Virtue and Reason Trump Hate

The Letter

hate mail

This is a letter that was sent to friends in our neighborhood in Longmont, Colorado (postmarked from Denver). D is brown, a 2nd generation Mexican/Spanish American (his father was born in Mexico, his mother’s ancestry is Spanish, he was born in Texas). S is white, with ancestry in the United Kingdom. And their three brown boys vary in age from four to 11 (all born in Longmont).[1] D and S are teachers in our local public schools and leaders in our community, volunteering their time on many worthy projects (including herculean efforts in the aftermath of the flooding in 2013). In short, they’re great people and model citizens.

But that doesn’t matter.

Even if they were first generation immigrants, and not pillars of our community, nobody should be subjected to this kind of hate and harassment. I asked D if part of the fear that this letter instills is that he must now feel like he has to keep looking over his shoulder. Being a brown man, he said, he’s always had that feeling – but now it involves his family, too. If attacking someone based solely on the color of his skin isn’t egregious enough, the nefariousness of bringing his children into it is unconscionable. If this letter doesn’t enrage you, maybe you should check where you stand on Poppa’s Humanity Scale.

White People

And there is a lot of rage, and sadness, and shock, and empathy surrounding this incidentamerican values in our mostly white, mostly liberal, mostly middle class part of town. Across the tracks, a much higher proportion of people are Latino, many of their children bused into the elementary school in my neighborhood. What kind of degradations do they face on a regular basis?

White liberals like me are shocked when something like this occurs in our community. It is our privilege that affords us our outrage and indignation. We will not go to jail for it, or be deported, or be harassed. We are amazed that this could even happen in today’s society. People of color are not so shocked.[2]

In addition to being shocked and angry when hearing about a racist incident, this is a time for white people to look within – what kind of privilege does our white skin afford us? For men, what does our male-ness afford us? For straight people, what advantages does that give us? What does our class standing, or our American-ness, or our health, or our education do for us?

White Christian conservatives purport to be even less convinced that this kind of discrimination persists (at least against people of color). In a recent poll, 43% of Republicans feel that whites face a lot of discrimination, whereas 27% feel that blacks face a lot of discrimination. In contrast, 87% of blacks feel that blacks face a lot of discrimination, while only 19% feel that whites face a lot of discrimination. Interestingly, among Democrats, 82% feel that blacks experience a lot of discrimination, whereas only 19% feel that whites face a lot of discrimination (similar percentages to how blacks feel).

The Great Divide

Why is there such a yawning gap between how those on the right and left see the issues of racism and discrimination? Is it because white Christians, now a minority in the United States, feel threatened? Most Republicans (about three-quarters of whom are white Christians) believe that it is extremely or very important that U.S. culture be grounded in Christian religious beliefs. Most Democrats (only 29% of whom are white Christians), on the other hand, believe that mixing cultures and values from around the world is extremelylove thy neighbor or very important to American identity. In 2008, 54% of Americans described themselves as white Christians; today, that number has dropped to 43%.

What are Christian religious beliefs? The United States may have been founded by a group of white male Christian elite slaveholders, but they had the foresight, in the First Amendment to the Constitution, to write “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg…. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” – Thomas Jefferson

“For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…. May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants.” – George Washington

“You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous Life without the Assistance afforded by Religion; you having a clear Perception of the Advantages of Virtue and the Disadvantages of Vice, and possessing a Strength of Resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common Temptations.” – Benjamin Franklin

science is trueToday, many Christian conservatives are fond of pointing out that this country was founded on Christian values. If these quotes are any indication, though, the Founding Fathers believed that reason and virtue were the most important values, regardless of, and perhaps superseding, one’s faith. (Which isn’t to say that these guys had it all figured out because, of course, they were racist, and there is a legacy of racism in our culture that is centuries in the healing, but continues to fester.)

Reason and Virtue

I propose that, fundamentally, what really ought to matter to white Christians, and to white non-Christians and black people and brown people, is virtue and reason. To the extent that these are threatened, either from without or from within, we should resist together. All cultures harbor, to varying degrees, elements that attenuate virtue and reason, but I believe that any threats that immigrants or people of color may (or, more often, may not) present in this regard pale in comparison to the threats posed by American economic elites bent on keeping America divided for their own gain.

open mindedIf more white Christians came to see virtue and reason, rather than religion itself (or, more nefariously, their white skin), as the primary bases of what we should value in our culture, I believe they would take a much different view of the direction that our culture is heading. Given the inexorable growth of knowledge in society, virtue and reason become an unstoppable force (as long as people don’t become complacent).

