The Specter of Morality

I think one of the problems with the teaching of history/our understanding of morality is that we look back on he past and think, “Oh it’s so OBVIOUS that X was evil, only evil people could have supported X. If I lived back then, I’d have been a good person who opposed X.”

For example, most people today think the Nazis were evil. Not just run of the mill evil, like shoplifters or people who kick animals, but cartoonishly, over-the-top, literal-Satan evil. Similarly, they also think that slavery was deeply, horrifically evil. Most people think that, had they lived in Nazi Germany or in antebellum America, they’d have opposed these evils–if not vociferously, then at least privately. Sure, other people–bad people–might have supported these evils, but we of course would have had the moral clarity and fortitude to believe the very obviously right things.

The thing history class tries to tell you, but really doesn’t get across, is that if X is widespread, then a majority of people probably think X is good. If you lived back then, you’d either think X was okay, or secretly question whether maybe you’re ta terrible person for not agreeing with X.

You think you’d be triumphant, the only good person on your block who sees through the lies. Instead you’d feel like you were going slightly crazy, wondering why you’re really the only person who can’t see the Emperor’s Clothes. And when you gently broach the subject with your friends, like as not, they make it clear that you are definitely a terrible person for even entertaining such thoughts.

And you don’t necessarily know whether your friends actually think you’re a terrible person, or if they’re just preemptively declaring, just in case anyone else is listening, that they are definitely not a terrible person like you and shouldn’t be lumped in with you, please don’t hurt me.

The difficulty lies in our social natures. If society declares that X is good and Y is bad, then unless you’re highly isolated or have some form of mental disability, then chances are good that you are sensitive to society’s judgements. Society’s morals underlie many things you (typically) don’t even realize are part of your belief system, like which historical figures make it into the textbooks. (Have you ever read a hagiography devoted to the guy who invented the seatbelt, thanking him for saving millions of people’s lives?) No one has the time to go read first-hand accounts of every historical event and reconstruct all of their ideas from scratch.

Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone. Sorry the blog has been quiet, lately.


One of the interesting effects of the pandemic has been the opportunity to watch formerly neutral, unpolitical things get marked as “political” and people who formerly had no opinion on them at all throw themselves onto one side or the other as though they had deep, long-standing commitments on the issue. (We have always been at war with Eastasia.)

Whether or not people should wear masks in order to slow the spread of SARS-Coronavirus-2, (the name of the disease is itself a victim of political vicissitudes, shortened to just “coronavirus” by the WHO explicitly so that people would not take it seriously,) has transformed from a matter of austere medical debate to an issue of such pressing concern that a question on the subject was actually posed to the candidates at the first presidential debate.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my health policies, pro or con, to be motivated by something other than the sheer naked political process involved in presidential campaigns.

Side note: the American political system was explicitly set up with the intention of preventing any one person or branch of government from wielding too much power. Debate that intention and its functional persistence in our modern system as you will, but it is clear that there is still enough plasticity left to correct for a great many deficits in any particular leader (which is good, because our leaders are mortal men with many, many deficits).

If Trump does not order a mask mandate, then so what? Wear your own mask if you want to. Shop at businesses where the employees wear masks. Sew cute masks for your relatives. Prompt your local legislature to pass mask laws. Etc. There are many, many options here that don’t involve executive orders.

The idea of a national mask mandate is rather silly, because different people live in different places with different needs. A man in Montana who sees more cows than people in his day may not get any use out of a mask, while a man in New York who rides the subway every day may have benefitted from wearing a mask three years ago.

Masks should not be a political issue and it certainly should not hinge on the whims of one man.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone (much less mask enthusiasts) expects our current president to make medical policy, nor do they want him to. I care a lot more about our president’s opinions on trade and monetary policy than his opinions about medical advice (I’ll ask my doctor for medical advice, thankyouverymuch.)

Rather, I read the question as less about medical policy and more about political tribalism: “Here are the new shibboleths of my tribe. Will you accept them, or do you reject them?”

As a new shibboleth, masks have gone through a radical political transformation since last January. At first, they were not something we thought about at all: completely neutral, a-political objects. Surgeons wore them at hospitals, motorcyclists wore them to keep bugs out of their mouths; painters wore them to avoid fumes; skiers wore them to stay warm. Occasionally you saw a photo of someone wearing a mask on the subway in China or Japan, but that was just something done over there: someone else’s customs.

Then came the SARS-2. Wuhan shut down. Alarming videos showed the Chinese police dragging people into quarantine and welding apartments shut. In the States, only the Very Online were aware of the pandemic at this point. It was obvious that whatever was going on, the Chinese took it very seriously, and this itself was concerning. Were they over-reacting, or was it actually that bad?

This was when hazmat Twitter was born. These were the folks who photoshopped hazmat suits onto their avatars and, within a few weeks, became the first to don masks in real life, adopting the habit from Asia. Hazmat Twitter was arguably motivated by right-wing concerns about foreign infection vectors, but it was also, by modern leftist standards, completely right.

Amusingly, at this point, health “experts” in the US, being career bureaucrats interested in protecting their own piece of the bureaucratic pie and not Very Online, had no idea why people were suddenly upset over some random virus in China and adopting what they no doubt saw as a strange foreign custom–hence the early PSAs advising us that masks don’t work, there’s no need to wear a mask if you don’t feel ill, and that racism is the real virus.

Then we got the videos out of Spain and Italy. Clearly this would not be a repeat of SARS-1, which was bad enough. The virus was actually spreading. Even first world hospitals were overwhelmed. Then the virus came to New York and Seattle. Within weeks, the president ordered an international travel shutdown.

This post is not meant to be a full retrospective of covid policies. We’re here to talk about masks. It was when New York hospitals started filling up that people really started taking this seriously. Suddenly that mask idea stopped seeming so dumb. That’s when masks went from being a far right-wing thing to a mainstream thing. My health-obsessed normie Republican relatives, for example, decided that masks are awesome and spent the next two months lecturing me about them non-stop (despite the fact that I do not actually go places where I would need one).

But politicians and grifters (is there a difference?) are never content to let a good issue go to waste, and folks like Anne Coulter quickly jumped on the opportunity to make a political buck by opposing the issue of the day. And if Coulter was opposed to masks, good liberals must be in favor of them.

Likewise, since the worst outbreaks were in major cities, the people who felt the most pressing need to wear masks (for their own and others’ sakes), were city-dwelling liberals. Those of us out in the suburbs or the countryside, who don’t use public transportation and encounter a lot fewer strangers in our day-to-day lives, naturally feel less inclined to fear a spray of germs every time we leave the house.

Outside the internet, where people feel compelled to make every darn thing political, I think normies of all political stripes basically still favor wearing masks in appropriate situations, with variations only in what those situations are. Eg, this poll back in July found 3/4s of respondents favored mask mandates. Dems did like masks better than Republicans, 89% of them favored masks, as opposed to only 58% of Republicans, but that was still a majority.

So we have a real difference in the need for masks, and a real difference in preferences for masks that break down along political lines, but if it weren’t for the internet, we probably wouldn’t really notice and would go about our own business, taking care of our health problems as best we can, unconcerned that some guy on the other side of the country might sneeze on us.

