Satire is dead

by Chris Bertram on February 7, 2006

I’m just going to reproduce this, which I found at “Lenin’s Tomb”: . “John Derbyshire at the the Corner”: wrote the following:

bq. In between our last two posts I went to Drudge to see what was happening in the world. The lead story was about a ship disaster in the Red Sea. From the headline picture, it looked like a cruise ship. I therefore assumed that some people very much like the Americans I went cruising with last year were the victims. I went to the news story. A couple of sentences in, I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.

Compassionate conservatism anyone?



Steve LaBonne 02.07.06 at 10:59 am

It’s even better in context- he’s citing his personal moral debility as conclusive proof that it’s impossible for people in general to transcend tribalism. Speak for yourself, asshole.


nick s 02.07.06 at 11:00 am

Compassionate conservatism anyone?

Had it been a Chinese ferry full of teenage girls, the Derb would have been in sackcloth and ashes.


Steve 02.07.06 at 11:05 am

This is his own follow-up for those who are interested in getting the whole story. My own take: he’s frankly right, though his method of saying it was pretty obnoxious. Its similar with celebrities (even minor, nobody celebrities: Ted Olson’s wife was killed on the plane from Washington on 911-anyone else that you can name?), no matter how much we dislike that fact (in our culture and in ourselves).

Derbyshire’s response:
(“All right. At some abstract level, as a human being and a Christian, I do care about them. However

—I don’t care about a shipful of Egyptians anything like as much as I care about a shipful of Americans.

—I don’t care about them enough to find time in a busy day to read to the end of the news story. One could, after all, fill a day several times over with nothing but reading news stories about horrible things happening to one’s fellow human beings in remote places. We are selective; and those old tribal instinct drive some of our selections. Tell me anyone else is any different. Tell me you are any different.

—If I take out my concern about those drowned Egyptians and take a good look at it, it really is a pretty feeble, abstract sort of caring. It is, in my opinion, a very good thing, and a great step up for humanity, that religious and ethical teachers have trained us to give a passing thought to the sufferings of strangers in distant places. A passing thought is all we give, though, 99 percent of the time, and I seriously doubt that in this respect I am any more callous than the human average.”


Thomas 02.07.06 at 11:11 am

A confession from another conservative (me): I didn’t even read the story!

Steve, please feel free to chastise me.


Louis Proyect 02.07.06 at 11:12 am

“It’s even better in context- he’s citing his personal moral debility as conclusive proof that it’s impossible for people in general to transcend tribalism.”

Of course, this just shows the utter cynicism of the conservative project since the war on Iraq and Afghanistan is defended by these jerks exactly as an attempt to deal blows against tribalism.


Brendan 02.07.06 at 11:19 am

News from the Dark Side:

checking through the rest of the site I came across the acronym VLWC, which a quick websearch indicates stands for Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.

Ironic obviously.…it’s not. As other quotes indicate the irony zooms over their heads (or under their asses). Indeed, one of them links to this book here:

Which is described as (this is the fool, sorry, full title, btw)

‘The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.’

The book is described: ‘Democrats raised an unprecedented level of funds in their attempt to elect John Kerry to the White House, and not just through contributing to directly to Kerry’s campaign. Led by George Soros and his multimillion-dollar donations, money flowed to liberal groups like MoveOn that tried to push hard on President Bush’s record…..’

etc etc etc etc etc.

These people are all mad. No, but really.


abb1 02.07.06 at 11:22 am

Some of these folks like this Derbyshire bloke really do feel that they and their cruise companions belong to some different species, don’t they?

Reminds me of this excellent post at Le Colonel Chabert:

…They are much more powerful vis à vis the public now and much more removed from it than Polish counts were in the 17th century, and their laws – as Simon Schama records in Landscape and Memory* – stated that nobles on hunting trips in winter were limited to killing only two peasants to warm their extremities in their blood on the way back home. There is an illusion that because we don’t think of them as a superior race of beings, they don’t think of us as disposable resources of no account, but of course they do, as every single action of theirs every single day demonstrates unequivocally.


des von bladet 02.07.06 at 11:37 am

The Derb: “At some abstract level, as a human being and a Christian, I do care about them.”

He’s practically Christ-like, isn’t it? If only Muslims could be more like the Derb!


