Is this Your Homework Larry?

Culture, Economy, Media, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Larry

Among a certain class of Americans, those of us who go to “good” colleges and take, sometime during our freshman and sophomore years, some sort of introduction to sociology course, there is the universal experience of that one student. He is inevitably, invariably male; he is either in or has recently completed a course in biology, although he is almost certainly not a biology major; he finds, in almost every class, an opportunity to loudly and circularly suppose that some or other human social phenomenon is a direct analogue of some behavior in ant colonies or beehives or schools of fish or herds of gazelles. Mine was a boy who, after a section on suicide clustering, suggested that it could be explained quite easily, really; certain ants, after all, when ill or infirm, remove themselves from the nest, lest they burden their kin. So all those kids in Jersey, they, like, you know, they like knew that they were going to, like, be, like, a burden, you know, to society, because they weren’t, you know, going to, like, be successful or whatever, so, you know, you know what I’m saying.

He’s not without his charms. If consciousness is a continuum, from bacterium to baccalaureate, rather than just some crowning and discrete achievement of a select and tiny sliver of the mammalian class, then surely animals have plenty to teach us about ourselves, and surely animal societies have plenty to teach us about our own. And likewise, while I like to believe that our lives and beings are something more than the dull, material expression of DNA, that biology is not, in fact, destiny, I know that this belief amounts to a kind of self-praise and willful self-regard. “Oh, honey, you are special.” I believe in free will and self-determination, but let’s just say I accept that they must be subject to some reasonable natural limits.

But now over at Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s intrepid effort to out-USA Today USA Today, Zach Beauchamp has discovered two political scientists who have discovered “circumstantial” evidence that human wars are the genetic remnant of animal territoriality. DNA is mentioned, but there are no double helices in sight; what’s meant is something more akin to the “animal spirits” that Tristram Shandy was so concerned with, or perhaps a kind of pre-genetic, crypto-Mendelian, semi-hemi-demi-Darwinian understanding of trait inheritance. In this case, the authors of a study, and the author of the article, notice that animals are territorial, that humans are territorial, that both come into intraspecies conflict over territory, and therefore, ergo, voilà. It has the remarkable distinction of being both self-evidently correct and skull-crushingly wrong. The deep roots of human territoriality are animal, but explaining organized human warfare in this manner has the motel smell of a husband telling his wife that he’s been fucking other women due to evolutionary mating imperatives. “Babe, calm down! Have you ever heard of bonobos, huh?”

Beauchamp treats territoriality among animals as an imponderable feature of “animal psychology”—he doesn’t mention, and you’ve got to assume he just doesn’t know, that the behaviors are largely about resource distribution, and, well, ya wonder if that’s got anything to do with warfare? Eh . . . He says that we “evolved from” animals, which is another one of those strictly true but effectively incorrect statements, a recapitulation of the old teleology that makes evolution a unidirectional progression from low to high, with humans not only its ultimate achievement but also its point. (He also—this is an aside—confuses accountancy and finance, claiming that a $100 real loss is identical to $100 in opportunity cost, all this by way of clumsily explaining loss aversion.) He uses the phrase “just a theory.” He gets to the end of the penultimate paragraph, then:

Toft and Johnson just don’t have any studies of human biology or evolution that directly show a biological impulse towards territoriality.

Phlogiston! God Bless You!

I’m not a religious man, but I empathize with the religious when they call this hooey scientism, the replacement of one set of hoary mythological clichés with their contemporary TED-talk equivalent—I mean, talk about inherited traits. If this kind of thing is science, then it is less Louis Pasteur than it is Aristotle, the general observation of a couple of different things with some shared trait or simultaneity, and then a vast leap of logic alone across the evidenceless abyss. The purpose of such speculation is not to clarify, illuminate, or discover, and Lord only knows, we wouldn’t want to waste our time devising some kind of double-blind. This, after all, is political science. Its purpose, rather, is moral flattery, an up-from-the-slime story in which our more regrettable and barbarous traits as people are written off as the bad debt of our evolutionary ancestors. And speaking of moral flattery, you might notice that “gang wars” are mentioned, and “ethnic” conflict, and Crimea in this great gallery of weeping over our remnant animalism, but nowhere is it explained how land tenure explains what America was doing, for example, in Iraq.

14 thoughts on “Is this Your Homework Larry?

  1. Wow! Yggles and Klein one stop shopping. I was so bored with the toobz I clicked the link. To say the least I was underwhelmed.

  2. human wars are the genetic remnant of animal territoriality.

    In related news, they also have a theory that human attraction and mating may be a genetic remnant of animal mating.

    Vox
    Explains
    Everything you need
    to know in two minutes.

  3. I remember the Klein crew in the Wonk blog days alternated between status quo reinforcement with a sheen of egg (head) wash & stumbles blind towards conclusions that, if entered, would discredit their own worldview, only to stop short Every. Damn. Time. Good to see that tradition continue.

    Why yes, Vox, tell us more about how random chunk of info simultaneously proves everything and nothing. Maybe next they’ll have more glib remarks about some economic stat that says way more than they think!

  4. “nowhere is it explained how land tenure explains what America was doing, for example, in Iraq.”

    Of course, the explanation for altruism is next week’s column.

  5. Beauchamp just sort of appeared as a guy who people took seriously, for no particular reason other than the patronage of Andrew Sullivan who lowered him via crane into the conversation and the fact that he has that rare sought after blogger ability to be simultaneously wide-eyed and incurious.

  6. “Mine was a boy who, after a section on suicide clustering, suggested that it could be explained quite easily, really; certain ants, after all, when ill or infirm, remove themselves from the nest, lest they burden their kin. So all those kids in Jersey, they, like, you know, they like knew that they were going to, like, be, like, a burden, you know, to society, because they weren’t, you know, going to, like, be successful or whatever, so, you know, you know what I’m saying.” …am wondering is this a form of up speak or valley talk…which I am aware that more young girls speak in bits and pieces… like I found this part of your article hilarious…like totally…lol!

  7. I find both of yinz’s points equal banal and unilluminating, but you’re definitely a better writer – a lot better. Kudos.

  8. “Oh, honey, you are special.”

    You’re the snowiest snowflake that ever snowflaked, in my books.

  9. Hey Bacharach! I wanted to link people to a funny sonnet of yours on the ol’ IOZ blog, ’cause it was apropos, but you closed it down, man!

    (Are you planning to re-work the best of that stuff into a book?)

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