The evolution of the morality around masks has also been interesting to watch. I feel like I finally really understanding what’s going on in Muslim communities when people talk about the necessity of wearing hijabs or burqas.

The early masks, as adopted by hazmat Twitter, were worn to protect the wearer. This is sensible and straight-forward: no one wants to catch SARS2.

But as the vogue for masking spread, society started running out of the good masks (and besides, people wanted to reserve them for hospital workers). So people had to make do with the smaller, flimsier masks, the ones that obviously don’t block much air at all. Here the rationale changed. Masks were no longer for your own protection, but to protect others.

Why wear a hijab? So the sight of a beautiful woman does not cause a man to feel sexual attraction for someone who is not his wife. The hijab prevents sin from happening. (Note: this is not the only reason for Islamic veiling. Islam is a big religion with many religious teachings.) Why wear a mask? So that if you have covid, virus-laden spittle from your mouth is stopped by the mask. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of standing too close to someone who regularly spits while talking, you understand the idea.

The rationale here for masks and hijabs are the same: they are morally required because, despite being an imposition to the wearer, they prevent the wearer from inadvertently harming others. The mask prevents the harm of catching corona, while the hijab prevents sin. Sin, of course, leads to suffering in Hell, which to a believer is a fate worse than COVID.

Well, it’s been an interesting year. What do you think?

Gimme that new-time religion

I was recently discussing religion with a friend whose basic position is that religion is predatory and harmful. This is about the same position I took back in college: religions say a lot of untrue things and take people’s money in return.

But if religion is basically harmful, then its nigh-global occurrence (it is as culturally ubiquitous as cuisine) is difficult to explain: atheists ought to have done better economically, raised more children, and replaced theists ages ago. In the stone age. Furthermore, most people who go to church do so voluntarily, in their cars, at a time when they could be sleeping, and seem quite happy happy about it.

One of the early principles developed in the study of biology and human anatomy is that if a feature exists, it is there because it serves (or served) a purpose. Egyptian mummy-makers discarded the brain because they did not think it served a purpose, a move we now see as silly. Even if you haven’t figured out yet what that squishy blob does, clearly nature wouldn’t put so much effort into building it if it weren’t important. Even vestigial parts that no longer do anything offer us a window into the past because they used to be important.

Religion helps organize the rhythms and flows of human lives: it often defines people’s group identities, (“We in our tribe worship Athena. They in their tribe worship Apollo.”) it prescribes moral behavior, (“Thou shall not kill”) and it helps assuage existential angst, especially related to death.

Christianity in particular is set up to facilitate the cycle of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, with the promise of an afterlife in Heaven if you undergo the ritual and try to sin less and the threat of Hell if you do not. (I don’t know other religions as well as Christianity because I wasn’t raised in them, so my focus is Christianity.)

In obviously predatory religious groups (aka cults), leaders actively convince people that they are sinners in order to make them feel bad and coerce them into giving more time/money/sex to the cult. People who are already prone to feeling guilty about themselves are thus probably good marks for a cult; likewise, if you want people to consistently feel like they are sinners, it is probably best to target some instinct (like sexual attraction) that they don’t actually have much control over.

Convincing people that they are bad people who deserve punishment and that you are their only source of salvation is quite effective, at least for some people.

But people commit sins and feel remorseful even in the absence of cults. Non-predatory religions help people work through their guilt and absolve them of their sins, which is especially useful if you’re naturally neurotic and you can no longer find the person you sinned against in order to apologize properly. (Dear 12 grade teacher: I am sorry I cut class. I still feel very bad about it.)

One of the mysteries of the past few decades is why churches–especially Mainline Protestant denominations–have hemorrhaged members so badly. There are a few obvious reasons: technology has increased the visibility of atheists, making the potentially agnostic feel less alone in their lack of conviction; technology has made Bible-contradicting information more widely available; and of course Mainline Protestants don’t have enough babies to fill the pews.

But these trends alone seem insufficient to explain the speed of Mainline collapse. I suggest, therefore, that our idea of sin has changed.

Sexual sin was a very effective thing for people to feel bad about before the invention of birth control/condoms/antibiotics/etc., because people naturally desired a lot of sex that had very bad potential side effects, like disease or children they couldn’t afford to feed. With the advent of these technologies, most of the bad effects of sexual sin could be prevented or avoided, and so sexual sin became much less concerning.

Sexual sin is still a concern for Evangelicals and other low-class denominations, but the higher classes have abandoned this view. There are sensible reasons for this split, but they’re really background to our current moment, so we’ll explore them later. Our focus right now is on the new sin:

Neither slavery nor racism are particularly Biblical sins (slavery was legal in Biblical times and the word “racism” didn’t exist), but nobody really cares: they’re sins now.

When I say that the left is operating like a religion (or a cult), I am not using this metaphorically, nor to shut down conversation. I mean it literally: the modern left operates just like a religion, albeit a polytheistic one with many saints/demigods.

Mainline Protestant churches have been hemorrhaging, I suspect, because their followers have mass-converted to the Modern Religion.

The Modern Religion serves two purposes: it absolves its followers of the guilt of their sin and defines them against their out-group: the evil people who are still guilty of sin, aka conservatives. Since religion and group membership are roughly co-terminous, this defines conservatives who are still concerned with sexual sin as basically pagans and conservatives who object to the notion of racial sin as apostates. Apostates, of course, are worse than mere pagans.

Original Sin in this framework was not committed by Adam and Even in the mythical Garden of Eden, but in 1619 by the Founders of America. Perhaps anti-racism did not have to turn into a distinctly anti-American creed, but it is now:

Reminder that the police kill about as many unarmed black men each year as lightning kills whites.

The Dangers of Being Kind

I recently had a conversation with someone who seemed entirely motivated by kindness and also entirely, dangerously wrong.

The subject was prisons, and more specifically the treatment of prisoners:

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve read a few books on prisons, crime, and legal systems. My opinion of the American legal system is that it is kind of terrifying; it usually catches the right person, but not always; unscrupulous people absolutely can use it to destroy your life.

Prisoners can be divided into roughly three groups:

  1. People who shouldn’t be there (innocent, or their sentences are absurd for their crimes)
  2. People who should be there, but feel genuine remorse
  3. Criminal psychopaths

Some prisoners shouldn’t be there at all, some should be treated better than they currently are and given more support for reintegration to the non-prison world, and some should be tortured to death.

Over in real life, I try hard to be kind to others. I hand out cookies and hot cider on cold days to the neighborhood kids, volunteer with the homeless, and feel bad about eating animals.

But kindness requires… policing. Children cannot play on the playground if it’s full of homeless druggies. Homeless shelters cannot help if they are full of strung-out druggies, either. Even eating “free range” chickens requires that farmers raising chickens in batteries be prevented from slapping a fraudulent “free range” sticker on their meat.

Kindness alone is insufficient for creating a “kind” world. Many people are not nice people and will take advantage of or harm others if given the chance. Being “kind” to such people simply allows them to harm others.

