2020 Visions

Saturday, 12 September 2020, 8:45 | Category : Uncategorized
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The increase rate in COVID deaths has slowed.
Maine residents report a welcome change
As California smoke-cloud has moved on.
Three traffic-stops in four are now non-fatal.

Pittsburgh’s new ocean-wall has been completed.
France heaves a sigh as locust swarm turns east.
More peaceful demonstrations breaking out.
The ceasefire rages on in Palestine.

Dallas spared most Sahara dust-storm damage.
President claims round-earth beliefs a hoax.
Diversity of virtual sports-crowds faulted.
Faculty purged from nation’s college staffs.

More Boomer generation euthanized.
China declares the Uighur race a myth.
The letter “n” erased from alphabet.
Putin invades the Baltic states, again.

Google permits some fact-based advertising.
Brazilian population disappears.
Two-headed calves are born in Worcestershire.
The moon has turned to blood and starts to fall.

An Educational Suggestion

Tuesday, 21 July 2020, 23:33 | Category : Uncategorized
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The current wave of censurings, cancelings, dismissals, silencings and censorship in the academy actually has viable arguments behind it. These include the emotional safety and comfort of students and faculty, the desire for solidarity, the real menace of extremist and violent subversion, the protection of chosen identities, the dream of a harmonious human society, etc. On the other side there are also powerful arguments, including such liberal principles as freedom of speech, the need for vigorous argument and debate to find the truth, training in the art of persuasion, the comradeship of debate, and the pursuit of evidence however unpalatable if real facts are to be established, etc.

How do we resolve these respectable countering claims? It turns out that in a way we in America have already done so. It’s our hoary and honored distinction between religious universities and secular ones. Though of course there are many gradations between these pure categories, the principles that support our permitting both to exist are clear. As long as the choice of attendance is free, we and our courts hold that a religious school can require certain beliefs and commitments of its students and faculty, and a secular school can permit free speech and expression that can be offensive or blasphemous to believers.

Why not resurrect this distinction–for schools that set limits on the ideological content of speech and schools that do not? With religious schools, the student and beginning professor know that there are lines they cannot cross without offending the values and the feelings of their community. With a true secular school, the student and professor know that within the bounds of the nation’s law, no speculation, hypothesis, unearthing of awkward evidence, challenging of claimed evidence, logical disproof of existing moral customs, etc, is forbidden. One must like it or lump it, take it and dish it out.

Now of course this is an idealized picture. As we know, there are more or less religious schools across the country that preserve great traditions of reasoned debate and turn out students with cheerfully contrarian views and a very fine sense of objective fact. And there are many technically secular schools that inculcate a fairly narrow set of absolute beliefs and unchallengeable doctrines, with a curated set of contextless facts to support them. And the picture is complicated by the fact that our democratically elected government rightly believes that education is in the national interest and needs to be supported, but that it is not its business to support religious institutions. It backs up this principle by not taxing religious property, giving religious institutions at least the ability to support themselves. Government also in principle forbids institutionalized religious indoctrination in state schools.  This compromise has worked out well. American universities are among the best in the world, and religious strife–one the greatest killers on the planet–is rare on campus.

But at present it is clear that the compromise is breaking down. Many secular state universities and state-supported colleges–as well as many private secular universities that profess religious and ideological freedom–are now on the official and public level enforcing distinct and unmistakable sets of moral beliefs, among them “woke” theories of social construction and identity. For the most part those beliefs, if chosen and held by an individual, would be arguable and even beneficial, like religious moral rules; but they are challengeable, and even meaningless if they are enforced. Moral choice is by nature free. Like religious dogmas, ideological group commitments tend, if unchallenged, to become caricatures of themselves and the excuse for sadistic condemnation, character assassination, and show trials–and a useful path to promotion. In religious universities today such corruptions are controlled partly by the antiquity of its agreed set of rules, partly by the competing presence of secular schools whose reputation for free thought they covet. But no such constraint exists in secular schools that have actually become ideologically committed on an institutional level–that is, no longer secular institutions–while still claiming the support of the secular state.

Not that there is anything wrong with an ideologically committed school or university, as long as it abides by the law. Great religious foundations have created extraordinary monuments of knowledge within them. Bright minds can easily couch world-changing ideas in terms that placate the genial and lax inquisitors. But the ideological university in the guise of a free university is a problem. Students and faculty may be buying a pig in a poke, or to change the metaphor, may be victims of bait-and-switch. And they can find themselves the focus of a new kind of witch-hunt.

My proposed solution is this. Perhaps we should apply the same standards to the ideological university as to the religious university. Perhaps a university’s faculty and students should have a vote on whether it wants to be a purely secular free speech university or an ideologically committed university with the same legal advantages and disadvantages of a religious university. Then those in the minority could leave for an institution better fitted to them.

In the free university no student or faculty member could be disciplined, fired, or expelled for the expression of ideas. Certainly no crying of fire in a crowded theater–there are plenty of sensible rules in the nation’s law that draw the line. And the ideological university would be permitted to police offensive speech, inappropriate ideas, the presence of invited speakers, and the strict application of behavioral rules between people who differ by sex, gender choice, race, etc. Since its claim, like the religious school’s, is to obey rules that are higher than the rules of the state, it might lose state economic support but gain exemption from taxes.

Then students and faculty would know clearly what they would be getting into, and choose where to learn and teach on that basis. Nonconformists could gravitate toward free schools where they could trust that they would not be fired for controversial ideas; and social idealists could find committed schools with a safe haven for a loving community of like souls. And the clear distinction, as between the old religious and secular schools, might spur competition between the free and the committed institutions and advance the creation of knowledge.


A Divestment

Tuesday, 21 July 2020, 12:52 | Category : Uncategorized
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I have just cancelled my Facebook account. I realize that in doing so I am giving up much that is good and distancing myself from friends who are very dear to me. But I can’t trust myself with it. I am retiring this year to become an emeritus professor, a bit like Lear when he steps down, prof in name only, and my teacher’s habit, to try to correct error and fix logic and point out new perspectives and unearth evidence and help people enjoy a book as a book, is exactly what social media doesn’t need at present.

Because everything is politicized now on social media. Even not entering the conflict is an aggressive act. In this nightmare year of plague and racism and fear and institutional folly and brutal violence by the lawless and the law alike, what is desired is simple recitation over and over of the creed of “this” side or “that.” Any concession to the valid points of one side or the other is seen as endorsement, triumphant putdown, conversion or betrayal. Any mild criticism of a view one otherwise endorses is heresy. Those who try to mediate–which was my intention in entering the fray–are the ones hated most as traitors by both sides. So I’m out.

This divestment is only part of a general metamorphosis–caterpillar to butterfly or butterfly to caterpillar? I’ve been slowly clearing out my institutional office and my home study, hundreds of books to go to libraries, fifty-three years of dusty knickknacks, five giant bins of papers, keeping perhaps 1/10 of my them for a generously-offered archive.

I feel, as the cliché goes, as if an elephant were lifting its feet from my back one by one, a liberation that also includes a rush of memories of students and colleagues, and love for my flawed but very decent and increasingly brilliant university.

And as I enter my dotage or sanyasihood I am trying to rejuvenate my first vocation, of poet, and shred away what religious folks call the burden of self. I see a kind of liberation that might be possible; not less care for others, but more cogent care. A way of being a night-light for people, or a place to rest on a journey, or a suggester of ways to put things that display their holiness within.

The Plague War

Tuesday, 21 July 2020, 12:29 | Category : Uncategorized
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I feel the pain in their incessant battle,
The urge to bite, but armor shields the flesh,
The trembling heart-shock of the feared rebuttal,
The wanted wound that keeps the hatred fresh;

I feel the murderous pity for the ones
The enemy supposedly still harms,
The warm companionship of well-shared guns,
The pride of race or wokeness, up in arms–

Arms that have blades upon their very helves,
That cut the striker while he strikes the stricken,
Weapons that turn themselves against themselves,
Medicine mixed to make the taker sicken.

And they’re good people too, made mad with grief:
God grant the damned election brings relief.

Nine Fallacies about Racism

Monday, 20 July 2020, 8:47 | Category : Uncategorized
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The current narrative about racism is based on a set of propositions which, upon closer examination, are both factually unfounded and logically incoherent. Let’s look at these propositions in turn.

1. Racism is a social invention. This proposition draws on the sociological assertion that human reality is socially and culturally constructed, which is a partial truth at best and a toxic distortion at worst. Human reality is much more a matter of our biological construction, ecological and technological constraints and affordances, and individual choices. The social reality of a human being can be socially constructed in a fairly superficial way by multiple ethnic and customary habits, fashions, family traditions, peer groups, commercial advertising, and the cultural mix that goes into most humans everywhere, changing day by day. But it is our genes and their epigenetic settings, the laws of physics, chemistry, and physiology, our own understanding of them, the available technological and economic uses of them, and our own self-training and self-education, that are by far the most important influences on our thoughts and behaviors. If racism is socially constructed, it is only one meme among many, and dealing with it is just a matter of changing the current fashion. The most ardent upholders of the current narrative all recognize that this has not worked.

Xenophobia, the fear of strangers, has been shown to be innate by many studies in psychology, anthropology, sociology and other disciplines (not to mention almost all the literatures of the world that tell the story of one tribe’s victory over another). Infants already seek comfort with humans that are known to them and humans that look like the ones they know, and fear odd-looking strangers. The adaptive commonsense of this tendency should be obvious. It is an indelible part of our makeup. The oxytocin reward system that makes us love our own group also tends to make us suspicious of others.

Xenophobia, like many human givens, can certainly be counterbalanced by other predispositions, such as the exploratory instinct, the lure of the sexually other, and the incentive of gain by trade. But xenophobia is always there and is indeed easily shaped by both an individual and his or her group into more specific forms, ranging from irrational support of one’s own sports team and hatred of the opponent to religious prejudice and inquisitions, jingoistic nationalism, civic pride, class conflict (which redirects our racist instinct into an economic conflict) and of course the theory of racism itself. Political partisanship uses it all the time—as “dog whistles” about monkeys, and the “orange” slur often used about Trump, clearly attest. Racism as a basic instinct did not need inventing. Racism was not taught but inherited in our genes; it is not a moral failing unless it is unchecked, and must be treated as we treat a hereditary condition like sickle cell anemia, or nymphomania, or Tay-Sachs, or autism: with compassion, education, and therapy.

2. Racism is a clear and distinct concept in itself. This impression can be easily corrected with a little examination of how the word is used. The word “racism” is itself incoherent, meaning several (sometimes contradictory) things: a belief that there are distinct races of humans (as opposed to various local groupings of human haplotypes); a habitual preference for one “race” over others; a belief based on bad science that one “race” is superior to others; a social and legal practice based on that belief; an irrational preference for one skin color, hair texture, or nose or eye shape over another; a political position to justify the economic oppression of one defined group by another. One can be racially hostile to another person who has the same skin color, etc, but who is simply identified as belonging to another race, as evidenced by Nazi racism against Jews and Slavs, the evident racism of the Qiché against the other tribes in the Popol Vuh, the protestant Irish against the Catholics, the Japanese use of Korean “comfort women,” and countless other examples.

Racism is hugely varied in its manifestations. One can believe in the inferiority of members of one race but sincerely support their equal rights as human beings, as Lincoln did. One can love another race but regard it as basically lesser, as we do dogs. One can, sadly, prefer members of one’s own “race” but believe that another race has superior natural talents. Either as a bearer of the white man’s burden or of white guilt, one can be paternalistically protective of the “inferior” race; one can profess to seek the emancipation of other “races”, as did Marx and Stalin, while ardently despising them. “Scientific” racism was a standard socialist position for much of the last two centuries, leading to eugenics programs in many left-leaning nations.

3. Racism always involves contempt or a belief in the inferiority of another group. Again, not so. Here a hugely important distinction, virtually ignored by contemporary theorists, emerges. The quality of feeling that characterizes our racist distaste for the “inferior” racial Other is quite different from that which we feel about the “superior” Other. One can hate “another” race precisely because one believes it is superior, as with antisemitism in general and some strains of American anti-Asian prejudice, especially exemplified in college admissions policies. Race bias toward the “inferior” can range from genial condescension and paralyzing paternalism to animal fear, exploitation and brutal sadistic repression; toward the “superior” it ranges from secretly sneering compliance and sabotage to cold mass murder on an industrial scale. We seek to subjugate the “lower” race; but we seek to eradicate the “higher” race.

4. Racism is only a “white” phenomenon. This assertion is spectacularly wrong, and is a racist position in itself. Scientific racism, which replaced the normal folk unwisdom about perceived human differences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certainly could not have been invented without science. Most of modern science was created in Europe and North America by “white” people. Like the faulty phlogiston theory of combustion, it was a mistake. But it fed into other political and social incentives, such as the slave trade, colonialism, and socialism itself, which always sought ways to identify human groupings as more important than human individuals. The West made science available, and racism misused its mistake.

But racism in all other senses than the scientific fallacy is sturdily universal among human beings. History presents an overwhelming picture of clan warfare, tribal massacres, ethnic holocausts, pogroms, and enslavements. Whole populations of modern humans show marked differences between the inheritance of mitochondrial DNA through the mother and the Y chromosome from the father that can only mean a period in which one racial strain virtually exterminated all the males of another and raped its females. The history of the relations among the Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han and Mongolian tribes and their surrounding peoples is a story of successive racial exterminations. So too the establishment and collapse of the Roman Empire. Under the Caesars, darker-skinned Mediterraneans crushed fair-skinned Celts. Ancient Mesopotamia’s history of tribal holocaust is perhaps the oldest, vying with ancient Egypt’s. We have already briefly looked at the tribal wars of Mesoamerica, as we could also at the Andean civilizations. Polynesians subjugated Melanesians, and were subjugated in turn.

Apart from the Mongol invasion of Asia and Europe, perhaps the largest territorial story of racist subjugation and extermination is that of sub-Saharan Africa long before the white colonies were created. Beginning in the first century AD, Bantus from the general region of Cameroon swept eastward across Africa, wiping out hundreds of native societies including many Nilotic groups; another wave drove southward, subjugating or exterminating indigenous peoples such as the Pygmies and the Khoisan, arriving in what is now South Africa to meet the European settlers moving north from the Cape in the sixteenth century. Subsequent vicious tribal wars between different Bantu-speaking tribes continued to this day. Black racism against the brown peoples of the south and against other black tribes was always part of a norm that indeed included trade, cooperation, and great cultural achievements as well.

5. Slavery is a racist practice. This proposition is only half true. Slavery—the ownership of other human beings and their forced labor–has been practiced in one form or another by most human societies at one time or another. If we include such practices that meet the definition, as the belonging of children to parents, military conscription, serfdom, and in many traditions marriage itself, it is universal. It was normal practice in ancient and classical times to enslave populations conquered in war, and often this practice had little at all to do with race or perceived race differences. The combatants in Homer’s Iliad all explicitly belong to the same Greek-speaking race, connected often by ancient family ties, yet they cheerfully enslaved each other when they could. Poor people in many cultures sold their children as slaves to racially identical rich people, and the practice still continues in many places. Slavery only became a specifically racist practice with the slave trade, when the earlier relationship of belonging turned into a new relationship of chattel ownership.

6. The slave trade is a European invention. This is patently false. What we usually mean by slavery is the slave trade, or chattel slavery, which was not so prevalent as normal local slavery, though it too certainly took place in all known major civilizations. Slavery as a commercial industry does have a specific history, but it is not in any sense exclusively a European one. The slave trade we know as such is an African and Middle Eastern invention. Ancient southern Egypt sold Nubian slaves to northern Egypt and then later to Rome. In Egyptian wall-paintings pale-skinned Hittite and Amorite slave girls serve black Pharaohs. Bantu kingdoms sold their own slaves to other Bantu kingdoms, and began the systematic process of rounding up village populations to be sold. Mighty slave-trading nations like Mali, Ghana, the Ashanti and the Yoruba grew rich on the practice. Mansa Musa’s gold was legendary. Under the Arabs, beginning in the sixth century, and later the Turks, slave trading moved north and became a massive industry, and now it was European coastal populations as far north as Iceland that were being captured in millions by corsairs and Ottoman raiding parties and sold in the great world slave trading center of Istanbul. It is unclear whether the Slav peoples gave their name to the institution, or whether they took their name from it; the connection itself is eloquent.

It was only in the 1600s that the disease of the mass slave trade spread from Africa and the Mediterranean to northern Europe and the New World. It is a truly remarkable achievement of the European Enlightenment that so ancient, profitable, customary and universally accepted a practice should have lasted only two hundred years before its evil was recognized and banned by the major European nations, beginning with France and England and finally ratified by all nations of whatever racial makeup. In the slave-dependent United States that moral realization cost a bloody civil war that took the lives of three quarters of a million people. The effective figures in the battle against slavery were predominantly “white” cultural and political leaders in nations with predominantly European populations.

7. Enslavement and genocide based on race was a conservative idea. Just as scientific racism was generally a product of left-leaning progressives in the West, the opposition to slavery came originally from sources generally considered today as conservative—Whiggish supporters of business enterprise, Protestant religious moralists like William Wilberforce and William Lloyd Garrison, the Catholic Church, and the nascent Republican Party. Progressivist Fabians like Beatrice Webb, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes, the intellectual leaders of British socialism, were ardent eugenicists, as of course were the national socialists of Sweden and Germany. In the communist Soviet Union whole populations were ethnically “cleansed,” including Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Inguish, Karacheys, Kalmyks, Koreans and Turks, who were reduced to second-class citizenship and deported to central Asia with huge loss of life. And in the Holodomor about ten million Ukrainians were exterminated for refusing to work as slaves. Communist China even now is doing the same sort of thing to the Uyghurs.

8. Racism is a capitalist phenomenon. One of the most striking things about American slave narratives is that the escape from slavery is not ever conceived as an escape to a socialist world of paternal state control but to a place of free enterprise where the former slave could enter the marketplace and make a decent living by their own work. Here an important distinction needs to be made, between mercantilism, which is compatible with and indeed relies upon slavery (and thus on racist justifications for it), and capitalism, which inherently rejects slavery. Mercantilism works basically as an extractive industry that rifles the earth and the human body to create wealth for a few. It requires imperialist colonization, and it does not like innovations that disturb its process. Capitalism, as its name implies, replaces human brute labor with capital stock such as technology and marketing tools, replaces labor-intensive foreign raw materials whenever it can with common and easily obtainable local ones, and thrives on technological progress. It does so not out of the goodness of its heart but because its core principles, the creation of value and the reaping of the rewards of value-creation, rely on a skilled and flexible workforce and as broad a market (people who can pay for its products) as possible. Even Henry Ford, like other progressives an avowed racist, recognized that for the system to work his workers would have to earn enough to buy his cars. And that meant the creation of large working and middle classes and enough public education and medical care to maintain competent workers who would be flexible enough to keep up with accelerating technological innovation. Black former slaves flocked north to work in his factories, beginning the slow process of black economic emancipation in America.

The American Civil War was a war between the mercantilist South and the capitalist north. As everywhere else in the world where capitalism took root, the result of victory was the outlawing of slavery and the gradual integration of former slave populations into the market economy. Russia had already abolished serfdom as its capitalist middle class expanded in the early twentieth century; tragically its form of socialism after the Revolution replaced the old form of serfdom with the new one of the collectives.

Capitalism is the only reliable economic antidote to slavery.

9. Racism can be countered by identity politics. Identity politics, that is, the ideological cultivation of solidarity based on race (gender, gender identification, disability, etc), has been put forward as a potent weapon against the oppression of a minority by the majority. Virtues unique to this given identity, heroic stories about it, and atrocities committed by the enemy can then be marshaled to organize enthusiastic support for violent resistance. The problem with this means of countering racism is that it is inherently impractical, for two reasons.

The first reason is that it is folly to attack and attempt to damage or destroy a group that is much larger, better armed, richer, and more organized, with its own rules, laws, material resources, and infrastructure. If the attack is ineffective, it is ineffective. If it is effective enough to be a real nuisance, it will be counterproductive, resulting in the delegitimation of its just claims and possibly increased repression. Hostilities based on inalienable group identity by definition exclude members of the majority that might see and assist the justice of their cause and join their numbers. In reality the success of mass protests against racism is based crucially on the forbearance of liberal capitalist societies from brutal repressive measures that are possible under socialist rule, on civil pacifist restraint by the protesters, and on the continued appeal to the painfully slow conscience of the oppressor.

Worse still, the weapon of race identity is not available to minorities alone. When the majority is insulted and tormented enough into identifying itself as a special race with its own heroic history, grievances, and special virtues, very terrible things can happen and have happened again and again. The apathy of the majority is a precious protection. It is not wise to awaken a sleeping dragon, as the Great Depression did in Germany after the treaty of Versailles in which Wilsonian “social justice” elevated ethnic identity into a political and moral imperative. Or as Trump did after the Great Recession, when racial political correctness and accusations had alienated the majority of the American working class.

The only effective remedies for racism seem to be four: religious solidarity that supersedes race, as with Catholicism and Islam; the capitalist free market, where individual profit supersedes racial solidarity and abundance overcomes scarcity and want; equal laws equally enforced; and the long slow process of liberal persuasion and education. Human beings of all kinds have a conscience, even those whose habit involves racial categories. To dismiss anyone’s conscience as invalid or insincere is an evil. The only effective appeal to majorities whose very existence as a working majority is oppressive to a minority is the old-fashioned appeal to our common humanity and to its collective conscience. This was the vision of Martin Luther King, like that of Mandela and Gandhi–the great apostles of liberalism for our times.

Capitalism and Socialism: What do the Words Mean?

Tuesday, 14 July 2020, 16:43 | Category : Uncategorized
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Capitalism and socialism are two important words used in the world of “political economy.” As a literary scholar and poet I became interested in the field’s wild variety, its rhetorical use of language and often its surprising insights. For the last thirty years or so the field became a hobby. This essay shares some of what I learned.

Let’s set aside the popular use of the words “capitalist” and “socialist” as insulting epithets meaning roughly “an evil and greedy oppressor” and “an evil and murderous tyrant.” We have perfectly good words for “evil, greedy, murderous” etc—evil, greedy, and murderous for example. Socialist and capitalist have meanings of their own that might be worth exploring.

In serious discussion “capital” is usually agreed across all shades of the political spectrum to signify the means of production, or the ways value or “utility” is created. The main argument seems to be about who should own it—individuals, individuals and voluntary groups, certain groups only, or the State. In ordinary usage, “capitalism” normally means the first two: private or private-and-corporate ownership. “State capitalism,” the ownership of the means of production by the state, is usually called socialism or communism. Absolute monarchical ownership, though it uses capital, is one extreme form of state socialism in this literal sense. If the leadership of a state is democratically elected, it is possible to claim that state ownership is ownership by the people in general, but it is hard to make this case when the current leaders already have total control over the livelihood of the voters. Ownership of capital only by limited groups, such as guilds, feudal dynasties, oligarchies, monopolies, and cartels is often identified with “mercantilism.” It is associated with colonial systems of asymmetric trade and extractive industries like mining and cash crop farming, rather than value-added industries in which the ingenious restructuring of raw materials outweighs the value of the raw materials themselves: such latter industries are characteristic of a capitalist economy.

Another popular use of the word “capital” includes the implied meaning of large, accumulated, stored and abstracted forms of the means of production, such as money, legal obligations, intellectual property, etc. In this sense no large human project, such as a highway system or electrification or a national health service, is possible without capitalism in one form or another.

“Capitalism” can mean either a set of theories about economic systems or the practice of organizing capital, including rules of ownership, contracts, property rights, etc. Theory and practice are not always the same, but they are hard to separate and the relationship changes all the time, so I’ll deal with them together.

The word is also often used to mean the marketplace itself, that spontaneous order by which demand for goods and their availability are communicated across an entire community by means of the price signal, marginal utility, and profit. The continuous feedback of buying, selling, hiring and client-making, controlled by property laws, insurance, bank rates, and stable currency, is immensely creative and adaptable, and may be humankind’s greatest gift. This system is the only one known in which competition, the creation of demand, and competitive advantage tend to create continuous innovation, the substitution of capital for brute labor, and huge increases of abundance.

Problems that often accompany such spontaneous orders fall into two main groups.

The first is that of externalities. If the inputs of an industry include clean air, clean water, a vital ecosystem, and a well-functioning civil society, and its output includes pollution, ecological harm, and social disruption, and if these factors are not added to the balance sheet, then the market can break down and the price signal becomes distorted. The “invisible hand” is crippled. Different nations have tried different legal and cultural ways of rectifying the balance and ensuring that such debts are repaid by remediation or compensation—of this more later.

The second problem is basically the mathematical power law that comes into force whenever any system is creative, that is, it grows and innovates. Advances lead to other advances, the stock of property increases by compound interest, and even very small differences in the rate of increase of wealth can exponentially magnify into huge inequality. Great increases in transportation speed, reliability, efficiency, and demand creation, and plummeting transaction costs, lead to cases where only a few really excellent providers can overwhelm local enterprises. Thousands of mom and pop stores are replaced by the discount chain, a multitude of local folk singers is replaced by a few superstars with mass record labels or streaming rights. The result is that the rich get rapidly richer, while the poor get richer more slowly, and can even in recessions, pandemics, or radical technological changes get poorer. Savage passions of envy, felt injustice, racism, hostility to immigrants, class and identity solidarity emerge. All modern nations, and even cities and states within federal nations, seek ways of redressing the balance without killing the golden goose of the capitalist marketplace.

The mildest way of redress is the enforcement of existing laws. The legal systems of most advanced nations are themselves spontaneous orders (sometimes called autopoietic systems, complex orders, self-organizing or emergent systems, etc). That is, such a system has feedbacks such as juries, appellate courts, adversarial advocacy, precedents, judicial review, critical journals, law books, law schools, etc, that dynamically alter, adapt, or improve the production of justice. (Science, with its own feedback systems of experimental protocol, statistical ana]ysis, replication, apprenticeship, science journals, peer review and professional recognition by prizes and awards, is another such spontaneous order). The law can adapt to changing conditions and mitigate privilege (“private law”) that favors the fortunate.

When innovations in technology and economic efficiency threaten the natural and social environment and lead to runaway increases in economic inequality, and the existing laws cannot keep up, the political process reaches crisis proportions and there is a demand for radical change. One kind of change is a constant lure and tropism: toward various levels of state interference. And here the crucial word “socialism” enters the picture. Socialism as a theory generalizes the staggeringly complex landscape of an economy (in its dynamic setting of other economies), together with its even more complex culture, and all the individuals and groups and ideologies within it, under the term “society.” It largely dismisses the yet more complex biological makeup and natural predispositions of the population, assuming that these are socially constructed, and seeks to control the harms by more or less direct and/or coercive means.

As a practice socialism tends to be activist (while capitalism is often more laisser-faire). Thus socialism suffers the disadvantage of being held responsible for its experiments and innovations, its “dirigiste” attitude of taking charge to fix abuses and injustices, while capitalists can escape the blame for developments it did not directly cause. But socialism by the same token is always in the situation of interfering with an entity much larger and more complicated and unpredictable than its own resources can handle, that wants to go its own way, and that produces much that is desirable.