Brian Doss 02.07.06 at 12:04 pm

Honestly though, who could ever have mistaken The Derb for a Compassionate Conservative? He revels in homophobia, ridicules the christian right, tells the rest of the non-Anglophone world (sans China) to sod off, and otherwise does his own thing. No Rod Dreher, he. This all seems very dog bites man, given the speaker…


roger 02.07.06 at 12:05 pm

Actually, Derbyshire is the most interesting corner writer – probably the only interesting corner writer. He regularly violates the taboo about supporting the ID movement — he thinks it is ludicrous. He also has expressed more doubts about Iraq than any of the other conservatives on that post, plus pointing out the hypocrisy of big government conservatism — he believes the conservative project of small government will always be in minority because people are generally parasites who love government handouts, whether these are handouts for the middle class, CEOs, or whatever. In a sense, he’s a throwback to the early National Review writers, with their manichean melancholy that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Most conservatives writing for N.R. now have given up all those early conservative principles in order to simply, unequivocally support the G.O.P., no matter what it does.

Derbyshire is the last person who would call himself a compassionate conservative. That is the point.


MQ 02.07.06 at 12:13 pm

Derbyshire is one of my favorite conservative columnists, he’s consistently sharp and does not follow conservative orthodoxy. For instance he was not one of the cheerleaders for the Iraq war, and treated intelligent design as the silliness it is. In this case his point had a lot of validity to it: most people are pretty tribal in their outlook. He wasn’t saying this is a good thing (in fact he explicitly identifies it with the “baseness of human nature”), just pointing out that this is the case. I give him credit for using himself as an example instead of affecting a lofty moral superiority. As for all the wonderfully non-tribal people posting here: right, I’ll believe it when I see it.


MQ 02.07.06 at 12:15 pm

Roger, your post #10 was apparently posted while I was writing, but you said it a lot better than I did. Nice. Derbyshire is a real traditionalist conservative, we need more of them.


Jim Miller 02.07.06 at 12:18 pm

If Brendan were to read Byron’s York’s “Vast Left Wing Conspiracy”, he might learn something. Here, for instance is how the first review at Amazon (from a self described liberal) begins:

“It’s written from a critical, conservative perspective, but despite its sensationalist title, it’s clever, well researched, and doesn’t drastically trash anyone.”

Although I disagree with his politics, that’s a summary I could have written myself.

The title, by the way, does not come from York but from one of the leftists who was being ironic.


Bill Gardner 02.07.06 at 12:37 pm

I have no sympathy with his politics, and I don’t know what kind of a novelist he is, but Derbyshire’s book on Riemann (etc) is wonderful, and he apparently has another coming out on the history of algebra.


lemuel pitkin 02.07.06 at 12:52 pm

“I like my daughters better than my cousins, my cousins better than my neighbors, my neighbors better than strangers and strangers better than enemies. What’s wrong with that?” — Jean-Marie Le Pen


John Lederer 02.07.06 at 12:56 pm

I suspect that the main difference between Derbyshire’s statement (which was one of two “data points” to illustrate a thesis) and the readers here is that Derbyshire did not lie.

O.K. I am willing to be corrected. Please stand up anyone who did anything — donated money, prayed for the lost, wrote a letter, looked up maritime standards — anything, in regard to the catastrophe.


Russell Arben Fox 02.07.06 at 12:56 pm

Chris, I’ve got to agree with Steve, Roger, and MQ–Derbyshire is, in this case at least, making a statement that connects pretty profoundly to a fundamental conservative principle, a principle that is actually worth engaging intellectually and morally with, which is a hell of a lot more than can be send of 90% of the dreck which passes for “thought” coming out of the GOP establishment.

It’s good to read the paleo-cons like the Derb every once in a while. Doing so forces us to actually wrestle with and come up with responses to this thing called “conservatism,” as opposed to Bushism.


J Thomas 02.07.06 at 1:05 pm

I think his point is valid. People mostly are somewhat tribal and can’t completely get away from that. I’m not sure where to go from there. “We should attempt to get every institution controlled by our trime.” Not practical. “We should never compromise with other tribes about anything.” Likewise not practical. “We should forge strong bonds with some other tribes so we can exterminate the tribes that are our immediate issues. We can play the world like a game of Risk.” No, not practical.