The United States, for all its faults, is the most diverse nation the world has ever seen. As a nation our values, our identity, are shaped by this diversity, and that’s part of our strength.[3] This may be getting a little platitudinous, but when we compromise our virtue or when we lose sight of reason (these are, after all, our American values), we lose some of our American-ness.

The Regressive Strategy

In a recent post I posited that Regressives are distinct from everyday Republicans or conservatives. Most Republican voters and conservative thinkers actually want a better world. But Regressives are much more self-interested – they are the economic elites (the plutocrats) who work to undermine societal progress for their own benefit.[4] Regressives have largely appropriated the national Republican Party.

It is no accident that large swaths of white America blame their ills on people of color. The Southern Strategy was a deliberate attempt by Republicans, beginning in the 1960s, to enlist white people to their cause by fomenting hate toward black people. That strategy all hearts the samehas continued in various iterations to this day, as President Trump stokes resentment against immigrants and Muslims, while at the same time proposing legislation that will further erode the fortunes of his white base.

Conservative evangelicals present a perfect opportunity for manipulation. Going back to the Scopes trial, American Christians have been taught to distrust science and the media. Regressives saw this as an opportunity; they built upon this distrust of reason, and coupled it with the fear, anger, and hate exacerbated by the Southern Strategy. Eventually, “alternative” media outlets like Fox News played upon this fear and distrust, creating an army of angry white people.

Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio talk show host in Wisconsin for 25 years, summed it up this way in a recent New York Times op-ed:

[A]s we learned this year, we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited…. We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.

Which isn’t to say that the people who buy into this false narrative don’t have any culpability. Meanwhile, Regressive policies on everything from health care to taxes to worker protections to education made life worse for white Christians (and pretty much everybody else).[5]all welcome


Whites without a college degree have seen an increase in mortality rates since 2000, largely as a result of drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver disease (termed “deaths of despair”). There is a tendency among liberals to discount the suffering of this group – oh, you poor white people, you are so oppressed. The fact is, a growing proportion of poor white people are beginning to experience the economic hardship that many people of color have always faced.fear and hope

Regressives, while aggravating the desperation of many white people, have sought to channel the resultant depression, fear, and anger into hate for other groups (again, the people who practice hate share the responsibility). If Donald Trump is good at one thing, it is stirring up anger and hate in his base; hate crimes are on the rise under President Trump.

Hate may be an evolutionary adaptation to help protect complex communities against outside threats. Aside from helping to combat direct threats to a society (like invasion or war), hate may also play a role in curbing perceived internal threats, like changing demographics and growing inequality. Hate can empower the powerless, giving them a tool to eliminate perceived threats, but it comes at the cost of empathy and rational thinking. Taken to an extreme, hate extinguishes any hope of living a fulfilling life.

loveProgressives and especially Democrats have devoted less and less attention to poor, white, rural voters, and also to middle-class white suburban voters. Most of the attention these demographics receive is from Regressives (even if it is for sinister purposes). It’s time for Democrats to remember that they were once the party of the working class and the poor. Progressives need to reach out to suburban and rural areas and remind people that Progressive policies are their best hope, and that it is not immigrants and people of color and liberals that pose the threat – it is the very Regressives who have pretended to listen. Rather than give in to Regressive tendencies toward hate, a Progressive vision channels sadness, fear, and anger into action for positive change.


I’ve had a number of great conversations with D and S since the letter. One thing D said tolove neighbors me is that he’d like it if more white people were aware of what people of color have to endure, and that he wished we white people would be less complacent about it. We are working within our community to start a foundation ( that will help distribute yard signs, set up community-wide block parties, and contribute to Progressive causes.

S, in a post after they received the letter, wrote:

To all who say that nothing has changed since Trump took office, I respectfully request that you read the hashtag at the close of this letter (and obviously the content). There is no denying that his hateful and fear-based rhetoric has far-reaching negative effects. He has given permission to those who hold racist views to voice their hatred. My family and I are certainly not the only ones to be on the receiving end of this, and there are countless others who have received far worse. But this is our home. And our neighborhood. And our country. And this is an unacceptable letter.

Here is my request. Be kind to each other. Treat others with even more compassion than ever before. Go out of your way to make friendly eye contact with strangers, with people who appear to be different than you (but who are truly, as fellow members of our human race, very much the same), and to quickly and firmly speak up against any hate based speech or act.

we love our neighbors

The photos in this post are from a gathering to support the values we care about in our community.

Further Reading (recommended by a good friend who is Iranian American)

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
The Heart of Whiteness by Robert Jensen
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


[1] The letter that D and S received is primarily racist, but it also contains the xenophobic cliché “go back where you came from.” Despite the somber mood, D joked about where he was supposed to “go back to.” Texas? His boys are from Longmont, so where should they “go back to”? When you start telling 2nd and 3rd generation Americans to go back where they came from, it begs the question, how many generations does it take to become an American? I would guess that the letter writer has nothing on D, who likely has ancestry in the Americas going back about 14,000 years.

