On Leaving Philosophical Materialism (but not Evolutionary Science)

Part I: A Gut-Level Transformation

Last October, I fasted during Yom Kippur for the first time since I was a teenager. I’ve joined a synagogue, where I sometimes attend Shabbat morning services. I’ve stopped eating pork. Almost every day, I read some of the Hebrew Bible (aka the “Old Testament”), with the help of Meir Soloveichik’s commentaries in his “Bible 365” podcast.

All of this would have been unimaginable to me ten years ago. To some who know me but not well, it might be unimaginable even now. This post will be the first of several explaining how I’ve changed and why.

Believe That You’re a Robot, and You Might Become Capable of Believing Damn Near Anything

There are philosophical reasons for rejecting the dogma, preached most forcefully for popular audiences by Richard Dawkins, that humans are nothing but very complicated robots. I describe some of these reasons in Part II of this post. Here, I’ll describe my visceral unease, growing year by year, at what this dogma seemed to do to most (not all) of the people I knew (colleagues and grad students) who held it. Most were either openly unprincipled self-promoting cynics, or else adherents of a virulently creepy utilitarianism, e.g. casually suggesting that some people’s lives have “negative utility” (Lebensunwertes Leben?). One postdoc prefaced every one of his presentations by expressing incredulity that anyone ever acted in anything but a short-sighted self-interested way. (“This is the puzzle I’m going to address.”) Cost-benefit analysis was these people’s Rosetta Stone – it (alone) could render intelligible, with crystal clarity, any aspect of the human condition. And more: it alone could point the way toward practical solutions to social problems. Adherence to rationality itself, they were sure, demanded nothing less.

In mundane conversations, my professional friends and acquaintances remained just as pleasant (or unpleasant, in a few cases) as ever. But I began to feel queasy when serious ideas were on the table, as during seminars and committee meetings. There was a hollowness, a brittleness, a superficiality to the discussions. “There’s a lot more to it than that,” I found myself thinking, again and again – but the “more” that I had in mind didn’t fit into any of the theoretical approaches (evolutionary psychology and gene/culture co-evolution for the science, utilitarianism for the policy ideas) that my colleagues took for granted as the only legitimate ways to contemplate the human condition.

Then the Great Awokening swept Academia and then the nation, starting with the troubles at the University of Missouri and Yale in 2015, accelerating through the first three years of the Trump Administration, and shifting into overdrive in 2020 following the beginning of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd. What was the reaction of these stalwart adherents of rationality and cost-benefit analysis?

Most of them quickly abandoned rationality and cost-benefit analysis to embrace the newly fashionable religion and the dictates of a politicized, scientistic (not scientific) public health bureaucracy.

Woke doctrine focuses on two areas: race and gender. It was with respect to the latter that my Darwinian colleagues changed their tune most dramatically – whether sincerely or not, I have no idea. Scholars whose own published research was based on the reality of binary biological sex in humans began including their pronouns in their email signature blocks, referring to Latinos as “Latinx,” and calling for preferential treatment for applicants to our graduate program who identified as “non-binary.” People who mocked theistic religion with “Flying Spaghetti Monster” memes were eager to believe (or pretend to believe) six impossible things (like “Sex is a spectrum, not a binary”) before breakfast.

And when the pandemic struck, they treated the CDC’s every mandate and recommendation (e.g., wear masks [See this], keep the elementary schools closed [See this]) as holy writ. When informed of the harmful effects of these measures, and challenged to subject them to cost-benefit analysis, or even reminded that other countries had relaxed these restrictions and had not suffered any more from COVID than the U.S., they either laughed or got angry. Only COVID deniers, they sneered, could say such things.

