Bloody shovel

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Sociobiology the pundit killer

As any reader may notice, I am a rather philosophically inclined person. I like ideas, how they interact, morph and fight each other. As I think I’m good at it, I, as anyone, tend to see all history as little ideological nails waiting for my analytical hammer.

Then I read someone who spoils all my fun.

Commeting at foseti’s link to my post on the etymology of ‘reactionary, Phlebas makes the following comment:

I have a definition of “reactionary”…I apologise in advance for the length of this comment.

I believe that a solid understanding of the problem of Universalism has to start with biological facts. We find that such a thing as a left/right continuum crops up all the time in our political debates, and leftism or rightism appears to be a fundamental personality trait. In other words, there is prior reason to believe that rightist or leftist political disposition is largely biological in origin.

In the last decade, neurological studies have started to probe this question.Here is a page discussing many of these studies – be warned that the site authors are well-meaning pseudo-scientists, and the hemispheric theory that the writer is pushing has little to recommend it – and here is the much less detailed wikipedia page.

What I gather is that the two most obvious biological differences between rightists and leftists are that leftists have a bigger anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and rightists have a bigger amygdala. The main role of the ACC appears to be in dealing with conflicting information – interestingly, self-identified leftists perform better on cognitive tests designed to test a human’s ability to respond to changes in a pattern of letters displayed on a monitor.

The relevance of the amygdala is less immediately clear. However the neuropolitics page helpfully points out that, “the current neurophysiological evidence implicates a generally inhibitory relationship between the right DLPFC [dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex] and right amygdala”. And apparently, “The DLPFC has been implicated in a variety of key liberal attributes: inhibition of racist tendencies (Richeson, 2003); aversion to dominance (Grafman, 2006); and, aversion to inequality (Knoch, 2006).”

So the beefed-up amygdala in rightists is working to inhibit the DLPFC, which enacts “leftist” objectives.

As far as I can see, these differences – relatively big ACC and small amygdala, or relatively small ACC and big amygdala – tend to be found together. This suggests that for some reason there exists, at least in the ethnic groups that have been included in these studies, a population distribution of neurological types along a basic left-right continuum.

The comment follows, so read the whole thing.

The point that left and right, chaos vs order depend on (I assume innate) brain structures, is quite fascinating indeed. It also rings a bell. Ideology mostly runs inside the family, but not entirely so. Most advanced societies also present a pretty clear cut division between leftists and rightists. The content of each country’s left and right may vary (a conservative Swedish would be a liberal Chinese, or Russian), but the basic difference between arguing for freedom from authority vs valuing existing institutional arrangements repeats itself in every civilized country. I’ve traveled a lot, so take my word on it. Japan, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Canada; bipartidism is so widespread worldwide for a reason. If the human brain structure is also divided in two big varieties, well that would explain a lot.

The point that the leftism-causing brain variety is also correlated with smarts also confirms my assertion that leftism, in its original 18th century context, was a movement of the intellectual classes against traditional authority.

So there I was, pondering about how should a man of letters come to terms with sociobiology, when in the very same week I stumbled upon another piece of it.This one from our favorite Aspie girl, hbdchick.

She did a long post about Emmanuel Todd, a French anthropologist who wrote a book, The Explanation of Ideology, about how the old Iron Curtain reflected a much older distinction between family types, the East where there was a tradition of newly weds living with the broom’s parents, deferring to the grandfather’s authority, against Western Europe’s tradition of nuclear families living alone by their own means. Todd states the correlation but leaves it at that; yet hbdchick argues, with very good reason, that, over time, that family structure must have bred a character which defers to paternal authority in Eastern Europe, versus a character which values freedom and being left alone, in the West.

I think that mapping patriarchal families to Communism is a misnomer. It does make much more sense though if you associate it to Tsarist autocracy or Big-man populist regimes in general. Phlebas would say that East Europeans have on average a bigger amygdala, which makes them more prone to create stable societies, but with little excellence. Which is a good argument, although Nicola Tesla or Ilya Repin wouldn’t quite agree. Still it is true that Eastern Europe has contributed on average less to Civilisation than Western Europe has.

Now, on both points, most pundits would denounce them as ‘reductionism’, yet that says nothing about its truth value. As I said I tend to focus on the ideological side of things, but I’m no enemy of biological explanations of behaviour. I used to play a lot with physiological reasons for distinct moods: the idea that things like depression, or optimism, depend just on what you eat, or some random thing, rather than in any psychological reason. I don’t think so anymore, but it is a fun concept.

Yet neuroscience is disruptive on a whole new level. What these points above do is kill, utterly destroy any philosophical analysis of the causes of ideology. Bruce Charlton said in a comment here that leftism is caused by sin. Others have said that it was poverty, or lack of noblesse-oblige, or whatever. The underlying assumption is that if we fix that cause, then we’ll have a nice society free of leftism agitation. Well if Phlebas and his friends are right, I’m afraid we are stuck with them. But wait! you say; we can just breed leftism out of the gene pool. Well then Mr Todd has a book for you about what happens then.

So what? Are we doomed? Are the only possible alternatives a EE like land of mediocrity vs Modern Britain?

Hell no. We can get out of this mess, but I’m afraid it would not be as easy as Mr Moldbug  et al. think. I think I have some ideas.

Anyway, as harsh and merciless as it is, lets never reject science. Life is short and truth works far and lives long: let us speak the truth.



