Bad politics in Nature: Bunce and McElreath (2019)

Today I read a paper in Nature by John Bunce and Richard McElreath, entitled “Sustainability of minority culture when inter-ethnic interaction is profitable.” As a staunch advocate for cultural pluralism, and a supporter of the theoretical autonomy of all cultures regardless of minority status (since history tells us that what is a majority today can quickly become a minority tomorrow, and vice versa; ask the Aztecs) I was enthused by the subject matter, and read the paper with great interest.

The paper opens strongly with some well-phrased descriptions of cultural shift and variation. Very quickly though, we start to see a political leaning emerge:

The highlighted sections, while not necessarily incorrect, give us a clear look at authorial intentions. Cultural displacement occurs when minority cultures are lost to a “powerful majority group.” The suggestion that preventing the loss of minority cultures may contribute to the richness of society is something I entirely agree with, but it is also inherently subjective and inappropriate for one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The citation (no. 12) used for the ‘richness’ claim is a dummy citation which refers only to language preservation activist Michael Krauss giving the same opinion. There’s more to criticize about the idea of “optimally distinct group identities” (optimizing for what, specifically?) but you get the idea.

What I think is truly inappropriate is this next part of the work:

We can now infer that this article is the brainchild of John Bunce (author 1) whereas McElreath (author 2) probably played the role of methodological consultant, which makes sense as his best received book is on coding and mathematics. I’m going to continue in reference to Bunce as the author.

Bunce’s description of ethnically Mestizo Peruvians – those of mixed Spanish and South American heritage – is an accusation that carries a moral charge far too great for his feeble implications to support. To describe these people as ‘colonists’ because some of their ancestors were indeed colonists is no different to describing Muslim minority communities in the Balkans as ‘invaders’ because many of their ancestors did indeed enter the Balkans as part of Muslim military invasions. I use this example, because ‘invaders’ is exactly the term used by Brenton Tarrant to describe his victims in Christchurch. I am sure that Bunce himself would be horrified by the Christchurch massacre, and would strongly protest the legitimacy of Tarrant’s terminology. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Bunce’s language isn’t intended to be used both ways; it’s a hypocritical, ideological accusation that lacks logical consistency.

The lack of consistency in moral standards is something that we see in the article’s conclusion as well. Toward the end of the article, Bunce finishes by concluding that minority cultures may be preserved by establishing interethnic barriers or boundaries which can be freely crossed by the minority culture, but not the majority culture. This isn’t particularly surprising or novel, insofar as this is something we’ve been implementing as a political solution to the problem of cultural preservation of ethnic minority cultures. In the UK, for instance, we have a Welsh Parliament, a Scottish Parliament, but not an English Parliament. I don’t think the legislators who enacted these parliaments would be surprised by the scientific revelation here, since they presumably already guessed it would be the case.

But to me there’s an issue beyond that which Bunce (and perhaps also McElreath) bear responsibility for missing. When proposing solutions to social problems, researchers are faced with a theoretically limitless number of ways in which to achieve their goals. I could just as easily publish a paper concluding ‘wholesale systematic genocide is a very effective way of eliminating minority cultures.’ It’s obviously true, but also obviously not worth publishing. Likewise in the case of this paper, it seems that author John Bunce is making statements which are obviously true, combining them with those that are logically incoherent, and packaging these into a ‘scientific paper’ hardly fit for purpose in order to promote his political ideology.

When actions are determined, consequences must be too

This is one of the most idiotic views I’ve ever seen advocated by tenured staff at a Western university. Let me explain why.

Let’s think about this logic for a moment. The statement above effectively states the following: since the decision as to whether or not you will eat the dessert is out of your control (proposition) therefore you are absolved of responsibility for it, and should not feel bad (conclusion).

To assess this proposition, we first have to come to a definition of ‘control’ – which is far more tricky than it seems. In this context people typically define ‘control’ in relation to various free-will arguments which can be broadly dichotomized into ‘pragmatist’ or ‘logico-determinist’ categories. Logico-determinists such as Sam Harris would state that since no neurobiological evidence exists whatsoever to support any mechanism isomorphic to free will or free choice, either for humans or for any other organisms, and as such we are not technically in control of anything. Pragmatists would broadly agree with these arguments, but would protest that such argumentation tautologically precludes the meaningfulness of free will as a term, which is contradicted by the semantic significance and lexical omnipresence of the term to modern humans.

