Myths of the Crazy Ape #3: A Moral Instinct?
Myths of the Crazy Ape #3: A Moral Instinct?
Feb 16, 2008, 10:34 PM
Group: Basic Member
Joined: Jan 11, 2006
From: all over the place
Member No.: 4711
As the Crazy Ape species, we do an excellent job of exhibiting our craziness. One current mad fandango is the resurgence of the idea of "instincts" as determinants of human behavior.
The notion of inherited behavior is an old theme touted with much hoopla in the early part of the 20th century, then revived in the computer-conscious 1980s as "hard-wiring" of the nervous system by genes for various apparently innate behavioral routines.
The word "instinct" is now being used again, and it's unfortunate that not much is said about the political abuse of the idea in the past. Both science and the American public had a dangerous run with this idea during the 1920s and 1930s, dangerous because the madness of the public and the dullness of the scientific community soon produced the tragic compulsory sterilization of many thousands of American women deemed "unfit" for society.
The problem, of course, is that if you advocate instincts in the form of genes as determining bad or "defective" behavior then you're also advocating heredity as determining bad behavior, which quickly leads to calls by idiot politicians for legislative "eugenic" measures to prevent contamination of the American gene pool.
The eugenic legislative measure of compulsory sterilization was put into law in the 1920s in various states for people who were "genetically inferior". In Virginia, for example, where the practice continued until 1972, more than 7,000 women were sterilized for drunkenness, feeble-mindedness, and various forms of mental illness and "immorality" -- for "genetic inferiority". As you might expect, the judgments of so-called genetic inferiority were often arbitrary, capricious, and biased. Some of the people who made judgments were said to have a marvelous talent for spotting a feeble-minded person just by looking at them.
If you're horrified that this sounds close to what the Nazis did in the 1930s to various "defective" groups, please remember that the Nazis imported their ideas about genetic inferiority and sterilization from American eugenicists and the American government. We did not get it from the Nazis, they got it from us.
In America, by 1935, more than 30 states had passed compulsory sterilization laws. By that time more than 21,000 sterilizations had occurred -- more than 60,000 sterilizations by the 1960s.
Compulsory sterilization laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the majority opinion that included the phrase, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Apparently it never occurred to the "genius" Justice Holmes that the diagnosis of "imbecile" was ultimately arbitrary and without scientific meaning.
In the 1930s, American eugenicists followed what was happening in Nazi Germany with great interest. In 1936, when the Germans had already sterilized hundreds of thousands of "genetically inferior" people, mostly women and girls, Harvard University eugenicists invited a group of German eugenicists to Harvard's 300th anniversary celebration.
Harvard, of course, was not alone in its apparent affection for the ideas of eugenics. The American eugenics movement had strong financial support from important sources: the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kellog family (Kellog cereals) of Battlecreek, Michigan, and the Harriman family (Union Pacific Railroad) of New York.
(These and other details can be found in Garland E. Allen, Genetica, 1997 99:77-88.)
The classical definition of "instinct" is an "inherent disposition" toward a particular behavior. In current parlance, "inherent" means innate, which means determined by genes, which in turn means determined by heredity. So when a few weeks ago Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker published an essay in the New York Times Magazine (January 13, 2008) with the title "The Moral Instinct", what Pinker offered the public was the idea that human morality is fixed by genes, inherited, with the clear implication that some people have it and some people don't have it.
The problem is that like most offerings to the public of this kind, there's more hype than hard science in the offering, and maybe we need to look carefully at what's on the plate.
Pinker says: "The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations."
The trouble with this pop science braggadocio is that there's absolutely no hard scientific evidence for such a thing as a "moral sense" -- let alone that moral sense has an evolutionary history or neurobiological foundations.
After this myth, what follows in Pinker's essay is an exercise in amateur philosophy, not science. Psychology has its academic roots in philosophy, and all the roots have not yet been ripped away. Meanwhile, "moral sense" remains a philosophical concept, its evolutionary history a fairy tale whose details vary with each generation (you can find one version in Darwin and another in Plato), and as for neurobiological foundations, looking at which parts of the brain are active in brain-scans during ethical decision-making tells us nothing about "neurological foundations".
Meanwhile, the eugenicists of old are laughing in their graves at this current revival of ideas about "instincts" in human behavior.
It's a carnival that returns us to the 1920s, and it requires only one response: Been there, done that, it's junk science and it's dangerous.
Not that it means much. In the Land of the Crazy Ape, history is no more than an amusing costume drama to provide entertainment, and we're told there's no need to pay any attention to it. Caveat emptor.
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