Monday, March 26, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

A recent article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade (“Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior”, March, 20, 2007) explores recent scientific studies on the origins of the human moral sense in the evolutionary history of our order (the primates) and has led some biologists to the conclusion that “if morality grew out of the behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.” This opens a very interesting can of worms.

First, let me say that, from a materialist, especially a Marxist, perspective “morality,” or morally worthy behavior (MWB) didn’t just fall from the sky. MWB should be capable of being investigated in terms of the history of its development through time and in terms related to our historical evolution as a species.

Second, if MWB can be described in other species, and especially in species with whom we share an evolutionary history, it would seem to indicate there is a natural, biological basis, for human MWB And we should be reminded that it was the first biologist, as well as being a great philosopher (I mean Aristotle), who told us that, “He who considers things in their first growth and origin ... will obtain the clearest view of them (1252a25).

There is at present a turf war going on between some evolutionary biologists and some philosophers as to which of them should control the domain of explanation with respect to the realm of MWB. This is a totally fruitless dispute as the two sides are arguing at cross purposes.

Wade’s article is an extended discussion of the work of the evolutionary biologist Frans de Waal who, in his book “Primates and Philosophers”, “defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.” Since there is a qualitative difference between describing what social behavior IS and what it SHOULD be, the disagreement between some philosophers ( idealists and a few mechanical materialists) and biologists such as de Waal is not a real disagreement at all, only a confusion between the origins of MWB and what actually constitutes MWB today.

Lets see what de Waal’s research has discovered. He has spent his career studying primates and is now at Emory University. He discovered that “consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys.” Chimpanzees, for example, when they see one chimp get beaten up by another, go over and console the defeated chimp. Also: “Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others.”

This looks like pretty good evidence for “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” in apes-- all of which are examples of MWB when found in humans. De Waal concluded, according to Wade, this behavior “requires a level of self-awareness [and other-awareness I hasten to add-- tr] that only apes and humans seem to possess.” I should remark here that there is evidence of such behavior in other primates as well as non primates (rhesus monkeys and elephants to name two).

De Waal has discovered in primates four behavioral motifs that are, in fact, the basis of human social life and the moral systems that sustain this life. It seems to be empirically undeniable that human social life and the moral systems therefrom derived are evolutionarily descended from pre-human primate ancestors. The four motifs are 1) empathy, 2) the ability to live by social rules, 3)reciprocity and 4) peacemaking [chimpanzees use stones as weapons and females "will head off a fight by taking stones out of the male's hands"].

The scientific evidence indicates that as humans evolved away from the common ancestor shared with the chimpanzees we first developed moral codes and then religion. There is no evidence of religious behavior found in non-human primates.

"I look at religions as recent additions," de Waal is quoted as saying, "Their function may have to do with social life. and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do."

De Waal thinks MWB evolved within primitive pre-human primate groups as a method of internal group solidarity against other groups. "The profound irony is," he wrote, "that our noblest achievement--- morality--- has evolutionary tires to our basest behavior --- warfare. The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter."

I think we can delink the origins of MWB and warfare. De Waal may be reading back into primitive times modern notions. His own research indicates that primates "lower" than apes have some moral conceptions and a sense of fairness. The Times article reports that rhesus monkeys will refuse to pull a chain that gives them food once they realize that it also causes another monkey to get an electric shock. The article also says that "Capuchin monkeys show their displeasure if given a smaller reward than a partner receives for performing the same task, like a piece of cucumber instead of a grape."

The above indicates to me that MWB evolved out of a sense of fairness. Warfare has a much more complicated origin and I don't think it can properly be said to exist in primates below the level of Homo. If it is traced back to territoriality, then its origins predate MWB by millions of years and is found throughout the animal kingdom.

The main point is that MWB can be traced back to pre-human origins. Some philosophers have no problem with this others do. The argument revolves around the function of reason versus emotion in ethical decision making, and here confusion reigns.

"Human behavior derives above all," de Waal maintains, "from fast automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes." This does not apply to rationally derived systems of ethics. Anyone who thinks Kant's "Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals" or "Critique of Practical Reason" were written as the result of automated emotional judgments had better reconsider their position.

Human self-consciousness and reason has a feedback relationship with our emotional judgments and while many people, even most people, may very well act in the way described by de Waal it is not always necessarily so. People have the ability to reflect on their behavior, reason about it, and change their behaviors accordingly. Reasoning is not always after the fact as de Waal suggests.

Sharon Street, an NYU philosopher, makes just this point when she was quoted in the article. "You can identify some value we hold," she said, "and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it. That's not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant too."

