, we cannot claim that different kinds of people will play the game differently, or that the cooperative behavior of the “weak” was motivated by reputation effects. And since players varied their strategy depending on whether they were in a strong or weak bargaining position, moral theories that would predict that players in both roles would recognize the value of having a cooperative disposition (a la David Gauthier) can be dismissed, too.

Since it never makes sense in these games to cooperate against an uncooperative opponent, the most credible explanation of the “weak” to often cooperate is that this kind of behavior (or rhetoric) comes with being in an “unfavorable” strategic situation (i.e., one’s “social location.”) As the author of the paper notes, “Many (and on occasion most) of our participants swapped happily their cooperative choices for strategic aggression when they moved from the weaker to the stronger role.”

What to make of these results? For one thing, they could be seen as evidence that “power corrupts” and that the (formerly) “oppressed” will exhibit the same kind of aggressive behavior when they are in a position to become the oppressors. This is a popular view, and it does not seem these experimental results contradict it. This perspective also seems to reinforce political views that aim for the abolition of political power (anarchism) instead of giving all people (as represented by parties or coalitions) equal access to it (democracy). Of course, differences in bargaining power do not disappear in the absence of political power so even in a stateless society we would still expect to see the tendency of those in a strategically “weak” position to moralize. Also, in the real world there will often be “reputation” effects, and we would also expect people with natural (hereditary) advantages to find themselves more often in a stronger bargaining position.

It is undeniable, however, that “moral rhetoric” is often used by those in power (sometimes even more so), too, instead of just naked appeals to strategic advantage.  In a sense one could argue that in modern societies the division of resources is not exclusively settled by strategic advantage (or strength) but by a combination of strategic self-interest and moral rhetoric. We then would expect political actors that reconcile self-interest (or group interest) with evolved (“hardwired”)  moral outlooks (egalitarianism) to prevail.

Experimental evidence that those in a weak strategic position tend to play the “morality card” does not necessarily imply that the idea of a objective morality is a chimera. Many people still seem to believe that universal normative ethics is possible. On the other hand, a position of moral skepticism or moral nihilism does not mean that morality can be exclusively explained as a (psychological) response to a weak strategic position. In this sense, studies like these cannot provide definitive answers concerning the truth value of normative statements (or the lack thereof) or the evolutionary psychology of  moralizing. Also, the tendency to cooperate is not identical to moral rhetoric (or moral behavior in general) and additional research is needed to further differentiate between the two in the face of strategic weakness.

Our best understanding of moral behavior at this time is that it is an outcome of evolution and specific to species and their life history. In such an evolutionary perspective the question of which moral perspective is “correct” simply does not make sense. As this understanding of morality will come to dominate in society, bargaining will gradually come to replace traditional ethics and moral rhetoric will increasingly be seen as either ignorant or (deliberate) manipulation. Such a development  could be classified as the end of “morality” as we know it, but it can also been as the beginning of an era where modern (secular) humans arrive at a new understanding of what morality means. It is difficult to predict what a society will look like in which “a-moral” humans settle disagreements and conflicts about scarce resources exclusively by strategic interaction and conventions, but some efforts to understand and predict this have been made by writers like David Gauthier, Anthony de Jasay, and James Buchanan (albeit from different perspectives).

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Summer 2012 issue of the Independent Review features my review essay (PDF) of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. There can be little doubt that this work constitutes one of the most ambitious and credible contributions to social science to date. Although the review essay was written from a classical liberal perspective, I think that one of the main criticisms of Pinker’s project can be sustained without any kind of “ideological” perspective. In fact, one of the concerns I have about his project is that insufficient attention has been given to providing a neutral definition of violence. Why is this important?

If we would go back in time and challenge some of the violence that was routine in those days inevitable objections would be that these acts of cruelty should not be condemned because they simply involved the execution of God’s will, proper punishment, served “the common good,” etc. One of the themes of Pinker’s book is that we have become less tolerant of these kinds of justification for violence and acts of extreme cruelty. Naturally, this raises the question of whether there are still many acts of violence, cruelty, and punishment that are being rationalized with poor reasoning. In my review I suggest that most of what we consider the normal operation of government, such as collecting taxes and “regulation,” is sustained through violence and threats of violence.