And yet, people are tribal, some. Going after him for saying it is — well — tribal.


lemuel pitkin 02.07.06 at 1:06 pm

Russell et al. are certainly right. There’s a passage in Civilization and Its Discontents — which I am unable to find at the moment — where Freud makes a very similar critizue of the injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Doesn’t mean Derb is right, but he is saying something important. (Actually that he’s saying something at all puts him ahead of most Cornerites.)


C. Schuyler 02.07.06 at 1:11 pm

For however little it’s worth, I’ll chime in with others and say that, in his tactless way, Derbyshire is onto something. I think the sum total of MY response to the disaster was “My, that’s awful.”

It’s astonishing that NRO features both the obviously sharp Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg, who has the IQ of a bag of wet oatmeal.


Russell Arben Fox 02.07.06 at 1:18 pm

Stop insulting wet oatmeal, C. Shuyler.


bob mcmanus 02.07.06 at 1:32 pm

Tribalism is the root of most evil and the source of most good. The only principled alternative for those not eligible for beatification is a committed misanthropy. I have started a club, and have already blackballed Emerson and abb1.

Incidentally, a principled misanthropy does not forbid generosity and magnanimity, for certainly one does not deserve one’s blessings, but does demand their random and arbitrary application, for any discrimination would be tainted by one’s own prejudices, bad faith, and egocentricity. Flawed misanthropes like themselves. A principled misanthropy would in fact look much like a universal benevolence, without the bullshit.

If you would like to join my club, you can’t, for reasons that should be obvious.


abb1 02.07.06 at 1:54 pm

The way I see it, this is a matter of your identities and the ranking order and importance of these identities.

Sure, most people strongly identify themselves with their family. They identify with their community. They, obviously, identify with the humanity. Then there are religion, ethnicity, occupation, perhaps economic class, what have you.

This guy, weirdly enough, identifies himself with cruise-going people, while him being a part of humanity for some reason has an extremely low priority.

Well, not all people are like that, not a majority; I think it’s a psychiatric condition of some sort. Oh, and he may very well be a smart guy too, that’s irrelevant.


luci 02.07.06 at 2:10 pm

Sure there’s some interpretation of what the Derb said that is largely accurate….we care less about those further from, and maybe different from, ourselves. That’s obvious, and so trivial, IMO, as to be beside the point he’s making. Haven’t you guys seen “conservative code” before?

The point was he gets to write, after hundreds of Egyptians died, “I don’t care about Egyptians”…yuk yuk. Oh snap! He did NOT just say that, did he!?

From posts on the NR front page:

“Now, no one condones the use of racial epithets. But […]”

Yes, no one condones THAT! (heheheh)…It’s always a “free speech” issue, or a principled argument about “affirmative action”, or a treatise on “immigration”.

Another Derb nugget, same page:

“Consider immigration, for example. If–I am hypothesizing, let’s suppose–if group differences could be shown to be sufficiently intractable that some human groups would be a net burden to a liberal, European-style nation, would it be good policy to permit large-scale immigration of those groups?

I don’t know that group differences have that character; but I don’t know that they don’t […] recent results suggest that our current consensus & national policy may be on the wrong side of this.

“Like you, I can’t imagine a scenario that would change my mind about equality of citizens under the law. In issues beyond our borders though (foreign policy, immigration, development aid) […]

IOW, when we’re talking about foreigners (and therefore, necessarily, immigrants here) who can say? They might just be inferior. Dunno….See the Derb isn’t saying he AGREES with that, mind you, he’s just a dispassionate servant of the truth.


nick s 02.07.06 at 2:20 pm

Derbyshire is a real traditionalist conservative, we need more of them.

Read the letters page of the Telegraph some time. The Derb is Colonel Blimp, pure and simple.


Alan Peakall 02.07.06 at 2:36 pm

Is Derbyshire, perhaps, alluding to the paragraph from Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”?

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, were suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would react upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity…
The most frivolous which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance … provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.

I find this quote in Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”. Chris, are you the Chris Bertram whom Pinker acknowledges in the introduction?