I think that whichever view of free will or control we take, the proposition outlined above by the McGill Psychology Department is almost certainly true, but in a far broader sense than you might realize. We live in a world where our actions are contextualized by the sum total of all actions that preceded these, which effectively means that actions are really reactions, and are thus determined by that context. As such, when you inevitably act in accordance with the predispositions encoded into your neural hardware, your brain has in fact “already decided for you,” as per the statement above.

But how about the conclusion. Should this really absolve you from responsibility? If we say that you aren’t responsible for your actions because they were predestined by your brain, then what about in the case of rape? It’s not uncommon to hear, in courtrooms, defendants talk about ‘not being able to control themselves’. The Iraqi refugee who raped a 12-year old boy in an Austrian swimming pool a few years back defended his actions as the inescapable consequence of a “sexual emergency.”

Murder is another case we might examine. The circumstances typically resulting in physical conflict trigger a ‘fight-or-flight’ response in us, activating our endocrine systems and pumping our bodies full of chemicals such as adrenaline that cloud judgment and promote physical action. In such a situation, it’s also possible to say that your brain made the decision for you, precluding free will.
Now ask yourself – what difference does it make if some (or even all) murders and rapes do lie outside of the realm of our control? Are we going to start judging rapists in courts of law on the basis of their proclivity to hypersexuality, refusing to jail any rapists if indeed we see that their brains ‘already decided’ for them? Murder, too? If any country were ever to embark on such an endeavor with the propositions above as guiding axioms, they would quickly discover it impossible to judge any person guilty for any crime.

What am I getting at here? The conclusion you’re seeing above is horrifically wrong and terribly dangerous. A deterministic worldview may be scientifically valid, but this does not – and cannot – preclude holding individuals responsible for their actions. The consequences if we don’t – a world in which murderers, thieves, rapists, and worse are not held culpable due to the inevitably influence of their biology and socialization on these behaviors – are far too high to accept.

Even though our actions may not be subject to the kind of ‘free will module’ that proponents imply, there is no reason to suggest that consequences to these actions should not follow. No basis exists to suggest that where agency in actions is absent, reactions should not follow from those actions. All of which is to say: when actions are determined, consequences must be too.

The self-immolation of Sam Harris

Before we get into Sam, I’m going to start things off with a postulate by Yuval Harari. Harari is a colleague of Sam, the two having spoken on podcasts and referenced each other in written works, so I think it will be interesting to use one of his most powerful statements as a launchboard for my demonstration of the incoherence of Sam’s worldview.

Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.

This is a very interesting statement. To understand precisely what Harari means, it is necessary to explain the definitions of both ‘fiction’ and ‘truth’ as used here. To Harari, a ‘fiction’ is a proposition that is accepted by fiat, without underlying backing. We have to understand that Harari is not an individualist, and this may indeed be the most important difference between him and Sam Harris as thinkers. This means that Harari’s ‘fictions’ are not casual statements of mistruth that are shared by individuals, but rather systems-wide simplifications of reality that allow for greater levels of social organization.

Take laws, for instance. Laws are perhaps the prototypical examples of Harari’s fictions in operation (while he would likely demur in favor of God or money, if I discuss these here I’ll risk repeating myself later on). Laws are not grounded in the laws of physics, or the properties of physical matter, or even in our evolutionary biology (not necessarily, at least). Yet by the establishment and acceptance of laws for the regulation of society, higher levels of organizational complexity can be attained. A fiction, in short, is something used on or by a social system to guide it toward certain ends. Dig deep enough into any fiction, and you’ll find an arbitrary proposition at its core.

Truth, by contrast, is the underlying reality of things. I explained ‘fictions’ first, because Harari’s ‘truth’ can in a sense be defined simply as ‘that which contradicts a fiction’. An obvious yet brutal example of a truth is the following: that you and everyone you know is going to die.

Why does that matter? Because within the context of our social systems, we act as if this is not the case. We try our best to save people from death when possible, and to prolong life through whatever means available. We behave as if it is a tragedy, rather than an inevitability, when a large number of people are killed by something unexpected, and in doing so reinforce the idea that death is unnatural, is unnecessary, and (deontologically) ought to be prevented.

