A Puzzle for Humanism

I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.

Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.

Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”

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I’m feeling warmer already

Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s account of a little trek across Antarctica in 1910. They were just going out to collect penguin eggs, a quick trip of 35 days.

The warmest temperatures topped out at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Only their intense exertions kept them from freezing in their tracks, but even so it’s hard to understand how they avoided frostbite in their hands, feet and faces. Somehow they carried on. Cherry-Garrard wrote that he was acutely aware of the absurdity of their efforts, but he did not mention that to the others. He was the youngster, at 25, and Wilson and Bowers, 38 and 28, were like older brothers to him. Whatever they did he was going to do.

For three days a storm forced them to wait in their tent; after that, they worked all day for a gain of about a mile and a half. Every morning it took them four hours to break camp. They began with a meal of biscuits and hot pemmican stew, eaten while lying in their reindeer-hide sleeping bags. Getting into their frozen outer clothing was like muscling into armor. When they were dressed, it was out into the icy darkness to take down their Scott tent, a four-sided canvas pyramid with a broad skirt that could be well-anchored in the snow. When all their gear was piled on the two sledges, they started the day’s haul. Bowers was the strongest of them and said he never got cold feet. Wilson monitored his own feet and often asked Cherry-Garrard how his were doing; when he thought they were getting close to frostbite, he called a halt, and as quickly as possible they put the tent up, got their night gear into it and made a hot dinner of pemmican stew. Then they tried to get some sleep before they became too cold to remain in their bags.

Nineteen days of this reduced Cherry-Garrard to a state of benumbed indifference. “I did not really care,” he wrote, “if only I could die without much pain.”

Wait until you get to the part where their tent blows away.

They huddled in their drafty shelter. Wilson and Bowers decided the wind was about Force 11, which means “violent storm” on the Beaufort scale, with wind speeds of 56 to 63 miles an hour. There was no chance of going outside. They could only lie there listening to the blast and watching their roof balloon off the sledge and then slam back down on it. “It was blowing as though the world was having a fit of hysterics,” Cherry-Garrard wrote. “The earth was torn in pieces: the indescribable fury and roar of it all cannot be imagined.”

It was their tent that gave way first, blown off into the darkness. This was shocking evidence of the wind’s power, because Scott tents, with their heavy canvas and broad skirts, are extremely stable. The same design and materials are used in Antarctica today, and have withstood winds of up to 145 miles an hour. I’m not aware of any other report of a Scott tent blowing away. But theirs was gone—the only shelter they had for their trek back home. And their canvas roof continued to bulge up and slam down. As the hours passed all the stones and ice slabs they had placed on it were shaken off. Then with a great boom the thick canvas tore to shreds. Blocks of the wall fell on them, and the ribbons of canvas still caught between stones snapped like gunshots. They had no protection now but their sleeping bags and the rock ring.

All right already, I’ll stop whining about my 10 minutes outside this morning now. Turnin’ the heat up.
Putting on warm slippers. Maybe some hot cocoa.

Hey, why is the solstice on 21 December?

Why is Christmas/Yule/Saturnalia a few days later? Why is the New Year a week and half later? Why is the 12th month called the 10th in Latin? Why are these dates all out of line with each other and scattered around?

It’s all because “the Romans had no fucking idea how to run a calendar”.

You think you’ve heard all the ad hoc arbitrariness about how the Romans managed their calendar as you’re led step by step through it all, and then you learn about Mercedonius and you just want to throw everything on the floor and walk away.

The Kensington Forgery

The infamous Kensington Runestone is kept in a museum just a few miles up the road from me. It’s a carved rock that was dug up on a farm in the 19th century by a Swedish farmer, and purports to tell the tale in runes of a doomed Viking expedition that had come down from Hudson’s Bay to meet a tragic end at the hands of the Minnesota natives. More likely, it’s a cunning artifact produced by the farmer, Olof Öhman. It’s an unlikely bit of pseudo-history, and I’d love to see an unassailable disproof of its source.

Martin Rundkvist is reporting that Öhman’s signature has been found on the stone. Unfortunately, I find the evidence for that even more weirdly unlikely than that Vikings carved it. There are various numbers scattered around in the account written on the stone — the number of Vikings, the days spent traveling, that sort of thing — and the guy who claims to have detected the signature uses these numbers in a bizarrely oblique way.