De Waal, I think misses Sharon Street's point when he make the following rejoinder. "I'm not sure how realistic the [is-ought] distinction is. Animals do have 'oughts.' If a juvenile is in a fight, the mother must [!] get up and defend her. Or in food sharing, animals do put pressure on each other, which is the first kind of 'ought' situation." I don't think this is right. A scientist can say as a matter of fact a mother will (most probably) defend a juvenile but where is the warrant for saying she "must" do that. The point is that moral statements regarding MWB entail value judgements and have greater reference than do descriptive statements of empirically observed behavior.

It is definitely correct to search out the biologically and evolutionary orgins of human behavior, but it is not the job of the biologists to tell us which behaviors we should strengthen, which we should try and modify or overcome , or what new behaviors we should adopt even if there are no evolutionary precedents. David Hume was right in saying you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is."

A final speculation. Since a sense of fairness seems to be at the basis of morality, and capitalism is based on the exploitation of human labor power by a parasitical nonproductive class of unfair exploiters, it would seem to be the case that our natural human evolutionary goal would be to live under a socialist system based on fairness and nonexploitation. So, less talk about the "God gene" and more scientific research to find the "Marxism gene."

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs magazine and can be reached at

Monday, March 19, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

On March 9 The New York Times ran an obituary on Rufina Amaya who died at 64 in El Salvador, of a stroke, the previous Tuesday. We should all remember the ordeal experienced by Ms. Amaya at the hands of troops specifically trained by U.S. Special Forces.

We read in the papers today that the U.S. plans on the “Salvadorization” of the Iraqi counterinsurgency as a way to bring about an American victory. In fact, The New York Times Magazine in a 2005 article (May 01) revealed that the Iraqi counterinsurgency was being advised by an American who led the Special Forces in El Salvador in the 1980s.

What can Iraqi civilians expect to face? Well, here is the story of Rufina Amaya and her village, El Mozote, and what happened to her and it at the hands of the American trained troops. This information is all publicly available on the internet (Wikepedia, articles from the The New Yorker, New York Times and Washington Post, among others).

The Atlacatl Brigade was the first “Rapid Deployment Infantry Brigade” in the Salvadorian army. It was trained by the U.S. and was supposed to destroy the peasant liberation movement fighting for bread and land against the Salvadorian oligarchy and its American supporters (the FMLN).

On the night of December 10, 1981 the Atlacatl Brigade took over the remote village of El Mozote. The Brigade thought that FMLN members might sometimes be getting food and shelter in the village, but they had no proof.

On the morning of the 11th the Brigade decided to put its training to work and make an example of the people of El Mozote. They decided to kill the entire population of the village (about 900 people including peasants from the countryside who came to stay in El Mozote out of fear of the Atlacatl Brigade in the field. The population was unarmed.

The men were separated from the women and children and publicly executed, many were beheaded (not an Iraqi invention). Then all the girls and women 12 years old and up were killed, many were first raped. Finally all the children under 12 and the babies were taken into the village church and then shot and bayonetted.

The next day, the 12th, the Brigade went to the nearby village of Los Toriles where they lined up the population and shot them down. Back at El Mozote there was one survivor, Rufina Amaya, who had been able to hide. She heard her own small children screaming in fear as they were killed by the U.S. trained counterinsugency troops.

She lived to tell the world what had happened. The U.S. of course defended the Atlacatl Brigade. The Reagan administration played down the reports that were published in The Washington Post and New York Times. Elliott Abrams, the same Elliott Abrams that now works for the Bush administration, told the Congress that the reports of the killings were not believable.

The bulk of the mass media followed the Reagan line. Time magazine suggested that if there were dead children we should remember that children can support our enemies the guerillas. No one was ever punished and the Atlacatl Brigade continued in the field carrying out its mission which culminated in 1989 with the murder of six Jesuit priests their cook and her daughter.

Peace accords were signed between the government and the rebels in 1992 and a general amnesty was proclaimed. However, a 2000 court ruling stripped the amnesty protections from the sort of massacres that were perpetuated by the Atlacatl Brigade but so far no one has been brought to justice.

Rufina Amaya has died. She will no longer awaken in the night to the screams of her children. The Special Forces have moved on to train the Iraqi counterinsurgency. Elliott Abrams has moved on to serve another president who wages wars against other third world peoples. It will be Iraqi mothers now who will face U.S. trained forces.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs and can be reached at

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Guest Blog on Clinton Turns to the Right on War

Taking the fight for justice to Bush and the Republicans. By Joel Wendland - send comments.
Saturday, March 17, 2007
Is war a Left or Right Issue?

