[ExI] Impressive book: Farewell to Alms

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Wed Feb 6 07:03:01 UTC 2008

BillK writes

> It is a waste of time to nitpick every word in a one-page book review.
> No review can possibly be as detailed in argument as a 440 page book.
> All a reviewer can hope to do is point at a few weaknesses and express
> an opinion. Which version you prefer usually depends on which version
> confirms your prejudices.

Sadly, what you say is true. However, I was not nit-picking so much
as taking the opportunity to condemn bad attitudes in general. We
have to hold ourselves, and those we read, to high standards that
rise above name-calling, argument from authority, and the like.
I assume that such unfortunate tendencies are pretty uniformly
distributed across the political spectrum, and so I am obligated
to be just as harsh even on papers whose main argument I agree
with. So should we all be.

> As we already know, everything human has a genetic component. So
> nothing new there. However humans also have large cultural and
> institutional components. The weight given to each of the forces
> combining to make a human decision will vary with every individual.
> That's the problem.

Right. But it's also true that for most of the 20th century (and even
now) an astonishingly large part of the populace simply will not
accept your first sentence above.  In fact, one of the reviewers
baldly stated that genetic explanations are not to be entertained
so long as non-genetic explanations can be put forward.  Good

> A Google search indicates that Libertarians are coming out in
> support of this book as providing support for  their claim that
> 'the poor deserve to be poor'.

I'm not surprised, except that I don't quite follow the logic.
Isn't it some sort of violation of the is/ought boundary? 
In fact, we commonly argue that once the source of a
condition is found to be genetic, then the subject is actually
to be "blamed" less!

(But either way, it's hard to fit "blame" into this debate because
whether someone is poor because of his environment or poor
because he got genes that helped make him that way, it seems
to let him off the hook. Actually, *all* explanations have the
effect of diminishing moral responsibility.)

> And right-wingers want to use the book to justify
> cutting off all international aid because it is a lost cause.
> See - people clutch at anything that might be additional
> support for their previously decided upon beliefs.

Oh, quite right!  So they (and we) do.  And it's not at all
unscientific, because one has a genuine and desireable wish
to be able to understand the world, and if you already have
a vision that you embrace with some probability, then any
fact or theory that goes against it has to be unwelcome.
What is important is how we *publicly* respond to such.
We can---like most of the people on this list---keep our
disappointment to ourselves and at least *try* to incorporate
the new views, or we can---like at least one of those 
reviewers---use scare words, guilt by association, and
arguments from authority to denigrate the disagreeable

> I've just noticed that the New Scientist is claiming that whether you
> vote Republican or Democrat is down to genetic influences and it is a
> waste of time to try and change opinions.

It's extremely interesting that many people come from home
and school environments that do *not* lastingly influence
their political opinions. Indeed, it is as though their nature
sooner or later exerts its command despite the early
indoctrination from their family or from schools.

> So obviously it is my genetic inheritance that is making me
> think this book is making a false claim.  :)

Yes  :-)  and vice-versa here, of course. But still, over the 
course of months or years, I believe that the influence of the
"unwelcomed theories" or "unwelcomed information" can
make itself felt, and those of us---most of us, here---who
really want to know the truth eventually incorporate some
of the initially unwelcome ideas or data.


More information about the extropy-chat mailing list