This guy used some of my podcast ravings as the backdrop to some kick-ass snowboarding footage. Check it out.
Disclaimer: I am a fan of Elon Musk. I like what I know of him personally. I admire his courage and vision (open-source Tesla technology!). And I have no doubt that his IQ is close to twice what I've got under the hood. But all that just makes his recent comments about how we're all probably living in a simulation all the more strikingly absurd.
Here's his "strongest argument" (which Musk says has been honed by many hours of hot-tub conversation in recent months:
The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had Pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.
Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.
If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.
So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions. Tell me what's wrong with that argument.
Here are a couple of major flaws in that argument:
You cannot arbitrarily choose a segment of a trend and extend it into the future. The progression from Pong to World of Warcraft may be impressive, but there's no reason to assume, as Musk does, that the rate will continue as it has in the past decade. That's not how reality functions (or even simulated reality). To take an example with which Mr. Musk is deeply familiar, space exploration went from virtually nothing to landing men on the moon in the decade between the early 60s and the early 70s. A Muskian projection made in 1973 would have confidently assumed we'd be in Alpha Centauri by now, given that rate of progress. If real-estate prices had continued to climb at the rate of a decade ago, we'd all be millionaires by now! My 14 year-old cousin has grown about a foot taller in the past six months. Would Musk have us believe my cousin will be 100 feet tall by the time he gets out of college?
Video games are still just video games. Despite the progress from Pong to whatever the kids are playing these days, they're still looking at a screen, making images appear to move around in imaginary space. To my knowledge, there's been very little advancement in engaging the other senses, unless we're going to count very recent gizmos like the Oculus Rift, which mainly engaged my sense of nausea when I took it for a spin. No jasmine scent, no breezes in our hair, no silk through our fingers. It's still just light and sound. Hardly anything approaching a world.
I hate to throw cold water into Mr. Musk's hot tub, but let's get real. Of course, we may be living in a simulation, but if this is the strongest argument an acknowledged genius like Musk can come up with, I think it's time for a reboot.
I don't know if anyone reads this blog. To be honest, I forget it even exists. One thing I don't lack is opportunities to write/speak about what's going on. So, apologies to anyone who follows this and is wondering where I go for months at a time. (If that's you, drop me a line so I know you're out there.) I sort of assume that most people who are interested in what I'm up to follow my podcast, where I rant about whatever's happening on a weekly basis. But to be honest, I rarely listen to podcasts, so why should I assume anyone else does?
Anyway, the news this week is that I won an AVN award. The AVNs are considered "the Oscars of porn." Cassie and I had cameo roles in a film called Marriage 2.0, which is an ambitious film about a couple going through the growing pains that generally accompany deciding to open their relationship. The woman in the couple, played by India Summers, is a documentary film-maker, so her character decides to interview some "experts" on alternative relationships—which is where we come in. So Cassie and I are interviewed by her, and then India and I have a scene in the kitchen (fully clothed, alas) where we have a friendly chat about the challenges of pursuing authenticity in a relationship. The experience of being in a porn movie was fun and strange in all the best ways. And now I have another bizarre line to add to my already surreal resume.
History is not a collection of threads that connect individual people and ideas across time; history is a web in which all ideas and all lives are entangled. Civilization is a package deal. These ostensibly positive things don’t suddenly appear without context or cost. They come wrapped in the antecedent conditions and cruelties of their creation: no blues without slavery; no moon landing without NAZI rocket scientists; no Slaughterhouse-Five without Vonnegut cowering in an underground meat locker while Dresden burned above him.
A dozen socks for $3.99 at Walmart seems like a bargain until you include the Cambodian sweatshops and cotton pesticides in your calculations. A bottle of “natural spring water” in your backpack is a great idea until you give some thought to the estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic polluting the world’s oceans—amounting to some 269,000 tons of plastic crap on the surface of the deep, blue sea. There's no doubt that the political stability resulting from the Mongol empire allowed significant advances in science, trade, and agricultural technology. Some historians even argue that the European Renaissance was a rebirth—not of Greece or Rome—but of concepts spread by the rampaging Mongol hoards. (For an example of a positive spin on the Genghis Khan and the Mongols, see Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 2005, by Jack Weatherford.) Could be. But were those advances worth the suffering of the estimated 50 million people the Mongols raped and slaughtered? Are the achievements of world capitalism worth the widespread exploitation and destruction essential to its success? I guess it depends on whom you ask—and when.
