Friday, July 20, 2018

2974. An Attempt at a Census to Control Cat Population in Washington D.C.

By Christina Caron, The New York Times, July 19, 2018
A cat house for feral cats to help them survive the bitter winter.

Editor's Note:  It is rare to find a critical problem with the natural world that is not caused by humans. This must be obvious with the outsized population of cats and dogs in the world.  There are at least 525 million dogs in the world and the house cats population is estimated to be between 220 million and 600 million. Feral cats population is estimated to be about the same, prompting some to estimate the world total cat population at 1 billion.  Cats and dogs are known invasive species.  One recent study estimates that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually. But I do not know of any popular or scientific discussion of this problem that points a finger at the cause of the problem: Humans and Our Way of Life. Instead, the participants in this "discussion" are often divided between pro-cat and pro-dog groups and conservationists who argue for killing off feral cats and dogs populations to save the other species (often birds). Of course, nobody ever mentions getting rid of the pet industry and cat and dog lovers never dream of a day when they cannot have a "pet" in their life. Having carnivores as your "pet" implies a need for a meat industry which annually slaughters billions of other species to satisfy human fancy and make profits.  Nobody in this discussion ever mentions that we are in the midst of the anthropogenic (human-caused) Sixth Extinction. The author of this article complains that cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species but seems not to know that Our Way of Life is making an estimated 200 species go extinct EVERY SINGLE DAY. Never does The New York Times write an article to decry this horror and it is unthinkable for the conservationists to call for castration of all male humans (not to mention a far more extreme measure: extermination of humans) to stop us from killing off biodiversity on Earth.  I submit this is because of our anthropocentric culture which does not allow us to self-critically examine the fact that all the crisis of in nature we see today are caused by humans and Our Way of Life: The anthropocentric capitalist civilization.  KN

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The District of Columbia, like a lot of cities, has a cat dilemma. Stray and feral cats roam the streets of Washington, protected by neuter-and-release policies.

They prey on wildlife and carry diseases that are dangerous to humans, concerning conservationists. Their quality of life can be poor.

As cat populations continue to flourish, scientists and animal advocates are searching for the best and most responsible way to manage them. A new initiative called D.C. Cat Count might provide some answers. It is spending the next three years counting all the cats that live in Washington, and observing how they move around.

And you read that right — all the cats, including pets.

While other cities have embarked on smaller efforts to count segments of their cat populations, D.C. Cat Count, which started this week, announced it aimed to count every cat in the nation’s capital, not just those living on the streets or in shelters but also all the rest, whether living indoors, outdoors or both.

“This is the first of its kind,” said Lauren Lipsey, vice president of community programs for the Humane Rescue Alliance. “We’ll be sampling the entire city.”

The $1.5 million project, which is being funded by animal advocacy groups, is a highly technological endeavor. As many as 60 camera traps, most aided by infrared sensors, will record images of outdoor cats. And a smartphone app, still in development, will allow anyone in Washington to share pictures of cats that they observe outside, or cats that they own, to build a library of as many cats as possible.

“The biggest concern is that we don’t know how many cats or what percentage of the population we’re helping, or what the true need is out there,” Ms. Lipsey said. “And our goal is to help them all, even if they are owned.”

The Humane Rescue Alliance, the organization that operates animal control in Washington and serves as the area’s sole animal-welfare group, is partnering with the Humane Society of the United States, PetSmart Charities and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to tally the capital’s cats.

The data will be analyzed by Tyler Flockhart, a conservation biologist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who has been studying cat populations for about four years.

“It’s a pretty bold undertaking, but an important one,” he said.

About 16,000 feral cats have been sterilized through the city’s trap-neuter-return program, which started in 2008. And each year about 2,000 to 3,000 cats are adopted, Ms. Lipsey said. Her organization has seen an increase in the number of cats that are unowned.

But nobody knows exactly how many cats are in Washington.

Cats are elusive, move quickly and excel at hiding. Those qualities make them difficult to observe.

“Cats are hard to see,” Mr. Flockhart said. “You see very few cats when you’re out walking around. And that’s because they’re secretive animals. When you see a cat, there is almost certainly more than one there.”