I came to realize that my colleagues, and others in my academic and academic-adjacent social circles, had not freed their minds for strictly rational inquiry by viewing the universe as purposeless, and themselves as fancy robots. What they had done instead was to unmoor their thinking from any stationary spot on which to stand. They were intellectually adrift in interstellar space, ready to be drawn into the gravitational field of any idea, no matter how crazy, so long as it was cloaked with the appropriate moralistic formulas (sympathy for the oppressed, safety as the supreme value, etc.), and/or backed by coercive authority (your career will stall if you don’t embrace this idea). I kept thinking of the remark attributed to G.K. Chesterson: “When men choose not to believe in G-d, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

A Drink of Water in the Desert

In September 2020, I attended the Zoom High Holiday services of the UCLA Hillel chapter. It was the first time in decades that I had attended High Holiday services. Part of why I abandoned religious practice as a teenager was that I was appalled by the image of G-d deciding who is to live and who is to die during the coming year. To my 16-year-old self, this seemed to be a dishonest way to frighten children into obeying arbitrary rules. In 2020, the Ten Days of Repentance appeared in a very different light.

According to the evolutionary social science theories that had formed my intellectual world for decades, moral systems evolved in the past as a solution to adaptive problems, especially the problem of how to promote cooperation in large groups of unrelated people. Individual moral choices can be understood in a completely deterministic framework. In the present day, every moral rule should be required to justify itself in light of utilitarian analysis. Many of today’s rules might be obsolete tomorrow. But according to the new, post-Floyd dispensation, a system of absolute moral authority is both available and mandatory. The inverted oppression hierarchy distinguishes social categories by culpability and innocence.  White, Christian, heterosexual, “cisgendered” men, on the bottom rung of this hierarchy, are guilty of the great sin of privilege, just by existing, regardless of what any individual does or fails to do. Forgiveness is irrelevant, and redemption is impossible. At the same time, membership in the most “oppressed” social categories confers victimhood and innocence, regardless of what any individual does or fails to do.

Compared to both utilitarian relativism, and the Woke version of puritanism, the Jewish view of sin and repentance, as enacted during the High Holidays, was a drink of water in the desert. There is a moral order to the universe that transcends functional considerations, although its specifics are open to some debate. Every person has free will and moral agency, and is judged to fall short of the ideal, and every person has the potential to “annul the severity of the decree” by means of repentance, charity, and prayer. These lessons can’t be fully conveyed by left-hemisphere logic, quantitative analysis, or indeed by ordinary language – they impress themselves on us by right-hemisphere means such as collective chanting and the performance of minutely specified embodied rituals. For me in September 2020, even as a mostly passive Zoom spectator, the effect was powerful. At the end of the Yom Kippur services, I was well on my way back home.

Part II: The Philosophical Arguments

Twenty years ago, I was telling my students that humans are nothing but robots, programmed by genes and “memes” (in the original sense of that word), and that, in the words of George Gaylord Simpson as famously quoted by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, “…all attempts to answer that question [‘What is man?’] before 1859 [the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species] are worthless and…we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”

First, let me clarify how I haven’t changed. I still do research in evolutionary psychology. Natural selection has shaped the human mind, as it has shaped all traits of all organisms, and that insight has been the source of countless interesting and non-obvious testable hypotheses, an impressive number of which have been supported by rigorously collected data.

What I don’t believe any more is that that’s the complete or final answer to the question “What is man?” (or “What is humankind?,” as Simpson would have written it today).

Where reductionist determinist accounts of human nature (Darwinian, Behaviorist, Woke Intersectional, etc.) go wrong is in mistaking assumptions for conclusions or inferences. In formulating theories in evolutionary social science, it’s helpful to assume that humans are robots programmed by genes and memes. Scientists must quantify variables, and free will (not to mention the soul) is probably unmeasurable in principle. Allowing it into our theories would turn them into unfalsifiable gunk. But the usefulness of an assumption (the limited usefulness: “My hypothesis explained 30% of the variance!” is a social scientist’s exclamation of triumph) doesn’t prove that assumption to be correct, let alone justify turning it into metaphysical dogma. Indeed, any approach that requires accepting proposition x as an assumption is inherently incapable of demonstrating that x is valid. It takes faith to believe (as distinct from assume for research purposes) that humans are nothing but robots.

So, personal faith will play a role in any complete, comprehensive answer to the question “What is humankind?” And that means that in answering this question, non-scientific considerations are inevitable. These include “What beliefs about human nature are consistent with everyday experience?” and “Holding what beliefs about human nature are conducive to individual well-being? To living the good life? To social solidarity?”