Nevertheless, given the huge environmental and cultural dangers of uncompensated externalities and the inevitable gravitation of a creative economy toward a power-law distribution of capital with extremes of wealth and poverty, emergency changes in ownership and control may be plainly indicated, as they are in natural disasters and pandemics. Revolution is a worse-than-natural disaster that must be anticipated and avoided. Sometimes non-state means of damping its flames are possible: nineteenth century industrial Britain, for instance, had the extreme good luck of having John Wesley and his religious message of love and peace, and a tradition of great art that was shared by high and low alike. It managed to avoid the worst atrocities that took place in the French Revolution. American religious traditions fulfilled the same function, especially in the case of the Black churches. But the religious buffer postpones rather than eliminates the problem. So it gets left to government. When we cannot rely on cultural luck to provide enough patience to let the system right itself, state means may be necessary.

The available interventionist strategies fall into four general categories: state regulation of the economic and ecological consequences of progress, state control of the economy, state ownership of the “commanding heights” of the economy, and full state ownership of the means of production. The term “socialism” in these terms is applied very differently according to one’s ideology. Only extreme right-wingers and anarchistic libertarians would label state regulation—against breach of contract, theft, etc—as socialism. The business-friendly Right would call some state regulations “socialism” but attempt quite rationally to use others to legally rent-share or create monopolies (socialism for the rich!). The moderate Right would accept some state control but describe most forms of state ownership as socialism. The moderate Left would save the term “socialism” for state control of the economy, hoping for or fearing a transition to “commanding heights” state ownership, and reserving “communism” for full state ownership. The far left would ultimately desire full state ownership, termed by them “socialism,” to be followed by a dreamed-of “withering away of the State,” true communism.

Socialism in the sense of full state ownership of the means of production has a disastrous history, one rightly called out by the Right. I should not need to argue this. East Germany and North Korea are good examples. On both major counts, negative externalities and distribution of power and money, they were disasters. They were hell on earth according to survivors and escapees. “Commanding heights” state ownership has often been a failure too, given the fact that the parts of the economy that are not state owned and that participate in the dynamism of the market fairly soon render the commanding heights obsolete, leaving them as a crippling drag on the rest and a center of oppressive bureaucratic power and surveillance, as has happened in China and India.

The problem for most advanced nations is to figure out where state regulation leaves off and becomes market-chilling state control under which the price signal no longer operates, and where state control in turn becomes state ownership. Generally speaking, if the government controls more than half the Gross National Product it effectively owns the means of production and, since the population relies on it for employment, the regime can perpetuate itself by holding the people’s jobs for ransom by the vote. Is there a slippery slope? Plainly Sweden felt there was in the 1990s when in a prolonged decline it turned its back on socialism and committed itself to a policy of free market capitalism with high redistributive taxes, an attractive position taken up by other Scandinavian countries and by American liberal opinion.

Some would argue that the heavy burden of taxes saps creativity and competitiveness in such nations. Others argue that their ethnic homogeneity, leading to a more general spirit of trust and cooperation, is a luxury that disqualifies them as models and that more multi-ethnic societies cannot achieve. Others too would point out that such countries must rely on the military protection and economic markets of a world power, the USA. Germany has managed what looks like a good balance under the moderate liberal-conservative wing of Angela Merkel—another capitalist free-market economy with high taxes and good social services. But the dangerous populist reaction to Syrian immigration there indicates how fragile that balance can be; and as a member of the European Union it has had to lead a divisive policy of anti-free market austerity that looks sometimes like creeping mercantilism.

Other nations like Singapore and Taiwan have managed to have long-booming capitalist economies with low taxes and good public services. The world is wondering how: perhaps it is residual Confucian civil service ethics, which may dissipate with a new generation. China and India have become booming free-market capitalist societies, even while carrying state-owned non-market sectors on their backs, but with much corruption and huge future demographic and ecological problems. The US is currently the pioneer in fully confronting these issues, bitterly divided along partisan lines, but in the process breaking new intellectual ground; and the outcome is in doubt.

Without a full and, I would argue, an impossible understanding of a whole country, state-imposed means of mitigation for externalities and inequality are always haphazard, and often result in unforeseen consequences. (Think by comparison of early psychopharmaceutical attempts to deal with psychological distress and illness in a brain almost completely unknown except for broad statistical measurements.) A good example would be Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and their later additions using the same body of theory. Jane Jacobs showed us the horrors of urban renewal; the war on drugs resulted in the imprisonment and disenfranchisement of about a tenth of the black male population; Bill Clinton had to ditch large parts of the welfare system that had broken up the Black family and created a plague of illegitimacy and hapless single parents. Unlike Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, an even more ambitious and astoundingly bloody attempt at rectification, the Great Society did have its successes too, but its history should be a grave corrective to wilder “woke” hopes and simplistic economic phrenology.

It should be obvious by now that what most of the US candidates on the moderate left are calling for is not state ownership (socialism in the most used sense) and only very partial ownership or control of the means of production, limited to education and health care. The moderate right believes that intelligent and flexible regulation, together with minimum bureaucracy and modest redistribution might work better. Both sides—or rather all sides—of the debate are necessary, lest in our ignorance and unhampered enthusiasm we make old or new mistakes and squander the huge progress already made. Or get on a slippery slope that will take us to the annoyingly proverbial Venezuela or to robber-baron Russia.

Given a better understanding of the terms “capitalist” and “socialist,” how might a classical free-market liberal or commonsense libertarian respond to capitalism’s problems of redistribution and externalities?

Modestly redistributive policies to deal with inequality are already in place, but are highly wasteful and inefficient. More might or might not help. Exciting possibilities mooted among the people themselves include an entirely unlegislated further expansion of corporate concepts of worker ownership, stock sharing, cooperatives on the Spanish Mondragon model, well-paid gig systems, and in the aftermath of COVID, work at home and the renewal of cottage industry. If the current social services programs could be replaced by a universal basic income, as some argue, many current distortions of the marketplace would disappear. Starving and ill-educated people make poor workers and poor consumers. Education is crucial, but much of the current state system is obviously broken and people are turning to alternative schooling of various types: home, charter, cooperative, private, and virtual. The ideological battle for local environmentalism has been more or less won. The efficiency of capitalism, seeking higher profits by exploiting renewable energy sources and former waste products, and by the miniaturization and customization of industry, is gradually reducing the ecological burden in many parts of the northern hemisphere. The northern forests are returning.

The free-market liberal or moderate libertarian I have postulated might in this light come to some odd insights. One might be that the current administration has adopted several radically anti-capitalist policies characteristic of left-wing and socialist governments: restrictions on immigration and the free flow of labor; the suppression of minority populations; protectionist restrictions on trade; mercantilist economics; nationalism and group identity politics; attacks on the Press; blatant philistinism; and the custom of mass rallies and enthusiastic propaganda. Its support is demographically similar to Lenin’s during the Russian revolution. “Populism” is in a sense the new socialism.

The libertarian argument might be that we should let civil society itself sort out the problem of inequality; many of the extremely rich in the US are convinced of its evil, culturally committed to reversing it, and actively supporting ameliorative efforts in medicine, education, media, etc. The Law is now fully alerted to the problems that our racist human nature has created by mass incarceration and the war on drugs. Trump and the far Left, not-so-strange bedfellows, could hamper the indigenous emergence of better forms of voluntary redistribution, and the evolution of the law and economic system to correct the ill effects of inequality and externalities.

Progressives would clearly take a different view. But a clear understanding of the linguistic struggle over the meaning of key terms like socialism and capitalism could help find a common vocabulary so that the debaters would not be speaking past each other. Perhaps the traditional humanities might be useful after all.

The Good and the Right

Sunday, 24 May 2020, 9:41 | Category : Uncategorized
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Laws, as many philosophers have opined, seem to be based on one of two foundations: what is good, and what is right. Very roughly, the distinction can be found in the difference between our own two traditions, of Roman law, and English common law; further back, between the ancient Hebrew ritual law, and the code of Hammurabi. Legal experts will, I hope, forgive the many exceptions to these generalizations, for their usefulness as an analytic tool of thought.

The distinction, even more generally, is between what is commanded of us by the gods or God (or, in later ages, by Humanity, by Nature, by Reason, or by Popular Will) on one hand; and what is required of us in the honest fulfillment of a contract, on the other. The former, which finds its Western origins in ancient Israel (and can be found also in the Confucian legal system of ancient China), sees law as a way to enforce the good—the good as a transcendent endowment of human society that we can partly intuit, especially if we are talented, trained, learned, and morally upright. The latter, which can be identified roughly with the Hammurabic, Solonic, and English Common Law traditions, sees laws as the way to make sure the humble contracts that human beings make with each other have the support they need over and above the natural sanctions built into our families, our markets, and our practical agreed systems of mutual trust. The first emphasizes the good, the second, the right.

The Jewish moral law was, for a time, enforced by the civil authorities of ancient Israel. But with the destruction of the Israelite monarchy in 587 BC, a profound reevaluation of the laws of goodness began, one that is still continuing in the Jewish community. God had evidently found something lacking, the Prophets said, in the literalism and the abuses of a law that afforded so much power to the authorities and left so little to the spontaneous free choice of just individuals. Perhaps the law of goodness was to be kept, not in the hands of armed enforcers, but in the human heart and soul enlightened by the inner voice of Adonai. Thereafter Jews found and punctiliously obeyed the laws of contract they found among other peoples, and kept their free ethical observance of the law of the good to themselves—until the coming of the Jewish State in the twentieth century, when with the revival of secular power the enforceability of orthodoxy once more became an issue.
Roman law, though again it was based upon a transcendent conception of the good, made many concessions to the low demands of commerce. It gave much authority over to local magnates, capos, and dons, so that in exchange for a local return to the patriarchal customs of the tribe, there would be a general concession to the legal supremacy of the Senate (and later, the Emperor). However, such laws did not provide for the increasing numbers of helpless indigents that are spawned by mercantile padrón systems everywhere.

Christianity, which began with a purely internal and voluntary law of the good—love thy neighbor—had inherited the inner ideals of the old Jewish moral law. But it was purged now, Christians believed, of a great burden of its literalism and legalism, and reinforced by the blazing hope of salvation and faith in the redemption. This new religion gradually created for itself through energetic private charity the role of the Empire’s welfare system. Finally the Empire itself simply could not manage without it, and was itself forced, under Constantine, to become the secular enforcer of Christian moral law. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the ideal of a society in which the highest moral precepts, enjoined by God, would be enforced by the State, burned brighter and brighter in the imagination of the world. The result was finally the birth of Islamic law, or the Sharia, in the seventh century AD. Sharia systematized and perfected the law of the good, and embodied one of the most beautiful, and tragically flawed, visions of society that our species had yet achieved.

All societies based on the enforcement of a law of good have tended to stagnate, wither, and eventually die. The Soviet Union is a nice test case: based on noble principles of humane goodness, and enforced by a perfect system of coercion, it lasted exactly one lifetime, full of unbelievable carnage, before cracking and falling into dust. It took the Holy Roman Empire much longer to collapse, because it was still “corrupted” by the contractual pragmatism of the law of the right, and was so inefficient and far-flung that it could not fully enforce its own principles. It took even longer for the Islamic empire of the Ottomans and the Confucian empires of China to sink into decay, but decay they did.

Meanwhile another conception of law was gaining ground: the law of right, rather than of good. The code of Hammurabi had arisen at around 1700 BC to protect the golden goose of Mesopotamian business enterprise. Its practical wisdom would eventually leaven the mysterious prescriptions of Leviticus and the pollution-and-purification ritual of Roman law, and give Roman and Jewish civilization the tools to prosper economically. However, in its homeland Hammurabic law could not control the political ambitions of the Persian Empire, which overreached itself and fell victim at last to the Greeks under Alexander. Hammurabi’s core ideas had been incorporated into the new and improved version, the Greek laws of Solon (see The Classical Greek Reader, edited by Kenneth Atchity and Rosemary McKenna), where the laws of contract turned out not to need an emperor to preserve them, but to be equally enforceable by a democracy, a republic, or a legally constrained monarchy of free men. The principles of Hammurabi took on a new lease of life. But Greek law of right was adapted only to the city, and was fatally vulnerable to strict limits of size: it consumed itself in inter-city conflict, was undermined by elitist Platonic yearnings for a law of the good, and was overwhelmed by the more pragmatic ecumenism of the Roman Republic. With the Greek city-states died the first great attempt at a law of right.

The second great attempt at a society based on a law of right—one that succeeded—arose in the north with the slow maturing of the neolithic rules of the Germanic tribes into a haphazard and populist collection of laws to secure and sanction the boundaries of a marketplace. As it evolved with its juries, its torts, its precedents, its limitations on monarchic power, its appellate review, its defense of the local rights of civil society, and its astonishing capacity for commercial and technological innovation, it came to dominate the world. Finally the Christian Church was forced to acknowledge the secular dominance of the law of right. After the agonizing upheavals of the Reformation, Christianity was able to internalize the law of good, as the Israelites had been forced to do two thousand years earlier, and abandon the inquisitorial attempt to enforce it externally by secular means. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s; and now that Caesar made no claim to a law of the good, but wanted only to enforce the right, the way was open for the Enlightenment compromise, in which the Church could have men’s souls if the State could claim men’s bodies and enrich—and tax—men’s pocketbooks.

But the yearning for an enforced law of the good could not be eradicated from men’s souls, and though two great regimes—Britain and America—had largely freed themselves from the law of good, Romanticism and the age of revolutions saw a massive swing toward the ideals of the higher moral law. The result was all the various contenders for the role of secular enforcer of world morality—Jacobinism, Communism, democratic socialism, Nazism, Fascism, and so on. Almost all despised Judaism and Christianity for having abandoned, as they saw it, the role of secular enforcer of goodness. They hated Judaism partly for having, in their view, succeeded so very well economically and culturally without the help of a state at all, and for having been able, they felt, to combine an inner, voluntary, community solidarity with an adroit and profitable expertise in the outer realm of contracts.

In the last few decades, however, in the light of the huge economic and cultural success of the nations that clung to the law of right, there has been a decisive swing back in that direction. Dozens of regimes have adopted free market policies, have at least in theory signed on to Hernando de Soto’s drive to give poor people the legal right to their own property (thus freeing them from moral peonage to a paternalistic government), and have submitted themselves to the contractual discipline of the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank. That movement has indeed been challenged from many quarters; Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, a resurgence of coercive secular moralism under the paradoxical banner of “social justice”, and the new outbreak of populist nationalism. But perhaps the tipping point is already past.

Let it be said at once that the above is not an attack on the law of good, nor simply a paean to the law of right. The laws of good apply the more strongly to the individual conscience as the secular enforcement of them diminishes. They apply also to the free institutions of civil society (protected from each other, as they must be, by the law of right). The absolute claims of the law of good that make it so dangerous when armed with secular power are precisely what generate the decent conduct without which a good society is impossible.

But goodness, in my view and that of almost all ethicists, is essentially bound up with freedom. We cannot praise a coerced virtue, nor blame an enforced crime. The very core of morality, enjoined by God himself in almost all religions, is the spontaneous assent to divine grace. Paradoxically, to enforce the law of good is to destroy it. Paradoxically, the freedom to do evil—as long as it does not violate the right—is required for the freedom to do good. The law of right is at its center the law of freedom, and is thus, paradoxically again, the only thing for which one can rightly resort to coercion and war. All of this is not to say that the law of good must bottle itself up within the individual and the closed community, and render itself impotent. Instead it means that the law of good must win the world the hard way, by the noncoercive means of persuasion, gifts, and the marketplace—must win the population one by one by one. And it can only do so under the wing of the law of right.

Certainly, the laws of right do not make a perfect world. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, the miraculous pricing mechanism praised by von Mises and Hayek, that directs resources to where they are most needed, does indeed work, in the large statistical aggregate, when it is protected by the law of right. But it cannot deal with local tragedies, and it cannot by itself create the social and cultural capital that renders people capable of exercising political freedom in a responsible and objective way—nor does it claim to do so. And it cannot per se engender the marvelous overplus of heroism, sanctity, generosity and scientific and artistic integrity that society needs to advance. But neither can the law of good do so when enforced by coercion, for these things are free gifts and cannot of their nature be coerced.
Thus if religion is a natural human need and right, it is one that only the persuasive and noncoercive measures of civil society can guarantee. A civil society which did not do so would tend, if this analysis is correct, to wither on the vine—or at least it would be overwhelmed and outbred by devout immigrants with the greater cohesion, moral strength, and enthusiasm for life provided by their religion. But it would be more dangerous still for the state to enforce religion.

However, natural law of right might very well argue that America’s current anxiety about public displays of religion (except “secular” statist ones) may be deeply misconceived. To insist on them in government buildings is to try to make Caesar do the work of God and thus to betray a lack of faith in the Lord. To try to ban them in public places is just as dangerous, because it implicitly concedes that public space is government space, and thus violates the Constitution’s pledge that all rights not specifically delegated to government are reserved to the people; it is we the people who own public space, not the government. Just as government should not grow food, but should encourage the growing of food, so government should not take on the provision of religion, but should smile upon it as a natural need of its citizens. Further, the recent attempt to suppress by “political correctness” and speech codes civil society’s habits of giving honor to religion, and even its noncoercive but often very uncomfortable sanctions against irreligious and immoral behavior, may also be a mistake.

Evolutionary Aesthetics

Sunday, 3 November 2019, 11:43 | Category : Uncategorized
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I wrote this long essay over six years ago as a response to an attack by Joseph Carroll on my pioneering work in the the field (in my book Natural Classicism, 1986, and other publications). I did not publish it at the time, as I dislike scholarly squabbles and had other fish to fry. But it contains a brief summary of the field that may be of interest, and some points that I believe still hold up well.




Evolutionary Aesthetics and Literary Darwinism: a Retrospective (Memoir
Frederick Turner

Edward O. Wilson has recently modified his views about the nature of heredity and selection, and their relationship with social behavior. Wilson was arguably the founder of sociobiology, and it behooves us to take him seriously. It may be time to look back at the emergence and history of the movement known as literary Darwinism, which is now thirty years old, and assess its strengths, its weaknesses, and its possible future successes in the study of literature. It is a movement that includes such figures as Brian Boyd, Jonathan Gottschall, Robert Storey, and Nancy Easterlin, all of whom have published books squarely in the center of the field in the last few years (as of early 2013), and many others, such as Brett Cooke, Alice Andrews, Troy Camplin, Alexander Argyros, Dennis Dutton, and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama. Other important figures have concentrated more on evolutionary aesthetics in general, such as Ellen Dissanayake, Walter Koch, Helen Fisher, Koen dePryck, Kathryn Coe, and Nancy Aiken, and major authorities from other disciplines such as Robin Fox, Semir Zeki, Lisa Zunshine, David Sloan Wilson, Harold Fromm and Gary Westfahl have had important things to say about literature from an evolutionary point of view. Ellen Dissanayake is especially important in terms of priority in concept: her early work concerned mainly other arts than literature, but was prophetic. Most recently, my own Epic: Form, Content, and History examines over sixty of the world’s grand narratives, synthesizing the new evolutionary understanding of literature with exciting developments in comparative folklore and anthropology and what I regard as the best insights of traditional literary studies.

I have been unable to find an earlier articulation of the basic principles of literary Darwinism as such than my own pair of long essays “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time” (1983) and “Performed Being: Word Art as a Human Inheritance” (1986). These two essays appeared together in my Natural Classicism. They explored the implications for literary study of Edward Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which had come out eight years before, combining it with ideas from other disciplines such as ethology, cognitive and perceptual psychology, anthropology and neuroscience.

At that time the poststructuralist and social constructionist movements, which argued that humans are basically blank slates, inscribed by incommensurable cultural structures–themselves the result of regimes of power and constructed knowledge–were still in full swing. The times were not hospitable to the novel features of literary Darwinism that I had articulated. These were: that literature was composed by an animal that had evolved and that had a nature of its own, that we could look especially to pre-human and human mating ritual as a sort of pressure-cooker for the emergence of the arts, that our nervous systems were themselves partly the result of our early cultural evolution as a genus, that we could thus find pan-human cross-cultural elements in the arts, elements whose presence had much to do with their perceived value to human beings in general, that there must be specific identifiable brain modules for the basic artforms—music, meter, visual representation, storytelling, dramatic mimesis, etc–and that aesthetic pleasure—the experience of beauty—was itself a capacity shared by humans and some other animals. This neurologically expensive aesthetic capacity must, I argued, have some objective value in assessing the threats and promises of any real world environment, since its universality indicates that it might be robustly adaptive for the survival of the species.

In the ‘eighties Ernst Pöppel and I discovered the three-second line in human poetry. For several years this was the only human aesthetic feature that was unambiguously pan-cultural, provably based on neuroanatomy, sufficiently idiosyncratic to be more than the result of coincidence or general neural function, clearly involved in ritual behavior and collective action, and obviously adaptive in terms of its powerful aid to memory. Since then music, visual pattern-making and representation, and narrative have become sufficiently well researched in terms of evolutionary features to be able to claim the same distinction.

In Alexander Argyros’ brilliant A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos (1992), the contradictions between an evolutionary aesthetic and the then mainstream social-constructionist critical consensus were masterfully outlined. I had earlier suggested that one of the ways the capacity for the pan-human experience of beauty could be explained in adaptive terms was that we are able to recognize situations in nature and each other that are ripe for the emergence of spontaneous order out of dynamical chaos, or were actually undergoing the symmetry-breaking and symmetry–reconstitution that are involved in such emergence, or were the result of such a transformation. Such a capacity might indeed be useful: a sort of general sensitivity to nascent fruitfulness, that might apply as much to a fertile landscape or a fruiting flower or a promising morning for forage, as to a good mating partner. Art and literature of high quality would share this characteristic appeal to our aesthetic instinct. Argyros took the suggestion several steps further, engaging the arguments of the deconstructionists who had, he felt, rightly recognized the semantic instability of the arts and literature but misinterpreted it as the absence of a transcendental signified rather than the signal of new growth and emergence. He was thus able to express in the terms of contemporary “Theory” ideas that questioned its foundations (or rather, its anti-foundationalist principles).

In the same year Cosmides’ and Tooby’s very important The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture appeared. In this work the strongest and most comprehensive case for the causal relationship between biological evolution and human culture was made. Certainly the authors of the various essays the book contains are picking the low-hanging fruit, and more aware of general and direct nature-to-culture elements of human life than of significant variation, cultural resistance to nature, conflicts and ingenious compromises between different evolutionary strategies, and culturally-driven changes to our genetic nature. But they were fighting a pervasive social constructionism at the time, and the point needed to be made strongly. It was for later writers to show counter-examples and demonstrate how they might lead to a subtler evolutionism. The arts and literature were not especially stressed in this book, as it is there that the complexities and conflicts that might distract from the main point are most obvious.

Two years later—and 11 years after the theory was first suggested–the next major statement of the evolutionary case for literature appeared, Joseph Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory (1994). In the meantime I had elaborated many of the early propositions of the theory in Rebirth of Value (SUNY Press, 1991) and Beauty: The Value of Values (University Press of Virginia, 1991). The force of the change in contemporary notions of literature that the new perspective offered can be gauged by the difference between Carroll’s previous book, Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (1987), a traditional literary study of influence, and the books that followed (including Evolution and Literary Theory (1994) and Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (2004). I felt at the time that Carroll’s new-found enthusiasm had led him into a reductionism and an obsolete biological determinism that would limit the relevance of the theory to the actual reader. But nevertheless Brett Cooke, my co-editor, and I included an essay of his in the first collection of literary Darwinist essays by various hands, Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts (1999).

In Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, Carroll strongly attacked my work, claiming that I had weakened the Darwinist case by stressing the great plasticity of the human genome, brain and nervous system, and the importance of culture in human behavior, especially artistic behavior. He dismissed what he called my “cosmic evolutionism,” ignoring the fact that in many disciplines, ranging from cosmological physics through thermodynamics, chemistry, crystallography, biology, and sociology, spontaneous order had already been shown to emerge from damped, driven dynamical systems that were subject to the essential triad of Darwinian principles: persistence and/or replication of past structures, variation, and environmental selection. He likewise dismissed my “aestheticism,” missing the point that I was attempting to take the panhuman claims of aesthetic differences in quality seriously on their merits. Essentially, like his foes among the poststructuralists, he was denying the very concept of beauty and the aesthetic as meaningful categories; like social constructionists who explain beauty away as a euphemism for class, power or economic superiority, he explained it away as a cover for reproductive, survival or status drives. If one had a completely tin ear to melody and beauty, one might well be disposed to explain away the enthusiastic transports of those who love music, art, and literature. In one’s annoyance at their supposed superiority, one might invoke, to diminish them to one’s own level, some mechanism that matched one’s own motivations. Social constructionist critics and adaptationist critics alike are in danger of permitting readers to fall into this trap.

Carroll assumed a radically determinist position in general, and did not even bother to address the logic of Ilya Prigogine, who states that “The more we know about our universe, the more difficult it becomes to believe in determinism.” Prigogine was one of many “hard” scientists whose work on the nature of cause had long been questioning traditional views of it from a variety of directions: quantum indeterminacy, irreversibility, chaotic feedback systems, the emergence of spontaneous order, mathematical difficulty and NP problems, and the constitutive unpredictability of a wide range of everyday phenomena. Prigogine’s formulation of the paradox of perfect predictability is elegant: it is possible only if all processes are time-reversible, past and future are meaningless, all time is eternally present, and cause can be reduced to logical entailment. Centuries before, David Hume had already shown the fallacy of this idea. The very causation that Carroll appeals to as the only reliable guide to understanding human behavior is, paradoxically, voided by the assumption of perfect determinacy, because that assumption also voids the reality of time, in which cause takes place. Further, Carroll’s rhetoric of appeal to “hard” science as opposed to airy-fairy unverifiable humanistic nonsense suffers from the fact that there are “harder” and much more unambiguously verifiable sciences than biology, and in those sciences the one-way cause-effect relation was increasingly coming to be seen as a relatively rare exception in a world of quantum nonlocal coherence in the microcosm, and nonlinear dynamics and self organization in the macrocosm.

Carroll rejected my skepticism about biogenetic determinism in particular, and my insistence on the plasticity of evolutionary and developmental processes and their products. I had argued that the genes primarily generate abilities and potentials and open up capacities in humans and other living organisms, rather than shutting them down. I resisted the then-current sociobiological dogma that genes “constrain” behavior, suggesting that it distorted the picture: genes enable kinds of behavior (and certainly not others), and in the case of humans, an extraordinary variety of kinds of behavior. “If genes do not constrain, Carroll asked, “what is it they could possibly do?” Well, they could express proteins, for a start, proteins that make cells, that cooperate in forming and operating organs that are well adapted to deal with the astonishing variety of unpredictable conditions this planet presents—and often deal with them in a variety of different epigenetic ways, leading eventually to the establishment of distinct ecological niches and the bifurcation of species, and further evolution.

Carroll objected to the lavish generativity of the human genetic inheritance that I proposed. How, he wondered, can we explain literature if there are an infinite number of possible explanations? An explanation in straightforward terms of inherited drives toward reproduction, survival, and status would at least be simple to achieve: a “just-so” story, in Steven Jay Gould’s words, would be better than the dizzying wealth of explanation that my position seemed to imply. What Carroll did not grasp was the idea of a very limited set of rules that, if they constituted a discrete combinatorial system (in Steven Pinker’s terminology) could generate an infinite or at least uncountable number of possible expressions, as is the case with organic chemistry, or a natural language, or Chess, or music. He feared that in stressing this abundance of possible results, I was threatening any predictive power that a genetically-based theory of literature might possess.