Knowing how many cats live in Washington is essential to developing policies to manage them, he added.

“Hopefully at the end of our study we have tools to do work in other cities,” he said.

In New York City, there are tens of thousands of stray and feral cats, referred to as “community cats,” that live outdoors and are not suitable for adoption because they have not been socialized to humans. New York manages this population by neutering the cats and returning them to their original locations. In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner last year signed legislation making it easier for counties to pay for trap-neuter-vaccinate-return programs for feral cats.

In Los Angeles County, where it is estimated that there are millions of stray and feral cats, some conservationists are fighting the neuter-and-release practice.

“No-kill simply moves the killing to other places,” Travis Longcore, science director at the Urban Wildlands Group, told Los Angeles Magazine last year. “Maybe you aren’t euthanizing that feral cat, but you are guaranteeing the death of lizards and birds and contamination of waterways with Toxoplasma gondii and adverse impacts to sea lions and seals.”

Cats not only carry diseases like rabies that can be spread to people, they have also contributed to at least 63 extinctions.

And cats are such a common sight that “we tend to forget that they don’t actually belong in our yards and parks,” Clare Nielsen, a spokeswoman for the American Bird Conservancy, said. “They are not part of our native wildlife, and they kill more birds than any other direct human-caused threat — more than two billion each year in the U.S.”

Gathering more data on cats will be helpful, she added: “The question is, how will the data be used? We’re hoping the effort will lead to an honest conversation about what sustainable solutions for D.C.’s homeless cats might look like.”

The debate over how best to control cat populations has been going on for a long time. Nearly a decade ago a publication from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln mentioned lethal methods as a way to manage feral cats, a suggestion that created an outcry at the time.

Washington can benefit from additional data that goes beyond what the Humane Rescue Alliance has gathered, Ms. Lipsey said.

“Up until now we’ve been basing our policies and activities fully on our data, which is very much independent of what actually might be going on out there,” she said. “We don’t know to what extent we’re reaching the cats in our community.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

2973. The "Sunk Cost Fallacy" Not Limited To People

By Erica Goode, The New York Times, July 12, 2018


Suppose that, seeking a fun evening out, you pay $175 for a ticket to a new Broadway musical. Seated in the balcony, you quickly realize that the acting is bad, the sets are ugly and no one, you suspect, will go home humming the melodies.

Do you head out the door at the intermission, or stick it out for the duration?

Studies of human decision-making suggest that most people will stay put, even though money spent in the past logically should have no bearing on the choice.

This “sunk cost fallacy,” as economists call it, is one of many ways that humans allow emotions to affect their choices, sometimes to their own detriment. But the tendency to factor past investments into decision-making is apparently not limited to Homo sapiens.

In a study published on Thursday in the journal Science, investigators at the University of Minnesota reported that mice and rats were just as likely as humans to be influenced by sunk costs.

The more time they invested in waiting for a reward — in the case of the rodents, flavored pellets; in the case of the humans, entertaining videos — the less likely they were to quit the pursuit before the delay ended.
“Whatever is going on in the humans is also going on in the nonhuman animals,” said A. David Redish, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota and an author of the study.

This cross-species consistency, he and others said, suggested that in some decision-making situations, taking account of how much has already been invested might pay off.

“Evolution by natural selection would not promote any behavior unless it had some — perhaps obscure — net overall benefit,” said Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioral ecology at Oxford, who praised the new study as “rigorous” in its methodology and “well designed.”

“If everybody does it, the reasoning goes, there must be a reason,” Dr. Kacelnik said.

Even more important than the similarity among species was the study’s finding that sunk cost effects appeared only after the subjects had decided to pursue a reward, Dr. Redish noted, not while they were still deliberating whether to do so.

In effect, the animals seemed to consider the deliberation time not to be part of their investment — an indication, Dr. Redish said, that different brain processes might be at work in different aspects of decision-making.

The idea runs counter to the notion that “time is time, and you’re wasting it either way,” he said.

Shelly Flagel, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study, said the research had “far-reaching implications across fields including education, economics, psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry.”

For example, she said, persisting in a behavior even though it has adverse consequences is reminiscent of the conduct “exhibited by people with addictions.”