A long long time ago, there was a group of Americans who were justifiably worried about immigrants pouring into their land. I believe it was Sitting Bull who said, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing smallpox, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” White people sure did have a devastating impact on the way of life of the first Real Americans. [Back]

[2]Saturday Night Live summed it up nicely in a skit after Donald Trump was elected:


[3]I think there’s a parallel with the English language, which contains vastly more words than any other language. This is because English is not xenophobic – English, a germanic language – incorporates multitudinous words from the Romance languages, as well as any other word that makes our language more robust: pajama (Farsi), boomerang (Australian aboriginal), jumbo (Swahili), ketchup (Cantonese?), taboo (Hawaiian), jungle (Hindi), behemoth (Hebrew), barbecue (Arawakan). [Back]

[4]This study indicates that economic elites have substantial impacts on U.S. government policy. [Back]

[5]Democrats (with far fewer, but perhaps with growing numbers of, Regressives in their ranks) may have come to see many of these rural, white Christians as no longer part of their base, and thus have further exacerbated their woes. [Back]

In The Beginning

Do you wax nostalgic about the days when we were a primordial ooze floating in the ancient ocean? Me, too. But how did that ooze come together to start forming beings that could reproduce themselves? No one’s quite sure how those first complex molecules, like RNA, formed. Was it magic? Abracadabra, let there be life!

Well, turns out our pre-life ancestors may have been hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), with a little UV light thrown in, and to kickstart the whole shebang – the magic Frankenstein moment – the energy from the impact of a comet. These humble molecules thus gave rise to nucleic acid precursors, and these presumably formed early RNA molecules, capable of replicating themselves. And now we’re not alone (or at least these pre-life ancestors aren’t) – there’s new evidence that HCN and other precursors to life formed around other stars. I shall never look askance again at HCN or H2S.

Going back a little further, the building blocks for the building blocks of life were made by supernovae and hypernovae. We are, quite literally, stardust. Other molecules essential to life were concocted in the celestial realm – up to half of the water on Earth is believed to have been formed in interstellar clouds prior to the formation of the solar system.

The next move, I suppose, will be creating the conditions to actually replicate the beginning of life – think it’ll happen in the next 5-10 years?

Relative Understanding

lorentz transformation

If you understand this equation, this post is not for you.

I’m not much of an aural learner, so in college I generally didn’t garner much from lectures. In physics, I made it to class about three times (five, if you count the exams), preferring to learn from the textbook. The professor was incredibly dry, but he was a smart guy. At one point, after one of the few classes I attended, I asked him if he could explain relativity to me.

“If a ten foot ladder is traveling at the speed of light, and it flies through an eight foot barn, the whole thing will be inside the barn at once.”

Earlier, in high school, my physics teacher had attempted to explain relativity:

“If you went on a trip into space and traveled close to the speed of light, when you arrived back on Earth, everybody you know would be dead and gone.”

After college, my cousin’s girlfriend tried to explain it to me:

“If there’s a clock orbiting the Earth, it measures time more slowly relative to a clock on the surface.”

OK, I was getting a little closer to understanding what happens, but not why it happened. When I asked Neil deGrasse Tyson about relativity,* he showed a picture of how gravity bends the spacetime continuum:spacetime









This gave me a better visual understanding of how relativity works. Gravity bends the spacetime continuum, thus slowing time down relative to areas of less gravity. So, if we were in space looking at a clock on the surface of the Earth, that clock would appear to be ticking slower. Conversely, standing on Earth, if we were to look at a clock floating in space, it would appear to be sped up.

But, as it turns out, this is only part of the picture. What Neil showed me was a representation of general relativity, which Einstein posited 100 years ago. Not that I understand much of what he was saying, but it was fun to read it in Einstein’s own words. The relativity of time due to gravity is called gravitational time dilation. But it doesn’t address the three explanations I had over the years of what relativity is – in fact, it seems to contradict my cousin’s girlfriend (blast you, Melanie!).

That’s because general relativity is different from special relativity. Why didn’t anybody tell me there were two different kinds of this shit?** Special relativity, introduced by Einstein 110 years ago, deals with all that velocity stuff. My professors and Melanie were talking about special relativity. According to this, time is also relative depending on the velocity (relative, of course) of an object. This is called relative velocity time dilation. If you have two clocks and you throw one, the moving clock will tick less time off than the stationary one. Relative velocity time dilation explains why a guy traveling close to the speed of light will find that all of his friends and family have long since turned to dust when he returns from his space trip***; and it also explains why a clock orbiting the Earth tells time slower than a clock on Earth (good job, Melanie!). The fact that the orbiting clock is moving faster than the clock on Earth outweighs the opposite effect of gravitational time dilation (depending on how fast it’s going, relatively). In fact, the cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev has aged about 20 milliseconds less than the rest of us, due to his time zooming around the Earth at about 7.7 km/s on the International Space Station – he has, in a sense, traveled forward in time. Personally, I’m going to run everywhere I go now, to slow aging (that should add a nanosecond or two to my life relative to the rest of you slouches).