My interlocutor in the conversation about the “trans” inmate basically argued that taxpayers should fund cross-sex hormone therapy for a man who raped/tortured/murdered a family (raped and murdered their kid, too), because it is medical care that prevents pain and suffering.

This argument is flawed on two grounds. The first is obvious: the entire point of prisons is to cause suffering. Prison isn’t fun; if it were fun, people would want to be there. Prison has to be unpleasant in order to function as any sort of deterrent, and we do actually want to deter people from committing crime. (In this case, the fellow should suffer to death, but that’s irrelevant, since the death penalty isn’t on the table in Connecticut.)

This doesn’t mean that I want to torture all of the prisoners–see above–but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that punishment is an part of what prisons are for.

The second flaw is the matter of obligation. We may not wish to cause further harm to an inmate–having determined that prison is sufficient already–but that does not obligate us to relieve suffering that we didn’t cause in the first place.

This is a very common conversation in the car: “Mom! I forgot my toy! We have to go back!”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to go back. You had half an hour to get ready, so you had plenty of time to get Mr. Fuzzy before we left. Hopefully you’ll plan ahead better next time.”

Yes, kiddo is going to cry, but he’s old enough to remember Mr. Fuzzy; it’s not everyone else in the car’s job to fix his mistake.

The fact that someone wants to undergo a sex change does not mean they need to; they may be unhappy because they cannot, but there are 2.3 million other people in prison who are also unhappy because there are things they cannot do. There are people who will never attend their children’s birthday parties; men whose wives will leave them; women whose sick and aging parents will die without saying good-bye.

Life is filled with tragedies; there is nothing special about wanting to be a girl that it sets it above the others and obligates tax payers to pay for it.

I am fine with paying for actual life-saving medical care, up to a point–diabetics in prison shouldn’t be denied insulin, for example. But wanting to be a girl is not an emergency. It’s a luxury, and once you’ve torture murdered a few people, you don’t get luxuries anymore.

To this is replied that I am, in some way, denying the inmate’s humanity, or perhaps drawing lines in the sand that could get shifted in difficult cases to cause harm to someone I do not want harmed, etc. The idea that we should not decide a trivially easy case because someday a more difficult case may come along is obvious nonsense, and “humanity” in this context is meaningless. I wouldn’t torture a dog, even though they aren’t human. I think it is immoral to kill or mistreat great apes, elephants, and dolphins.

Dolphins don’t torture humans to death.

If we are going to remember that someone is a human, we should remember his victims. They were humans; he is merely a member of Homo sapiens, a distinction he neither earned nor made meaningful.

There are several sleights of hand, here. The first is the exchange of causing harm and preventing harm. We may have an obligation not to cause harm, but we lack one to prevent harm. The second is the classification of sex hormones as necessary medical care. It is not; no one dies from not undergoing HRT. The third was characterizing a denial of medical care as a human rights violation. Human rights, you know, the things the UN decided were important after the Holocaust.

Put these three sleights together, and wanting to spend my money on my own children instead of on sex hormones for a murderer is equivalent to shoveling people into ovens.

I don’t think most of these sleights my interlocutor made were intentional–rather, I think she (or he) is a very kind person who has been effectively deceived by others who prey on her niceness.

Step one in fixing this sort of problem is to realize that kindness cannot exist in a vacuum: predators have to be stopped or children will be murdered, and we do this via coercion, which is, yes, painful. Step two is realizing that money (and resources) is limited, and that spending it on one thing requires not spending it on something else. Once we realize that, we have a quick and easy morality test: would sane people take money from their children in order to spend it on this?

In this case, normal people find the idea abhorrent: no loving parent would deprive their children in order to provide a murderer with luxuries.

If your “kindness” leads to acting abhorrently, it isn’t really kindness.

Speaking of dignity, and politeness

It seems like a lot of our problems in modern America stem from wanting to act as a unified entity but not actually being a unified entity.

Of course, we never were. No one in 1776 thought Massachusetts and Georgia were culturally or economically the same. They were so different that the whole country was set up as a “confederation” of nearly-independent states that just cooperated for reasons of national defense and trade efficiency.

Of course, that didn’t work so well and, over time, the nation installed a more and more powerful federal government, but differences in how people thought the whole thing should be run were still strong enough that we ended up fighting a civil war in the process.

That’s bad enough! But today we have nukes. We affect other people, not just ourselves, and other people are understandably concerned about those nukes. They’d like us to be a wee bit consistent in where we’re pointing them and maybe give them a heads up if we’re about to destroy their country.

Which we might be able to do if we were a single entity. But we’re not. We don’t even have the same people in power from year to year.

What’s that, we just let people vote, and if some 51% of us decide to vote for the guy whose policy is “nuke all of the penguins and use global warming to cancel out nuclear winter,” then that’s the law of the land?

Yes, that’s how democracy works, horrifying as it may sound.

The only sane response is a buildup of technocratic and bureaucratic apparati devoted to thwarting the will of the people in order to make sure no one nukes Antarctica in a fit of democratic fervor (or self-serving fervor, an actual concern during the Nixon administration.)

Who prevents the Deep State that’s supposed to prevent the president from going off the deep end from going off the deep end?

Meanwhile, we can’t get our national act together even on much simpler questions, like “Is rent control good?” or “How should we teach kids to read?” or “is abortion murder?”

Yet despite the fact that we really aren’t a single entity, we get perceived as one. We basically perceive ourselves as one. The actions of people at the other end of the country (or the world) we feel reflect on ourselves, even when we might from some rational standpoint admit that we really don’t have any control over those people and we shouldn’t be implicated in some giant mass guilt schema because of them.

In short, half of us want to run things one way and half want things the other way, and one of the side effects of this is absolute horror that some people are being RUDE.

The conservative joke about liberals is that liberals aren’t in favor of open borders, they’re just opposed to anything that would prevent open borders.


Liberals, of course, are concerned that closing the borders is rude. Muslim bans are rude. Attacking journalists is rude. Trump is rude.

Half of the country wants to welcome immigrants, and the other half doesn’t, and the net result is liberals feel like the conservatives are rude to their guests and conservatives feel like liberals are rudely imposing guests upon them.

Meanwhile, Japan manages to have a reputation for politeness even without an open borders policy, proving that life is not actually a choice between two and only two diametrically opposed sides.

The Japanese have refined the art of politely saying “no”, such as “I am sorry, but that is very difficult,” or “We are very busy right now; we will have to address this later.”

Having rules of etiquette and politeness (where everyone understands, of course, that “I am very busy,” really means, “No”) allows people to wiggle out of difficult situations without losing face.

It may be true, for example, that the average American doesn’t really want to die for the sake of Montenegro, a small nation that didn’t even exist when the average American learned geography. Montenegro was only officially declared a country in 2006, and certainly no American was ever asked whether they want to die for it. Now, a normal person might think it a wee bit presumptuous and rude to just straight up expect a bunch of strangers in a foreign country to be willing to give up everything and die for you, without even asking in the first place, but that people don’t like dying in strange lands never seems to occur to politicians. No, it is telling Montenegro that we aren’t so keen on the idea that’s the rude part. (Much better to wait until Montenegro is in dire straits and then weasel out of it, of course.)