Just as there’s never any mention of PTSD, lost limbs, or brain trauma in “Be All You Can Be” recruitment commercials for the U.S. Army, and the slaughterhouse goes unmentioned in burger ads, most of civilization’s costs are conspicuously missing from polite conversation. Did you know, for example, that foragers rarely work more than a few hours per day? Kids in school don’t learn that hunter-gatherers were, on average, about six or seven inches taller than the farmers who displaced them and had far better health overall, or that fewer than one percent of foragers experienced tooth decay or gum disease, painful conditions that skyrocketed to rates 20 times that with the adoption of agriculture. They don’t hear that the Iroquois confederation had a profound influence on the framing of the U.S. Constitution. Despite overwhelming evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors who survived childhood had lives that typically stretched into their 60s, 70s, and sometimes beyond, we’re still surrounded by “experts” who insist on repeating the inane disinformation that they only lived into their 30s. Ignoring decades of careful research by anthropologists and ethnologists that demonstrate low stress and infrequent conflict, the public is repeatedly assured that our prehistoric ancestors faced lives of constant war and teetered on the brink of starvation.
Our insistence on considering only the upside of civilization while ignoring many of its costs—and, conversely, demonizing prehistory with repeated misinformation—is as misguided (and dangerous) as only paying attention to the visible part of the iceberg. In the end, it’s the massive, submerged churning that will determine our fate, on both the individual and planetary levels.
 Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea
Published: December 10, 2014DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111913
 http://chronicle.com/article/SlaveryCapitalism/150787/ (link is external)
On slavery as a necessary antecedent to capitalism, see: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, 2014, by Edward E. Baptist, or Empire of Cotton: A Global History, 2014, by Sven Beckert.
 Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy 1982
by Bruce E. Johansen
(Excerpted from Civilized to Death, coming in 2016 from Simon and Schuster.)
When you’re going in the wrong direction, progress is the last thing you need. Maybe the “progress” that defines our age is closer to the progression of a disease than its cure. Sorry to be such a buzz-kill, but things aren’t looking good and show no signs of improving any time soon. In fact, from where I’m standing, it looks like western civilization is picking up speed the way things do when they’re circling the drain. Could it be that the fiercely-held belief in progress is a sort of pain-killer—a faith-in-the-future antidote to a sorely lacking, terrifying present? Does our belief in progress function the same way assurances of eternal heaven just around the corner have been used to calm the despairing for centuries? The way imported spices were used to cover the stench of the rotting food on the tables of wealthy Europeans?
I know, there’s always been some lunatic warning that the end is nigh and we alway say, “But this time it’s different!” But seriously, this time it’s different. The planetary climate is shifting like cargo on a sinking ship. The most recent report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that at the end of 2014, the number of people forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million in 2004. Flocks of birds are falling from the sky, the buzzing of bees grows faint, and ancient butterfly migrations have ended. Species are going extinct at a rate not seen since the last time a major asteroid struck the planet. Texas-sized islands of swirling plastic suffocate oceans that are swelling as quickly as fresh-water aquifers are shrinking. Ice caps melt down as unstoppable methane bubbles up from the depths. Governments dither obediently while Wall Street tears the last bits of wealth from the carcass of the middle class.
None of this is particularly surprising. Far from it. Every civilization that’s ever existed has ended in chaos, tumult, and collapse—and there never was any good reason to think ours would break the pattern. But Rome, Sumer, the Mayans, Ancient Egypt, and the others were all regional collapses. The civilization imploding around us now is global. As Canadian historian Ronald Wright puts it, “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up. The collapse of the first civilization on earth, the Sumerian, affected only half a million people. The fall of Rome affected tens of millions. If ours were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe on billions.”
But the end of the world is beside the point. Despite the previous few paragraphs, I didn’t write this book to convince you that progress is a lie and civilization is a colossal mistake. Maybe you think the sublime beauty of Mahler’s Second Symphony, those photos of Earth taken from space, or knowledge of the structure of DNA are worth any price—even the otherworldy price we’ve paid. And after all is said and done, who am I to say you’re wrong? Maybe your life, or the life of someone you love, was saved by technological medicine—which makes it both personally difficult and morally distasteful for you to be anything less than a full-throated fan of modernity. Maybe you think the shit will ultimately miss the fan because coalitions of smart, decent people find a way to use the internet to spread corrective ways of thinking and interacting that rapidly, finally, infect our species with some common fucking sense. Let’s hope so. Whether the wonders of our age are worth their exorbitant cost is a question we each must ultimately answer for ourselves, and a lot of it depends on what happens—or doesn’t—in the next decade or so.
