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human nature, Religion, science

The Quest for “Human”

“If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”
Sting

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse but

If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do

Some would say I was a lost man in a lost world
You could say I lost my faith in the people on TV
You could say I’d lost my belief in our politicians
They all seemed like game show hosts to me

If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do

I could be lost inside their lies without a trace
But every time I close my eyes I see your face

I never saw no miracle of science
That didn’t go from a blessing to a curse
I never saw no military solution
That didn’t always end up as something worse but
Let me say this first

If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do

I hope I’m not being overly dramatic, but I think there’s an intellectual fog hanging over humanity.  If I’m right, one single misconception could be the greatest hindrance to real intellectual, moral, and societal progress.  It crosses the borders of religion and academia.  It insinuates itself into our legal codes.  It is the foundation for entire cultural movements which are ultimately doomed despite the best intentions of their founders.

What is this evil notion that’s destroying us from the inside?

“Humans are more than just animals.”

It’s easy to see that this idea has been the centerpiece of many (if not most or all) of the world’s major religions.  Religion pretends at “fixing” humans in some way or another.  For Christians, humans are inherently “evil” (whatever that means) and need to return to some kind of platonic ideal of spiritual perfection.  For other religions, it’s about attaining “enlightenment” or nirvana, or being reincarnated as something better.  I know I’m going to take a lot of flack for this, but there are versions of humanism that seem religious to me.  They insist that there’s something almost magical about humans, and that we have a “destiny.”

But it’s not just religion.  It’s academia, too.  In the United States, for instance, there is no agreed upon policy within the psychology profession for addressing deeply held religious views, or treating hyper-religiosity.  Instead, the whole topic is generally glossed over politely.  Therapists do their best to work around their patients’ belief that they are “better than human.”

Even the highest levels of academia fall victim to this idea.  Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, was pressured to resign after sparking international outrage by suggesting that innate differences between men and women might play a part in the gender gap in science and math professions.  He was forced to resign for proposing a scientific hypothesis.  At Harvard.  One of the best scientific universities in the world.

Which brings me to militant feminism, which was the catalyst for this whole line of thought.  There are still a few misinformed feminists who insist that all societal discrepancies between men and women are the result of cultural conditioning.  They insist that women and men ought to behave the same, sexually, and that women ought to throw off their sexual restraints and stand shoulder to shoulder with men in all socioeconomic venues.

In short, there seems to be an unspoken (and largely unconscious) conspiracy to suppress and censor the knowledge that humans are just animals.

Why is that?

My hunch is that it’s fear.  For many religious people, there is a deeply rooted fear that without the guiding hand of some higher moral power, humanity would implode into anarchy and chaos.   They believe that some kind of “higher purpose” is behind our ethical instinct, and that we literally need to “rise above our animal nature” to become “human.”  (Whatever that means.)

Since the majority of citizens in many countries are religious, this mentality seeps into the legislative and academic process.  Until very recently, there has been virtually no scientific inquiry into the objective, empirical effects of religious (and faith-based) belief on society and individuals.  Doesn’t that seem very odd?  We’ve landed spacecraft on asteroids, but we haven’t bothered to study the single greatest cultural phenomenon in the history of mankind. Double standard much?

For “religious” humanists and feminists, I believe it’s essentially the same kind of fear.  Both groups seem to believe that some very horrible thing will happen if we admit that “humanity” is kind of a nonsense term.  Suggest to a militant feminist that there are deep seated, instinctual sex differences that cause some cultural gender roles, and you’re taking your life in your hands.  (Even though ALL the science points squarely to that conclusion.)  Suggest to a dyed in the wool humanist that war, poverty, and societal stratification are an intrinsic part of humanity, and your life is probably safe, but your reputation is not.

I believe that for many feminists, there’s a fear that if they admit to the reality of sex differences, they might later be forced into some kind of subservient role in society, or that scientists will finally come up with the evidence to keep them out of the workplace, or justify different pay scales.  (I must also state that I think science is compatible with most of the goals of most reasonable feminists.  While sexual gender equality is a pipe dream, societal gender equality seems perfectly attainable.)

In short, there’s a gut-level reaction among many humans that things will go horrifyingly wrong if we admit that we are just intelligent apes capable of second order thought.  Women will go back to being property.  There will be civil war.  Race wars.  Chaos.  Famine.  Genocide.  Wholescale raping and pillaging of the land.  Selfishness.  Greed.