Well, regardless of what works with North Koreans, being rude to your allies is a bad look. A country needs some sort of consistency, or it stops being a reliable partner at all and just becomes a rampaging elephant.

At least with a dash of formal politeness, I think people could feel a bit better about themselves and the conduct of the country. Maybe they’d calm down a bit.

Or maybe not.

Tribalism, for good or ill (mostly ill)


The difficulty with modern politics is that it is stupid. Stupid, cultish, and insane.

Let’s use a recent example: Esquire ran a cover article about a white male teen entitled “American Boy,” and and at least a handful of people reacted with the kind of vitriol that makes alt-right conspiracy theorists point and yell “See? See? We told you so!”

For example:


Since when has “the cover of Esquire” been a “we”?

Just a few of the responses to Jemele’s Tweet, which has over 48 thousand likes:

So let me get this right, @esquire can’t put any other color person on their cover during the ENTIRE month of #BlackHistoryMonth  !?!?

All during black history month. They know what they’re doing. All press is Good press

I can’t even believe that! Especially during Black History Month? I mean it’s not right to begin with but it’s completely ridiculous this month! The least they could have done was cover me! I’m the biggest black sheep there ever was ask anyone! So kidding…Sry,I know, NOT FUNNY!

During Black History Month no less. Just don’t get it at all.

What the hell?!!!! Was there some type of urgency? Some clamoring from the masses, a cultural void that needed to be filled that warranted the commissioning of this article?! WtF

Seriously?!? Just the title of this article made me throw up in my mouth a little

Okay, new rule: You’re not allowed to talk about single people on Valentine’s Day, colon cancer in October, food during Ramadan, or jam during the entire month of March, because March is National Celery Month.  Also, the second week of July is Nude Recreation Week, so consider yourselves forewarned.

By the way, this is the March issue of Esquire, not February. (As far as I can tell, the last time Esquire published a February issue in the US, it featured a black man–Pharrel–on the cover.)

Ironically, I agree, strongly, with the folks who say we need to teach non-white history–the history of Africa, Asia, Oceana, and the rest of the world.

It’s not a pretty history. It involves cannibals. If they’re right that those who fail to learn about history are destined to repeat it, then we’re in for a lot of trouble.

Humans are fundamentally tribal creatures, even when they pretend to themselves that they aren’t. It’s part of our psychology; it’s part of how we understand the world and process threats. Human history is largely the history of one tribe of hairless apes bashing another tribe of hairless apes with increasingly advanced rocks. When we understand history, we realize that our current travails are more of the same old, same old, just fought with new technology.

Tribalism makes sense if you rewind the clock a hundred years or so to before the invention of the car, plane, and television. When most of your dealings were with members of your own community, and your own community was small enough that you knew a good portion of the people in it, “tribalism” was just regular life.

The tie that divides: Cross‐national evidence of the primacy of partyism:

Using evidence from Great Britain, the United States, Belgium and Spain, it is demonstrated in this article that in integrated and divided nations alike, citizens are more strongly attached to political parties than to the social groups that the parties represent. In all four nations, partisans discriminate against their opponents to a degree that exceeds discrimination against members of religious, linguistic, ethnic or regional out‐groups. This pattern holds even when social cleavages are intense and the basis for prolonged political conflict. Partisan animus is conditioned by ideological proximity; partisans are more distrusting of parties furthest from them in the ideological space. The effects of partisanship on trust are eroded when partisan and social ties collide. In closing, the article considers the reasons that give rise to the strength of ‘partyism’ in modern democracies.

In practice, partyism is mostly racialism. 90% of blacks vote Democratic; the majority of whites vote Republican. 

The problem is that these days, we don’t live in communities of a few hundred people. We don’t just interact with members of our own tribe.

bq-5c65baff8d5a5The Esquire controversy is old-fashioned tribalism dressed up in modern language–really, all SJW politics is just tribalism dressed up in new words. There is nothing “social” or “justicey” about disliking an interview with a teenager; Jamele and the thousands of people agreeing with her aren’t objecting to the quality of the article nor the lad’s personality, but expressing a very simple emotion: You aren’t part of my tribe, therefore I don’t like you. 

But who cares about any of this? 40,000 likes is a lot of likes, but then, there are >300 million people in this country. 40k isn’t even 1% of them.

Yet I think it is important. For starters, this low-level sniping is pervasive. Whether you’re on the internet or just watch TV, people who don’t like you are everywhere.

20 years ago, I wouldn’t have had any idea whether Jemele liked Esquire’s latest cover article or not–and I wouldn’t have cared, because I don’t know her. She doesn’t live near me, doesn’t work with me, doesn’t run in any of my social circles. She could hang out with her friends, talking about how much they hate this dumb Esquire cover, and I could hang out with my friends, talking about squids and Aztec sacrifice, and never the twain would meet.

Now we do.

Every group has memes about how awesome the group is and how much other groups suck. (If they didn’t, well, they’d stop existing pretty quickly.) Jocks insult nerds; nerds talk shit about jocks. But normally we keep our opinions within our own groups, where they function to increase group cohesion and punish deviators.

This is your brain on tribalism.

Insane tribalism.

Contrary to what some sociologists claim, bringing people into contact with people whom they don’t like seems to increase conflict, not decrease it. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Being constantly exposed to other people’s ideas about how awful you are seems to have two effects on people: either they agree (become infected–pozzed, if you will) that they are awful and start trying to help the people who hate them (this might be a kind of Stockholm Syndrome); or they react negatively, become immune, and hate back.

The former I refer to as the “suicide meme.” More on this later, but in short, the suicide meme happens when you absorb the memes of people who want you dead.

To the gazelle, the lion is a monster; to the lion, the gazelle is lunch. Neither of them benefits from adopting the other’s ideas.

To the grass, of course, the gazelle is a torturer and the lion a perfect gentleman.

There is something ironic about getting lectured to about treatment of Latinos by someone who is literally named “Cortez,” (Hernando Cortes was the Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico and destroyed the Aztec empire; he apparently also created a lot of children in the process.)

Quoting Cortez (the modern one):

We must have respect for… human rights and respect for the right of human mobility. Because it is a right. [Applause] Because we are standing on native land. And Latino people are descendants of native people. And we cannot be told, and criminalized, simply because for our identity or our status. Period.

There are multiple lies in this statement. “Human mobility” isn’t a right. Not across national borders. If you think it is, go try it on the North Korea border and report back on how it works. There is no country in the world that recognizes the right of non-citizens to traipse across its borders whenever they please.

Second, we are not standing on native land. This was filmed at the US capitol. This is AMERICAN land. It is American land because Americans killed the people who used to live here.

Every single piece of land in the entire world belongs to the person who actually has the ability to physically enforce their claim to that land. China is a country today and Tibet isn’t because the PRC has physical control over Tibet and Tibet does’t. Italy is a country because no other country has the ability to take control of Italy’s land. Bhutan is a country because it controls the borders of Bhutan.

