Buddhism, science, and the political mind

One of the complaints about science is that it does not offer any moral guidance. It can describe reality and causal relationships but it does not tell us how we should behave. One can accept such a situation as a fact of life but most people are drawn towards belief systems that do offer such moral guidance. What is interesting about Buddhism, or at least its more (modern) secular versions, is that it both seeks to understand reality and to offer moral and “spiritual” guidance as well. This of course presents a problem. Science also seeks to understand reality but the consensus is that if there is anything we are learning about reality it is that life has no objective meaning and the idea of objective, person-independent morality is an illusion.

One of the perplexing things about Buddhism is the assumption that gaining a correct understanding of Reality (typically written with a capital R) will trigger a corresponding change in our moral outlook. For example, when a person comes to realize that the “self” is an illusion, a lot of moral misconduct will disappear. Unfortunately, getting rid of such “illusions” about the self is neither sufficient nor necessary for moral progress. Great moral progress has been made in countries where people are firm believers in the existence of an unchanging self and many moral defects have been identified in countries where a belief in the illusion of the self is encouraged. In fact, the belief in a self is interesting because it has been both praised as a guard against nihilism and as an illusion that undermines morality.

Despite its appearance of being a secular open-minded belief system, Buddhism rests on a rather strong premise about the beneficial effects of seeing the “real” nature of reality. But contemporary science does not support such strong statements about reality. Like any other topic in science, our understanding of reality is subject to continuous revision. It might even be possible that we live in a computer simulation and “reality” outside of it is quite different from what Buddhists believe.

One of the most level-headed discussions of Buddhism and science is Donald S. Lopez’s Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. This book is a detailed exposition of the history of discussions about the compatibility of Buddhism and science. The author recognizes that the position that Buddhism  is compatible with, or even supported by, science is as old as Buddhism itself and provides reasons why Buddhism more than any other “religion” is prone to such statements. In the end, however, Buddhism is recognized as a rather diverse and dynamic belief system and whether it is compatible with science depends on what is exactly meant by “science” and “Buddhism.” It is clear that a lot of historical expositions of Buddhism contain claims that are now known to be scientifically incorrect.  This raises the question how much of Buddhism can be rejected before it is no longer Buddhism.

One of the most uncomfortable claims in Buddhism concern the origin and nature of the universe. As Lopez writes, “all of the religions of the world asserted that the world is flat. This belief, in turn, was held so tenaciously that when it was first suggested that the world is not flat, those who made such a suggestion were executed.” Most secular Buddhists would not mind claiming that the Buddha was wrong about this and that these beliefs are not the essential doctrines of Buddhism, but as Lopez writes, “yet once the process of demythologizing begins, once the process of deciding between the essential and inessential is under way, it often difficult to know where to stop.” Which raises, once more, the question of why not to reject Buddhism completely and embrace a thorough scientific, empiricist perspective on life.

A counter argument is that Buddhism offers things that science cannot offer such as deeper metaphysical insights into the nature of reality and ethical truths. But the modern scientific mind is exactly distinguished by claiming that no objective truths should be expected here. In particular, there is no credible method, to deduce such ethical truths from metaphysical “facts.” There are not many rigorous analytic philosophical treatments of Buddhism but those that exist, such as Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, have identified several problems and challenges. If Buddhism (even in its most modern, secular, form) is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Carnap, and Kant it is not likely that it can survive in its current form. At best it will be just another philosophical “school.”

A very sympathetic account of Buddhism, and its relation to contemporary (neuro)science and philosophy is Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Flanagan goes out of his way to give the most charitable reading of modern secular Buddhism but in the end he confesses, “I still do not see, despite trying to see for many years, why understanding the impermanence of everything including myself makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism.” Perhaps this is because there simply is no necessary, logical, connection between recognizing the nature of Reality and specific moral and lifestyle choices. While Buddhists usually do not like being accused of being negative and pessimistic it can hardly be denied that more cheerful, care-free, implications of the idea of impermanence can be imagined (and have been imagined).

How would Buddhism look like if it really would be serious about making adjustments to its (core) beliefs based on science? For starters, it would treat each belief as an hypothesis that is calibrated when new evidence becomes available. But how many Buddhist publications are really serious about this? Such work is typically done by sympathetic outsiders but the result never produces a full endorsement of core Buddhist beliefs. Although Buddhism seems to be able to survive in a modern secular society it still has its share of ex-Buddhists who feel that it is still too dogmatic and unscientific. In his article “Why I ditched Buddhism” John Horgan writes:

“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”

There is one element in Buddhist thinking, however, that can throw an interesting light on the “political mind.” Buddhism is not explicitly political although some followers have made attempts to politicize it, culminating in a rather artificial movement called “Engaged Buddhism.” Buddhism teaches that nothing in reality is permanent and emphasizes the continuous birth, transformation, and rebirth of things. What sets the political mind apart is that it looks at society as a whole and wants it to conform to an arbitrary idea about political justice or efficiency. While this aim can be even perceived as unrealistic and delusional for a small group, it borders on insanity for a world composed of billions of people. When political activists recognize that the world cannot be easily manipulated in such a fashion, or run into the unintended consequences of their policies, frustration, anger, and violence often ensue. This “thirst” for control of the external world has often been ridiculed by Zen Buddhist monks and this kind of “suffering” can be successfully eliminated if the ever-changing nature of reality is recognized.