The inscription has twelve lines. Larsson counts the words from the left on odd-numbered lines and from the right on even-numbered lines…

Uh, why? What if you counted from the left on even lines and from the right on odd lines? What if you counted characters up from the bottom, or whatever other random number-juggling you could do. This reeks of post-hoc fitting of an interpretation to the data set, and I don’t believe a word of it.

Rats. We’re going to have to keep on rolling our eyes at the silliness in that little museum to the north, I guess.

(Also on FtB)

A feminist embarrassment

I cringed reading this woman’s lament that evolutionary biology is responsible for the oppression of women, starting with Darwin. It’s one long colossal failure of logic.

The argument has some genuinely true facts embedded in it, which then get spun out into a series of false conclusions. It is true that the Victorian gentlemen who formulated and expanded upon the theory of evolution tended to be 19th century chauvinists who made up stories about the inferiority of the feminine mind, and Darwin was right among them. It is also true that there are contemporary biologists who still make up similar stories and engage in blatant retrofitting of the data to rationalize sexism or racism (Satoshi Kanazawa comes to mind as one of the most egregious examples).

But don’t confuse cause and effect! Sexism predated evolutionary theory, and is a product of the wider culture. And creationism, most obviously, is extremely sexist, with its predefined gender roles and gender-based assignment of blame for the entirety of our wicked nature. To single out a late 19th century scientific theory and accuse it of promoting a deplorable cultural attitude that was both present before the theory was discovered, and present to an even greater degree in the individuals who strongly opposed the theory, is ridiculous in the extreme, and embarrassingly stupid.

But I’m not done. The entirety of the edifice of her logic is built on exactly one essay, one attack on evolution, by one guy. And that guy is the rabid squirrel of creationism, Jerry Bergman.

Bergman is so awful, so incompetent, so dishonest, that citing him in any way in support of your position (let alone allowing his lying slander of Darwin be the sole source) instantly discredits anything you might say. It says you have no discernment or capability of critical evaluation of your sources.

I’m sorry to say that the taint of incompetence has now also spread to Loretta Kemsley.

(Also on FtB)

Hitler was a True Christian™

If you tuned in to that local debate on Christian radio, you know that one of the points the Christian fool trotted out was the tired old claim that the Nazis were no true Christians — no True Christian™ would ever commit such horrible acts. It’s an annoyingly feeble and unsupportable argument, but it has a lot of life in it, unfortunately.

This same argument has come up in Faye Flam’s Evolution column for the Philly Inquirer, and has gone on through several articles thanks to that hack from the Discovery Institute, Richard Weikart. It started with an article titled “Severing the link between Darwin and Nazism“, which cited real scholars like Robert Richards and Daniel Gasman to ably refute Weikart’s ridiculous claim that Nazism was inspired by Darwin. The Nazis banned Darwin’s books and rejected the idea that Aryans could have evolved from the lower orders. Weikart’s reply: But Hitler used the word Entwicklung, which translates as “evolution”. It also translates as “development” — Hitler did not use the language as representative of evolution at all.

So Flam got a contribution from a developmental biologist, the most excellent Scott Gilbert, who pointed out that biology and Darwinism were not factors in Hitler’s rise to power: the Lutheran and Catholic churches were. She also gets Keith Thomson, a biologist and museum director, to explain that Darwin did not and would not have approved in any way the Nazi philosophy. Weikart’s reply: but Darwin was a racist! Of course he was — he was a fairly conventional Victorian gentleman who thought the English were the greatest people on the planet. But these biases were not significant factors in his theory, and he struggled to overcome them.

Nazism was not science-based. It was pseudo-scientific religious dogma, tightly tied to the German culture of the time, which was almost entirely Catholic and Lutheran. All you have to do is look at Hitler’s own words to see that, even if he were personally a closet Satanist (I don’t think he was; he was an idiosyncratic Catholic), he tapped into the faith of the German people to achieve his ends. You cannot blame the horrors of the Third Reich on Darwin, who had negligible influence on the great masses of the German Volk, no political pull, and no appeal to the media. If you wanted a lever to shift public opinion on anything in the 1930s, religion was where you applied your force.

I have to give an early plug for my colleague, Michael Lackey (also on the CFI speakers’ bureau, by the way), who will be coming out with a book this Spring on exactly this topic.

