Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Psychic Unity of Mankind

Via tggp, a long flame by John Derbyshire on inherent genetic differences and "culturalism".

I find racists like Derbyshire and Steve Sailer fascinatingly odious to read. The fascination comes from trying to untangle the nuggets of truth and insight from the general stew of confusion and prejudice. This human biodiversity stuff is important, and it's a shame to leave it to right-wing wankers. Somehow, the progressive and sane part of the world will need to grapple with this stuff.

Right now, I just have to pick at a nit that has bothered me for awhile and came up again in Derbyshire's latest, namely, the complete misuse of the concept "psychic unity of mankind":
This idea of the "œpsychic unity of mankind"is a sort of blank slate principle. It says that all human beings everywhere have the same physiological nature, most especially the same brains, and that all observed differences, both group and individual, are the result of "œculture" acting on this infinitely plastic substratum -- writing words on this "blank slate."
This is confused in at least two different ways: first, the assumptions that PUM implies that there are no innate physiological differences in brains, and second, that PUM is identical to blank-slate theories of the brain. This is a complete inversion of the concept.

The psychic unity of mankind (PUM) does not mean that human brains are biologically identical. That would, of course, be stupid. PUM means that human brains are constructed in roughly the same way, with the roughly similar biological hardware, computing architectures, modules, built-in capabilities, and areas of functionality. PUM describes the built-in commonalities between human minds and is thus exactly the opposite of the blank-slate model.

Here's Wikipedia on PUM:
In arguing for the "œpsychic unity of mankind," Bastian proposed a straightforward project for the long-term development of a science of human culture and consciousness based upon this notion. He argued that the mental acts of all people everywhere on the planet are the products of physiological mechanisms characteristic of the human species (what today we might term the genetic loading on the organization and functioning of the human neuroendocrine system). Every human mind inherits a complement of species-specific "œelementary ideas" (Elementargedanken), and hence the minds of all people, regardless of their race or culture, operate in the same way.
If you've read Pinkers' The Blank Slate, you may remember he presents a list of human universal ideas at the end of the book, as evidence of the non-blankness of the biological mind. These seem almost exactly the same as the Elementargedanken proposed by Bastian.

Richard Shweder (a major cultural anthropologist) Thinking in Cultures, p77: (and note that he is generally skeptical of the notion of psychic unity, but for very different reasons than the race-baiters):
The principle of general psychology that "people are the same wherever you go" does not mean that people are the same in every respect. It means that transcendentally, "deep down" or "inside," where the central processing mechanism lives, people are the same....

...It is crucial to recognize that the long-lived and imaginative idea of an inherent (fixed, universal) and central (transcendent, abstract) processing mechanism, a psychic unity to mankind, will never be seriously threatened by the mere existence of performance differences between individuals or populations.
I see Gregory Cochran makes the same mistake as Derbyshire.

Is this just a minor nitpick over the use of a 19th-century phrase? After all, regardless of how you define your terms, recent human genetic selection is either real or not, differences in cognitive capabilities between individuals or races are real or not. But I think this confusion points to something important. The scientific facts are facts and will be revealed in more detail with time, but the moral, social, and political implications of the facts are very much undetermined. Humans will, fairly obviously, be revealed to have some things in common and other things that vary. Whether you want to pay more attention to the commonalities or more to the differences is a political and moral question, not a scientific one.

"All men are created equal" -- the would-be scientific racists like Derbyshire are licking their chops over the prospect that their prejudices will be given the backing of science, and this enlightenment slogan can be thrown under the bus for good. The rest of us should be reinterpreting it in the light of new science. It doesn't mean that everyone has exactly the same innate intelligence any more than it means they have the same height or muscle mass. It means, rather, that we are all built the same way, that we are qualitatively the same despite quantitative differences, that we all have language, consciousness, morality. social skills, social needs, music, concern for kin, and a thousand other similarities.

The left stresses our commonalities; the racist right would like to magnify differences. As a leftist, I'd like to see the our side form a strategy to deal with the facts of human biodiversity; sticking our heads in the sand won't work for very long.

19 comments:

TGGP said...

I'm reminded a bit of this. I want to shout "Hey, stop making yourself stupid!".

