Bountiful Nonsense

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

The historian is not concerned with events as such but with actions, i.e. events brought about by the will and expressing the thought of a free and intelligent agent, and discovers this thought by rethinking it in his own mind

~ R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History

One of the most dangerous intellectual currents of the last several centuries has been the project to deny any importance to consciousness in scientific and philosophical thought, through a relentless insistence on materialist, reductionist explanations for all human activities. To the extent it succeeds, the project both drains individuals’ lives of meaning, and encourages the view that human society is merely a collection of mechanical devices, along the lines of an enormous factory, the output of which should be planned and optimized through the systematic control of the machines’ behavior. (Coincidentally, the reductionists often seem to discover that, for some reason, they happen to be best suited for the role of one of the planning machines at the top of the heap.) The success of the project depends on reducing – this is the "reductionist" part – any explanations of human action involving the ideas or states of mind of the actors involved to physical cause and effect relationships in which consciousness plays no part.

Rejecting materialist reductionism does not imply the acceptance of any other single doctrine or worldview. It is rejected by Christians and by Buddhists, by Objectivists and by "New Age" spiritualists, by scientists pursuing research into complex phenomena and by semioticians, and by philosophical dualists and philosophical idealists. If there is a common thread running through such diverse groups, it might be the view that regarding humans as mechanical devices is both damaging to people and a poor scientific explanation for social phenomena. However much Objectivists criticize Christianity and Christians are put off by Objectivists’ atheism, their views of human nature are much closer to each other’s than either’s are to that of a hard-core reductionist.

I recently came across a particularly egregious example of reductionism in the February, 2004 issue of Scientific American. It is worth discussing because it makes plain the reliance of the reductionist project on what we might call an "anti-faith": the devout belief that consciousness is an accidental phenomenon, perhaps even an "illusion," that must be eliminated from any scientific explanation. The article also unintentionally lays bare the unscientific nature of reductionism and its disregard for empirical evidence.

The article is "A Bounty of Science," written by Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine. It appeared in his regular Scientific American column, "Skeptic." (Are you detecting a theme running through Shermer’s work?) It opens by briefly describing a new book by Caroline Alexander, The Bounty, which offers a revisionist version of the events involving the famed British ship, its captain, William Bligh, and the successful mutiny of some of the crew.

I will immediately confess that I have only a passing familiarity with the history of the Bounty. I have no knowledge of or opinion about whether Alexander succeeds in defending her central thesis, which is that Bligh was really the hero of the story while Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny, was a coward. Nevertheless, I can confidently assert that the alternate explanation proposed by Shermer is utter rubbish. It is not the least bit "scientific," and it utterly fails to grasp the fact that biology and history are different disciplines, requiring different modes of explanation in dealing with their different subject matters.

Shermer first accuses Alexander of offering a "romantic" explanation of the events in question, relying on such things as "the seductions of Tahiti," "Bligh’s harsh tongue," and "a night of drinking and a proud man’s pride." The "skeptic’s explanation," however, "is more intellectually satisfying because it is extrapolated from scientific evidence and reasoning." He claims to see beyond the "proximate" causes involving "immediate historical events" to the "ultimate" causes, which are "deeper evolutionary motives."

Shermer does not realize that the proper concern of history is what he calls proximate causes. History is the effort to understand the actual, unique human events that really did occur in the past. Those events must always be explained in terms of how the people involved understood the particular circumstances in which they found themselves. Because biological, sociological, or psychological theories of "deeper motives" can only indicate tendencies or typical patterns of humans’ responses to their circumstances, they can never explain why a historical individual chose his actual, unique response to his situation, rather than some other action also consistent with the "deeper motives." Therefore, they can never serve as historical explanations.

In this case, Shermer’s "deeper explanation" is basically that the mutinous crewmembers were just answering the booty call, although he dresses it up in fancier language. I’ll quote and comment on a couple of examples of his technique.

Shermer says: "Neuroscience shows that the attachment bonds between men and women, especially in the early stages of a relationship, are chemical in nature and stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain in a manner resembling addictive drugs." Well, what neuroscience actually shows is that human attraction can fruitfully be studied from the perspective of chemistry. Since neuroscience studies humans by examining the biochemistry of the brain, naturally enough what it finds is always a biochemical explanation. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with such an approach, so long as one keeps in mind that it is just one approach, and, like all coherent disciplines, is only able to reveal a partial view of reality.

However, to think that neuroscience might "show" that human sexual relationships are "chemical in nature" is like thinking that automotive engineering might show that vacations taken by car are "auto-mechanical in nature." Automotive engineering is certainly relevant to a driving vacation, but that is no justification for trying to reduce all aspects of such vacations to engineering issues.

Shermer proclaims: "Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg shows that oxytocin is secreted into the pituitary gland during sex… and plays a role in pair bonding…" Well, now, if that doesn’t fully explain why the crew of the Bounty mutinied, I don’t know what possibly could!

Shermer prepares readers for his conclusion by saying: "Ten months at sea weakened home attachments of the Bounty’s crew. New and powerful bonds made through sexual liaisons in Tahiti… culminated in mutiny 22 days after departure, as the men grew restless to renew those fresh attachments; Christian, in fact, had been planning for days to escape the Bounty on a raft."