May I make an observation?

Things are already that way WITH the belief that we’re something more than “just animals.”

A history of religion is a history of war, oppression, and hatred.  A history of gender roles is a history of oppression, segregation, rape, and murder.  A history of the quest for “utopia” is a history of genocide.  The belief that humans are more than just animals has not, and will not help us become more than just animals — BECAUSE WE’RE JUST ANIMALS.

And here’s the really weird thing.  We’ve come from humble beginnings — just a few thousand wandering tribes — to being the single most dominant large animal on the planet.  Though we’ve had our wars, we’ve never descended into anarchy, or stopped loving our children, or lost our basic “humanity.”  Even the most hardened Nazis loved their own families.  No matter how low we’ve stooped as a species, we’ve always retained our instinctive natures.

The reason for this is very simple.  Our “humanity” is part of our ANIMAL NATURE. This is the simple, beautiful, and liberating truth that I believe will free us from the worst parts of ourselves.  We’ve spent thousands of years searching for something outside of ourselves that will lead to all the best possibilities we see in ourselves.  The elegant truth that evolutionary science has shown us is that all the beauty, passion, art, compassion, and empathy that we love and aspire to is the direct result of us being “just animals.”

This observation leads me to the last element of fear that I believe plays a major part in this.  We are afraid of science.  There’s a line in the Sting song I quoted at the beginning:  “I never saw no miracle of science that didn’t go from a blessing to a curse.”  This sentiment is held by a lot of people.  We’re afraid that science is some kind of evil bugaboo that will ultimately destroy us as a species.  Even when science benefits us in very tangible ways, we’re afraid of it because it’s “not natural.”  Birth control, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and many other procedures have been denounced as unnatural, and therefore, evil.

I believe that many of us believe that if we let science probe too deeply into how humans work, what we’ll discover will spell the end of humanity.  The thing is, I can’t think of any justification for that fear.  Science has not destroyed us as a species.  Anybody who wants to live without science… well… you’re nuts.

I should add that it’s certainly possible that we’ll deplete our resources and pollute our environment to the point where the earth becomes inhospitable to humanity, or our population drops dramatically.  If that happens, we can certainly point a finger at science for giving us the tools to accomplish that end very efficiently, but the rest of our fingers will be pointing directly back at ourselves.  It’s not science that’s overpopulating the earth and over-consuming.  It’s humans.

And here’s the kicker.  Science explains why we do that sort of thing!

For the first time ever, we know enough about ourselves to understand the mechanisms behind our self-destructive tendencies.  And the lesson that we learn from studying the Scientific Method is that we must understand a problem before we can fix a problem.  If we are to save ourselves from a very uncomfortable (and possibly imminent) demise, we must understand the parts of our nature that drive us to conspicuous consumption and overpopulation.  If we are to end racism, sexism, and poverty, we must understand the mechanisms in our genes that cause these phenomena.

The belief that we are better than animals hasn’t worked.  It’s had a few thousand years to audition, and it’s failed.  Science offers us another choice.  We can examine ourselves under the bright light of empirical evidence.  We can discover exactly what it means to be human, and in this discovery, we can learn how to change our own environment to encourage the best behaviors and discourage the worst.  We can embrace our sex differences and learn to create environments in which both sexes can live full rich lives because we are different, not in spite of our differences.  We can channel our competitive drives into something more productive than xenophobia and war.

Will we create utopia?  No.  We’re just animals, and utopia is a fantasy.  But, it’s possible that we’ll create a world where we aren’t killing each other over cartoons and smashed crackers.  Where women and men revel in their different sexual natures, and stop trying to force themselves into disproven gender roles.  Perhaps we could even come together in some kind of mutual agreement to stop the insanity that is overpopulation.  Maybe we could face our consumption head on and learn to say “enough,” even if it means that everybody doesn’t get a four wheel drive SUV for each member of the family.

I admit, it’s scary territory.  But the non-scientific belief in some special destiny or place in the universe hasn’t worked.  It’s left us woefully ignorant of our own existence.  And while science isn’t a magic pill, it is the ONLY method in the history of mankind that has consistently and accurately solved problems.  If it’s good enough to land a spaceship on an asteroid, don’t you think it’s time to give it a shot at solving some of our “human” problems?