One might object that this perspective reflects a minority position on violence that does not conform to common use of the term violence. I do not believe that this response would be credible because the common opinion is not that government operates without threats of violence (and punishment if one fails to obey) but that in this case the use of force is legitimate and socially sanctioned. In that case, however, Pinker’s project would not be about the decline of violence but the decline in violence not approved by governments. Pinker does not go that far because he does not exclude warfare by democratic governments from his review of violence, but there is something rather arbitrary about what matters to him.

For example, Pinker writes that “early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other” but does not give good reason why we should view contemporary states much differently. In fact, one can even argue (as individualist anarchists like Lysander Spooner have done) that modern democratic states do not only extort protection money but in turn use this against the victim in the form of “regulation.”

I suspect that what makes Pinker exempt force associated with normal government operations is that the actual use of violence is rather rare. But that is not necessarily because most people prefer paying taxes or complying with regulations but because individual resistance is not rational. As Anthony de Jasay writes in his essay Self-Contradictory Contractarianism (collected in his book Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order).

If the cost of rebellion is high, if the expected (“risk-adjusted”) value of its success is not very much higher, and if the very possibility of collective action against the sovereign is problematical (at least in normal peacetime conditions), then two plausible conjectures suggest themselves. The equilibrium strategy of the sovereign will be to use its discretionary power to satisfy its preferences, perhaps by exploiting all its subjects in the service of some holistic end, perhaps by exploiting some of them to benefit others. The equilibrium strategy of the subjects will be, not to resist, but to obey, adjust, and profit from the opportunities for parasitic conduct that coalition forming with the sovereign at the expense of the rest of society may offer.

A potential rejoinder to this argument is that the operation of government is necessary to prevent even more violence. Leaving the usual problems with utilitarian arguments like this to the side, such a perspective can at best confer legitimacy to a very minimal form of government and would not exempt most other operations of government. If social order and peaceful commerce can arise without government, there is no reason at all to exempt any operations of government from a critical perspective. Pinker does recognize the existence of anarchist perspectives but his treatment of this topic does not indicate a thorough familiarity with the literature on conflict resolution without the state. This is problematic because reason and commerce (two of Pinker’s drivers of the decline in violence) may be sufficient for a peaceful society. In fact, the advantage of commerce versus government (or ‘democracy’) is that commerce itself is a peaceful activity.

One might further object that there is a difference between war and collecting taxes on the one hand and regulating on the other. In a real showdown between individuals and government officials, however, the priority of government is to prevail using as much force as necessary. As mentioned above, that does generally not require a lot of force because most individuals recognize the futile nature of individual resistance. In fact, it may be the increase of intelligence and individualism that Pinker also discusses in his book that makes more people less inclined to mount heroic but ineffective forms of resistance.

This does not mean that Pinker’s claims are completely arbitrary and dependent on whether one includes normal government operations in his definition of violence. For example, it is indisputable that the nature of violence and the cruelty of punishment has seen substantial changes since the middle ages. Also, in spite of the increase of public force associated with the growth of modern governments, the tolerance of people for violence is still declining. In fact, many public debates concern forms of harm that can hardly be construed as violence (discrimination, ‘hate speech’, insensitivity, poverty, etc.). This phenomenon itself raises a rather interesting question. How can the widespread tolerance of government force co-exist with increasing sensitivities about acts of human behavior that do not even involve physical harm (or threats thereof)?

There are a lot of other interesting topics in Pinker’s book such as his treatment of the sociobiology of violence, morality, and ideology. On the topic of morality he writes:

The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is not a treatise on (meta)ethics but Pinker’s evolutionary perspective leaves little room for grandiose moral theories and is more in line with classical liberal views in which morality is an emergent phenomenon that allows for peaceful human interaction, which is evidenced by his observation that “modern morality is “a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games” and that “assumptions of self-interest and sociality combine with reason to lay out a morality in which non-violence is the goal.”