“Once they start searching for their next ‘fix,’ they will often go hours or days on the same quest, even if it means giving up food, relationships, their job,” Dr. Flagel said.
Learning more about the distinct processes that go awry in psychiatric disorders like addiction might yield new strategies for treatment, she added.

In the study, led by a doctoral student, Brian M. Sweis, three research laboratories at the University of Minnesota collaborated to conduct tests on mice, rats and humans. The rodents were trained to forage for the flavored pellets — banana, chocolate, grape or plain — in a square maze with a “restaurant” in each corner.

The humans were taught to “forage” on a computer for videos of kittens, a dance competition, landscapes or bicycle accidents. Both rodents and humans were given an overall time limit for the foraging tasks.

In the rodents’ version of the task, the animal first entered an “offer zone” outside a restaurant and heard a pitched tone that informed it how long the wait would be for the pellet reward — a delay that varied randomly from 1 to 30 seconds.

The animal could skip the offer, in which case it was withdrawn, or it could enter the “wait zone” of the restaurant, setting off a countdown signaled by a descending tone. At any time during the countdown, the rodent could choose to leave the restaurant, but once it left it could not return without going all the way around through the other restaurant offer zones.

In the human version of the experiment, subjects were offered a video and presented with buttons saying “stay” or “skip.” A download bar informed them how long they would have to wait to view the video. Clicking the “stay” button started a countdown, and the screen showed the progression of the download.

The study found that the more time the rodents spent in the “wait zone,” the more likely they were to stick out the delay to the end, even though the longer they waited, the more it cut into their overall time to seek food.

Similarly, the longer the human subjects spent waiting for a video to download, the more likely they were to stay the course until the download was finished.

Surprisingly, the amount of time that the subjects — rodent or human — spent deliberating whether to accept the “offer” of a reward did not affect whether they quit before receiving it or stayed through to the end.

“Obviously, the best thing is as quick as possible to get into the wait zone,” Dr. Redish said. “But nobody does that. Somehow, all three species know that if you get into the wait zone, you’re going to pay this sunk cost, and they actually spend extra time deliberating in the offer zone so that they don’t end up getting stuck.”

Dr. Flagel, of the University of Michigan, noted that as compelling as the new research was, it was not without limitations, including the fact that the tasks presented to humans and rodents, though similar in some ways, were still quite different.

“The challenge moving forward,” Dr. Flagel said, “is going to be to know that one is truly capturing the same phenomenon across species. Or perhaps more appropriately, what is the meaning of the differences that will be revealed between species?”

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

2972. In India, Summer Heat Could Soon Be Unbearable. Literally.

By Somini Sengupta, The New York Times, July 17, 2018
A New Delhi street. Air conditioners can contribute to heat waves by blowing hot air out into the city.CreditPhoto: Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times
NEW DELHI — On a sweltering Wednesday in June, a rail-thin woman named Rehmati gripped the doctor’s table with both hands. She could hardly hold herself upright, the pain in her stomach was so intense.  

She had traveled for 26 hours in a hot oven of a bus to visit her husband, a migrant worker here in the Indian capital. By the time she got here, the city was an oven, too: 111 degrees Fahrenheit by lunchtime, and Rehmati was in an emergency room.

The doctor, Reena Yadav, didn’t know exactly what had made Rehmati sick, but it was clearly linked to the heat. Dr. Yadav suspected dehydration, possibly aggravated by fasting during Ramadan. Or it could have been food poisoning, common in summer because food spoils quickly.

Dr. Yadav put Rehmati, who is 31 and goes by one name, on a drip. She held her hand and told her she would be fine. Rehmati leaned over and retched.

Extreme heat can kill, as it did by the dozens in Pakistan in May.  But as many of South Asia’s already-scorching cities get even hotter, scientists and economists are warning of a quieter, more far-reaching danger: Extreme heat is devastating the health and livelihoods of tens of millions more.

If global greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current pace, they say, heat and humidity levels could become unbearable, especially for the poor.  

It is already making them poorer and sicker. Like the Kolkata street vendor who squats on his haunches from fatigue and nausea. Like the woman who sells water to tourists in Delhi and passes out from heatstroke at least once each summer. Like the women and men with fever and headaches who fill emergency rooms. Like the outdoor workers who become so weak or so sick that they routinely miss days of work, and their daily wages.