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Discussion

12 thoughts on “The Quest for “Human”

  1. Fabulous post. I think the “aha” moment for this general line of thinking occured for me when I realized that we are not some sort of mind/spirit being carted around in a body, but that in that our brain is in fact simply an adaptive tool for the rest of the body. And an adaptive tool that arrived late to the party compared to the rest of us most likely.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | January 30, 2010, 4:21 pm
  2. You do realize how long I’ve been banging my head against the wall and tearing out my hair trying to get people to actually use empirical research into this type of thing?

    This is of course why I get so mad and snarky when conversing on RRS.

    Posted by Alison | January 30, 2010, 4:56 pm
  3. Lol, and you do realize how long I’ve been telling you that you’re on my side even though you don’t know it, right?

    I think the thing that’s tricky about discussing faith and religion is that there are some things that are patently obvious, or obvious from definition. Faith based belief is, by definition, less true or false when compared to science-based belief. It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to realize that religion which creates dogma out of faith-based models of how humans “should” be can really screw a person up.

    I don’t have a beef with most of the general claims about how many things faith based religion has screwed up in the world. I think they’re basically accurate. Over the past few years, my focus has shifted slightly, though my views remain essentially the same. While I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to criticize and expose faith based religion for what it is, I’ve come to believe that offering people an alternative to religion is essential. I don’t mean a “secular religion.” We have humanism for that, and anyone who wants to can join up. I mean, we need to really get moving towards answering the hard questions that religion purportedly answers.

    Science has already answered many of those questions, especially with regard to morality and sexuality. That’s why so much of my writing deals with these subjects. People need to know that we already have answers.

    But there’s SOOOO much left to learn, especially about the macro-effects of certain kinds of cultures. My belief is that if we let enough people know that science has already given us some amazing answers, more people will get interested in finding out more. The stigma of researching humans won’t go away until enough people want it to go away, and for that… we need popular education.

    Which… incidentally, is why I do this blog.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 30, 2010, 5:27 pm
  4. My main beef with the general claims is that the empirical evidence suggests that religion is a by-product of cognitive mechanisms that have evolved over time. That is take away religion, the mechanisms are still there. The underlaying irrationalities that are universal among humans

    That’s why I don’t think it’s religion vs non-religion, I think it’s humanity vs human nature.

    Which is of course one of the reasons we should be telling people that humans are like any other animal.

    Posted by Alison | January 30, 2010, 9:25 pm
  5. Thumbs up in general for criticizing the assumption of human specialness, but I feel compelled to issue a big NO NO NO WRONG WRONG WRONG on Larry Summers (and some much expanded follow-up thoughts).

    Larry Summers was NOT fired for proposing a scientific hypothesis. He was drummed out of the Harvard presidency for airing evidence-free speculation that a phenomenon which is quite adequately explained by social factors – the unequal representation of women in many scientific disciplines – instead ought to be explained primarily by biological differences between the sexes, which would thus let both he and the institution he was supposed to lead off the hook for addressing any of those social factors. Never mind the fact that Summers is a non-scientist (specifically, an economist – which practically makes him an anti-scientist rather than just a non-scientist) who had no basis of expertise from which to advance that particular bit of bio-science speculation. What really sunk him was that his position as President of a university made him legally, professionally, and even morally responsible for protecting and advancing equality of opportunity in hiring and promotion: Given that obligation, Summers’ willingness to so casually bandy about a slightly updated version of a tired old unscientific theory (women just aren’t as *good* at math and stuff) which conveniently excuses inequality – instead of carefully sticking to demonstrable, evidence-supported research which objectively assesses the extent and causes of inequality – didn’t just piss off a bunch of radical feminists; it undermined many perfectly sensible people’s confidence in his ability to fulfill that aspect of his duties. Indeed, it made lots of people – including me – doubt he had any genuine commitment to gender equality in the first place.