I thought Steve Sailer's take on the Cosmides-Tooby psychic unity thing made sense.

Michael said...

"The Psychic Unity of Mankind" seems to me to be a fancy neologism for what used to be called human nature.

It is interesting to find leftists agreeing with such an idea. In my observation, most on the left have dismissed or minimized the innate aspects of human behavior because accepting their existence conflicts with the leftist faith that behavior is entirely or at least very predominantly a product of environmental factors. This belief underlies the leftist devotion to social engineering.

Admitting that there is such a thing as human nature leads to the contrary conclusion, namely that at least some - and perhaps most - aspects of the human condition, being innate in the species, cannot be modified or eliminated by social engineering. That is a point of view far more congenial to the right than to the left.

mtraven said...

"The Psychic Unity of Mankind" seems to me to be a fancy neologism for what used to be called human nature.
More or less right, except it was a neologism in the late 19th century, now it's rather quaint.

It is interesting to find leftists agreeing with such an idea. In my observation, most on the left have dismissed or minimized the innate aspects of human behavior...This belief underlies the leftist devotion to social engineering.

There has been a lot of that sort of bad thinking on the left, it's true, but not uniformly.

Engineering requires an objective understanding of the materials one has to work with. So it is important for leftists and everyone else to acknowledge the truth of human nature, whatever it may be.

"Social engineering" sounds creepy but in fact it goes on all over, every day. The writers of the US Constitution were social engineers, and so is Disney and GM and Google, and everybody else who contributes to the structure of social institutions.

I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that radical, large-scale social engineering is likely to be a failure. That does not mean that current social instiutions must be set in stone for all time. Small-scale incremental change is still possible, indeed inevitable.

mnuez said...

Omni, the issue of racial differences is one that's SO subjected to immediate censure that it requires a bit more than grudging allowances for the possibility of there being something to it. The parochial and laissez-faire Righties have dominated practically the entire playing field on the issue of biological diversity and thus ensure that any independently honest mind who notices these differences will join their camp. In fact, even in instances where they don't have any desire to join the Right-wing camp, they're practically forced to by the hateful, acidic, vitriol heaped upon them by the dominant left.

Omni, we need to fight the blinkered left and assert that those ostriched-ones are of a bygone and dead generation. For all I know, they may be right about the bliss of ignorance, but they remain my enemy and, I hope, yours.

mnuez

Michael said...

I suppose anything from patching the roof to tearing down the house and building a new one involve 'engineering' Your definition of social engineering is equally broad.

If the Framers of the Consttution were 'social engineers' it is remarkable how little they did to change the civil society of their time (as opposed to the framework of government). From a strictly legal point of view (and that involves only a small share of social life), they did not alter the relationship between man and wife; between parent and child; between master and servant, or landlord and tenant, or neighboring householders, or the parties to a contract.

Despite the current interpretation of the First Amendment, they did not change the relationship between church and state; that they left to the constituent elements of the federal union. In some states the establishment of religion was ended relatively quickly, e.g., Virginia, but in others, it persisted for decades after the adoption of the Bill of Rights, as in Connecticut, where it lasted until 1818, and in Massachusetts, until 1833.

Indeed, so little did the Framers alter the pre-existing common law of England that Blackstone's Commentaries, originally published in England in 1765-9, remained an authoritative textbook of law in this country well into the nineteenth century. In essence, the 'social engineering' of the Framers concerned itself exclusively with the operations of government at a level that was then much more remote from the everyday life of ordinary Americans than it is today.

I believe the term 'social engineering' indicates a much more intrusive and purposeful form of governmental intervention in civil society than just about any eighteenth- or nineteenth-century politicians even dreamt of imposing. To the extent their activities altered the character of civil society, it was incidental and accidental. Probably true social engineering did not emerge, at least in the United States, until the "reform era" of the early twentieth century. Drug and liquor prohibitions, for example, are phenomena of this period.

A typically eighteenth century attitude, which the American Founders, despite their differences with him, shared to a great extent, was expressed by Samuel Johnson when he observed that 'most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.' The same is found in the verse of his friend Goldsmith:

"How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure."

or Bubb Dodington's:

"Love thy country, wish it well,
Not with too intense a care,
'Tis enough that when it fell,
Thou its ruin didst not share."

mtraven said...

