Once More against Pinker: Science and Colonialism August 29, 2014Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Anti-imperialism, Decolonization, Epistemology, Evo psych, Transhumanism.
Tags: colonialism, Steven Pinker, transhumanism
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A Facebook argument with James Hughes has prompted me to return to the task of refuting Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. If not for Pinker’s popularity – particularly among futurists – I wouldn’t bother, as the absurdity. self-indulgence, and sloppiness of Pinker’s arguments strike me as overwhelmingly obvious. As Louis Proyect writes, Pinker’s views amount to Thomas Hobbes plus Pangloss. But since the Hughes’s “Problems of Transhumanism” series remains one of my favorite things to come out of the whole scene, I figure I might as well reflect on why such a seemingly clear thinker would positively cite Pinker. I suspect it’s based on either unfamiliarity or – more likely – the sheer appeal of statism sanctioned by scientific authority. The amount of support Pinker and eir ilk receive from futurist and rationalists indicates the potency of colonial discourse and its imbrication with scientific discourse.
As ably described by Stephen Corry, Pinker’s narrative of ever-declining violence retreads a old colonialist path and relies on dubious if not downright fallacious numbers. R. Brian Ferguson examines Pinker’s invocation of archaeology and finds it wildly inaccurate. The archaeological evidence in fact suggests no warfare and little interpersonal violence for thousands of years in some regions. Surveys of skeletons in certain regions and periods indicate a violent-death rate of 0-1%. “When considered against the total record,” Ferguson writes, “the idea that 15 percent of prehistoric populations died in war is not just false, it is absurd.” I’m skeptical of any firm claims about prehistoric violence rates, but by my reading of the data Douglas Fry’s “n-shaped curve” constitutes the best generalization. I think it’s more useful to look at violence specifically and historically.
At best, prehistoric skeletons that show trauma only indicate the likelihood of death by interpersonal violence. Even an arrowhead in a spine doesn’t unambiguously demonstrate an intention killing; the same might well have been a hunting accident. Conversely, some or many of those who left the skeletons with no signs of trauma may have perished via human attacks that did not damage bone. The evidence doesn’t allow for much beyond thoughtful guesses; it certainly doesn’t provide the statistics Pinker asserts.
On the whole, Pinker spins a dreadfully familiar tale based on European colonial tropes of savagery and Western progress. Ey’s characterization of nonstate tribal peoples as dramatically more violent than European-based state societies that continue to practice settler colonialism and genocide actively enables the latter processes. The supposed violence of the colonized serves as an alibi for colonial horrors, the idea that colonialism was and is necessary to tame the fierce savage. Pinker likewise notably downplays recent violence from the United States military in Asia and the Middle East. It’s all for the greater good, of course! A war to end all wars and all that.
Pinker’s celebratory progress narrative has to date proved irresistible to multitudes in the futurist scene. We all like to imagine mighty force of science on our side. Various anarchists and communists have staked the same claim. It’s a valuable rhetorical bludgeon, but I’m dubious that science can ever offer solid answers to political questions. As we see with Pinker, those who trumpet science often fail to fulfill its ideals at even a basic level. Nor can science necessarily ever escape its association with European colonialism.
The notion of transhumanism guided by luminaries like Pinker and their civilizing mission makes my blood run cold.
Anissimov and Company Declare Themselves Reactionary December 1, 2013Posted by Summerspeaker in Despair, Evo psych, Technology, The Singularity, Transhumanism.
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See Klint Finley’s take on this new movement:
So what exactly is the Cathedral stopping neoreactionaries from talking about? Well, the merits of monarchy for starters. But mostly, as far as I can tell, they want to be able to say stuff like “Asians, Jews and whites are smarter than blacks and Hispanics because genetics” without being called racist. Or at least be able to express such views without the negative consequences of being labeled racist.
Speaking of which, neoreactionaries are obsessed with a concept called “human biodiversity” (HBD) – what used to be called “scientific racism.” Specifically, they believe that IQ is one of – if not the – most important personal traits, and that it’s predominately genetic. Neoreactionaries would replace, or supplement, the “divine right” of kings and the aristocracy with the “genetic right” of elites.