But even if they remain unanswered, these are questions well worth asking, because our species’ only hope of a future worth living in depends on how we understand our past, and how we apply that knowledge to our present and future. We need to ask ourselves who’s more worthy of our respect and admiration? The handful of inbred, power-mad pharaohs who financed the building of the pyramids in pursuit of ego-driven immortality, or the millions of forgotten foragers who accepted without struggle the universal fate of all that lives, their bodies long-since dissolved back into the Earth without monument or complaint? If death is the monster we all face, the question we must answer is Nietzsche’s: “Is it better to out-monster the monster or to be quietly devoured?” I vote for being devoured, though I can’t promise how quiet I’ll be.
(Excerpted from Civilized to Death, coming in 2016 from Simon and Schuster.)
In 1928, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he imagined the world a century later. By 2028, he predicted, things would be so good that no one would need to worry about making money. In fact, the principal problem people were going to face, according to Keynes, would be what to do with all their free time: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.”
In fact, the average American works as many hours today as he or she did in 1970 and is lucky to get a couple of weeks off in a year. Overall, wealth has increased, but in America, almost all the increase has gone to the richest 1%. European countries have been more equitable, as least in the distribution of free time. According to Elizabeth Kolbert, “The average employed American works about one hundred and forty hours more per year than the average Englishman and three hundred hours more than the average Frenchman. (Current French law mandates that workers get thirty paid vacation days per year, British law twenty-eight; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero.)”
Ah, the glorious, leisurely future! Always just around the corner, but never quite arriving. Think I'm being harsh about progress? Get a taste of evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote that “Progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.” Jared Diamond isn’t convinced by the pro-progress propaganda either, though he’s a bit more diplomatic in his doubts:
“Don’t words such as ‘civilization,’ and phrases such as ‘rise of civilization,’ convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are ‘better’ than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress,’ or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed.”
 (The New Yorker, 5/26/14, p. 74) by Elizabeth Kolbert
 Gould (1988) “On Replacing the Idea of Progress with an Operational Notion of Directionality,” in M.H. Nitecki (ed.), Evolutionary Progress. p. 319.
 Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 18.
(Excerpted from Civilized to Death, coming in 2016 from Simon and Schuster.)
War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease – the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences. — Barack Obama, in his Nobel acceptance speech.
I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it. — Mark Twain
Barack Obama is certainly no imbecile, but like most of us, he has been badly misinformed about just how innately warlike our species really is. For reasons having nothing to do with scientific accuracy, Hobbes’ dire sloganeering about the misery of pre-civilized human life echoes down the centuries. Who among us, three and a half centuries later, has not heard that our ancestors’ lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”? This demonization of human existence in pre-state societies is essential to preserving the legitimacy of God and country—both of which run a protection racket promising to guard us against our own demonic inner nature. Hobbes’ infectious meme is certainly among the most famous phrases ever penned in the English language, and it shows no sign of fading. Indeed, his dismal view of human nature is still being enthusiastically spread by neo-Hobbesian presidents, pundits and professors.
When Steven Pinker was recently asked which five writers he would invite to a dinner party, Thomas Hobbes headed his list. And what would Pinker serve Hobbes and his other distinguished guests for dinner? Perhaps we find a clue in Raymond Dart’s vivid description of our species’ ancient appetites. Dart, who in 1924 discovered the first fossil of a human ancestor in Africa, added his colorful twist to the neo-Hobbesian narrative when he described early humans as “carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death … slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.”
Please pass the potatoes.
When not gorging on the hot blood and writhing flesh of their prey, our ancestors were apparently after each other. New York Times science journalist, Nicolas Wade, for example, assures readers that, “warfare between pre-state societies was incessant, merciless and conducted with the general purpose, often achieved, of annihilating the opponent.” Harvard’s Richard Wrangham and his co-author, Dale Peterson agree, memorably asserting that modern humans are, “the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million year habit of lethal aggression.”
But take a close look and this blood-soaked vision of human prehistory—and, by extension, of human nature—is quickly revealed to be little more than a sustained outbreak of mass hysteria among a group of mostly white, middle-aged men fueled by fading testosterone, elitism, unacknowledged neo-colonial politics and sloppy thinking.
The neo-Hobbesians present three primary types of evidence to argue their case:
1) Primatological data drawn mainly from chimpanzees, with whom we shared a common ancestor about five million years ago (hence, Wrangham and Peterson’s “5-million year habit of lethal aggression”)
2) Anthropological information seeming to show that contemporary hunter/gatherer people reflect our ancestors’ brutality;
3) Archaeological findings suggesting persistent warfare extending back many millennia.
