Heart of Modeling

Joseph-CampbellGreed is often mistaken for humanity’s heart of darkness. Look instead to the rationalization that transforms the most rapacious pillaging into an act of benevolence. A one-ton bomb dropped on a peasant wedding party is dissembled into regret without responsibility or, baser yet, a tough love offered with warning enough its victims, until then on their happiest day, ignored at their own risk.

Massacring the poorest–by the pen or the sword–is abstracted into an industrial deduction no rough facts can peel back. In its desperate flight free, what evidence flutters out from between the secret policeman’s gloves serves in this framework as its own denunciation: the editor who publishes it loses his job, the journalist her access, and the whistleblower his freedom. Barbarism, backed by Ivy League pedigrees and the strategic brick of cash, can excuse itself with the right mix of red tape and inert banality.

The shock for some will be that even evolutionary biology plays its part. Set aside its more blatant frauds writing how the dead were inherently dumber than those who designed the bomb that killed them. As if even true it was alibi enough. In their unrequited loyalties the likes of Phil Rushton and Charles Murray speak as if they are somehow affiliated with the physics that went into the ordnance. No Einsteins these, the hangers-on refute themselves as soon as they open their mouths.

It isn’t, however, just a matter of a few bottom-feeders. The axioms underlying the imperial project extend deep into population biology’s critical organs. No mere artifacts since transitioned into more benign use, liberal capitalism’s first principles clang aloud today in even the field’s best work. The epistemological debris of Victorian exploitation wasn’t just left behind somehow. Whether or not its practitioners acknowledge it, the premises remain at the heart of the modeling.


At first take biologists bear little blame. Who knew given we’ve been so busy since Charles Darwin’s revelation? The field’s rolling successes have kept my fellow population biologists, some of the sharpest people I’ve met, a bit preoccupied. Understandably so. Some have just sequenced the genome of Phytophthora infestans, the pathogen of the Irish potato blight. Others have begun mapping epigentic networks underlying norms of reaction. Still others can now predict ecological regime shifts from time series alone. Exciting stuff. It’s why then the willful paramnesia on the part of many of my colleagues sets me aback.

How to change course? Or, better yet for a start, why change if all is going so swimmingly? There are reasons aplenty, with roots deep in human history, some back long before science itself. We explore here a few of what appear external to the field and leave more internal ones for posts to come.

Fifty years ago Joseph Campbell (above) sketched out the basics of the relationship between human thinking and cultural circumstance. For Campbell our best minds have always been a box of rocks,

I cannot forget that for many centuries the vast majority of the great as well as minor thinkers of Europe believed that the world was created about 4004 B.C. and redeemed in the first century A.D.; that Cain, the eldest son of the first human couple, was the first agriculturalist, the first murderer, and the first builder of cities; that the Creator of the Universe once held in particular regard a certain tribe of Near Eastern nomads, for whom he parted the waters of the Red Sea and to whom he communicated, in person, his program for the human race; and that, because of the failure of this people to recognize himself when he then became incarnate among them as the son of one of their daughters, the Creator of he Universe transferred his attention to the northern shores of the Mediterranean: to Italy, Spain, and France, to Switzerland, Germany, and England, to Holland and Scandinavia, and for a while, also, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And here all along I thought South Minneapolis was God’s country. So fundamental to a political infrastructure is a geographically tilted metaphysics that ample evidence to the contrary is met with terminal prejudice. Campbell quotes the Inquisition’s judgment upon Galileo,

The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.

The scientists among us may see such hubris as positivism’s vindication at religion’s expense, but that isn’t Campbell’s point,

What can the value or meaning be of a mythological notion which, in the light of modern science, must be said to be erroneous, philosophically false, absurd, or even formally insane?…[Its] value, namely, is to be studied rather as a function of psychology and sociology than as a refuted system…rather in terms of certain effects worked by the symbols on the character of the individual and the structure of society than in terms of their obvious incongruity as an image of the cosmos…

In other words, psychologies and societies evolve in tandem with their symbolic overhead. Campbell reviews the ways the roles such symbols play changed as human civilizations emerged from the Proto-Neolithic. For one, the communalism and division of labor introduced by agriculture imposed an attendant crisis of identity,

The problem of existing as a mere fraction instead of as a whole imposes certain stresses on the psyche which no primitive hunter ever had to endure, and consequently the symbols giving structure and support to the development of the primitive hunter’s psychological balance were radically different from those that arose in the settled villages, in the Basal and High Neolithic, and which have been inherited from that age and continued into the present by all the high civilizations of the world.

The inheritance is cultural and contingently so,

[It] may be asked whether this whole history and mythology of the earth-rooted, walled town or village, with its temple tower in the center, lifting the goddess earth to her divine connubium with the all-father of the overarching fertilizing sky, is not, perhaps, only a highly specialized formula, not normal to the psyche of the species, but rather, an effect of the tensions, fears, and expectations generated in a society based on an agricultural economy. And we may ask, also, then, whether today, when that economy is giving way to one based on industry, and the cosmological image commensurate with an agricultural horizon has been shattered for us forever–whether today, in this next great age of transformation, the images generated in that earlier period of crisis still are of use, and if so for whom, and why?