Regular (non-social) engineering is also mostly a matter of small modifications to existing designs.

As to the nature of the American Revolution, see the Gordon Wood book I mentioned previously.

Michael said...

Certainly you are right that regular, non-social engineering is often a matter of small changes. That is really a non-answer to what I have previously written here.

Let's contrast two neighboring amendments to the U.S. Constitution as examples of what social engineering is and is not.

The Seventeenth Amendment provided for direct election of U.S. senators by the electorates of the several states, rather than their appointment by the state legislatures, as had previously been the case. While it can be argued that this change in the Framers' original design ultimately had consequences for the organization of society at large, if indeed this were so, they were indirect and did not abruptly manifest themselves. The immediate outcomes of the Seventeenth Amendment in the daily lives of American citizens were very slight.

The Eighteenth Amendment allowed Congress to implement, via the Volstead Act, a nationwide prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages. Unlike the Seventeenth, the Eighteenth Amendment had broad and immediate consequences in the everyday lives of American citizens.

My point to you is that the Seventeenth Amendment, and indeed much of the rest of the Constitution, did not amount to social engineering in any meaningful sense, whereas the Eighteenth Amendment did, in that it created a significant alteration in people's daily lives.

And, like much such social engineering, it failed to bring about the result intended by its idealistic proponents. It did not create the utopian alcohol-free future they wanted, but instead created widespread contempt for the law and a climate in which organized crime prospered as it had never done before. All this happened because it ran against the grain of human nature. One simply doesn't stamp out a custom such as the drinking of alcoholic liquors when the society in question has been acculturated to their use for much longer than its particular frame of government has existed.

A similar example of an acculturated practice or custom that cannot easily be extirpated is the institution of private property. History tells us that at their first landing in New England, the Pilgrims of 1620 tried a communal arrangement and nearly starved as a result. They realized their error and made each man responsible for his own sustenance, which enabled the fledgling settlement to survive. The same experiment was tried on a grander scale and for a longer time in the Soviet Union, with the result that the collective farms repeatedly failed to produce their quotas of crops, while the individual plots the central planners reluctantly allowed to the peasants yielded bumper harvests year after year.

Such examples illustrate how human nature limits and often trumps completely the plans of the social engineers, regardless of their ideological origins. A proper recognition of this fact ought to make the proposers of such plans more humble and less ambitious.

mtraven said...

Such examples illustrate how human nature limits and often trumps completely the plans of the social engineers,.. this fact ought to make the proposers of such plans more humble and less ambitious.

OK, we agree completely. How boring. And just a few days ago you were accusing me of abetting genocide.

If there is a disgreement, it is just on what the proper definition of "social engineering" is. You want to use it to mean only large-scale changes, I would include smaller, more realistic efforts at social change as well. My usage emphasizes the point that people can, in fact, exert some control over their society, and they need to get better at it.

Michael said...

Hitler was reported to have liked children and flowers. One may agree with him on such anoydyne subjects without agreeing with him on others.

We may agree that there is human nature and that it ought to be understood as a limit on what can be accomplished by the compulsive power of the state. The devil is in the details!

Politics is, semper et ubique, a pastime of elites. If such persons wish to flatter themselves by the assumption that they are doing good while they are doing well, I suppose they will think so whatever we may say of it. My own observation is that the notion that the mass of people can ever exert much control over the society in which they live is a sham and a delusion, and that those among the elite who claim that they are representing the interests of the common folk are quite usually sanctimonious hypocrites.

mtraven said...

You really ought to read the Phil Agre paper I linked to at a later post, "What is conservatism and what is wrong with it?". It is a relatively crisp and sane statement of the exact opposite of your point of view. I'm tired of this argument, so go read him.

Michael said...

I'm not as tired of it as you are.