Quite the contrary: I was proposing a radical contraction in the number of possible generative structures, and simultaneously describing the explanatory power of that proposition in terms of a richness of possible result from those structures that matched the richness of the human and natural phenomena themselves. He missed the implication that the “constraint” was not at the level of what the human genome can do, but on the ways in which the genome could be allowed and instigated to do it (such as by deep syntax and recursion in language, and the basic genres, traditions, and technical skills of the arts). Even if when activated the human genome can do an infinite number of things, there is a finite number of ways in which that fecundity of the human inheritance can be activated. You can say an infinite number of sonnetty things in a sonnet, but if it has 25 lines and they don’t scan or rhyme, it’s not a sonnet and, predictably, can’t say sonnetty things. There are trillions of possible good chess games, but if the knight can’t jump or the pawns can move backward, it’s not chess. The market can create an infinite number of products, but without contracts and exchange and rules it’s not a market. If RNA transcription doesn’t work, or proteins don’t fold, the DNA cannot make its amazing varieties of cells and organs. I was investigating the limited conditions for unlimited expression, a rather radical program in the context of modernist and postmodernist experimentation with form and genre.

Rather than actually attempting to dispute my facts or my logic, Carroll chose to go ad hominem. He did not acknowledge the fact that all the ideas about literary Darwinism he espoused had already been discussed and critiqued by Argyros and me, and attempted to discredit our work in the growing community of literary Darwinians, for instance vetoing my inclusion in the advisory board of The Evolutionary Review. He labeled my work “poetic” and attributed what he took to be ambivalence about the adaptationist approach to my “spiritual aspirations.” In the fields of both critical theory and sociobiology this accusation would be the supreme dismissal, but I decided to let it lie at the time. I was exploring game theory and the emergence of quasi-moral sanctions in iterated nonzero-sum multiplayer games, literary economics, evolving ecosystems, self-organization, emergence, and other topics, especially epic, and did not have time or patience to publicly refute Carroll’s criticisms.

He had in fact both misunderstood and misstated my position, as well as Argyros’s, but I thought that fairly soon developments in the fields of epigenetics, neural plasticity, gene transcription and expression, the silencing and activation of genes, regulatory genetics, environmental effects on protein activity and stem cell function, evolutionary anthropology and other disciplines would be well enough understood that his notion of genes directly determining behavior would fall apart by its own weight. But unfortunately Carroll’s apparent obliviousness to what has been going on recently in the biological sciences and in the study of collective behavior seems to have gone unnoticed or at least unremarked.

To do Carroll justice, there is a certain logic in his position. His view of science is akin to that of nineteenth century scientism, in which the world is a machine in which the operations of the whole are completely reducible to the operation of the parts, and in which cause is always one-way, uniquely determinative, and in theory always ascertainable by observation and experiment. Mutual causality—nonlinear processes where A causes B but B also causes A—was not a subject for science and therefore could not be said to happen. The idea that a given set of initiating causes might have more than one outcome was forbidden. Thus any suggestion that the process of gene expression might be nonlinear and thus capable of producing many different outcomes—from the activation of the gene, its transcription into RNA and thence into proteins, the self-organization of proteins into cells and cells into organs, and the development of such organs as the nervous system and brain into functional wholes—was unscientific. More to the point, from Carroll’s point of view it would tend to undermine the strict connection between genes and behavior.

What must be especially discomfiting to Carroll must be the fact that probably the most fertile general area of scientific study these days is of precisely such cases of “branchy” and “looped” causation in nature, usually in much larger systems where all the elements are causing each other, often creating runaway unpredictable positive feedback and possible emergent orders.

Carroll had in mind the prospect of founding and leading a large quasi-scientific project that would consign both traditional literary criticism and postmodern theory to the dustbin, and explain literature as the expression of survival, status, and reproduction drives, themselves genetically hardwired. Nature must determine nurture and its product, culture. Any questioning of the gene-causes-behavior dogma would be fatal to his project. If the methods of nineteenth century experimental science could not uniquely explain a given apparent phenomenon, then that phenomenon could not exist. As Noam Chomsky once observed in another context, the logic is equivalent to that of the drunk in the old joke, who had lost his keys and was searching for them beside a lamp post. A policeman comes over and asks what he’s doing. “I’m looking for my keys” he says. “I lost them over there”. The policeman looks puzzled. “Then why are you looking for them all the way over here?” “Because the light is so much better.” If you’ve got a hammer (e.g. the proposition that we are the puppets of our genes), everything looks like a nail. The ichthyologist with the one-inch mesh net claims that there are no half-inch fish in the sea. Classic scientific method, admirable and still hugely useful, has the unfortunate psychological effect on its practitioners that they tend to turn the method of investigation (reduction) into its conclusion (that the phenomenon under investigation is reducible).

Carroll had thus set up for himself unwittingly a list of propositions, the falsification of any one of which would invalidate his whole project. If at any point the complex processes of inheritance, activation, transcription, expression, histone activity, cytogenesis, embryonic and post-embryonic development, adaptation to a changing environment, reproductive mate choice, neural plasticity, socioeconomic interaction, individual and cultural choice, and learning itself could not be shown to be directly and uniquely caused by the genes (rather than by interaction with a natural and social environment, emergent forms of self-organization, feedback effects, the internal logic of trading and games, “spandrels,” autonomous self-legislating systems, holistic global patterning, etc), then his argument must be fundamentally flawed in its method, and must fail. A sticky wicket, as the British used to say.

But this memoir has more interesting game than disposing of one more oversimplification. Carroll’s work (which has its merits) will be more useful as a straw man, a convenient and understandable voice for what we might call the lumpen-Darwinist position, than as an opponent. And it will be useful to have a baseline to indicate where newly established fact or ignored established knowledge differs from pseudo-Darwinist conventional wisdom. For there has emerged a new picture of biological inheritance and of the relationship between an individual organism’s experience/activity and its genes, a picture that is of profound importance for aesthetics and criticism. It is an emergentist position, recognizing that in the real world multiple entangled causes are involved in almost any event, and multiple events can be caused by any set of causes, but noting also a common characteristic, that dynamical feedback systems of this kind are prone to cross distinct identifiable thresholds where new forms of organization and causal dependence can emerge.

The emergentist picture is not one that renders invalid the evolutionary study of the arts and literature, but rather one that begins to properly accommodate all the meanings and experiences of real artists and audiences. It emphatically does not constitute a return to the era of social constructionism. But it also does not regard human artistic culture as a veneer concealing the “brute” quasi-Freudian drives, as lumpen Darwinists seem to believe (whose work essentially revives early Freudian ideas in a new guise, simplified and purged of psychiatric evidence, and oblivious to psychological discoveries since). In fact, because the new emergentist biosocial synthesis that I and others are exploring recognizes human nature as itself having been shaped by human social and cultural factors, it makes a much more powerful argument than does lumpen-Darwinist crypto-Freudianism that the adapted mind cannot be ignored by literary criticism and theory.

Lumpen Darwinists evidently believe that, as a pre-cultural animal in the hoary old 17th Century “state of nature,” we evolved a fixed set of genes rigidly controlling drives that somehow later got crammed into a façade of symbolic culture but remained untouched by it. But the genetic, developmental, archeological, and anthropological evidence shows a different picture. Let us look more closely at the various stages that must exist between the inert gene in the chromosome within a cell and the behavior of an individual animal (including a human one).

First of all, the gene has to be turned on, and the process by which this happens immediately involves a host of feedbacks: between the maternal and paternal alleles, between the gene and its intervening intron sequences, between the gene and the regulatory genes that can command whole suites of genes to be silent or be expressed through gene methylation. For the gene to be turned on it must be transcribed into RNA, which involves further feedbacks with the environment and with the whole organism’s own actions and responses, sensitively transmitted through histone acetylation and other processes. Though usually DNA writes to RNA, RNA can write to DNA in the form of endogenous viral inserts, transposons, and other reverse processes. The RNA must make proteins, that must fold correctly to be able to function, and again both the endogenous and exogenous environment (including the result of the choices of the whole organism) can play a part in allowing this to happen or to be aborted. The proteins must find each other and organize together to make a cell, and cells must detect their local topological position relative to their neighbors and to the shape of the organ they compose, and act accordingly, again with much feedback from outside and within. Further feedbacks exist between the cell and its neighbors, between the cell and the environment (nutritional stress or abundance, temperature, chemical change, parasite attack, viral load, etc), and between the cell and its own memory of its previous states.

This whole realm has been called the “epigenome,” and its study is epigenetics: “the study of mitotically and/or meiotically heritable changes in gene function that cannot be explained by changes in DNA sequence.” Unlike the genome, whose evolution is by and large Darwinian, its means of evolution is Lamarckian—the inheritance of acquired characteristics. There is in any species an archive, often very large, of unexpressed genes, together with the potential somatic structures and behaviors they specify. Genes themselves make up only a fraction of the complete DNA complement of the chromosomes: the introns that punctuate the genes are still largely a mystery in terms of their strict function, if any. Most genes, and almost all of the intron sequences, are silent; coherent sets of genes can be toggled off or on by regulatory genes such as the HOX genes, so that the options of structure and behavior can be customized to fit the experience or choices of the individual animal (or plant, bacterium, etc). What is especially interesting is that these custom combinations are themselves significantly heritable, and thus in turn subject to adaptive selection.

But the rate of this adaptive process is staggeringly faster than that of genetic change in the underlying DNA. The point is, as in the words of the Cold Spring Harbor Consensus of epigenetic experts, that there can be a “stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence.”

The picture here is not one of a single cause (the gene) generating a single behavior, but of a staggeringly dendrified set of developmental options, all in nonlinear mutually causal relations with the activities of other genes and of whole ganged sets of genes. We are not the helpless product of our genes: our choices determine not just what we do, but what we are and will be, and what our descendants will be. This is not a rejection of biology, but a biological fact, and it is something that is at the center of most of the world’s great literature. Certainly the lumpen Darwinist’s genetic drives toward survival, reproduction, and status are human motivations, but they are well recognized already by literature, religion and the arts, and usually counterposed dramatically against the emergent (but equally biological and evolutionary) epigenetic drives toward self identity and fulfillment, curiosity, gratitude, love, community, creative art, and social and cultural meaning.

When Carroll was writing his earliest book on literary Darwinism in 1994, he might not have been aware of archeological research that was indicating a much greater age for Homo sapiens than was previously thought. And since he was also apparently unaware of research in epigenetics that hugely accelerated the speed of possible phenotypic change, he might be forgiven for assuming that there simply was not enough time for significant changes to happen to the genome and thus to the human behavioral repertoire as a result of sociocultural selection pressure. We were the naked ape, the trousered ape. Others, like Ellen Dissanayake, who had been keeping up with developments in the field, were already realizing that there was plenty of time for us to domesticate ourselves.

Our genus was making tools, tools that required social learning and organization, more than two million years ago; members of Homo sapiens were apparently making art as far back as the species existed, if the available evidence can be trusted (the Blombos Cave ochre markings are 75,000 years old). Homo sapiens is now thought to have been around for at least 200,000 years. Over evolutionary and geological time the major determinant of our individual survival and our reproductive success was whether we could fit into the sign conventions, cultural norms, and communicative media of the group we lived in, social systems that we ourselves were individually modifying as we went along. Certainly our physiology, including our brains, was determining what we could do culturally. But what we were doing culturally, including art, ritual, play behavior, that promoted cooperative success in hunting, gathering, mating and the creation of technology, was exerting an overwhelming selective pressure on our epigenetic inheritance, and thus changing our neurophysiology. The study of animal behavior shows the same feedback between biogenetic and socio-cultural forces.

Not that the “old Adam,” as Robin Fox describes him in his fine book The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, was ever banished: he remains still one of the epigenetic pathways we could take (though to be strictly accurate, there are probably plenty of “old Adams” themselves, depending on epigenetic factors, including even quasi-reptilian ones: sociopathy may be one of them). Given the extreme metabolic cheapness of storing genetic information, and the trouble and expense of deleting it, the chromosomes seldom throw anything away, but keep old behavioral strategies, silenced, for a rainy day when they may again be useful. Species that went to the trouble of purging their archives might not have survived environmental shocks that archival material could have anticipated and been able to deal with if activated. Cloning, or asexual reproduction, effectively prevents new material from being added to the archive, and is a risky strategy for many species with unpredictable habitats. Contemporary agronomy is now worried about precisely such issues.

What the chromosome does in “lazily” neglecting to edit its memories, many of us do with our computer archives, allowing them to accumulate as long as they can be easily retrieved and cheaply stored in a drive or the Cloud. Biologically we can still retrieve the mammalian virtues that lumpen Darwinists like. Extreme stress, especially in childhood, can activate old defensive and offensive systems, as can perceived injustice, bereavement, or sexual frustration. On the other hand, such conditions can also force more eusocial strategies to kick in, such as sacrificial love or noble generosity. It is precisely such moments that are the stuff of literary fiction.

The seven deadly sins are the seven mammalian virtues: sloth (avoidance of metabolic expense), wrath (costly sanctions against defectors), lust (reproductive quantity), gluttony (nutritional survival), envy (competition with conspecifics), covetousness (territoriality) and pride (self-reward). The point here is that their sinfulness for Homo sapiens is as biologically real as their virtuousness for mammals in general. Meanwhile, the Aristotelian virtues, of courage, temperance, liberality, self-respect, magnanimity, patience, ambition, wit, truthfulness, friendship, modesty, and righteous indignation, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, are not super-biological impositions upon brute biological drives but equally as biologically rooted as their opposites, and choices of action that epigenetically affect gene expression can determine whether an individual, and to some extent, his or her descendants, embodies them or not. Females that selected male mates with the Aristotelian or Christian virtues could have been making a better bet on the future than those that selected ones with the mammalian virtues; though the mammalian virtues ought to be there to fall back on if necessary.

Odysseus, as man and mammal (he pretends to be a sheep to escape Polyphemus’s cave and is sometimes described as like a mountain lion) experiences and enacts both the mammalian and the human virtues. But both sets are equally natural and biological. The survival of his son Telemachus, and thus of his father’s genes, depends on Odysseus’ eventual choice of the human set: he has the self-restraint to avoid the fate of his crew, the ambition to leave a public name, and the loyalty to marital friendship to not stay in the cave with beautiful Calypso. In one sense, then, the human virtues are even more natural and biological than the mammalian ones, since they better promote reproductive success. Gilgamesh must give up the practice of ius primae noctis to find the friendship of Enkidu; but their non-reproductive bond, which creates the city walls of the city, preserves all the genes in Uruk.

At every inflection point in the journey from gene to phenotype there are branch-points, where, depending ultimately on environmental vicissitudes or individual choices, a different menu of behavioral strategies is offered. Pace Richard Dawkins, those branch-points could well define a hierarchy of successively more holistic replicable units upon which variation and selection can take hold and evolution take place: the gene, the RNA strand (thought to be the original form of life), the protein, the cell, the organ, the individual organism, the biome, the ecosystem. Certainly we can describe the organism as the gene’s way of making another gene: but to be fair we should also consider that DNA was originally RNA’s archive or memory for making RNA, that a gene could be thought of as the cell’s way of making another cell, that chromosomes are an ecosystem’s way of replicating itself over time.

Among many of the leading lights in the field of selection and evolution, the concept of multi-level selection has become the new paradigm. In a sense, the field is as old as Darwinism itself. Darwin was fascinated by symbiosis and commensality: a commensal pair of species (or by extension a larger interdependent ecosystem of many species, as James Lovelock points out) would itself be a replicating unit capable of variation and selection, upon which evolutionary adaptation could work. Group selection concepts—ranging from kin selection through reciprocal altruism to cooperative trading communities policed by costly signaling, reliable recognition of in-group members, group sanctions against defectors, and deceit detection—have proliferated. William D. Hamilton, building on the ideas of J.B. S. Haldane and Ronald Fisher, proposed a testable theory of kin selection as long ago as 1964. Robert Trivers first proposed the concept of reciprocal altruism in 1971, though strong opposition from the likes of Dawkins for a while held back the development of the field. But Trivers has been vindicated, if the recent proliferation of research and theory building out of group selection and multi-level selection is any witness. Richard Lewontin on the mutual causal relationship of an organism with the environment, David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober on the logic of group selection, Brian Skyrms on replication dynamics, and Robert Wright on “nonzerosumness” have profoundly and coherently complicated the field of evolutionary biology.

Skyrms’ work is especially interesting. His computer models of multiplayer iterated nonzero-sum games among replicating computer programs that can exchange “genes” specifying elements of strategy have provided a profoundly illuminating picture of the emergence of signaling, group sanctions, and even a sort of proto-ethical social contract. If even mindless computer programs can–through competitive/cooperative/coalitional interaction–generate something that looks a lot like values and mores, how much more plausible is it that intelligent animals could do so. The point is that even strict deterministic computation can produce emergent properties that do not resemble their own microstructure and past stages of development, and that are causal in turn.

But the plasticity of behavior does not cease here. Neural Darwinism asserts that the brain builds itself in the first place, in a succession of competitive/cooperative processes ranging from inter-cellular through dendritic to synaptic interactions. The passage of information itself, as Donald Hebb pointed out, alters the shape of the synaptic cleft. As Eric Kandel (in learning and molecular memory studies), Robert Turner (in functional MRI brain mapping), Lorimer Moseley and Peter Brugger (in phantom limb studies) have shown, the brain is capable of significantly changing itself, even on the scale of observable gross anatomy. Turner’s team at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in Leipzig has demonstrated robust differences between the growth patterns of the motor cortex of pianists and violinists in training. This plasticity extends to quintessentially cultural activities. In an unpublished paper, “Ritual Action Shapes our Brains: an Essay in Neuroanthropology”, delivered at Cognition, Performance, and the Senses, a Wenner Gren sponsored workshop, Turner concludes:

“Thus ritual symbolism provides sensory experience that powerfully links autonomic activity with conscious thought, in a highly structured way relevant to important societal concerns. It induces physical responses that are experienced as complex emotions, which render particularly salient and memorable the conscious reflections or teachings made at the time that the ritual symbols are brought into play. The collective representations comprising a particular culture become embedded as neural representations in the brains of the participants. As such, they are embodied in enduring material changes in the structure and connectivity of brain tissue.”

In the field of psychology examples of the astonishing versatility of the human brain are everywhere. Roger Sperry pointed out that we normally function with two potentially separable centers of perception and judgment, the left and the right. More radically, dissociative disorders demonstrate that the same brain tissue can support up to sixteen distinct personalities. We are sometimes strangers to ourselves during mood-swings occasioned by stress, change, or falling in love.

Nevertheless, we are not protean beings (though the results of our activities within such constrained generative systems as language and music can indeed be protean). We have a nature; we are recognizably human to each other across the globe and the centuries. The work of the literary adaptationist is to fully acknowledge the apparent paradox and to set about the hard work of identifying the rules of the games by which we achieve our multifarious individual and cultural achievements. What we find, I argue, is that we are not alone in this work: human culture, religion, arts, philosophy and religion themselves have already been at this for millennia. Indeed, the very inquiry as to our nature has itself been one of the adaptive forces preferentially affecting our survival and reproduction, and great literature is aware of this.

In Carroll’s attack on my work he pooh-poohed my aphorism: “We have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical” as an empty paradox. But it is exactly what contemporary anthropology, neuroscience and archeology are discovering. The requirements of social functioning—the social emotions, the political skills, the ability to recognize individuals and predict their behavior, the awareness of one’s own role in the group, the ability to perform ritual actions, accurate signaling, signal recognition, deceitful signals and deceit detection—were as determinative of the direction of adaptation as were the need for the right sort of foot and pelvis for bipedalism. The mind is adapted, but it is adapted by earlier culture.

Even in the study of the psychology of social animals cultural differences between groups of conspecifics are significant, differences that over time could lead to bifurcation between available habitats, and eventually the separation of strains, genetic incompatibilities in cross-breeding, and speciation. No “mystical” “poetic” or “spiritual” explanation is necessary to understand the astonishing multiplication of birds of paradise or bowerbird or monkey species, all based on females’ arbitrary individual preference for a certain sort of color, motion, rhythm or structure, and males’ skills at presenting their real or illusory advantages and talents. Meerkats, chimps, macaques, dolphins, whales, and many species of birds have different local or temporal dialects, rituals, and technologies. The social and behavioral tail regularly wags the genetic dog.

The human brain, then, is as domesticated as is a Chihuahua’s body or a wheat plant’s ear. Again, the point is not that the brain can be anything it likes (leading, as literary lumpen Darwinists fear, to a voiding of any kind of natural explanation for what happens in literature), but that what it is is the result of its interaction with its own past cultural choices. It is not a “blank slate,” as Pinker rightly observes. But what is written there–and in the proteome and genome that present it for adaptation to the world–is already social and cultural. Our nature is not a blank slate, but a three billion year old palimpsest of inscriptions, the most recent and most vehement being the ones written by our ancestral cultures.

Dozens of scholars and scientists, both before and after the birth of literary Darwinism, have recognized one aspect or other of this naturally “branchy” way of looking at human nature and the nature of social animals in general. Konrad Lorenz notes how the displacement activity occasioned by the conflict of two drives, territoriality and reproduction, can in the form of mating ritual, often of great beauty, be itself inscribed in the genes. It can become a drive of its own that can actually compete, in the parliament of behavioral motivators, with its own territorial and reproductive origins. Especially telling is his account of the monogamous greylag geese that do not mate again after the loss of their life-partner in the triumph ceremony. Even more to the point is the occurrence of homosexuality in many social species (including the geese that Lorenz observed). Homosexual pairs must be useful enough to the breeding group as defenders and adventurers, unburdened by family responsibilities, to be worth keeping in the genetic repertoire despite their failure to reproduce.

Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Lorenz’s successor, was one of the founders of human ethology, and an active member of the Werner Reimers Stiftung Biology and Aesthetics group that he and others, including myself, founded in 1981. He insisted that diversity, individual and cultural, was itself a heritable and adaptive feature of the human inheritance. That is, the multiplicity of developmental outcomes–that lumpen Darwinists complain about as complicating a nice neat program of causal explanation–is a reality, and a reality that is provably adaptive for species that must cope with a variety of environments and cannot adapt fast enough through traditional Darwinian selection by elimination.

Perhaps the most radical rebuff to the mechanistic unidirectional cause theory of the relationship between gene and behavior has been the recent change of mind on the part of Edward O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology itself. His book Eusociality: The Social Conquest of Earth shows a world-class scientist, having recognized the value of the sociobiological approach and thoroughly explored the possible unidirectional and invariant causal aetiologies of animal behavior, coming to accept emergent properties of sociobiological processes, eusociality in this case, as taking on causal power of their own.

Lumpen Darwinists are in the uncomfortable position of those medical geneticists who promised to pin particular diseases on particular genes, and by gene therapy to effect a cure. With a few exceptions, this program has been one of the big disappointments of recent medical research. Ignoring the many-branched pathways and even loops and outside interference on the way from gene to pathology was a failed strategy—looking for the keys under the lamp. The experience proved that the task was much more complicated than first believed. To point this out is not to discredit evolutionary biology in general.

Indeed, the field of literary Darwinism has on the whole come to avoid the “lumpen Darwinist” reductionist position. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (2005), edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, goes a long way toward a more sophisticated approach. Brian Boyd’s fine book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction is aware of the rich interplay between nature, culture, and history. So too are Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (which is explicit about how the cultural tail of storytelling has come to wag the biogenetic dog), and Nancy Easterlin’s A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation (a subtle and refreshing work of integration between the best of traditional critical theory and practice, and the new evolutionary paradigm).

But some of the more automatic mental habits of lumpen Darwinism still persist. One of the reasons for the reluctance of people in the fields of evolutionary sociology and aesthetics to tackle the conceptual problems offered by the failure of the straight “gene causes behavior” model is, I believe, a fear of teleology—or more precisely, a fear of being thought of as having teleological assumptions. What I mean by teleology here is the idea that the organization of the parts of an entity is for the purpose of dealing with a future situation or achieving a future goal or realizing an as-yet-unrealized abstract quality that is a function of the organism as a whole.

There are many reasons for this fear of teleology, some good, some less so. One is the lingering culture of strife between religion and science, in which any hint of design—even sometimes, absurdly, in conscious human productions—is taken as a betrayal of the cause of anti-Creationism. Intentionality must either be denied altogether (except as a human illusion about ourselves) or attributed only to humans (which begs the question of our animality). Here is a cultural case of an immune response—the abandonment of the possibility of the emergence of natural design—that is worse than the infection.

Another reason for “teleology avoidance” is the sometimes-horrifying history of social Darwinism with its triumphant vision of the march of progress and Hegelian transcendence, often attributed to forerunners like Herbert Spencer and Ernst Häckel. Any language that might hint of goal-orientedness or higher purpose must be avoided. Even the word “function” has become slightly questionable, though it is pretty much impossible to avoid when discussing the behavior of living organisms, and still remain comprehensible at all.

A third and much more admirable reason is that scientific probity, as well as Occam’s razor, requires that we exhaust all possible reductive explanations in terms of parts before assuming that properties of the whole may be responsible. Hypotheses non fingo. Science prefers bottom-up to top-down explanations; but this preference, though often the best way of finding the facts of a situation, and always the best way of eliminating unnecessary assumptions, is a method of procedure but not a conclusion. As we have already seen, biology is full of top-down whole-to-part causes (in feedback with bottom-up part-to-whole ones). It is indeed to the credit of the reductive method that they were discovered, but to do so biologists had to eventually overcome their reluctance to accept facts that seemed to question their method. New methods of investigation, especially dynamical modeling in information-rich computer simulations, have less of this traditional scientific bias: the failures of reductive explanations are more immediately obvious when the model crashes, and the successes of holistic explanations stand out by their elegant and exquisitely measurable departure from mere chance.

Likewise, such research as Diane Fossey’s and Jane Goodall’s on primates, in which the scientist actually includes herself in the behavioral situation she studies, makes up in richness of results what it lacks in reliable objectivity. But it may well be that this inclusion of subjectivity is not a problem in the study of conscious beings, but an inescapable feature of the real object of study, and to eliminate it is to eliminate the phenomenon one wishes to study. The politics of a primate group is all about intentions, estimates of others’ intentions, purposes and designed plans. The observer problem is not just a hindrance to accurate knowledge, but a constitutive feature of the object of knowledge. Even on the level of quantum physics the state of knowledge of a system is part of its reality: the emergent features of physicists’ intentions (if that is what they are) cannot be expunged from the matter out of which physicists emerged.

Richard Lewontin and Steven Pinker coined the term “spandrel” for such phenomena as art and religion, and it is not only ingenious but useful. But I suspect that the concept may itself be partly a defense against the imputation of teleology to their work. Pinker and Lewontin are well aware that natural organisms trumpet function, purpose, and anticipation everywhere (and are almost impossible to even describe without such concepts) and will defend them against diehard deniers of them. The very term “spandrel” presupposes functions and purposes. As long as those characteristics of life—function, purpose, goals–can be shown to lead to reproductive success, Pinker and Lewontin can secure their flank. The spandrel concept is designed to deal with the problem that the arts, religion, and philosophy, and such odd phenomena as humor, dreaming and mystical experience, are pervasive in, and even characteristic of the (very successful) human species, yet they cannot be assigned a direct function in the approved suite of individual survival, sexual reproduction, and social dominance. Their apparent inutility is indeed part of their strong appeal.