A similar confusion of assumptions with conclusions attends the claim, commonly made by practicing Darwinian scientists, that because natural selection, a mechanical process, can generate the illusion of conscious design of organic adaptations (true), therefore the universe is devoid of meaning and purpose. In fact, mainstream 20th-21st Century science rejects teleological explanations as a matter of first principle; it is therefore incapable of evaluating the usefulness of such explanations. And yet, Darwin himself, in the words of his advocate and spokesman Thomas Huxley, recognized a “wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based on the fundamental proposition of Evolution…The teleological and the mechanical views of nature are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive” (in F. Darwin, ed., 1887, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, London: John Murray, Vol. II., p. 80).

The robotic human, lumbering through a purposeless universe, is an article of faith, no less than the child of G-d with an immortal soul. What’s more, shared sacred truths about the human condition are a prerequisite for functioning polities, which means that faith-based beliefs about the most important issues are inescapable. The Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Marxist dogma, Critical Race Theory…all of these express or consist of basically religious doctrines. Therefore, no human society, and no seriously reflective person, truly lacks religion.

Among the Academic “Anywheres”: Illusions of Belonging

“I have three passports.”

A visiting speaker at UCLA, where I was a professor of anthropology from 1994 until this year, made this comment in 2019 at a dinner attended by faculty and graduate students. He named the three countries that had issued his passports. They are wealthy and they span the same ocean – otherwise they have nothing in common.

“That way, if things start to get dangerous, I can relocate to whichever is the safest.”

His voice and his facial expression radiated smugness. And with good reason: his listeners conveyed, with their nods and their quietly admiring remarks, that they regarded the possession of three passports as the omega of Cool. I said nothing. I felt slightly disgusted, but unsurprised. Almost all Western academics, especially at elite institutions like UCLA, are what David Goodhart calls “Anywheres” in contrast to “Somewheres.” The Anywheres are the well-educated, symbol-manipulating professionals who can work, well, anywhere, and who draw their sense of identity from their achievements. They are self-deracinated – uprooted. The Somewheres tend to be less educated and to draw their sense of identity from attachment to places (national and local) and to a community. For an Anywhere, the value of national citizenship is purely practical – a means by which to enjoy personal prosperity and safety. Emotional attachment to a country, or even the sense of obligation expressed by President Kennedy’s exhortation to “Ask not what your country can do for you…” is seen as foolish at best, and dangerous (i.e., leading to war and genocide) at worst. The possessor of three passports, in this view, has successfully gamed, and partially defeated, the arbitrary, unfair, and archaic nation-state system.

Alex Kaschuta writes that “Anywheres still need belonging” and that, lacking it in their atomized lives, many suffer from depression and anxiety. It’s my strong impression that academic Anywheres, having abandoned nationality, locality, and traditional religion as sources of belonging, tend to take refuge in two ersatz forms of belonging: educational institutions (universities and colleges) and (especially) scholarly societies. One of the under-appreciated lessons from the spread of Cancel Culture is that these so-called communities are held together, not by enduring, unconditional solidarity, but by a combination of fashion-following and fickle self-interest. To put it simply, you’d be a fool to expect the members of your academic “community” to stand with you if it cost them anything.

First, though, another observation about the Anywhereness of academia: even when they acknowledge their national heritage, Western academics tend to distance themselves from it with a mixture of embarrassment and self-mockery. At a meeting of a collaborative research group, comprising scientists from five countries, one presented the others with gifts of a traditional food from the region where she’d grown up. A kind gesture, certainly, but what struck me most were her verbal and non-verbal signals that said, in effect, “Isn’t this quaint?”

The theory and practice of science do, of course, transcend national and ethnic differences. The scientific method is available to all, regardless of cultural background. Two people trained in the same scientific discipline, so long as they are fluent in a common language, can converse productively even across a wide cultural gap. I’m not denigrating these great strengths of science. But it’s important to recognize their limits. When push comes to shove, shared scientific interests are no more a basis for mutual loyalty than any other shared profession. No one would expect that a French accountant and a Chinese accountant (or, more to the point, a Russian accountant and a Ukrainian accountant) can draw on a source of solidarity that outweighs their obvious differences and sources of conflict.