Another component of special relativity is length contraction.**** This means that a relatively fast-moving object will be shorter than it was at rest. This explains the ladder-in-the-barn trick, I guess. But it’s all about perspective, right? If you’re on the ladder, shouldn’t the barn seem smaller? (Whoops, just saw that this is called the ladder paradox and that I’m suffering from the mistaken assumption of absolute simultaneity – simultaneity is also relative.) OK, well, at the speed of light, does everything seem infinitesimal to an observer? Maybe photons are just ladders and space travelers and universes and whatnot zipping past and through us all the time.

So where does this all leave me? Relatively lost still. Why does gravity bend spacetime? How the hell does gravity even work? Why does time move more slowly the faster one goes (relative to a stationary observer)? Magic, of course – Bill O’Reilly and I can agree on that.***** I guess I’ll have to be content accepting what smarter people than I have figured out – if I can’t wrap my mind around four dimensions, how am I going to do with ten or 26 dimensions?


*OK, I didn’t ask him so much as watch one of his shows. And, just as Neil himself has a fallible memory, mine may be misremembering the actual host of the show, but it’s nice to think that it was Neil.

**Well, they probably did but, y’know, the whole aural learning thing. My wife needs to draw me diagrams to get me to remember to feed the kids when she’s gone.

***What if, relative to a third object (say, a distant planet), the space traveler is actually not moving at all, but the Earth and the distant planet are moving apart at almost the speed of light? Is it not then the Earth moving close to the speed of light, relative to the space traveler, so wouldn’t the Earthlings be aging more slowly? Does the space guy need to return to Earth (necessitating even faster travel relative to the distant planet) to realize his slower aging? Ahh, I guess this is called the twin paradox, and apparently I’m using an incorrect naïve interpretation of time dilation and relativity – somehow relativity of simultaneity and length contraction and separate inertial frames come into play, and this goes beyond my ability to comprehend. But it does seem dependent on the space traveler making the return trip, right?

****To tie this in with my last post, one might also call this shrinkage.

*****Neil deGrasse Tyson, not so much.

Tabula Plena

Blank Slate“I think we have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.” -Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s slate has a lot more written on it than most of our slates do – his tabula is far from rasa. That’s part of the reason I racked up some library late fees when I checked out The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. I’ve been arguing the importance of human nature for years with anybody who seems to lean too heavily on the pillar of nurture (gender is just cultural, we’re all born with equal capacity to be smart, anybody could beat Usain Bolt if they just tried harder). Unfortunately my ability at persuasion was generally lacking, and most of these debates would end with that incontrovertible forensic coup de grâce: “Because… because I said so.” Along comes Steven Pinker and The Blank Slate, with some actual evidence for the importance of human nature; lots and lots of evidence, which meant I took lots and lots of notes (32 pages, and I write small), which meant I needed the book for a few extra days (sorry, Longmont Library).

It’s a thick book, so here are the Cliff Notes of the Cliff Notes:

No matter how much nurture you give your child, he or she will not become the next Shaquille O’Neal.*

Put another way:

Our brains, just like the rest of our bodies, are evolutionarily adapted – pre-wired – to help us survive and thrive. This doesn’t mean that who we will become is completely predetermined – natural selection also built some plasticity into our brains. It also doesn’t mean that, just because we’re all born with different capacities, we are not equal as human beings.

As my daughter would say, “Guhdoy!” Isn’t this, or shouldn’t it be, obvious? We are incredibly complex machines, shaped by random trial and error to fit into our environment. And we come in innumerable genetically programmed shapes and sizes. Why should our brains be any different?

I like to think of each human trait as falling along a continuum. According to our genetic programming, each of us has a certain range along that continuum where a trait may be expressed. The range is determined by our genes, but where we fall within that range is determined by the environment. Some traits have more plasticity – with a larger range on the continuum – than others, and thus the environment (nurture) has more of an effect. The totality of our traits, programmed by our genes but precisely honed by our environment, is known as our phenotype.