The spandrel is a convenient category to dispose of such apparently impractical features of the human makeup. They can be explained as by-products of competing functional structures and drives governed by genes, as the architectural spandrel is supposedly the by-product of two opposed practical requirements—covering an uninterrupted space and transmitting the thrust of a massive covering safely to the ground. But the spandrel’s ingenuity as an escape from ascribing functionality to the arts, religion, etc, cannot stand up to an examination of the linguistic mechanism of the spandrel concept itself in the light of evolutionary anatomy.

Take the evolution of the lung, for instance. Thought to be originally a simple sac or pocket extruded from the gut to hold oxygen-rich air swallowed in anaerobic waters, it evolved into the lung found in lungfishes and in the ancestors of land vertebrates, and into the swim bladder of teleost fishes. Sharks have no such structures, and maintain the lift required for swimming by a special fin. The point is that this sac structure can be taken as a belch retainer, a breathing apparatus, or a buoyancy control, or even as a useless appendage, depending on which function (or purpose) we are considering. If without knowledge of its future evolution we were able to study the original species—some kind of prehistoric dweller of littoral margins, perhaps—we might well be tempted to call this air-filled sac a spandrel. For the world of the teleost fish, one of our hypothetical species’ descendants, the lung is a spandrel; for the world of the terrestrial mammal, another descendant, the swim-bladder is; for the shark’s world the structure itself is. Adaptation is always fluid, always making do with what it has got, repurposing older structures as it does so; the olfactory bulb becomes an emotional center, the lens of the eye and the otolith of the ear arise from the same ancestral structure, the harmless expression of territorial aggression by mating geese becomes the triumph ceremony, with its own supporting epigenetic and genetic base. Intermediate stages of the process at any point include less-than-functional remnants of earlier purposes and spandrel-like opportunities for new ones. Architectural spandrels may have evolved as a by-product of the functional need to support a dome upon arches, but as sites for ideological messages or images they became a large part of the function of a cathedral, as anyone may see who visits the Hagia Sophia and considers the huge Arabic inscriptions that replaced the former Orthodox mosaics on the spandrels.

Of course, the specter haunting the issue is design, and the putative Designer. But perhaps the problem is not with the concept of design itself but with the implication that design needs a designer, or at least a conscious intentional one. Design, like function and purpose, is a useful concept in analyzing the behavior and structure of living organisms. Instead of abandoning design altogether, why not explicitly deny any necessary requirement for a designer?

Bruno Clarke reminds me that there is a perfectly good concept, “autopoiesis,” coined by Francisco Varela and Umberto Maturana, that signifies a kind of second-order cybernetics in which an organism (which need not necessarily be conscious) controls itself by continually refashioning itself. As long as enough iterations are permitted, design can result from differential reproductive success, from the requirements of a task that ensures survival, from the inherent constraints of instinctive behavior such as foraging or mating, or—yes–from the intentions or desires of designers. Designers such as tool-using chimps and potato-washing macaques might well evolve if being a designer promotes reproductive success. If teleological behavior—behavior that anticipates a future that might be altered by actions in the present—is helpful to survival, why should it not evolve? Any reproducing species is already operating under the enormous if tacit metaphysical assumption that there will be a future for its offspring to survive and reproduce into (an assumption sometimes proven wrong by such events as the Chicxulub meteor event).

Suppose that the (spandrel-like) values and purposes made possible by a plannable future were complete nonsense, but were some species to operate as if they were real—by nurturing its young, cooperation, emotionally valuing one outcome over another, self-sacrifice, attachment, ritual and the like—such a species would be at a competitive advantage with others, and its genes would reflect the resultant adaptive pressure. In all the games that nature provides for us to play, teleological cooperators, if they are clever enough to detect and sanction defectors, can outbreed non-cooperators. In order to keep up, other species would in turn be forced to develop teleological behavior, and thus also the core assumptions of teleological behavior, such as relative value, goals, signals, and even theory of mind, as a guide to preserve consistency. Eventually every part of the ecosystem would be filled with organisms and structures that acted as if the universe were meaningful, differentiated in value, and full of intentional design.

Concede still that all of those value-abstractions are still complete nonsense, like Park Place in the game of Monopoly. But that concession is now a purely metaphysical one, with no practical or scientific relevance. Those abstractions will have become laws of nature. If teleology works as a survival strategy, why not see it as emergent, like wetness if you put enough water molecules together? This universe may not be telic, but it is certainly teleogenic.

As Robert Wright points out, the very fact that there cannot be less than zero organized complexity implies that any random walk of biological organisms over all possible structural and behavioral alternatives is bound to result in a net increase of organized complexity that looks an awful lot like progress. Paraphrasing Steven Jay Gould, no friend of teleology, Wright amusingly illustrates this idea:

Consider a drunken man walking down a sidewalk that runs east-west. Skirting the sidewalk’s south side is a brick wall [the impossibility of less-than zero organized complexity], and on the sidewalk’s north side is a curb and a street. Will the drunk eventually veer off the curb, into the street? Probably. Does this mean he has a “northerly directional tendency”? No. He’s just as likely to veer south as north. But when he veers south the wall bounces him back to the north. He is taking a “random walk” that just seems to have a directional tendency.

If you have enough drunks and give them enough time, one will eventually get all the way to the other side of the street…

–and maybe end up finding his keys. Wright’s word for this non-tendentious tendency is “nonzerosumness.”

Any species that does not possess “spandrels” of one sort or another, whether temporal (remnants of earlier function behaviors) or spatial (gaps between existing functions that need to be filled with something or other), can have no evolutionary potential. Spandrels are at least the drunkenness of the drunk in the illustration, and depending on the organized complexity of a species, which may be able to use them in a more and more coherent way, can be much more. Silent genes are spandrels too, and they are, as we have seen, an enormously adaptive archive of alternative behaviors. They are the free play on which evolution can go to work. Spandrels are functional, even if their functionality is second-order rather than first-order.

Spandrels are spaces for future inscriptions, necessary jotting-materials for alternate strategies. This dynamic potential can be a competitive advantage for a species, a space where the behavior of its competitors, within and outside it, can be modeled, predicted, and dealt with.

Clearly we have here the glimmerings of a role for the arts and literature that might match their staggering prevalence in human behavior. Such writers as Lisa Zunshine, Brian Boyd, and Jonathan Gottschall have already hinted at such a role. Essentially, the arts and literature are to the replicative unit of a human culture what epigenetic variability is to a species, what sexual recombination is to sexed species in general, and what preserved mutation is to all life.

We might therefore speculate that a new paradigm for evolutionary literary studies and aesthetics is on the point of emergence. Its principles might include the following concepts:

1. Teleogenesis.
Literature and the arts describe, deal with and even initiate the emergence of new kinds of function, purpose, and goals. Emergence presupposes of course a base from which the emergence arises and a continued bottom-up causality that now competes with new top-down causes. A new paradigm of literary study would include the idea of the arts and literature as generators of value through emergence within strongly autopoeietic cultural craft systems based upon innate genres and incorporating their own biological history.

2. Modeling.

Understanding literature and the arts is a matter not just of assigning causes for the presence of the parts of their constitution, but also designing, modeling and tweaking models of the whole, and trying new models if the tweaks don’t work. Storytelling itself is model-making, the construction of parallel spatio-temporal structures that, though fictional, are isomorphic with or even predictive of real events. Criticism might then become a second-order storytelling, the creation of a parallel structure modeling the work of art or literature it describes, whose deep systemic resemblance to the original is productive of insight into its meaning.

3. Freedom as nonlinear feedback, anticipation, and mutual causation.

The issue of freedom—Kant’s and Schiller’s question —is this: how can anything be meaningful (beautiful, morally significant, veridical) if it is not freely created and intended? The problem can be resolved into a different question, concerning prediction. Paradoxically, all you need for freedom is prediction, if prediction itself can alter behavior. A good predictor can choose a different path if he or she is reflexive enough to predict his or her own behavior in the first place and see where it leads. A community of predictors, all trying to predict each other—e.g. a human culture–constitutes an infinitely complex dynamical system. Its future (within the parameters of the game that makes prediction possible at all) is constitutively indeterminate. The trick then becomes understanding the game or genre of the system, an understanding that can give at least a sense of the range of possible outcomes. An understanding of our genetic and evolutionary history—how the game was played to date—can make us better anticipators, better literary or art critics.

4. A new conception of individuality.

The lumpen Darwinist model of the individual as the unit of variation and selection is clearly a distortion of the facts as presented by the new sciences of epigenetics and commensality. That model was of a “selfish” independent actor internally sanitized by the immune system and externally predating upon the rest of the world. This model has now been exploded by a torrent of new evidence, some of it indicated in this essay. We now understand that the human body, for instance, is a bag of billions of more or less genetically connected organisms, living together in a community—or better, perhaps, a market. The immune system is, so to speak, a citizen police force to keep the peace among diverse inhabitants, not an army of ethnic cleansing, and we need probiotics as much as antibiotics. The bag itself is selectively permeable and requires for its maintenance not only internal but also external cooperators. Pure selfishness would be a thoroughly bad idea, since it would deprive the individual of both the resources and the challenging admixture of different agencies that maintain individuality itself. What destroys individuality is a tropism toward uniformity that loses in adaptiveness what it gains in mere numerical multiplication. Individuality relies on continuously maintained sources of internal and external diversity, and, as both source and beneficiary of interdependence, is the opposite of independence.

This does not mean that individuality itself is passé. On the contrary, individuality is the result and chief agent of the “holobiont” of self-organized commensality on both sides of the skin. Individuality is an enormous and beautiful achievement, the autopoiesis of billions of symbionts, mitochondria, and epigenetic gene-combinations into a functioning and purposing whole. It is also the locus where the relatively less intentional flows of biogenetic determination and social construction emerge into conscious insight and tragically self-aware intention, and can there be reflexively tinkered with and altered—again, the stuff of all fictions and artistic surprises.

In one sense we could say that the change in our view of the individual is that it has changed from being an essence into being a self-maintaining interface; from a thing into an autonomous process; from brain into skin; from the alive entity to the life of the entity. Individuality is one of the great inventions of evolution—invented both through Margulis-type genetic exchange and through sexual recombinative reproduction. In the dynamic hierarchy of motion, from location, to motion, to speed, to acceleration, to jerk, to control, individuality is where control happens and control is controlled. Individuality is the cyber, the steerer, the pilot; and the pilot can only be a pilot at all because of its inclusion of multitudes of agencies.

The uniqueness of the individual could not be the result of cloning, however docile such a community might be. Indeed, the image, common nowadays, of cancer cells as rugged individualists or Idaho survivalists, bucking the conformity of the law-abiding cellular community, is exquisitely wrong. Rather, cancer cells are cells that have “chosen” to abandon the differentiating choices offered by cellular specialization and the vital flexibility provided by the epigenetic archive, and to ignore their ultimate dependence on the many other organism in the symbiont. They have pulled out of the open marketplace of the body, so to speak, and commandeered the local vascular system to provide themselves a welfare system in their own ministate of clones. They have chosen against individuality and made themselves enforced faceless dependents rather than cooperative individual traders.

Thus any form of literary and art criticism must recognize the unique agency of the individual, the author. Significantly, both poststructural literary theory and literary Darwinism attempted to take down the author as individual chooser and moral center—whether as “author function” or as genetic puppet. If art is the potential of the species, taking place in the free space of a “spandrel,” it happens as the work of an individual or a team of individuals in their own unique feedback system. That is the kind of function evolution designed individuality for in the first place. The use of statistics, or the invocation of general social or biological forces, or assuming a generic artist, reader, or audience, can be useful, but they can only be ancillary to the act of individual anthropology and personal meeting that is the core of critical understanding. They miss the whole point of art and literature, which are the ultimate critics of such forces and generalities themselves.

5. The artist or writer as collaborator with the critic, not the object of observation or experimental subject.

The questions—about nature and human nature—that the evolutionary critic faces are no different from the ones that artists and narrators face themselves. Their methods, of storytelling, construction, melodic development, visual symbolism and so on, are often as revealing in their way as the evolutionist’s genetic and archeological science. Archeologists can often learn more about our remote ancestors from the inside, so to speak, by mastering the art of flint-knapping, than from the outside by analysing shards of bone, and to learn knapping they must apprentice themselves to the ancestors they study. The arts and literature indeed display the universals of human adapted nature, but they do so not so much as the unconscious puppets of our “drives” but as both an expression of our nature and as a sagacious description and critique of it. In my recent book Epic: Form, Content, and History I show how the epic theme of the “wild man” and his defeat by cultured man or his fall into the state of cultured man is used to discover our peculiar emergence as the animal that unlike all other animals knows that it is an animal.

6. True “constraints” were staring us in the face all the time: they are the genres and rules and techniques and skills of the arts.

What those genres, rules, techniques and skills do is, in 10,000 hours of practice (as the saying goes), epigenetically turn on sets of genes that might otherwise have been silenced, and silence others. This epigenetic modification of gene expression may even be heritable—the frequency of family excellence among the Breughels, Bachs, Bellinis, Wyeths, Amises, Wollstonecrafts and Brontës (not to speak of the Darwins) may be better than chance. Their forte is skill in a craft, and it is those ancient human crafts, with their limited rules and techniques and unlimited powers of expression, that are the true “constraints” of human nature. After over a century of modernist and postmodernist dismantling of the traditional forms of the arts, not only artists themselves, but critics too, need renewed attention to those ancient genres, methods and concepts of literary and aesthetic creation. A shaman needs to make her shamanic drum, a very constrained and particular activity, but what she uses it for can be very various. The anthropologist/critic must sit at her feet to learn what she is doing and how it reveals our nature to us.

The House of Lies: on the “social media”

Friday, 11 October 2019, 12:12 | Category : Uncategorized
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It is a cataract of souls in their own hell,
Descending to a common destination,
The drowning dragging down the swimmer till
Both drink that last insipid cold potation.

It’s a perfected drug, that learns itself from you,
A feverish disease, virus designed for catching;
It drags you from whatever human work you do,
An itch that spreads by every spasm of scratching,

It is a cataract of scale upon the eyes,
That grows in from the edges to the center,
Rendering all a gray and cheerless web of lies,
A narrowing house it seemed so bright to enter:

The place of that dishonorable cowardice
Where one may say what one would never dare to
Were one to look that fellow-human in the face;
Where one may do what conscience could not bear to.

Here every gentle, unassuming kindly thing,
Each better angel of our dear and troubled nature,
Lies naked to the anguished, raging serpent’s sting,
And friends show suddenly a loathsome feature.

Once there were children, animals, and flowering trees,
Once there were wise debates and unwise laughter;
Once there were truths and quests and open mysteries
Now they are buried; worse will follow after.

Truths chosen to tell lies, lies bent to look like truth;
Faces defaced, and books with words distorted;
Age trodden down to flatter the exploited youth,
Discovery smeared, jeered at or aborted.

Here is the city of sadistic politics,
Here is a group psychosis of the spirit;
Here is a bright grotesquely smiling crucifix,
Here is the damning punishment of merit.

Here is the city where the foulest is the best;
Here is the hell once named as other people;
Here is the place where hatred is too tired to rest,
Here is the point of an inverted steeple.

Old Thoughts that May Be Relevant Again

Sunday, 31 March 2019, 18:29 | Category : Uncategorized
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From a draft of my book The Culture of Hope, 1995:

Chapter IV. Cultural Implications of the New Cosmology

1. Guidelines to the Solution of Cultural Problems

The cosmology of a culture profoundly affects what it can or cannot do. Consider how Taoism in China, for example, encouraged technological innovation while somewhat discouraging a mathematically based science. Or how Renaissance cosmological ideas spurred exploration, industry, and new financial instruments. Or how Mayan calendrical expertise made possible kinds of institutional memory that in turn organized city states and empires. In the previous chapter I have discussed how our own culture is beginning a cosmological revolution; what practical guidelines arise from the new cosmology, that can help us repair the cultural damage created by our old myths and generate new myths, more hopeful, more internally consistent, and with a better basis in fact?

As we have seen, power is not the only, or even the most important, factor in social events. The theory of power depends on a cosmology of one-way linear cause and effect. Very few events in the universe can be accurately described in this way–indeed, the whole art of scientific experiment is needed to isolate straight cause-effect processes. In human affairs, oppressors are causes and victims are the recipients of effects. However, the overwhelming majority of real events, especially in the human sphere, are nonlinear and cannot be reduced to a dualistic oppressor/victim or cause/effect model. Moreover, the more deterministic and one-way a system is, the more subject it is to thermodynamic decay. Thus any would-be oppressor is condemned to the realm of entropy: the greater the power, the swifter it seeps away. It took Stalinist communism only seventy years to dissipate; Hitler’s national socialism less than twenty. The most important implication of this observation is that if tradition is defined as human institutions that have lasted a long time, and if longevity is not thermodynamically consistent with oppression (the exercise of one-way power relations), then the older a tradition, the less likely it is to be oppressive, and the more likely it is to have enjoyed the consensus of the broad mass of its participants. This principle–the first of our guidelines for the solution of social problems–is not new; contemporary social theorists have not yet caught up with the simple insight of Confucius.

A second guideline is that to the extent that human arrangements are an outgrowth of natural evolutionary possibilities and potentials, they will be successful. Since it is nature’s way to generate emergent forms and processes, this fact does not constitute a limitation on our social arrangements: rather it becomes an opportunity for them, one which, if neglected, will likely lead to decay and collapse. Thus if a political and legal system is predicated upon a struggle for power between the sexes and between racial groups, and neglects the actual opportunity nature presents for loving cooperation and cross-fertilization, we can expect that system to ossify and die.

A third guideline is that freedom is constituted not by the ability to “have one’s own way,” but by the actual process of creative work and and evolutionary emergence. Freedom is what happens when, given the choice of A and B, we invent C. Thus political freedom, which is usually taken to mean freedom of choice, is secondary to true freedom, which is the freedom to create. If people need freedom of choice in order to select the needed materials, physical or spiritual, for the making of their work, then political freedom is important. But if those materials are already at hand, or materials are not needed, then political freedom is meaningless and may even be a nuisance, like having too many soap powder brands on the supermarket shelf, too many e-mail messages, or too appetizing a dessert tray. Self-discipline is far more important to true freedom than the choice of material goods or even lifestyles. Likewise, access to a living tradition of creative work (connection, that is, with our evolutionary past) is far more important to true freedom than any ideology of revolution, because a living tradition empowers the imagination, whereas revolution diminishes the available tools of creativity. The fact is that in the long run the only really free people are the ones who have developed their gifts to the point where their contributions to others are indispensable. Thus relationships in which one person’s welfare is heavily dependent upon another’s, such as parenthood and all other forms of service, are not, as the avant-garde has thoughtlessly assumed, the medium of oppression but an opportunity for freedom. Finally, creation can consist not just in the addition of new entities to the world, but also in a beautiful refinement or simplification of what already exists.

A fourth guideline takes the form of a revision of the vexed question of equality. The issue is not hierarchy versus equality. Legitimated self-adjusting hierarchy assures a measure of practical equality. Rigid linear hierarchy under the guise of theoretical equality destroys equality. Equality of persons is achieved through complexity of relationships and multiple interdependence within the community. These in turn are brought about by a rich medium of functional and evaluative hierarchy in the realm of work organization, ideas, art, ethics, and science. A theater or a laboratory, whose activities may be highly stratified in their service of the ultimate goal of truth or beauty, generates a remarkable cameraderie because of the many indispensable work niches that are opened up by the hierarchy itself. Props, lighting, costume, are subordinate to mise-en-scene, mise-en-scene subordinate to action, and action subordinate to the total artistic meaning of the play; but actors, director, designer, costumer, lighting techies share a wonderful easy creative equality as a result.

A fifth guideline is that spiritual values are real. The lack of them kills a culture, by destroying its economy, and stunts its individuals. The presence of them can easily override and eventually reverse economic disadvantage. They are the strange attractors that draw out of a chaotic yet interacting human system emergent forms of order.

Closely related to this guideline is its corollary, a sixth: that economic matters are not the bottom line. The economic value of goods depends on how much they are desired, and desirability depends on other values, such as esthetic, moral, or veridical ones; these are generated by the creativity of human beings and of the rest of nature.

A seventh guideline is that the human world is not a tiny insignificant speck in the universe. Measured in terms of space this planet is indeed smaller relatively than a grain of dust, and measured in terms of space our tenure upon it but an eyeblink. But measured in terms of unified complexity, interconnection, significant event, emergent properties and evolutionary history, our momentary place bulks huge in the cosmos. A single human brain possesses more potential brain states than there are particles in the physical universe. More happens in a year in one of our forests than has happened on Mars for the past million centuries. It would take more bytes of information to describe Belgium than it would to describe an entire galaxy (given that there are no other “belgiums,” or living worlds, within it). Thus any ideology which is based on the “tiny insignificant speck” worldview (such as that we might as well give up the enterprise of civilization and devote ourselves to exciting as many of our membranes as possible before we die) is founded on a false premise.

Using these guidelines, then, let us examine two major avant-garde movements, feminism and multiculturalism. Though there is much to applaud in the moderate versions of these movements, the tenets of radical feminism and radical multiculturalism are in fact not so much a description of the problem, as its main source. Equipped with a more sophisticated cosmology we may now be in a position to construct better cultural myths that will help us rather than hinder us in our shared goals of better art, more integrated, human, and classical in the best sense.

2. The Feminist Myth of Patriarchy

After a few heady years of revolutionary righteousness and manifest destiny in the seventies and early eighties, feminism began to find itself trapped in a web of contradictions. These contradictions become particularly acute when a rapprochement between feminism and environmentalism is attempted. On the face of it, “eco-feminism,” the marriage of radical environmentalism and radical feminism, looks like a natural. Both have a satisfyingly contrarian flavor, both seem designed to annoy the imagined world of cold (male, capitalist, scientific) efficiency, both have a warm, pacifist, and emotional tone, both have an egalitarian basis (equality between sexes, equality between species). Yet bringing them together intellectually has proven very difficult. It has even been necessary to invoke the biggest, and unfortunately most two-edged and unwieldy, weapon of all, which is the idea that rational consistency and logical coherence are themselves the bugbears of an oppressive masculinist and species-centered hegemony, that instead, the truth is what good people want it to be. But how do we tell who are the good people? If power is the only social reality and social good, then as Plato’s Thrasymachus argues in the Republic, the powerful must be the good!

One of the most important historical strains in feminism is the insistence on individual human rights, an insistence which paradoxically goes back to the seventeenth-century bourgeois-capitalist invention of democracy as a way of making the world safe for trade, profit, and no-strings-attached employment practices. Individual liberty took on a grander and nobler aspect in the nineteenth century (consider Beethoven’s Fidelio, or the lives of the romantic poets) and became a metaphysical imperative in the existentialism of the twentieth. Although liberation was originally conceived as mandated by Nature, as in Rousseau’s system, the very notion of human nature itself eventually became targeted as an oppressive mystification designed by the powerful and wicked to oppress the good and weak. Some existentialists (Sartre, for instance, in La Nausée) saw nature as the final cloying seduction that would lure us away from the lonely and precedentless path of the authentic free subject. In the politics of the twentieth century this strain of thought is realized in two important ways: as the emphatic rejection of racism, and, eventually, as the feminist denial of the proposition that anatomy (or biology) is destiny.

But here’s the rub. Radical feminist environmentalism is deeply exercised over whether human beings are part of nature or not. If human beings are not part of nature, and if our own peculiar capacities give us power over nature, and if that is the right and proper state for us, then human sovereignty over nature, including the destruction of it when it thwarts our freedom, becomes justifiable. If human beings are part of nature, then everything we do must be natural and there can be no natural basis for complaint about our destructive activities. Our destructiveness would be no different from that of a giant meteor, or a volcano, or a swarm of locusts. The only solution is to say that in our present (“fallen,” technological) state we are alienated from nature, but that our true and proper state, toward which we should strive, would be to be just another species in a harmonious ecology. For us to be just another species cannot mean anything but that biology, i.e. anatomy, should be destiny. The problem is compounded by yet another strain in the contrarian ideology of the last two hundred years: the notion that western Man (I use the masculine noun intentionally) has become alienated from his body, from nature itself as it is immediately present to him in his feelings, impulses, and desires. The roots of this idea are also very distinguished: we can list Rousseau again, the Romantics, Freud, D. H. Lawrence, and the whole modernist performance tradition from Isadora Duncan to Jerzy Grotowski. A large wing of feminism has adopted the position that women’s ethics and esthetics are superior to men’s precisely because women are closer to the body and to nature: hence the French feminist idea of “writing through the body” and the fashion among some American women poets of writing poems about the taste of one’s own menstrual blood.

If we are to be just another species, and if we are to live through our bodies, and if we are to accept rather than oppose the restrictions that nature imposes upon us, then we cannot at the same time assert that biology is not destiny. We cannot simultaneously claim that our brains are better (and different) because of our biology, and that biology makes no difference to the quality of our brains. We cannot simultaneously assert that we ought to be docile members of a human and natural community, and that we are radically free individuals. Within the feminist community deep political strains and splits are opening up along the lines of these logical inconsistencies. Anyone who has observed intra-feminist politics can vouch for the astonishing virulence, bitterness, and underhandedness of its factional struggles. The “mommy track” controversy, which directly pitted the idea of special female reproductive virtues against the idea of the irrelevance of biological difference, together with its agonizing subtext of the ticking of the biological clock, is a case in point.

Other struggles involve the proper attitude toward men. If men are simply the same as women, then how can the imbalance of power between them (an imbalance which is the sine qua non of feminist belief) be explained? Sheer historical coincidence? If women are the same as men, then surely they would be just as capable of tyranny as the other sex, and thus it would be unfair to blame men for doing what women would have done if they had had the chance. If the advantage of being socioculturally enfranchised is that one can cultivate superior moral and intellectual virtues, then men must be better than women. If sociocultural enfranchisement is, on the other hand, corrupting to those virtues, then women would be wrong to desire it. But if men are by nature morally inferior to women, more power-seeking and tyrannical, the feminist position begins to look dangerously like a sexist one, attributing moral and intellectual differences to biological causes. If childbearing does not put people at a disadvantage in other spheres of activity, then it cannot explain the imbalance of power; but if it does put people at a disadvantage, then it should come as no surprise, and should not be construed as an indictment of society, if childbearers are not as active in other spheres of life. Professional athletes do not win many Nobel prizes; one finds few leading mathematicians among the ranks of the cordon bleu. Indeed, when fair-minded feminists consider the list of great human achievements–penicillin, the plays of Shakespeare, the art of the fugue, calculus–they cannot deny that these were gigantic gifts to the human race, often created at enormous sacrifice and in the face of bitter opposition and incomprehension. It seems fantastic, insane, to attack their givers for their privileged position. Think of poor Blake, or Mozart, or Van Gogh, or Hopkins, or Kafka, and the struggle of their brief lives to give their art to a hostile public; the idea of their having some special social advantage because of being male is morally obscene. Many women in the feminist movement, who love their fathers, brothers, husbands, or especially their sons, have all along denied the premise that male achievements were simply the symptoms of privilege. It makes more sense not to attack the givers of these great gifts, but instead to recognize the work of mothers as being entirely commensurate with them.