It is hard to say which leg of this stool is the wobbliest, so we will take them in order. Space constraints allow only a few, representative examples of the slip-shod reasoning that plagues each element of the neo-Hobbesian narrative, but you will soon get the idea.
Using chimpanzee group-level conflict to explain the origins of human war is the pseudo-scientific equivalent of saying, “The devil made me do it!” If war really is an expression of something embedded so deeply in us that it goes back to the last ancestor we shared with chimps five million years ago, maybe war really is unavoidable.
First off, chimps are not “our closest primate cousin,” though you would need a sharp eye to find any mention of our other, equally intimately related cousin, the bonobo, in most mainstream discussions of primate violence. Like a crazy relative who lives in the attic, bonobos tend to get mentioned in passing—if at all—in these sweeping declarations about the ancient primate roots of war. There are plenty of reasons easily embarrassed journalists might want to avoid talking about bonobos (their penchant for mutual masturbation, their unapologetic homosexuality and occasional incest, as well as a general sense of hippie-like shamelessness pervading bonobo social life). But the biggest inconvenience may be the utter absence of any Viking-like behavior ever observed among bonobos in the wild. Bonobos do not rape or pillage. No war. No murder. No infanticide. No support for the primate origins of human war.
Given the fact that the common ancestor eventually evolved into humans, chimps and bonobos, you might think discussion of bonobos’ anti-war ethos would get as much space in these articles as accounts of chimpanzee brutality. You’d be wrong about that.
In Nicolas Wade’s 1,260-word New York Times article (“When Chimpanzees Go on the Warpath,” June 21, 2010) for example, bonobos are mentioned just once, in a subtly misleading sentence in the twelfth paragraph. Bonobos are described as “the chimps’ peaceful cousin” while chimps themselves are described as having a joint ancestor with humans, thus leading the average reader to mistakenly conclude the human genome shares more with chimps than with the bonobos.
The bonobo’s absence is conspicuous not just in discussions of war. Look for the missing bonobo any time a somber authority figure claims an ancient pedigree for human male violence of any sort. See if you can find the bonobo in this account of the origins of rape, from biologist Michael Ghiglieri’s book The Dark Side of Man: “Men did not invent rape. Instead, they very likely inherited rape behavior from our ape ancestral lineage. Rape is a standard male reproductive strategy and likely has been one for millions of years. Male humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans routinely rape females. Wild gorillas violently abduct females to mate with them.” (Emphasis is in the original.) Each of the great apes is mentioned in support of the deep roots of rape thesis except the one that could call the thesis into question: bonobos.
Leaving aside the difficulty of defining rape in nonhuman species unable to communicate their experiences, rape has never been witnessed among bonobos in decades of observation. Not in the wild. Not in the zoo. Never.
Shouldn’t that inconvenient fact merit at least a footnote, if we’re going to claim this argument is “scientific”?
Anthropological and Archaeological Evidence
Sadly, neo-Hobbesian discussions of anthropological and archeological findings are just as biased as their forays into primatology. I have written elsewhere about Pinker’s penchant for distorting data to suit his poorly-hidden political agenda in The Blank Slate and a widely-seen TED talk he presented in 2007. Unfortunately, he continues the habit in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).
The thesis of Pinker’s book is that levels of violence and warfare have been decreasing from a Hobbesian past in which “chronic raiding and feuding … characterized life in a state of nature.” “Violence,” Pinker claims, “has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence” (p. xxi).
But the archeological evidence shows precisely the opposite of what Pinker argues. In fact, as Doug Fry writes in War, Peace, and Human Nature (2013), “The worldwide archaeological evidence shows that war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence…. But with a gradual worldwide population increase, the shift from universal nomadic foraging to settled communities, the development of agriculture, a transition from egalitarianism to hierarchical societies—and, very significantly, the rise of state-level civilization five thousand to six thousand years ago—the archaeological record is clear and unambiguous: war developed, despots arose, violence proliferated, slavery flourished, and the social position of women deteriorated.” (p. 15) According to Fry’s view—which has the benefit of being supported by overwhelming evidence—civilization has not reduced the ravages of human violence; rather, civilization is the source of most organized human violence.
Pinker offers a certain kind of evidence in support of his interpretation. In an argument reminiscent of the misleading mess he presented in The Blank Slate, he offers eight “hunter-gatherer” societies to use as a base-line for rates of death in war that are meant to reflect mortality rates typical of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. To save space, we will let Pinker slide on the question of how representative eight contemporary cases could be of the general hunter-gatherer experience 20,000 or more years ago. Let us also set aside the fact that he has once again mislabeled horticultural societies as hunter-gatherers as well as the absence of any methodological rigor in his selection of these particular examples. Let us just look at the quality of the evidence Pinker presents—sparse and cherry-picked though it may be.