    More broadly, I think your criticism of (some) feminist attitudes towards science misses some very important subtleties. I’ve said more than once that I think a great deal of evolutionary psychology “research” is just bigoted gender assumptions gussied up as (supposed) science, but you continue to buy into a lot more of it than I think is warranted. I think I can explain what you’re missing by turning your own argument against you:

    Incredibly complex social behavior is not something that separates us from animals, but rather is our primary evolved adaptation *as* animals. Many people who study human nature – and I would say a sizable majority of those who study human sexual behavior – either underestimate or simply ignore the great difficulties in teasing out which aspects of our incredibly complex social behaviors are driven by historically contingent and very changeable social factors, and which are driven by much less flexible basic biology. Sure, basic biology forms the foundation for social flexibility – but our big brains’ capacity for learning doesn’t shape the specific things we learn, and it isn’t easy to sort out the interactions between the two levels. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the “basic biology” of sex and gender – e.g. hormones and other sex-linked biological differences – can be so highly variable within each sex that any slight average differences between the sexes (where they exist at all) are sometimes completely swamped and made statistically irrelevant.
    Unfortunately, all anyone researching sex difference ever talks about or looks at are those slight average differences. Worse still, lots of people are motivated to research differences between the sexes, but all the null results showing no real differences get tossed in the circular file – either they’re never published at all, or they never achieve any public attention if they are published – while every one-off, slightly positive finding gets trumpeted in the media as the next big insight into human nature. Sure, some findings turn out to be genuine insights and some research gets confirmed; but I’m fairly convinced at this point that more bullshit pseudo-research is produced on gender and sexuality topics than any other area of research. Certainly it’s been shown more than once – by people who research research – that the invisibility of null results is a HUGE problem in this area. Of course, some of that criticism applies more to straight psychological research than to evolutionary psychology – but only because psychological research produces something you could call actual results, null or otherwise. Most evolutionary psychology “research” results in nothing but hypotheses that (1) depend on dubious or ill-supported background assumptions (such as the largely discredited invention of specifically evolved “brain modules” for every behavior), (2) are difficult to produce any evidence for at all, and (3) fail to acknowledge the existence of competing sociological hypotheses (which is especially bad, since the logic of empirical science requires searching for evidence that helps *eliminate* competing hypotheses).

    In the even bigger picture, you go on a lot about human nature and humans being animals, but you fail to acknowledge the very common human reasoning errors which are especially likely to crop up when we examine our own nature. For example, glossing over complexities in search of simple narratives is something humans are very prone to do – even scientists. Also, it’s very important to keep an eye out for confirmation bias – both the obvious kind of confirmation bias where we fail to look for the data that would refute our hypotheses, and the more subtle kind where we tend to find the sort of phenomena we look for precisely because we go looking for them (and therefore miss complicating or contrary phenomena we would find if we only thought to look for them). (Here’s a great recent Wired article on how even scientists are very vulnerable to confirmation bias.)

    Yes, science as a way of examining the world is structured for exactly the purpose of countering common human reasoning flaws – but the methods science uses to do so are by no means perfect, and they are at their *least* effective when we study ourselves. Unfortunately, some of science’s most powerful methods for overcoming reasoning flaws and other sundry human biases – double-blind, controlled, repeatable studies – are either very difficult or outright impossible to apply to many social phenomena.

    Skepticism is at the heart of scientific methodology, but sometimes skepticism needs to “go meta” and be applied to science itself – and there’s no area of science where that need is more urgent than the study of sex, sexuality, and gender roles. Complete cynicism about human science in general or evolutionary psychology in particular isn’t warranted, but careful and thorough skepticism certainly is: And although you’re far more of a feminist than most guys I know, I still think you’re too quick to accept any proposed scientific hypothesis that meshes with your own socially and personally informed opinions and expectations about human sexuality and gender differences. You’ll probably disagree, of course – but you have too much intellectual integrity to ignore the possibility, so my saying this will make you ask yourself the question more – and my work here is done.

    Posted by G Felis | January 30, 2010, 9:25 pm
  6. Great post, Hamby. I do have a bit to say here. First, as the blogger who raised the spectre of Larry Summers’ being drummed out of Harvard, I’d like to shed light on that. Here’s a summary of what went down that fateful day in January 2005. Summers gave his remarks at a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research. So, for starters, I reject any claim that he was unqualified to address the matter.

    Summers sparked controversy with his discussion of why women may have been underrepresented “in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions”. In the previous year at Harvard, where Summers was president, 88 percent of newly tenured faculty had been men. This means that Summers was responding to a challenge re the lack of diversity in his new hires.

    Summers began by outlining three possible explanations for the higher proportion of men in high-end science and engineering positions. Two of the hypotheses were: (1) that women with children are unwilling or unable to work 80 hours per week in tenure track jobs and (2) that women are subject to both discrimination and different socialization. He argued that discrimination was economically unlikely because it would put institutions at a disadvantage compared to institutions that did not discriminate. And he dismissed socialization, claiming that research shows that socialization is rarely a factor in anything anyone thinks it is.