But isn’t it problematic that the Somewheres’ sources of belonging are based on either “accidents” of shared ancestry or proximity (nations, localities) or shared “irrational” beliefs (religion)? Aren’t the scholarly societies that are latched on to by academic Anywheres, based as they are on voluntarily chosen shared commitments to some domain of rational inquiry, psychologically and socially healthier sources of belonging?

That argument might have persuaded me a few years ago. But the mainstreaming of what Colin Wright calls sex denialism (aka transgenderism and gender fluidity theory) has destroyed its credibility. Wright’s account of his own experience of being driven out of evolutionary biology (the academic specialty with the knowledge base most relevant to understanding the male-female phenomenon) for criticizing sex denialism makes it crystal clear that membership in good standing in most of today’s scholarly communities is dependent on endorsing shibboleths (e.g. “Sex is a spectrum”) that have no stronger a rational basis than belief in the literal truth of the Biblical miracles.

Even for the most accomplished and established academic, expressing an opinion at odds with Woke dogma is likely to result in at least informal ostracism from scholarly societies. Anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss criticizes unscientific aspects of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and so has been the target of a vilification campaign in the Society for American Archaeology. Joshua Katz, in addition to being fired from his tenured position by Princeton University, was recently subjected to extraordinary “disappearing” treatment at an international Classics conference: he was not introduced before giving his talk (unlike all the other speakers), and not one person clapped or asked a question after it.

Are universities and scholarly societies “communities”? Sure – just as the Soviet Communist Party of the 1930s was a “community.” Your friends and colleagues, with whom you hobnob happily today, might contrive to destroy you tomorrow for a trivial or wholly imaginary breach of a social norm — possibly one that was invented last week.

The late British philosopher Roger Scruton has written that a key feature of the modern nation-state is that it comprises a set of people who, if it came to it, would risk death defending each other. By contrast, the contemporary scholarly society comprises a set of people who, if it came to it, would betray each other in a heartbeat to safeguard their next promotion, grant, or other token of status.

Which is not to say that these societies are worthless. I belong to several of them, and am somewhat active in one. But I wear these memberships lightly – they’re not part of my sense of identity. I have, with no regrets and almost no distress, ended my affiliation with two organizations that became heavily politicized.

The visiting speaker who boasted of his three passports may well be onto something – the ability to escape war, persecution, and/or unrest in one or two of his three countries — in an increasingly conflict-riven world. But if he has swapped attachment to a nation-state for attachment to a global “community” of scholars, he may be in for an unpleasant shock. Nothing and no one will keep his academic career going if he runs afoul of one of a growing number of what George Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

So, what is to be done? After years or decades of “Anywhereness,” is it possible to become re-rooted in genuine communities? That will be a topic of future posts.

Why I’m Leaving the University

I’m a professor, retiring at 62 because the Woke takeover of higher education has ruined academic life. “Another one?” you ask. “What does this guy have to say that hasn’t already been said by Jordan Peterson, Peter Boghossian, Joshua Katz, or Bo Winegard1?

There’s only one way to find out.

Defenestration of a Colleague

I’ve been a tenure-track professor since 1996 (tenured since 2000) in the Anthropology Department at UCLA. (My research, which I plan to continue doing, has spanned topics ranging from nonhuman primate behavior to human personality variation). For decades, anthropology has notoriously been riven by conflict between scientific and political activist factions, leading many departments to split in two, but UCLA’s department remained unusually peaceful, cohesive, and intellectually inclusive until the late 2000s. Gradually, one hire at a time, practitioners of “critical” (i.e. far-left postmodernist) anthropology, some of them lying about their beliefs during job interviews, came to comprise the department’s most influential clique.  These militant faculty recruited even more extremely militant graduate students to work with them.