His new book project (Modernist God States: A Literary Study of the Theological Origins of Nazi Totalitarianism) is on Hitler and the Nazis. In this book, he opposes one of the dominant interpretations of intellectual and political history, which holds that the West, since the Enlightenment, has been becoming increasingly more secular. Scholars who have adopted this approach claim that Hitler and the Nazis are the logical product of secularization, atheism, and humanism. By stark contrast, Lackey has been trying to demonstrate that secularization has only taken hold in very elite circles, mainly among academics, scholars, and intellectuals. As for the general population, it has actually become increasingly more religious, but in ways that are significantly different from pre-Enlightenment versions of religion. Based on his findings, Lackey argues that the only way to understand Hitler and the Nazis is to take into account the new conceptions of religious subjectivity that started to flourish and dominate among the general population in the early part of the twentieth century. Understanding these new conceptions sheds new and considerable light on Hitler’s and the Nazis’ religious conception of the political.

The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis’ Christian Reich. New York and London: Continuum, (in press: forthcoming, Spring 2012).

Among the things he has done is to examine thoroughly the popular literature of Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Surprise, surprise, it isn’t singing paeans to Darwin and Science — these are eminently Christian Nazis.

The cover of his book says it all. I think it’s going to be a significant source for squelching these bizarre, ahistorical notions coming out of the Discovery Institute that somehow Nazi Germany was the apotheosis of the godless Darwinian state.


(Also on FtB)

Urge to kill…fading…fading…fading

Steven Pinker has a new book coming out next week, and I’m very much looking forward to it. It is titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined, and its premise is that humans have been becoming increasingly less violent over time. I’m very sympathetic to this view: I think cooperation, not conflict, has been the hallmark of human evolution.

There’s an overview of Pinker’s argument at Edge.

Believe it or not–and I know most people do not–violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it’s a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

It’s full of charts — all kinds of graphs illustrating correlations and changing rates of war fatalities, homicide, slavery, etc. He identifies five causes of violence: exploitation, dominance, revenge, and ideology (I know, that’s four…I guess he left one out). He also identifies four forces that counter violence: the state as a mediator of justice, trade, an expanding circle of empathy, and reason.

I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an “escalator of reason.” As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

It would be so nice to read a book that’s optimistic about humanity’s future. I’m definitely getting a copy.

(Also on FtB)

Humanity’s recent surge

Earlier this semester, I gave my first-year students a thought question. I do this now and then just to wake them up and get them thinking and talking — in this case, I wanted them to speculate and also think hard about how they came up with their answers, and how they would try to evaluate them. Here’s the question:

Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record about 150,000 years ago. The first record of systematic agriculture appears about 10-15,000 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 300 years ago. People nowadays seem to be coming up with new ideas at an increasingly rapid pace. What’s going on? Why did it take ancient hunter-gatherers over 100,000 years to invent farming, but going from the invention of the airplane to passenger jetliners took less than a century?

Now The Economist comes up with an interesting chart that might explain some of that.


SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

The figure is a little murky: the units and axes aren’t clearly explained. The bars are percentage of the total, so “years lived” actually means the percentage of the total number of human years lived. So when “years lived” for the 20th century reads out as about 27, that means that 27% of all the years lived by all humans occurred in the 20th century.

I might show this graph to the class next year when I ask the question, but I’d still get to emphasize that the how of knowledge is really important: a serious flaw in the chart is that they don’t explain how they came up with, for instance, their estimate of relative economic output in the 5th century.

The 21st century is off to a roaring start, isn’t it?

(Also on FtB)

An archaeologist watches the History Channel

And deeply regrets it.

It’s very sad. I remember when cable TV was new, and had such promise — there would be channels dedicated to specialty disciplines, that would pursue a niche doggedly for a slice of the audience. The History Channel would be about history, not von Daniken and Nazi UFOs; Discovery would be about science, not motorcycle enthusiasts and bargain hunters; the Learning Channel would be about learning, not octuplets and hoarding; the SciFi channel would actually present decent science-fiction, instead of schlock horror, ghost-hunters, and fake wrestling. Garbage conquered all, didn’t it?

(Also on FtB)

Creationism evolves by jerks

I think one thing Razib says is exactly right:

One of the most interesting things to me is the nature of Creationism as an idea which evolves in a rather protean fashion in reaction to the broader cultural selection pressures.