    His third and most controversial hypothesis was what he called “the different availability of aptitude at the high end”. He said that his “best guess” was that “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” such as that men tend to have a broader range of I.Q. scores than women, with men as a group scoring higher and lower than women as a group. Summers suggested that this variation, combined with other factors, “probably explains a fair amount of this problem.” He stated that in his view, this was a more important cause of the problem than “different socialization and patterns of discrimination”.

    Now, studies have shown many times over that there is a difference in the pattern of distribution of IQ between the genders. Men are indeed more represented at either end of the spectrum. Men are much more likely to suffer from learning disabilities, ADD, autism, Asperger’s, etc. On the other hand, the highest IQ scores tend to be represented by men. Women’s IQs fall into a narrower spectrum, by and large. Incidentally, research shows that the difference in mean IQ between women and men is 2 points, advantage men. Hardly worth fighting a war over.

    Stark gender differences are apparent from the earliest ages, and are, of course, reinforced by the culture. It does get very tricky to separate out these factors. However, there is real and credible scientific research being done in this area. Since I blog about relationships, I have been particularly interested in the work of anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, who considers her work to be in the area of “relationship science.” Googling her will bring up a wealth of fascinating scientific study. However, at its most basic level, we know that men and women have starkly different genetic systems at work re sexual experience. Oxytocin, dopamine, testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin. Women and men are complementary but extremely different. Which brings me to the general point Hamby is making here.

    We are just animals, and yet we are the most complex and fascinating animals. In that sense, we are very special. In many less complex species, we observe very different roles for the sexes. Why should it be any different for humans? I am not suggesting that women are inferior to men. But I am suggesting that we are different, and until we are ready to seek truth through science, and leave the politics behind, we will never be able to achieve the most efficient and productive collaboration between the sexes.

    There is no long-term benefit to calling men and women identical. There will always be opportunities for those capable of excellence in a meritocracy. A brilliant female physicist will have her pick of academic appointments and research opportunities.

    As a resident of Boston who observes the Harvard scene up close, I can think of no more politically correct institution. The Cornell West dustup is just one of many other examples of what I call the Ellsworth Toohey problem at Harvard. Larry Summers is by all accounts a difficult and unpleasant man. That doesn’t mean he was wrong.

    We must continue to press ahead to discover what is true.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | January 31, 2010, 11:18 pm
  7. Susan Walsh said:

    And he dismissed socialization, claiming that research shows that socialization is rarely a factor in anything anyone thinks it is.

    And that statement, I think, captures all that needs to be said about both the scientific mind and the fair-mindedness of Lawrence Summers. It is, like much of the argument he offered that day – and I have read such transcripts as were available at the time – so much hand-waving bullshit.

    Yes, there are some bits and pieces of evidence – stuff about the greater variability of intelligence scores, for example – that could be seen as supporting Summers’ hypothesis. But the theory that there are just more men represented on the skinny bits of the bell curve of ability distributions wouldn’t explain the greater balance in gender ratios in the life sciences than in mathematics and the physical sciences, which is among the phenomena that are certainly relevant. And that is just one tiny point of many that could be made against Summers’ far-too-casual hypothesizing – mounds of evidence which he chose to ignore or dismiss for reasons so spurious I can only see it as cherry-picking.

    I agree that we must do our best to discover what is true: But I do not see how Summers’ ill-informed, self-excusing remarks formed any significant part of an honest scientific quest to discover truth. Frankly, his entire line of argument smacks of Bell Curve “science.” It starts with a desired conclusion and rationalizes towards that conclusion with a thin veneer of scientific-sounding reasoning that does not stand up to any close scrutiny – but that many people will leap to defend anyway because they also find the desired conclusion inherently plausible.

    Frankly, I think many people leap to defend Summers out of dislike for some of the people who attacked him: On the one hand, many of Summers’ critics were working scientists – women and men – who though his remarks ill-informed, poorly argued, and unscientific in the extreme (my position). On the other hand, many of his critics were the sort of mush-minded, postmodernist-rhetoric-spouting, self-appointed political correctness police that sensible people of any political persuasion loath. I think it would be foolish to dismiss the arguments of the former out of (perfectly justified) dislike for the latter, and that’s exactly what your references to political correctness and Cornell West leads me to think you’re doing.