“These cities are going to become unlivable unless urban governments put in systems of dealing with this phenomenon and make people aware,” said Sujata Saunik, who served as a senior official in the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs and is now a fellow at the Harvard University School of Public Health. “It’s a major public health challenge.”

Indeed, a recent analysis of climate trends in several of South Asia’s biggest cities found that if current warming trends continued, by the end of the century, wet bulb temperatures — a measure of heat and humidity that can indicate the point when the body can no longer cool itself — would be so high that people directly exposed for six hours or more would not survive.

In many places, heat only magnifies the more thorny urban problems, including a shortage of basic services, like electricity and water.  

For the country’s National Disaster Management Agency, alarm bells rang after a heat wave struck the normally hot city of Ahmedabad, in western India, in May, 2010, and temperatures soared to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, or 48 Celsius: It resulted in a 43 percent increase in mortality, compared to the same period in previous years, a study by public health researchers found.

Since then, in some places, local governments, aided by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, have put in place simple measures. In Ahmedabad, for instance, city-funded vans distribute free water during the hottest months. In the eastern coastal city of Bhubaneswar, parks are kept open in afternoons so outdoor workers can sit in the shade.  Occasionally, elected officials post heat safety tips on social media.  Some cities that had felled trees for construction projects are busy trying to plant new ones.

The science is unequivocally worrying. Across the region, a recent World Bank report concluded, rising temperatures could diminish the living standards of 800 million people.

Worldwide, among the 100 most populous cities where summer highs are expected to reach at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, according to estimates by the Urban Climate Change Research Network, 24 are in India.

Rohit Magotra, deputy director of Integrated Research for Action and Development, is trying to help the capital, Delhi, develop a plan to respond to the new danger. The first step is to quantify its human toll.

“Heat goes unreported and underreported. They take it for granted,” Mr. Magotra said. “It’s a silent killer.”

On a blistering Wednesday morning, with the heat index at 111 degrees Fahrenheit, he and a team of survey takers snaked through the lanes of a working-class neighborhood in central Delhi. They measured temperature and humidity inside the brick-and-tin apartments. They spoke to residents about how the heat affects them.

“Only by 4 a.m., when it cools down, can we sleep,” a woman named Kamal told him. Her husband, a day laborer, suffered heatstroke this year, missed a week’s work, and, with it, a week’s pay.

A shopkeeper named Mohammed Naeem said that while he managed to stay cool in his ground-floor space, his father’s blood pressure rose every summer, as he sweltered in their top floor apartment all day.

Through the narrow lanes all morning, young men hauled stacks of paper to a printing plant that operated on the ground floor of one house. A tailor sat cross-legged on the floor, stitching lining onto a man’s suit. A curtain of flies hung in the air.

A woman named Abeeda told Mr. Magotra that she helped her husband cope during the summer by stocking glucose tablets in the home at all times. Her husband works as a house painter. Even when he is nauseous and dizzy in the heat, he goes to work, she said. He can’t afford not to.

Across town, workers covered their faces with bandannas as they built a freeway extension for Delhi’s rapidly growing number of cars. The sky was hazy with dust. Skin rash, dry mouth, nausea, headaches: These were their everyday ailments, the construction workers said. So debilitating did it get that every 10 to 15 days, they had to skip a day of work and lose a day’s pay.

Ratnesh Tihari, a 42-year-old electrician, said he felt it getting hotter year by year. And why would that be surprising? He pointed his chin at the freeway extension he was helping to build. “It’s a fact. You build a road, you cut down trees,” he said. “That makes it hotter.”

Worldwide, by 2030, extreme heat could lead to a $2 trillion loss in labor productivity, the International Labor Organization estimated.

Delhi’s heat index, a metric that takes average temperatures and relative humidity into account, has risen sharply — by 0.6 degrees Celsius in summer and 0.55 degrees during monsoons per decade between 1951 and 2010, according to one analysis based on data from 283 weather stations across the country.

