Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Chauvinism of Michael Le Page

Since the late 1990’s, I have been teaching a course called Human Nature and Human Values.  Every year I get exactly one very bitter complaint on my student evaluations.  I don’t know why it is so consistently just one.  This year was no exception; however, in this case the student was unusually honest and articulate.  She or he complained about the material.  I am paraphrasing here. 
The professor talked about human beings and animals raping and abusing and killing one another; about women’s reproductive value and men being horny and greedy.  I was uncomfortable with this. 
I can only plead that I was doing my job.  College is about becoming a grownup.  To do that, you have to have some awareness of how the world really works and have some idea what the people who shape the human world (including, especially, scientists) are thinking.  This sometimes means finding out things that you don’t want to know.  I warn students at the beginning of every class: if you don’t want to know that your parents had sex, you might have a problem with this material. 
I am genuinely sympathetic to the author of the above comment, in large part because of the honesty and self-knowledge evident in it.  Usually the one bitter complaint focuses on something other than the real issue: the tests were unfair, he misspelled words on the board, oh, and he talked about lesbian monkeys.  This student laid the real problem on the table: he or she did not like to watch a film clip of a male lion killing the cubs of his predecessor. 
One of the first times I taught the course and young woman visited my office after the final and confessed that, every day after she left the classroom she would go to her car and cry.  She thought I was telling her that, because there are evolutionary explanations for maternal love, that her mother didn’t really love her.  I belatedly corrected that error (see the previous post) and have been mindful about it ever since. 
On the other hand, the class is very popular and I always get a lot of favorable comments.  This is so despite the fact that most of my students come from traditional religious backgrounds.  I explain that what they believe is none of my business.  I make it clear that I respect them even if they disagree with me on really important things. 
I also try to show them that even if they cannot accept certain fundamental parts of evolutionary theory, for example the common ancestry of human beings and chimpanzees, they can still recognize how natural selection works on a daily basis and appreciate how our similarity with chimpanzees can help us understand ourselves.  My favorite teach phrase is this: human beings may be more than mere animals, but we are at least animals.  That’s all they want. 
One of the great obstacles to this kind of approach is the chauvinism of many Darwinian apostles.  Recently I have been reading a collection of articles from the New Scientist magazine.  Life on Earth: Origins, Evolution, Extinction is great reading.  Michael Le Page leads off the chapter on evolution with a list of misconceptions and myths about the theory.  I found almost all of the items on his list convincing: no, everything is not an adaptation (#1); no, evolution is not disprovable (#2); no, natural selection is not the only means of evolution (#8). 
At #6 (It doesn’t matter if people don’t grasp evolution), I was appalled.  This misconception has nothing to do with evolution; it has only to do with Le Page’s political bias. 
If a Republican wins the 2016 US election the world’s biggest superpower will be run by a man who rejects evolution, thanks to the support of millions of people in the US who also cannot accept reality. 
I happen to be a Republican.  My chances of winning the 2016 are slim, I grant you; however, if I did win, this superpower would be run (in so far as Presidents run anything) by someone who does not reject evolution.  I swim in it.  This is how prejudice works.  All those people are the same. 
I suspect that some significant Democratic constituencies are also hostile to evolution, but that aside: does it really advance the cause of science to wed the theory of evolution to the claim that all Republicans are stupid?  Even if you believe that the latter is true, is this good strategy?  It gets better. 
The success of western civilization is based on science and technology, on understanding and manipulating the world… Any leader who thinks that evolution is a matter of belief is arguably unfit for office. 
The first part of that quote is at best only partly true.  Modern science and technology are largely available to poor countries.  What they lack, among other things, are the elements of western political culture: individual liberty, property rights, democracy, religious tolerance, the rule of law, etc. 
The second part of the quote is the kind of non sequitur would cause whiplash in any rational person who tried to accept it.  How many leaders of any western nation over the course of the last century had a good grasp of Newtonian physics, the laws of thermodynamics, let alone quantum physics or Einstein’s relativity?  Yes, technology and science are fundamental elements of the strength of Western civilization; however, that is not because we have been ruled by engineers or scientists. 
It is true that “evolution is directly related to many policy decisions”.  Le Page mentions infectious diseases.  He might be surprised to learn that neither chief executives nor members of Congress or of a parliament routinely make decisions on a level at which such a theory is relevant.  They generally trust experts to make those decisions.  Might it not undermine that trust to tell a Republican Senator that she is not fit for office? 
If the recent Brexit vote in England or the rise of Donald Trump in America shows anything, it shows what happens when elites are routinely contemptuous of their constituents.  Scientists (and science writers) are necessarily among the elites.  If there should ever be a republic where more than a small percentage of the population is deeply invested in science, it won’t appear soon. 
All things considered, I would like to have a president who has a good grasp of modern science, including evolution.  I would be much more concerned to have a chief executive who has a general grasp of economics and a common sense understanding of foreign policy.  Meanwhile, I would like to see more scientists and science writers who are less contemptuous of people who do not fall into either of those categories.  I humbly suggest that this might advance the cause of science more than the former spiting on the latter. 