Third, while Latinos are descended from “native” peoples, they aren’t descended from Native Americans. They’re descended from natives from other countries that are not America. White people are also “native” peoples by this logic; they are descended from the native peoples of Europe. Asians are descended from the native peoples of Asia. Blacks are descended from the native peoples of Africa. Etc. Just because Latinos are descended from people from the North and South American continents is not meaningful–Germans and Poles are both native to Europe, but that doesn’t mean Germans have some inherent right to invade Poland.

Fourth, you certainly can be criminalized for your “status” (as illegal immigrants.) In fact, immigration status is exactly what is being criminalized.

There are many other issues with this speech–like the part where AOC blames ICE for the death of a little girl they actually were trying to save (despite the fact that our border patrol has no moral obligation to spend American taxpayers’ money to save the lives of non-Americans) and her promotion of the idea that non-citizens deserve “Constitutional protections” (fact: they already have constitutional protections, under the constitutions of the countries they are citizens of. They don’t have constitutional protections in countries they are not citizens of,)–but the most troubling thing about this speech is the fact that Ocasio-Cortez is an actual member of Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez’s comments would make sense over on the Mexican side of the border–a Mexican advocating for things that benefit Mexicans is perfectly reasonable.

But for a member of the American government to advocate that Americans have no right to control their own borders and assert that the territory of America actually belongs to someone else–including non-citizens–is straight up treason.

Review: The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker 5/5 Stars

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate was one of my top reads of 2018. Simultaneously  impassioned, philosophic, and rational, Pinker covers everything from art to parenting, morality to language. What makes us us? Where does human nature–and individual personality–come from? And what are the moral implications if blank slateist views of human nature are false?

Yes, Pinker writes from a liberal perspective, for a liberal audience–Pinker hails from a liberal culture and addresses the members of his own culture, just as a French writer addresses a French audience. But this is about as far as conventions like “left” and “right” can take you in this book, for it is clear that Pinker thinks breaking down political ideology and morality based on the seating patterns of an eighteenth-century French legislature is not terribly meaningful. 

Is the blank slate–the idea that humans are born essentially similar in personality, temperament, abilities, and potential, and that environmental plays a substantial role in determining whether we turn out to be Nobel Prize winners or drag queens, Jeff Bezos or homeless, criminals or lion tamers–moral? 

Its adherents claim that it is–indeed, some react to any suggestion that humans have any innate or biological nature with a vehemence normally reserved for rapists and murderers. 

Pinker responds that the denial of human nature causes unimaginable suffering. Humans cannot cast aside their natures simply because an ideology (or religion) tells them to. To attempt to remake man is to destroy him. 

Further, it is blatantly untrue, and the promotion of obvious lies in pursuit of ideological outcomes is bound to backfire–turning people away from the academics and fields that promote such lies. (Pinker may be overly optimistic on this point.) 

Chapter 1 is a bit slow if you are already familiar with the history of psychology and the blank slate in philosophy, but after that it picks up nicely. 

There is an unstated conclusion we may draw here that psychology as a discipline has been hampered by the kinds of people who go into the psychology. Perhaps this is my own theory I am imposing onto Pinker’s work, but it seems like people with a good, intuitive grasp of how people work don’t go into psychology–they go into sales. The folks in psychology (and psychiatry, perhaps) seem drawn to the field because they find people mysterious and fascinating and want to understand them better. 

But without an intuitive understanding of how people work, there are often big areas they miss. 

Since I listened to this in audio book format, quoting is tricky, but I have tried to transcribe this bit:

Until recently, psychology ignored the content of beliefs and emotions, and the possibility that the mind had evolved to treat biologically important categories in different ways. … Theories about memory and reasoning didn’t distinguish between thoughts about people and thoughts about rocks or houses. Theories of emotion didn’t distinguish fear from anger, jealousy, or love. Theories of social relation didn’t distinguish between family, friends, enemies, and strangers.

Indeed, the topics in psychology that most interest lay people–love, hate, work, play, food, sex, status, dominance, jealousy, friendship, religion, art–are almost completely absent from psychology textbooks.

It’s hard to see what you can’t see.

The field was also historically rather short on women, especially women with normal lives. Many of these blank slateist quotes from psychologists and philosophers about human nature and instincts seem like the kinds of ideas that raising a few children would quickly disabuse you of.  

Next he discusses Durkheim’s observation that people behave differently in groups than they do singly or would behave had they not been part of a group. From this I think Durkheim derives his idea that “human nature” and “human behavior” are not innate or instinctive, but culturally induced. 

Some years ago, I realized there is probably an important key to human behavior that is rarely explicitly discussed because if you have it, it is so obvious that you don’t even notice it, and if you don’t have it, it’s so non-obvious that you can’t figure it out: an imitation instinct.

People desire to be like the people around them, and for probably evolutionarily sound reasons. 

If everyone else in your tribe says, “Don’t drink that water, it’s bad,” you’re better off avoiding the water than taking your chances by doing an independent test on the water. If your tribe has a longstanding tradition of “don’t eat the red berries, no I don’t know why, grandpa just told me to never ever eat them,” it’s probably best to go along. As Chesterton says, don’t tear down a fence if you don’t know why it’s there. 

I think a compulsion to fit in, imitate, and go along with others is very deep. It’s probbly not something people are explicitly aware of most of the time. This results in people using arguments like “That’s weird,” to mean, “That’s bad,” without explaining why “weird” is bad. They just intuitively know, and expect that you understand and agree with the speaker’s intuition that weird and different are inherently bad things. 

This leads to 1. self-policing–people feel very out of place when they aren’t going along with the group and this can make them deeply unhappy; and 2. other-policing–people feel unhappy just looking at someone else who is out of place, and this makes them respond with anger, hostility, and sometimes even violence toward the other person. (Even when what that other person is doing is really quite inconsequential and harmless.)

Anyway, I think Durkheim has missed that step–that connection between group activity and individual activity.

Obviously people are shaped by their groups, since most hunter-gatherer babies grow up to be hunter-gatherers and most people in our society grow up and figure out how to use cell phones and computers and cars. But I think he has missed the importance of–and critically, the usefulness of–the underlying mental trait that lets us learn from our cultures.

So people don’t behave differently in groups than when they’re alone because they lack some inherent human nature, but because part of our nature compels us to act in concordance with our group. (Most of us, anyway.) 

(This is about where I stopped taking notes, so I’m working from memory.)

Pinker then discusses the neurology of learning–how do we learn language? How does the brain know that language is something we are supposed to learn? How do we figure out that the family pet is not named “No no bad dog, get off the sofa”? 

There are some interesting experiments done on mice and kittens where experimenters have done things like reverse the parts of the brain auditory or visual inputs go to, or raise the kittens in environments without vertical lines and then introduce them to vertical lines, etc. The brain shows a remarkable plasticity under very strange conditions–but as Pinker points out, these aren’t conditions humans normally encounter. 

Sure, you can teach people to be afraid of flowers or like snakes, but it is much, much easier to teach people to like flowers and be afraid of snakes. 

