Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Review of Ron Newby’s Literary Adventure: Homo sapiens, A Liberal Perspective


Joe Nalven

There are some superficial similarities between my annual adventure in teaching an introductory course in cultural anthropology and Ron Newby’s extended essay. We both pay attention to the evolution of the hominin line and our own species Homo sapiens sapiens, a branch of the great apes; we both consider perplexities in the nature/nurture understandings of genes and behavior; and we both look at current understandings and governmental policies that affect how society is managed (or mismanaged).

However, Newby’s adventure does not pretend to a professional’s expertise, but rather that of the generally informed reader and he limits the latter half of the book to what might be broadly viewed as human nature and its manifestation in governance within the U.S. In my class, the text that I use pretends to systematically examine the human condition in a global perspective with chapters dedicated to kinship and family, language, political systems, economic systems, race and ethnicity, religion, the arts, etc. (I use the word pretends since it is truly impossible to capture the vastness of this subject, both at present and historically, particularly with our information base expanding in a multiplicity of ways.)

It would be unfair for the comments in this review to confuse the two approaches. Still, it is important to recognize that Newby limits his view of modern humanity to contemporary U.S. issues and concerns. Newby provides a liberal’s perspective on issues that range from man’s inhumanity to man, what makes for good and bad behavior, man’s inhumanity to the planet.

Liberals, of course, do not own the concerns set out in this book; still, Newby’s evidence and interpretations make for an interesting battleground of ideas.

Newby is upfront about his personal history and biases: “I am a biologist, an artist, a liberal and an atheist; a nonconformist, maybe an outsider.” (p. 3)

By contrast, I tell my students, “I don’t do PC in this class.”

However, there is a next step to being transparent. I take care to develop a testing approach that does not penalize students for different views.

Newby takes a partisan approach. From a broad perspective, he advocates that the reader join the Liberal tribe: “There is a tribe whose members are composed of educated and reasoned individuals . . . . The tribe’s name: ‘The Liberals.’” (p. 148)

(Given the history of the word liberal, it might be useful for Newby to define how he is using the term in this essay.)

Newby’s approach makes sense within his frame of reference. For example, in discussing climate change, he suggests that two elected officials in Congress need to have their views changed (to the Liberal way of doing science and to the policy springing from that view): “Have they read the reports on climate change; shall we force them to read it? Send them back to college to take some basic science courses? Take away their Bibles? How can they ignore scientific evidence? Here’s the answer: take away the money they receive from Fossil Fuel corporations and Super Pacs.” (p. 129) (Emphasis added)

Whether or not one agrees with Newby’s attitude towards some elected officials and their policies and rationales, and whether their policies are distorted by pecuniary interests, take a moment to focus on Newby’s preferred methods: Force them, send them back, take away. That’s a coercive approach to changing the belief systems of those who do not agree with one’s own.

Not only is this approach off putting to those who are members of the other political tribes, but it also undermines the belief in the utility of rational persuasive methods.

(Of course, I would have to suffer this re-education program which Newby describes. But this is not so bad since I engage these points of views – to the extent that they appear in the textbook that I use – as a way to make the educational process come alive, and then let the students pick whatever they find most useful in their lives.)

His comments about coercive re-education in this chapter seem out of step with his chapter dealing with the difficulties of changing beliefs. Newby notes that “anger towards those who fail to conform to one’s own beliefs is the first step towards hate and revenge. Revenge can lead to some unpleasant consequences.” (p. 144)

So, what is one to think? On the one hand, Newby suggests soft methods of persuasion advocated by Howard Gardner and Susan Perry – a mix of repeated messages in a variety of ways and with the listener’s perceived self-interest in mind as well as being aware of their level of intelligence. (pp. 142–43)

But this persuasive process may not work; something more may be required.

As I read Newby, when one is faced with a divided world of opinion, it may require more than the give and take of reasoned discussion. It requires membership in the Liberal tribe. (pp. 147–49)

That is all well and good except that the title of the book would be better retitled as: From Homo sapiens to Homo American Liberal.  

Newby could avoid some of the traps he sets for himself by either including more of the other point of view and seeking a less partisan approach (clearly, he is not interested in this scenario) or avoid a print edition. Print editions, including the textbook I use, suffer the fate of being outdated the moment they are printed. If Newby’s book were only available as an eBook he could avoid being surprised by the latest news.

