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.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Blowing up hospitals

[Expanded from a comment on Daniel Larison's blog.]

In the last Batman movie, the Joker blew up a hospital to prove some kind of demented point, but he was supposed to be the embodiment of sociopathic evil. I hadn’t realized that the Catholic hierarchy had descended to the same level. Yet they are threating to close all Catholic hospitals if the FOCA bill passes. They are even unwilling to sell the facilities to other healthcare providers, preferring to shutter them. This would deprive millions of people of health care, and almost certainly causing some to die much earlier than they otherwise would have. Yet we are supposed to consider these people “pro-life”.

More here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Free fall

FDIC seizes three more banks. Citibank has traded at around 45-50 as recently as mid-2007, today it closed at 3.77. So, it's lost over 90% of its value in a bit more than a year. Some analysts are predicting that all US financial institutions will be under government control in a year. Switzerland seems to be in danger of complete collapse, the way Iceland has -- it has banks that are so leveraged that the country doesn't have nearly enough resources to rescue it, in fact "A 16% fall in UBS's assets would wipe out not only all of its equity but 100% of Swiss GDP on top."

Sure wish I had a farm in some out of the way place that I could retreat to when the food riots start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


While browsing at the Stanford bookstore I came across this book about Christian heresies and how to avoid them. Various mistaken beliefs are outlined, such as theopaschitism (a belief that God can suffer, I think), and Eutychianism (a form of monophysitism):

The tenet "one nature" was common to all Monophysites and Eutychians, and they affected to call Catholics Diphysites or Dyophysites. The error took its rise in a reaction against Nestorianism, which taught that in Christ there is a human hypostasis or person as well as a Divine. This was interpreted to imply a want of reality in the union of the Word with the assumed Humanity, and even to result in two Christs, two Sons, though this was far from the intention of Nestorius himself in giving his incorrect explanation of the union. He was ready to admit one prosopon, but not one hypostasis, a "prosopic" union, though not a "hypostatic" union, which is the Catholic expression.
I wonder if the people who were into this stuff were the obsessional geeks of their day. Rather then spending long tedious hours arguing about which programming language is best or who would win if Spiderman fought Batman, they argue over obscure points of theology that nobody sensible could care about. And like today's geeks, their Asperger's-like focus on meaningless formalism had real-world conseqeuences.

And today I see that our president-elect is being accused of heresy for an awkwardly-phrased response he gave in a 2004 interview. This is not happening in the fever-swamps of the batshit-insane right, but in the pages of respectable journals of opinion, including The Atlantic.

All I can say is, this sort of thing makes the baby Jesus cry. Did he really go through the trouble of incarnating and getting crucified so nerds could squabble over whether he is two natures in one person or vice versa? That some people would appoint themselves arbiters of who is a "real Christian"? I'm no kind of Christian at all and that kind of thing pisses me off.

Meanwhile for contrast here is a very good post about how to think about religious ritual and the sacred without having to adopt ridiculous metaphysical beliefs.

[[Update: Here's an accompanying soundtrack courtesy of Slim Gaillard]]

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Sacred State

[Updated below]

Since I'm lecturing tggp on politics and religion, I thought I should expand the thought:

The state always partakes of the sacred. We have theoretically split them apart here in the USA -- no state religion, no divine monarch -- yet somehow "flag desecration" is still a viable concept. You can't desecrate something unless it's sacred to begin with. I'm not saying this is good, or bad, it's just the way things are. Humans work the way they do, not how you think they should.

What I mean is: there is always an aspect to government that constitutes a civic religion. It has rituals, sacred places, heroes and demigods, a whole mythology. This is essential to its function -- otherwise, it would be nothing but a bureaucracy. This mythology is what makes it capable of being the object of the People's Romance. This is not exactly a new idea, but it suddenly popped into clarity for me. And it explains why I have the same complex relationship I do to both atheists (those who reject religion) and libertarian/anarchists (those who reject the state) -- I say "yes, I am in sympathy with you, but your rejection is simplistic, you don't understand how people and societies work".

I've recently been watching West Wing reruns with similarly mixed emotions. The show always struck me as hokey, sentimental, and enamored of yuppie/Clinton/workaholic values to an embarassing extent. Nevertheless -- it's a well-made show, most of the time, and one of the things it does well is provide insiders views on all sorts of obscure rituals of government, such as the procedures for clearing out the White House for a presidential transition. It takes a naive, civics textbook view of government and presents a mildly insiderish view of it, without cynicism. I'm not sure why I like the show, since my default setting is extreme cynicism bordering on paranoia, but maybe it's just a welcome relief, an anodyne.