    Posted by G Felis | February 1, 2010, 10:00 pm
  8. You may be right about Summers’ casual hypothesizing – I have no insight into his thought process that day. It does sound like he was speaking off the cuff to some degree, which in retrospect was clearly unwise. However, the circus that followed his remarks was a ridiculous spectacle. Harvard is an institution where the inmates are running the asylum – the faculty wield unchecked power over the administration, and were determined to oust Summers long before he uttered his thoughts on the matter of women in science. He really just provided a convenient excuse. Indeed your description of his postmodernist-rhetoric-spouting critics matches the Harvard faculty quite well.

    The bottom line is that all of us should welcome scientific inquiry that might explain why, in fact, women do not excel, or even remain in the physical sciences. And if well designed, peer-reviewed studies conclude that women in aggregate are innately less gifted in analytical reasoning, so be it. That information can be used to encourage women who do demonstrate the aptitude. If, on the other hand, research was to show that women are every bit as capable in those disciplines, that would indicate that we need to take action to understand why they are failing to achieve.

    I maintain that the rousing chorus of accusations leveled at Summers was emotionally motivated, based on a politically correct feminist agenda that is terrified of the discovery and validation of any gender differences, period.

    In an era where the American male is in steep decline, by all accounts, I think we need to make room for other, less politically motivated voices.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | February 1, 2010, 10:36 pm
  9. I think I understand where you’re coming from, and I have little truck with ivory tower pseudo-liberals myself. (People who think campus speech codes are a good idea are not by any reasonable definitions “liberal,” nor do they understand the principles of free and open inquiry which are necessary for the advancement of real knowledge.) But, in the end, I think you tar feminism with too broad a brush.

    I’m not saying I’ve never met or read a feminist who categorically rejects the science of gender differences – but frankly, I haven’t met many. What I have encountered is a lot of *suspicion* about both the agenda and scientific merit of scientific claims about gender difference, and I think those suspicions are more than warranted: The “science” of gender has a long and ugly history of being used as a tool to keep women in their place – rationalizing and imposing sexist assumptions that (overwhelmingly but not exclusively male) researchers were already quite convinced about in advance of any research or experimentation whatsoever. Worse, even when scientific findings of gender differences are based on solid research, the uses to which those findings are put outside the context of discovery are often very ugly, and the weight they are given in society extends far beyond the sort of carefully qualified research results published in scientific journals, with error-bars and p-values and measured conclusion sections posing unanswered questions and suggesting potential lines for further research.

    Frankly, anyone who does any substantial research on history and politics of women and science has every reason to be suspicious of the supposed science purporting to study gender issues – from 19th century “hysteria cures” through mid-20th century psychology’s claim that “refrigerator mothers” cause autism to evolutionary psychologist Randy Thornhill’s latest book casually and without care or qualification comparing forced copulation in ducks and dragonflies to human rape. There’s a lot of empirically and logically bad science out there in the realm of sex and gender, and it deserves a very skeptical eye.

    I’ve often said feminism is too important to be left in the hands of postmodernists – but, unfortunately, academically that is too often the situation (at least in Women’s Studies departments at many major universities). Postmodernism and its various “critical theory” offshoots are corrosive to genuine critical thinking, so perhaps some of the feminists who express skepticism about the science of sex and gender aren’t themselves very sound, scientifically-minded critical thinkers – but, to turn your own argument around, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

    Posted by G Felis | February 2, 2010, 1:49 am
  10. First, a nit-pick: not all of the hard-line Nazis had what anything resembling what we would call ‘love’ for their families. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, to give the most notorious example, brought his wife and six children to Hitler’s bunker toward the end of the war and, when all was finally seen as lost by Hitler himself and he committed suicide with Eva Braun, Goebbels decided against evacuating himself or his family to safety and instead murdered all six of his children, then his spouse, then himself.

    Second: For the love of God, will people please stop using the term, ‘Human Nature,’ as though it’s meaningful empirical statement? It isn’t. If it was, and you actually knew what it meant (Alison & Hamby), you should have no trouble at all describing it to me. What is human nature, exactly? I’d like Alison to go first, since she’s by far the worst culprit here.