Finally there is a deep feminist ambivalence about the very nature of the goods that they feel they have been unjustly denied. Those goods are not so much the kind that are consumed; indeed, one of the complaints against society is that women have been made into passive consumers, spenders, recipients rather than makers and doers. It is the more intangible kind of goods, consisting of the opportunities to act and create, and the debt of obligation others owe one for acting and creating, that has been refused to women. But those very opportunities themselves must have been made by men, since men have arrogated to themselves the role of making. Thus the goods women want have the taint of having been made by men.

This problem is an agonizing one, and various mutually contradictory solutions have been proposed. One is that women have been prevented from creative activity by men. But part of the heroic story of male creativity has always been the artist’s or scientist’s or philosopher’s long struggle for recognition, the bitter resistance to class, ethnic, religious and personal oppression; could not women have won the same contest? Perhaps the male model of Oedipal rebellion is the wrong one; but how could one differentiate between those male insurgents and the contemporary struggles of liberated women? Is it not an abject borrowing of male methods?

Another solution is that women have all along been just as successfully creative as men. The problem with this idea is that it denies the premise that men have effectively reserved the creative roles for themselves. The argument then shifts to the proposition that women’s creative activity has not been properly recognized. But there are only two sexes of people who could recognize such achievements: men and women. If men are as tyrannical and corrupt as the history of sexual oppression suggests, then recognition by men would itself be an undesirable boon, signifying that the achievement itself met the corrupt criteria of the enemy. Or suppose men were not as evil as this, but were basically fair-minded, if perhaps blinded by their own political history as oppressors. Was not the spectacle of women begging for their attention and praise a rather ignoble one? Should they not earn it instead of nag for it? If recognition by other women is the only desirable thing that has been lacking, women have only themselves to blame for their obscurity. And is not the desire for fame, for the everlasting name, for the monument and commemoration and place in history–is not this desire itself a male fantasy, a silly kind of pissing on fireplugs, an assertion of hierarchical male values, that women should rightly reject?

The great myth of the patriarchy embodies many of the contradictions and anxieties of radical feminism in a narrative of the origin and moral drama of the human race. That myth has many versions, some of which contradict each other, and many different historical timescales, but we can summarize it thus.

Originally a matriarchy ruled human society. In this golden age the female values were uppermost: human equality, nonviolence, sharing, love, caring, an organic and personal relationship with Mother Nature (Gaia), a consensual system of decision-making, and a wholesome and natural system of spiritual and bodily health. Sexual taboos were unknown and unnecessary; conflicts were resolved through communal negotiation and sharing; prejudice, war, hierarchy, money, private property, objective science, and alienating systems of logic and quantification and technology were unknown. There was no sexual division of labor. Society was centered on the home, which was a holy place, and on nurturing child care. The dead were revered; fear of death was impossible because the selfish individualism that makes us afraid of losing our personal consciousness was never allowed to arise. Wise matriarchs, representing the goddesses of a bountiful earth, gave advice, oracles, guidance, and gentle correction. The central symbol of creativity, artistic and otherwise, was the womb, and the female arts of weaving, singing and storytelling were extensions of the mysterious work of the womb.

Into this arcadian age of happiness entered a new and terrible force. Male lusts for property, the exclusive sexual possession of women, individual self-display, and dominance could no longer be restrained. A patriarchy struggled with and eventually usurped the matriarchal rule. Women were subjugated and became the property of males, serving them as slaves. Private property was introduced, with all the anxiety, alienation, injustice and vanity that go along with it. Male aggressions erupted into bloody and violent wars. Elaborate social hierarchies were established. A cold, alienating system of logic and empirical reason replaced the older, more organic and intuitive wisdom. Sex was poisoned by the introduction of sexual taboos, and by the exclusive possession of the female and her reproductive capacities by the male. Terrified of death, limited to a narrow definition of the self that included mind and consciousness but excluded the unconscious, spiritual and communal elements of personal being, human beings clung to a miserable existence. A public world of marketplaces, courts, armies, temple priesthoods, and impersonal institutions replaced the home as the center of human life. Laws, codes and punishments replaced sharing and consensus as ways of resolving disputes. Science arose as a way of repressing, dominating and exploiting Nature, and we became increasingly separated from the web of natural life. The cold, sadistic gaze of impersonal reason replaced warm intuitive feeling as the way to understand the world. The symbol of creativity became the phallus, and the act of creation was imaged as rape.

It was only in the west that the patriarchy fully triumphed. Other cultures, gentler and less exploitative, preserved remnants of the old wisdom. Even in the west a sisterhood of wise women–artists, visionaries, midwives and intellectuals–carried on the traditions in secret. They were oppressed and labelled as witches when they were discovered. Their heroic resistance to the patriarchy has recently won for them the franchise, but there is no way that the patriarchy will ever give up its real power. Modernity, with its alienation, rationalism, and anomie represents the triumph of the patriarchy. Colonialism and capitalism are destroying the traditional cultures, and many women have gone over to the enemy. Western technology is now on the verge of creating an ecological crisis, and the Earth itself will protest against its long rape by some natural catastrophe.

This myth has all the delights of paranoia, combined with the full satisfaction of our very human desires for purity, scapegoats, self-justification, and a morally noble explanation for one’s own imagined or real personal failures. Some of its propositions also contain a grain of truth.

What are its disadvantages? The most obvious one is that taken as a whole the myth is not supported by the historical, mythological, archeological, ethological, anthropological and sociological evidence. As far as any reputable ancient history is concerned, there never was an exclusively matriarchal golden age. In mythology, Apollo indeed replaced the chthonic goddesses at Delphi, but he was also replacing the cult of Poseidon, and his voice was the priestess of the Oracle, who wielded enormous political power among the Hellenes. His sister Artemis gained cult power through the whole period, and Athena replaced Ares as the leading war-deity. Later, in Rome, goddesses of nature, love, domesticity and fertility made big comebacks, while Jupiter languished; and even in Christianity it was the cult of the Virgin Mother that built the cathedrals. Old gods and goddesses are superseded by new gods and goddesses; it will not do to select for study only the goddesses who are replaced and the gods who are elevated.

Archaeology tells a story of male hunters and female gatherers who are succeeded by male farmers and female weavers, but does not support the myth. Ethology–especially the work of Jane Goodall–shows unquestionably that our primate cousins, and thus probably our primate ancestors, were violent, possessive both sexually and territorially, highly hierarchical in social organization, and even more prone to wars, child abuse, and rape than we are. Anthropology gives us many examples of healthy matriarchal systems (as many of them in the west as elsewhere) but always in societies which also contain a powerful patriarchal or male-dominated system as well. These last distinctions are very important, for there is no reason why a matriarchy cannot happily coexist with a patriarchy; and not all male-dominated systems are necessarily patriarchal. Moreover societies with strong matriarchal power structures do not seem to be any less violent, hierarchical, or ecologically exploitative than societies without them.

Sociology would point out that the three main characteristics attributed by the myth to the patriarchy–its primitive and violent brutality, its stultifying conservatism and moral stuffiness, and its cold, legalistic, scientific rationality, detached from the warm reality of the body–could not possibly coexist. The myth’s alienating science and technology, for instance, would require a revolution against conservative attitudes and an environment protected against violent brutality. Feminists who contend that new technology and ideas are breaking up the old pattern of women’s subjection are in direct contradiction to the feminist “golden age” theory. If the patriarchs are both rational and stuffy, they certainly will not have the spirit and energy to be brutal and violent. And if the myth resorts to elaborate theories of conspiracy, in which the patriarchy masks its violence behind legalism and science, the element of stuffiness and stupid conservatism is lost, and the enemy seems more brilliantly cunning and diabolically collusive than the worst dreams of the paranoid. If the myth chooses only one of the three patriarchal characteristics, it falls apart, or at least can only cover a limited period of history and loses its larger moral implications. To tell the truth, the myth is so flexible as to be easily stretched to cover whatever it is that its adherents currently dislike about the imagined enemy: but by the same token it tells an incoherent story and is therefore almost untestable by the sciences.

But since the integrity of these very sciences by which we arrived at the new cosmology is itself called into question by the myth of the patriarchy, as male justifications for the status quo, I shall argue for the replacement of this myth by a better one on other grounds than on the clear evidence. (If the evidence is tainted, it can therefore be used neither by the challengers of the myth nor by its defenders; indeed, what untainted evidence could we use to decide which parts of the evidence were tainted, and which were not?) Indeed I intend to show that the feminist counter-myth I propose is in much better accord with the evidence, even evidence cited by the adherents of the old myth. But the grounds for my argument will instead be the internal self-contradictions of the old myth, and its manifest conclusion in despair; and the greater imaginative richness, consistency, and hopefulness of the new.

3. A New Feminist Myth

The new myth recognizes the coexistence of different sources of authority in society, so that matriarchy can coexist with patriarchy. It is aware, as the myth of the golden age is not, that the repressive and hidebound patriarchy described by the myth could not possibly create the revolutionary social, intellectual, and technological changes which have resulted, for good or ill, in modernity. The new myth distinguishes between patriarchy and another, newer form of social organization that we might call “juventocracy”–the rule of unattached young men (and increasingly) women. The new myth acknowledges values in the modern “western” political, intellectual, scientific, religious and artistic tradition that no true feminist would wish to sacrifice to the myth of the patriarchy. It includes an enormously important historical change, the overthrow of the patriarchy, which is totally ignored in the previous myth. It avoids a sexist attribution to the male of a special criminality, and also avoids a debilitating and sexist attribution to the female of a special purity. Further, it avoids the dualistic Cartesian separations between nature and culture, nature and humanity, nature and nurture which are implied by those sexist attributions. It is not anti-intellectual, as the other myth tends to be, and thus it does not undermine as it does the achievements of the great female intellectuals together with the great male ones. It is not Luddite, and therefore does not rely for its credibility on an ideal world population some five billion smaller than our present one. To a fair-minded and educated feminist of either sex it offers a way out of the procrustean dilemma presented by the myth of the patriarchy, that in order to be a loyal feminist one must accept an account of human history that is improbable, self-contradictory, sexist, simplistic, and unsupported by the evidence. Finally, the new myth presents a reinterpretation of contemporary sexual politics which is diagnostic of its difficulties, sympathetic, and full of hope for the future.

Like any other narrative of history, the feminist myth I propose here is partial in scope and subject to exceptions of all kinds. However, it is, I believe, less inherently contradictory and more productive of friendly effort for the future than the former myth, and makes possible exciting insights into coherent connections among large masses of historical evidence. These insights might prove to be rich material for a new centrist art of storytelling. “Once upon a time,” then. . .

In traditional societies ranging from the hunter-gatherer stage to the agrarian empire, the human world divided itself into two moieties, the male and the female, with two somewhat different cultures, often two different dialects, and two different forms of authority, the patriarchy and the matriarchy. Together they carved up reality: in early cultures between the male region of hunting and the female region of gathering; in later cultures, between production and reproduction, and between the public (the village, marketplace and city) and the private (the household). For millenia there was a rough parity between these two spheres, with some fluctuations as technological and political changes slowly spread.

The household was the core of a traditional society’s economic, artistic, intellectual and spiritual life. Though the male patriarch had always been its titular and administrative head and the leader of its protectors, it was the women of the household who held the real power of decision and the conduct of its life and creative activity. Like a university, which is in some ways a survival of the ancient household structure, and which is judged not by the efficiency of its administration but by the creative activity of its faculty, a household’s vitality and direction lay in its women. The extended family and the widespread use of servants and slaves provided a constant oral community within which the female culture could flourish, arranging marriages, telling stories (“old wives’ tales”), training and indoctrinating the children in their first five or so formative years, creating the web of gossip that constitutes a community, performing the central religious rituals that were the spiritual and ideological heart of society, making clothes and fabrics and preparing food.

The major economic activities were carried on in the home. On the periphery would be the menfolk, the farmers, hunters, craftsmen, warriors and traders, who constituted the household’s outer shell and conducted its tenuous and infrequent relations with other communities and the outside world. In a world in which everybody belonged to someone, the peasant to the chieftain, the chieftain to the king or emperor or paramount chief, the king to the gods, and in which ownership denoted an intimate, reciprocal, and emotional attachment, women indeed “belonged” to the household and thus nominally to the household’s head. But he too “belonged;” and it would be inaccurate to equate ownership in this sense with modern property ownership. It would be much closer to the sense of the genitive when we speak of our children as being “ours,” or when a dean refers to “her” faculty. Women were no more slaves or property than children or university faculty are. This model is roughly true of most traditional societies, both past and present.

Within the traditional male value system very few men desired those goods valued by the female culture, and within the female value system equally few women would desire male-valued goods. Exceptional temperaments like Tiresias or Virgil’s warrior-maiden Camilla might cross the sexual boundaries from time to time, and if they did it with panache they might thereby win a kind of wondering praise. Greek tragedy and comedy often treat of such characters, and they are usually accorded great sympathy even when they commit questionable actions.

Given the state of medicine and technology, early societies could scarcely be arranged in any other way. No reliable form of contraception existed (fertility was controlled when necessary by infant exposure) and disease and famine usually required the maximum birthrate to counter the shortness of life expectancy and to replenish the population. Male upper-body strength, size, and aggression made a significant difference in a world largely without machines, as did female physical dexterity, sensitiveness, and flexibility. There was no substitute for breastfeeding. A protected environment for children and for expectant and nursing women was essential. It was only in the nineteenth century, and only in very advanced economies, that technology began to alter this state of things. Safe feeding-bottles and pasteurized milk may have contributed more than any other invention to the end of sexual specialization. From a modern point of view that old system was very wasteful of human intellectual and imaginative talents, which I assume are on balance equal between the sexes: males would have little opportunity to develop natural aptitudes suitable to the female culture, and in women some talents suited to the masculine life would likewise be wasted.

There is no evidence that women in significant numbers refused to accept the division of labor, or despised the female culture, or yearned to join the male culture and were prevented from doing so. In women’s writings there are some protests about the state of things; but women writers were self-selected by their choice of a traditionally male medium of expression. In like fashion one might expect western practitioners of traditional Chinese ink-painting to be defensive and uncomfortably aware of their status as interlopers in a foreign discipline. The women’s oral tradition tends to criticize men for not keeping their side of the bargain (just as the male tradition scolds women for not keeping theirs) but it rarely attacks the terms of the contract itself. It might be argued that that there was much more female discontent than shows up in the record. There is a multitude of evidence of unsuccessful religious, ethnic, dynastic, and economic rebellion from ancient documents and monuments, and from contemporary anthropological accounts, evidence which by its very presence would counter any claim that gender protest could have been erased from the record. Only with the emergence of the modern world does such protest begin to appear, and even there only in a minority of the population. Those few women who did choose a “male” role were often regarded by both sexes as patterns of excellence–for instance Sappho, Diotima (as philosopher), Queen Berenice of Alexandria, Lady Murasaki, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kemp, Juliana of Norwich, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Joan, Christine de Pisan, Marie de Champagne, Elizabeth of Urbino, and Elizabeth Tudor among others.

The world thus divided between the patriarchy and the matriarchy presented a profound problem to the young males of the group, especially those of exceptional personal strength, intelligence, and talent. They were not unlike the young males of the baboon or chimpanzee troop, who must either accept the domination of the high-ranking senior males or settle for a position of marginality on the outside of the troop, deprived of reproductive opportunities. It was from this group that a new force emerged, which I call the “juventocracy.” This force would, after many centuries, unseat the patriarchy. A part of the old male culture, released by the gradual growth of new technologies and increased leisure, and finding its desire to play a significant and creative role in society blocked both by the old patriarchy and by the monopoly held by the matriarchy over the household and the dynasty, broke away and created its own new value system. More mobile and innovative than the traditional matriarchy/patriarchy, it began to develop arts, technologies, activities and ideologies of its own (many of them recorded in epic poetry). Its archetype was the hero, and its central idea was transformation. In modern terms we would say that it emphasized evolution rather than ecology. Through a series of dialectical metamorphoses, prompted by a sort of Oedipal impuse to honor, emulate and supersede the past, it eventually brought forth an extraordinary series of institutions: cities, writing, precise and enduring records of the past, new communications technologies, money, individualism, democracy, accounting, art as an ideological rather than just a decorative and celebratory activity, logic, bureaucracy, science, power-assisted production technology, and political liberty.

This development can be seen in the west as passing through three phases. First was the age of the heroes, which may have begun with and been associated with the invention of writing and historical records. Next came the age of legitimation, roughly coinciding with the rise of the state, in which the young usurpers, attempting to justify their rule, devised the legal and cultural systems that underlie modern society. Last came the age of technology, in which the juventocracy came to duplicate and replace many of the functions of the old matriarchy.

Many myths and stories recount the rebellion of the heroic juventocracy against the rule of the patriarchs. Of course the whole matter is fraught with guilt and shame, and haunted by questions about the legitimacy of the hero’s rule, once he has taken over the leadership of the city. The earliest known epic, Gilgamesh, attests to this anxiety. One common pattern, by which painful parricidal feelings can be exorcised, is to have the old king’s younger brother actually perform the act of regicide and usurpation. When the king’s son kills the usurping uncle, he is at one and the same time legitimately overthrowing a member of the patriarchal generation, and reasserting a lost legitimacy by avenging the death of the father. Examples of this pattern include the stories of Aeson, Pelias and Jason; Agamemnon, Aegisthus and Orestes; and Hamlet the elder, Claudius, and Hamlet the younger. But the young hero cannot be so easily divided into the wicked usurper and dutiful avenging son; part of Hamlet’s moral agony is that he sees himself in Claudius and Claudius in himself. Sophocles’ Oedipus is indeed both fratricidal “younger brother” and grieving son, both parricide and just avenger, both usurper and true heir.

In this heroic overthrow of the patriarchy the young male hero looks for an ally in his sister or lover (sometimes she is, by mythological implication, both). Jason enlists Medea, Orestes Electra, and Hamlet Ophelia. In other words the young male rebels originally hoped for a corresponding rebellion by the young women against the patriarchy. Here the myth predicts painful difficulties: the patriarchy was in the long run the best protector of the rights, freedoms, and powers of the matriarchy, and the matriarchy, which reproduced the very life of the tribe, could not be sacrificed. Thus the young female ally of the hero finds herself in terrible predicaments: abandoned by her unreliable lover, and forced into infanticide, like Medea; guilty of matricide, like Electra; or, if unwilling to leave the protection of the patriarchy, spurned by the hero, like Ophelia.

This new juventocratic system was from the beginning in direct competition with the old patriarchy and fought it vigorously; it tended to leave the old matriarchy alone, because the task of reproducing the society was too important to be tampered with. Hamlet is enjoined by his father’s ghost not to harm Gertrude; Orestes is pursued by Furies for his mother’s murder. Remembering with some bitterness, however, the struggle to free itself from the conservatism of the matriarchy (symbolized by such myths as the hero’s battle against engulfing female monsters), the new culture tended to take a rather condescending and even mocking attitude toward the matriarchy, even as it took over from the dying patriarchy the task of maintaining and protecting it. However, it was never as good at this task as its predecessor; and eventually it would break the contract with the matriarchy that it had inherited.

Anxiety about the legitimacy of the new heroic regime, and the divisiveness that was the result of the destruction of paternal authority, led to the creation by the juventocrats of a more elaborate legal system that would maintain order and legitimate the new rulers. At first the tyrannos who replaced the king would find ways to claim the old king’s authority for his own, and the patriarchy would be apparently restored; but with each new rebellion the credibility of orderly succession would be lost. The personal charisma of fatherhood itself began to fade, and though there were many attempts (such as the doctrine of the divine right of kings) to replace it, history was running the other way. The young heroes were forced to develop democratic and consensual forms of government, governments of laws not men. The Oresteia concludes with such a transfer of authority from family and personal authority to legality and the vote. Antigone is the story of a woman who conservatively resists the new legality; her insistence on proper burial for her brother, as the anthropologist Robin Fox has brilliantly pointed out, reasserts a much more ancient tribal law. Of course the irony and tragedy is that her dead brother is, many layers deep, one of the new usurping juventocrats. Much later, during another period of expansion for the juventocracy, Shakespeare would work through the whole long tragedy in his two historical tetralogies, Henry VI-Richard III, and Richard II-Henry V. Prince Hal must find a new way to restore the legitimacy lost when his own father, Henry IV, usurped the throne of Richard II. He does it partly by making his surrogate father Falstaff into a sort of sacrificial victim.

We can see the struggle between the new democratic/heroic culture and the old patriarchy very clearly in such central political documents as Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which forms the basis of Anglo-Saxon democracy and thus most national constitutions. The first treatise is devoted exclusively to a bitter and comprehensive attack against the patriarchy as enunciated by Robert Filmer, that is, against the rule of fathers. That attack was not merely a rhetorical one. It finds its concrete expression in the executions of Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France, and Czar Nicholas of Russia. But having overthrown the patriarch, one must either be totally amoral in the pursuit of unifying political power (Machiavelli), or establish a social contract (Locke and Rousseau). Or one can rely on the supposed natural virtues of the uncultivated noble savage, which replaced the older image of human nature as the product of an inherited natural sociality, enshrined in and cultivated by the patriarchy/matriarchy. But as in King Lear, the goddess Nature who stands up for bastards seems to sanction the most horrible atrocities; uncultivated man is more savage than noble. The nobility of those technologically “primitive” people that the European explorers discovered was, so the anthropologists found, not the result of an imagined wild free natural innocence, but of the intactness of their patriarchal/matriarchal social structures. And Rousseau abandoned his own family in typical Faustian style.

The patriarchy, then, has since become a rather feeble political force in the west, surfacing occasionally in the form of local political patronage, western ranch structure, good-old-boy networks, and the Mafia; but it, and the ideals of loyalty, honor, tribalism and chivalry it enshrined, have been much eclipsed. Feminists who attack the patriarchy surely have the wrong target; their betrayer was the new democratic individualist modernity. Matriarchy and patriarchy are mutually supportive, whereas individualist modernism must despite itself erode the matriarchal foundations. The modern crisis is that the old patriarchy is no longer able to protect either itself or the matriarchy from the modern world.

For even though its interest lay in preserving the ancient matriarchal system, the new modernism could not help diverting the matriarchal sources of economic, psychological, cultural and spiritual nourishment. The rule of the juventocracy, sanctioning as it did the replacement of old ways of doing things in every generation, was enormously innovative not only in political philosophy but also in science, art, and technology. New textile machinery replaced the household weavers; writing and history replaced the oral tradition; democracy and bureaucracy replaced the old matriarchal consensual hierarchy; labor-saving devices and industrially prepared foods took away some of the household’s raison d’etre, schools and universities took over the role of educating the young, and industry soaked up the labor market, thereby depriving the household of its vitalizing retinue of servants and companions. The center was decentered as more and more of the household functions were distributed through a grid of impersonal social institutions. The tasks that remained seemed more and more repetitive, trivial, and boring, and began to attract the scorn of feminists. The arranged marriage, which involved the whole family, was replaced by modern ideas of romance. Personal freedom and mobility grew by leaps and bounds, especially for the young, first for men and later for women. The population shot up as a result of better hygiene and more food, inflating societies to the point that even the most powerful traditional houses, like those of the Bourbons and Hapsburgs, or more recently the Marcoses in the Philippines, the Brezhnevs in Russia, and the Somozas in Nicaragua, were unable to respond adroitly to the increased flow of information.

In visual art, music, philosophy and science a two-phase process was at work: first, a rejection of patriarchal ideas, and then an undermining and betrayal of the matriarchal element that remained. The traditional visual icon was replaced in the Renaissance by perspective and realism, as the patriarchal system of natural emblematic significance was overthrown. This was the first phase. Then, in the late nineteenth century, came the second phase: the modernist rejection of realism itself, of any kind of derivation of the image from nature, a rejection that marked the symbolic death of the matriarchy. Likewise in music the patriarchal polyphony was replaced during the Renaissance by the nuove musiche, in which the word was to be the master of the music: the juventocratic logos would now dominate the paternal pattern or harmony (this latter word cognate, by the way, with arms, aristocrat, order, and ritual ). In the late nineteenth century we see the second phase, in which traditional melody and tonality are in turn undermined and questioned; the new music was “not for old women.” In philosophy, likewise, as the patriarchs lost their power, logos replaced the patriarchal nomos as the ruler of cosmos, and mind was separated from and elevated above matter. Then in the nineteenth century epistemology triumphed and the mater-matter itself was first reduced to passivity, and then to a state of poststructuralist absence. In science the early patriarchal/matriarchal world, which was alive, sacramental, and indissoluble, and in which anatomy was destiny, was first replaced by the dead, dissectable, manipulable and materialistic universe of Francis Bacon and Doctor Faustus, and then by the relativistic/quantum universe in which matter has disappeared altogether.

It is surely significant that in visual art both the iconic and the representation of nature are returning, that in serious music harmony, melody and tonality are making a comeback, that in philosophy there are those who dare to call themselves realists and who even posit a cosmos as the region of broadest ethical concern, and that in science the theories of the likes of Whitehead, Prigogine, and Wheeler seem to indicate that the universe is alive and whole after all. Perhaps the story isn’t over, and perhaps a new-old kind of hope, heralded by the centrist movement, is emerging.

By the nineteenth century the rebellion of the juventocracy had entered a new phase. Having outgrown the need for paternal legitimation, the young men who made up the new modernity began to reject the ancient contract with the matriarchy that promised women permanent protection and bonded economic service by men in return for a relative certainty that a male’s children were his own. Contraception separated sex from reproduction and from the rest of human life. Society seemed so crowded that the dominant ethnic groups no longer saw the need to replenish their numbers, and ignored the demographic trends which foretold a total ethnic transformation of their societies, and a passing over of the power to determine the composition of future societies into other hands. The result was “sexual liberation,” which was the death knell of the old matriarchy.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni marks an important phase in this process. The young hero is not content with overthrowing the old man, but has broken the ancient contract with the matriarchy and has used his male sexual force to attack the sanctity of marriage and family. (Goethe’s Faust likewise goes beyond the Renaissance Faust in betraying and destroying Gretchen, the woman who would be his wife). It is of the utmost significance that Don Ottavio (Octavius was, of course, the “legitimizing” successor to the murdered patriarch Caesar) is himself incapable of dealing with Giovanni and protecting his Donna Anna from the powerful young sexual predator. It takes a patriarch, the Commendatore, who must be brought back from the dead to do so, to restrain the sexual depredations of the young hero; the juventocracy is helpless to protect the reproductive system of society. We find much the same line of mythic thought in Richardson’s Clarissa.

