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Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Exercise in Fuzzy Thinking

A friend, Dr. Robert Kay, recently passed out a flier at a meeting of my atheist Meetup group, headed, "Jane -- Recant!" You can see an image of it here. I found it pretty disappointing, especially considering it's issued in the name of "The Committee for Clear Thinking."

Addressed to Dr. Jane Goodall, it says she "appear[s] to have made a major error when you assumed that there exists, in both primate and human, some sort of id/evil/aggressive side or instinct which needs to be controlled.... instead of considering the possibility that all successful animals are FUNDAMENTALLY/INNATELY/BORN-TO-BECOME/INEVITABLY social and cooperative."

There seem to be a lot of weasel words here. Clearly, if all people were inevitably cooperative, all people would be cooperative; that's what inevitably means. The catch is the presence of that word "successful," which isn't defined. By inserting that, the authors have covertly rendered the statement untestable, and therefore meaningless.

In fact, by any ordinary criterion, lots of highly "successful" humans have gotten that way by being anything but cooperative, except maybe within a narrow circle of their own class. The wealthy maintain their great material comfort (and with it, enormous opportunities for reproductive success) on the basis of coercive control over others' access to productive resources and, thereby, over the fruits of their labor. In many cases this wealth can be traced back to flagrant forms of aggressive violence such as enclosures and slave-making.

The committee suggests that Goodall made "invidious generalizations" based on chimpanzee reactions to human interference with their societies. But they give no concrete examples of these alleged generalizations -- not even a single direct quotation. In fact, the flier acknowledges that, "fortunately," people can "become angry." Yet, if we had no aggressive "side" or "instinct," how would this be possible? It wouldn't be. This instinct is available because we sometimes need it.

Now we get to the real point of the flier, which is the committee's support for "invitational learning" in place of "Prussian-derived and factory-oriented school." They clearly believe that this is a "manifestation" of our "mistrust" of human nature. Yet they've glossed over the real reason after stating it themselves. The present system is factory-oriented because it's designed to serve the owners of factories -- the capitalist class. By treating workers' children as identical, interchangeable cogs in a machine, it prepares them to be treated exactly the same way as adult workers.

This has to do not with a belief about human nature, but the actual nature of capitalist social relations, which are authoritarian because workers' interests are different from those of capitalists. Capitalists fear workers' potential for collective aggression against their control of the workplace and of the state, yet can benefit from channeling that same aggressiveness against rival capitalists and their workers. So they support an educational system that discourages (horizontal) cooperation, while promoting aggression only along "authorized" lines.

This is key to understanding the real significance of the statement attributed in the flier to Hermann Goering, that "it's impossible to get the Germans to fight unless you first fill them full of lies." German soldiers, overwhelmingly children of the working class, were being asked to fight not truly on their own behalf, but on that of the German capitalists and their Nazi enforcers. Lies were needed, then, not to get them to fight, but to get them to fight against their own interests. False enemies were invented, like "Jewish conspirators," to turn their aggressive energies toward other workers rather than their own exploiters.

The problem, then, is that our society is controlled by people who are undersocialized -- people who've been conditioned to feel entitled to live off of others' labor, and to use force (both privately and through the agency of the state) to maintain their position. They've been conditioned this way because the present social system rewards them for assuming this entitlement; they receive positive reinforcement for the behavior. And they seek to control the children of the majority, not because they falsely imagine them to have an aggressive side, but because they know all too well that that side is real -- it's gotten them where they are -- and are afraid of its being turned against them.

There's not much left in the flier on which to comment. The committee say, "We are disappointed that you've failed to reply and speak to our concerns, and therefore do not know where you stand today on this issue," and follow this with a recommendation that readers look into the works of a number of authors. Indeed, it appears that they initially meant to suggest that Goodall read these works, but thought better of it. This was certainly a wise revision, since it seems pretty likely that she would have already acquainted herself with such material. Given the conceptual confusion permeating the flier, I think it's safe to assume the reason Goodall hasn't responded, at least directly or personally, is that she's seen nothing to respond to.

Eric Hamell

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