Here are a few examples:

Height Continuum

Introvert Extrovert Continuum











Hirsute Continuum







If it’s fairly intuitive that we come pre-programmed with various differences in our appearances, why is there so much resistance to the idea that our brains are also innately variable? Pinker thinks the culprit is an over-correction; in centuries past in much of Western society, the aristocracy upheld a caste system that predetermined your rank (and worth) – with slavery at the extreme. John Locke and others combatted this idea with the notion that we are all born equal, with Blank Slates for minds. This notion may have served to implant the idea that things like noble birth and slavery might not be all they were cracked up to be. But in the 19th, 20th, and even 21st centuries, Pinker says, social scientists took the Blank Slate as manifest, insisting that we are purely creatures of socialization (I suspect that Pinker employs the straw man here, and a bit throughout the book). He goes on to cite various examples of social scientists, anthropologists, and biologists trying to fit square pegs into the round hole that is the Blank Slate. Newer disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology have provided proof that there is no Blank Slate, thus nicking some corners into that round hole – and now the peg fits a lot better.

In addition to the Blank Slate, Pinker cites the associated fallacies of the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. The idea of the Noble Savage is that pre-industrial societies were generally peace-loving, harmonious cultures. In fact, Pinker notes, violence and warfare are virtually universal among cultures. In Western society, murder rates have dropped ten- to a hundredfold in the last millennium (in pre-state societies 10-60% of men were killed by other men). Violence, especially in men,** is an evolutionary adaptation – part of survival is protecting your resources in uncertain conditions. But conflict resolution is also universal – if the best course of action is to resolve a situation without conflict, we can do that, too.

As Pinker points out, understanding that violence is at least partly innate, and understanding how it evolved, can help us enact mechanisms and institutions to mitigate it. Many pre-state societies fall into a Hobbesian trap – the idea that you have to preemptively kick your neighbor’s ass before he kicks your ass. Lex talionis – letting it be known that you will severely kick somebody’s ass if they try to kick yours – is one way out of the Hobbesian trap. But a better way, which most of the modern world (aside from anarchists and extreme libertarians) favors, is the rule of law. The idea here is that you have rules, along with an ostensibly impartial enforcer (police), and consequences for rule-breakers.*** So you can rest easy that your neighbor generally will not kick your ass, because there’s a societal agreement that a third party will kick his ass if he does. On a larger scale, this seems to make a good case for a stronger, toothier United Nations.

The Ghost in the Machine fallacy is the idea that the mind is separate from the body.**** There’s a little fairy that makes us conscious. A soul that lives on after our body is gone. This is a fun idea – I’d like to float around and see what’s happening in the world long after my body is gone. But, as Pinker argues, “The doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on this earth.” Our minds are beautiful, elegant contraptions – even moreso because they are not endowed with some magical force.

Here are some other ideas from the book:

  • Hundreds of traits are universal across cultures.
  • A partially pre-wired brain doesn’t preclude plasticity. Despite some programming, and partly because of it, we have the capacity for infinite thoughts and behavioral choices. We have free will.
  • Most effects of genes are probabilistic, leading to further plasticity.
  • E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, which proposed that much of human behavior is grounded in evolutionary biology, was attacked because many thought it locked people into castes. But, in fact, it promoted the idea that there is a biological basis for human complexity and flexibility, and for altruism.
  • Humans are born with different capacities for intelligence, personality, behavior, learning, morality, etc. This makes us different from each other, but just as we remain equal after nurture has further tweaked these capacities, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be considered equal at birth. In fact, if intelligence is largely due to the luck of the draw, maybe people will see this as a privilege rather than a testament to their superiority.
  • There is more genetic variability within races than among them, but there may be some broadly overlapping differences among races.
  • Humans have the capacity for both good and evil, selfishness and selflessness. Understanding these better can, without erasing all selfish motivations, at least overcome them via better cooperation. Cooperation has evolved because it can benefit both sides.
  • In spite of predilections for certain kinds of actions and behavior, humans are too complex to be pigeonholed into a deterministic model. A better understanding of human nature can help us overcome certain negative predilections and nurture more positive ones.
  • Morality has evolved and resides within us; we need not fall into nihilism just because morality wasn’t bestowed upon us by some outside agency. Pinker, referring to a Calvin & Hobbes comic, says “Since one is better off not shoving and not getting shoved than shoving and getting shoved, it pays to insist on a moral code, even if the price is adhering to it oneself.” Take that, anarchists!
  • Although we have an imperfect perception of the world, an objective reality exists, and our brains are pretty darn good at figuring it out. Even many of our stereotypes have a basis in reality.
  • Our brains are generally pre-wired to understanding intuitive physics (objects), intuitive biology (living things), intuitive engineering (tools), intuitive psychology (people), spatial sense, number sense, probability, intuitive economics, logic, language, danger, contamination, and morality. Our brains don’t have innate understandings of modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and higher math.
  • Our sense of morality is prone to error. Sometimes we conflate impurity with sin, and on the flip side sometimes we conflate prestige with morality.
  • Liberalism and conservatism are largely heritable. Conservatives tend to be more authoritarian, conscientious, traditional, and rulebound than liberals.
  • The new sciences of human nature vindicate the view largely held by those on the right that humans are limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and that society itself is limited in its capacity for improvement.
  • Men and women are different physically, mentally, and emotionally (with varying degrees of overlap in most traits). These differences stem from different evolutionary roles. In terms of overall intelligence, men and women are very similar.
  • There are three laws of behavioral genetics: 1. All behavioral traits are heritable. 2. Genes have a greater effect on behavior than being raised in the same family. 3. A large portion of behavioral traits isn’t accounted for by genes or family. The missing portion (~50% of the variation seen), could be the result of peer groups, as well as simple chance (especially in our early development).
  • Postmodernist art sucks.