Campbell follows with some fascinating discussion about the ongoing clash between agriculture’s ghost–a regimented Chain of Being administered by a priesthood–and industry’s return to a shamanistic, if now materialist, self-sufficiency. Here, though, we part ways. Under capitalism, the individualistic turn is as regimented, and in many ways more so, than its predecessor. Alienating labor–by surplus value and Taylorism–anneals billions to a system of production that divorces them from their work’s fruit in plan, deed and outcome. The basics of life–food, water, shelter, land–are socialized as never before but under ownership privatized to an unprecedented degree.

The relevant question–if we may redirect Campbell–is how scientific symbolism, the new scripture, organizes economically derived tensions, fears and expectations under the new regime. Whose tensions are organized? And, in the other direction, how do such sociopsychological archetypes define scientific symbolism, mathematical modeling included?


In many ways Darwin caught himself in a trap of his own making. In the course of capping materialism’s ascendency, Darwin found his career, family life, experiments, politics, metaphysics, and even health buffeted about by the transitions his work helped bring on.

Wallace and Wallace (2009) comment that the culturally plastic brain that enabled the human species to readily adapt to changing circumstances may have come at a cost. Some of the most common psychopathologies may arise at evolutionary-ontogenetic interfaces where consciousness’ historical sources–phylogenetic innovation, exaptation, and cultural heritages–have the most difficulty developmentally meshing even in the healthiest among us. It is a testament to Darwin’s genius and fortitude (and sense of self-preservation) that he was able to accomplish so much in the face of uncertain fortunes and the era’s fracturing self he helped bring about.

This kind of brain-and-culture condensation has emerged as a new orthodoxy in recent studies of human cognition. Richard Nisbett and colleagues (2001, 2004) review an extensive literature on empirical studies of basic cognitive differences between individuals raised in what they call ‘East Asian’ and ‘Western’ cultural heritages. In something of an overgeneralization, they view Western-based pattern cognition as ‘analytic’ and East-Asian as ‘holistic.’ But with a geography of human thinking Nisbett et al. find

  • Social organization directs attention to some aspects of the perceptual field at the expense of others.
  • What is attended to influences metaphysics.
  • Metaphysics guides tacit epistemology, that is, beliefs about the nature of the world and causality.
  • Epistemology dictates the development and application of some cognitive processes at the expense of others.
  • Social organization can directly affect the plausibility of metaphysical assumptions, such as whether causality should be regarded as residing in the field or in the object.
  • Social organization and social practices can directly influence the development and use of cognitive processes such as dialectical vs. logical ones.

Nisbett et al. conclude that tools of thought embody a culture’s intellectual history, that tools have theories build into them, and that users accept these theories, albeit unknowingly, when they use these tools.

The applications to evolutionary modeling’s development are enough to keep one busy blogging into the next century. How did a capitalist milieu shape evolutionary biology’s tacit epistemology? We’ll review a few specific possibilities in posts to come.

The mathematics omitted by history is another, less obvious, direction. A different prevalent social organization–say a democratic socialism–might have taken us into spaces of mathematical modeling never developed in capitalist countries or that were abandoned further east in the wake of Stalinism. It seems, like friends, we get the math we deserve.

The problem is complicated by historical contingencies auxiliary to those directly imposed by political economies. It took forty years to develop turbo codes after Shannon and McMillan’s theory of communication. No matter how ready and willing the encapsulating culture, the work is at times hard enough under any of Nisbett’s lineages.

All is not lost, however. We may not easily imagine the alternatives we never lived, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. First, over human history many brave and unheralded souls have tried and their efforts, to be discussed here in later posts, are worth our full attention. Second, the alternatives’ absence needn’t match their utility. A great idea may have never won the decades of development it deserved, if only because it could never wrangle away the research infrastructure the dominant models hoarded for themselves. Lee Smolin has written about this very problem in physics.

Before reviewing these alternatives we should complete our thought: where did a culturally plastic cognition place evolutionary biology during the last of Campbell’s transitions, between agriculture and the industrial age?


Writing on Darwinism in the 1930s, British Marxist Christopher Caudwell, one of the forgotten, anticipates the path Campbell and the Jungians would abandon,

When we in fact examine the theory of Natural Selection, we find that the machine for producing new species has a strange likeness to the capitalist economy of that era, as the capitalist saw it…The political economy of Darwin’s era, which produced Manchester liberalism and Free Trade was based on the following belief: If every man is left to himself to produce and exchange freely the commodities of society, the result will be for the maximum benefit of all, including himself. His private profit will be society’s good. All exchange-value will then represent value to society, and just as much, and no more, will be produced than society needs, while every man will get a fair return for his labours…Such a theory of economy reflects the programme of the bourgeois escaping the feudal constraints upon trade. Above all, it expressed the 1750-1850 revolutionary upsurge of the new bourgeoisie against old aristocratic monopoly in capital and land.