He also observes that “to kill by the millions, you need an ideology.” At the same time he notes that “intelligence is expected to correlate with classical liberalism because classical liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself.” He does not discuss the potential tension between his (wholesale) rejection of ideology and his identification with classical liberalism. Perhaps Pinker believes, as does the author of this review, that classical liberalism, conceived in a non-dogmatic fashion, is not so much an ideology but a perspective that starts from the recognition that individuals have different interests and that reason can provide guidance to coordinate these interests to mutual advantage.

Jacques Monod’s Ethics of Knowledge

Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod concludes his seminal essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology, Chance and Necessity (1970), with a chapter of reflections on evolution, the place of man in nature, culture, ideas, and the nature of morality. He writes:

During entire aeons a man’s lot was identical with that of the group, of the tribe he belonged to and outside of which he could not survive. The tribe, for its part, was able to survive and defend itself only through its cohesion…This evolution most not only have facilitated acceptance of tribal law, but created the need for mythical  explanation which gave it foundation and sovereignty. We are the descendants of such man. From them we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. The same disquiet that has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself.

He then goes on to explain how religions, philosophical systems, and ideologies (such as Marxism) that see nature or history unfolding according to a higher plan can be traced back to this innate disposition to look for Meaning. And while science, and the associated postulate of objectivity, has gradually replaced those myths and beliefs, most of our contemporary thinking about values still reflects this kind of animism:

No society before ours was ever rent by contradictions so agonizing. In both primitive and classical cultures the animist tradition saw knowledge and values stemming from the same source. For the first time in history a civilization is trying to shape itself while clinging desperately to the animist tradition to justify its values, and at the same time abandoning it as the source of knowledge, of truth. For their moral bases the “liberal” societies of the West still teach – or pay lip-service to- a disgusting farrago of of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the “natural” rights of man, and utilitarian pragmatism…All the traditional systems have placed ethics and values beyond man’s reach. Values did not belong to him; he belonged to them.

Obviously, this perspective on the futile attempts to ground values in something beyond man (beyond practical reason one might say) raises the question of “who shall decide what is good and evil.” Monod clearly struggles with this question because he does not want to admit that “objective truth and the theory of values constitute eternally separate, mutually impenetrable domains.” His answer, however, may strike contemporary readers as something of a cop-out when he tries that argue that the pursuit of science itself implies an ethical postulate:

True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it cannot be grounded elsewhere than upon a value judgment, or rather upon an axiomatic value. It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at from knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. Thus, assenting to the principle of objectivity one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge. Hence it is from the ethical choice of a primary value that knowledge starts.

This attempt to derive (or distill) universal normative claims from an activity or pursuit itself is not unique in ethics. Some have tried to derive morals and rights from the nature of human agency (Alan Gewirth), the activity of argumentation (Hans-Herman Hoppe) and so forth (one might argue that there are even traces of such an approach in Jasay’s argument for the presumption of liberty). Either such attempts produce trivial conclusions or are stretched beyond credibility to make them do a lot more work than they are capable of, such as deriving specific socio-economic norms concerning welfare rights or absolute property rights. At the end of the day, these writers fail to recognize the fact that morality is an emergent property of social interaction in nature (that is to say, morality is conventional) and attempts to “justify” moral rules is as futile as trying to “justify” the laws of physics (although one might argue that certain “strategic” advantages can accrue to those who are successful in persuading others of such moral “truths”).

Monod’s ‘ethics of knowledge’ is simply “justified” by pragmatic advantages (a similar thing might be said about accepting the principle of causality – as has been proposed by the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach). Such a pragmatic explanation for the pursuit of knowledge (and the emergence of values) places morality in the realm of individual practical reason and evolution, where serious philosophers, economists, and biologist have been making efforts to understand it.

