The Euphemism Treadmill

In The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker talks about the use of metaphor in politics, leading him to discussing George Lakoff’s recommendations to the Left on how to come up with metaphors to support their ideology. For example, Lakoff recommends that “taxes” be reframed “as “membership fees” that are necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which we belong” (246). Let me suggest why this won’t work by referring you to another of Pinker’s works, The Blank Slate. In it he talks about something he calls the “euphemism treadmill.” That is where “People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on” (212). He then points out that we went from “water closet” to “toilet” to bathroom” to “restroom” to “lavatory.” He then observes that “The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long” (213).

In other words, no matter what name we give taxes, it remains a fact that when you are taxed, that means that someone with more power than you is taking money that you earned and using it for projects that either directly or indirectly benefit them and which my or may not benefit you and which you may or may not agree with, and threatening to do you harm unless you hand over the money. When a private citizen does it, we call it being mugged. It is theft, plain and simple. Calling it a “membership fee” isn’t going to change that. It’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

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Altruistic Racist Warriors vs. Selfish Tolerant Pacifists

In the Vol. 318, 26 Oct. 2007 issue of Science there is a fascinating article on pg. 636-640 titled “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War” by Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles, with an accompanying review article on pg. 581-2 by Holly Arrow titled “The Sharp End of Altruism.”

Using computer simulations, Choi and Bowles show that if you create beings with the following traits: either altruistic (A) or non-altruistic (N) and either tolerant (T) or parochial, or anti-stranger (P), you end up with two stable populations, depending on the conditions. Under peacetime conditions, you get “a society of selfish but tolerant freetraders” (Arrow, 581), but under wartime conditions, you get “a warrior society in which people help one another but are hostile to outsiders” (581). The other two combinations — selfless, tolerant people and selfish racists — seem to be unstable combinations, though more stable under peacetime conditions than under times of war. The researchers observe that one doesn’t even need war to be that common for the PA combination to quickly dominate.

These conclusions make a lot of evolutionary sense. Without making the mistake of thinking of behavior as simply a choice between P and T genes, as behavior is more complex than that from both a genetic point of view and from a social point of view, by treating them as overarching behaviors that can be selected, we can see, nonetheless, that certain behaviors are more adaptive than others. Part of this has to do with territorialism. All land vertebrates are territorial to varying degrees. This allows individuals and groups to have enough food and water to continue to live. Protecting territory protects food. So we should expect species to protect their territory — which they do. Now, if a species is going to protect its territory, it must confront those who wish to intrude on or take that territory. Various rituals have evolved that allow many confrontations to end without violence. But sometimes that breaks down. And more, in chimpanzees, we see an outright preference for attacking and killing members of other groups when the balance is in favor of the attacking group. This assumption was used by the researchers, and it led to the creation of a preference for racist altruists — those that will sacrifice to protect family and tribe, but who hate and will attack those not in the tribe. Tolerant groups are less likely to attack first, meaning the racist groups are more likely to both attack first, killing the tolerant people of other groups. The end result is that the human race has evolved to be racist altruists.

Now, the fact that we evolved to be racist altruists who love war in no way excuses such behavior. But it seems that this combination is the most stable one under conditions of periodic war. The other combination is predominant under periods of peace: the TN individual. These people are tolerant of others and are willing to engage in interactions with people from different groups, yet are selfish. This is the paring most associated with Americans — and it is no doubt because America’s isolation from the rest of the world, keeping us out of constant wars, encourages the development of TN behavior. Does this mean PA is completely replaced? The authors don’t say, but let me expand on their research a little with some thoughts on my own. It seems likely that wars may have resulted in natural selection for genetic PA’s, though behavior, being complex, can still have other kinds of attributes built on it by society. So in the U.S., for example, while people may be more likely to be genetic PA’s, we have adopted the TN meme, and use it more often than we do the AP genetic tendencies we’re born with. But as the Japanese learned in WWII, it is not difficult to awaken the “sleeping dragon” of PA behavior latent in people.