Some cities are getting hotter at different times of year. The average March-to-May summertime heat index for Hyderabad had risen by 0.69 degrees per decade between 1951 and 2010. In Kolkata, a delta city in the east, where summers are sticky and hot anyway, the monsoon is becoming particularly harsh: The city’s June-September heat index climbed by 0.26 degrees Celsius per decade.

Joyashree Roy, an economist at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, found that already, most days in the summer are too hot and humid to be doing heavy physical labor without protection, with wet-bulb temperatures far exceeding the thresholds of most international occupational health standards.  

And yet, walk through the city on a stifling hot day in June, and you’ll find people pedaling bicycle rickshaws, hauling goods on their heads, constructing towers of glass and steel. Only a few people, like herself, Dr. Roy pointed out, are protected in air-conditioned homes and offices. “Those who can are doing this. Those who can’t are becoming worse,” she said. “The social cost is high in that sense.”

In Ahmedabad, city funds have been used to slather white reflective paint over several thousand tin-roofed shanties, bringing down indoor temperatures.

In Hyderabad, a similar effort is being tested. A pilot project by a team of engineers and urban planners covered a handful of tin-roofed shacks with white tarpaulin. It brought down indoor temperatures by at least two degrees, which was enough to make the intolerable tolerable. Now they want to expand their cool-roof experiment to a 1-square-kilometer patch of the city, installing cool roofs, cool walls and cool sidewalks, and planting trees. Their main obstacle now: funding.

Rajkiran Bilolikar, who led the cool-roof experiment, has a personal stake in the project. As a child, he would visit his grandfather in Hyderabad. There were trees all over the city. It was known for its gardens. He could walk, even in summer.
Now a professor at the Administrative Staff College of India in Hyderabad, Mr. Bilolikar can’t walk much. His city is hotter. There are fewer trees. Air-conditioners have proliferated but they spew hot air outside.

Mr. Bilolikar says it’s hard to persuade policymakers,  even the public, to take heat risk seriously. It’s always been hot in Hyderabad. It’s getting hotter slowly, almost indiscernibly. Heat, he says, is “a hidden problem.”

At home, he had resolved not to use his air-conditioner. Through his open windows, though, his neighbor’s machine blew hot air into his apartment. His three-year-old daughter became so overheated that her skin was hot to touch. Reluctantly, he shut his windows and turned his machines on.

Monday, July 16, 2018

2971. Eight Critically Endangered Black Rhinos Die in Kenya

By Julia Jacobs, The New York Times, July 14, 2018
Photo: James Kahongeh/National Media Group.

Eight black rhinoceroses died after being transported from a national park in Kenya to a sanctuary meant to help preserve their critically endangered species, the government said on Friday.

Wildlife workers say they believe the rhinos died from drinking water with a high saline level in their new environment while being accustomed to fresh water, according to a statement from Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. The government did not specify when the rhinos had died, but said such a high death rate in this sort of transport was “unprecedented” in the country.

The death toll startled conservationists in Kenya who were already mourning the loss of the last male northern white rhino, which died there in March. Paula Kahumbu, the chief executive of WildlifeDirect, a conservation group in Kenya, called what happened to the black rhinos a “complete disaster.”

“Kenyans must demand an explanation and full transparency as well as reassurances that we will adopt the best practices in wildlife translocations to learn from this disaster and prevent it from ever happening again,” Ms. Kahumbu said in a Facebook post on Friday.

Workers from the Kenya Wildlife Service were scheduled to relocate 14 black rhinos from Nairobi and Lake Nakuru national parks to a sanctuary meant to aid the conservation effort, the government’s statement said. Eight of the 11 that were moved to Tsavo East National Park, which is southeast of Nairobi, died.

The government statement said the salty water most likely led to dehydration in the rhinos, which then prompted them to drink more water, exacerbating the problem. The surviving rhinos that were transported are now being given fresh water.

The 11 transports were intended to start a new population line in the sanctuary to combat the reduction of the species caused by poachers. Najib Balala, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for tourism and wildlife, wrote in a tweet on Friday that he had directed the wildlife workers to immediately suspend the transport of the remaining three rhinos.