To call these claims “controversial” would be putting it lightly, but they underpin much of anti-egalitarian and pro-traditionalist claims neoreactionaries make. Delving into the scientific debate over race, genetics and IQ is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ve included some links on the topic in the reading list.
It’s not hard to see why this ideology would catch-on with white male geeks. It tells them that they are the natural rulers of the world, but that they are simultaneously being oppressed by a secret religious order. And the more media attention is paid to workplace inequality, gentrification and the wealth gap, the more their bias is confirmed. And the more the neoreactionaries and techbros act out, the more the media heat they bring.
I don’t have time to address this in any detail, but it’s worth being aware of. These folks literally want closed hierarchical societies in the mold of nineteenth-century Europe but with super tech. It almost seems like self-parody or trolling.
P.S. Check out Michael Anissimov’s Twitter feed if you really want to be horrified.
P.P.S. Also see Rick Searle’s take.
“The Specter of Eugenics” Up at IEET June 5, 2013Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Anti-imperialism, Decolonization, Epistemology, Evo psych, Transhumanism.
Tags: artificial intelligence, biological determinism, eugenics, IQ, Jason Richwine, transhumanism, white supremacy
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The recent controversy surrounding Jason Richwine’s Havard dissertation “IQ and Immigration Policy” serves as an opportune point of departure for reflecting on biological determinism in transhumanist thought. Are transhumanists, as Michael Anissimov says, eugenicists without the coercion? What does channeling eugenics in a white-supremacist society mean and do? Why the obsession with IQ among various transhumanists, particularly AI enthusiasts? I argue that the scientific racism of Richwine and company, with all its elaborate statistical wizardry, functions first and foremost as rationalization of inequality and privilege. I call on transhumanists to reject to biological determinism and struggle for social justice in social terms.
Read it here.
Neither Angels Nor Demons: Don’t Believe Pinker June 20, 2012Posted by Summerspeaker in Evo psych.
In relation to the argument about progress going on over at IEET, I decided to post yet another critique of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. This time I emphasis the uncertainty of historical casualty figures and knowledge about past in general. Skepticism and epistemology intrigue me on their own, but my political disagreements with Pinker animate this debate. Pinker exemplifies the academic elite, espouses Hobbesian statism, and exalts self-repression. We could hardly differ more. By my assessment, Pinker wields fuzzy math and bizarre associations in order to promote the nightmarish aspects of the Enlightenment project as objectively correct.
As discussed previously, Pinker’s assertions about the ridiculously high rate of violence in hunter-gatherers societies come from recent (and disputed) murder statistics from groups that don’t even qualify as hunter-gatherers. The idea that current groups living in the same broad material conditions as our distant ancestors presumably did give us a window in prehistory already counts as speculative, but grabbing some twentieth-century numbers from non-hunter-gatherer societies and applying them to the distant past makes the project an absurdity. Pinker’s use of skeletal evidence – another troubled source, as who knows the context of any given grave site? – encounters equivalent problems. The archaeological record from before 10,000 BCE in particular implies a negligible level of murder and assault.
While more conceptually valid than eir claims about hunter-gatherers, Pinker’s statistics from beyond a few centuries ago overwhelmingly arouse doubt. Over at Quodlibeta, Humphrey wisely quips that “anyone who claims that they have a reasonably accurate ‘death toll estimate’ for something like the Mongol Conquests is being ludicrously over-confident.” Ey goes on to show how Pinker’s characterization of the An Lushan Rebellion in China as one of the proportionally most deadly conflicts in human history rests on the shaky foundation of government census numbers that find no conformation in archaeology or narrative accounts of the fighting. Similar problems affect all of Pinker’s figures for the medieval period and before. For instance, although impressive when put on a graph, the grand decline of European murder rates fragments under scrutiny. Between lack of surviving records, unknown scope of period documentation, and contested population estimates, you almost might as well resort to a random number generator. As disconcerting as this may be, we have a profoundly limited ability to understand the past. Historians take extant documents, guess about their credibility, and tell stories. Archaeologists do the same with the artifacts they manage to dig up.
