Flameproof racism

On the Evolutionary Psychology mailing list, dangerous ideas thrive -- without the usual online rancor and hatred.

Published August 30, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

Are blacks programmed by their genes to be promiscuous? Can we read any morality off our genes at all? Is religion pernicious nonsense? The field of evolutionary psychology attempts to illuminate such inquiries into human nature with the insights of modern Darwinism. It raises questions that have a prickly, intense and scary quality. To get inside them is like putting on a hair shirt with explosives strapped to it. Even in sober academic journals, the discussion can rapidly become a screaming match. On the Internet, home of the flame, any attempt at a reasonable discussion seems completely futile.

Even respectable academic online mailing lists often melt down into reciprocal accusations of Nazism and censorship, as did the mailing list of the Human Biology and Evolution Society, the trade body for evolutionary psychologists, five years ago.

And if the Nazis don't get you, the nutters will. I once watched a list on Darwinism disintegrate into a series of arguments about Karl Popper's philosophy of science, a subject that can make otherwise civilized people argue like fundamentalists who think they have identified the antichrist.

Given the volatility of online debate, the existence, then, of the Evolutionary Psychology mailing list seems like a miracle. All these unspeakable things and more are debated there, yet it is actually possible to learn new things -- and the arguments, however ruthless, are always polite. The list has nearly 2,000 subscribers, among them some of the most distinguished names in the field. Richard Dawkins was on for a while; Dan Dennett lurks there; and so does anthropologist Dan Sperber.

Active participants include Nick Humphrey, one of the originators of the "Machiavellian" theory of human intelligence -- namely, that consciousness is basically a trick to let us manipulate other conscious beings by imagining how the world looks from their point of view -- and Paul Gross, one of the authors of "Higher Superstition." But there are also well-known racist scientists such as J. Philippe Rushton, of the University of Western Ontario, and Glayde Whitney, who wrote a preface to one of David Duke's books. And on the other wing there are old New Lefties like philosopher Val Dusek, who witnessed firsthand the incident in which protesters poured water on E.O. Wilson during a debate between Wilson and his fellow evolutionary theoretician, Stephen Jay Gould.

Of course, actual dousing is quite out of date now. With modern technology you can pour vitriol on people instead. The Internet is the natural home of denunciations so furious that they could never be printed in magazines. Yet, somehow, on the Evolutionary Psychology list everyone is civil and everyone keeps reading -- a testament to the nimble moderation imposed by one man, Ian Pitchford, founder and editor of the list. In the unlikeliest of locations he has created one of the few places online that are truly inimical to pompous blowhards.

Pitchford has achieved this by being much more than your ordinary moderator. In effect, he has stopped simply being the maintainer of a mailing list and has become the editor of a new kind of magazine. The Evolutionary Psychology list combines the quick, cheap distribution of the Internet with all the advantages that real magazines traditionally have over mailing lists: a really diverse readership and an editor who sits right next to a large wastepaper basket.

The central idea of sociobiology is that human beings are, like other animals, designed by natural selection to respond appropriately to the environment they evolved in. Not just our bodies but our minds, and the ways we see the world, have been shaped in ways that helped our ancestors leave grandchildren, often by outsmarting their contemporaries.

Evolutionary psychology added to this the idea that human minds are "modular": that they are not general-purpose problem-solving machines but more or less lashed-up networks of different, genetically programmed machines that solve particular kinds of problems, like spotting whether someone is cheating, or whether a potential sexual partner is going to be helpful, healthy and fertile. The first half of this belief would be accepted, I think, by everyone on the list. The second half -- a belief that the human brain is made of inherited modules -- is much more controversial, especially among psychologists.

Indeed, about the only thing the list's participants agree on is that Darwinism can contribute to the understanding of almost everything. But how much, and in which directions, remain topics of constant dispute. Which is, precisely, the most exciting thing about evolutionary psychology -- the way in which genuine experts differ to drastic extremes.

Even after 20 years of increasing ferment and fashionability, there is a constant rush of people into the discipline, making for themselves the three canonical discoveries of the field: It's terribly important; it's easy and lots of fun to do badly; and finally, it's very hard indeed to do well. How quickly it takes them to pass through all the stages varies from months to years, but Pitchford's list is a great way to speed up the process.

Magazine or mailing list or Web log -- success starts with a good editor. Pitchford is a 41-year-old doctoral student from Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, who was a businessman in the building trade until three of his companies were wiped out in the recession of the early '90s. He decided to return to full-time education, took a degree in combined sciences at the Open University and is now finishing a Ph.D. in psychiatry.

He posts nearly half the messages on the list, and approves all the others. But his own opinions are perhaps the best hidden of any of the participants; his own posts are almost always pointers and references to developments that might be relevant to evolutionary psychology. They cover a vast range of subjects, from scholarly papers to newspaper cuttings he finds interesting, such as a report on the world's first freelance professional mathematician.

There is hardly any subject that couldn't be relevant to modern Darwinism; yet no one in the world seems to have time to collect all these stories except Pitchford. In recent months he has sent pointers to studies of neuroscience, psychiatry, archaeology, molecular biology and philosophy. Among the topics covered are subjects that would spark raging conflagrations anywhere else on the Net -- for example, this year has seen a fair amount of coverage of the creationist movement in Kansas. Though discussions of the truth of evolution are banned, arguments about the motives of creationists and the best tactics for dealing with them are frequent.