Fry dug up the original ethnographic sources Pinker used for his data on war deaths among foragers. What he found is astounding: “For two of Pinker’s cases,” Fry writes, “the Ache of Paraguay and the Hiwi of Venezuela/Colombia, all of the so-called war deaths involved frontiersmen ranchers killing the indigenous people, a tragic situation that has nothing to do with levels of warfare death in nomadic hunter-gatherers during the Pleistocene” (emphasis in the original). Clearly incensed at Pinker’s shamelessness in presenting these murders as representative of ancestral conditions, Fry continues, “To be absolutely clear, the only so-called war deaths reported [among the Hiwi] are those where indigenous people were murdered or massacred by Venezuelans. All of these killings have been counted as so-called war deaths [by Pinker], as if they have relevance to estimating war-related deaths in the Pleistocene” (p. 17, emphasis in original). In summary, Fry writes, “The degree of disconnect between what the archaeological and nomadic forager data actually show, on the one hand … and what … Pinker assert[s] on the other is monumental” (p. 20).
* * *
While this evidence of politics posing as science may seem like just another ego-driven academic dust-up, there are in fact few issues more worthy of serious consideration than the source and nature of our inhumanity to our fellow beings.
As long as politicians believe that war is as old as humanity itself, it will seem futile to imagine—and work toward—a world without war. The narrative pushing the ancient origins of violence functions less as an explanation of human nature than as a justification for the oppressive institutional control of social life. If war is the result of human nature, as the neo-Hobbesians insist—despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary—then these institutions are needed to protect us from one another. But if man’s inhumanity to man is a consequence of the institutions themselves, and in fact, we kill one another despite our inner nature, then it is time we recognized that civilization is the malady that calls itself the cure.
Clearly, like chimpanzees, human beings are capable of horrible cruelty, but like bonobos (and, normally, chimpanzees), we are also capable of astounding kindness and generosity. But do not be confused. Despite the wide range of possible behaviors, remember this: no one has ever suffered from PTSD because they helped a stranger.
January 25, 2015 Originally posted here.
I may have an opportunity to be part of a TV/Net show about sexuality. I've already told the producers that I'm only interested in a Louis C.K.-type situation where I'd be free to do/say whatever the hell I want. The world doesn't need another moralistic, judgmental show looking down its nose at "deviant" people and their bizarre hungers. Nor does it need another dusty old professor diagramming the penile hooks of creepy insects or the desperate ordeal of the salmon, who lives only to spawn and die....
I've got some ideas of topics I'd like to tackle head-on. Here are a few, to give you an idea:
- What does it really mean to be "gay?" Are two men who have sex while in prison a gay couple, even if they don't consider themselves to be? What if same-sex behavior is considered a standard part of life, as in some tribes in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere?
- Is sex with animals always wrong? If so, why? Can they give consent, just by continuing the interaction? How can it be legal to kill them, skin them, and eat them, but not to fuck them?
- Are teenaged boys who have sex with adult women victims of sexual abuse? What if they don't think so? What if, in fact, they're clamoring for the opportunity to be "abused" in this way? Are all adult/adolescent sexual encounters inescapably exploitative?
Get the idea? If I'm going to do this, I want to make a show that asks questions everyone else is afraid to address, but that are important and interesting. Please use the comments to add your ideas for topics you'd like to see addressed on a show like this. Thanks.
I'll be at Mexico's TED-style conference, called Ciudad de las Ideas, from November 7-9. Should be an interesting event, featuring lots of diverse speakers like Richard Dawkins, Helen Fisher, Deepak Chopra, and someone I've long wanted to meet in person, Robert Sapolsky. If you're in Mexico, ven a vernos.
Can Pedophilia Ever Be "Mild"?
Richard Dawkins isn't concerned about having been groped as a boy. Should we be?
First published on September 12, 2013 by Christopher Ryan in Psychology Today
World-famous scientist, Richard Dawkins has attracted a lot of negative attention recently by suggesting that the "mild pedophilia" he experienced as a boy wasn't really such a big deal. In a recent interview, he recalled how one of his teachers “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.” Dawkins went on to say, “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.” Dawkins' point was that such situations must be seen in context, and that the cultural backdrop of his youth was sufficiently different from now as to make judgment more complicated and less warranted than it may seem.
“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours," Dawkins said. "Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.