9 responses to “Sociobiology the pundit killer

  1. bob sykes January 10, 2012 at 14:37

    Raymond Tallis’ “Aping Mankind” (Acumen, 2011) is a long, detailed critique of neuroscience. While he does not claim neuroscience is pseudoscience, he dismissed almost all the claims for it as grossly overblown. He believes (and argues) that neuroscience (and its cousin Darwininism) is incapable of explaining human behavior. His arguments are mostly philosophical, which you will like, and his is English, which will also please you.

    • spandrell January 10, 2012 at 16:32

      But why are interesting books never sold on Kindle format? Oh well.
      I do think we need more data. Its like dismissing Heliocentrism because we haven’t got good telescopes yet.

  2. Leonard January 11, 2012 at 21:26

    I don’t think Mencius Moldbug thinks getting out of our mess is easy! Also, my take on neocameralism is that it would, indeed, eliminate “leftism” as such, because it largely eliminates politics. The neocameralist state is nothing like modern states, because it is coherent, secure, effective, and responsible.

    But it certainly would not eliminate the “leftist brain”. Indeed, if anything it would emphasize it. Having progressive-brained people in neocameralism is a pure benefit: they produce public goods as is their wont, but without ever being able to capture power and thus create all of the obvious problems caused by state-established egalitarianism.

    • spandrell January 11, 2012 at 22:17

      But you can’t eliminate politics. Even Singapore has elections, and in the last ones they almost lost to the left.
      There’s always a potential Savonarola lurking, conspiring to kill reason and take the fun out of life.

      • Leonard January 11, 2012 at 22:41

        largely eliminate politics”.

        Have you read Moldbug on neocameralism?

        In my ideal neocameralist state, there is no political freedom because there is no politics. Perhaps the government has a comment box where you can express your opinion. Perhaps it does customer surveys and even polls. But there is no organization and no reason to organize, because no combination of residents can influence government policy by coercion.

        And precisely because of this stability, you can think, say, or write whatever you want. Because the state has no reason to care. Your freedom of thought, speech, and expression is no longer a political freedom. It is only a personal freedom.

      • spandrell January 11, 2012 at 22:49

        The ideal is good, but you can’t abolish politics. Its like abolishing beer. People dig that stuff.

        Savonarola didn’t win an election, he just got people to support him and made a riot which toppled the government.
        Of course today you can fire on a mob; but what if the neocameralist CEO happens to be a humanitarian?
        There’s thousands of ways any stable, autocratic polity can crack, from the inside or the outside. Its a problem of culture in the end.

        Even Saudi Arabia has allowed women to vote in local elections!! You just can’t trust people. Neocameralism is as feasible in the real world as anarcho-capitalism.

  3. Leonard January 12, 2012 at 04:58

    If the CEO is a humanitarian and obviously fails to maximize shareholder value — he’s out. The stockholders control the company. The stockholders’ ends are coherent, because the stock itself is salable. Any stockholder who comes to value non-monetary ends more highly than the marginal rich non-stockholder should sell — thus maintaining coherency within the sovereign group.

    As for feasibility: anarchocapitalism is nearly impossible because it can only be stable if it has been stable for a while (say 5-20 years), but people expect the state and won’t wait for it. Thus there is a huge bootstrap problem. By contrast neocameralism is easy: you only need convince one monarch (king, dictator, etc.) of the idea, and have him survive long enough (say 5 years) to get the cryplocked weapons into the security forces. Of course in both cases you have the problem of meddling outsiders, too, but this does not distinguish them. At least neocameralism can defend itself, though, without relying on superior economic growth.

    • spandrell January 12, 2012 at 13:43

      If the CEO is humanitarian and is the CEO he will of course be smart enough to ensure he has some support from the stakeholders. Which he would have, rich people turn charitable for a reason. Greed only takes you so far.

      Charity is a pretty constant value in all civilizations; all major religions put compassion as the highest moral good. And no major philosopher besides Nietzsche ever disagreed.

      I’m all for harnessing greed to get a functioning stable polity; but you can’t just change the basic moral sense of all humanity just like that. Greed is considered a vice by pretty much everyone, past and present.

      Watch that in Brave New World, Huxley imagines the perfectly stable society by harnessing lust. He had a point.

      • Leonard January 12, 2012 at 16:32

        If the CEO is smart enough to retain majority support, then bully for him if he wants to put a humanitarian spin on his rule. I really don’t see it as a problem. Indeed, I expect the neocameral state to make a big deal about how much it loves its subjects. (Think of how kings worked.) A CEO that actually is a bit humanitarian can more easily fake the sincerity necessary to convince the little people of the state’s goodness.

        As for greed: well, I don’t expect this aspect of the design of the state to be trumpeted by it or its apologists. Just as today, in democracy, one of the few things that keeps it even vaguely on track is powerlust (Romney springs to mind). Take away the powerlust aspect of the self-selection of powerful politicians and who would be left? Maybe a few old-school optimates like McCain or Ron Paul — and all the rest would be sincere progressive fanatics.

        Harnessing lust would also be good from the POV of using powerful human impulses, but there is no stable state design that uses it. (This is not surprising because unlike greed or powerlust, sexual lust is particular to specific other people.) Brave New World uses lust only in its design to keep the masses passive, not as an organizing principle for the state.

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