A similar pattern of betrayal of the woman by the sexually liberated male is played out in the great nineteenth century novels: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Note that in these works the young woman colludes in her own betrayal; she is torn between identifying with her magnificent rebellious betrayer, returning to the maternal system out of which she has come and which she must herself betray if she is to be liberated, and seeking out the kind and authoritative father whom she will not find because her lover has got rid of him. Mozart and Da Ponte draw her character in Donna Elvira. In Wuthering Heights Cathy becomes, like Electra, the accomplice of her brother-lover, the rebel Heathcliff. In Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, the male betrayer, Wickham, is finally seen by Elizabeth in his true colors, and she must come painfully to terms with the wisdom of the matriarchy even though her own mother has betrayed and dissipated it. In order to recover that wisdom she must transform Darcy, the young nonconformist, into a true and gentle patriarch who will be a fit partner for her own prospective renewed matriarchy. In Middlemarch Dorothea rebels against her husband Casaubon who is inadequate both as patriarch and as lover; and in choosing the charming and boyish Ladislaw for her lover she takes over for herself not only a matriarchal role, but also a patriarchal one.

The current feminist movement is in fact a reaction against the effects of sexual liberation, a reaction which has borrowed some of the rebellious rhetoric of its opponent. If the males broke the old contract, why should not the females do so too? But if they do, what role is provided for them in the spiritual and social economy? What will replace the traditional system of the matriarchy, so deeply human, creative, and fulfilling? In desperation and anxiety some feminists abandoned the old matriarchal value system and culture and sought to appropriate traditionally male roles and values instead. They imitated what they thought were the male virtues of aggression and the desire for dominance. It is naturally insupportable to adopt the values of the enemy, and thus tacitly admit defeat by him; therefore the only recourse was to claim that those values were female values all along, which had been prevented from realization by male tyranny. Worse still, freedom seemed to demand the betrayal of the culture of the mothers; but to admit this to oneself was too anguishing. Feminist rebellion resembled that of the young male heroes so closely that it was very hard to see that it was these very brothers and lovers who were their enemy, or at least the occupiers of the ground they coveted. It makes a kind of sense, then, to divert the attack, turning it against a patriarchy that does not really exist except in the imagination. In this light one can deeply sympathize with feminism, and admire the development of its ideology as a courageous and intellectually agile struggle for psychic survival.

But once the generation of transition has passed, and women no longer feel unconsciously that they had no part in creating the values by which they must live, the feminist anxiety and unconscious rage at defeat may well abate. It is entirely within the principles of the new game of modernity that women should participate in it equally with men. The technological/capitalist/democratic system does not in itself care what sex one is; it does not even care very much whether or not one is a human being or a robot, as long as the job gets done. Within the democratic and capitalist-trading ethics of the new dispensation the fact that to a large extent men invented the game does not make it their exclusive possession. Indeed, like the westernized economy of Japan, the women may end up playing the game better than their teachers.

It became psychologically necessary for some women to claim that they were oppressed throughout those many centuries. It seems much more plausible, however, that within the women’s world those male values and activities were regarded as boring boy-noise, less interesting than the vital activities of arranging marriages, childrearing, running a household, tending the ancestral spirits, weaving beautiful textiles, perfecting the ancient art of cooking, and maintaining personal relationships. Those activities are now on the way to being like hunting, riding, sailing and gardening: archaic forms of work that have become pleasures reserved to a wealthy and leisured class. Perhaps it is more comfortable for the rest of us not to miss them too much, even to tell ourselves that they are the burdens of oppression. Then the problem is how to avoid demeaning the traditional values of the matriarchy, of service, love, and wholeness.

One of the advantages of the new feminist myth is that it may tend to diminish the causes for hatred between men and women. Within the context of the old myth of the patriarchy it is easy enough to collect an infuriating list of traditional misogynistic and ill-tempered male diatribes against women, and turn them into a sexual casus belli . But when we realize that for most of history there were three rather distinct cultures, a patriarchy, a juventocracy, and a matriarchy, the case becomes more understandable as another example of natural human xenophobia, not very different from what we can see between ethnic groups even today. The fact that the women’s culture was largely an oral one makes it a little harder to collect an equivalent set of female complaints at and criticisms of men. Still, it is quite clear that Geoffrey Chaucer was good-naturedly tapping into a rich and vital oral tradition of female misanthropy in his portrait of the Wife of Bath and in her tale; and the same tradition crops up frequently in fabliaux, in topical drama from all periods, in anthropologists’ accounts of traditional and emerging societies, and in women’s letters, oral history, and the like. The fact that the sexes have often found it hard to get along with each other is neither new nor remarkable; and it is not surprising that they should relieve their feelings by verbal abuse.

It is clear that in some male individuals, perhaps enough to constitute a minority tradition, misogyny became systematized into sexism, a belief that women are innately inferior to men. Though there have always been wiser heads to contradict them, both male and female, and though it is possible that within the women’s tradition there existed serious and systematic beliefs in the inferiority of men, masculinist sexism does stand as a hideous blot in the human record. Some avant-garde critics have interpreted the whole human tradition of art, literature, and science as expressions of patriarchal sexism. The new myth, however, does not require the wholesale rejection of the great human masterpieces of imagination and intellect. And it does not require the distortion of literary history to fit a mold of pro-male, anti-female propaganda. For there are surely far more male villains in fiction, poetry, drama and narrative sculpture and painting than female villains. While male villains can plumb the depths of inhuman evil, female villains are almost always treated with subtlety and sympathy. Dido nearly steals the show; Cleopatra certainly does and transvalues all the Roman values. We surely find ourselves applauding Medea and Clytemnestra despite our disapproval of their violent crimes, and it is hard to imagine that the Athenian audience would have felt differently. There are perhaps at least as many heroines in literature, of various kinds, as heroes. Penelope, Alcestis, Electra, Antigone, Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola, Portia, Milton’s Eve, Tess Durbeyfield and so on are glorious archetypes of full human being; and one cannot look at the sculptures of the Greek goddesses and Medieval Virgins without a shiver of recognition of the divine human essence.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear that women are represented in the arts in any more stereotypical ways than men. One could certainly categorize male characters in as limited and as unhelpful a way as the virgin-mother-whore-slave pattern that some have professed to see in male portrayals of women: hero-father-fool-slave, for instance, and then one could likewise trim the rich and complex artistic creations one finds to fit this trivial procrustean bed. For every passive female character there is an equally passive Richard II or Bishop Proudie or Pip; for every male adventurer there is a magnificent Judith or St. Joan or Dorothea or Isobel Archer; for every female failure, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, there is a male Werther, Antony, or Lear.

If women have often been portrayed in the domestic context, this may have more to do with the demands of realistic representation than with oppressive ideology. I have already suggested that the domestic scene has not until recently been considered an inferior one, but rather a state of the highest honor. In fact we might well marvel how many past fictive heroines have been depicted in quite atypical situations, engaging in typically male activities and adventures; as if the male authors yearned to have enthusiastic female comrades but were rebuffed in their implied invitations by women who would rather stay sensibly at home. Every whole man understands the great sigh of joy with which Othello greets Desdemona as she descends from her storm-tossed ship: “Ah, my fair warrior!” It is the prospect and hope of such equal comradeship that makes the tragedy more terrible. Some of the “misogyny” attributed to male writing is surely a misreading of a misguided male appeal to the intelligent young woman to throw off the shackles of the matriarchy, which is disappointed when the lady turns out to have more sense than to do so!

The same can perhaps be said for those studies based on the old myth, which claim that for art and literature to represent, even to gaze at, is an essentially dominating and tyrannical male act. Such radical feminist criticism either itself represents something, in which case it stands accused of its own indictment and its publication is an act of bad faith, or it does not represent anything, in which case, making no assertion, it does not need to be corrected. And the Gaze seems to be even more offensive when it is not directed at oneself, and one does not get the attention one deserves, than when it is so directed. Such double-binds are the figments of despair; what we need is hope. More dangerous in the long term, because it may affect one of our few avenues of unwelcome, unexpected, and therefore salvific knowledge, is the notion of “male science,” which again relies on the myth of the patriarchy. In refutation of old-myth-based claims that the male mind is linear, it should be pointed out that while indeed the glories of linear algebra and mathematical logic were first revealed by men, so also were the even more beautiful contemporary fields of non-linear algebra, fractals, dissipative systems, multivalued quantum logic, catastrophe theory, and chaos. Another target of old-myth critique is the linearity of male narratives, especially the “grand narratives” that give meaning and direction to human activity. Here one might point out that women were the traditional tellers of old wives’ tales and fairy tales. Recent studies of narrative, moreover, demonstrate that there is nothing quite as nonlinear as a good story, with its strong temporal asymmetry, its fanlike branching of alternative futures and surprising collapses of the field of possibilities into new gestalts. Stories, like great music, are not predictable until they are over, and often not even then. Male “dualism” is another favorite target; males, it is claimed by the patriarchal myth, tend to separate mind and matter, spirit and body, culture and nature. Here it should be pointed out that men were also the originators of the great monist systems, like the mystical philosophy of the Upanishads, Darwinian evolution and Whiteheadian process philosophy.

In the patriarchal myth, the dominant oppressive culture dualistically equates men with culture, women with nature. Such an interpretation ignores such facts as the clear reversal of this schema in nineteenth century America, when it was the men who were seen as close to nature, and the women (nearly twice as many of whom graduated from American high schools in the period than did men) who were associated with culture. A glance at almost any old western movie will confirm this observation. It is the men who are like animals, who live in the wild, who solve things by bodily action and are no good at writin’ and speechifyin’; the women who are the schoolmarms, the pianists, the embodiments of civilization, negotiation, custom, and reason. Indeed one might make a case for such a reversal throughout the nineteenth century, starting with Joseph Conrad, for whom women, like Kurtz’s Intended, are a shining light of spirit and culture in a savage and bestial male world. Going further back it might be noted that the divine powers representing the mind are usually female: Athena, Santa Sophia, Urania, the Shekinah. In conclusion, it is surely the adherents of the old myth who in current debates on sociobiology and human evolution insist dualistically on the utter separation of sex and gender, biology and personal rights.

There is no question but that the old matriarchal/patriarchal system did severely limit the potentials of both men and women, and waste talents which could not fit into the stereotypical gender roles. Nor is there any question but that the liberating effect of the rise of the modern world was first experienced by the young males who, for the most part, created that modern world; and it is only recently, both because of socioeconomic forces and because women began to demand it, that women have begun to experience the same liberation. Though institutions of great value–the extended family, the old brotherhoods and sisterhoods–have been lost, perhaps forever, we must assert that the individual liberty that we got in return is far beyond them in value. As the struggle for equal rights is not yet over, we must not relax our efforts in that direction. But it is not accurate to portray that struggle as the effort of an oppressed sex to throw off the tyranny of an oppressor sex. Nor would it be wise in the long run to do so. Some, perhaps many, of the classical values and institutions of the old matriarchy and patriarchy may be salvageable, reshaped and detached from the restrictive elements that limited human achievement. Moreover the struggle is one in which both sexes have an interest, and will not be achieved if one sex is excluded or alienated by being the target of hatred and prejudice.

Nor should the struggle be glibly described as the throwing off of an evil and tyrannical old system designed to foster the interests of a few. Given the technological limitations, the old patriarchy/matriarchy was a remarkably fair arrangement for making sure that everyone in society got some chance for fulfilment, even if the necessities of survival dictated that one did not get much choice as to the kind of fulfilment one would be offered. It was a very human and personal system, and we can still learn from it. If we forget it or suppress it or distort its history to suit our politics, we will paradoxically cut ourselves off from one source of creative social change in the future. Modernism is not the last word in human achievement, and new generations will want to create cultural environments of their own. Past wisdom is often a great storehouse of evolutionary potential for a society (witness how the Renaissance used apparently outdated classical ideas and values), and the postmodern world will need all the wisdom it can get.

By the same token it would be unjust and counterproductive to attack the very process of modernization, the technological, scientific, and political change which brought to us the remarkable new opportunity we have for a kind of social arrangement that allows such wide choices for both sexes. If it was indeed men who initiated and until its final phases drove that change, this is a reason for gratitude to the male sex, not for resentment. Resentment would be appropriate only if after a reasonable period of readjustment male modernity had refused to share what it had discovered, once it was asked. But this cannot yet be said to be the case. At present we are in a new age of heroes, or rather, of heroines, who are doing what their brothers began to do three thousand years ago. The technology for this liberation is now available; it is the gift of their brothers, but it will not and should not determine what they do with it or how the heroines will transform it once they take command of it. But the emergence of the heroines is not enough. I believe that the new myth predicts and recommends a revival of the patriarchy, in its best sense–as the conserving wisdom of the old men, of that husbandry and concern for the past and the future that characterizes, for instance, the best aspects of the environmental movement. And as Don Giovanni shows, the young men do not yet have the wisdom and insight and compassion to restrain themselves and each other from heroic sexual exploitation. There needs to be an antique, honorable counterweight that will transform their sexual aggressivity into gentle and humble knightliness.

Furthermore, the full richness of human experience will not be properly represented in our culture without a healing and restoration of the matriarchy as well. The household is rightly the center of human life. Most children need a stable and loving home environment in order to achieve their potential. The greatest arts are, I believe, not those which cause a stir on museum walls or extend some “shocking” modern or postmodern critical theory into yet another posture or attitude, but those arts which intensify and fill with meaning ordinary human existence, that make a home into a place that recalls all our beautiful and tragic past, and point to futures that are as human as they are strange and adventurous. New technologies of communication and data processing are making the home once more a viable economic entity, where men and women can lead full and public lives. Now we need truer myths of our past, that will enable women and men to live together without rancor and prejudice.

4. The Myth of the Oppressive West

The myth of the oppressive patriarchy deceives its followers by promising a story of moral regeneration and underdog crusade, but delivering a set of logical, moral and psychological double binds which can cripple its adherents. Still more paralysing and self-destructive in the long run is the avant-garde myth of “western hegemonic dominance.” These myths, with their traps, excuses, contradictions and double binds, are as much the enemy of unfulfilled human potential as any brutal sexist or arrogant racist. Sexists and racists can be opposed with firmness, imagination, compassion, hope, and a cheerful mind. But the aggrieved myths that catch and concentrate and praise the free-floating hatred and the shamed shame that are the leeches of our human condition, and fasten them on their followers, do not allow the exercise of the creative human virtues. They penetrate the mind and heart and suck out their imaginative nourishment; or to change the metaphor, they turn mind and heart against themselves and kill the seeds of hope.

What is the myth of western hegemonic dominance? Essentially it proposes that a single social and racial group–white Europeans–developed an alienating, hierarchical, and dualistic mode of thought which, by sacrificing the human values of bodily experience, relatedness and harmony with nature, gave them a kind of Faustian control over society and nature. Other human cultures lived in peace and mutual tolerance with their neighbors, welcoming their cultural differences, but the western conquerors were racist by nature, and oblivious to the cultural riches they were destroying. The victims could have raised the economic and technological demon to defend themselves, but did not wish to, because of their greater wisdom, which warned them against the perils of ecological destruction, social discrimination, commodity fetishism and economic oppression.

The new western tribe of cold, grasping, and arrogant white males, closely identified with the oppressive patriarchy as described in the previous section, spread out over the world and reduced the other cultures to colonial subjection and slavery. The process continues unabated, as the west moves into a new phase of “late capitalist” economic colonialism; its most subtle twist is to use “western values,” which are in fact hypocritical systems of control and mystification, to maintain its dominance. Among those so-called values are rationality, empirical objectivity, democratic due process, the control of the body and emotions by reason, delayed gratification, and such abstract, essentialistic ideals as goodness, truth and beauty. The central tenet of western ideology is that there is only one overarching truth; this totalizing idea denies the diversity and relativity of cultural values, and the great ideals of diversity and pluralism.

The traditions of western art, literature, science and philosophy are riddled with hidden justifications for oppression, and thus politically poisonous, except for some works, which were either composed by persons of nonwestern ancestry or were influenced by nonwestern sources. Western mathematical, physical, and chemical sciences reduce the living world to a passive and inanimate colonial victim, to be exploited and raped by technology for the sake of power. Western biological science, especially the theory of evolution, in asserting that human beings are subject to biological constraints and possess a human nature, is fundamentally racist and should be controlled or abolished. The continued teaching of the western artistic and literary canon in schools and universities is a racist ploy to suppress other cultures whose achievements are as great or greater. The purpose and net result of all these western techniques has been to keep the masses of people in the third world, and their brothers and sisters, the minority populations in the west itself, in a state of poverty, misery, and powerlessness.

This myth, despite its compelling story, apparently clear scapegoat, and occasional correspondence with fact, is deeply self-contradictory and in essence a counsel of despair. It can only harm the very victims it pretends to elevate and justify. Let us examine its factual errors and inconsistencies, so that by correcting them we can construct a truer myth, one less harmful in its effects.

The first factual error is that the west is uniquely patriarchal in its organization and worldview. The opposite would be much closer to the truth. If the west is unique, one of the ways it is so is that even before the twentieth century brought worldwide cultural communication, the west had largely overthrown the patriarchy of authoritarian fathers and substituted a legalized and individualized government of men appointed without regard to their family status. It had then begun the journey toward the emancipation of women; and by the time worldwide communication came about, the west was more advanced toward gender blindness in its institutions than any nonwestern society.

Nor is the west unique in its ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and racism. All three are culturally universal, though they tend to diminish among the elite and better educated groups in any society. Indeed, one of the problems of democracy is that it empowers the broad masses of people, who because of their poorer education are much less likely to be tolerant of differences than the elites tend to be. The recent appearance of bitter ethnic conflicts among the newly enfranchised peoples of eastern Europe once the educated communist elite was overthrown is a good example; another is the eruption of tribal genocide in Africa once the colonial elites had given way to populist native rule. Racial and ethnic prejudice is a normal feature of every society, from Serbia to Brazil, from China to Honduras, from Lebanon to Australia, from Sri Lanka to Azerbaijan. It is only in those countries in which there is a serious attempt to wipe out racism, mostly, that is, in the west, that racism is considered anything other than commonsense.

Indeed, prejudice and stereotyping could be seen as the essential mechanism of all human (and perhaps all mammal, vertebrate, even animal) perception and information-processing. Our visual and acoustic pattern-recognition systems work by comparing new stimuli with earlier ones and categorizing them with what they resemble from previous experience (i.e., prejudice), and by iterating and emphasizing small quantitative differences until they appear to be major differences of kind (i.e., stereotyping). This is the “default option” of any intelligent system of knowledge and memory, and it takes great discipline and vigilance to override it. The European traditions of classical study, objective scientific experiment, the Grand Tour, and the like, were deliberate efforts to override this default option, to overcome the Baconian idols of the tribe, the cave, the marketplace and the theater, and to give the educated person the capacity to look at something clearly, without prejudice. Paradoxically, though, the very ideal of unprejudiced scientific objectivity is condemned by the detractors of the west as a cold and inhuman perversion. Paradoxically again, it may have been this very capacity, this unnatural ability to overcome prejudice, that was the key to European success in world conquest; such minds could adapt to the unfamiliar, see how it worked, and act accordingly. The story of the Aboriginal tribesmen who were able to recognize and perceive Captain Cook’s rowboats but could not notice his ship because it was so huge and unfamiliar, is a disquieting index of the limits of human awareness, limits that western science was designed to overcome. It is indeed one of the tragedies of history that despite these disciplines, many educated Europeans and Americans fell for the horrible and intellectually lazy superstition of racism, descending to the level of the human norm, to the racist mental habits of the very people whom they despised for their lack of rigorous objective self-criticism.

Another factual error in the myth of the west is that the west was unique in instituting slavery. To the contrary, many human societies have practiced some form or other of slavery. It seems to be almost a cultural norm in those stages of human cultural development from the early agrarian empire, through the city state, feudalism, and mercantile colonialism up to the ascendancy of the national urban industrial middle class, when it begins to die out. It is found throughout the ancient and classical Mediterranean, most of the high civilizations of south and south-east Asia, among the precolonial African kingdoms, and in the Precolumbian American empires. It is still practiced in some parts of the Islamic world.

But here a distinction must be made. Slavery as commonly practiced, for instance in the old Greek and Roman empires and in China, did not necessarily involve racism. Freed slaves could and did rapidly integrate into the general population; indeed, the population of contemporary Europe is descended in part from slaves belonging to Greek and Roman masters. The final form of slavery, as practiced by mercantile colonialism, was peculiarly virulent, involving large differences in technological development between the enslavers and the enslaved, early industrial forms of exploitation of labor, and especially racism, compounded by obvious differences in skin color, which acted as a marker to prevent easy social assimilation into the general population. It is in the struggle against this form of slavery and its after-effects that a large part of the social conscience of Europe and America has been formed. In this light the myth of the west, which attributes a special evil to the white race, can be seen as merely the obverse of the ideology of the mercantile racists, and is as damaging to the cause of human justice as its original. It promotes a loyalty among the once oppressed to the psychological mindset of oppression, and perpetuates the cultural damage done by race slavery.

The west is not unique in the practice of conquest and imperialism. The imperialistic exploits of Islam and the Han Chinese, the expansionism of the great Mesoamerican and Andean empires, the epic conquests of the old African kingdoms and the odyssey of the ancient agrarian peoples of Taiwan who swept through the East Indies on their way to Polynesia and Madagascar, are now under study by historians, archeologists, and linguists. One of the greatest waves of conquest was that of the Bantu peoples of west Africa, who drove east and south, enslaving or exterminating the indigenous Pigmy and Khoisan peoples that they encountered, to meet the Boers in the seventeenth century as they trekked north from the Cape of Good Hope. There are no human beings anywhere who live where their ancestors always lived; we are all the children of interlopers, conquerors, enslavers, aliens, as well as of their victims. There is also no cultural purity anywhere in the world, no set of simple and unadulterated folkways, no authentic wellspring of human innocence.

One of the principles of the myth of the oppressive west is that the west is unique in suppressing and controlling the body and its emotions, and in conceptually dividing the body from the mind, soul, or spirit. Every known culture, however, has traditions, institutions, and training designed to control the body and to suppress some of its autonomous functions. For instance, all societies have an incest taboo, almost all have some kind of formal training for the skills of hunting or dancing or martial arts, most have some form of ordeal, such as circumcision, to mark the coming of adulthood, and many, such as the Indians, the Tibetans, the Chinese, the Japanese, have long traditions of extreme asceticism designed to bring all functions of the body and the emotions under the control of the spirit. It might be in the interest of those who have little stomach for such disciplines to claim them to be the tools of hegemonic western control; but wherever such critics went, they would find the same thing.

An important element in the myth is that the oppressive west is unique in imposing a barrier between human beings and the natural world. On the contrary, the fundamental human distinctions between nature and culture and between the “natural” elements in the human makeup and the “supernatural” ones, are culturally universal. Different societies, and different moieties and historical periods within societies, draw the line differently between body and soul (are the emotions physical or spiritual? Is there a sharp dualism or a subtle hierarchy?), but almost all draw the line. The “westerners” Jesus, Plato, Lucretius, Augustine, Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, Blake, Hegel, and D.H. Lawrence, all had wildly different views of the matter; but the distinction is not unique to the west. Indeed, just the opposite might be argued: that the west is the only culture to have seriously questioned the distinction between the human and the natural, the body and the soul. Western evolutionary theory shows the continuity of the human with the natural; western biopsychology interprets mental, emotional, and spiritual events as real, effective higher-order activities of a physical body. There are dualists and monists in every great human cultural tradition; in the west monism has been given some of its best intellectual arguments, by thinkers from Heraclitus and Parmenides to Whitehead and de Chardin, from Democritus and Lucretius to Darwin and Wheeler, from Emerson and Swedenborg to Freud and Marx.

Another error implicit in the myth of the west is that human beings are born as blank slates and are inscribed and determined by culture (which, depending on the severity and purity of the myth-exegetes, is determined by social conditions, which are in turn determined by economics and the struggle for power). Most of the scientific evidence–from neurochemistry, neuropsychology, sociobiology, twin-studies, physical anthropology, and genetics–indicates that to the extent that either is a determinant of human behavior, the “nature/nurture” or “heredity/culture” ratio is something like 70/30. That is, a child’s genetic inheritance is going to be two to four times more important statistically in determining how successful he or she will be in society than his or her upbringing. However, and this is an important distinction, the success of the social group into which a child is born is highly dependent upon its general level of culture, education, and technology. Thus a gifted child born into a stunted or self-limiting community–an Amish village, an urban youth gang, a colonial plantation–will normally succeed only in the terms of that community; it would take an exceptional individual to reject that community, a rejection which might well feel like a betrayal.

A more subtle error is the myth’s assumption, that to assert the greater importance of genetic heredity over social construction in the determining of the individual is tantamount to racism. The inference does not in fact follow at all. For instance, the dependence of the individual’s potential upon his or her genetic inheritance could be perfectly consistent with the following non-racist positions: that the races have statistically different distributions of talents, but the distributions are of equal value; that the races have exactly the same distribution of talents, though within a given race there is great variation in individual abilities; that the races are extremely recent and transient phenomena in the history of the human species, and their differences are completely superficial; and that the “races” do not in any serious genetic sense exist at all, since there has been so much interbreeding within the general human population that differences in skin-color and so on are statistical variations within a single actively communicating gene pool.

It should be noted that a community filled with clever and talented people with excellent genes might well make a false technological turn or poor cultural choice, or through bad geographical or meteorological luck find itself trapped in a cultural pattern that employed the potentials of its members to relatively fruitless ends; and the result might well look very like an “inferior race.” The disadvantages of such a community might well make it vulnerable to another society which had had better luck in its choices and circumstances, and which would, until a better scientific understanding of genetics came along, rather naturally assume that its own individuals, rather than its institutions, were innately superior to those of its rival. The weaker society would then be faced with the agonizing choice of giving up its own counter-productive cultural practices and adopting some of its enemy’s, ceasing to exist as a society, or continuing to justify the reasonable but uninformed racial prejudices of its oppressor. The point is that it should be possible to make a critique of a culture, while maintaining the primacy of nature over nurture in the makeup of the individual, without necessarily taking a racist position.

The most fundamental contradictions in the myth of the west arise from the question: is there one set of coherent, correct, and genuine values, or many, or none? The first alternative, that there is only one, is ruled out by the tenets of pluralism, diversity, and cultural relativity; but in the morass of contradictions that the myth generates, it keeps coming back as a tantalizing but treacherous guide. Suppose we take the second alternative: that there are several different correct and genuine value systems, without an overarching value system to translate and adjudicate among them. In the absence of a higher value system, how could we say that they are correct and genuine, or incorrect and false? Western values, for instance: if they are false, against what standard? In what terms can pluralism and diversity themselves be defended, if they are only the values of one group and have no higher standing? Why should it be wrong for one value system to swallow up the others? Particularly irksome is that the ideas of equality, pluralism, and relativity were pioneered by the west. The west has always been intensely curious about and attracted to other cultures, a trait which is not universally shared. Most of what the world knows about other cultures was discovered by western anthropologists, who were often fiercely committed to the culture they were studying and deeply skeptical about their own; anthropology was a western invention.

If there is no overarching “human nature,” but only a plurality of culturally determined concepts of the human, how can there be human rights? If one ethical system believes in clitoridectomy or slavery, and another does not, how do we decide which is right? If there is a plurality of true value systems, there must be values other than the economic and the political; if true happiness can consist in the life of virtue or mystical experience, divorced from materialistic concerns, then those who lead such a life would surely be only too glad to leave the miseries of wealth and power to the west. But if the west is on an equal footing in a contest with all other cultures, then it has humiliatingly and totally “won.” If other cultures did not perceive it as a contest, then they need not complain that they have lost, since they were non-competitors. If western values–that virtue is its own reward, that we should prefer personal and interpersonal goods to materialistic ones, that we should practice thrift and delay gratification, and so on–are simply hypocritical mystifications to deceive the oppressed, without an overarching set of ethical rules we would be quite free to praise these subterfuges in the struggle for success. Would it even be an absolute virtue to practice what we preach, since there are no absolute virtues? If the values of the west are those of denial of the body and the emotions, then who could envy them a wealth they cannot enjoy? But if on the other hand the west is hedonistic, lazy, and wasteful, how can it have achieved its economic success?