I can’t recount here even a representative sample of this faction’s penchant for mendacity and intimidation, because most of it occurred during confidential discussions, usually about hiring and promotion decisions. But I can describe their public torment and humiliation of one of my colleagues, P. Jeffrey Brantingham. Jeff had developed simulation models of the geographic and temporal patterning of urban crime, and had created predictive software that he marketed to law enforcement agencies. In Spring 2018, the department’s Anthropology Graduate Students Association passed a resolution accusing Jeff’s research of (among other counter-revolutionary sins) “entrench[ing] and naturaliz[ing] the criminalization of Blackness in the United States” and calling for “referring” his research to UCLA’s Vice Chancellor for Research, presumably for some sort of investigation. This document contains no trace of scholarly argument, but instead resembles a religious proclamation of anathema. As you won’t be surprised to hear, Jeff is not a racist, but a standard-issue liberal Democrat. The “referral” to the Vice-Chancellor never materialized, but the AGSA resolution and its aftermath achieved its real goal, which was to turn Jeff, who had been one of the most selfless citizens of the department, into a pariah. He taught (still teaches) a course, “The Ecology of Crime,” that consistently drew 150+ students and earned rave reviews. This course had a catalogue number that grouped it with sociocultural anthropology, and it fulfilled a sociocultural anthropology requirement for anthro majors. In an act of petty spite, ritual moral purification, or both (take your pick), the Woke faculty clique, which comprised a majority of the sociocultural anthro faculty, banned him from using (polluting?) any of their course numbers. Jeff continued to offer the course, just under a different kind of number.

But his tormentors weren’t finished with him, even though Jeff stopped attending faculty meetings, and in every other way accepted his punishment of permanent ostracism. In early March 2020, this flyer appeared in the hallways of the anthropology department. “Predpol” is the name of Jeff’s predictive software. The sponsoring “Institute for Inequality and Democracy” is a far-left UCLA unit whose associate director is Hannah Appel, who also holds a faculty position in anthropology. That is, a professor tried to organize a mob to demand the professional destruction of a colleague. Within a few days after the appearance of these flyers, the pandemic lockdown confined us to our homes and overshadowed everything else, and the anti-police movement soon had bigger fish to fry after the killing of George Floyd. Nevertheless, Jeff remained a popular and powerful hate-figure for the department’s Woke faction. On September 23, 2020, during a webinar, “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn?” sponsored in part by the UCLA anthropology department, many of the chat comments from graduate students reviled him and called for further action against him. The entire episode recalls a prescient observation in a 1995 article by the great psychological anthropologist Roy D’Andrade: “Isn’t it odd that the true enemy of society turns out to be that guy in the office down the hall?”

The Other Signs and Portents

Not only was Jeff ostracized, he was unpersoned. None of the faculty talked about him, if they could possibly avoid it. Meanwhile, our department chair opened most faculty meetings by solemnly intoning that our department was a community, a family, and that “we’re here for each other.” In private conversations, I was able to elicit from some of my colleagues an embarrassed acknowledgment that the Woke faction had treated Jeff abominably, and that we strongly resembled a dysfunctional family in denial. This pervasive institutional doublethink was partly a result of Jeff’s own apparent decision to refrain from open confrontation: I offered to help him, by defending him publicly if he wished, after both the 2018 AGSA resolution and the 2020 flyer posts, and he thanked me but politely asked me to stay out of it. But the principal driver of the doublethink was fear of the Woke faction.

Signs of this fear are omnipresent. Discussing whether to stop requiring the GRE (a standardized test, like the SAT) from applicants to our Ph.D. program, one colleague told a meeting of the biological anthropology subfield that he regarded the GRE as the most informative part of an applicant’s dossier, but that we had no choice but to vote to stop requiring it, because otherwise we would be regarded as racists (I was the only person to vote against dropping the GRE requirement). Asking a question following a public talk, a colleague conspicuously used the word “Latinx” even though the speaker had described both herself and her research subjects as “Latinas” and even though he himself, in a previous private conversation, had mockingly referred to the opinion polls showing that only a small minority of Hispanic Americans prefer to be called “Latinx.”