In his introduction to the 1997 Penquin edition of Chance and Necessity, the evolutionary biologist and geneticist John Maynard Smith, briefly alludes to Monod’s rather clumsy (and dated) attempt to link his ethics of knowledge to scientific socialism in the final pages of the book, which only shows how vacuous the ethics of knowledge is for deciding moral and socio-economic questions.

A more specific concern for Monod is the end of natural selection and degeneration in man:

To the extent that selection is still operative in our midst, it does not favor the “survival of the fittest” – that is to say, in more modern terms, the genetic survival of the “fittest” through a more numerous progeny. Intelligence, ambition, courage, and imagination, are still factors in modern societies, to be sure, but of personal, not genetic success, the only kind that matters for evolution. No, the situation is the reverse: statistics, as everybody knows, show a negative correlation between the intelligence quotient (or cultural level) and the average number of children per couple…A dangerous situation, this, which could gradually edge the highest genetic potential toward concentration within an elite, a shrinking elite in relative numbers.

This is not all. Until not so very long ago, even in relatively “advanced” societies, the weeding out of the physically and also mentally least fit was automatic and ruthless. Most of them did not reach the age of puberty. Today many of these genetic cripples live long enough to reproduce. Thanks to the progress of scientific knowledge and the social ethic, the mechanisms which used to protect the species from degeneration (the inevitable result when natural selection is suspended) now functions hardly at all, save where the defect is uncommonly grave.

And since Monod seems to categorically rule out gene therapy in germ cells (“the genome’s microscopic proportions today and probably forever rule out manipulation of this sort”), his only hope resides in “deliberate and severe selection.”

Notwithstanding Monod’s unduly pessimistic perspective on human genetic engineering  and the missed opportunity to recognize the evolutionary and conventional nature of morality, Chance and Necessity remains a classic, uncompromising, exposition of modern evolutionary biology and the scientific view of the world that has made this knowledge possible.

Against Politics: 15 book recommendations

One of the best ways to communicate the general outlook of a website is to recommend a set of books that embody its perspectives on a variety of topics. Since its inception in 2000 the outlook of Against Politics has undergone some changes but there are a number of core interests that have remained the same: empiricism, non-cognitivism in ethics, an interest in (Hobbesian) contractarianism, philosophical anarchism, sociobiology, and a critical perspective on (electoral) politics. The following books reflect these topics and can command the recommendation of the writer of this website.

1. Hans Reichenbach – The Rise of Scientific Philosophy

Hans Reichenbach was one of the greatest 20th century empiricist philosophers and his brand of empiricism is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the probabilistic nature of knowledge and pragmatism. A more rigorous statement of his views can be found in his seminal scholarly work Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge.

2. Nassim N. Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Nassim N. Taleb is mostly known for his writings on Black Swan events, but of broader interest is his general skeptical outlook. In Fooled by Randomness Taleb documents how poorly we are equipped to deal with the probabilistic nature of the world and how our thirst for certainty and our tendency to see patterns everywhere leads us astray.

3. Edward Osborne Wilson – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward Osborne Wilson is the godfather of sociobiology and in this work (review here) he aims to bridge the gap between the biological and social sciences and seeks to resuscitate a project held dear by the early logical empiricists; the unification of science. Wilson is not trained in philosophy or philosophy of science but this “disadvantage” is mostly offset by his sane outlook on human nature.

4. Paul H. Rubin – Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom 

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and Paul Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics treats the topic of what we can reasonably expect in political and economic affairs based on our knowledge of human evolutionary biology.  Humans are poorly equipped to recognize the non-zero sum nature of capitalism and the futile nature of (electoral) politics.

5. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

In this book (review here) Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending drive another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans have not undergone meaningful genetic change. There is no reason to expect a “psychic unity of mankind” and social scientists who still embrace such notions do so at the cost of understanding human nature and human biodiversity. Also recommended is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (review here) who treats the deep history of humanity from a similar perspective.

6. L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

L.A. Rollins’ devastating critique of natural rights exposes the careless reasoning that has been employed by libertarians who argue that people have “rights” prior to any agreement or contract. As such, The Myth of Natural Rights (review here) is a sad reminder of how much time and effort libertarians (and conservatives) have wasted by arguing for nonsensical positions.

