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.