Outside the anthropology department, UCLA as a whole is showing all the signs of Woke capture that typify the contemporary U.S. university. Emeritus Professor Val Rust (Graduate School of Education) was banned from campus, and researcher James Enstrom (Environmental Health Sciences) and lecturer Keith Fink (Communication Studies) were fired, all for dissenting (in different ways) from Woke orthodoxy. Gordon Klein, after being fired by UCLA’s business school in Spring 2020 for refusing to use race-based grading criteria, mobilized mass support and legal assistance, was reinstated, and is now suing the university. Statements recounting one’s activities on behalf of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion are mandatory in faculty job applications and in promotion dossiers. Among its “Gender Recognition” policy recommendations, a university task force is calling for “curricular updates…For example: inclusion of non-binary and intersex identities in biology courses for health care practitioners.” Is this a threat to pressure course instructors in the life sciences and social sciences to deny the human sex binary? The experience of former Penn State evolutionary biology postdoc, now Substack writer, Colin Wright (although unconnected with UCLA), suggests that it might be. For arguing against assertions that “biological sex is a continuous spectrum [and] that notions of male and female may be mere social constructs,” Wright’s academic career was derailed by an online mob.

Also typical of elite U.S. universities, UCLA is awash in anti-Zionism, a.k.a. thinly disguised Jew-hatred. In May 2019, one of my colleagues, Kyeyoung Park, invited a guest lecturer, San Francisco State University professor Rabab Abdulhadi, to her class to proclaim that Zionism is a form of white supremacism. A considerable brouhaha ensued. Unlike Rust, Enstrom, Fink, Klein, or Brantingham, Park was celebrated by the faculty and administration as a courageous, embattled exponent of academic freedom. The Anthropology Graduate Students Association chimed in with a resolution agreeing with Abdulhadi. More recently, the Asian-American Studies Department posted to its website a statement accusing Israel of settler colonialism, racial apartheid, etc. Irrespective of the content, doesn’t it infringe on the academic freedom of individual professors (and postdocs and graduate students, whose careers are dependent on faculty recommendations) for an academic department to take a political stand on behalf of all its members? Several other Jewish faculty and I have made that case to the UCLA and overall University of California leadership, to no avail.

As Doris Day sang, the future’s not ours to see, but it’s a good bet that the grip of Woke orthodoxy on the University of California, and most other U.S. universities, will tighten in the years to come. The younger faculty tend to be more Woke than their elders. Administrators and student “protesters” perform elaborately choreographed routines that end with the former enacting policies that they wanted to enact anyway, for which the latter’s public temper tantrums serve as a pretext. Now that standardized tests have been dropped from undergraduate application requirements, a growing number of students will be simultaneously (1) unable to handle university level coursework, and (2) predisposed to denounce their professors for heresy, having been chosen for admission on the basis on their far-left activism as high school students. Meanwhile, California’s K-12 schools are increasingly substituting mind-damaging political indoctrination for education.

But Why Not Stick Around for the Paycheck?

One of my more cynical friends, a tenured professor at a different university, suggested this. He’s no longer on speaking terms with his colleagues, refuses all requests to serve on committees, and spends as much time as possible out of the country. He thinks I’m out of my mind, swapping a salary for a pension.

Maybe he’s right. And maybe I’m craven for ducking the unpleasantness that would be entailed by going that route, or by remaining at my job and becoming a chronic troublemaker. But I strongly suspect that mainstream U.S. higher education is morally and intellectually corrupt, beyond the possibility of self-repair, and therefore no longer a worthwhile setting in which to spend my time and effort. The rise of alternative institutions, like the University of Austin and Ralston College, is a hopeful sign, but so far it’s been happening painfully slowly.

A 2019 article by Liel Leibovitz, titled “Get Out,” argued that the increasingly open hostility of American universities toward Jews is inseparable from the universities’ increasingly brazen rejection of two values that, during the 20th Century, made them into places where Jews specifically, and curious, ambitious, and open-minded people generally, could thrive: meritocracy and free debate. In 2019, I thought that Leibovitz was exaggerating and rather overwrought. Everything that’s happened since has shown that he was right. That’s it: I’m getting out.

What’s next? For one thing, with the time that used to be taken up by teaching and university service, I’ll write blog posts. Stay tuned.

1. Note: Peterson and Boghossian resigned. Katz and Winegard were fired.