Some quick meta-comments

As always I’m happy to see the active and fascinating discussion on Dawkins part 3, but I would like to remind commenters to keep it civil.

A good rule of thumb is that there are no evil people reading UR. Evil does exist, but the evil have better things to do with their evil-hours. So if you disagree with someone, either she is sincere but misguided, or you are. Since it is almost never possible to convince someone that she is sincere but misguided, in general the only parties to impress with this wisdom are third. I find that if I keep a rubber band around my wrist and snap it every time I start to forget this, it helps restrain some of my more appalling rhetorical excesses.

While its signal-to-noise ratio was not perhaps the highest, the whole thread was quite interesting. I expected much more Universalist fundamentalism. I didn’t expect some of the criticisms I did get.

Perhaps the most unexpected response was summed up by Victor’s reaction:

Perhaps it’s just the social circles I move in. I majored in computer science and math, I am an officer at a technology corporation, and never had much to do with the PoMos and the social studies/litcrit crowds. Or perhaps it’s just our personal disagreements about what constitutes an extreme self-caricaturing ‘liberal’. However, I am very serious here — this guy I spoke of was the first such type I had met in my entire life. Until I met him, I was vaguely theoretically aware that such people might possibly exist, but it was the same way we are aware of cannibalism — sure, it happens, but it’s not something you ever expect to run across.

I have a fairly similar background to Victor’s – with the major exception that I didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union – and I see no reason at all to think he’s being disingenuous.

Until my faith in democracy started to waver, I didn’t have a sense of how weird it is that ordinary people (or even very smart ones, such as Victor) are expected to construct, in their copious spare time, an accurate perspective of what the world’s great problems are, and how best to fix them. Of course hardly anyone does any such thing. Instead there are sundry official organs which present us with these problems – global warming, or terrorism, or poverty, or whatever – and we then use our inner lights to compute optimal solutions.

So Victor is probably aware, in a distant sort of way, that anyone in the US in 2007 can be expelled from any educational institution, or fired from any job, for saying what Professor Huxley said in 1871. Or that in many countries in Europe, one could even be prosecuted for it. Especially if one refuses to recant.

And perhaps he has even read Vaclav Havel on the post-totalitarian system, and he knows (how could he not know?) that this is exactly how late Communism managed dissent:

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. . . .

The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself.

But to Victor, who actually experienced late Communism personally, I suspect the differences are more obvious than the similarities. The pattern is not obvious. Why would it be obvious? There is no newspaper shouting it from the mountaintops. There is no TV station broadcasting it. All you have is a few fringe, wacko blogs – such as UR.

And perhaps it is not even a pattern at all, just a false analogy. There is no “scientific” way to interpret history. We neohominids and/or our “inner lights” are all on our own.

Also, a couple of points about Huxley’s quote.

First: in our Universalist era, it’s a little difficult for us to understand what anyone might mean by “the highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.”

Huxley was not talking about individuals here (note his qualification of the “average negro”). He was expressing Social Darwinist views about the conflict between racial nations. (Universalists interpret the word nation as an entirely political or at most geographic term, but its root is the Latin natus, meaning of course birth.) If we could pull Huxley into 2007, a list of successful individuals with some sub-Saharan African descent would not convince him of anything. He would want to see national success stories from the “dusky peoples.” Of which there are – for whatever reason – none at all.

(I should also point out that, in 2007, there is no good non-ironic use for the English word “dusky” – except perhaps to rhyme with other archaisms, such as “bosky.” We have at least made progress in some departments.)

Second: fraternism versus afraternism is a continuum in many ways. The most logically consistent fraternist interpretation – I myself believed this for many years – is the “strong blank slate” theory, that there is no neurological heritability at all, and a neohominid brain is just a lump of programmable neurons. Unfortunately, while this is nice in theory, it seems quite inconsistent with reality.

Once you acknowledge that – as JewishAtheist puts it – Britney Spears and Mozart were not interchangeable as babies – you have a logical problem, because either you believe that this structure of variation is identical across all neohominid subpopulations, or you believe that neohominid subpopulations vary in their genetic potential for economically significant tasks. The former belief is implausible to the point of miraculousness, and is certainly not supported by any credible body of evidence. The latter belief, at least by most people’s definition of the word, makes you a “racist,” and expressing it will get you expelled, fired, prosecuted, etc.

So when JA points out that:

The lower black SAT average acceptance rates mean that a larger fraction of the lower scoring white/jewish/asian applicants get rejected from the same school. There’s certainly a case to be made that this is unfair and possibly unconstitutional. There is NOT a case to be made that this causes very significant harm to whites/jews/asians, especially when pretty much everybody who should go to college can go to a decent college somewhere these days.

I totally agree. That some jewish kid has to go to Haverford instead of Harvard may be an injustice – for some values of the word “justice” – but, on a historical scale, it barely tips the needle. In theory this is nontrivial morbidity (it is certainly an injustice by Universalist standards). But it ain’t much to write home about.

For example, much more serious disabilities were applied to Jews in the US before World War II. And while most of us wouldn’t regard this as good, American anti-Semitism is not exactly up there with the sack of Samarkand as one of history’s great atrocities.

Again: history is not a set of facts but an interpretation of patterns. If you don’t see the pattern, you won’t see the problem. I’ll talk more about this on Thursday.

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