7. David Gauthier – Morals By Agreement

In what may constitute the most rigorous work in moral philosophy to date, David Gauthier uses decision- and game theory to develop a Hobbesian account of moral contractarianism. To prevent appeals to intuition and circular reasoning, Gauthier seeks to derive morality from a minimalist (instrumental) conception of rationality and shows how self-interested individuals seeking mutual advantage will accept moral constraints on their conduct.

8. Jan Narveson – The Libertarian Idea

Jan Narveson takes Occam’s razor to David Gauthier’s  moral contractarianism and aims to show that a general agreement to respect each other’s (negative) liberty is the only kind of agreement that can command general endorsement. Such an agreement excludes coercive income redistribution and raises questions about the legitimacy of government itself. This work presents the best introduction to libertarian philosophy that neither pursues natural rights nor utilitarianism.

9. Anthony de Jasay – Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order

Anthony de Jasay is the most important social philosopher of our time and all his writings are highly recommended. Against Politics is a collection of essays on a variety of topics such as political contractarianism, constitutionalism, income redistribution, and the economics of ordered anarchy. One of the great virtues of Jasay’s writings is his ability to reconcile academic rigor and common sense.

10. Bryan Caplan – The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

In The Myth of the Rational Voter economist Bryan Caplan employs economic reasoning and empirical evidence to explain why democracy leads to poor public policy. The average voter has a strong incentive to be rationally irrational about politics and the economic ignorance of elected politicians is evidence of this. This book provides no less than the microfoundations of political failure. Also recommended is Randall Holcombe’s From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Holcombe uses a public choice perspective to show how the rise of democracy leads to a decline of liberty.

11. David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to a Radical Capitalism

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is a fine example of modern anarcho-capitalism. This informally written book presents classic economic arguments to argue that the market does not just excel in the production of ordinary consumer goods but that the market should be expected to excel in providing justice, police, and defense as well. David Friedman’s article A Positive Account of Property Rights is highly recommended, too.

12. Edward Stringham (ed.) – Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice

Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice is an ambitious collection of classic articles on anarcho-capitalism, public goods, polycentric law, and criticism of minimal government.

13. Gregory Clark – A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is a Darwinian perspective on the rise of modern capitalism and the persistence of economic inequality between nations. The industrial revolution and rising living standards in the West are not explained by favorable geography or institutions but by natural selection (“survival of the richest”). An interview with Gregory Clark about his work is available here.

14. George A. Selgin – Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy

George Selgin is one of the most interesting economists working in the classical liberal tradition and his small book Less than Zero (PDF) outlines the case for a productivity norm that permits prices to respond to rising productivity or negative supply shocks as a superior alternative to zero-inflation or positive-inflation norms. Selgin’s discussion of  monetary disequilibrium and nominal income targeting has also contributed to the rise of market monetarism. His treatment of free banking can be found in another great work,  The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue.

15. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

One of the most ambitious contributions to social science ever written. Pinker makes a persuasive case that the rise of commerce, classical liberalism, and secular reason have greatly contributed to the decline in violence. Among the weaker points in the book are his treatment of the feasibility of ordered anarchy and his rather blasé attitude towards the violence and coercion that is associated with the normal operation of government. An extensive review essay of this book by this author is available here.

Humans are still evolving

A defining characteristic of ideologies is an implicit or explicit theory of human nature. For example, modern libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard derived bold normative conclusions from the fact that humans are endowed with reason. In such attempts, an abstract theory of human nature is made to do more work than it can possibly do; provide all humans with a set of normative guidelines for social interaction. The failure of such “rationalist” approaches to draw ideological conclusions from human nature does not mean that knowledge about human nature has no role to play in social philosophy or public policy at all. Absent deriving grandiose categorical imperatives, knowledge of human nature can provide us with knowledge about the limits of human malleability or the feasibility of specific public policy proposals. To be able to play this role, however, it needs to satisfy at least two criteria; it needs to be based on experimental evidence and it should be situated in an evolutionary context.