I’m relatively less skeptical of statistics for nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries – though still quite skeptical, as determining casualties remains a monumental task fraught with politic implications – but here Pinker obscures the intensity of modern massacres by looking at things like male warfare deaths and comparing them with made-up numbers for supposedly savage prehistory (see above). We have no stable basis upon which to judge Pinker’s sweeping thesis. I accept without complaint the relative decline in butchery since World War II, though our future in this continuing atomic age remains frightfully open. Murder rates have dropped in much of Europe yet have climbed stratospherically high in cities like Juárez.
As alternative framework, I offer the hypothesis that specific circumstances influence the prevalence of killing and injury in any given community more than temporal positioning. Provisional data indicate that some hunter-gathers groups live devoid of interpersonal violence while others perhaps conformed to the Hobbesian trope. Likewise, civilized peoples – those practicing agriculture and living in towns or cities – range from sanguinary to tranquil. I detest the state and coercion but don’t think that we’ll magically or inevitably play nice in the absence of bosses. Abolishing the government only eliminates one band of domineering thugs. The outcome of anarchy depends on the individuals, communities, and relationships involved.
Once you walk through the wall with me, then as I see it you are one of us. We are responsible to you and you to us; you become an Anarresti, with the same options as all the others. But they are not safe options. Freedom is never very safe. – Shevek
Pinker’s thesis critically ignores nonlethal violence of police terror, self-discipline, and capitalism integral to modernity. So what if we live if alienation, impotence, and despair define our lives? Were all the charts of declining violence accurate this would not redeem the physiological horrors of contemporary civilization and its omnipresent repression, both internal and external. I conclude with a passage from anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón that condemns the sort of security Pinker advocates. I don’t share Flores Magón’s insistence on armed revolution or heteropatriarchal concept of revolutionary masculinity but I appreciate the passionate commitment to transformation.
And so to preach peace is a crime. To preach peace when the tyrant imposes his and humiliates us; when the rich extort us to the extent of turning us into slaves; when the government, big business, and the church kill all aspiration and all hope; to preach peace under such circumstances is cowardly, vile, criminal. Peace in chains is an affront that should be refused. There is peace in the dungeon; there is peace in the cemetery; there is peace in the convent. But this peace is not life; this peace does not elevate; this is the peace of Porfirio Díaz, the peace in which the eunuch thrives and the citizenry prostitutes itself. It’s the peace of the pharaohs, the peace of the tsars, the peace of the Caesars, the peace of oriental satraps. Let such peace be damned!
Hank Looks to Post-Gender Future June 1, 2012Posted by Summerspeaker in Evo psych, Queer politics, Technology, Transhumanism.
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I’m quoted in Hank Pellissier’s new article on model Andrej Pejic. (For the record, I don’t claim to be transhuman. That’s a nice thought, though – maybe give it a few decades. ) I recommend Dale Carrico’s critique as well, despite the typical Robot Cult rhetoric. I’m far more concerned about violence against queer folks than excited about androgynous models.
Say No to Neo-Hobbesian Nonsense February 19, 2012Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Evo psych, Primitivism.
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Technology as an Excuse for Domination: The AI Nanny September 6, 2011Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Evo psych, Primitivism, Technology, The Singularity, Transhumanism.
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Ben Goertzel moves closer to the Friendly AI folks in this IEET piece where ey explores the desirably of creating an artificial intelligence to watch over the species. The proposal connects with Nick Bostrom’s concept of a singleton and employs the same liberal arguments in favor of coercion. Goertzel explicitly expounds eir political philosophy as follows:
A large part of my personality rebels against the whole AI Nanny approach – I’m a rebel and a nonconformist; I hate bosses and bureaucracies and anything else that restricts my freedom. But, I’m not a political anarchist – because I have a strong suspicion that if governments were removed, the world would become a lot worse off, dominated by gangs of armed thugs imposing even less pleasant forms of control than those exercised by the US Army and the CCP and so forth. I’m sure government could be done a lot better than any country currently does it – but I don’t doubt the need for some kind of government, given the realities of human nature. And I think the need for an AI Nanny falls into the same broad category. Like government, an AI Nanny is a relatively offensive thing, that is nonetheless a practical necessity due to the unsavory aspects of human nature.