On the point that the self-proclaimed champions of the common folk are most often sanctimonious hypocrites, I discovered an interesting historical fact just recently. I had always supposed that the graduated income tax was an idea from the fertile mind of Karl Marx. It was, after all, a plank of the platform he published in the "Communist Manifesto." But no - it turns out he was just a copycat. This passage from a biography pf Cosimo de Medici (the elder, 1389-1464) reveals an earlier origin, and its purpose:

"Cosimo abolished the catasto and used the decima scalata (progressive taxation) to ruin all who stood in the way of his absolute power, while favoring the lower classes and his supporters. His attempts to undermine republican institutions were denounced in vain by the great archbishop of Florence, St. Antonius." [N.B. - The catasto was a sort of register of property titles used for the purposes of ad valorem taxation]

Cosimo used progressive taxation to ruin and reduce capitalists of lesser wealth than his own to subjection; Marx simply adapted it to the purpose of ruining and subjecting all capitalists to the power of the communist state.

When we hear wealthy left-liberals (like those who supported Barack Obama so generously) today advocating 'sharing the wealth,' to what end ought we to assume they do? Why take their bleatings about the poor at face value? Why should we not assume their much-vaunted sympathy for the lower classes actually to have the same purpose as Cosimo's favoring of the ciompi, namely, damaging their rivals and installing themselves in power? Cosimo did quite well with such a stratagem, not only maintaining a grip on power until his death, but raising some of his progeny to the papacy, and others to be grand dukes of Tuscany, eventually to marry into the French royal house.

There is no more reason to credit (say) George Soros with any more altruism than old Cosimo had. I submit that the undermining of republican institutions is just as much George's purpose as it was Cosimo's.

mtraven said...

I hope you realize that claiming progressive taxation is plot to bring down the nation makes you sound like a stone lunatic. Claiming George Soros is some kind of Bond villain scheming to take over the world, even more so. Such things aren't worth responding to.

Worse, it's not even an interesting form of lunacy, it's just regurgitated wingnut talking points of the sort that emerge from the yawp of Rush Limbaugh or Joe the Plumber. If you have to be insane, at least be original about it.

Meanwhile, here's what that commie Adam Smith had to say in The Wealth of Nations:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich...It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

Michael said...

Progressive taxation is not a plot to 'bring down the nation,' no. Cosimo de Medici did not destroy Florence - he just altered its form of its government to enhance his own position. The same is the goal of Soros et al. Their purported concern for the poor is camouflage for the pursuit of their own advantage.

Such, I suggest, is the usual pursuit of 'share the wealth' proponents. The New Deal, for example, did very little to end the Great Depression. Unemployment was still at something like 18% in 1939, ten years after the crash of 1929. Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' was a similar enterprise. As some wag stated at the time, the nation fought a 'war on poverty' and poverty won.

Was the primary aim in either case the publicly stated one - or was it not, instead, the aggrandizement of one faction of the élite at the expense of another? I propose that it was the latter. A little scepticism of the self-proclaimed altruism of such persons is hardly 'insane.'

Willian Graham Sumner observed long ago:

"The yearning after equality is the offspring of envy and covetousness, and there is no possible plan for satisfying that yearning which can do aught else than rob A to give to B; consequently all such plans nourish some of the meanest vices of human nature, waste capital, and overthrow civilization."

We might add that in robbing A to give to B, A is most often not "the rich" of popular fantasy, living in mansions with liveried servants and travelling by private jet, but merely moderately successful small business men and professionals; and B is not "the poor," who will always be with us in any event, but rather politicos of the Blagojevich type, tort lawyers of the John Edwards type, and quango executives of the Franklin Raines type. That well-meaning people are taken in by this charade is a real tragedy.

Michael said...

PS - to the point of 'that commie Adam Smith' - he was, in the context of his time and place, talking about the obligations of Christian charity. He was, after all, a professor of moral philosophy. To paint him as an advocate of social democracy or the welfare-entitlement state along modern lines would be seriously to misrepresent him.

Poverty was of course far more general and of a far more desperate nature in late eighteenth-century Europe than it is today. Hard work and even the possession of artisanal skills did not necessarily lift one out of that poverty. The middling classes of society were far fewer in numbers than they have since become.

When we analyze the reasons for the great reduction in poverty in the past two centuries we find that more extensive development of charity had far less to do with it than did the general growth in industrial and agricultural productivity, which has created vastly more wealth than was extant in Smith's time and place. This growth in productivity has been the understandable result of allowing entrepreneurs to reap the profits of private enterprise. It has disproved the gloomy predictions of Malthus and Ricardo that gave economics the soubriquet "the dismal science."

