On passions and political divisions

Member of the Academic Council of Libertad y Progreso.
PhD in Administration from the Catholic University of La Plata and Professor of Economics at the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences of the UBA. His research has been collected internationally and he has published books and scientific and outreach articles. He has served as Rector of ESEADE and as a consultant for the University of Manchester, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, OAS, IDB and G7Group, Inc. He has received awards and scholarships, including the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship and the Freedom Project of the John Templeton Foundation.

INFOBAEThere are certain ideas that we assume as creeds, feeding the divisions among us. Where do they come from and how do they work? Passions seem to feed the answers to that question.

On December 26, Edward Osborne Wilson (1929-2021), perhaps unknown to most, passed away. He was a noted biologist and naturalist, a professor at Harvard, and subject to the same kind of passions that fuel our political debates, only in a different field. Curiously, their conclusions are important contributions to the study of the reasons behind their confrontations.

At a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978, when he was introduced to the audience, a participant climbed up and emptied a pitcher of water on his head. After a while, after drying off, he continued with his lecture. What is it that generated such rejection? What could offend so much?

What Wilson did was question a view prevalent among scientists and philosophers since John Locke, known as the “blank page.” According to this theory, there are no innate ideas in the mind. Instead, we come into this world with a brain that is a blank page that we begin to fill in with data and information we receive through the senses. In other words, our training is essentially cultural: we soak up the world around us.

Wilson started from the opposite assumption, believing that there is a biological basis for our behaviors, at least some of them. The rejection was complete, especially from the left, which considered this to be a justification for discrimination based on sex or race. These ideas were associated with eugenics, the idea of ​​improving genetic inheritance through certain interventions or the selection of certain individuals. Eugenics ended up totally discredited when it was associated with the Nazi attempt to generate a superior race or later policies of forced sterilization, and rightly so. Thus, not only has eugenics become taboo but also social biology itself even if they are not the same thing. Wilson was associated with those proposals and discriminated against when his field was science, not politics.

Why does the left flatly reject biological influence on behavior? Well, because at the center of his ideology is the need to form, in the words of Che Guevara, a “new man”. Human minds need to be shaped to fit a new system, one in which people would be motivated by revolution and socialism rather than self-interest. The Khmer Rouge put these ideas into practice. Perhaps it is not surprising that we found similar positions at both extremes, sometimes at the positive (training new people), and others at the negative (eliminating “bad” people).

But the Wilson thing had nothing to do with eugenics, it had to do with science. However, his scientific contributions have also worried some liberals, perhaps because if certain behaviors are “predetermined” then the field of free will and individual responsibility is reduced. Nevertheless, Wilson was never a “determinist” and in 1975 he published a book of great impact, called Sociobiology, the New Synthesis, where he analyzes human behaviors shaped by evolution for the benefit of the reproduction of genes, something that Darwin had already studied in The Origin of Species.

This world opened by Wilson is currently exploding with contributions from the natural and social sciences of all kinds, and is booming in popular books such as those by Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Gerd Gigerenzer and many others, which seek to explain the roots of certain ideas that predominate in our society. This extends to economic ideas, of course. Why do people think that exports are good and imports are bad? Why do you favor rent or price control when we know they never work? There is a cultural element, of course, but it’s based on emotions. Politicians know this intuitively, and very well. Thus, they appeal to those emotions, not reason. They appeal to the feeling of a tribe, not to an open and globalized mind.

Many of these emotions “come from the factory”, as Wilson stated, and populist politicians ride on them, always insisting o a “them against us” dynamic. The problem is always the IMF, capitalism, the creditors, etc. Those who love freedom have more trouble promoting their idea of ​​an open, globalized order, an idea that is no more than 200 years old; nothing in terms of the evolution of the mind in groups for centuries.