Perhaps Le Page should come to Northern State University and sit in on my class.  He might learn something. c 


  1. I think the reason you get consistent complaints about Human Nature and Human Values may be that it is a little like the process the man in Plato's Allegory of the Cave goes through. It's hard to look at light when you've only seen shadows. Similarly, it's hard to look at the uncomfortable side of human nature when you're used to looking at the palatable version of it.

    But that isn't the hardest part of the class. The hardest part is coming to terms with the fact that it is possible that some of your most deeply held values could be wrong and that some of the things that you have loved since childhood might not be what you thought they were. That is emotionally traumatic. It is also worth it.

    I think Le Page ought to take your class. So should other candidates. So should everyone! But I think women may benefit the most from taking it. Understanding some of the the biological reasons for male behavior might make relationships seem less mystical, but it also makes it easier for women to understand, empathize and deal wisely with men.

  2. Miranda:

    I agree with everything you say. I especially like your invocation of the Allegory of the Cave. It is relevant here because it works both ways. Not only is it hard for those coming out of the cave to see in the light, so it is hard for those returning (for the sake of their fellows below) to see when they get down there.

    I find it difficult to see evolutionary theory as anything but beautiful. I don't think that understanding the evolutionary roots of the beautiful and noble things detracts in any way from their beauty, any more than understanding the science of optics detracts from the beauty of a Canaletto perspective. I have to try hard to see why it seems otherwise to so many people.

    So far, I cannot think of a single cherished idea that I held before I began to take Darwinism seriously that I had to give up. On the other hand, I can't think of one that seems exactly the same to me as it did before. I hope that means that my idea are richer.

    I hope it is true that my course helps women understand men better and vice versa. It doesn't always work that way. One student had a boy friend working in Canada. He came home every weekend to have her do his laundry. She had an idea he wasn't behaving himself up there (it was Canada, after all) and she started calling him every morning and reading sections of the textbook. He offered her $500 to drop the class. That, apparently, is what my course was worth.

    1. Dr. Blanchard:

      Thank you for taking the time to reply.

      If the cave is only full of shadows and there is only light outside, it is easy to see why someone on the outside would have trouble understanding what people in the shadows saw in being inside. But suppose that, inside the cave, there were shadows of all the people you had once loved, who had died and that this was all you had left of them. Suppose there was a good chance that you might never see them again if you were to step into the light. Wouldn’t you be more reluctant to step out of the cave? I would be.

      Those of us who grew up believing that the soul was a ghost in the machine, that could survive apart from the body and live forever - and that this meant that perhaps we could reunite with the souls of those we had loved, but who had died - have a difficult time seeing the idea of the soul as a set of nutritive processes, dependent on the body.

      To believe that the soul depends on the body, which is clearly not eternal, means having to consider the idea that the soul is not eternal. It may mean having to accept that the dead are dead and that there is no chance of seeing them again. Whether this is true or not, I think it is a less beautiful idea than the idea of eternal life and the chance to see those you have lost again. That is not to say that something is truer just because it more beautiful, but I don’t think it is hard to see why someone might be reluctant to leave such an idea behind.

      It would be interesting to know what you believed before you took Darwinism seriously. I am sorry for your student. If she took that deal, she was cheated.

  3. Between the two of us, what I believed before I took Darwinism seriously is pretty much the same as I believed afterward. Maybe that means I was right all along. Maybe it means my ignorance was invincible.

    I don't put much importance on belief. Belief is just how things seem from this point of view. The Greek word that is usually translated as "belief" in the Bible really means "trust". Let us agree to trust that the story will end well.