Monday, June 17, 2013

The adjective not the noun

I – and others – have been reflecting lately on the concept of political conservatism, and these reflections have prompted some inchoate – and totally non-partisan – meta-thoughts on the problems of political ideology which I have set out below.

One assumption behind most reflections on conservatism (or on any political ideology) is that it is desirable to have a consciously worked out (personal) political philosophy. And the assumption behind this is that it is possible somehow to assess alternatives in a rational manner and arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. This latter assumption – on which the value of the whole exercise depends – I am beginning to doubt.

When you reflect on these matters, you have to start somewhere. And where you start will be somewhat arbitrary, though it may well be in part determined by your values.

For example, you may want to maximize equality; or you may be more concerned with individual freedom; or order, or one of any number of other ideals or goals.

My starting point – reflecting perhaps the importance I place on a scientific view of the world free of metaphysical and religious baggage – would be the social nature of human identity.

Even those who think they have totally rejected the idea of a soul still cling, I believe, to a version of this idea. It is a natural belief for us to have, and I still feel it in myself.

Take this simple thought experiment. A human body could, presumably, be grown in a laboratory, nourished and exercised to develop muscles, etc. But, if it were deprived of all normal social interactions, linguistic and other cultural input, the brain would not develop normally and this body, though apparently perfectly formed and healthy, would not, as a result, constitute a person. It would not have a human identity, or human awareness. What rights would it have, if any?

This idea of a living human body with a radically undeveloped brain (due to the withholding of social inputs during development) is – to me at any rate – slightly shocking and confronting. It tells us something about ourselves: that our sense of self, our human identity comes just as much from without – from a particular social and cultural milieu – as from within. The social matrix within which we grow is an essential component of our individuality and our very humanity. We never were and can never be 'self-contained'.

This fact has implications for any social or political philosophy. I won't try to spell out the implications here, except to say that such a view is fatal for all forms of atomistic individualism.

Values, as well as often determining the starting-point for one's basic thinking about politics, also play a part in determining the direction of the argument. And this basic notion of the social self could clearly be developed in either a progressive or a conservative direction. The choice seems to depend on taste or predilection.

Which leads me to wonder whether developing such thoughts and arguments is worthwhile (other than for polemical or similar purposes).

Moral, social and political reflections and arguments move in a linear fashion like language. In fact, the thoughts only really crystallize when spoken or written down. But, clearly, this linear process does not do justice to our deepest values which are multidimensional. Arguably, such a process cannot represent our values accurately, much less enable us to assess or justify them.

We can, of course, describe, catalogue and consider the various political outlooks which others have elaborated and defined, seeing them as more or less internally consistent and competing frameworks. But, unfortunately, all these frameworks are – necessarily – highly simplified conceptual structures which are inadequate not only as models for how the (social and political) world works (or could work), but also as representations of the actual political beliefs and values of individuals and groups.

They are arguably post hoc rationalizations, and their main function, you could say, is to faciltate the formation of, and deepen solidarity within, social and political groupings. Part marketing tool, part reinforcement mechanism.

What I am saying essentially is that such frameworks are inevitably inadequate as serious belief systems.

But, though the various –isms are no good, the adjectives from which they derive do real and important work. So I think one can still usefully talk about conservative approaches to social, political and other questions, and distinguish them from, for example, liberal (or progressive) approaches.

Increasingly I see these matters in terms of individuals having – due mainly to various genetic and developmental factors – different psychological profiles and personality traits. These differences can, of course, be mapped and defined in different ways, but something like a conservative/progressive or conservative/radical contrast will, I think, continue to be a feature of models of human personality and cognition.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Necessary freedom

The mathematician G.H. Hardy – most famous amongst the general public for his having 'discovered' the self-taught prodigy Ramanujan – said that the only other career that might have suited him was journalism.

When I first read this it surprised me, even bearing in mind the fact that journalism in early 20th-century England was very different from journalism today.

Clearly Hardy could write – his short book, A Mathematician's Apology, is a minor classic. But it's very clear from that essay that his identity was inextricably bound up with being a mathematician, and nothing else.

Late in life he attempted suicide, not just because of the general effects of failing health but also – and perhaps mainly – because his mathematical powers had deserted him.

Rather depressingly, he claimed (in his Apology) that most people don't have any significant talent for anything. But "[i]f a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full." Anyone, he asserted, who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has only one real defense. And that is to say, “I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well."

Why did he mention journalism, I wonder? It's particularly puzzling because journalism is so utterly different from mathematics generally – and especially from Hardy's style of doing and thinking about mathematics with its focus on timeless beauty.