For example, one can slice and dice statistical numbers to prove a point of view. The better approach is to examine a variety of ways to slice and dice those numbers and see whether there are confounding or intervening variables. Newby argues the issue about charitable giving from the perspective of lower-, middle- and upper-class membership. Fine. That leads Newby to one set of conclusions. BUT, if he looked at other studies, those that disaggregate the data by states, one takes away a different appreciation of charitable giving.

Newby’s point is that the lower class is relatively more generous simply because they cannot take advantage of tax code credits. (p. 115)  

However, reconsider the data from the variable of Red States versus Blue States. Do Conservatives or Liberals give more (following this line of analysis)?

From the Huffington Post (8/9/2013):

“People who live in deeply religious regions of the country — the solid-red states of the Bible Belt and Utah – give more of their income to charity than those who don't. Of the top 10 most generous states, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy study based on itemized charitable contributions among people who made at least $50,000, nine voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.

"Charitable causes include churches, and Salt Lake City is the nation's most generous city. Its residents donate an average of nine percent of their discretionary income to charity; the Mormon Church asks its members for one-tenth of their income as tithing. When you remove religion from the picture and look only at secular charities, the map shifts dramatically towards the Northeast.”

Worth noting: Volunteering time does not present the same picture as charitable giving. 

A similar argument  using a regional (Blue vs. Red state) analysis  is equally informative with respect to redistribution policies and income inequality. The findings challenge Newby's belief about higher taxation leading to more income equality. (pp. 116-17)

So, even if Newby committed to his Liberal tribal approach, he could still make the argument more nuanced. But partisanship is not about nuance.

Newby does a better job in identifying those perceptual and interpretive processes that constrain rationality. We are not computers.

So, the reader is challenged by Newby’s Liberal partisanship on the one hand and important topics dealing with understanding the nature and constraints of human rationality on the other. These should fit together, but there is an uneasy tension between the two.

Occasionally, there is the odd comment and wrong word choices which would be edited out by professional editing. Doing an eBook offers the seductive option of skipping layers of copy editing. While these are minor, one merits being singled out since I am unable to make sense out of it.

In discussing whether Free Will is part of the Homo sapiens’ Intrinsic nature (pp. 133–135), Newby juxtaposes two behaviors – one of which raises the dander on post-WWII observers. Perhaps coming back from Berlin, Germany, with its significant attempts to combat the horrors of their country, I am more attuned to this phraseology.

“We all seem to know what Free Will is and we all believe we have it . . . . A beautiful woman sauntering in front of us; would you not check her out? Do you really have a choice? Did the old hormones take over? When I called my friend a Jew, was this an example of Free Will or was I acting out of instinct? Now I expect you to say: “But wait a minute, I have Free Will. I can choose which stocks to buy based upon my market research. I can make an analytical decision”. (pp. 134–35)

I singled out the reference to calling his friend a Jew. In the context of the preceding sentence, calling his friend a “lecher” or a “ladies man” or a “Romeo” makes more sense. But an ethnic designation is out of left field, especially when Newby asks if it was “acting out of instinct”? What instinct would that be? If Newby meant that this ethnic reference was clearly not the same as a sex instinct, fine. But why the “Jew” designation without some additional connective language. It is a non-sequitur that raises connotative meanings that Newby ought to avoid. Perhaps my comment is one urging PC; but it is more than that when one looks at the narrative structure and logic of this paragraph.

Fortunately, this type of writing is rare compared to the challenge of deciding whether one is part of the Liberal or the Conservative (or Libertarian or the Peace and Freedom or the other affinity groups we loosely refer to as ‘tribes.’)

A final note. Newby notes his artistic bias. I would love to know if the cover art was done by Newby. It is an appropriate portrait to what the book is about. However, there is no credit given to the artwork.

Homo sapiens A Liberal Perspective, Ron Newby, 2014, ISBN 0615970095

From Ron Newby, June 16, 2014

I have been offered this opportunity to reply to Joe Nalven’s review of my book, Homo sapiens, A Liberal’s Perspective.

His lengthy review is greatly appreciated. There are a few points that I consider worth considering and there are more sections of his review that I consider his quibbles.  That which is gratifying  is that Nalven read deeply the book and, most importantly, he asked questions.  Conversations and critical thinking regarding man’s plight are most urgently needed. 