Predictably, the backlash has been intense. Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, called Dawkins’ statement “a terrible slight” to victims of such abuse. “Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way,” Watt said. “But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday.”
No, we don't know that. In fact, we don't know that any two people will "suffer the same effects" from the same experience in the here and now, much less in completely different contexts.
Bruce Rind, an expert on the study of "intergenerational sexuality," got himself in some hot water in the 1990s when he published controversial research demonstrating that the best predictor of subjective harm is whether or not the minor consented to the experience.
Sexuality researcher, Jesse Bering, summarizes these findings in his soon-to-be-published book, Perv:
"Rind and his colleagues ... argued that it makes little sense to refer to something as 'child sex abuse' if, as an adult, the individual doesn't personally feel harmed and if his or her harm can't be detected by any known empirical measures." Bering notes that "this wasn't just the authors' personal and controversial opinion, but a statement based on scientific findings. Rind's study was a meta-analysis of previously published data on the sexual histories of a whopping 35,303 college students from around the world."
Rind's subject pool was taken from randomly-chosen college students, rather than "clinical samples of adults who'd sought help for ongoing problems stemming from their being raped, molested, or otherwise sexually exploited as children or teenagers." Using this random pool of over thirty-five thousand students, Rind and his coauthors concluded that, "the majority of those people who reported having had consensual encounters with adults as minors were, at the time of testing, no more likely to have pervasive psychological problems than those who hadn't."
Bering is careful to point out that, "these mentally healthy individuals weren't those who'd been subjected to terrible abuses as children. More often they were those who, as adolescents, had consensually (in the psychological sense of that term) 'fooled around' in various ways with someone on the other side of the legal line."
In other words, they weren't traumatized, probably because, like Dawkins, they never felt that what they'd experienced was traumatic.
Bering notes that Rind and his colleagues weren't alone in their conclusions. "In 2006, the psychologist Heather Ulrich replicated Rind's 1998 findings, concluding cautiously that the presumption of universal harm from juveniles having a sexual encounter with an adult is too simplistic to account for the variance in people's subjective interpretations of their own life experiences."
Dawkins has responded to the controversy his remarks caused here, writing, "To excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from my intention."
This is indeed a delicate thing to talk about because, of course, it is a big deal when an adult abuses a child in any way—sexual or otherwise. But what this research suggests is that while urgency in detecting and stopping abuse of children is warranted, assumptions that all minors are traumatized by any sexual contact with someone over the age of consent are not scientifically supported. Perhaps more importantly, by sending the message that such experiences are by definition traumatic, we may sometimes be causing suffering even as we try to stop it.
Does God imply morality or vice-versa?
God is indeed a jealous God
He cannot bear to see
That we had rather not with Him
But with each other play.
— Emily Dickinson
This is not a completely objective review. Few are, truth be told. I’m on record as an admirer of Frans de Waal, though I’m also on record disagreeing with some of his conclusions about the evolution of human sexuality. In fact, it was the disagreement that led me to admire the man as much as his work. I’ll explain.
When we were nearing the end of writing Sex at Dawn, Cacilda and I decided fairness required us to offer to send passages from the manuscript to a few authors and researchers with whom we disagreed, but whose work was integral to our argument—none of whom we knew personally. We wanted to give them a chance to tell us where we were mistaken or perhaps being unfair in our assessment of their views. We only made this offer to a few people, most of whom either never got back to us or politely declined. (One was offended, claiming it was somehow "intellectually dishonest" to have made the offer.)
Only Frans de Waal was willing to take a look, so I sent him the material. After a few days, he responded, asking if we’d considered this paper or that book that might enrich our discussion a bit. We had, and the conversation went back and forth a few times. Always respectful, without a trace of defensiveness on his part.
Keep in mind, this was a world-famous scientist with half a dozen published books and scores, if not hundreds of scientific papers taking the time to correspond with someone he’d never heard of who was suggesting he was wrong about important things. After half a dozen exchanges, he wrote, “Who knows? You may be right. In any case, you clearly have an exciting book on your hands, whether people agree with it or not: these are issues that will need debating over and over before we will arrive at a resolution.” Cringing inside, I asked if I could quote him publicly saying this, and he replied, “Sure, you can use it as a blurb, if you like.”
You write to a famous scientist telling him you think he’s wrong about something and he ends up helping you promote your book. That’s the sort of guy Frans de Waal is.
Now, I know this sounds more like a love letter than a book review, but full disclosure is important and—in this case—illuminates the book in question: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Is there a clearer case of an alpha male going out of his way to help an unrelated, low-status male with little to offer in exchange, and a potential competitor, to boot?
