Sunday, June 25, 2006

The humanist as mad scientist

Where is political modernism taking us? There is an unsettling answer laid out for us in a recent issue of Dissent, a prominent Australian left-liberal magazine. In an article titled “It’s the IQ, stupid” (Dissent, Number 20, Autumn/Winter 2006), retired scientist Stanley Schaetzel takes “the logical next step” for political modernism, a step which has momentous consequences.


Schaetzel’s article is a striking example of positivism, a philosophy which has been around since the early 1800s, which claims that science alone can determine the truth about the world and reality.

Schaetzel believes that religion should be replaced completely with a scientific world view. He bridles at the commonly held attitude that science has worked out best in certain spheres only, such as the development of technology. For him, there is a scientific method which can be applied everywhere:

Scientific methods either work everywhere and present a valid view of reality across all aspects of life – or they don’t. There is no alternative.

Two objections to this kind of positivism spring immediately to mind. First, the attempt to apply a “scientific method” outside of the natural sciences has usually produced a negative result. One clear example of this fault of “scientism” was the effort to make motherhood more scientific in the 1920s and 30s.

For instance, in 1928 a Dr Watson wrote a book on childcare in which he declared that,

No one today knows enough to raise a child. The world would be considerably better off if we were to stop having children for twenty years (except those reared for experimental purposes) and were then to start again with enough facts to do the job with some degree of skill and accuracy. Parenthood, instead of being an instinctive art, is a science, the details of which must be worked out by patient laboratory methods.

And what kind of results did such “patient laboratory methods” yield? Dr Watson informed mothers that they should not show affection toward their children:

Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of the difficult task.

Dr Watson did not even like children to see their mothers, except for the necessary tasks of feeding or changing nappies. For the kind of mother whose heart was “too tender” and who needed to see her child, Dr Watson gave this advice:

make yourself a peephole so that you can see it without being seen, or use a periscope.

Modern mothers should not show emotion, but should instead,

handle the situation as a trained nurse or a doctor would and, finally, learn not to talk in endearing and coddling terms.

Nor is it an accident that Dr Watson should give this advice. If you want to apply a “scientific method” to all things, then you will be biased toward what is more tangible and easily measured, rather than the unpredictable and subjective realm of emotions.

The second objection to Schaetzel’s positivism is as follows. Schaetzel believes that religion ought to be replaced by science. However, he is confronted by the fact that most Westerners continue to have religious beliefs.

Schaetzel chooses to explain this setback to positivism by claiming that most people are too stupid and uneducated to understand a scientific world view. It is Schaetzel’s view that only people with an IQ over 115, and who have the right kind of education and sufficient time can belong to a scientific elite who understand the systems which control human society.

But, alas, it is not the scientific elite who have the power to run things. Schaetzel laments that,

You need a high IQ to push science forward, but you don’t need great intelligence to make money, to be a media star or a famous athlete or – even – to get elected to the Presidency of the USA. Politics is the only profession without any educational criteria … This seems to be the biggest problem of the current period. It’s the IQ, stupid.

For Schaetzel this is tragic because the scientific elite now have everything figured out and could run the globe smoothly and scientifically:

We are being led by people most of whom are not able to see – and do not comprehend – the Big Scene ... We have now the means of knowing what is going on everywhere, of classifying this information and of exerting control at a distance.

These are big claims. It makes you think that Schaetzel has an original and insightful view of world problems not available to the rest of us. But here is his analysis of the terrorist situation:

The presently advocated cure for the world’s problems – free trade and the market economy – is in reality a return to the Darwinian system of survival of the fittest. Currently the strong and the big are getting bigger and the weak are getting weaker – and some of the weak have only terrorism as an answer.

This is just standard left-liberalism. It is a traditional left-liberal opposition to a free market ideology and to an inequality of condition. There are dolphin loving hippy women who could have granted us the same “insight”.

And note too the contradiction in Schaetzel’s politics here. He accepts the leftist view that it is inequality which causes social problems. But at the same time he is radically elitist: he believes that power belongs properly to a small group of people like himself – scientific experts who alone have acquired knowledge of “the big scene”.


It is not, though, the positivism of Schaetzel’s argument which is the main cause for concern. It is his perfectly logical effort to upgrade traditional humanism.

At the time of the Renaissance, thinkers like Pico della Mirandola argued that what made man special was his capacity to self-determine who he is. Man did not occupy a fixed position in a chain of being, but could choose to be as low as an animal or as high as God.

This humanist philosophy made man a magnificent, heroic being to be idolised. Here is Pico himself, extolling the virtues of man:

Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! ... Who could not help but admire this great shape-shifter? In fact, how could one admire anything else? ... Who would not admire man ... because he fashions and transforms himself into any fleshly form and assumes the character of any creature whatsoever ... For this reason, Euanthes the Persian … writes that man has no inborn, proper form ...

... let us not even yield place to them, the highest of the angelic orders … If we choose to, we will not be second to them in anything.

This view, or at least a secularised version of it, ultimately succeeded in shaping the modern Western world. The liberal orthodoxy of today continues to insist that our humanity depends on our freedom to choose who we are and what we do according to our own individual will and reason.

The liberal humanist view has, though, a fatal flaw. It depends on the assumption that, as Pico puts it, man has “no inborn, proper form”. This means that liberals usually adopt the idea that individuals are blank slates.

Conservatives have disagreed with liberals on this point. We believe that there is a human nature, which is not just produced by education or social influences, but is inborn: that we have a nature which is hardwired into us.

And this is where traditional humanism has come unstuck. Stanley Schaetzel’s beloved science has progressed to a stage where it has confirmed not the liberal but the conservative view.

Take the example of gender. Liberals believe that we are human when we self-define who we are. This means that liberals don’t like the idea that being a man or a woman should influence our identity or our social roles, as being male or female is not something we get to choose.