On a recent post on his blog "Lenin Lives"
(, Thomas Riggins describes Hillary
Clinton's recent announcement that she doesn't support full withdrawal
of U.S. troops from Iraq as a "move to the right."

The specifics of Clinton's statement aside for the moment, I want to
take issue with Riggin's metaphor of left and right.
Sure, it might be nice to classify easily and neatly all opponents of
the war as "left" but that simply doesn't reflect reality. A great
many are people who would bristle at being described as leftist or
even as liberal. Many are conservative.

Indeed, if only leftists were opponents of the war, it would never
end. I think that has been proven time and time again.

What's my point? Well rhetoric such as left and right on this war
issue is neither accurate nor helpful. Millions of people are going to
have to speak up and demand an end to the war, and not all of them are
going to be true-blue leftists. Not all of them are even going to be
"left of center." Many are going to be staunch conservatives.

Thus, it is more accurate to characterize Clinton's remarks as a step
backward rather than a step to the right. Rather than characterizing
the war in left and right terms, let's talk about it in terms of
forward (toward ending the war and occupation) and back (escalation or
delaying the withdrawal).

Should people move to the left? Personally, I'd like everyone to be on
the left, but that isn't realistic. But can millions of people help
Ms. Clinton, Congress, and Bush move forward by bringing the war to an
end? Yes. Do they need to be leftists to do so? No

Friday, March 16, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

(New York City, 3-15-2007) According to today’s New York Times Hillary Clinton has decided to keep American troops in Iraq should she become the next president She is quoted in an article by Michael Gordon and Patrick Healy [Clinton Says Some G.I,’s in Iraq Would Stay if She Took Office].

The whole tone of the article indicates that Clinton has moved to the right of center, has tacitly accepted the Bush strategy of establishing greater U.S. imperialist control of the middle east and of taking control of Iraq’s oil. In other words, she has moved into the neocon camp with respect to Iraq.

She says we will have a “remaining military as well as political mission in Iraq” after Bush departs and she is in control. This view flies in the face of the views of most Americans who want a total withdrawal from Iraq.

Clinton said troops would have to stay because of our “remaining vital national security interests in Iraq.” She means the troops will be needed to guarantee that we will get control of the Iraqi oil reserves. Iraq, she said, “is right in the heart of the oil region. It is directly in opposition to our interests [she means if a non-pro-U.S. government emerged], to the interests of the regimes [?], to Israel’s interests.[i.e., to keep Arab land and not go back to its 1967 borders]--tr]” By all means lets put Israel’s interests, and those of “the regimes” and the oil companies, before those of the American people.

The more you read the article the more contradictory and confused Clinton’s statements become. “So it will be up to me,” she said, “to try to figure out how to protect those national security interests and continue to take our troops out of this urban warfare, which I think is a loser.” The article reveals that she doesn’t want to take the troops out of Iraq, just out of the urban areas which she doesn’t think they can hold.

Another reason to keep troops in theatre is that Iraq “serves as a petri dish for insurgents and Al-Qaeda,” she is quoted as saying. This ignores the facts that the insurgency is fueled by the presence of U.S. troops and Al-Qaeda's raison d’etre in Iraq would vanish with our withdrawal. Most knowledgeable commentators think the insurgency would turn on Al-Qaeda which makes up a tiny part of the opposition to the occupation.

Clinton thinks she will inherit an unstable situation in Iraq. She will have to protect the Iraqi government, the Kurds (from the Turks) and prevent Iran from “having too much influence.”
Clinton will try to be Bush lite.

She wants to remove our troops from active combat and settle them outside the urban areas where they will allow the Sunnis and Shia to slug it out. They might as well just come home (except for all that oil). Where will they be stationed? Probably to the north of Baghdad and in the west of Anbar province.

How many? A former Pentagon official [under Rumsfeld] estimates that 75,000 troops should do it. It is simply ridiculous for Clinton to even contemplate keeping 75,000, or even 50,000, troops in Iraq during her term in office. This is simply a watered down version of Bush’s imperial folly. If Clinton wants to be the next president she had better get more in tune with the American people than with the military-industrial complex.
Thomas Riggins is book review editor of PA his email is

Tuesday, March 13, 2007



Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (Updated Edition), Alta Mira Press, 2001