Creationism has evolved significantly, but it’s not exactly protean: it’s punctuated equilibrium. If we had a time machine and could bring a typical creationist who came to age after Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood face-to-face with a pre-Scopes trial creationist, there would be a fabulously ferocious fight, because their theology and their basic beliefs would be so radically different. They do change in response to the environment, but reluctantly and not without a lot of hysteresis.

I’d say there were four major shifts in the last century.

  • The Scopes trial, 1925. Even though the creationists nominally won this case, it was a public relations disaster for them: this was the polarizing event that split the country into the righteous rubes and the smug scientists.

  • The Genesis Flood, 1961. The creationists struck back with this popular book of pseudoscience, in which miscellaneous myths drawn from sources such as the Seventh Day Adventists were laundered and whitewashed and propped up with sciencey talk, in addition to religious justifications. You want to understand modern creationists? Read this. It’s the new dogma, and it’s what Ken Ham and Kent Hovind preach.

  • McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982. This was a major defeat for the creationists, and provoked a new change in tactics: skulking. They realized they couldn’t be quite so brazen in the courtroom anymore, and so began an era in which they’d claim the mantle of science more and more. They were still making the Genesis Flood arguments, but they’d hide away the Bible references.

  • Intelligent Design creationism, 1990. One could argue that this is just more post-McLean shifting, but the Discovery Institute, Bill Dembski, and Michael Behe did greatly influence the rhetoric. “Specified complexity,” “irreducible complexity,” and “teach the controversy” became the new catch phrases.

Where I disagree with Razib, though, is in his impression of eloquence in this clip of Richard Land defending creationism. Maybe it’s because I’m so familiar with this stuff, but I was completely unimpressed: he may have spoken confidently, but the impression of fluidity is false, because that was a rote recital of done-to-death creationist talking points. It was Duane Gish spiced with a superficial seasoning of Michael Behe, a lot of 1961 mixed with a bit of glib 1990s, and rather than supporting the idea of a flexible creationism that evolves in response to cultural pressures, that was a beautiful example of stasis.

Here are Land’s arguments distilled down:

  • “significant majority of Americans don’t believe [in evolution]”. Slightly less than half, actually, but I think it was a fair point in defense of Rick Perry’s denial of evolution as a pragmatic political move. But still, it’s part of an ancient and fallacious argumentum ad populum. That uninformed people believe in something doesn’t make it true.

  • “I believe in evolution within species, don’t believe in Darwinian theory of origins.” This is extremely standard creationist tripe, I’ve been hearing it for ages. Modern creationists blithely accept a kind of hyperevolution within “kinds” and erect imaginary boundaries to delimit it. You’ll hear this story in Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum”, for instance. It ignores the fact of molecular evidence linking whole phyla together.

  • “It takes far more faith to believe nothing became something than to believe in a Creator.” Tired. Old. Boring. Yeah, I’m supposed to find it easier to believe in a magic invisible superman that I’ve never seen than to believe in natural forces that I see in operation every day.

  • “irreducible complexity.” This has become a stock phrase reduced to meaninglessness — it sounds impressive, though! These are the creationists’ new magic words. I suspect that Land doesn’t really understand the concept, let alone that it has been refuted.

  • “Single celled organisms that Darwin could not know about because those microscopes hadn’t been invented yet.” Oh, please. Microscopes had achieved the theoretical limit of resolution (the Rayleigh limit) in the 19th century. Darwin had microscopes that were just as powerful as the high-end scope sitting on my lab bench today, although he wouldn’t have had the range of contrast-generation techniques we now enjoy. Darwin wrote papers about microorganisms.

I would grant Razib the point that creationists do know how to lie boldly, which allows them to sail through unchallenged in many situations. The clip is a good example: it’s from a bloggingheads dialog with Amy Sullivan, that apologist for liberal Christianity, who looks on like a stunned fish while Land regurgitates creationist tropes, and then ignores all the wrongness to move on to a completely different point.

I think that’s another source of the impression of eloquence: too often, creationists are paired with incompetent or unprepared opponents who grant them the privilege of lying smoothly. If Sullivan had a bit of wit or even a tiny bit of knowledge about what Land was saying, he could have been exposed as a dishonest fraud fairly easily. And that would have been entertaining.

(Also on FtB)