This systems-wide behavior reveals a collective ‘fiction’ (strictly in the Hararian sense, of course): we are engaged in a process of collective self-deceit in order to regulate society as so to allow for greater levels of social organization. Without anathematizing death, there is no basis for preventing people from dying, nor for punishing acts that induce death (such as murder). Obviously, any system in which murder is unobjectionable will find it exceedingly difficult to motivate its members to acheive complex tasks, because this generally requires cooperation, which is impossible if prosocially-defective behaviors as extreme as murder are unpreventable (the city of Chicago and its extremely low clearance rate for homicide is exemplary).

With this explained and Harari’s truths and fictions in mind, let’s get back to Sam Harris. Listen to this clip (set to play from 19m 23s) or read the transcript below if you’re short on time. I transcribed the clip carefully and removed some irrelevant muttering, but all errors are (obviously) my own.

Woman: So I have kids, you have kids. Right? Do you have kids?

Sam: Yep. Yep.
Eric Weinstein: We all do.

Woman: All have kids, great. So when it comes to free will, I get it. I’m completely on board, Sam, with your idea that there’s no free will.

Sam: Yep.

Woman: When it comes to raising kids, wh-

S: Don’t tell them. Don’t tell them th- [inaudible]


There’s a lot to say at this point, but it would be malapropos to cut the remaining context. Let’s hear Sam out. Cont:

W: Sorry but – I have an 18 year old boy, who’s… y’know, gorgeous. And when I’m trying to tell him to do the right thing, and he does something stupid… and then I wanna find out why he did that, I don’t even ask, cuz it’s a stupid question. Cuz he doesn’t even know why he did it, cuz he’s an 18-year-old boy. But when I’m looking at impacting his future behavior, where’s the practical separation between knowing… that there’s really no free will, and wanting your children to be responsible in their behavior and what they do in the world.

S: Okay… Well, this is an important question-


S: I think that there are many false assumptions about what it must mean to think that there’s no free will. I think there’s no free will, but I think that effort is incredibly important. I mean, you can’t wait around… I think the example I gave in my book is, well, if you wanna learn Chinese, you can’t just wait around to see if you learn it. It’s not gonna happen to you. There’s a way to learn Chinese, and you have to do the things you do to learn Chinese. Every skill or system of knowledge you can master is like that, and getting off of drugs is like that, and getting into shape is like that, and straightening out your life in any way that it’s crooked is like that. But the recognition that you didn’t make yourself, and that you are exactly as you are at this moment because the universe is as it is in this moment has a flip side, which is… you don’t know how fully you can be changed in the next moment, by good company, and good conversations, and reading good books, and… you don’t know, what you – you are an open system. It’s just a simple fact that people can radically change themselves. You’re not condemned to be who you were yesterday.

There’s a little more, but I think this is a good place to pause.

For the most part, Sam Harris is an incredibly rigorous, logical, and consistent thinker. After rejecting Islam I was drawn to Sam because he not only took the axiomatic standpoint of atheism, but also explored the implications and consequences of atheist realism by trying to develop what is essentially his own ‘atheist ethic’. His books ‘Lying’ and ‘Free Will’ are not just his own thoughts directed at a public audience; they’re actually a series of meditations through which Sam challenges himself, redressing areas that had long been considered ‘dead-ends’ wherein the repercussions of atheism (irrespective of its analytical correctness) are so deeply negative that in the final analysis pursuing such a worldview is simply not worth the trouble. In this respect, his philosophy is even comparable to Kantian deontology, which constitutes a similar attempt at grounding human morality in logic and proofs. Not bad, Sam. Not bad.

But nothing within Sam’s credentials can ameliorate the discrepancy we see in this conversation, between Sam’s philosophical idealism (what he calls ‘moral realism’) and his stated claims. Obviously we can let Sam off for the “Don’t tell them” line – it was a joke, and the audience got that. But as he goes on, we see the ethos within “Don’t tell them” repeated, explicated, and justified.