Steve LaBonne 02.07.06 at 2:40 pm

Of course Smith’s point was that we need to overcome that moral anesthesia, not revel in it like Derb…


Jack 02.07.06 at 2:47 pm

How often do nicer people than Mr. Derbyshire make British and American casualties in Iraq the prime horror. In some cases I think they are just thinking what will have traction but that kind of proves the point. Would “Bush lied, people died” have the same resonance if some of the people who died were not American?


jimbo 02.07.06 at 3:27 pm

Second Jim Miller’s recommendation of York’s book – it’s not a screed a la Coulter or Moore, but an analysis of how the modern left preaches mainly to the converted while wallowing in denial. In fact, it reads more like a tutorial for successful leftist organizing than a book by an NR contributor…


Bruce Baugh 02.07.06 at 3:52 pm

What’s shameful in Derbyshire’s comment is the step he refuses to take. Yes, it’s true, we’re a tribal species, and yes, it’s true, we are not going to care equally about all tragedies. But if we recognize intellectually and morality that people’s distance from us doesn’t make them less worthy, then we can see that we ought to set up institutions so that their needs don’t go dangling on our whims of the moment – institutions like the social services of the nation-state, and the international relief efforts of NGOs and the UN and so on.

As it is, he’s like someone saying “gosh, it’s a shame buildings burn down, what a depraved lot we are” without following it up with “but a good fire department might help a lot, let’s get one going.”


P O'Neill 02.07.06 at 3:56 pm

Now to be fair to Derb, there are some things that he really does care about:

DANISH DELIGHTS [John Derbyshire]

Thanks for the link, Jonah. I could definitely go for some of the foodstuffs. And the beer — hey. Did you check out that list of Danish movies, though? Wooo-hoooo. These are Scandinavians, all right.


Carter 02.07.06 at 4:37 pm

So what did you do when you after you heard about the Egyptian ferry sinking? Have a good cry?


John Quiggin 02.07.06 at 4:46 pm

John Lederer, says “Please stand up anyone who did anything—donated money, prayed for the lost, wrote a letter, looked up maritime standards—anything, in regard to the catastrophe.”

As it happens, while this catastrophe was happening, readers at my blog and I donated a total of $A3000 to an appeal for the Pakistan earthquake, where, as usual, the immediate aid response is being replaced by non-delivery of promises.

Not an exact answer I admit, but fairly strong evidence against the claim that everyone is like John Derbyshire or John Lederer.

And, for that matter I did discuss the ferry disaster with my family – we’re not much for prayer, but I don’t see how that makes our concern any less valid.

No doubt it’s true that people are parochial in their moral concern, but this parochialism has diminished over time. We ought to be encouraging this process, not celebrating tribalism.


Kevin 02.07.06 at 6:42 pm

“So what did you do when you after you heard about the Egyptian ferry sinking? Have a good cry?”

Reductive, contemptuous, and soul-deep ugly…all in one comment. Well done, if that’s what you were going for.


Nat Whilk 02.07.06 at 6:56 pm

Re #34:

Kevin: Would you be willing to ignore carter’s second question and answer his first one (after editing it so that it parses)?


Brett Bellmore 02.07.06 at 7:42 pm

How many people die in a given day? At a rough guess, about a quarter million? Not only am I not going to care about most of them, not only can’t I care about most of them, if I could and did care about most of them, I’d go stark raving mad with grief over the terrifying loss of so much humanity, so many unique individuals going down into the darkness. Just to read of all of them would consume all my time, and I’m a speed reader.

Don’t sell ideals that it’s humanly impossible to follow, and which would destroy anybody who tried. Human morals have to be fit for human beings to live by.


Danny Yee 02.07.06 at 8:17 pm

There was a bus crash in Egypt recently in which Australian tourists were killed and injured — I can’t tell you how many, as I wasn’t the least bit interested in the story, which only made the news here because Australians were involved.

I’d be neither more nor less interested in an Egyptian bus crash that only killed Egyptians, but it’s a safe bet no Australian paper would run a story about it (and certainly not on the front page). I’m more interested in Australian disasters only because they are more likely to affect people I know.


roger 02.07.06 at 9:03 pm

Actually, john quiggan, I don’t think it means you are unlike John Derbyshire at all. His point is, I think, that religion forged a mode of caring for people outside the tribe, and that it is through that mode that such concern is expressed. Your idea is that our parochialism is diminishing over time. Now, you might think religion has nothing to do with that, but you are saying something is making our parochialism diminish over time, aren’t you? Or is that happening of itself?

I disagree with Derbyshire, politically and philosophically, but I don’t think it is fair to disparage him for opinions he doesn’t hold and edited versions of opinions he does.