    Blaming our problems on some easy scapegoat, whether than scapegoat be ‘Human Nature’ or ‘Satan’ or ‘Sin’ isn’t something I’ll stand for, especially when so many people tell us right up front why they are doing what they are doing. Take away the teachings of Mohammed and the zeitgeist surrounding the Islamic doctrine, Alison claims, and we’d still be sans two office towers in downtown New York. So, who else believes that?

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | February 6, 2010, 7:32 pm
  11. …Here – I’ll provide an example for why I think it can useful to distinguish between humans and other animals (though, of course, I’m happy to admit that the gap between humans and certain animals like dolphins and chimps is quite narrow – though still extant):

    Aluminum, despite being of the very same fundamental stuff as wood (atoms), is not materially analogous to wood. Wood is brittle, aluminum is flexible; wood burns, aluminum melts; wood is fairly light and has a low density, aluminum is heavier and has a higher density; etc.

    Now, there are different substances that come much closer to being like wood or like aluminum, but each material tends to have it’s own unique properties that are difficult or outright impossible to find elsewhere.

    Humans have higher orders of reasoning than any other animal, period. It’s empirically demonstrable and trivially so. Adolescent chimps recognize no difference at all between ridiculous looking furry mechanical hugging machines and their own kin. How many mentally healthy homo sapien teenagers do you know who would ever make the same mistake (assuming a deliberate effort wasn’t made to confuse or trick them)? Most animals *can’t even identify themselves in a mirror*. That point is often dismissed as, “Bah, whatever,” but it’s pretty damn relevant: how many times have you ever, ever incorrectly identified your own reflection as a stranger (again, assuming you weren’t being deliberately tricked)? Maybe once or twice, really late at night in an unfamiliar setting?

    Nobody can even begin to put themselves in a state of mind where they have such a low sense of self identity and awareness of their surroundings. That’s not an excuse for thinking of other animals as ‘lesser’ beings, but it is definitely good cause for considering ourselves reasonably far removed from most of the other life on Earth.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | February 6, 2010, 8:58 pm
  12. Kevin for human nature, it explains the cognitive mechanisms present in all humans. For example, it is human nature to divide people into groups of “us” and “them” and then defile the “them”. We see this across cultures.

    Hell, Hamby wrote two pieces on human nature.

    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/07/29/dating-mating-sex-and-reproduction-part-ii-what-men-want/

    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/639/

    It’s not just human who have “nature”. An ethologist like Dawkins may research Wolf nature and find that they are inhertently terrortorial for example. Bees have a group cohesion nature. etc…..

    The point of Hamby’s post [in which I actually vehmently agree with[I never thought I would have to say that]] is that we an describe human behavior like we describe dolphin behavior and bee behavior. We humans may not like it, but psychologists have been doing it for years in their studies.

    As for suicide bombings and cognition of religion, Kevin, I have already given you peer reviewed papers.

    For example this one might be of interest to you:

    http://www.psych.ubc.ca/~ara/Manuscripts/GingesHansenNorenzayan2009.pdf

    Taken together, these four studies represent strong support for
    the coalitional-commitment hypothesis and disconfirmation of
    the religious-belief hypothesis. Our findings suggest that the
    relationship between religion and support for suicide attacks is
    real, but is orthogonal to devotion to particular religious belief,
    or indeed religious belief in general. Of course, economic and
    political conditions may contribute strongly to support for suicide
    attacks. Our studies concern only the relationship between
    religion and support for suicide attacks. The proposal that there
    is some relationship between religious devotion and intergroup
    violence did not receive empirical support. It appears that the
    association between religion and suicide attacks is a function of
    collective religious activities that facilitate popular support for
    suicide attacks and parochial altruism more generally.

    Now you may dismiss this as “religious apologetics purported by obvious Theists!!111”.

    But it’s almost as if it’s human nature to fall into the logical fallacy when you get presented with things that go against your preconceved notions………………

    On somewhat of a related tangent Kevin, this is the problem I have with many atheists in the “atheist activist movement”. They’re basically saying “don’t bother empirically testing this. It’s obvious.” blah blah blah.

    I think the scientific method should be used to evaluate everything, even things we think are “obvious” seeing as all humans are subject to cognitive bias. It was “obvious” that the sun revolved around the Earth, or that solid objects have little empty space between atoms, but they turned out to be false because we weren’t afraid to re-evaluate our worldviews and the world.

    Posted by Alison | February 6, 2010, 10:29 pm

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