I think that last bullet fairly sums up Pinker’s final “Hot Button” chapter. This incongruous and not fully developed chapter on art could have been left on the cutting room floor. But it’s indicative of a broader problem with Pinker’s thinking (Pink Think?); he, too, is occasionally guilty of trying to hammer pegs into the wrong holes, as it suits his needs (a form of grotesquerie). Is the sole purpose of art beauty, as he seems to contend? Is our perception of beauty simply an evolutionary adaptation, easily defined and delineated? Though there’s undoubtedly an evolutionary basis for how we perceive beauty, our cultural interactions with this foundation are too complex to easily encapsulate. And our perceptions of beauty evolve (in a cultural sense) – I’ve heard it said that people didn’t get much of what Coltrane was doing when he did it, but he changed their perceptions of what was beautiful. And what about Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, when he takes the guitar too far into the future at his parents’ high school dance?


I picture Pinker’s slate kind of like the chalkboard you often see in movies in the background of a math professor’s lab, full of complex and incomprehensible (to us) equations. It’s a beautiful, exceptional mind, one that easily sees patterns that the rest of us miss. But it’s not infallible. As mentioned, Pinker sometimes employs what I suspect to be straw men, and adds a dash of grotesquerie to make his point more forcefully. But I also think he occasionally misses important information. In another “Hot Button” chapter focusing on children, he cites behavioral genetics studies (outlined in the bullet above) to make the point that parents (the prime nurturers) don’t have much of an effect on how their children turn out. Having previously heard of some of these reports, I was on board with this idea, but after reading this chapter, I have more questions about the effects of parental nurture. The behavioral genetics studies cited by Pinker measure intelligence, personality, and life outcomes, and find that about half the variability seen in these traits is heritable, less than 10% is from a shared environment (largely the home environment), and the other 40-50% is from peer groups or chance (sounds like an area for further study). Intelligence and personality are largely heritable, and we as parents have very little impact on those traits in our children – I’m down with that. But are there other traits, not necessarily measured in these studies, that parents can instill in their children? What about courtesy, caring, empathy, common sense, fiscal responsibility, love of learning, a sense of justice, wisdom, morality? And what about short-term versus long-term behavioral effects? Did Veruca Salt’s parents have nothing to do with her entitled temper tantrums?


Pinker argues that the science of human nature has poked large holes in the liberal view that humans are infinitely malleable and that utopia is achievable through some sort of massive spiritual awakening. But, although this view may be held by some on the far left, is it really representative of liberalism in general? I would guess that most liberals, or progressives, take a more pragmatic view of the world than the one Pinker portrays. The science of human nature, rather than representing the final nail in liberalism’s coffin, is actually entirely compatible with a progressive outlook. In contrast to the fatalist view of conservatives that our system will always be imperfect so there’s no need to change it (that’s my straw man), progressives recognize that there’s always room for improvement, even if perfection will forever remain out of reach. There’s something Lamarckian about supposing that we can completely alter our genetic programming, but, as Pinker himself says, we have enough built-in plasticity that we are capable of broadly varying behaviors, even if these are somewhat constrained by our biology. Harnessing what we know about human nature, we can (as Pinker acknowledges) design systems that lead to more egalitarian outcomes.*****

And that, ultimately, is the great contribution of this book. The science of human nature doesn’t diminish our humanness at all – rather, it exposes and illuminates our common humanity, verrucas (warts – yes, really) and all, and provides a blueprint for designing a better world. It would, in fact, be illiberal to deny the science of human nature.


*If you don’t know who Shaquille O’Neal is, he’s a famous Irish poet: “I got a hand that’ll rock your cradle, cream you like cheese, spread you on my bagel.”