His quibbles seemed to dominate his review.  My great concern is that I believe he missed the the point of view of my book.  The objective for my book is to stimulate critical thinking concerning man’s plight and how we became to be a species that seems to be on a path of self-destruction.  
Humans are tribal animals with ancient behavioral roots.  We use our brain to make decisions, a brain that has evolved to be able to outwit outplay and out last all other hominins.  We are the survivors; but for long?  Our brain with its ancient roots may be the cause of today’s present condition.  We war, we torture, we pollute, we ethnic cleanse, we scheme and lie and we look to God for salvation.  We have developed constructs that often have short term goals neglecting our long term survival.  These constructs and man’s genetic heritage may likely hasten our demise; or at the minimum, our pleasant life we now enjoy.  Humans seem not to be able to change our path, no matter how we lecture, protest or use friendly persuasion.  We are trapped by our genetics. 
Individually, we process information differently. We have selective vision, auditory and processing facilities.  Fear and anger are genetic traits that clouds one’s ability to observe and analysis many situations.  The genetic tribal traits of compassion and cooperation insured H. sapiens survival.  In contrast there are also genetic traits that lead us to be selfish, insuring our individual survival.  

The quibbles:  
Nalven comments, in the section on prejudice, page 135, on a question I posed; When I called my friend a Jew, was this an example of Free Will or was I acting out of instinct?”
On page 57, I related a childhood experience that occurred when I was 7 or 8 years of age.  A neighbor boy behaving as a bully gave me a big push.  My immediate reaction; “You’re a Jew.”  This was a word I had very recently heard for the first time, from my father.  He used this word in an obvious disparaging manner.  As I had related on page 57, I had no understanding of either the definition or implications of that word.  I asked the thought question: Was it free will or instinctual?  Is retaliation instinctual?  Nalven had difficulty with this concept.  What is obvious is that it was an early learning experience; discovering the power of words/epithets.  

“Newby is upfront about his personal history and biases: “I am a biologist, an artist, a liberal and an atheist; a nonconformist, maybe an outsider.” (p. 3)   “By contrast, I (Nalven) tell my students, “I don’t do PC in this class.”  I have no idea why this is part of his review.  I assume that PC equates to politically correct.  This book is not intended for a classroom in a public school.  It’s just a book with a political slant, which I clearly indicate.  There is a significant difference between being “Politically Correct” and disclosing one bias.   I do appreciate that he “take care to develop a testing approach that does not penalize students for different views.”  Nalven may have a wonderful teaching protocol, but I fail to see the relevance to the review of the book.  
Referencing page 129:  Nalven: “That’s a coercive approach to changing the belief systems of those who do not agree with one’s own.”  I posed several ludicrous questions as to methods of changing conservatives beliefs regarding their view on the climate crisis.   Should conservatives be forced to read the climate reports or we should take away their Bibles?  Nalven states that this is “Newby’s preferred methods”.  Really?   I concluded the paragraph with:  “Here’s the answer: take away the money they receive from Fossil Fuel corporations and Super Pacs.”  This approach may be unrealistic, but it’s certainly not coercive, but it would be, I surmise, very effective. 

Again Nalven seems to miss my objective:  He states ”That is all well and good except that the title of the book would be better retitled as: From Homo sapiens to Homo American Liberal.      
I do draw a considerable amount of material from Americana, such as references to Donald Trump, Dick Cheney and others.  I think they are emblematic of some human traits found in most conservative cultures and societies.  All the biological traits described in the book are universal and not restricted to the USA.
Was Nalven’s attempt to re-title the book relevant or accurate, or just a quibble?   

Another Nalven quibble: the “correct” nomenclature of our species.  He felt it necessary to add the subspecies designation. The wider accepted nomenclature of humans (by lumpers)  is Homo sapiens.  Splitters may consider modern humans as a subspecies.  See page 24. This Nalven addition is not a big problem, but was it really not necessary?
There are other parts of Nalven’s review that I could comment but will not.  Joe Nalven gave considerable thought and time in his review.  He did not gloss over the book.  He took his assignment seriously and with intellectual vigor.  Regardless if the reviewer likes or, in this case takes exception, it was certainly well considered.

I intentionally did not give credit (to myself) for the cover art.  Modesty prevailed and I did not think/consider that would have been all that important.  The painting speaks for itself.  

Ron Newby

1 comment:

  1. I am not a cover-to-cover book reader. I love Ron’s book because I can pick it up and open to any page and find wisdom, a quote, or personal anecdote that intrigues me and encourages me to read further. In addition, the presentation of the book, with the Table of Contents, allows me to “cherry pick” subjects of interest me for my reading pleasure and edification. Well done, Ron. I thank you for the opportunity to expand my world view!