If Shermer were less enamored of reductionist explanations he might be a little worried about offering the bit about Christian as evidence supporting his case. As he has it, the rebellion on the Bounty was caused by chemical reactions causing some of the crewmembers to become addicted to various women in Tahiti. In order to "renew those fresh attachments," Christian apparently was planning to reverse the 15-or-20-day journey of a fast sailing vessel on a raft. What sort of hope could he have had of ever reaching Tahiti? Doesn’t it seem more likely he just wanted off the Bounty? Now to Shermer, the actual ideas that prompted Christian to perform certain actions are probably irrelevant: remember, we are looking for deep causes. Of course, the same search can be applied to Shermer’s column: while he thought that he wrote what he did in order to offer a scientific explanation of the Bounty mutiny, the deeper cause was most likely an innate male urge to assert dominance over females such as Alexander.

Shermer doesn’t even bother to mention whether there is any evidence that Christian himself had a sexual relationship with one or more Tahitian women. Surely, whether or not the leader of the mutiny could possibly have been influenced by Shermer’s preferred "cause" is highly relevant to his case. But I suppose it’s best not to ask: if it turned out Christian was a virgin, it would only place messy facts in the way of scientific reasoning.

Finally, Shermer reaches his "more intellectually satisfying" conclusion: "Proximate causes of mutiny may have been alcohol and anger, but the ultimate reason was evolutionarily adaptive emotions expressed nonadaptively, with irreversible consequences."

It is stunning that a journal as prestigious as Scientific American would publish such swill. Far from proposing a possible "cause" of the mutiny, Shermer has merely restated what happened, but in biological rather than historical terms. He offers no reason why, in this particular instance, the "evolutionarily adaptive emotions" were "expressed nonadaptively," while thousands of other times, all of them apparently quite similar to the Bounty mutiny from a biological perspective, the emotions were expressed adaptively. Shermer’s "cause" is no more an explanation of the mutiny than would be a model by a physicist showing how the atoms composing the rebels moved in such a way that the atoms composing Captain Bligh were ejected from the ship.

As far as I know, there is nothing wrong with the biological or neurological research that Shermer cites. I find it quite plausible that bonds are formed between men and women who have sex with each other. That neuro-chemistry can detect such bonds does not surprise me. And, given that the bonds exist, they obviously might influence human decisions.

But to offer sexual bonding as an explanation of some historical event, and as a "deeper" one than the actual historical circumstances, is absurd. Over the millennium during which humans have navigated the seas, countless sailors have been away from their home long enough to weaken their attachments to it, and have had sexual liaisons with women in foreign lands. However, only a miniscule fraction of those sailors mutinied. What a historical explanation of the Bounty mutiny must account for is why those particular sailors chose to rebel in that particular situation.

And only a quarter of the sailors on the Bounty itself took part in the rebellion. Shermer notes that roughly two-fifths of the crew caught a venereal disease on the voyage, so assuming that not every single sailor who had sex caught VD, significantly more than 40 percent must have been sexually active during the trip. If sexual bonding was the "cause" of the mutiny, then well over half the crew should have participated. If it turned out that Bligh had fooled around in Tahiti, he should have gladly cooperated with the mutineers!

Indeed, per Shermer’s approach to scientific methodology, we might reasonably conclude that sexual bonding could not have been the cause of the mutiny. After all, the vast majority of sailors who have sex while away from home do not stage a mutiny, and surely not every mutinous sailor in history had been sexually active during his voyage. Therefore, sexual bonding is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause for mutiny. Of course, if we understand that historical explanations are an attempt to make past human actions comprehensible as the actors’ responses to their perceived circumstances, then we can see that sexual bonding might very well play a role in such an explanation, even though it does not determine the actions of those who experience it.

Explaining the mutiny on the Bounty by noting that humans become attached to their sexual partners is no more of a historical explanation than an "urge to advance boldly in the face of danger" would be for Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. Since other historical actors have cowered in the face of danger, or fled from it, or become devious as a way of dodging it, the question a historian must answer is what particular circumstances explain the specific choice made by Caesar. Vague pronouncements about drives and instincts are entirely inadequate for that purpose.

A significant embarrassment for Shermer’s "explanation" is that, after taking over the ship, the mutineers set sail for the island of Tubuai, rather than for Tahiti. How would their chemical bonds with some women in Tahiti possibly explain their heading off for an island that is 640 kilometers away from those women? (Some, but not all, of the crewmembers did return to Tahiti several months later.)

Shermer tries to bedazzle his readers with statistics that pretend to offer "empirical evidence" for his explanation. We are told that 82.1 percent of British sailors in the Pacific between 1765 and 1793 were between the ages of 12 and 30. Twenty-eight percent of the 1,556 sailors studied contracted some venereal disease. The 19 percent of his sailors that Captain Bligh flogged was below the average of 21.5 percent for all ships studied.

While it is no doubt nice to know such things, I wonder how, exactly, they are supposed to back Shermer’s story. Since so many of the sailors were young, sexually active men, why didn’t all crews, or most crews, or even one other crew, mutiny? It is interesting to note that Bligh was not as harsh a leader as the average British captain at the time, but that hardly contradicts Alexander’s interpretation that he was the good guy in the story. That Bligh flogged crewmembers less often than the average captain contradicts the idea that his brutality was the impetus for the mutiny, but it doesn’t help pick among alternative explanations.

However, I believe that the real intent of the data Shermer cites was to demonstrate that, because his column contains lots of numbers and percentages, his conclusion must be based on the "hard data" rather than some wishy-washy romantic tale. Readers should ignore the awkward fact that the data presented offers next-to-no support for his conclusion.

While Shermer obviously regards himself as a hard-headed skeptic, unlikely to fall prey to theories not backed by "the facts," he appears to be all too credulous when it comes to the explanatory power of materialism. As I noted above, materialist reductionism is really a religious creed, believed in despite the paucity of supporting evidence. Its opponents ought to relentlessly point out its unscientific nature.

March 1, 2004

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.

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