There is a growing literature about the psychology and even neuroscience of political beliefs but much of this work does not examine the most basic questions. What exactly is a political belief (or ideology)? Why do some people choose political engagement and others seek to make less grandiose changes to their personal lives and environment? Can political ideals be satisfied or does the ever-changing nature of reality (and slight deviations from any ideal) suggest that politically engaged people chase an illusion and political happiness will be brief at best. To my knowledge, there have not been many publications in which Buddhist premises have been employed to argue against the idea of political ideology and “activism”, although it seems an interesting connection to make. Such a Buddhist argument would solely emphasize personal kindness instead of the (futile) desire to make the world conform to a specific idea (and the ensuing “suffering” if reality does not want to conform).

The illusion of free will is itself an illusion

While debates about free will remain prevalent in theology, philosophy, and the popular imagination, the concept of free will does not do any meaningful work in modern science. Even philosophically-inclined neuroscientists who write about free will do not evoke this concept in their technical work about the brain. Similarly, we talk about “nature versus nurture” not “nature versus nurture versus free will.” According to writer, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, free will cannot be made conceptually coherent. In his little book “Free Will” he writes that “either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” Sam Harris is not the first person to debunk the idea of free will but what makes his treatment of the subject stand out from most hard determinists (or hard incompatibilists) is his no-nonsense treatment of “compatibilism” and his smart take on the view that free will is an “illusion.” He also has a talent for using effective metaphors to make his cases as evidenced by sentences such as, “you are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

Harris is not a “compatibilist” and follows philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (“wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery”) and William James (“quagmire of evasion”) in identifying this position as a (subtle) attempt to change the subject. About the vast compatibilist literature he writes that “more than in any other area of philosophy, the result resembles theology.” Compatibilists like Daniel Dennet have spent considerable time in twisting the meaning of free will and putting it in an evolutionary context but as some of his critics have noted, the “free will” that is compatible with determinism does not capture the kind of free agency and moral responsibility that philosophers feel is worth talking about (for example, see Paul Russell’s article “Pessimists, Pollyannas, and the New Compatibilism“). “Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings,” writes Harris.

Harris follows philosophers such as Derk Pereboom in noting that neither determinism nor indeterminism can give rise to free will or moral responsibility. This also includes more recent attempts to find “free will” in quantum mechanics. “Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility…how would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?

While Harris still recognizes free will as an illusion, there are some passages in his book that reveal that he does not seem to agree that disciplined introspection is a credible source for a belief in free will. “If you pay attention  to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process…I do not choose to choose what I chose…there is a regress here that always ends in darkness.” This is a distinctly refreshing perspective because most literature is plagued by the belief that regardless of whether free will exists (or can exist) it is nevertheless an illusion, or worse, a necessary illusion. This “illusion of the illusion of free will” remains a mainstay of most discussions of the topic, despite its shaky foundation in introspection or logical analysis. In a rather Buddhist perspective on the matter, Harris concludes his book by observing that

“our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

So what then gives rise to the belief in free will and the desire to prove its existence? According to Harris, a belief in free will is closely associated with the concept of “sin” and retributive punishment. One might also add that “compatibilist” philosophy arises from the recognition that most normative ethical theorizing requires some kind of compatibilism. It is not a coincidence that the most exotic treatments of free will can be found in theological, ethical, and ideological writings. Obviously, Harris denies that a belief in free will is necessary for morality and justice. “Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: everyone else will be better off this way.” The fact that no criminal has free will does not mean that all crime should be treated the same. The reason why we are interested in, for example, whether the cause of a crime can be attributed to a brain tumor or a psychopathic personality type is because it is important to know what kind of person we are dealing with and under which conditions we should expect such crimes most likely to occur. There is no need for a complete overhaul of our criminal system but in a society in which there would be less emphasis on free will there would be more room for intelligent treatment of crime instead of hatred and retribution.

There is a brief chapter in the book where Harris discusses free will in the context of politics. He identifies modern conservatism as embodying an unrealistic belief in free will, as evidenced by the tendency to hold people responsible for their own choices and to glorify “individualism” and the “self-made man.” It is certainly the case that the concept of free will has clouded the mind of many political thinkers. For example, two writers that are closely associated with radical capitalism, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, have offered rather obscure defenses of free will. Ultimately, however, most dominant ideologies can be restated without a belief in free will. A denial of free will in conjunction with postulating values such as”egalitarianism,” “impartiality,” and “universalism” can give rise to modern liberalism but a denial of free will is also compatible with an elitist, aggressive, anti-democratic pursuit of human enhancement through state coercion.

Anarcho-capitalism does not require a belief in free will either as evidenced by recent attempts to derive it from Hobbesian contractarianism (Jan Narveson) or economic efficiency arguments (David Friedman). Incoherent discussions of free will in moral and political theory are easy targets for ridicule, and often an indicator of belief in other mysterious concepts such as “natural rights.” In fact, anarcho-capitalism cannot only be restated without any appeals to “free will” or “natural rights” but it does not even require the postulation that “freedom” is valuable (or needs to be be maximized) as has been shown in the recent writings of Anthony de Jasay.

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.

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