Darwinism updates a nature that had reflected feudal society, wherein an organismal hierarchy is defined with moral undertones by inherent type. Domination is now instead disguised in statistical and transient dynamics,

The struggles of the free wills for the sum of property appearing in the world markets, subject to the ‘laws’ of supply and demand, seem to secure the progress of society. For ‘property’, put ‘food supply’, for ‘market’, ‘environment’, for ‘individual free will’, ‘individual struggle for existence’, and for ‘laws of supply and demand’, ‘physical laws’…

Nature is made capitalist in nature, making capitalism, bombed peasants and all, natural.

Evolutionary biologists are quick to point out the baggage religiosity imposes on creationisms of various stripes. A subset will remark on Lysenkoism’s effects on Soviet science. And they are right. Yet many cannot see the burdens their own field’s origins place on the theories they depend on, however well or ill the resulting work.

Caudwell proves tougher on the cultural boulders loaded atop Darwinism than on Darwin or his scientific descendents. In other words, it isn’t personal. In fact, there is a tone of cautious sympathy. Working scientists, after all, must heave about that legacy in the course of their day-to-day work,

These assumptions are continually contradicted by practice, and thus every geneticist, when explaining his discoveries, has to waste his efforts on a preliminary wrestle with the unreal metaphysics he has inherited.

Unpinning evolutionary modeling from the more insidious of its capitalist precepts appears a good first step out from underneath.

3 Responses to “Heart of Modeling”

  1. >And here all along I thought South Minneapolis was God’s
    >country. So fundamental to a political infrastructure is a
    >geographically tilted metaphysics that ample evidence to the
    >contrary is met with terminal prejudice.

    I wonder if some scientists dislike religion NOT because they believe religion has caused so much trouble through the ages, but because they hate the idea of others not viewing them as gods. It’s the only explanation I have for this obsession with demonising all religious people and labelling them as imbeciles.

    There are plenty of decent religious people who harm no one, but they never get a mention. There are also scientists who are happy to harm any number of people, such as those that worked for Nazi Germany.

    I’m agnostic. However, I still cannot see how it is the height of rationality to believe, or how it is obvious, that the universe – or whatever mechanism gave birth to it – created itself, upholds itself, and does so for no reason WHATSOEVER other than it – “it” being nothing – feels like it.

    And how is it perfectly reasonable to claim consciousness is caused by matter. Perhaps you can tell me how, because even Einstein couldn’t see how it could be done – he said science will NEVER be able to explain consciousness.

    According to the scientific orthodoxy, I’m just a collection of particles, none of which is conscious. All the experiences I’m having, therefore, are not real – particles do not experience anything! – and my sense of identity is also not real, as I’m just a lump of matter, made of the same stuff as a rock. Quite remarkable. I’m alive, but really I’m dead! I’m conscious, but really I’m not!

    As for death being the end. We have all been dead already. Before I was born, I was a bunch of atoms floating in space – I was dead! But then I was born. In the future, I will die, and become atoms dispersed in space once more. So, who’s to say I won’t wake up again? I was dead once before, but I woke up.

    The only way to make sense of the above is to DENY consciousness, which is what many scientists do, especially those with an axe to grind against religion.

    Instead of attacking religion, scientists should explain consciousness, because that is why religion exists – because we are conscious beings! Religion is NOT mere indoctrination, it is part of our evolutionary heritage, so to speak.

    (Joseph Levine is an atheist, has a PhD from Harvard, yet can’t explain consciousness: in his book, “Purple Haze”, he admits science is clueless. I wish scientists today could be this honest. I wish there could be a respectful debate).

  2. ‘Nice’ doesn’t cover it. rg. I collect articles on cultural lies and flim flam : this is one of the best I’ve seen.
    It’s going in the collection

  3. rgwallace Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, opit.

    Richard, if scientists aren’t gods, neither is Einstein nor his opinions, and consciousness could eventually be more satisfactorily explained by science as a biophysical phenomenon. It is this very point that motivated the post–not so much science’s fallibility, however, as its historicity. Some analytical frameworks are preserved at the cost of those that *could* follow because the roles the former play outside the question at hand are treated as grimly fundamental, in this case to capitalism.

    But the failures of science do not necessarily lend support to alternatives. Religion can’t materially explain natural phenomena however much people take comfort in their faith for reasons outside science’s purview. It is a strange course of argument to offer the ad hoc possibility we remain alive after we’re dead because our atoms, the stuff of stars, vibrate onward. That’s a more severe reductionism than championed by even the most literal of physicists. And bespeak a hubris at which (mock fingering wagging) God would raise an eyebrow.

    On the other hand, consciousness and religion are both very much active scientific forums. Indeed, if what you say is true and religion is part of our evolutionary heritage, then you concur with those efforts, if not their conclusions. Not many of the faithful would appreciate that.

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