Barry Freed 02.07.06 at 9:12 pm

“So what did you do when you after you heard about the Egyptian ferry sinking? Have a good cry?”

Reductive, contemptuous, and soul-deep ugly…all in one comment. Well done, if that’s what you were going for



Barry Freed 02.07.06 at 9:12 pm

“So what did you do when you after you heard about the Egyptian ferry sinking? Have a good cry?”

Reductive, contemptuous, and soul-deep ugly…all in one comment. Well done, if that’s what you were going for

In a word: Asshole


Sebastian Holsclaw 02.07.06 at 11:31 pm

I’m a conservative though not a Derbyshire fan. However:

“As it is, he’s like someone saying “gosh, it’s a shame buildings burn down, what a depraved lot we are” without following it up with “but a good fire department might help a lot, let’s get one going.” ”

That would be bad if true. But doesn’t the explanation for his data points offer another explanation?

As Rich says, a sane and orderly society has customs, institutions & laws to restrain our baser natures, and a strong affirmation of equality of rights. The promise of the “highest” form of classical liberalism, though — the promise that tribalism, nationalism, etc. will melt away in the sun of Reason, the promise that inspired early 20C socialists and one-worlders like Shaw and Wells — is an empty promise.

He identified his emotional reaction as part of his baser nature. He says that the reason we have customs, institutions and laws is to restrain the baser nature. His argument, such as it is, seems to be we can’t expect the base human nature to change. That is why we bother with customs and institutions and laws. If I were to expand on it, I would suggest that some people’s natures are baser than others (not as a function of nationality or race or religion but randomly as far as I can tell) and require more work with the customs, institutions and laws than others if you want them to fit into society. It seems that Derbyshire is one of those people. He isn’t so much embracing that fact as he is using it as an illustration of why you have to be careful when messing with the customs, institutions and laws. His argument is that “human nature” is not a social construct. Restraining it is the social construct. He may be wrong, but he isn’t at all saying that his tribalistic reaction is good nor is he saying that upon viewing that reaction the response ought to be “Oh well”.


BigMacAttack 02.08.06 at 12:08 am

Great thread. Really good.


engels 02.08.06 at 12:19 am

Here´s an exercise for the slow kids at the back. Compare the following statements.

(1a) I care less about Egyptians than Americans.
(1b) I don´t care about Egyptians.

(2a) I didn´t cry after reading the article.
(2b) I lost interest at once and stopped reading.

Then try to defend the ones which Derbyshire actually made, rather than the other ones. Ok?


Matt McIrvin 02.08.06 at 9:53 am

Don’t sell ideals that it’s humanly impossible to follow, and which would destroy anybody who tried. Human morals have to be fit for human beings to live by.

A valid position, but one that, I think, is actually open to argument. I’ve seen a lot of writing, for instance, by both left-wing Christians and hardcore utilitarians like Peter Singer that promote ideals of generosity that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most human beings to follow: that we should literally think of suffering strangers on the other side of the world as being as personally important to us as our families, and give of ourselves not until we’ve hit some magic percentage, but until it almost destroys us. They acknowledge the impossibility or near-impossibility of actually living this way, but argue that it’s important to keep impossibly uncompromising ideals in mind so that we always try to do better and never, ever become satisfied that we’ve done enough.

Personally, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Followed more widely, it may well increase the amount of generosity in an ungenerous world, but it verges on a kind of masochism. If everyone seriously tried to live this way, the world would grind to a halt, but on the other hand everyone doesn’t seriously try to live this way, so the impossible ideal might be useful as a way of nagging our insensitive minds into doing better.

Here’s the thing: At times I have a go at thinking this way, but become so distressed and self-critical that I become irritating for other people to be around. That makes me think that there’s something wrong with this point of view if taken really seriously, but it could just be my own failing.


abb1 02.08.06 at 11:12 am

A person who’s neither religious nor secular humanist should, I think, be called a ‘nihilist’ not ‘conservative’.


Kevin 02.08.06 at 12:01 pm

Nat (should you return),
I made a donation to the International Red Cross/Red Crescent. Not being much of a pray-er, that was about the extent of the action I took, and while it’s admittedly a small thing, I believe that it’s somewhat more constructive than hurling trollish comments at people who actually want to discuss the disaster & Derbyshire’s reaction to it like adults.