Nowadays one is just about guaranteed to achieve some sort of 'middle class' status, as that is loosely defined in modern America, by taking a few relatively easy steps: 1) to graduate from high school; 2) to seek and get a job, any job, after completing one's education; 3) to refrain from begetting children out of wedlock; 4) to refrain from marrying until completing one's education and finding employment; and 5) to refrain from the commision of crime, including the use of illegal drugs.

Those so lacking in intelligence or slef-discipline as to be incapable of following the listed regimen are, I am afraid, almost inevitably consigned to the category of the bungled and the botched. Unfortunately there will always be such people, and this is why the poor will always be among us, even in our extraordinarily prosperous society. There is little that can be done about the vicious and lazy except to protect the honorable and decent from them as best as may be possible.

mtraven said...

The same is the goal of Soros et al. Their purported concern for the poor is camouflage for the pursuit of their own advantage.

First off, Soros is filthy rich and doesn't need any more advantage. Second, helping the poor is not really the main focus of his philanthropic activity. His Open Society Institute "aims to shape public policy to promote democratic governance, human rights, and economic, legal, and social reform. On a local level, OSI implements a range of initiatives to support the rule of law, education, public health, and independent media." Third, let's imagine that he is the Dr. Evil character you are trying to paint him as. If his quest was "advantage" and/or world domination, don't you think that starting a philanthropic foundation is an odd way to go about it? Shouldn't he be out buying loose Russian nukes and holding cities for ransom or something? Just what advantage is he supposed to be gaining? I mean, I'm sure he enjoys getting to give keynotes at Davos or whatever, but do you have any evidence that all his activity is a front for something sinister?

Lastly, I don't understand why someone of your sentiments should be down on Soros at all, given that he was instrumental in funding dissident movements in the Eastern bloc and currently funds efforts that promote capitalism in the developing world such as the Grameen Bank. He's a businessman and is promoting values that are highly congenial to business. Yet you accuse him of scheming to "undermine Republican institutions". I suspect that once again you simply don't have any idea of what you are talking about and are just regurgitating some crap you picked up from the Wall Street Journal editorial page or equally idiotic source.

to the point of 'that commie Adam Smith' - he was, in the context of his time and place, talking about the obligations of Christian charity.

You are delusional. Here's the chapter from Wealth that contains that passage; there is not a word about charity, Christian or otherwise. It is about taxation.

Michael said...

In Adam Smith's time, and in his country, there was an established church. It collected tithes, which were compulsory, a form of taxation. Poorhouses, the fostering of orphaned children, and other early forms of relief, were understood to be part of Christian charity. Their beneficiaries were spoken of as being 'on the parish.' This is the context that any contemporary of Smith would have understood in reading the chapter you quote. It went without saying. One of my ancestors held the office of 'overseer of the poor' in colonial Virginia. Don't try to tell me about what I know from my own family's history.

You have, in any event, ignored completely my point about how the kind of poverty that existed in Smith's time eventually came to disappear - not by charity (Christian or otherwise) but by the vast improvement in productivity and the concomitant increase in general living standards. A rising tide lifts all boats. The left is so preoccupied with the distribution of wealth that it wishes to interfere with its creation. Its response to the prospect of a rising tide is to drill holes in the hulls of sounder boats so that they will not rise at a faster pace than those that are already leaky.

Soros, Gates, Buffett, and other liberal billionnaires do not want the sort of power that involves the holding of cities to ransom or the possession of weapons of mass destruction. They want 'soft power' to influence and direct this society, just as Cosimo de Medici did his. To say so is not to portray them as "Dr. Evil" characters.

Cosimo was not altogether or even mostly a bad man. He was among other things, one of the great benefactors of classical scholarship. Perhaps Soros et al. in the fulness of time will prove to have done something of equal merit. The fact remains, though, that Cosimo altered the form of Florentine government in a way that undermined republican (with a small 'r') instutitions, and so, I believe, will those oligarchs who now, like him, profess to cherish the interests of the lower classes.

As for 'congenial to business' - this is far too general a conception to be meaningful. There are businesses to which 'congeniality' means government that gives them rent-seeking opportunities and promulgates regulation that beggars their competitors. On the other hand there are businesses to which a congenial government would be one that leaves them alone to sell their products or services to willing buyers without such dubious 'help'. I am on the side of the latter.

mtraven said...