We didn’t need government during the Stone Age – because there weren’t that many of us, and we didn’t have so many dangerous technologies. But we need government now.
As always seems to happen, Goertzel cites human nature as self-evidently inimical to freedom. There’s no attempt to define human nature or show the basis for claims made about it. This serves to invest the assertion that human nature requires government with false authority. Assuming the scientific paradigm of knowledge from empirical evidence, we’re damn far away from comprehension of any human political essence. No laboratory for running controlled social experiments exists. The systems that surround us have specific historical origins and cannot plausibly represent the entirety of biological possibilities. All of us who debate politics should acknowledge the profoundly conditional status of our knowledge about what we as a species can and cannot do. You’ll find no legitimate authority here, only insight stitched together from history, psychology, literature, lived experience, neuroscience, political science, and so on.
According to Goertzel and company, anarchism worked for hunter-gathers but necessarily fails under the circumstances of technological civilization. People in dense concentrations who rely on divisions of labor to survive need bosses to make sure the farmers don’t slack off and to prevent even worse bosses from emerging. It’s a classic liberal argument, and one that primitivists accept as well. They simply draw different conclusions about how to proceed. Civilization mandates domination, liberals say, so to hell with freedom. Primitivists in turn consign civilization to that fiery abyss.
Anarchists like myself, on the other hand, reject the above opposition and suggest we create a technological mass society based on liberty and equality. I understand that modern technology comes out of the context of hierarchical social organization. I grant that the increasing individual ability to cause harm – mostly hypothetical at this point – troubles anarchist political philosophy. But I’m not remotely ready to bow down before any sky patriarch, synthetic or otherwise.
While I could imagine tolerating an AI singleton strictly limited to preventing violence, framing the issue in liberal terms and looking to a supreme authority for salvation has dangerous implications for the present. In the above quotation, for example, Goertzel dismisses the horrors of U.S. imperialism and Chinese authoritarian communism with the specter of gangs more abominable still. Fear the barbarians at the gates, not the bejeweled senator. Thus dreams of singletons deflect revolutionary ambitions and the struggle for social justice right now. The liberal analysis, particularly when combined with futurology, minimizes actually existing suffering with appeals to illusory terrors and foretold wonders. Advocating coercion and hierarchy gives support and legitimacy to the nightmarish systems of power ordering our lives on daily basis.
As an alternative to the quest for the perfect boss to watch over us, I recommend the messy process of fighting for autonomy and self-determination. Let relationships of mutual aid replace the master-servant model. Let active participation overturn top-down decision-making and knowledge production. Let cultures of cooperation and creativity blossom from the ashes of capitalist competition. These status-quo structures stifle creativity and initiative. They crush the human spirit, grind us into the gears of the machine. We can do so much better than choosing which oppressors we prefer to lord over us. If and when Goertzel’s hypothetical cabals of techno-terrorists became a threat, we can oppose them through collective direct action consist with the culture vigilant against domination and violence.
I conclude with a passage from anarchist-feminist Voltairine de Cleyre on liberty:
Will there not be atrocious crimes? Certainly. He is a fool who says there will not be. But you can’t stop them by committing the arch-crime and setting a block between the spokes of Progress-wheels. You will never get right until you start right.
Study shows that bisexual men exist and that people are machines August 27, 2011Posted by Summerspeaker in Evo psych, Queer politics.
The reductionism and assumptions involved in this study make me a sad panda. The problems of course start with the categories of men and women as well the straight/gay/bisexual conception of sexuality. How do the researchers define any of these things? Then we get to including only folks who conform to cultural norms and have romantic relationships. Finally, sexuality becomes mechanized with a sensor on the penis and simplistic stimulus/response setup.
What about bepenised people who aren’t aroused by either men or women as categories but by specific individuals? What about those who aren’t interested in the particular erotic videos involved or in erotic videos in general? What about folks whose penises don’t consistently jump up on command? What about those whose arousal doesn’t center on an erection or the penis at all? What about people who don’t feel comfortable in the laboratory setting? And on and on. This kind of research might have its place with the manifest uncertainties and complexities acknowledged, but as things stand it reinforces a host of oppressive narratives while undermining one.