Jaybird 02.08.06 at 1:14 pm

I’m offended. Those people, by their actions, have demonstrated the essentially corrupt nature of their society and culture. Their behaviour, which all right-minded people should be offended by, should be universally condemned. If anything shows that we are right and they are wrong, this is it. And I call upon all of those who agree with me to take action, while there is still time. To those who say that our side has also erred, I agree: there have been errors of judgement. But if anything our mistake has been to do too little and too late. We now need to wake up and respond to the danger that confronts us. In any case, to suggest that what we have done bears comparison with what they have done is itself deeply offensive and such sentiments betray the inner corruption of those who utter them. Some principles are absolute and this is one of them. Some have suggested that it is hypocritical of me to take offence at what those people have done whilst ignoring or excusing what some other people have done. Such critics thereby reveal their own inability to distinguish between those people and the other people (who have surely suffered enough and deserve a break). Others have intimated that I spend my time trawling the internet looking for obscure TV clips and articles in foreign languages to be offended by. Frankly, I find such comment offensive: the price of what we hold sacred is eternal vigilance and someone has to take on the responsibility of telling our people about the grave danger they face from those people.


vidal 02.08.06 at 9:57 pm

Why are conservatives so reluctant to admit the possibility that people who embrace a different ideology are less likely to succumb to the irrationality of tribalism? For what it’s worth, *I* do not ascribe more value to the lives of citizens of one state over the lives of citizens of other states.


vidal 02.08.06 at 10:04 pm

At a more visceral level, I can’t imagine myself ever befriending someone who publicly expresses the pusillanimous view that an American life is more valuable than my own life.


rollo 02.09.06 at 3:42 am

Derbyshire meant something like “I don’t care enough about Egyptians to have kept reading the article once I found out that’s what it was about.
Holsclaw is essentially correct about that, and the larger point, that Derbyshire is in effect exposing something that’s hardly unique to him and his ilk.
What concerns me greatly is this bit that shows up later in the thread:

“I agree with all that, Jonah. The thing that troubles me is, that while liberalism is a terrific aspiration, it may, like most of Christ’s injunctions, be asking too much of human nature. Which DOES exist. And in our understanding of which, we are just beginning to pass from the realm of tradition, opinion, and prejudice, into the realm of cold scientific fact.”

This specious trope, that “human nature” is some immutable quality shared by all, is more dangerous than any rank superstition.
Because it masks the changes that are occurring – by denying their possibility. And the “realm of cold hard scientific fact” is one great engine driving that change.
It is impossible to have something like “human nature” that never changes, without renouncing Darwinian evolution.
This is where the seeming polarities in the heated debate over creationism and evolution find common ground.
The insistent denial that our social constructs shape the race.


Robin Green 02.09.06 at 3:01 pm

Matt Mcirvin: If you think of morality as being about how other people would judge you if they were in possession of all the relevant facts, then – more or less – if you’re more generous and/or activist than 99% of your peers (i.e. people in the same sort of economic and political circumstances as yourself), I’d say that’s “good enough”, in terms of the Peter Singer / Peter Unger type of high-expectation morality. I don’t actually take my own argument seriously here, mind you, but I’m just suggesting some sort of reasonable upper bound.

Peter Unger, by the way, has taken Peter Singer’s ideas to a new extreme in his (possibly not entirely serious) book Living High and Letting Die, but his work is very flawed. For one thing it doesn’t take into account all the other things you could be doing apart from giving money to charity, and what effect they would have on the world, a rather elementary mistake.

He might claim that that doesn’t matter, but of course he’d be wrong on that – it’s fine to have a philosophical argument about charitable giving but once you start making substantive moral claims – which he does – you have to back them up.


Alan Peakall 02.09.06 at 6:24 pm


I suspect that the essence of your point is correct, but feel that you would be on firmer ground if you identified the Darwinian evolution that is inconsistent with immutable human nature as being memetic rather than genetic. The difference in timescale must be crucial. To invoke genetic evolution in this context is to ape the style of those who say that global warming is nothing to worry about because we are due for another ice age.


J Thomas 02.09.06 at 10:11 pm

Alan, it looks to me like you’re agreeing with Rollo, and you act like he said the opposite of what he did say. Have I just mess up my reading?