Pinker points to the ease with which we learn to fear some objects but not others; the ease with which we learn to talk (except for those of us with certain neurological disorders, like brain damage or autism) verses the difficulty we have learning other things, like calculus; the rapidity with which some behaviors emerge in infancy or childhood (like aggression) verses the time it takes to instill other behaviors (like sharing) in children. 

In short, we appear to come into this world equipped to learn certain things, to respond to certain stimuli, and behave in particular ways. Without this basic wiring, we would not have any instinct for imitation–and thus babies would not coo in response to their mothers, would not start babbling in imitation of the adults around them, and would not learn to talk. We would not stand up and begin to walk–and it would be just as easy to train people to enjoy being victims of violence as to train people not to commit violence. 

Throughout the book, Pinker discusses the response of the more extreme left–people whom we today call SJWs or antifa–to the work and theories put out by academics who are undoubtedly also culturally liberal, like Napoleon Chagnon, the famous anthropologist who studied the Yanomamo tribesmen in the Amazon. For his meticulous work documenting Yanomamo family trees and showing that the Yanomamo men who killed more people wound up wound up with more children than the men who killed fewer people, he was accused by his fellow academics of all sorts of outlandish crimes.

In one absurd case, he was accused of intentionally infecting the Yanomamo with measles in order to test a theory that Yanomamo men had more “dominant genes,” which would give them a survival advantage over the measles. This is a serious accusation because exposure to Western diseases tends to kill off the majority of people in isolated, indigenous tribes, and absurd because “dominant genes” don’t confer any more or less immunity to disease. The accuser in this case has completely misunderstood the meaning of a term over in genetics. (It is rather like someone thinking the word “straight” implies that heterosexuals are supposed to have straighter bones than homosexuals, and then accusing scientists of going around measuring people’s bones to determine if they are gay or not.)

The term “dominant” does not mean that a gene gives a person any form of “dominance” in the real world. It just means that in a pair of genes, a “dominant” one gets expressed. The classic example is blue verses brown eyes. If you have one gene for blue eyes from one parent, and one for brown eyes from your other parent, anyone looking at you will just see brown eyes because only that gene gets used. However, you might still pass on that blue eye gene to your children, and if they receive another blue gene from your spouse, they could have blue eyes. Since blue eyes only show up if both of a person’s eye color genes are blue, we call blue eyes “recessive.” 

But having a “dominant” gene for eye color doesn’t make someone any more “dominant” in real life. It doesn’t make you better at beating people up or surviving the flu–and nothing about the Yanomamo lifestyle suggests that they would have more “dominant genes” than anyone else in the world. 

Side note: this strange misconception of how genes work made it into Metal Gear Solid: 

“I got all of the recessive genes! You took everything from me before I was even born!”

The fact that the far left often engages in outright lies to justify real violence against the people they dislike–people who aren’t even conservatives on the American scale–makes one wonder why Pinker identifies at all with the left’s goals, but I suppose one can’t help being a part of one’s own culture. If a Frenchman objects to something happening in France, that doesn’t turn him into a German; a Christian doesn’t stop believing in Jesus just because he objects to Fred Phelps. 

The book came out in 2002, before “antifa” became a household term. I think Pinker expected the evils of communism to become more widely known–not less. 

There is an interesting discussion of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and how a better understanding of human family dynamics (especially whether they become controlling and harmful) could improve women’s lives, not harm them. (Wilson’s work I would like to explore in more depth.) 

Pinker proceeds to a moving chapter parenting (I teared up at the end, though that might have just been the effects of several days of inadequate sleep.) How much effect do parents have on how their children turn out? At least within the normal range of parenting, not much–kids seem to turn out as they will, despite our best efforts. Sure, there’s plenty of evidence that you can damage kids by shaking them, dropping them on their heads, or locking them in the closet for years–but this is not normal parenting. Meanwhile, there’s very little evidence in favor of any interventions that can raise a child’s IQ (or any other trait) above what it would have been otherwise. It’s much easier to break a complicated system than enhance it. 

People often respond along the lines of “If I cannot shape my children like clay, determining how they turn out as adults, what’s the point of parenting at all?” 

It’s a terrible response, as Pinker points out. Children are human and deserve to be valued for the people they are (and will be,) not because you can change them. You are not kind to your spouse because you expect to change them, after all, but because you like them and value them. Likewise, be kind to your children because you love and value them, not because you can program them like tiny computers. 

In search of the reasons people turn out the way they do, Pinker (and other writers) turns to the random effects of “the environment”–things like “the friends you had in highschool.” Certainly environment explains a good deal, like what language you speak or what job options exist in your society, but I think he neglects an alternative possibility for some traits: random chance. There are aspects of us that are just “who we are” and aren’t obviously determined by anything external. One child loves dogs, another horses. One person enjoys swimming, another biking, a third Candy Crush. 

Here a religious person might posit a “soul” or some other inner essence. 

The difficulty with the theory that children take after their peers–they do what it takes to fit in with their friends–is it neglects the question of why a child becomes friends with a particular group of other children in the first place. I don’t know about you, but my friends aren’t chosen randomly from the people around me, but tend to be people I have something in common with or enjoy being around in the first place. 

At any rate, it is certainly possible for well-meaning parents to isolate a child from peers and friends in an attempt to alter personalty traits that are actually innate, or at least not caused by those other children.

The meat of the book wraps up with a discussion of “modern art” and why it is terrible. 

Overall, it was an excellent book that remains fresh despite its age. 

SmirkGate and the Illusion of Morals

Last weekend, (as of when I wrote this,) while the rest of the world landed rockets on the moon, launched revolutions, enjoyed a good soccer match, or whatever it is other people do, Americans lost their shit over a teenager smirking (SMIRKING, I tell you) at a Native American.

This smirking teenager was so shocking to the American conscience that no less a newspaper than the New York Times covered the incident:

They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.

Of course, many pundits have argued that wearing a hat supporting the sitting US president is itself a crime.

Condemnation for the crime of “getting up in yo face and smirking while wearing a hat” was swift. A Disney producer called for the boy to fed, head first, into a woodchipper.

h/t Sarah Palin on Twitter

Calmer voices advocated for merely punching the boy in the face.

About five minutes later, more video footage of the event emerged, and the real story began trickling through the internet–contrary to what the NY Times had reported, the smirking teens had not surrounded a Native American elder. The elder, (Nathan Philips,) had walked up to them, and they, waiting for their bus at the end of a school field trip, had stayed put and kept waiting for their bus.

At this point, some in the media apologized–and others doubled down. Smirking was a crime. The students were racists.

It’s Time to Make it Impossible for Racists to Live Public Lives


Meanwhile, I came across several other stories last weekend that didn’t elicit nearly so much condemnation:

A 10 yr old boy committed suicide because his classmates were bullying him for being disabled.

Everyone who bullied this little boy absolutely deserves to be beaten and then their parents deserve to be beaten for raising such disgusting little shits, but no one is calling for them to be put into a woodchipper, because the good and thoughtful of America don’t think bullying a disabled child to death is as terrible a crime as smirking at a guy.