Liberals have therefore explained traditional gender identity and roles as being a product of socialisation only, from which men and women are to be “liberated”.

Science, though, has confounded these liberal claims. It is now clear that there is a biological basis for gender differences – that men and women are influenced by differences in hormones and brain structure.

We are not, therefore, the blank slates liberals took us to be.

So, are we then not special in the way that Pico claimed? Do we not have the freedom to choose to be whatever we will?

This is where Stanley Schaetzel attempts to tidy things up, but with dangerous consequences. He admits that humans are not entirely born as blank slates, but are influenced by genetics:

At birth the human brain is partially plastic (by this I mean not completely tabula rasa) and partially genetically programmed (in computer parlance hardwired) ... Quasi-hardwired programs are subsequently developed during the formative years (1 to about 16) of children and adolescents.

Having ceded this, Schaetzel then accepts that humans are not so special after all, that we are simply a big-brained animal:

We are one of the results of evolution: an animal classified as Homo Sapiens, which has 98.4% of its genes identical with the chimpanzee ... Its main difference from the rest of the primates is an evolved brain ...

At this point, Schaetzel seems to be rejecting the liberal humanist philosophy. But he then pulls out his trump card. We might have been animals up to now, suggests Schaetzel, but we are about to become something more, because we are about to truly self-determine who we are.

How? By taking control over our own hardwiring, over our own genetic structure. He writes,

What if we agree that, at the beginning of the third millennium, we ceased to be an animal? Not because we have in us some immaterial agent – but because our brains have created the digital age and now understand and control our genome and thus evolution.

Schaetzel follows up this thought, of man raised again above the level of animals, with a renewed idolisation of man:

And if, as I think, we still need to worship something why not worship the idea of the latent man – of everything man has achieved and is capable of achieving, of all his good intentions and noble aspirations? The temples of this faith would be various museums, great universities and research institutes.

The irony is that Schaetzel, the arch enemy of religion and tradition, has not strayed far from the outlines of a theology laid down by Pico more than 500 years ago.

Summers & sex differences

Genetic technology is with us for good. Most people, I expect, would prefer that any tinkering with the human genome be done with extreme caution. Such caution, though, is unlikely to be preferred when the tinkering itself is seen as the very thing which gives us a special status as humans.

What’s worse is that the tinkering is likely to be done to fulfil the liberal project. Let me give just one example of the kind of attitude which some modern intellectuals are likely to take.

In January 2005 the President of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, gave a “controversial” speech. He suggested that one possible reason for men outnumbering women in top engineering and science jobs was that men may have more “intrinsic” (ie hardwired) ability for high-level science than women.

Predictably, Summers was attacked for his comment. Liberals don’t like the idea that we might be influenced in a significant way by our sex. It upsets their belief that we are free to choose to become whatever we will.

Summers made a grovelling apology, committed Harvard to spend $50 million on the recruitment of female staff and resigned.

In March 2005, Time magazine ran an eight page feature on the Summers’ controversy. Time is an establishment liberal magazine, and the purpose of the feature was to attack Summers’ suggestion that men might be, on average, intrinsically better at high-level science.

The problem for the Time writers is that by 2005 there was a lot of evidence that men’s brains were, in fact, demonstrably different to those of women. So they could not simply argue that men and women were mentally just the same.

Instead, the feature writers conceded that the male and female brain were different. They argued, though, that the differences could be made not to matter. How? First, by “training” the female brain to overcome any intrinsic disadvantage in high-level science and second by physically manipulating the female brain through modern science.

One of the Time reporters wrote cheerfully,

Now that scientists are finally starting to map the brain with some accuracy, the challenge is figuring out what to do with that knowledge. The possibilities for applying it to the classroom, workplace and doctor’s office are tantalizing. “If something is genetic, it means it must be biological. If we can figure out the biology, then we should be able to tweak the biology,” says Richard Haier, a psychology professor who studies intelligence at the University of California at Irvine. Maybe Summers’ failure was not one of sensitivity but one of imagination.

So, according to the Time journalist Lawrence Summers ought to have exercised more imagination and considered the “Frankenstein” option: that the female brain could be made less different to the male brain by human tampering.

This “tweaking” of genetics to overcome gender difference is what appears as the “optimistic” scenario to a liberal, but to a conservative it points to the likely abuse by liberals of a powerful new technology.


So what’s to be done? As noted earlier, the technology is likely to become a fact of life, so it’s the political ideology we need to change.

There are two key things to be asserted against the prevailing liberalism. First, that our humanity is not contingent. We don’t need to “prove” our human status by demonstrating our ability to manipulate the genome. For religious traditionalists, our human status is something guaranteed in virtue of our possession of a human soul (the “immaterial agent” referred to by Schaetzel). But even without this traditionalist view, it’s possible to think of humans as having a distinct status, based on a “sum total” of our qualities.

We need to challenge liberalism, also, in what it claims about human freedom. There is a truer sense of freedom when we succeed in recognising and living through what is best in our nature, rather than pretending our own nature to be limitless.

Science is not as important in the effort to acquire this kind of freedom as positivists like Schaetzel would have us believe. We can be grateful for the improvements science makes in our lives, for instance through medical technology or modern communications. But working our way toward what is most significant in our natures is not something done in a laboratory by technocratic experts. It is something available to all of us, requiring us to draw on personal qualities such as wisdom, self-discipline, depth of experience, and intuition.

We can be helped also by the depth of culture existing in the society we inhabit – a depth which is unlikely to extend far if we limit ourselves to a dry, technocratic scientism.

1 comment:

  1. sexual orientation based abortions would be particularly scary.

    feminists would want an all lesbian generation of females

    homophobes would abort GLBT kids

    and more.