Alan Peakall 02.10.06 at 4:19 am

J Thomas,

Sorry for my lack of clarity. I was suggesting that what is loosely called “human nature” may be subject to a confusion of levels. At one level (the genetic) it may be regarded as fixed for practical purposes due to the long timescale. At another level (the cultural) it is more fluid. Confusion between the two levels can lead to people talking past each other. If by Darwinian evolution Rollo meant genetic evolution, then that is a point of disagreement between us, but, even if that was the case, then I believe that Rollo’s point can be resurrected at the memetic level. Regardless of whether you accept the fine detail of the more extravagant claims for memes, the unarguable progress of material science through a memetic process is highly persuasive that human nature as expressed through socialisation within an evolving tradition of polictical philosophy can be evolutionary.


J Thomas 02.10.06 at 9:50 am

Alan, thank you. I may have misunderstood Rollo.

This is where the seeming polarities in the heated debate over creationism and evolution find common ground.
The insistent denial that our social constructs shape the race.

This seemed to me to say what you’re saying. If social constructs only shape the race by natural selection on genes, we’ll be hard put to continue a given social construct long enough to matter much.

But when I look closer it looks like he might be arguing only for genetic evolution.

People do tend to learn how to optimise their results within whatever flexibility their genes allow. And that can be a quick process — but it doesn’t produce immutable changes, either. Change the environment and people will move to some other optimum.

Like, russia has a long tradition of bureaucracy. They say that Czar Alexander said on his deathbed, “I never ruled Russia. Ten thousand clerks ruled Russia.” And russians have a long tradition about how to deal with bureaucracy. Bureaucrats lie, they develop an “official truth” which is convenient to the organisation. And over time “convenience to the organisation” becomes the primary virtue.

Americans don’t have a long tradition of bureaucracy. Lincoln ran the Civil War with 30 clerks. We started our big government expansion under Rooseveldt — during the ’30’s and ’40’s the population of Washington, DC consistently grew faster than planned, so that the sewage treatment plants never kept up. It was only when the ’70’s environmentalists got excited about water quality that they bothered to predict the growth well enough to clean up the Potomac.

But in less than 75 years we’ve caught up with russian expertise about bureaucracies. People who join them know how to behave in them, people who have to deal with them know what to expect.

It’s human nature to respond to our surroundings as best we can. So people who get to set up those surroundings have a lot of responsibility, to the extent they actually do get to set up the surroundings.


rollo 02.10.06 at 5:23 pm

When we talk about “one level (the genetic)” we mean something that I think is closer to “our understanding at this time of what’s contained in the information packaging we call genes”.
I have no doubt that’s a profound thing, but it would be more than a little arrogant to leap from that to an assumption of complete knowledge.
An arrogance that’s refreshingly absent from both Alan Peakall’s and J Thomas’ erudite comments.
Still, we do know that what’s in that packaging is susceptible to micro-adjustment.
And those micro-adjustments radiate down the time line.
Macro-adjustments like extinction happen, virtually overnight sometimes, and their consequences reverberate as well, but silently.
The genetic alteration of extinction is pretty much a complete thing, though a case could be made for an eventual ability to retrieve and resurrect of some kind. Something like a forced evolution from Przewalski’s horse forward to the mustang, should mustangs disappear.


On the one hand geneticists point to specific areas that produce very specific behaviors and conditions, on the other there seems to be an assertion that we’re all carrying much the same gene-load.
This kind of discussion often founders around concepts of race and intelligence, with the politically correct model being there is no genetic blueprint for either.
It seems logically obvious just the same that one of the things that makes real genocide so heinous is its removal forever from the commonality of human things at least some traits that were unique to the victims. I’ll stress the immediate genetic affect of extinction to make my point.
Removing things is quicker than building them, always.
Social constructs that memetically alter the human presence will alter the human code as well and – it’s unscientific of me to say this, but I can because I’m not a scientist – in ways we don’t yet understand, in addition to the ways we do.
The millions of years required for the Galapagian finch to become what it is now is like that proverbial journey of a thousand miles – it needs the beginning of the first step – and every one after that is a kind of first step too.
The world may be more or less the same place without the dodo in it, but without the dodo and the polar bear and the elephant and the mountain gorilla and myriad smaller less charismatic species it won’t.
We live in the moment that change will be decided. However epochal genetic evolution is generally it isn’t always only about that long slow process. Something like that happens with us, to us, as well.

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