Illegal Immigrant Macario Cerda was convicted of kidnapping, raping, and impregnating children, at least one of whom was under the age of 14. He has been deported multiple times for violent and predatory behavior, but hey, Trump’s the real bad guy for saying that illegal immigrants aren’t the best immigrants.

I have yet to observe anyone in the media suggesting that we could save the American taxpayers a bundle by feeding Cerda through a woodchipper instead of keeping him in prison. Does he have a punchable face? More like a face that would break your fist if you tried.

These “parents” were arrested for splitting their 14 month old baby boy’s tongue with a pair of scissors, among other horrors. The New York Times will never write an article about them. No one will ever advocate that we should make it impossible for them to ever return to public life once they are released from prison.

Prison inmates in Ohio were stabbed by another prison inmate while they were handcuffed to a table, unable to get away or defend themselves.

I could go on. Criminals do terrible things every day. People raped, tortured, and murdered, even children. True, we have a system in place that tries, (albeit clumsily and at times with sociopathic carelessness,) to punish criminals and remove them from the rest of us, but the high and mighty of our nation seem utterly unmoved by their crimes. They express only confusion–and anger–at the peasant rabble that gets worked up by such meaningless events as “someone murdering your daughter.” Don’t these peasants know that the real crimes are committed by smirking schoolboys? That the real crime is smirking?

The real divide in America today is between people who think it should be illegal to shoot home invaders but legal to put MAGA teens through woodchippers, and everyone else who hasn’t gone completely fucking insane.

Tribalism is a strong drug.

Thou Shalt Not Wirehead: Religion vs Gratification

Humans are just smart enough to wirehead themselves, but stupid enough to do it very badly. For example, over in South Africa, addicts are trying to develop a new variety of AIDS by combining heroin, antiretroviral drugs, and other random crap like “crushed glass” or “cleaning detergent,” injecting it, then drawing their drug-laced blood and injecting that blood into a second person for a secondary high:

Mary Mashapa estimates that one person in every five in this community uses nyaope [the drug] – and she says they will try anything to get a fix. …

An articulate young man called Thabo told us drug users have started to sell – or share – their blood with other addicts in Dieplsoot. The practice is known locally as ‘bluetooth’. …

Thabo inserted nyaope into the vein of his friend Bennet, then immediately withdrew a small amount of his friend’s blood which he re-injected into his arm. “I’ve just bluetoothed, eh,” said Thabo with a look of relief on his face.

“I gave my friend a hit and took one from his blood, you know …”

What about your health, HIV, what about sharing needles? I asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” he replied.

You know, if people are going to try that hard to give themselves AIDS, maybe other people should stop giving them anti-retroviral drugs.

And I thought Siberians drinking each other’s urine to get a psychedelic mushroom high was bad enough. Can you imagine Shaka Zulu witnessing what has become of these Black South Africans? Injecting themselves with pain killers and detergent so they can sway like zombies for a few hours? He would have had them executed.

Drugs aren’t just a Black South African thing. Whites have meth. African Americans have crack. Asians have opium in its various forms. Suburban housewives have wine. Mexicans and Russians have krokodil, which rots off your genitals:

Public authorities in Mexico shared details of a gruesome case of the flesh-eating drug krokodil, the first to be officially reported in the state of Jalisco.

According to José Sotero Ruiz Hernández, an official with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, a 17-year-old [American tourist] in Puerto Vallarta presented lacerations to her genitals that she said were caused by her addiction to krokodil.

“The young woman who used this drug had an infection that had rotted her genitals…

The woman told authorities that the drug was readily available on street corners. …

Krokodil is a street drug with effects similar to heroin that is made by cooking crushed codeine pills with household chemicals. It is significantly cheaper than heroin, and reportedly ten times as potent. However, the impurities in the drug damage vascular tissue, which causes the flesh to rot.

Repeat after me: don’t inject random crap into your genitals. Nor anywhere else on your body.

Meanwhile in America, librarians are learning how to save the lives of overdosed meth and other opioid addicts:

Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.

Their training tracks with the disastrous national rise in opioid use and an apparent uptick of overdoses in libraries, which often serve as daytime havens for homeless people and hubs of services in impoverished communities.

In the past two years, libraries in Denver, San Francisco, suburban Chicago and Reading, Pennsylvania have become the site of fatal overdoses. …

“[Kowalkski’s] not a paramedic,” the guard, Sterling Davis, said later. “She’s just a teen-adult librarian — and saved six people since April. That’s a lot for a librarian.”

I… I need a minute. These articles are kind of heavy. The Portland library, too.

I don’t think librarians should have that responsibility. Like suicide, I’m not sure that trying to stop people from dying when they themselves so clearly don’t care is not necessarily good for them or society.

On the other hand, I have a good friend who did nearly die of alcohol addiction on numerous occasions and is now sober and glad to be alive. People don’t start using drugs because they want to die.

Ironically, most people get into drugs socially–they get a joint from a friend or start drinking at a party–but addiction and death separate you from everyone else and are, ultimately, dealt with alone.

Let’s talk about religion.

One of the features of religion is it generally discourages wireheading in favor of investing in long-term reproduction and growth. Utilitarians might come to the conclusion that wireheading is good, but religions–especially conservative religions–almost universally condemn it:

“Thou shalt not wirehead.”

We can include here not just drugs, but other forms of instant gratification. Promiscuous sex, wasteful status signaling, laziness, etc., are all discouraged by most religions. A great deal indeed has been written on the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth; and a bit less on their less famous cousins, the Seven Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. All of these sins fritter away wealth, time, health, or the well-being of others, while the virtues emphasize the benefits of delayed gratification.

In a normal social system, people often feel pressured to imitate others in wasteful or harmful ways, such as by drinking excessively at parties because “everyone else is doing it,” having unprotected sex that leads to unwanted pregnancy or disease because “men won’t date you if you won’t put out,” or spending money they really ought to be saving in order to signal social status, otherwise “people will look down on you.”

Religions provide an alternative social system which solves the collective action problem by top-down dictating that everyone has to stop wireheading or otherwise being wasteful because “God says so.” The religious system allows people to signal “I am a devout person,” sidestepping the normal signaling process. Thus, instead of feeling like “I am a socially awkward weirdo because I don’t get drunk at parties,” people feel “I am good and virtuous because I don’t get drunk at parties,” (and other religious people will see the teetotaller in the same positive light.)

So religious groups feature quite prominently in anti-drug therapy groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, most famously.) Seventh Day Adventists enjoy some of the world’s longest life expectancies because of their religion’s emphasis on “clean living,” (probably most attributable to not smoking, possibly also the vegetarianism.) Islam forbids alcohol; Judaism and Christianity generally encourage people to drink responsibly. When you control for national SES, religious people are healthier overall than non-religious ones.

Religions also encourage people to be thrifty and hard-working, putting their efforts into having more children rather than drugs or fancy cars. Religious people tend to have high fertility rates–the humble Amish are growing at a tremendous rate, having nearly doubled their population in the past two decades–and have been doing so for most of the past century. The Amish are the meek and they shall inherit the Earth, or at least our part of it. (Similarly, Israel is the only developed country in the world with a fertility rate above replacement.)