Western values may be hierarchical, dualistic, or alienating, as the myth claims; but they cannot be all three. Hierarchy, which implies a branched structure of inclusion and connection, a wholeness whose top-down control is balanced by bottom-up feedback, is, as we have seen, the least alienating of all systems. (Of course the only effective kind of hierarchy, human or biological, is one which is legitimated by consent, regulated by due process, and flexible in its accommodation of differences; ineffective hierarchies can offer neither threat nor benefit to their neighbors.) Hierarchy is a way of multiplying levels of inclusion and control, so as to avoid complete lack of structure and connection on one hand, and a barren, uncommunicating dualism on the other. Without the idea of biological hierarchy, we must either think of the human body as a mere valueless piece of matter, or as an illusion of the soul or spirit, or as a partner in a dualistic combination of soul and body that can neither sense nor act, because the natures of soul and body are so different. The west has pioneered the attempt to find substitutes for hierarchy in human organization, but to no avail; the best we can do, it seems, is to legitimate, loosen, strengthen, and complexify it by democracy, federalism, and the separation of powers. “Network” systems of organization, which some have proposed as an alternative, turn out to be either hierarchies in disguise, or else little hivelike totalitarianisms which sacrifice diversity and freedom to consensus and political correctness.

If there is a plurality of different true value systems, then there is a plurality of goods defined as such by those value systems, and thus no competition, and no possibility for injustice, since the good of one would not involve the loss of the good of another. To the extent that there can be injustice in the allocation of goods, the contestants must share a value system. The kicker of a field goal should not feel aggrieved that his achievement does not count toward his earned-run average. The idea of justice and the accusation of injustice depend upon the overwhelming of diversity, the resolution of pluralism into unity, the replacement of relativism by shared absolutes.

The third alternative in our analysis of values in the myth of the west–that there is no such thing as correct values–offers even less comfort, though it is the last resort of thinkers like Foucault, who have the intelligence to perceive the traps of the first two. Without values, power is the only constraint upon desire. If this is the case, the moral complaints of the “loser” cultures are without substance, though they might be a useful and effective strategy for persuading sentimental members of the “winner” culture to abandon their own interests and yield themselves up for plucking by their erstwhile victims. It might seem that such a world would be pleasant for the strong and horrible for the weak; but I believe it would in fact be even more horrible for the strong, who in their greater insight, clarity and leisure would perceive without self-deception and distraction the horror of a valueless world.

However we take the myth of the west, then, we are faced at every turn with despair. It is indeed despair for the west, as morally irredeemable; what reparation would be possible for its imputed crimes, if they are unique? Any moral accounting of the story as told by the myth should lead to all westerners committing suicide in part payment for their crimes. But it is despair also for the “third world” and the “minorities,” as losers either in the game of values or in the game of power. If the west is as bad, as powerful, as cleverly conspiratorial, secret, and self-aware, as the myth proposes, then there is no way that it will give up its power, and no way to force it to do so. Indeed, the only intelligent recourse would be to give up the struggle and learn to enjoy the doubtful pleasures of the oppressed: the satisfaction of physical desires, the oppression of those even weaker than oneself, the relinquishing of any attempt at objectivity, the sense of complete irresponsibility for one’s own condition, the loss of anxiety about the past and future, and the feeling of solidarity with others who have likewise given in.

This despair is concretely exemplified in the condition of the “underclass” in some economically advanced countries with large “ethnic minorities.” Within the myth of the west, any personal individual success tends to undermine the proposition that the racist majority, by oppressing the ethnic minority, renders the individual member of it incapable of positive action (since it is culture and society that determine the individual’s achievements, not that individual’s genetic inheritance). Thus personal achievement by a minority individual is by its very nature a betrayal of the myth that is the “loyalty oath” of the oppressed group and an affront to other members of the group who have not succeeded in rising above the general condition of economic misery, poor education, drug-addiction, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment.

There are indeed oppressed groups, which, if group identity translated easily into individual identity, should receive massive reparations sufficient to enrich every member. But another paradox of despair emerges here: if oppression does lead to personal damage, and if personal damage makes an individual less capable of contributing to society, and if one’s personal deserving is measured by the extent of one’s contributions to society, the greater the social reparations one deserved, the lesser the personal ones. According to the anthropologists, it is in the nature of human beings to desire fair exchanges, a fair balance between what one gives and what one receives. The double-bind of the myth is that the more one deserves as a member of a group, the less one deserves as an individual; the more one were given in compensation as an “ethnic minority,” the less one would find oneself, as a person, in a satisfactory and respectable condition of fair exchange with one’s neighbors. The political need to assert the determinism of cultural, social, political and economic factors over biogenetic or personal spiritual ones essentially makes individuals helpless and shamed, and empowers only the “caring professions” and political leaders that are paid to look after them.

One final act of despair has been to deny the very reality of the person, the self, the individual, to assert that the self is only a social construct. If we do so, we also abandon the only unit in which it makes sense to talk about right and wrong action, ethics, morality, and obligation. If I do not have a real self or person, then I cannot have any personal moral responsibility. Perhaps the social group to which “I” belong has such a responsibility, as the author of the social construct of the self, but that cannot translate into any obligation on “myself” to do anything about it, since there is no myself to be obligated. If society wants you to behave differently, it had better change you; you cannot change yourself. And so we return to the ideological reeducation camps, and so on.

To sum up, then, perhaps the worst and deepest feature of the myth of the oppressive west is that it ends up doing exactly the opposite of what it was designed to do, rendering impossible any improvement in the world’s glaring social and economic inequalities, dissolving the sources of moral authority that might mandate such improvement, paralysing the victims of injustice, and exonerating those who have happily escaped it from any obligation to help; because, being socially determined, they cannot be expected to take an individual initiative to do so without the aid of forced social reeducation. Like the myth of the patriarchy, the myth of the oppressive west is good only for one thing: to serve as a justification for personal failure, an argument against hope, and a rationalization for despair. As large areas of the globe descend into ethnic conflict, and racial separatism becomes fashionable in America itself, the myth of the west becomes increasingly recognizable as just another version of the ancient hatred story–of heathen Turks or imperialist Greeks, of idolatrous Sinhalese or fanatical Tamils, of grasping Armenians or ruthless Azerbaijanis, of loveless whites or violent blacks, of lazy Arabs or expansionist Zionists. The fact that this essentially racist myth is being propagated by the very people who claim the mantle of desegregation and civil rights makes its widespread acceptance still more tragic.

What are we to do when one of the chief intellectual and imaginative instruments of the movement toward racial equality and human enfranchisement, the myth of the oppressive west, turns out to be not only false and self-contradictory, but deeply damaging to the cause it was designed to serve? The answer, I believe, is to seek out a different myth, that better enshrines the truth, and that will serve as a fruitful guide to positive action. To do this, though, will require a radical rethinking of many of our most deeply-held assumptions, and a redefinition of many of our fundamental terms. The very words “race,” “ethnic,” “nature,” and especially “west” may need to be transformed or even abolished in their present meaning. We must radically redefine the “nature-nurture” debate and the “nature-culture” distinction. We must rechart the story of human history upon a projection that no longer distorts it out of true recognition. We must find the courage and the intellectual subtlety to be able to reassert some unfashionably absolute ideas, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, though on a new footing that will contain and neutralize the philosophical objections that led to their rejection. We must dare to stare once again into the horrifying, beautiful, and challenging implications of our evolutionary descent from our animal ancestors. And we must discover in the heart of what seem to be humanity’s darkest and most terrible traits–our xenophobia and aggressiveness–the roots of some of our finest and most beautiful moral capacities.

Clearly the old myth, of mechanistic essentialistic oppressive dualistic white males ravaging an unoffending world, will not stand up. What can we replace it with? What is the “west”?

The answer is that it does not exist in the sense of being a single culture, even a dominant single culture. If we see it as “a” culture, we might well be inclined to identify it with some particular race or ethnic tradition, and be rightly disturbed if it unfairly dominates some other culture (whatever that means) just as worthy of consideration. Instead, let us trace the emergence of what is often called the west but is in fact a composite culture, composed of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of highly different human cultures from all over the world, a multiculture which is rapidly becoming world human culture, and which is enormously fertile of new diversity within itself.

The great theme of human prehistory, that is, the period before writing, monuments and records began to connect the generations by other means than memory, is divergence, sparagmos, separation. According to genetic archaeology, the technique of tracing back mitochondrial DNA lineages, the human race is most likely descended from a single small population, residing, probably, in Africa. Since that time the huge migrations of hunter-gatherer groups, and then later the invasions and diffusions of farming peoples all over the world and their genetic isolation in new habitats, produced enough genetic diversity to form distinguishable races, and the budding and branching of several major language groups.

Since the beginning of recorded history, however, the pattern has changed. The same technology that produced records and communications also produced agricultural, metallurgical, political and military institutions that led in turn to empires, huge amalgamations and assimilations of peoples and languages, trade and interbreeding. The theme now becomes unification; not the disappearance of cultural differences, but the denser and denser superimposition of them within the minds and lives of individuals, and the emergence of larger concepts, of logic, science, money, law, and art that could contain the diversity and make sense of it. During this time, like tiny flaws or “seeds” in a liquid undergoing crystallization, certain cultural nodes formed, around which the emerging unity of world culture began to take shape. Those nodes included the pyramid empires of Africa, Southwest Asia, and Central and South America, and the great riverine irrigation civilizations of India and China. As time went by, some of these growing centers of convergence merged in turn.

Let us trace the development of what was perhaps the largest and most important tributary of this huge human river: the one that began in Mesopotamia. Seven major phases can be distinguished.

The first is the Mesopotamian phase, which connected a great swathe of Middle Eastern peoples, from the mountains of present-day Iran and Turkey to the forests of Lebanon. Trade links formed with the ancient Indian civilizations, with Egypt, and with the farmers and herders of Europe and the Mediterranean. Through Egypt came influences and traders from Nubia and the east coast of Africa. The story of Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia is but one episode in the great cultural and genetic mixing that was going on throughout the fertile crescent.

The second phase can be called the Greek phase. Through the Phoenicians and the Hittites, the Greeks absorbed masses of cultural material from Mesopotamia and further east. Egypt and especially Crete contributed their own influences. The invasion of Dorians from the north brought new currents into this human river of ideas and genes. And then the explosion of the Greek colonial empire began to unite the cultures of the whole Mediterranean and the Black Sea, connecting Etruscans, Persians, Indians, and many other peoples from Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The Roman empire, like the Greek, is often thought of as “western” and homogeneous, but in many ways it was a thoroughly mongrel culture. Its main currents were Italic, Greek, Celtic, Jewish, and Egyptian, but again dozens of other peoples, from Picts and Germans in the north and Dacians and Parthians in the east to the peoples of North Africa in the south and of the Hispanic peninsula in the west all contributed their ideas, arts, rituals, religions, and technology. The Romans traded with the Indians, the Chinese, the East Africans and the peoples of Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia.

The Muslim civilization in turn inherited much of the cultural riches of Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome, via Alexandria and Byzantium, and added to them powerful and original influences from Africa and the Orient. As it spread, it deepened the links with India and China, and added new influences from as far away as Indonesia. Its many flowerings in Arabia, in Cordoba, in North Africa, in Turkey, and in the Indus valley, integrated the old learning with new developments in logic, poetry, mathematics, medicine and metaphysics.

The next phase might be called the European. During the Dark Ages, waves of new cultural influences, and new genetic strains, poured in from Asia and northeastern Europe: Goths and Wends and Tatars, Magyar and Finnish shamanists from the Altai, Slavs and Teutons. Through Sicily and Spain and Hungary the heritage of Muslim civilization began to infuse the emerging culture of medieval Christendom. The old civilizations of Greece and Rome were rediscovered; and in due time the influences coalesced into that incandescent period of creative integration and imagination, the Renaissance. Now all those accumulated intellectual disciplines, whose roots spread out over much of Africa and Asia, were focused into that remarkable human achievement we call science, the union of mathematics with controlled observation and experiment, which marks a fresh phase in the evolutionary history of the universe. The integration of these ideas was unique; though most human groups had already contributed to it, the “butterfly effect” by which it came together could only happen in one place, where the accumulation was densest and the pressure highest.

The next phase, the Colonial period, was the time of the metastasizing of this remarkable and ancient human “disease,” the radiation of this new cultural species across the whole planet. Though the techniques of the European conquerors felt to their victims like the special strangeness of an alien culture, this was a tragic illusion; science and technology were not merely a European invention or possession, but, as I have shown, the direct creation of most of the human species, and indirectly the proper achievement of humanity as a whole. Colonial peoples such as those of India and Africa were sometimes unaware that they had contributed some of the key ideas that their colonial oppressors now used against them. Now at last the relatively isolated cultures of the Americas, of sub-Saharan Africa, and of Oceania began to pour their own contributions into the great stream of the human plenum.

At present we are rightly appalled by the atrocities of the colonizers. But it is only the fact that they took place in the full glare of historical record and advanced communication, that they were conducted with greater technological efficiency, and that they were essentially the last wave of human integration, that distinguishes them from the bloody genocides of the past; genocides that are part of the dark inheritance of every surviving nation or tribe, without exception. The great virtue of this emerging world civilization, falsely called the west, was that it was passionately interested in other cultures, and could so profoundly imagine the world of the other that the other was no longer the Other. Orientalism, despite the sneers of the likes of Edward Said, was a movement of extraordinary imaginative generosity: we see it issue forth in the exquisite Japanese visual sensibility of Mary Cassatt and Aubrey Beardsley, in the Chinese musicality of Gustav Mahler, and in Yeats’ Noh plays. The Benin bronzes transformed European sculpture. Anthropology was invented, at its best the first systematic attempt by any culture to see another culture as it sees itself. In the stories of Rudyard Kipling, that are rightly considered by Indians to be masterpieces of Indian literature, in Melville’s Typee and Omoo, in Gauguin’s painted Tahiti, in the African influences of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, in the great translations of non-European literatures, in Black Orpheus, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Maya architecture, in Frida Kahlo and The Plumed Serpent and Joseph Conrad and Joseph Needham and above all in jazz, the emerging world culture ecstatically took to itself the inner life of the Other.

The last phase might be called that of the information age. This period can be compared to the “shaking down” and integration of ideas, cultures, and racial strains that took place in Medieval Christendom, wherein the old tribes of Europe lost part of their political identity but gained the heritage of all their neighbors; a period that flowered in the Renaissance. We have much more to integrate, and there is an even stronger reactionary tendency toward tribalism and Balkanization, in fear of the terrible light and pressure of full humanity. That reaction presently goes under the banner of “diversity” and “pluralism” in America; it is not deeply different from the bloody conservatism of the Serbs and Croats, of the Azerbaijanis and Armenians, of Israeli fundamentalists and Palestinian extremists.

One paradigmatic expression of the new world integration is Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, whose cast contains members of almost every major ethnic group. But we can find it also in many contemporary phenomena: “World Music,” the international financial markets, the worldwide concern with environmental issues, telecommunications, the World Health Organization, international science, the worldwide interest in the space program, and throughout the arts. The media link the world in nanoseconds. Japan has outdone Europe and America at their own industrial game, and the “little dragons” of the Pacific rim are doing so too. Huge common market areas emerge. The last legally racist regime, South Africa, has dissolved itself. One of the special characteristics of the information age is that the artists of it are no longer predominantly European and American, exercising an imaginative sympathy for other peoples. They are of all backgrounds, and live within a world where there is no privileged center of initiative or special insight. Indian anthropologists study white American natives. Kurosawa gives us the definitive Shakespeare, YoYo Ma the definitive cello, Midori the definitive Mozart. The Latin American novel sets the fashion in fiction, west African griots set it in music. The coathors of scientific articles read like an international directory of names. When the Berlin Wall came down there was a great performance in Berlin of the Carmina Burana, with a Black American soloist, a Jewish conductor, a German orchestra, and a Chinese choir.

This story of the emergence of world culture might also have been told with some plausibility from the viewpoints of the Indian subcontinent or from that of the coasts of the South China Sea, rather than from that of the Mediterranean, as I have done here. Europe was a backwater at the very beginning and during the Dark Ages. It would be harder to tell it as if its center of intensity were anywhere else, and those three nodes were themselves closely connected for thousands of years. Today its center is everywhere on the globe, though there are still places where because of concentrations of wealth, education, population and tradition, the fire burns most brightly.

But the point is that for any self-styled local culture to set itself against the “west”–that is, against the composite world culture–is pathetically futile and self-destructive. Even if there are aspects of that local culture that the “west,” communicating and remembering humanity, has not yet absorbed, imagined, understood and internalized already, one can be sure that in a short time it will have incorporated them and reactivated them in itself. There are no real “minorities”; we are all members of the majority, or we are nothing. There is nothing to stop what is called “cultural appropriation,” even if we felt morally obliged to prevent it. Since such appropriation is indistinguishable from the fame that all peoples want, and since cultural goods, unlike material ones, are not removed from their originators when they are transferred to others, there is no good ethical reason for preventing it.

Not that the majority is homogeneous and undifferentiated. Consider the integration of peoples that happened in the Middle Ages. It gave rise to the deeply diverse national cultures of Europe; the Romance Languages were all originally dialects of Latin. Diversity, such is the genius of the human species, is inevitable. We will certainly want to revive or continue the beautiful stories and rituals and arts and metaphysics of specific cultural groups, especially those from which we can trace immediate genetic descent. But we will have no exclusive rights of possession over them, and no responsibility to keep them pure of contamination by other traditions, unless for scholarly or antiquarian or esthetic or sentimental reasons we wish to do so.

Diversity will not go away. But in the future that diversity will exist on a common basis of economic, political, and scientific understandings which can be ignored only at the cost of self-exile from the human community: understandings that include the free market, self-government, verifiable experimental protocols, and the evolutionary theory of the universe. These understandings are not especially glamorous in themselves, though the story of their emergence is an epic one: they are like an effective sewage system or clean water. But a demand for ethnic identity which dispenses with them, and which denies the brotherhood and sisterhood of our species, is hopeless and doomed.

5. A New Multicultural Myth

Let us sketch out a brief account of the process by which our ancestors evolved into human beings. In this perspective it is clear that no human group is uniquely pure and good, or uniquely oppressive and wicked.

Consider the human body and its remarkable differences from the bodies of other mammals. One of the most obvious is our nakedness; we stand hairless but for odd tufts here and there emphasizing such body parts as the head and face, and the genitals. All other land mammals of our size, and all of our relatives the primates, including all tropical primates, are covered with hair. Human beings, moreover, are pantropic in their habit; they live in all climates. Without clothing and/or shelter they would be at a massive disadvantage. Human beings, like other species, evolved through the mechanism of natural selection. If a species would be better off with hair, to maintain a constant body temperature, hair will be selected for. How and why did we lose our hair? As can be seen in the case of the peacock’s tail and the antlers of the great elk, which were the result of sexual selection rituals but which are handicaps in the struggle for survival, sexual selection can contradict the biological law of selection for adaptive fitness. The most plausible explanation for our nakedness, then, is that it is the result of sexual selection in ritual courtship, and that we developed clothing originally both for ritual body decoration and also to replace for thermal purposes the hair that we had lost. The invention of clothes, a by-product of our ritual, enabled us to survive even in cool temperate and arctic climates; as hair was no longer necessary for survival, it never came back. Thus our nakedness is a result of our early culture.

Here we see a new kind of reflexive feedback enter the already tangled, iterative and turbulent process of natural evolution. Cultural evolution, a process of change in behavior that can happen in a single generation and be passed down through imitation and learning to the next, now takes a hand in biological evolution, in the iterated cycle of sexually- or mutatively-generated variation, selection through the preferential survival of useful traits in the population, and genetic inheritance. Biological evolution takes millennia; cultural evolution takes years. Yet the culture of a species, especially in its effect on sexual and reproductive success, is a powerful determinant of which individuals survive to reproduce. The faster process of change–culture–will drive and guide the slower one–biology.

Many of the other peculiar characteristics of the human body can be explained in the same way: its upright stance, its long infancy, its developed vocal chords and otolaryngeal system, its extraordinary longevity (especially in the female), its relatively early menopause, its relative lack of specialized armaments (big teeth and claws, and so on), its opposable thumbs, its superbly refined and coordinated fine motor system, its continuous sexual readiness (most animals are in heat only for a few days in the year), its huge brain. The upright stance reveals the full beauty of human primary and secondary sexual organs to each other; bipedalism frees the arms and enables hunters and gatherers to carry meat and vegetables home, and therefore compels them to have to remember who gets which share. Thus it also helps us to have a headquarters to carry things back to, a ritually charged homeplace, and a kinship system that can serve as a set of rules for who gets which share. It enables parents to carry babies in their arms–babies who are helpless because they require a much longer infancy period than the young of other species, a long infancy demanded by the need to program children in the complexities of the tribal ritual. The upright stance also made possible the face-to-face mating position, thus encouraging that extraordinary mutual gaze which is the delight of lovers and the fundamental warrant of the equality of the sexes: an equality which was absolutely essential if the human traits of intelligence, communication and imagination were to be preferred and thus reinforced.

Our ritual songs, improved every year, demanded complex voice-production systems that could also come in useful for communication in the hunt and other cooperative enterprises. Our long old age enabled the elders, especially the post-menopausal wisewomen, to pass on the ritual lore and wisdom. Our lack of bodily armament was compensated for by the development of weapons, which could be wielded by thumbed hands liberated by our upright stance and controlled by an advanced fine motor system. Thumbed hands were required to enact the ritual actions, and smear on the ritual body-paint, and carry the ritual objects, and make the ritual clothing, and gather the seeds and roots for our tribal kin. Sexuality was extended and intensified, relative to other animals, and was adapted from its original reproductive function into the raw material of an elaborate ritual drama that pervaded all aspects of society. And the great brain mushroomed out, transforming its substructures to the new uses and demands that were being placed on it, pushing out the skull, diminishing the jaws, wiring itself more and more finely into the face, hands, and speech organs, specializing particular areas of the right and left to handle new linguistic, musical, and pictorial-representational tasks, developing a huge frontal lobe to coordinate everything else and to reflect upon itself and its body and its death, and connecting that higher-level reflective consciousness by massive nerve bundles to the limbic emotional centers–thus creating a unity of function between the intellectual and the passionate that is close to the heart of our deepest shame as well as our finest achievements, and which has thus been denied by most of our modern avant-garde philosophical systems.

From this point of view personal physical beauty takes on new importance. When we fall in love, and thus mate and have offspring, we do so often because we are captured by such qualities. We look the way we look as a species, largely because that was the way our ancestors thought intelligent, strong, loving and imaginative–ritual-ready–animals ought to look. We are the monument to our progenitors’ taste.

Many of our creation myths show an intuitive grasp of the strange process by which the cultural tail came to wag the biological dog. The story of the clothing of Adam and Eve, where (the awareness of) nakedness is the result of shame, which is in turn the result of self-knowledge, expresses one aspect of it. Again in Genesis the punishment of Eve for her acquisition of knowledge, that she must suffer in childbirth, nicely expresses the fact that one of the parameters of a big-brained viviparous species like ourselves is the capacity of the female pelvis to allow the passage of a large skull. Hence also the beauty for the male of the female’s wide hips and the motion they make when walking. The big (and to the male, attractive) breasts of the human female, and her dependency upon a protecting male during lactation, also referred to in Genesis, are likewise the sign of a nurturing power that can deal with a long infant dependency, and thus produce human beings of intelligence, wisdom, and esthetic subtlety. Babies without protecting fathers must enter adulthood earlier, and cannot be fully instructed in the tribal ritual; they thus need smaller brains, and smaller-hipped and smaller-breasted mothers to bear them.

If the human ritual as we have envisaged it was to have its original evolutionary function, it must have involved a dark, shameful, and terrible element. For if some members of the tribe enjoyed greater reproductive success, others must have enjoyed less. If some were selected as preferred mates for their intelligence, wit, loving nature, prudence, magnanimity, honesty, courage, depth, sanguine disposition, foresight, empathy, physical health, beauty, grace, and strength; others, the dullards, whiners, liars, blowhards, hoarders, spendthrifts, thieves, cheats, and weaklings, must be rejected. The most brutal throwbacks–the rapists, those who grabbed the food and did not share it, those who could not follow the subtle turns of the ritual and internalize the values that it invented and implied–would be cast out from the tribal cave, into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Defective infants would be abandoned on the mountainside; adults polluted by impiety, crime, incest, madness, disease, or their own exercise of witchcraft would be led to the borders of the village lands and expelled. Oedipus, who was exposed though not defective at birth, is among other things a symbol of our guilt at such rejection: when he does return, as all buried shames must, he pollutes the city with his unconscious incest. The Old English monster Grendel, that wanderer of the borderlands, the descendant of Cain, is another type of such outcasts, and the image of the scapegoat.

Indeed, the fragile virtues of the human race would have been impossible without this terrible and most shameful selection process. If we consider how morally imperfect we are as it is, and how the best and most recent research shows that moral traits are to a considerable extent inherited, it may be a grim satisfaction to reflect how much worse we would be if we had not selected ourselves for love and goodness. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of the Lord (whom we may take, for mythic purposes, to be the evolutionary imperative of the human species, the strange attractor drawing it into being) is necessary, paradoxically, to bring about a more loving and juster humanity. We had better be worth the price.

Our moral growth has, more recently, caused us to recoil in revulsion from those ancient selective practices; but that growth was partly their result. The process has not entirely ceased, and we had better face up to the fact. Every time a woman chooses a man to be her husband and the father of her children, for any good personal reason–for his gentleness and his wit, his confident strength and his decent humility–she is selecting against some other man less noble in character, and either helping to condemn him to the nonentity of childlessness or to be the parent, with some less morally perceptive woman, of children who are likely to inherit their parents’ disadvantages. It is horribly cruel and shameful, if we think about it, but I believe there is a strange and terrible beauty to the magnitude of the mating choice, that is at the root of the troubled exaltation we sometimes feel at a wedding.

The rituals of sacrifice, and their later and more subtle developments as tragedy or eucharist, are the human way of rendering this ancient horror into beauty. Sacrifice has a peculiar element, which we might call “commutation”: every sacrifice commemorates a previous sacrifice, in which some much more terrible act of bloody violence or costly loss was required. Abraham is allowed to sacrifice a ram instead of his son who was due to the Lord; the Greeks can burn the fat and bones and hide of the bull to the gods, and eat the flesh themselves. Instead of a whole firstborn son, only a shred of flesh from the foreskin need be given. When the process has been going for a long time, the sacrificed object can become apparently rather trivial. Cucumbers are sacrificed in some African tribal societies; Catholics and Buddhists burn candles; almost all Christians break bread. Thus every sacrifice is an act of impurity which pays for a prior act of greater impurity, but pays for it at an advantage, that is, without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy. The process of commutation also has much in common with the processes of metaphorization, symbolization, even reference or meaning itself. The Christian eucharistic sacrifice of bread not only stands in for the sacrifice of Christ (which in turn stands in for the death of the whole human race); it also means, and in sacramental theology is the death of Christ. The Greek tragic drama referred to, and was a portion of, the sacrificial rites of Dionysus–both a use and a mention, as the logicians say, or both a metaphor and a synecdoche, in the language of the rhetorician.