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an indispensable book for all those on the left interested in understanding how the science of cultural (social) anthropology developed over the last three centuries and how it is used to understand (and sometimes control) non-Western societies, especially those  that have not developed complex state structures.
Harris’  updated edition was published a few months before his death in October 2001.The Rise of Anthropological Theory [TRAT] was first published in 1968 and is still marked by some of the ideological concerns of that era. Harris states that his goal was “to extricate the materialist position from the hegemony of dialectical Marxian orthodoxy with its anti-
positivist dogmas while simultaneously exposing the theoretical failure of biological reductionism, eclecticism, historical particularism and various forms of cultural idealism.”
What we have here is another shamefaced Marxist inspired work that, due to the political realities of American capitalism, recognizes the validity of Marx’s scientific accomplishments yet halts at drawing the social and political conclusions those accomplishments reveal with respect to the society in which Harris himself lived and worked.
Harris called the type of anthropological theory he developed “cultural materialism” in contrast to “historical” or “dialectical” materialism two forms he thought contaminated by Hegel’s dialectic.
Maxinel L. Margolis, in the 2001 introduction to TRAT describes it thusly: “In its simplest terms, cultural materialism rejects the time worn adage that ‘ideas change the world.’ Instead, it holds that over time and in most cases, changes in a society’s material base will lead to functionally compatible changes in its social and political structures along with modifications in its secular and religious ideologies, all of which enhance the continuity and stability of the system as a whole.”
This is basically the Marxism of the ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy shorn of its revolutionary implications. Gone from this formulation is Marx’s recognition that, “At a certain stage of their development” the productive forces in the material base come into conflict with the relations of production-- those relations turning into their “fetters” which results in “an epoch of social revolution.”
The Harris version, tempered by the necessity of academic survival (he was a professor at Columbia) in the 60s, a time when the U.S. government was involved in a world wide anti-Communist crusade [which was actually a crusade against human rights and democratic representation for the world’s poor] stretching from Latin America through Europe, Africa and Asia, has replaced these Marxist revolutionary bugaboos with  more acceptable bourgeois formulations: “functionally compatible changes” which “enhance the continuity of the system.”
Cultural Materialism will not explain the French Revolution. But it was not designed to. Harris’ revision of Marx is more in line with British Functionalism (different cultural elements function together to promote stability). The main difference being that Harris tries to provide for evolutionary change while the functionalists (Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radliffe-Brown) were opposed to ideas of evolutionary (let alone revolutionary) change.
Harris’ book is important because it discusses in  great detail all the major anthropological theories of culture developed in the West from the Enlightenment to the present. He thinks Marx’s views are vital and he defends them (at least some of them) against all comers, while at the same time giving credit to the discoveries and contributions of other schools of
He credits the Boas school (founded at Columbia towards the end of the Nineteenth Century) for its contributions to the scientific fight against racism and racist ideologies, while at the same time rejecting its anti-evolutionary theories of “historical particularism.”
His chapter on “Dialectical Materialism” is of particular interest. In this chapter he discusses Marx’s methods of social analysis, including the limitations imposed on it by its Nineteenth Century milieu, and concludes that, “It is Marx’s more general materialist formulation that deserves our closest scrutiny.” What he wants to scrutinize away is the influence of Hegel and, to Harris, the unscientific and outmoded  principles of dialectic. [ It is that nasty dialectic that is responsible for contradiction which might not “promote stability”].
After pulling Marx and Engels’ teeth, so they can’t bite the bourgeois hand that feeds him, Harris allows them to become major forerunners of his so-called Cultural Materialism.
Harris gives good critiques of both French Structuralism (Levi-Strauss) and British Social Anthropology and concludes with two chapters (22 and 23) which thoroughly explain his own theories. These are the chapters “Cultural Materialism: General Evolution” and “Cultural Evolution: Cultural Ecology.”
In these chapters not  only are Marx and Engels lauded, but so is Lewis Henry Morgan(Ancient Society, 1877) whose work was the basis of Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Morgan, the founder of American anthropology, was an upstate New York Republican legislator from Buffalo credited by Marx and Engels with independently discovering historical materialism.
Harris also discusses Leslie White’s The Evolution of Culture (1943, 1959)--”the modern equivalent of Morgan’s Ancient Society”) [although White may seem a little too mechanical: “Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the means of putting the energy to work is increased.”]

The important contributions of the Australian Marxist archeologist Vere Gordon Childe (The Dawn of Western Civilization, 1958; What Happened in History, 1946; Man Makes Himself and Social Evolution 1951) are presented as well.
All in all, Harris packs into his 806 pages a more or less complete survey of every major school and theory in the history of anthropology. His view, subject to the restrictions and ideological conditions noted earlier, is basically progressive and anyone with a modicum of Marxist theory can easily substitute a more “orthodox”, that is, more consistently Marxist, analysis to replace those areas where Harris’ “Cultural Materialism” fails in its appreciation of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Monday, March 05, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

Seymour Hersh in a recent issue of The New Yorker (3-05-07) has written an article suggesting the Bush administration has made a strategic shift in Iraq (“The Redirection: Is the Administration’s new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?”)