According to the view of human interaction de Waal challenges in this book, such an exchange shouldn’t exist. He quotes Micael Ghiselin, an American biologist whose stark assessment is often cited in the literature:
No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation … Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [a person] from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering—his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a "hypocrite" bleed.
This assumption of psychopathic human nature is central to most of the literature of evolutionary psychology (see, for a very recent example, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature and/or this stinging critique). Indeed, the assumption that our animal, uncivilized nature is our “original sin” and that only institutions of authority keep us from raping and pillaging each other into oblivion has been front and center in the propaganda of apologists for colonialism, slavery, and forced conversion since Hobbes famously declared that human existence before the state was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
So this is no small question that de Waal proposes to answer: Are we good to each other because religions tell us to be, or are religions merely institutionalized expressions of our species' innate desire to help one another?
In arguing for the latter, de Waal cites a growing literature (of studies focused on both human and non-human primates) showing that “our first impulse is to trust and assist; only secondarily do we weigh the option of not doing so, for which we need reasons.”
This is not just another anti-religion book in the tradition of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. De Waal's argument is far more subtle and inclusive, agreeing with Einstein that, religious belief is “preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook of life.” In fact, De Waal ultimately asserts that “The whole purpose of God is … to keep us on the same straight and narrow that we’d been following ever since we lived in small bands.”
God isn’t dead; He's just beside the point.
I found The Bonobo and the Atheist to strike just the right chord. Frans de Waal isn’t telling religious people that they’re wrong to love their fellow humans (and non-humans) because God tells them to. He’s just showing why the rest of us feel the same way, whether God speaks to us or not.
Hugo Schwyzer owes Johnny Depp an apology.
Before getting too far into the weeds of this thought experiment, Schwyzer makes it clear that he's not talking about pedophiles or other obvious creeps; he's talking about men like Johnny Depp, who is apparently dating a woman in her late 20s, while he's just hit the big 5-0.
After bemoaning the ubiquity of this pattern of attraction, we come to the nub: "What seems harmless and natural, however, is neither." Schwyzer argues—or seems to—that this isn't in fact happening in response to any innate biological desire men hold for women in their most fertile years, despite the overwhelming biological evidence in support of such a view. To back up his thesis that this isn't a reflection of a "natural" desire on men's part, Schwyzer cites a 2007 study done in Sweden (though linking only to an article in The Economist that briefly mentions the study).
A few problems here.
1. You're going to cite a just single study to refute the overwhelmingly accepted understanding that men are attracted to women at the prime of their fertility due to innate, evolved tendencies? Just one?
2. The study Schwyzer cites actually says the opposite of what he thinks it does. The authors conclude that an age difference of 4-6 years (man older) is optimal for greater fecundity, not that partners should be the same age. Here's the first paragraph of their discussion at the end of the paper:
"We show that the offspring count of both men and women who did not change their partner (i.e. the other parent) between the birth of their first and last child increased, the younger the female partner was compared with the male. The age difference between the partners yielded a maximum offspring count for men, if the female partner was approximately 6 years younger than the male and for women if the male partner was approximately 4 years older than the female. These findings may account for the phenomenon that men typically prefer and mate with women younger than themselves, whereas women usually desire and mate with men older than themselves (Buss 1989; Kenrick & Keefe 1992)" (emphasis mine).
3. Note that in addition to concluding that "offspring count ... increased the younger the female partner was compared to the male," the authors stipulate that they only included couples who "did not change their partner (i.e. the other parent) between the birth of their first and last child..." So Schwyzer's contention that there is no evolutionary basis underlying this attraction, expressed as reproductive pay-off, is not supported by the only study he cites. In fact, the study he cites refutes both his contention that "the science" shows this to be other than a natural behavior pattern and his moralistic scolding of Depp for dating a 27 year-old. After noting that, "The strategic reproductive benefit of choosing a younger woman diminished as the age gap widened," without including the crucial stipulation that the study only included coupleswho only had children with each other, Schwyzer writes, "According to the science, Depp was better matched with Paradis (nine years his junior) than with the new girlfriend." No, that's not what the science says. That's the opposite of what the science says. Schwyzer's "proof" that men's fecundity didn't increase when they hooked up with younger women didn't include men who had a second family after hooking up with a younger woman, as Depp seems poised to do. It's like arguing that smoking doesn't cause cancer without including smokers in your study. Hard reasoning to follow, that.
Which brings us to the moralistic claptrap.