According to Sam, suppressing the ‘truth’ (that free will is an illusion) can at times lead to the actualization of greater potential. Obviously, we all know this already; at the most basic level, that is what religions do. By gathering the local township for collective prayer, meditation, and socialization, religious organizations have for time immemorial been using what Sam and Harari would call a ‘fiction’ to better people’s lives and endow them with a sense of meaning, purpose, and spiritual fulfillment. Yes, I am aware that the same mechanism can also be used for harm as well – that’s obvious, and unrelated to my point. The key here is that compromising the ‘truth’ in order to attain Hararian ’empowerment’ is precisely what Sam has criticized religion for.

This is why the Sam’s declaration that truth ought to be sacrificed in abet of empowerment (at least some of the time) is of such fundamental importance. His suggestion that we should utilize fictions in order to improve our social reality is devastating for moral realism, because it means that his desired system of social organization is essentially a religion, by virtue of operating along the same principles. By acknowledging that some aspects of reality (truth) should be set aside in name of functionality (power), Sam accepts the legitimacy of moral systems to uphold fictions for the good of their adherents. It is not just that he acknowledges that this is possible – he actually suggests that it ought to be pursued.

For what it’s worth, Sam himself admits this difficulty later in the video, conceding that what you say to people should be ‘true and useful’. But if it is valid and correct to use baseless fictions (such as the existence of free will) in order to better our lives, then we are instead promoting ‘what is useful and not true’. At this point we are effectively ruling out the possibility that there are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ modes of social organization, since the discussion now moves to what level of usefulness justifies the abnegation of truth, and so on and so forth. The question ‘which moral system is correct’  becomes ‘which moral systems balance fiction and power appropriately’. Far from moral realism, this perspective is so blatantly pragmatist as to make William James turn in his grave. Moreover, Sam’s dismissal of the validity of religious systems based on their unrelatedness to material reality now seems positively hypocritical in light of his advocacy for those very same methods.

In short, if we accept Sam’s proposition, then it is meaningless to strive for the creation of a social system upholding an ‘objective’ or ‘correct’ moral reality. Instead, the question that then results is: ‘to what extent must we sacrifice the truth in order to attain the truth’. Needless to say, such a question – at least from Sam’s own moral realist perspective – is utterly incoherent.

Individualist ethics and rape

Over here in the UK, feminist academic Germaine Greer recently caused a huge controversy by calling for the punishment for rape to be reduced (Guardian). She stated that rape is not a “spectacularly violent crime” but is often instead “lazy, careless, and insensitive”. Obviously, this created storms of furious chatter between the pro- and anti-camps that emerged out of the formless ether of the internet presumably only engage in the kind of mindless invective that seems to dominate sociocultural discourse right now. That said, Greer was making an argument, and treating it as such necessitates some consideration of what she was actually getting at.

Firstly, Germaine’s argument can be distinguished into two elements, one descriptive, one prescriptive. To me, her descriptive claims seem to be the following:

  1. Rape generally doesn’t inflict much harm
  2. Exceptions to this pattern are rare
  3. A significant proportion of rapes, whether harmful or otherwise, are the results of miscommunications in which malevolence or ill-intent were absent (where mens rea cannot be reasonably attributed)

Following this reasoning, she makes the accordant prescriptive claim (4) that the punishment from rape should be reduced. I’m going to argue that while her fundamental descriptive claim (1) is wrong, her prescriptive claim (4) would still be wrong even if (1) was right. Here goes.

Greer makes the acknowledgment that while rates of PTSD among combat veterans is close to 20%, these pale into insignificance in comparison with the rates among rape victims which approximate 70%. I didn’t check the source of these claims because it’s irrelevant to my argument, but I’ll note that I’m skeptical of the notion that the collection of this data for PTSD rates was methodologically identical (i.e. self-reported vs medically diagnosed). In reference to this huge disparity, Greer says:

“What the hell are you saying? Something that leaves no sign, no injury, no nothing is more damaging to a woman than seeing your best friend blown up by an IED is to a veteran?”

This is the statement that set my psychology-sense tingling.