**Men kill men at 20-40 times the rate that women kill women, and most killers are young men (age 15-30). All of these numbers are cited in The Blank Slate. I didn’t personally research each citation. Could Pinker be doing some cherry picking to support his case? Possibly, but if you’re going to refute his data, it would be a good idea to have some of your own.

***This isn’t to say that the rule of law always works smoothly or isn’t corruptible in numerous ways.

****Our good buddy Descartes came up with this. I think, therefore it doesn’t matter if I am?

*****As an example, Pinker points out that some behavioral economists (Richard Thaler among them), have shown that humans – because of evolutionary adaptations to get while the getting’s good – are not necessarily rational actors when it comes to financial matters, therefore taxes and regulations are necessary to help guide our decision making.


The Universe

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them – the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” -Immanuel Kant

Have you ever been awestruck? It’s a truly palpable feeling, hence the bolt-of-lightning idiom often associated with it. Awe is often accompanied by physical changes, such as piloerection (aka goosebumps). I remember experiencing awe only a handful of times, and for me it’s always been associated with attempts to contemplate the vastness of the universe. This usually occurs in conversation; as I try to expand my understanding outward, I reach a point where I can’t fathom anything larger, where I reach the limits of my comprehension. At that moment, my mind does a pleasurable resetting, and I land back on Earth. Interestingly, though, it takes more to reach that state of confoundedness in subsequent musings on the vastness of the universe. Maybe each experience of awe entails an expansion of one’s comprehension, resulting in the need for even greater stimulus to achieve it the next time. It’s been over a decade since I last experienced awe.

It was only recently that I discovered that this sensation is called awe. Previously, because I didn’t have a better way to explain it, I called it an epiphany. In a 2003 paper, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt review the literature of awe and attempt to imbue it with some defining characteristics. Awe, they say, must involve two central themes:

1. Vastness – Experiences that are much larger than the self. The universe is hard to beat, but vastness can also include non-physical size, as in social structures such as fame, authority, and prestige. Vastness is often associated with power.

2. Accommodation – Adjusting one’s mental faculties when one can’t assimilate a new experience. This can either lead to a better understanding (enlightenment, rebirth), or increased confusion (fear, disorientation).

Five additional themes affect how we experience awe: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and supernatural causality. We may experience some of these emotions, though, without experiencing awe. It’s only when we experience both vastness and accommodation in conjunction with one of these themes that we truly experience awe. If we only experience one or the other of the two central themes, then we should label it something other than awe. For example, witnessing exceptional ability in another may trigger accommodation, but if it doesn’t also trigger the sensation of vastness, it should simply be called admiration.

Likewise, elevation is a sensation that usually doesn’t involve vastness but does involve accommodation. Elevation occurs when we witness actions of virtue or moral beauty that inspire us to become better people.*

In an evolutionary sense, K and H say, awe may have arisen to maintain hierarchy in human societies: lower status individuals exhibit a primordial awe toward leaders. This is opposed to learned, or elaborated, awe, which has primordial awe as its basis. We experience elaborated awe in response to culturally subjective variables like famous people, art, nature, and even grand ideas (interestingly, epiphanies are a kind of awe).

I wonder about some of these assertions. Might awe at the vastness of nature be the primordial evolutionary adaptation? It’s a wide world and our ancestors did well to both fear and respect it. The paper asks more questions than it answers, and this seems to be part of the point: to stimulate more discussion and research about awe. The authors suggest that, with a better understanding of awe, we may be able to harness it and utilize it to improve our lives. I’ll give it a shot…

There are 200-400 billion stars in our galaxy. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. But what’s outside the universe? Infinite nothingness seems unlikely. Maybe there are more universes. What’s beyond that? More universes, ad infinitum? That would mean space and matter are infinite; would everything that exists exist in infinite numbers? Maybe we’re just an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, which is itself an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, ad infinitum.


*I’m a sucker for this in movies. Hollywood has become pretty good at including elevating themes in their movies (White Chicks notwithstanding), as cheesy and Manichean as they usually are.

Unscientific Americans

Is he looking disdainfully at us?

Is he looking disdainfully at us?

Which statement most closely describes how you feel:

1. I care about all people (even if they’re from another country), the environment, and the future of our planet.
2. I care about people (especially people from my country and people like me), the environment (especially my environment), and my kids.
3. I care about middle class Americans and the environment (as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with the fossil fuel industry).
4. Meh
5. I care about the wealthiest and whitest American men and big corporations, and there is no such thing as the environment.
6. I care about my gun, myself, and my family (in that order). I like to shoot kittens.
7. Fuck You

This is of course a completely unbiased and accurate representation of the political spectrum (no straw men here). Where do you lie on the spectrum? Most of us are probably (hopefully?) in the 1-2 range. But where are our political representatives? I recently spoke with a good friend about the 2014 elections and he believes that the idea of caring about people (all people) is a radical idea in mainstream American politics. When’s the last time you heard a national politician (aside from Bernie Sanders) talk about the plight of the poor in the U.S.? When’s the last time you heard a national politician (including Bernie Sanders) talk about the plight of the poor in the rest of the world? When’s the last time you heard a Christian politician talk about the plight of the poor, other than to blame them for being a drain on the system? Seems to me Jesus had a slightly different take. Is believing that we all have a right to food, clothing, shelter, and health care really such a radical idea?