This is in addition to the fact that mathematics is normally associated with the sciences. So, naïvely, I would expect a mathematician to say that, had he not pursued mathematics as a career, he might have become a scientist or engineer of some kind, for example.

But Hardy, though he was attracted to biology in his youth, exhibited in his adult life no great interest in or high regard for science, and he had a quite negative attitude to applied science. He prided himself on the fact (as he saw it) that his work had no practical applications.

And he disliked new technologies. He had a telephone installed in his house which he ostentatiously avoided using: it was for the use of any guests who fancied that kind of thing.

By journalism Hardy certainly didn't mean writing about scientific (or mathematical) subjects for a general audience. He meant, presumably, mainstream journalism. And my guess is that he was attracted to it for three basic reasons.

Firstly, he recognized that he had a second talent, a gift for writing – and writing with style and wit and conciseness. (He was famous amongst his friends for his postcards.)

Secondly, though scornful of politicians, he did have an interest in politics and was active in a pacifist organization, the Union of Democratic Control, during World War 1. Significantly, one of the leading and most impressive figures involved in this organization was the French-born journalist E.D. Morel.

And last but not least, I suspect that Hardy saw in the lifestyle associated with journalism (as in the academic lifestyle of the time) a kind of freedom which for a certain kind of person is not just desirable but necessary.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cultural innovation, genes, and the origin of language

Simon Fisher and Matt Ridley have argued, mainly on the basis of new DNA sequencing data, that cultural factors were far more significant in driving genetic changes in the evolutionary history of our species – such as those that led to the development of language – than was previously thought.

"The common assumption is that the emergence of behaviorally modern humans [sometime] after 200,000 years ago required – and followed – a specific biological change triggered by one or more genetic mutations."

But the "prevailing logic in the field may put the cart before the horse. The discovery of any genetic mutation that coincided with the 'human revolution' must take care to distinguish cause from effect. Supposedly momentous changes in our genome may sometimes be a consequence of cultural innovation. They may be products of culture-driven gene evolution."

Fisher and Ridley quote obvious, uncontroversial examples where culture has driven genetic change – like lactase persistence amongst dairy-farming communities, and alcohol-tolerance amongst Europeans (who generally drank more alcohol than Asians, for example).

The question of language origins is much more complex, of course, but there is mounting evidence – relating, for example, to variations in the FOXP2 gene in humans and other species – that cultural factors were the drivers of change.

FOXP2 is known to play an important role in human language abilities, but, in considering the roles of FOXP2 in human evolution, it is important to recognize that it has a deep evolutionary history.

"Animal studies indicate ancient conserved roles of this gene in patterning and plasticity of neural circuits, including those involved in integrating incoming sensory information with outgoing motor behaviors. The gene has been linked to acquisition of motor skills in mice and to auditory-guided learning of vocal repertoires in songbirds. Contributions of FOXP2 to human spoken language must have built on such ancestral functions.

"Indeed, further data from mouse models suggest that humanization of the FOXP2 protein may have altered the properties of some of the circuits in which it is expressed, perhaps those closely tied to movement sequencing and/or vocal learning.

"Given these findings, it seems unlikely that FOXP2 triggered the appearance of spoken language in a nonspeaking ancestor. It is more plausible that altered versions of this gene were able to spread through the populations in which they arose because the species was already using a communication system requiring high fidelity and high variety. If, for instance, humanized FOXP2 confers more sophisticated control of vocal sequences, this would most benefit an animal already capable of speech. Alternatively, the spread of the relevant changes may have had nothing to do with emergence of spoken language, but may have conferred selective advantages in another domain.

"FOXP2 is not the only gene associated with the human revolution. However, it illustrates that when an evolutionary mutation is identified as crucial to the human capacity for cumulative culture, this might be a consequence rather than a cause of cultural change. The smallest, most trivial new habit adopted by a hominid species could – if advantageous – have led to selection of genomic variations that sharpened that habit, be it cultural exchange, creativity, technological virtuosity, or heightened empathy.

"This viewpoint is in line with recent understanding of the human revolution as a gradual but accelerating process, in which features of behaviorally modern human beings came together piecemeal in Africa over many tens of thousands of years."

The accumulating evidence alluded to by Fisher and Ridley certainly makes Noam Chomsky's suggestion that language appeared all of a sudden and was the direct result of a genetic mutation look naïve and implausible.

But it also challenges the more mainsteam approaches still favored by many linguists who (influenced, like Chomsky, by traditional rationalism) see the human language faculty in absolute and ahistorical terms.

Descartes saw "la raison" [reason] as being "toute entière en un chacun" [entirely and equally present in each of us], and many linguists still see language in a similar – and strangely metaphysical – way.