The invention of ritual sacrifice, or rather its elaboration and adaptation from the division of the spoils of the hunt and the disposal of the bodies of the dead, may have begun a process of increasing suppression of the proto-human eugenics I have described. The commutation process gradually took the teeth out of social selection. Instead of the normal expulsion or killing of the polluted, there was occasional human sacrifice; instead of actual human sacrifice, scapegoat animals were killed. More and more egalitarian religious ideas arose, as in the anti-elitist cults of Krishna and of the Buddha in the Hindu tradition, the Greco-Roman myths of the gods in disguise as beggars, the later cults of Mithras and of popular Egyptian deities, the social criticism of the Hebrew prophets, and the Christian warning that the last shall be first and the first last. A larger and larger proportion of the population was permitted to have offspring. Tribalism came to be despised. Arranged marriage ceased to be the norm. Aristocratic ideas of the inheritance of good blood went into decline. Meanwhile a celibate priesthood came into being in many traditions, clearly and unambiguously signaling that reproductive success was no longer the reward for ritual excellence.

We rightly condemn eugenics and applaud the increasing humaneness, the humanity, of the emerging civilized morality. The word “human” itself means the rejection of the terrible process by which we became human. And if commutation in this sense also means meaning, then meaning is in another way the same thing as sacrifice. But if we think we can safely suppress the memory of how we became human, and of the price of our new freedom, we are quite wrong. To reject such practices should not mean to repress them from our memory. If we forget them, the basis of our shame and also the basis of our beauty as the paragon of animals, we may, in some time of terrible stress, find ourselves repeating them. We are indeed at this time trying to repress them. The symptoms of that repression are manifold, and it should come as no surprise to find them concentrated in our avant garde: our contemporary hatred of technology (while we use it only the more avidly); the element of rabid superstition in our fear that we are destroying Mother Nature; our anxiety about any implication of psychobiological differentiation between the sexes; and our bad conscience about race and ethnic diversity. We have few rituals left to enable us to accept and take on the burden of our inescapable impurity.

In giving up tribal eugenics we have irrevocably declared our commitment to technology. As civilization matured, it kept the routine individual eugenics implicit in the choice of reproductive partner. In a sense we could say that the move toward civilization is a move toward an increasing democratization of reproductive choice. Instead of the tribal collectivity deciding who should not have children, we all did, individually, by discriminating against all other potential reproductive partners than the ones we chose. The selective process was thus rendered weaker, more subtle, less consistent, and much more variable. In contemporary society, where casual sexual promiscuity, medical intervention, and birth control tend to frustrate the process of genetic selection through reproductive success, we are in the process of giving up even the individual option for selecting and passing on valued information by genetic means. Nevertheless, over the last few thousand years we have been developing other means of passing on such information: oral poetry, writing, the arts, organized social institutions, and now computers and other advanced electronic technology. Furthermore, we will soon be in a position to correct by means of gene therapy the diseases, distortions, and deficits which would once have condemned a cave-dweller to exposure, exile or ritual sacrifice. Thus technology, especially biotechnology, is the opposite and alternative to racism and eugenics, which is the ancient aristocratic theory of species improvement. Technology is a further development of the evolutionary process of meaning. These systems have become the DNA of a new, inconceivably swifter and more complex form of life, a new twist in the evolutionary spiral.

The process of self-selection by which our species evolved is also, perhaps, largely responsible for our racial differences, however superficial they may be. There are examples, such as the guenon monkeys, of genera that have divided into a multitude of new species purely on the basis of sexual selection, females preferring males with a narrow range of exaggerated features, and so promoting the genetic isolation of monkeys of that racial type. Luckily, though the human species does possess an inclination to find beautiful what resembles the racial norm, it also possesses an opposite attraction toward exogamy, toward the exotic, the racially different, which is one of the fundamental reasons for the hybrid vigor of our species and its great success.

Xenophobia, the fear and hatred of strangers, is built into human nature. The underlying biological reason for xenophobia is territoriality, the seizing and keeping of enough space and resources to feed oneself and one’s kin. A young computer expert of my acquaintance recently wrote a computer game program that amusingly illustrates the principle. He was trying to design a game that would illustrate ethical principles. First he created a slowly self-renewing field of available and usable energy, graphically represented by different intensities of green. Next he created an evil entity, represented by a red dot, and a good entity, represented by a blue dot. Both good and evil dots were mobile, and moved about harvesting the green energy field. A heavily engorged dot, red or blue, would fission into two daughter dots. When an evil dot encountered a dot of either color, it was programmed to attack it, and, if it were stronger (had absorbed more green energy), it would destroy its enemy. A good dot, on the other hand, would not attack other dots; if it were attacked by an evil spot more powerful than itself, it would be destroyed, but if it were itself more powerful, it would “convert” an evil dot into a good one. As was its initial purpose, the game showed that altruism paid off in the long run; the good dots eventually triumphed even when the initial odds were heavily in favor of the evil dots, and there was no more red on the screen. But one day my friend ran the program a little longer, and noticed that quite soon after the victory of goodness, the blue dots had multiplied so swiftly that they had eaten up all the energy in the green energy field; and without food they suffered a catastrophic die-back and became extinct. He then tried starting off with only evil dots, and noticed that in their unrelenting hatred, greed, and ruthlessness they quickly spaced themselves out territorially and were able to maintain a balanced ecosystem.

The point is that ethical principles are not always what they seem. We may need elements of our xenophobia; the biological xenophobia of our immune systems is what keeps us healthy and alive. A body without xenophobia is a body with AIDS. Though indeed we should not rest within the human default option of racist or ethnocentric xenophobia, and require education and discipline to help us overcome it, we should not wish to abolish it as the default option, as that which we rise above–even if we could, which we can’t without radically rewiring the human brain. As long as we can and do rise above it, it is in itself a healthy and appropriate reflex and should not be condemned as avant-garde liberals often condemn it. The whole point of discipline is to override such reflexes; any athlete knows the process. It was only a culture that hated discipline, then, that was forced to deny and attempted to repress as evil the natural human suspicion of our odd-looking neighbors. Perhaps, then, the myth of the evil racist west may even be the product of a kind of mental laziness, a fear of self-discipline.

Indeed, territoriality and xenophobia may be the basis of our finest virtues. In Konrad Lorenz’ description of the mating ritual of the greylag goose, the lifelong bond (and unmistakable personal recognition and affection) of a “married” pair of geese is created, cemented, and partly constituted by the triumph ceremony. This ceremony or ritual dance is centered upon a ritualized and stylized attack by each loving spouse upon a third, absent and counterfactual goose, in which what seems at first to be a hostile assault upon the partner is deflected and spends its energy upon the imaginary “enemy.” A goose is normally a highly territorial animal, attacking any fellow goose of either sex that trespasses upon its preserve. Lorenz points out that species without a territorial and aggressive drive, like schooling herrings, do not recognize each other as individuals and thus are incapable of any personal or prolonged pair-bond. (Herring, then, would seem to exemplify the ideal sexual life as envisaged by those psychologists in the French existentialist tradition, like Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, who make themselves the enemies of repression.) Thus personal recognition, individuality, and love evolve as an exception to an existing default option of xenophobic hostility, and paradoxically could not exist without the default. This idea is confirmed by neurochemical evidence: the human neurotransmitter vasopressin, which is closely associated with aggression, is also deeply implicated in the drive to stay with and cherish one’s mate and protect one’s offspring. Without the resistance to strangers there could be no individuality and love. Perhaps the saving human inclination to find racial difference sexually interesting is a genetically internalized part of this process of making exceptions, which leads to personal love.

To return to our interesting computer game, perhaps it is personal love, and the art which makes the triumph ceremony so beautiful to look at, and the intelligence that is necessary to discipline the default option, which can renew the green field of energy and open up fresh fields outside the confines of the computer-space. The inoffensive, unprejudiced and gentle blue dots, left to themselves, will browse and reproduce themselves into extinction; unreconstructed red dots will survive, but their lives will be nasty, brutish, solitary, and short; what we need to be is red dots which have disciplined themselves to be blue when the occasion merits, and which are thus able to change the rules of the game and contribute to the energy-field itself.

6. The Mystical Conjunction of the Sexes and the End of Race

Though I have sketched out the shape of new myths that can serve us better, as well as reflect the facts more accurately, the question remains, what are the cultural consequences and artistic implications if we were to adopt these new myths.

We have in the past two centuries experienced just the beginnings, just a delicious foretaste, of the astonishing cultural riches that flow from the contributions of women to the literate public modern world. Those riches can be divided into three parts. Part is simply the release into a new sphere of action of the full and multifarious talents of one half of the human race. Part is the emergence into the electric brightness of written and recorded culture, of centuries of beautiful old oral traditions, like ancient recipes passed down mother to daughter, bearing the dense human accumulation of experience and value. The effect will be like that amazing moment in Greek, English and Icelandic history when the oral epics and sagas were written down, and when the ancient magical world thus injected its great shot of vitality and genetic material into the rational literate future. This emergence or renaissance will begin to happen when the newly “liberated” generation of daughters is able to listen carefully to the voices of its mothers.

Another part of this new cultural richness may be the somewhat different perspective on the world afforded by the biological differences of women and men. This last can be exaggerated; for once a human being has combined his or her inherited biological nature with a nurturing culture to produce a true self-generating individual, and so entered into the superconductive medium of human imagination, once he or she has experienced the opening of sympathy that results, nothing human is ever alien. One of the worst aspects of the old myth is the idea that one can only know what one has experienced, and that anybody who isn’t one cannot share the experience of a woman (or a black, or whatever). If this is so, then we are all cut off from each other, because everybody’s experience is different; thus, incapable of empathy, we are incapable of love for anything other than a self-created image of the other. As a result, all of life must be a relentless struggle for power; and if this in turn is the case, we human beings are not worth moral concern, and the most oppressive systems are no worse than the least. They may even be better for other species.

The miracle of the human imagination is that it can understand and experience others sometimes even better than it can understand and experience itself. I do not feel my own experience until I have imagined it; and thus I may sometimes feel another’s experience more authentically than he or she does–and that person may feel mine more authentically than I do. This leap takes the resources of the classical arts, and the hope they embody, and is one of the reasons why art is indispensable. Art, at its best, is telepathy. George Eliot surely understood the male mind as well as any male, and Leo Tolstoy the female mind as well as any female. Nevertheless, as Virginia Woolf put it, there is a shilling-sized spot on the back of each person’s head that we need the other sex to see for us because we cannot see it for ourselves. A shilling was not a large coin; this proportion seems just. (Some old-myth ideologues would make it the size of a millwheel.)

At present the great flow of women’s creativity is partially blocked by the presence of the old patriarchal myth, as well as by the remnants of male prejudice against women and a new male resentment of the injustices of the patriarchal myth itself. Rage, self-hatred, self-justification and the opportunity to blame one’s own failings and weaknesses on someone else are poor soil for creative growth. The prejudice against science horrifyingly cuts many women off from the richest source-materials of their creativity. Once the fury subsides we can look forward to a long and lovely period in which the female culture luxuriously and comprehensively transforms and is transformed by the male culture; the long-awaited marriage and wedding-night of the human species itself. And out of that marriage, what divine child, begotten of technological artistry, intuitive wisdom, and scientific insight, born into the culture of hope, might be the issue?

We must find institutions, perhaps electronic cottage industry, perhaps a new conception of the workplace which includes nurseries and schools, which begin to reintegrate human activities in such a way as to reconstitute the ancient institution of the House, the household, in such a way as not to divide the sexes and not to limit human opportunity. We must develop an ideology of nature which does not divide human beings from nature but which at the same time recognizes the human role of stewardship and leadership in the proces of natural evolution. There will be room in such a conception both for the traditionally female talent for balancing relationships and recognizing interdependencies, and for the traditionally male talent for transforming action.

We must reshape our educational system to demonstrate the unity and interconnection of all knowledge, and its essentially dynamic and active nature; so that no boy can escape it as a narrow specialist, and no girl can avoid the hard calculations of science and mathematics. We must make the structure of education conform to what we now recognize as the informational shape of the universe itself: a gigantic hierarchy of structures reflecting its own evolution from the most primitive, simple, and disconnected to the most concretely complex and interdependent; a hierarchy which at its higher levels begins to generate feedbacks between the lower and higher that tangle the hierarchy and transform it into a heterarchy–thus freedom and a new creativity are born into the world. Such a picture of the universe could incorporate both the organic virtues of the women’s culture and the logistical expertness of male modernity.

We must recover the ancient psychic technologies of beauty and morality and place them into an interactive and creative dialogue with the new technology, so that they transform each other. We must recover the performative and oral elements of the arts, and those elements of traditional moral behavior that wisely regulated our impulses. Some elements of chivalry, especially, can be detached from feudal and theological dominance systems and regenerated as a curb on male violence and desire; there is a knightliness that women properly expect of men. Likewise the disciplines which were developed during the emergence of modernism–the objectivity and fairmindedness enshrined in the idea of democracy and in the scientific method–should be allowed to fuse with traditionally female capacities of empathy, tact and subjective insight.

We must especially “revision” the institution of motherhood, and place it back into the rich web of human relations of which modernity has unintentionally stripped it. We must recover the best and noblest element of the old patriarchy, that is fatherhood; not just as a greater participation by the male in the mothering tasks, though this is an important priority, but in the role of tutor, trainer, hero, model of what it is to shoulder an adult life and adult responsibilities. Needless to say, this is a task for women also; but perhaps it suits men’s inclinations better, as nurture, empathy, and that astonishing primal cultivation of personal intelligence suit women’s. Motherhood is the highest of all arts, higher than music, poetry, painting: it creates intelligence where none existed before. The first five years, we know now, are more formative of a human being than all the rest. It is as absurd to expect half the human race to take up this grandest of all tasks as it would be to expect every human being to go through the sacrifice, terror and suffering of being an artist. Mothers should have the respect and awe we reserve to the other great shamans of the human enterprise.

We may profitably take as the model of the truly liberated human being Virginia Woolf’s notion of the partnership in the psyche between the male and the female self. Her meaning was not that we should all be androgynes, but that the inner man in a woman should be given his due and allowed his voice, though under the control of a rich and dominant femininity; and the same for the inner woman within a man. A society shaped upon such a model would be an astonishingly creative one, I believe; and it would have an unexpected bonus, that it would bring out the ridiculous and hilarious comedy of the world and of human life far better than does earnest avant-garde postmodernism. Our being in the world as hairy reproducing animals with divine capacities really is quite wonderfully absurd. Sex is one of the things that teaches us this, when it is not turned, as traditional societies sometimes turn it, into something merely dangerous and evil; or as the ideological avant garde turns it, into a serious and hygienic duty. There will be a new era of love, friendship and cooperation between the sexes on the large social scale. The present state of nearly military hostility, paranoia, and uncooperativeness between the sexes in the developed countries cannot persist, for simple demographic reasons: it cannot reproduce itself into another generation, because it damages the very process of reproduction when it prevails.

Lunatic current fashions, such as the discounting or denigration of female beauty, will dissolve; if “real power” is money, and if money is based on desire, then to be desirable is to be really powerful. Only a value system superstitiously based on old means of economic exchange, getting paid for one’s labor, could ignore or hate the legitimate and innocent potency of beauty. As it is in our current fashion, only males are permitted in good conscience to capitalize on their physical beauty, a state of affairs that is manifestly unfair and wrong. (Of course, females do still use their beauty, but they do it with an unnecessarily bad conscience.) An artwork is valuable because it is beautiful, and this is the most guiltless form of economic value we know. By the same token, it is much more just and beneficial that people should get paid for their beauty than that they should get paid for their self-enslavement to some inhuman repetitive task which could be done by a machine.

There will be a greater acceptance of the differences between men and women, an acceptance broadened by the fact that one’s sex is going to be increasingly a matter of choice. Our present crude methods of changing sex will be replaced by a full and perfect transformation, with all the reproductive biology to match. Thus if one does not like the social expectations that come along with one’s own sex, one can easily change to another. There will be a much wider variety of sexual roles. The creative and transforming cultural role of the homosexual will get increasing respect and affection, and will diversify itself into further beautiful elaborations. The grand stabilizing and fathering role of the patriarch will return, together with the tragic dignity that his presence gives to all human beings around him. The young male hero will be celebrated, not as in the last two hundred years as the paradigm of human achievement, but as the agonist of arete, the limited but splendid adventurer that he is. The new young heroine will join him, receiving for the first time in history her proper recognition as the adventurer of the mind and the transformer of all frames of reference, the questioner of all easy certainties and comfortable illusions. And the matriarch will return, the madonna, who is the central moral pattern and most perfect image of what it is to be human, the great giver, the wise Sophia, the Shekinah, the Kuanyin, the Uranian goddess.

There must be an era of forgiveness and apology and reconciliation between the sexes, when we recognize the injuries we have done each other and fall in love again with the humanity we share and the amazing differences between us. There is a lovely motif in Mozart which has been called the forgiveness theme. It’s in Cosi Fan Tutti, The Marriage of Figaro, and triumphantly in The Magic Flute: let it be the melody by which the time is remembered. Imagine what it would be like to live in a culture with no systematic resentment between the sexes.

Though we will be able to choose our sexual roles, we will never achieve a total detachment of gender from sex, a total polymorphousness of human sexuality. We will always be weighted by what we are and what we have been; a woman who has been a man is not the same as a woman who has never been anything else. Freedom is in part the ability, so to speak, to change speed and direction; but it is also the possession of such personal mass as to make those changes significant. The dream of total escape from identity and history is really, if the dreamers knew it, a desire for complete triviality. If the transsexual’s imagination is poorer than that of the woman who has never been a man, she may not be able to experience as clearly, accurately and vividly in real life what her sister is able to experience vicariously. She might not be as good an advocate for her cause as her wiser sister. But what we are is not the same as what we can imagine. And there are some things, inextricably involved with our sexual nature and our gender, that irrevocably make us what we are: motherhood and fatherhood, and all the bonds and obligations of kinship. If we were ever to abolish these, we might be freer in a sense, but we would not matter. A human race without the madonna and child, without the the special painful love of father and daughter, and all the other elements of our biological identity, may not be worth its ecological expense.

There are always going to be the pangs of sexual love, requited or unrequited. We will never abolish sexual jealousy, without abolishing the amazing experience of sexual intimacy whose loss constitutes the experience of jealousy. Men and women will always fight, because their reproductive interests are different by the very nature of things. In itself the fighting is part of the creative friction of our extraordinary species, like the creative friction between the rebellious adolescent and the conserving adult. At present the sexual conflict is aided and abetted by powerful social movements and interests, but it will continue, though in a much less destructive and acrimonious form, without them. When the conflict is framed in terms of power, it tends to be sterile; when it is framed in terms of love, it is fertile.

The marvellous thing about the sexes is that they seem to have been designed by evolution as a feedback dyad, a sort of algorithm of mutual transformation whose chaotic self-organizing products themselves take an active and free part in the shaping of history. The biological result of sexual union–the conception of a unique new human being whose view of the universe adds to it an unprecedented dimension–is a beautiful natural metaphor of the psychological and spiritual aspects of the relation between the sexes. It is a risky procedure always, this recombinant DNA of the spirit, dangerous, mysterious, and terrifyingly open to an incalculable future. It is one of the chief ways in which the universe generates a new moment every moment, this catastrophe at the edge of the past, at the vertiginous edge of all ecology and system. If we follow the counsels of the old myth of the oppressive patriarchy we might, by an utter disengagement of the loving conflict, achieve a kind of stasis; but that stasis is death. The life of the universe is largely entrusted now to the adventure of sexual love; let us follow where it leads.

The present hatred and mistrust between the sexes is deeply related to the mistrust and hatred between races and ethnic groups. How are we to deal with the old human reflex of xenophobia, of that prejudice that is built in to our perceptual and cognitive systems as its indispensable default option? How can we avoid making differences where none exist? By now all the races are pretty thoroughly mixed genetically. There is not a single African-American in America who is not also a descendant of the enslavers. Nor is there a single White in America who does not have some trace of Black genes (if only through Zanzibarian traders or Spanish Moors or the children of Eighteenth-Century black prostitutes in London and Paris and Naples and Amsterdam). Thus there is nobody who could not claim to be both the victim and the perpetrator of ancestral oppression. But there is still enough statistical isolation between populations so that the superficial markers, of color and facial features, are recognizable as belonging to certain groups.

These final reflections on the matter of race point to one simple, practicable, and as things now stand, virtually inevitable answer to the problem of racism. If we really want to get rid of racism, let us intermarry. Let miscegenation thrive. To the extent that the races are genetically isolated at all, the offspring will possess hybrid vigor; and they will have such mixed ethnic loyalties that they will not be able to keep a straight face among ethnic ideologues on either side of their family. The comfortable lie is that interracial children are troubled and unhappy; actual study and experience shows just the opposite, that they tend to be well adjusted, cheerful, and unusually creative. That lie is usually the sign of a concealed racism, as prevalent among the oppressed as among the oppressors, that secretly desires the cultural barriers that racism supports, and the guilt and despair that flow from them, a lie most often found among those publicly most self righteous in condemning racism.

A few generations of interracial marriage–and the process has already begun–will produce such an extraordinary range of skin color and facial type that the human type-generalization system will simply be overwhelmed. The variety of racial subtypes will approach numerically the variety of individual and family differences. Racial difference will get absorbed into the much more powerful human individual face-recognition system. We will still be able to hate our neighbors, as the racially identical Croats and Serbs do each other; but if we do not choose to assert some divisive “cultural identity” (which is either an illusion or the product of poor education) we will no longer be unwillingly labeled by our skin or hair. The reason why the culturally different Germans and Swedes and Italians and Irish were able to integrate into American society, when African-Americans met much higher obstacles, was because they could not be racially distinguished from their oppressors. Unless they chose to reveal their background, they were subject neither to prejudice by the established population nor to even more insidious calls for loyalty to the oppressed group. Let us interbreed, then, and be done with the whole wearisome business of race and “diversity.”

Although at present it does not seem very likely, we can still hope for a time of greater tolerance and love between ethnic groups. In the medium-long run, we are all going to be so mixed ethnically that systematic racism will simply be too exhausting and confusing to maintain. The mechanism of prejudice and stereotyping is an absolutely natural and indispensable tool of thought, being essentially no more than snap generalization from ad hoc evidence and second-hand authority. The double meaning of the word “discrimination,” as the practice of race prejudice and the essential function of our senses and taste, is no coincidence. Racial mixing will tend to make that usually useful tool unavailable as a lazy default option in cases where a careful judgment of a human being on his or her merits is demanded by efficient practice. Prejudice survives because, to some extent, it works, if only in a self-confirming fashion. There is no way for a prejudiced person to know whether his or her prejudice is objectively justified or not, and so the prejudice is maintained, to be on the safe side. But if, as in a profoundly mixed-race society, there are simply too many categories into which a given case might fit, the brain will go to the next easiest method of judgement, which is the inspection of the actual details of the case; and so be forced to judge a person, as Martin Luther King put it, not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.

Once racial mixing is so complete that racism is impractical, we may even choose to reinvent racial differences as a form of entertainment, art, fetishism, or self-expression. By biotechnological means we might be able to make ourselves look like the ancient Maya aristocracy with their strangely flattened skulls, or like the flowerlike footbound maidens of old Chinese tradition, or turn ourselves into pigmies or Masai giants or Nordic supermen. If there are no social roles, then there are no social roles to play when we want to play roles. Who knows the limits of human perversity? Consider the magnificent and pathetic transsexuals of Paris is Burning. The world would be poorer without them. Nor should we forget that yet another of our perversions is the delicious rage of censoriousness that we sometimes let ourselves feel about such practices; and why should we not feel that rage, as long as we do not or cannot act on it? In a strange poetic way extreme racial differences in facial features and bodily conformation sometimes express the terror and strangeness of the divine in people, as a caricature can sometimes show, nightmarishly, the essence of personality. The gods always seem to possess an exaggerated form of the racial characteristics of their worshippers. Perhaps we even breed toward those beautiful and terrible ideal masks, by choosing mates that look like the images in the temples. But these bizarre possibilities are for another age than ours, one which, under the sign of hope, will have the luxury of freedom from political tendentiousness and ignorant bigotry.

More distantly still, if we settle in other star systems, rendered remote from one another by the time-dilation of relativistic space-travel, the human race may become isolated once again into racial groups adapted to diverse environments, and may have to rediscover the arts of ethnic tolerance that we are presently struggling to invent today. Then the irony will be the strange, humiliating wisdom of that ancient time, that will make our descendants feel how superficial are all their intellectual and moral and technological advances . . .

In the meantime, however (as I write Los Angeles cleans up from three days of race riots), we must search for ways to mitigate our given human ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Robin Fox’s solution is characteristically wise, trenchant, and disillusioned: not to try to eliminate prejudice and stereotyping, but to replace bad stereotypes with good ones. This, however, is a cultural, not a political task; even a hint of political motivation in the cultural transformation that is required will arouse the paranoia that always accompanies the anxiety of ethnic difference, and the not always unjustified suspicion that the cultural educator is indulging his or her own prejudices. The work of cultural persuasion must be noble, generous, self-effacing, and devoid of criticism of those it seeks to convert; its motivation must be to show them a richer way of living in their own terms. We will reach this more difficult, but more just and humane, way of dealing with people the more swiftly if we treat racism not as a moral, but as a cognitive failure, and cease to use it to justify our own prejudices against, and superiority to, the uneducated, the bluecollar worker, the Southerner, or whatever. If racists are presented in the media as boors and trash, instead of what they most often are, which is decent traditional people with narrow horizons, they will not recognize themselves in their portraits and will rightly doubt the honesty of the painter and the veracity of the message. Contemptuous hatred is the least constructive reaction to a bigot; it simply reproduces the bigotry in another form.

One vigorous strain in the art of the future will be the experience of the half-breed, the mestizo, the immigrant, the child of mixed ethnic background, the anthropologist with a foot in two cultures. The complexity of cultural background that such people possess constitutes a rich palette and vocabulary of artistic expression, as we can already see in the work of artists like Amy Tan, Paul Simon, Yoyo Ma, Ismail Merchant, V. S. Naipaul, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and David Byrne. In our present era of ethnic sensitivity our principle is that only someone born and bred into a given culture can truly understand and speak for it. What the new art will demonstrate is a wiser principle, that only someone who comes from the outside can learn to love a culture deeply enough to see its soul. Who understood America better than de Tocqueville, or England better than Henry James, or Japan better than Yeats, or Europe better than Borges? The paradox and tragedy of the diaspora Jews was always that they were able to express the genius of the nations among which they dwelt better than the natives themselves; and as international travel for the purpose of business, tourism, academic study, and sport becomes the norm in people’s lives rather than the exception, we are all going to approach the condition of wandering Jews. This is fertile ground for art, and if we understand it with sufficient fortitude, a great cause for hope.