When did bleeding heart become a bad thing? “Hey, you care about people and things – you’re an asshole!” If we’ve learned anything here at the Cottage, it’s that caring is essential to our own happiness. Of course, we have to infuse pragmatism into our caring to come up with effective policies. Which is where science comes in. Sadly, in some parts of the political world, science too is seen as radical. Rise up, nerds!

I’m not going to sit here and say politicians are somehow misaligned with the interests and ideals of the American people… wait, that’s exactly what I’m going to say. A recent study examined the long-held belief that Americans tend to be more centrist* than the politicians who represent us. In fact, when the researchers looked at a number of individual issues, Americans usually took positions further left or right than the national parties’ standard positions. More often, according to this study, it’s to the left: of the twelve issues they looked at, by my count, more respondents tended to be left of the national party platform on seven, right on two, and were equally left and right on three.**

If these results are any indication of American sentiment, the national parties aren’t very representative. Compassion may get short shrift among our parties, but it’s still alive among us, the people. So why do we keep voting for politiopaths? One reason is systemic. We don’t have much of a choice because money is so entrenched in politics (thank you, Citizens United and, earlier, Buckley v. Valeo). Taking a quick look at OpenSecrets, almost $4 billion was spent on the 2014 elections, and guess whose money that was? Not yours. If politicians need money to win elections, and it’s not your money they need, do they care as much about what you care about? Only inasmuch as they can still get you to vote for them.

That’s where the second reason comes in: you suck. Or rather, we suck. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” As humans, we suck at accurately assimilating information and seeing the bigger picture. If you toss a coin and heads comes up four times in a row, what are the odds that heads will come up on the fifth toss (this is not a trick coin)? Hopefully more than 50% of you got this right. But many people don’t – this is the gambler’s fallacy.*** We’re not intuitively good at statistics – in fact, our intuition often leads us astray. Maybe this is because many modern situations were not common as we evolved, so we don’t have great mechanisms for understanding them. We are anecdotal animals, and this, in contrast to scientific evidence, leads us down many false paths. It also makes us susceptible to dupability. Guess who exploits that? People and groups with a shitload of money, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and all their corporate funders), the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, George Soros. They influence politics because they can influence politics.

Not to get too grandiose on you, but what do we really want for this country, for the world? If we’re not on the “fuck you” end of the spectrum above, we can start by better equipping ourselves to see through some of the garbage that is constantly slung our way by a largely beholden media. Part of seeing is understanding our own biases and fallibilities, opening up to new ideas, and gathering information. After honing our critical thinking skills, we will naturally want to do something effective.

If we really want a sea-change in American politics, it starts with following the money, then stamping it out. Campaign finance reform ought to be the number one issue for all Americans, because once we refocus our politicians’ beholdenness to us over special interests, we will make faster headway on the rest of the issues that matter to us. Something like 90% of Americans believe that money is too influential in politics, but a similar percentage feel that there’s not much we can do about it. One thing the last decade has shown us, though, is that, at least for some issues, we can effect change fairly rapidly (good job, gay people and marijuana!). Start by watching Lawrence Lessig’s Ted Talk. Then tell Obama we’re ready for some of that hope and change, in the form of an executive order that all government contractors must disclose their campaign contributions. Get involved or contribute to organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics, which promotes more transparency in politics. Get involved or contribute to organizations like Public Campaign or Issue One or Public Citizen, which aim to reduce money’s influence in politics.  Support bills like the Fair Elections Now Act, the American Anti-Corruption Act, and the Grassroots Democracy Act. Stop shooting kittens.


*But what does centrist mean? Is it the position between those of the two major parties? If 58% of Americans take a position to the left of both national parties (as respondents did on social security), where’s the center?

**See results on page 22 of the study. Also check out the questions in the appendix of the study. There seems to be lots of potential for bias in how the questions were formulated. Where do you align?

***I’m a mediocre card counter at blackjack. I’ve sat at tables from Colorado to Costa Rica, New Orleans to New Zealand, and I rarely see people who correctly play basic strategy (which would push their odds of winning just over 49%). While most dealers have a pretty good handle on basic strategy, many of them don’t even have it down.