In Adam Smith's time, and in his country, there was an established church. It collected tithes, which were compulsory, a form of taxation...This is the context that any contemporary of Smith would have understood in reading the chapter you quote.

Bullshit and irrelevant even if true -- as you yourself point out, a tax is a tax whether it's the church or the baliff that collects it. But the meaning of Smith is very clear.

You have, in any event, ignored completely my point about how the kind of poverty that existed in Smith's time eventually came to disappear...

Yes, I did, since I am not interested in it. If you want to talk endlessly about your own obsessions, start your own blog. For example, you can't seem to get off the topic of charity, which apparently you are opposed to. I don't think I mentioned it once, and I don't think George Soros does the kind of charity you are talking about. Progressive taxation is not charity.

You may have noticed that this post was originally about an actually somewhat interesting and original point, so maybe you could try to keep at least tangentially connected to it rather than rehashing the same old and tired political debates?

You just now: Soros, Gates, Buffett, and other liberal billionnaires... want 'soft power' to influence and direct this society, just as Cosimo de Medici did his. To say so is not to portray them as "Dr. Evil" characters....Cosimo was not altogether or even mostly a bad man.

You a couple of days ago: I submit that the undermining of republican institutions is just as much George's purpose as it was Cosimo's.

Here's the thing about the Internet -- your previous words are easily accessible, so if you twist and backpeddle it is instantly visible for all to see.

It seems to me you don't have the foggiest idea of what kind of activities Soros and Gates fund (I have not looked into Buffett so let's leave him out). Soros' major activity has been helping former Eastern bloc countries transition to democracy and market-based economies. The Gates Foundation is pushing for a cure for malaria. I really don't see why these should be objectionable to anybody. I suppose you would say those sick children in African villages will be spoiled by the handout, and they should do their own damn medical research, just like you do.

Michael said...

Soros, whatever he may have done abroad, has consistently funded the campaigns of left-wing politicians and left-wing causes in this country.

Gates and Buffett prominently support the retention of the estate tax, which is a redistributive tax. Buffett's insurance companies benefit from the sale of a type of insurance widely used in estate planning, which would lose much of its appeal should the estate tax be allowed to lapse. His support for the tax has a conveniently rent-seeking aspect.

Meanwhile, Buffett and Gates have managed by the use of tax-exempt foundations, which promote their pet projects and perpetuate their influence, to place the vast bulk of their own considerable fortunes beyond the reach of the very tax collector whom they wish to have confiscate the estates of mere millionnaires. This exactly parallels Cosimo's use of the decima scalata to destroy potential rivals and competitors before they rose too high.

I am not opposed to charity. Indeed, progressive taxation is not charity. Charity and the care of the deserving poor (with which I sympathize) should not be confused with the view that social and economic levelling is a desirable end in itself (with which I disagree). Smith and others of his time may have favored the relief of the poor, but they assuredly did not imagine they should be given the franchise and allowed to become a base of support for demagogic politicians and their rent-seeking hangers-on.

You, in attempting to point out a supposed inconsistency between my previous post and one a couple of days ago, apparently neglected the rest of the paragraph from which you extracted a few words. For your benefit, I repeat the remainder of it below:

"The fact remains, though, that Cosimo altered the Florentine form of government in a way that undermined republican (with a small 'r') institutions, and so, I believe, will those oligarchs who now, like him, profess to cherish the interests of the lower classes."

Here's the thing about the Internet - one's previous words are easily accessible, so when you take them out of their original context, it is instantly visible for all to see.

ambrose said...

If "all men are created equal" means what you say -- that (almost?) all of us have the same basic capacities -- it seems like a pretty trivial claim. Not a moral-political principle that offers any real guidance. Even "racists" like Derbyshire would of course agree with the trivial claim, but they would simply add that there are some very important differences between individuals and groups despite those (almost) universally shared basic capacities. Those differences, they say, explain many of the inequalities in behaviour and achievement that leftists tend to attribute to some kind of injustice or sheer bad luck. The egalitarian left seems to have no intelligent reply to this rather obvious point. At any rate, the trivial claim doesn't do any work.