Apparently oblivious to his complete failure to make the scientific point, Schwyzer stumbles along into the judgmental denunciation of men's morals and motivations, writing, "So if older men aren't pursuing much younger women because of evolutionary hardwiring, why do they? It's hard not to conclude that much of the appeal is about the hope of finding someone less demanding. A man in his 40s who wants to date women in their 20s is making the same calculation as the man who pursues a 'mail-order bride' from a country with less egalitarian values. It's about the mistaken assumption that younger women will be more malleable."
Ouch. Poor, pathetic Johnny Depp. Schwyzer somehow knows Depp's not attracted to his 27 year-old girlfriend because she's interesting, smart, has a great sense of humor, and is clearly hot (i.e. He's responding to "evolutionary hardwiring"), he's into her because she's powerless and he's intimidated by less "malleable" women of his own age. Think I'm putting words in Hugo's mouth? Read em and weep: "Men who chase younger women aren't eroticizing firmer flesh as much as they are a pre-feminist fantasy of a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative."
So here's the moral of the story: Old losers like Johnny Depp are too weak-willed to pick on someone their own age, so they chase younger women who will put up with their bullsh*t because the poor young things don't know any better and couldn't do anything about if they did.
Ha! A quick perusal of Amber Heard's Wikipedia page suggests that if old Johnny's expecting malleable, starry-eyed, and appreciative, he's got another thing coming. Turns out, Miss Heard is a big fan of Ayn Rand, guns, and other women.
Schwyzer's attempt to shame consenting adults out of what he considers to be inapproapriate relationships strikes me as quite the opposite of an informed feminist perspective. If anyone's suffering from a "pre-feminist fantasy" in this situation, it would appear to be Mr. Schwyzer, who thinks a smart, successful 27 year-old woman is necessarily disempowered by her youth and beauty. I don't think she needs your help, Uncle Hugo. She seems to be doing just fine.
* Full disclosure: I've met Hugo Schwyzer when we appeared together on The Point, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. I've never met Johnny Depp, but he seems like a nice guy, too. And lastly, my wife is older than me (but far prettier).
About 34 years ago (shit! really?), I was sitting atop a Mayan temple in Tikal, Guatemala when a scorpion stung my toe. Even before this happened, I was in an altered state of consciousness that got a lot more altered when I was told that the sting of the local scorpions were lethal. It was a hell of an evening, as you can imagine. I've told this story to friends over the years, but I recently told it to Kevin Allison, who produced it for his podcast, Risk! Hope you enjoy it.
You know, for a few years now, I've been reading Paul Krugman desperately pleading that this is NOT the time for fiscal austerity in response to the economic crash. Much the opposite, he says, this is time to inject capital into the economy as a way to stimulate growth. Furthermore, he argues (very convincingly, IMHO) that because interest rates are at a century-long low, there can be no better time to invest heavily in infrastructure renovation. Fixing all those bridges, tunnels, and airports at virtually zero percent interest is a pretty sweet deal. The logic, in other words, seems pretty unassailable.
Krugman take another swing at it in today's column in the New York Times, writing:
"Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity."
Now, maybe it's just me, but this seems to be an argument in desperate need of a metaphor—an image that crystallizes what's being said. Since this thing began, four years ago, the same image comes to my mind every time I read/hear the debate:
A man (the economy) has had a massive heart attack (crash). It almost killed him, but, with huge infusions of blood (cash), he survived and is slowly recovering. But recovery is slow and tenuous. He's still shaky on his feet and looking pretty damned pale. What's the smart thing to do now?
Krugman and others seem to be saying, Take it easy. Get lots of rest, plenty of liquids, and sleep a lot. Chillax and don't stress til you're back on your feet. Paul Ryan and his crowd have been arguing that this is exactly the sort of behavior that caused the heart attack in the first place (possibly true) and thus more of the same is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing.
You see the problem here? Krugman's argument makes logical sense, but the Republican's argument makes emotional sense—which isn't really, you know, sense—even if it feels just like it. The Republican's position has all the appeal of chastising your lazy, overweight uncle for never getting off his fat ass to exercise, eat right, whip himself into shape. But is bedside in Intensive Care really the place to be making this particular point? The guy can hardly hobble to the bathroom, and you want to force him to go on early morning jogs and take hot yoga classes?
Krugman's saying, "Let the dude recover before you impose your moralistic discipline on him. Plenty of time for guilt tripping him later, unless you kill him with your harsh love now." Maybe I'm naive, but I can't help thinking that if Krugman had used this metaphor repeatedly over the past few years, more people would agree with him. Sure, a disciplined aerobic exercise program is good for you—unless you're flat on your back recovering from a massive heart attack.