It seems, though, that so long as there are wars, the PA genes-memes will continue to dominate. However, the bad news for many of the peace activists on the Left who are TA’s is that peace will not produce more of them. Rather, it appears that it will be more likely to produce more TN’s — people who are more and more likely to believe in and engage in free market economics. My guess is that Ayn Rand would be one of the few not surprised by this outcome.

1st Amendment and Churches

I encourage everyone to read the following article: Church Free Speech. It is an editorial on the way our government restricts political speech in the U.S. It turns out it was one of the many mad ideas of LBJ made law.This is perhaps not surprising, given the role of the churches in the civil rights movement. LBJ did what was politically expedient, and he said the right things in public, but the fact that many of his policies ended up having very racist outcomes, despite the War on Poverty rhetoric, should say everything about who he really was.

The First Amendment of the Constitution says that Congress shall make NO LAW either restricting the freedom of speech or setting up a state religion. This means that the government cannot tell people what they can or cannot say, particularly those in religious positions. It absolutely does not mean that religious leaders are not allowed to engage in political speech.

The tax-exempt status was a sinister way of shutting down political speech in our churches by first offering them something, and then threatening to take it away from them. Had it been in place, they would have been able to silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before he even got started. Which, of course, is the intention of the law. The intention of the law is that it is and can be used to intimidate people to not engage in political speech. And that is outright illegal. It is time churches got together and brought this to the Supreme Court so we can get rid of this illegal law.

There’s an Open Door–What Do You Do?

A creator opens a door. He may be a creator of a new technology, a creator of a new work of art or literature, a creator of new values, a creator of new virtues, a creator of new ideas.

What do you do?

Do you ignore the open door?

Do you cower in fear that a door’s been opened?

Do you slam the door shut?

Do you murder the man who dared to open a previously unopened door?

Or do you go through the door?

And why do you do these things? If you do any but the last, what do you fear? How many would have the door shut because it’s not fair to already-open doors? How many would have the door shut because it opens into the unknown? How are either of these (left and right, respectively) different from the other in outcome?

How many who have opened doors have been denigrated, maligned, condemned, even as a few went through and, reporting back how beautiful the world is on the other side, get more to cross over, and the more who cross over, the more cross over, until the creator is celebrated as one of the great benefactors of humankind (though the more he may have profited from his success, the less great he’s perceived to be)?

Why do you envy the creators? Why do you fear them? Why do you punish them for being creators, for benefiting humankind? Without creators we would have no more–no more wealth, no more morality, no more art and literature, etc–than the chimpanzees. If you have more than a chimpanzee, it’s not because of wise governance (though truly wise governance helps), it’s not because of workers (though employees are necessary to mass produce the creator’s creations), but rather, it’s because of creators–creators who often had to create despite all your efforts against them.

And what do the creators want from you? Do they want accolades? Worship? Money? Actually, they don’t want any of those things–not really (though mutually beneficial exchange and/or a good reputation signals the general value of their creations). No, what they really want is just to be left alone, to be allowed to keep creating. To not be imposed upon, punished, denigrated, expected to do more and more and more and more and more, expected to “give back” when all they have ever done is give.

Each and every creator offers a gift to the world. And too often, the world throws their gifts to the ground and says, “How dare you!” That is why it took so long for wealth to be created. But when the cultural conditions changed, albeit all too briefly, to a celebration of creativity, there was an explosion of wealth unlike the world had ever seen.

More and more, though, we are returning to the old attitude of “How dare you!” True wealth creation is flattening out (yes, there are increasing wealth disparities, but don’t confuse wealth with riches–the “wealthy” are getting “wealthier” in no small part because governments are increasingly protecting the already-rich from competition and thus from losing their riches), the arts and sciences have mostly stagnated, philosophy is busy counting the number of (secular) angels that can dance on the head of a pin, and philanthropy seems to be positively withering as government replace private philanthropy with far less effective government programs. And all of this comes from a combination of fear of change and protection of cronies from competition–both of which ask for the same results and use the same methods.