Unfortunately for Greer, clinical psychologists have known for decades that the likelihood and severity of PTSD symptoms cannot be evaluated in direct proportionality to any physical harm inflicted by an experience. This is because trauma is as a phenomenon dependent on our subjective expectations and self-image within the context of interlocking societal collectives, or what clinical psychologists like to call a ‘schema’ for short. James Pennebaker is a clinical psychologist who did a lot of research back in the ‘90s on trauma and its epidemiology; his papers are a goldmine for fascinating factoids, like gender being a better predictor of PTSD likelihood than proximity to ground zero.* Jordan Peterson, much of whose pre-fame academic career actually focused on trauma, summarizes findings for us as follows: “[a] blizzard that would incapacitate Washington for a month barely makes the residents of Montreal blink”.**

In short, Greer is wrong about the harmfulness of rape. People can be traumatized by quite a lot of things, and the fact that more rape victims report being traumatized than combat veterans is direct attestation to that fact. A soldier fighting in a combat zone will likely have a reasonable expectation of killing someone, of having his friends killed, or of being killed (or almost killed) himself. All of those events are pre-programmed into their schema from basic training onward. Frankly, the fact that around 20% of soldiers get PTSD at all seems to suggest that war is even more brutal than we think, since it’s unlikely that so many people would be traumatized by something they engaged in years of physical and mental preparation for otherwise.

Contrast this with a woman walking home from work who gets assaulted, dragged away and raped. As awful traumatic events go, this is pretty much 99th percentile. Given the assumption that healthy and psychologically normative individuals do not tend to make provision for the eventuality that they will be physically and sexually violated in such a way, nor would the future possibility of such an event feature prominently in their self-image, nor would they have engaged in years of intense physical and mental preparation for being victimized in such a fashion, they’re entirely defenseless to the psychological damage that subsequently ensues. Viewed in this context, Greer’s attempted comparison seems somewhat inane; why would rape victims get PTSD at a higher rate than combat soldiers? We might be better served by asking how on earth they would not?

But returning to the original point – even if we grant that these types of rapes are a small minority, and most rapes are not *as* traumatic (this does not mean *not* traumatic), she’s still totally wrong on the prescriptive point she made suggesting that the punishments for rape should be decreased.

Things aren’t illegal just because they upset people, and individual harm isn’t the sole factor considered by any justice system. Crimes and their legally mandated punishments are also integral elements to the social contract, which dictates what a society considers to be acceptable or integral to its cohesiveness and smooth operation. Ideally, this social contract reflects the social will, otherwise you’re most likely in a tyranny of some kind (a definition with which modern Britain surely complies).

That aside, the policing and punishment of rape is not an isolated phenomenon that pertains only to the retribution of the harm done by the offense – it also lays out in stone the framework around sexual relations which our culture, any culture, considers to be normative and moral. Forcing people to have sex with you is wrong – it’s a behavior we are so opposed to, that we’ll lock you up for 10 or more years in jail just so you have enough time to get that into your head before we let you out again.

Little of this, in the Western legal tradition, has anything to do with inflicting upon the perpetrator an equivalent level of harm as he himself committed; the Western justice system is not as victim-centric as Islamic law (e.g. qisas) or other similar systems, but in fact SOCIAL-centric, in the sense that it operates on the principle of the sanctity of the common good. In other words, it seems to me that Greer is failing to incorporate the social implications of rape into an overall assessment of its harm. This kind of failure is typically exhibited by Western moral individualists, whose elevation of the individual to absolute primacy results in a kind of vulgar utilitarianism exemplified by Greer’s comparison of PTSD rates between rape victims and soldiers. Such thinkers may be very good at assessing individual harm, but they’re also incredibly bad at building moral frameworks for functional social systems – if you want proof for that, just look at the West today.

However, I would support further distinction and categorization of rape within the legal system, simply because I do acknowledge that an aspect of Greer’s reasoning here is correct. 

Perhaps this situation could be remediated by adding further categories of legal distinction to rape, such as rape by coercion, rape by force, and rape by predation, or something of the kind. It seems to me that categorizing date rapes (as meriting of punishment as they obviously are) alongside those of the other kind mentioned here is somewhat nonsensical.


*Pennebaker, JW, Cohn, MA and Mehl, MR. “Linguistic markers of psychological change surrounding September 11, 2001,” Psychological
Science 2004, 15 (10). pp. 687-693. DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00741.x. P691

**Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge, 1999, p249