Because of Hersh’s extensive contacts both within and out of the government his articles are extremely interesting and give the reader a ready source of reliable and trustworthy facts. One does not have to agree with Hersh’s interpretation of the facts. I am going to put a slightly different spin on the information he presents by suggesting that it is a tactical rather than a strategic shift that is underway, and that the long term neocon strategy is more successful than most war critics think (in getting its hands on Iraq's oil) even if, in the long run, it will be defeated.

Just what is the neocon strategy? We can put aside all the mythological outlooks about building democracy, spreading freedom, wanting to help the people of the region, defending the homeland, fighting terrorism and other childish nonsense dished out by the government to keep people disinformed and confused about the real reasons for the invasion of Iraq.

The long term strategy of the Bushites is to dominate and control the oil resources of the Middle East either by the manipulation of client governments (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the gulf states) or by military force and intimidation (Iraq and Iran). Whether this strategy will succeed or not is the question.

Hersh is quite accurate in detailing the new tactics adopted by the Bushites, but a bit misleading to describe it as a new strategy. “The new strategy ‘is a major shift in American policy--- it’s a sea change,’ a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said.”

What is happening is that the administration is openly shifting its support to Sunni muslim forces in the region and actively aligning itself in an anti- Shiite coalition in an effort to weaken the influence and power of Iran (a Shiite led country).

Iran, which has not attacked or invaded another country for over two hundred years, is being set up by the U.S. and Israel as some sort of “existential threat” to its neighbors-- especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. The so called “existential threat” is pure bunk being peddled by countries that have, in fact, actually invaded and attacked other countries (and quite frequently)-- namely the U.S. and Israel, the two most violent and war driven states on the planet.

The administration's plans with regard to Iran are not new. Practically from the beginning of the aggression against Iraq Bush and his cronies let it be known that there was an axis of evil and that they wanted regime change in Iran (as well as Syria and North Korea).

One the neocon's strategic goals, control of Iraqi oil, has almost been accomplished with the new oil law that has been passed in Iraq which sets the stage for privatization and eventual dominance of the oil resources of the country by international (mainly American) oil corporations.

The tactical tilt now aimed at Iran is a desperate attempt to curry favor in the Sunni world in the hopes that Sunni insurgents, who cause most of the U.S. casualties, will become less hostile to the U.S. and refocus their violence towards the Shiites.

Hersh points out that, "As the Iraqi Army continues to founder in its confrontations with insurgents, the power of the Shiite militias has steadily increased." The U.S. is still tactically allied with the Shiites (the majority of the population) within Iraq hoping to sustain a "moderate" pro-American government in power so that the new oil law will not be revoked.

The new American tactics are, however, contradictory. Supporting the Sunni's outside of Iraq against the Iranians and against Hezbollah, the Shiite group in Lebanon, on the one hand and, on the other, supporting the Shiites internally against the Sunni insurgency will only assure that American forces will be targeted by both groups. This is one of the reasons I think these new tactics will fail and ultimately compromise the Bushites strategic goals.

Another reason is that the American people no longer support the war policies of the administration. They are not buying the administration's argument which says, as Hersh expresses it, "that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own failures of planning and execution but of Iran's interference." Without the support of the people, Bush's war agenda cannot be sustained.

Nevertheless, the war hawks are trying to drum up some support, so far unsuccessfully. Here is Cheney, quoted by Hersh, on Fox News in January: Think "of a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world's supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world." It sounds like a description of the U.S. today and there is no historical precedent, in the last several centuries, to think Iran is evolving in this direction.

Another point that Hersh makes in his article is that money provided by the U.S. to support anti-Shiite Sunni groups outside of Iraq is making its way into the hands of anti-American pro-Al Qaeda jihadists. This shows the complete incompetence of the administration and provides almost certain evidence that this change in imperialist tactics in the Middle East will not succeed in furthering the neocon strategic aims.

Things are coming to a head in the area. Hersh was informed by a "former senior intelligence official" that "the current contingency plans allow for an attack order [against Iran] this spring." The official added that some officers over at the Joint Chiefs of Staff "were counting on the White House not being 'foolish enough to do this in the face of Iraq, and the problems it would give the Republicans in 2008'"

Experience tells us that we should never underestimate the foolishness of the Bush White House. To prevent more needless butchery and murder by the Bush team, more waste of American and other lives in illegal and immoral warfare, and more erosion of democratic values here at home, the Congress must do its constitutional duty and pass binding resolutions denying Bush the right to attack Iran as well as repeal his war powers with respect to Iraq.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of political affairs magazine and can be reached at