If you want to kill the contemporary increasingly global society–and a few billion people–I strongly recommend staying the course and despising creators. Anyone who isn’t a misanthropist, though, should celebrate the world’s creators, and work to create the conditions for their continued success in order to encourage even more creative people to create more and more and thus to increase the cultural, material, and spiritual wealth of the world.

On the Origin of Law

Laws (all laws in general, including laws of the universe) emerge from the interactions of the elements of the system. With humans, it is interactions within a social system that first give rise to custom-laws, which then develop into government-laws. Government laws are written down codes that have developed in the society at large. Nobody is actually inventing new laws ex nihilo, but rather observe laws emerging, then give then a name. I think if we truly understand the origins of laws, we will be able to more fully understand their role (and what their role should be) in our lives. Should every custom-law be turned into a government-law? Which custom-laws should be? Which should not? Are there some laws that are created in order to create new custom-laws? Are bottom-up laws better (or always, or necessarily better, if they are better) than top-down laws? (My own opinion: they are. Why? Because of the nature of complex systems. Though this does not mean that we don’t need the occasional top-down corrective of bad bottom-up custom-laws.)

What does it mean for the understanding of law and justice if we take a complex systems approach to understanding the origins and consequences of law?

Discipline

Discipline and disciple (which means “pupil”) have the same roots for a reason. Without discipline, you cannot be a pupil, you cannot be a student, you cannot learn. Proper discipline, especially self-discipline, is what gives us true freedom. Liberty is not libertinage. Freedom is not chaos. Freedom is the golden mean between order and chaos — it is arrived at through discipline.

Future Human Evolution

This is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard of, for many reasons.

While there does seem to be some evidence of the division into “gracile” and “robust” forms in primates, Oliver Curry mistakenly says that chimpanzees split into robust chimps and gracile bonobos. This is not true. The common ancestor of humans, chimps and bonobos split into the descendants of chimps and a second group that itself split into the descendants of the bonobos and the descendants of the humans. We can see this in the fact that we are more closely related to bonobos and that we share some anatomical and behavioral features with bonobos, though many of our behaviors more closely resemble chimps, while bonobos physically resemble chimps more. So the evolutionary picture is more complex than Curry suggests.

The next bizarre statement, from an evolutionary point of view, is that “human evolution will reach its peak in about the year 3000.” I don’t know what this could possibly mean. Evolution does not have “peaks” in the sense that a species is as good as it gets. Species are always adapting to their environments. Humans are a strong generalist, and we are thus highly adaptive to practically every terrestrial environment. This leads into the nonsense about genetic regression. There is no such thing as genetic regression — there is only more or less adaptive species to their environment.

This then leads me to the issue of evolution itself. When a species is as mobile as our own — especially in the modern world — natural selection as adaptation to the physical environment no longer occurs. What we have now in control is population dynamics, where a genetic change spreads rapidly and evenly throughout a population after a few generations. Now, Curry mentions sexual selection. But I see little evidence for major differences in sexual selection. All the studies that have been done my evolutionary psychologists show that people universally find the same general proportions physically attractive. Globalization is, again, even eliminating many of the cultural differences that may (as unlikely as that is, since those differences were never actually substantial) have contributed to sexual selection. The elements contributing to intelligence, as I noted in a previous post, are so numerous as to make it difficult to determine what combinations are best.

This is not to say that over the time span he mentions — 100,000 years — that human evolution won’t occur. Sure by then we will have colonized the moon and Mars, perhaps even the stars. And one would expect those isolated populations to evolve. But to keep things more down-to-earth, Curry fails to mention another type of evolution. It is a more important kind, and it is the kind that gave rise to human intelligence itself. And that is the evolution of more complexity. It is possible that certain people might evolve to have more complex minds — perhaps as much more complex than humans as humans are over chimps and bonobos. It is unlikely they would appear to be physically any different, as the difference would be in the minds of the people who emerged into the more complex forms of thinking. This kind of evolution seems more likely, and it seems more immediately likely. And if Claire Graves, Don Beck, and Christopher Cowan are right, it may have already happened in a small group of people. That is a much more interesting kind of evolution in my book.