To make up for it, I found this article which presents the black and bloody symbolic heart of nationalism in the best apocalyptic/academic mode:

Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion, Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle

Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime. The more usual arrangement elsewhere has been strongly forged links between spiritual and political power. This is because the only religion that can truly deliver the goods must have visible agency, worldly power... Wherever religion is fervently embraced, it follows in the minds of many believers that it is entitled to glory in missions of conquest that reflect God's will. Islam did this for centuries before European monarchies accomplished it for Christianity. And though religions have long survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith.

.... The social geographer Wilbur Zelinsky observes that the contemporary American flag has a visual power and presence for its believers that is comparable to the medieval crucifix. We agree. The flag in high patriotic ritual is treated with an awe and deference that marks it as the sacred object of the religion of patriotism. The flag is the skin of the totem ancestor held high. It represents the sacrificed bodies of its devotees just as the cross, the sacred object of Christianity, represents the body sacrificed to a Christian god.

The soldier carries his flag into battle as a sign of his willingness to die, just as Jesus carried his cross to show his willingness to die. Both the cross and the flag mark the border, the transformative point at which the believer crosses over into death. In both Christianity and nationalism the violently sacrificed body becomes the god renewed--in Durkheimian terms, the transformed totem. In Christianity the revivified totem is the risen Christ. In American nationalism the transformed totem is the soldier resurrected in the raised flag. On the basis of his sacrifice the nation is rejuvenated. As the embodiment of sacrifice, the flag has transforming power. Certain acts cannot be performed except in its presence. It must be kept whole and perfect, as holy things are, and ceremonially disposed of when it is no longer fit to perform the functions of the totem object.

Some citizens openly speak of the American flag as sacred. Can we disregard the impassioned testimony of others that it is not, and neither is the nation it represents? The answer lies in the ritual gestures that surround the flag...The sanctity of national symbols is protected by treating them gesturally as sacred, even while we insist in language that they are not. And when the god commands it, we must perform the ritual sacrifice, war, that sustains the group.

Cohesion in enduring groups is accomplished within a framework of violence as a structural rather than contingent social force, religion as the truth that we are willing to die for, and the re-presentation of society to itself through blood sacrifice rituals performed on the bodies of supplicants. The most powerful expression of this religious framework in the United States, and perhaps not only there, is nationalism. On the surface, we deny nationalism's religious attributes and functions in order to keep the the killing authority of the group from being challenged by sectarian faiths that have been stripped of the power to sacrifice the lives of devotees.

Heady stuff. It certainly helps to understand the appeal of red-state warriors, and the troubles sane urban cosmpolitans have in displaying patriotism and pulling the country together. Sending young men to die is good for you and good for the country's geist, apparently. But only when it works, and it hasn't worked properly in the last few wars.

[Update: didn't realize when I was writing this that Veteran's Day was imminent. That's one of the chief holidays (holy day) of the state religion, where the ritual sacrifice is celebrated and the sacred honor of the military is upheld and reinforced.

The epiphany behind this post helps me get outside of this ritual and be skeptical of it. Not that I have anything against veterans as individuals, but maybe holding them up as a holy warrior class is a bad idea. The results of the presidential campaign indicate that military service is not as big a deal as the right would like it to be.

I happen to be working at a startup run by Mercurians who don't have much to do with veterans or military culture, so no day off for me.]

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Joining the celebration

Well, that was awesome. Despite my built-in distrust of politicians, despite a lifelong cynicsm, despite knowing that the president is a largely symbolic figure whose ability to actually change anything is severely limited -- despite all that, I got the spirit last night, I really do think we've lived through a transformational event, I believe that Obama will bring at least basic competence and intelligence to bear on the government, which alone is a vast improvement. I'm happy that my kids got their wish and that they will grow up believing in the power of potential, hope, and change, and that they won't become cynical too early. I'm so fucking happy that the Bushites will be turned out of office.

The President is a symbol, but symbols are important. We've collectively decided that our symbol should represent youth, intelligence, diversity, hope, and change, rather than fear, small-mindedness, and agression. That is huge.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Breaking news!

Shocking McCain video surfaces...must credit Omniorthogonal!!!!!

Election eve weirdness

I was really hoping for some even more unhinged Obama rumors to surface in the few days before the election, but so far nothing has surpassed the satanist/mesmerist/Malcolm X charges that everyone knows about already. Here's a jokey one, but I seek the real thing. And in the same vein (I think), there's this:

On a slightly different tangent, here's white supremicists for Obama (via).

And here is a bunch of Peruvian shamans putting a whammy on John McCain.

Only a couple more days of this...I am ready for it to be over.