A sudden religious change can help overturn otherwise sticky, horrific traditions, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, and revenge killing, by suddenly supplanting the old social system whose internal logic demanded the continuance of the old ways. For example, in many areas of Australia/Melanesia, any time anyone died an accidental death, some other person was accused of having used witchcraft to murder them and summarily executed by the tribe. Christianity did away with these revenge killings by simultaneously teaching that witchcraft isn’t real and that murderers should be forgiven.

Religion also helps people cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma type situations–“Why should I trust you?” “Because God will send me to Hell and I’ll burn for eternity if I betray your trust.” “Oh, okay then.”

If you signal belief in God strongly enough, then you signal also your trustworthiness. I don’t think it’s just coincidence that Medieval and early modern trade/finance networks depended heavily on groups that all shared the same religion. Religious Judaism, in particular, has some very heavy, costly signaling, from the inconvenient food laws to the easy to spot hats to the burden of running divorce law through both secular and religious authorities. One potential explanation for why people would go to so much bother is to signal their sincerity, piety, and thus trustworthiness to potential business partners who otherwise know little about them.

In times and places places where a much larger percent of the population shared the same religion, this kind of trust, aiding in cooperation with people outside of one’s family or local tribe, probably helped spawn the large, high-trust, organized societies those of us in the developed world enjoy today.

A big difference between conservative religions and progressive religions is the progressive ones tend to say, “Hey, what if God is okay with wireheading?”

The command against wireheading doesn’t always make sense on its surface. What is so bad about smoking pot, especially if I do so in the privacy of my own home? Yet the long-term effects of wireheading tend to be bad–very bad. God (or GNON) favors trust, humility, hard work, and putting your efforts into children, not wires.

A Response to Epigenetics and Ethics: Rights and Consequences

Dr. Robison–author of Epigenetics and Public Policy–asks and essential question: Where does the right to swing one’s epigenome end? Or as he puts it:

If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.

What responsibility do I–as an egg-bearing person–have to ensure the health of my children and grandchildren’s epigenenomes? Society affirms my right to smoke cigarettes, even though they may give me cancer down the road–it’s my body and I am allowed to do what I wish with it. But what if my smoking cigarettes today causes cancer in a future, as yet unborn grandchild whom I never meet? What about her right to chose not to be exposed to carcinogens? Who am I to take that from her–and what right has society, the government, or anyone else to tell me what I may or may not do with my own body in the interests of some future people who may never come into existence?

I am summarizing, perhaps badly; you may read the whole post over on Dr. Robison’s blog. (Of course Robison is himself trying to summarize an argument I am sure he lays out in much more detail in his book.)

Here is my hastily written response, in the interest of clear conversational threading:

I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies. For example, you question whether policies should be enacted to restrict a 12 yr old girl’s right to eat what she wishes in defense of her unborn grandchild’s epigenome, but we today don’t even restrict a pregnant woman’s right to drink or smoke. Cocaine is illegal, but last time I checked, women didn’t go to prison for giving birth to crack babies. For that matter, women are allowed to kill unborn babies. I’m not commenting pro or against abortion, just noting that it is legal and most people consider death kind of a big deal. So I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.

On the other hand, if you look at the data on smoking, rates have definitely been falling ever since the tobacco-cancer link became news. The gov’t didn’t have to outlaw smoking for a lot of women to stop smoking for their children’s health.

But let’s return to the philosophical argument. All men are created equal… or are they? I do not think the Founding Fathers ever meant equality in a genetic sense. They could see with their own eyes that some men were tall and others short, some wise and others foolish, some virtuous and others criminal. They could see see that sons and daughters took after their parents and that a great many people started life in horribly unfair circumstances while others lived in luxury. They could see the cruel unfairness of disease, disability, and early death. Their rejection was not of biological or factual inequalities but of spiritual inequality. They rejected the notion that some men are created special by God to rule over others, and some men are created inferior by God, to be ruled over.

You state, “However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.”

I think there is a mistake here in regarding genetics as “pristine” in some form. What if my mother is an anxious person, and I, through environmental exposure, grow into a similarly anxious person? What if my mother has a gene for anxiety, and I inherit it? What if I possess a de novo genetic mutation that causes me to be anxious? And what if I suffer a genetic deletion in one of my chromosomes that causes anxiety? How is any of this different, functionally, from some trauma my mother suffered (say, a car accident) causing epigenetic changes that are subsequently passed on to me?

What is pristine about Down’s Syndrome, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s? Or just having the random bad luck to get genes for short, dumb, and ugly?

“For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. ”

It can’t be indelible. For starters, you only inherit half of each parent’s genome–thus half their epigenome. So right there’s a 50% chance you won’t inherit any particular epigenetic marker. By gen two we’re talking 25% chance, and that’s not counting the constant re-writing of our epigenomes. However, I don’t think the policy implications for countries are all that different from our current thinking. We can say, for example, “If we have X level of pollution in the water, then Y number of people will get cancer,” and it’s a public health problem even if we don’t know “they’ll get cancer because of epigenetics.”

So let’s broaden the inquiry a bit. Not how does epigenetics impact classical liberalism (which is behind us, anyway,) but how do genetics, epigenetics, heritability, et at all influence our modern sensibilities? Modern liberalism is built almost as a reaction against former racialist notions of “blood”, with a consequent belief that people are, on average, about genetically equal. This butts up against the realization that some people are gifted and talented from birth, which many people quietly rationalize away while knowing they are being a bit dishonest, perhaps on the grounds that this is tantamount to statistical noise.

But the whole notion of “meritocracy” becomes more problematic if we admit that there’s a large genetic (or accidental, or environmental, or anything outside of free will,) contribution to IQ, educational attainment, mental illness, your chances of getting a good job, how other people treat you (because of attractiveness,) etc. Should a person who is dumb through no fault of their own suffer poverty? Should an ugly person be denied a job or a date? There’s an essential unfairness to it, after all.

But by the same token, what are you going to do about it? Declare that everyone under a certain IQ gets free money? What sort of incentives does that set up for society? And what does it do to someone’s self-image if they are Officially Delcared Stupid?

But this is all focused on the negative. What if we find ways to make people smarter, healthier, stronger? I think we’d take them. Sure, we’d have a few hold-outs who worry about “playing god,” (much as today we have people who worry about vaccines despite the massive health improvements public vaccination campaigns have cause.) But in the end we’d take them. Similarly, in the end, I think most people would try to avoid damaging their descendants’ epigenomes–even if not through direct public policy.


Addendum: while I am skeptical of most claims about epigenetics, eg, people claiming that epigenetic trauma can be transmitted for over a century, there do seem to be some things that cause what we can here characterize as multi-generational epigenetic effects. For example, the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages back in the 70s, not only causes cancer in the women it was given to, but also in their daughters. (It also results in intersex disorders in male fetuses.) In the third generation (that is, the sons daughters of the fetuses that were exposed to DES their mothers took during pregnancy,) there are still effects, like an increased risk of irregular periods. This is not necessarily “epigenetic” but similar enough to include in the conversation.