Many writers about human nature are aware of the social sensitivities surrounding this topic. As a consequence, most contemporary books that aim to provide a theory of human nature need to walk a fine line between providing a plausible evidence-based perspective and avoiding presenting an account of human nature with controversial social-political implications. What makes many books about human nature not entirely persuasive is the implicit premise that humans have stopped evolving since our descendents left Africa around 50,000 years ago. Stephen Jay Gould was quite explicit about this when he wrote that “there’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” One problem with these accounts is that genetic evidence keeps accumulating that humans not only kept evolving over the last 50,000 years, but that the pace might even have accelerated after the start of agriculture and modern civilization. Two books about human nature that explicitly depart from the view that humanity has not experienced meaningful genetic change over the last 50,000 years are Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) and Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2009). Before the Dawn provides a general evolutionary account of human origins and The 10,000 Year Explosion specifically aims to provide theoretical arguments and empirical evidence for recent genetic change and its implications. As such, The 10,000 Year Explosion can be read as a sustained, detailed treatment of one of the themes in Before the Dawn and constitutes a major contribution to the resuscitated field of “biohistory.”

Since both authors reject the theory that 50,000 years is too short for genetic changes to occur, both books discuss emerging evidence that diverging populations responded with different genetic adaptations to the environments they encountered. Nicholas Wade devotes a whole chapter to the view that the concept of race may have been abandoned without good scientific reason and that this concept can do meaningful work in population genetics, history, medicine, and forensic science. Such a perspective makes evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker uncomfortable. In an interview in New Scientist magazine he admits, “People, including me, would rather believe that significant human biological evolution stopped between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, before the races diverged, which would ensure that racial and ethnic groups are biologically equivalent.”

Commenting on Jared Diamond’s (mostly) environmentalist perspective, Wade writes, “If New Guineans adapted genetically by developing the intellectual skills to survive in their particular environment, as Diamond says is the case, why should not other populations have done exactly the same?” Both books argue that this is exactly what has happened, and give a number of examples. In particular, they discuss the hypothesis that the unique history of the Ashkenazi Jews triggered genetic adaptations that make them excel in cognitive tasks. In addition, Cochran and Harpending do not just argue that race is more than skin-deep, but also explain why similar traits can reflect different genetic adaptations. In the closing chapter they write, “If researchers in the human sciences continue to ignore the fact of ongoing natural selection, they will have thrown away the key to many important problems, turning puzzles into mysteries.”

Nicolas Wade also expresses concern over the tendency of many post-war archeologists and anthropologists to play down or even deny the prevalence of warfare (and other cruel practices) in primitive and pre-State societies. This theme has been treated in detail by Robert B. Edgerton in his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, and, more recently, in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Such wishful, or anti-Western, thinking not only obscures the progress that has been made in many modern societies, it also prevents scholars from properly assessing the role that warfare and competition has played in shaping human nature. In fact, in his book The Dawn Warriors: Man’s Evolution Toward Peace, Robert Sidney Bigelow dispels the myth of primitive harmony and proposes that continuous warfare gave rise to increased in-group cooperation and increased brain size.

If natural selection is still at work in humans, an obvious question is where we are heading, or could be heading, if we allow for the possibility that humans may soon have real control over their genetic destiny. This topic is treated in a very interesting manner in the last chapter of Before the Dawn. Nicholas Wade discusses the current trend that the rich and more intelligent tend to have fewer children but without reaching a firm conclusion whether this will produce natural selection to act against genes that promote intelligence. Even if such a scenario would occur it might be offset by new technologies that allow genetic human enhancement. Such developments could even produce new post-human species who are not capable of breeding with modern humans. “Our previous reaction to kindred species was to exterminate them, but we have mellowed a lot in the last 50,000 years,” writes Wade. Whether un-enhanced humans will survive in the long run is an open question.

An extensive 5-part interview with Gregory Cochran is available here:
Part One

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five