A quick unscientific survey of list members indicates that the diversity of topics -- and readers -- may be one of the civilizing influences on the list. Even the smartest and most self-confident list members know that there is much they don't understand and that there will be someone more expert than they are reading about most subjects. As well as the obvious, and numerous, biologists, the list includes mathematicians, psychologists, physicians, psychiatrists, computer scientists, anthropologists, philosophers and at least one professor of religious studies among the regular posters.

Most online discussions are destroyed by aggressive, highly educated loudmouths. Shutting people up when they play that part has made room on the Evolutionary Psychology list for subtler strategies: The only way to cultivate a reputation for true wisdom there is to keep silent except where you really are an expert.

And all this came out of a spam. When Pitchford set up the list in 1998, he sent an announcement to at least 20,000 people: all the academic addresses he could find at which people might be interested. The first thing he had to do was fight off a blizzard of racist spam himself: "There was a man who called himself Gobineau, who sent me 70 messages over two days, all arguing that blacks are inferior because they have smaller frontal lobes than whites."

If there had been only one message, he says, he might have published it. He does let through messages such as Rushton's latest, which reports on a paper he has had published in a British psychological journal, which claims from a survey of American Army data that blacks have on average a cubic inch less of brain than whites, who in turn have smaller brains than Asians. "Substantial evidence has shown that brain volume bears a strong relation to cognitive ability," wrote Rushton. But immediately, another member of the list proposed the alternate explanation that the heads of Europeans and Asians grew less elongated and more spherical as a way to conserve heat in colder climates. That they grew roomier at the same time was a side effect. Of course, the real point at issue is whether big brains are, on average, better brains; and arguments about that seem interminable.

Pitchford's relationship to this kind of argument is interesting. He bounces a certain number of messages from the believers in significant racial differences. When I asked the list why it was so civilized, Whitney wrote to me: "The list 'actually works' by having a moderator who screens out most 'controversial' or 'politically incorrect' contributions, thus maintaining a non-flamed milk toast liberal lefty happy set of campers."

But Pitchford also provides nearly the only place online or off where the odder racial stuff can be judged on scientific grounds, without being engulfed in indignation. "I'm biased to the left and that's the truth of the matter," he says. But he adds, the Rushton type of thing has an awful fascination for him. He can't understand why anyone should believe it. So he lets people state their positions, without allowing long and vicious arguments to build up.

So far these explanations for the list's success are merely negative. They don't really explain what keeps busy and knowledgeable people subscribed: Even if you can be guaranteed that your time will not be wasted there, the online world is full of things that, while not exactly wastes of time, can somehow eat up every productive hour of your life.

Frederic Weizmann, a psychologist interested in I.Q. and heredity, wrote, in words that could describe virtually any good mailing list: "I am continually tempted to leave the list. In fact I would like to, for two reasons. The first is coping with the sheer number of messages, especially when you miss a couple of days. I have to struggle to keep the number of messages from going too much above 700. The second reason I would like to be able to leave is the chronic temptation to get involved with the discussions. I am getting better at avoiding putting my two cents in except when I think I really need to say things, but it can be very tempting sometimes.

Then comes the kicker: "The reason I don't leave is that I learn stuff," wrote Weizmann.

Gather up enough smart, knowledgeable people who feel the same way, and you've got a winner.

As an example Weizmann cited a recent argument over whether morality really can be derived from Darwinism, as E.O. Wilson seems to suggest, and as Larry Arnhart, a political scientist at the University of Northern Illinois, has argued on the list. It's a commonplace of most discussions about evolutionary psychology and Darwinism generally that you cannot derive moral imperatives from the strategies that are successful in nature. Science can tell us what will work, but only morality can tell us whether we should do it.

Arnhart argues that this can't be true in a completely natural world, where supernatural explanations are rejected. For where do our ideas of morality come from, if not from our evolved natures? He would argue that right and wrong are not transcendental categories but to some extent species specific. Humans can only follow human goals. Dogs can only pursue doggy goods, and so on. So to decide what humans should regard as good, we should look at what fulfills our evolved needs.

"Just as the color vocabularies of human languages show a regularity that reflects the human visual system of the brain for distinguishing colors," Arnhart declared in a post to the list, "so will the moral vocabularies show the regularity in the human emotional system of the brain. But this means that there is no cosmic or transcendent standard of right or wrong independent of human nature. By contrast, Kant assumed that all 'rational beings' would have the same ethical principles, because such principles would be a priori imperatives of reason independent of natural desires. Proponents of evolutionary psychology who insist on a sharp dichotomy between the moral 'ought' and the natural 'is' are following the tradition of Kant and rejecting the tradition of Darwin. I think they are mistaken."

This is the sort of discussion -- superficially profound -- that would dissipate into vapidity and name-calling in seconds anywhere else on the Net. It takes a very delicate touch to keep it moving so that all the participants feel they might learn something rather than simply show off. It really is a new thing on the Net: With its tightly edited letters, news-bearing function and strong editorial personality, the Evolutionary Psychology list is not really like a mailing list at all. I think that Ian Pitchford may have reinvented the magazine.

By Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist in Britain. His book "The Darwin Wars" is published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster.

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