The world’s black rhino population declined by 98 percent from 1960 to 1995, dropping to a historic low of fewer than 2,500, because of the impact of European hunters and settlers, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Conservation efforts have helped double the black rhino population since then, and it now stands at more than 5,000, which is still considered critically endangered.

Poachers hunt black rhinos for their horns, which are coveted for traditional Chinese medicinal practices and are displayed as status symbols. In Kenya, where about 80 percent of the world’s wild black rhinos live, conservationists planned to move the rhinos to the Tsavo sanctuary as part of a long-term effort to save the species from extinction by protecting them from poachers.

The government agency said that from 2005 to 2017, 149 rhinos were relocated in Kenya with only eight mortalities.

Officials plan to announce the results of forensic testing on the rhinos and have opened an independent investigation into the deaths that will be overseen by a veterinary expert from the University of Nairobi. Disciplinary action will be taken if the government finds evidence of “negligence or unprofessional misconduct” during the transport process, the statement said.

Susie Ellis, the executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, said relocating a rhino is a highly delicate process that always carries some risk. Wildlife workers must immobilize the animal, ensure it is calm in the crate so it doesn’t injure itself and then safely reverse the immobilization after the transport.

But this death toll is unrivaled on a global scale, Dr. Ellis said.

“You might lose one, you might lose two,” she said, “but losing eight is unheard-of.”

Saturday, July 14, 2018

2970. Marxism and Human Nature

By Elaine Graham-Leigh, Counterfire, June 23, 2018

It will be a familiar experience to many Marxists. An older, right-wing relative sits you down and explains, kindly, that communism sounds like a nice idea in theory, but will never work because people are just naturally greedy and competitive. Marx’s ideas are doomed in practice by the reality what humans are inescapably like. This stands-to-reason view of human nature may find modern expression in places like the pages of the Daily Mail, but it has its roots in the fundamentals of bourgeois ideology. From the seventeenth-century Hobbes’ characterisation of a natural ‘war of all against all’ or Descartes’ vision of machine-like human bodies, to modern arguments that poor, black people are genetically inferior to rich whites, questions of human nature have profound political consequences.  

Descartes’ dualism

One of the main dimensions of bourgeois thought is idealism; the separation of the realm of ideas from the material world. (Consider, for example, the histories which attribute change to the movement of ideas alone, like those which put the 1917 Russian Revolution down to a failure of liberal confidence.) In considerations of human nature, this is a Cartesian dualist position, which sees consciousness – ourselves – as separate from the body that houses it. For Descartes, this separation was a necessary resolution to a contradiction between his view of human nature and his Catholicism. His description of human bodies as if they were fleshy machines was expressive of an emerging capitalist view of workers as reducible to interchangeable moving parts. On its own, however, it presented a difficulty from a religious point of view, as it left no room for a soul. Descartes’ solution was to posit the soul as an immortal part located intangibly within the body but not of it; the ghost in the machine.
Descartes’ separation of our material bodies and our consciousness has proved durable. Even among those who do not share his religious need to include the soul, there can be a view of the body as not part of ourselves but as simply a container allocated to our consciousness. In contrast, a materialist understanding of human nature recognises that there is no ‘we’ separate from our physical selves. Individuals’ consciousness and their physical selves must be seen as a totality.
This is also true for human societies. The way that human cultures have developed is clearly not unrelated to the physical realities of human existence. If, for example, humans had wings, like birds, or photosynthesised, like plants, our societies and the environment we built would look very different.[i] An attempt to save the bourgeois idealist view of ideas as the prime driver of human culture and development here might acknowledge that of course, there are universal human needs which proscribe a certain unity across human cultures. This, however, the argument might go, is at such a basic level that it can tell us little of importance about human nature. The physical human needs provide the base for human culture, but the superstructure, the realm of ideas, then takes over.
This sort of hierarchical view of human needs has a long pedigree – witness psychologist Abraham Maslow’s 1943 pyramid of needs, with physiological needs at the base and self-actualisation at the top – but just because we are encouraged to order characteristics in this way does not make it helpful. Indeed, it would be possible to use Maslow’s understanding of needs, in which fulfilling lower-order needs gives rise to the higher-order ones, to argue that only people who have food, shelter and a satisfactory social position can aim for self-actualisation. In other words, if you’re poor and hungry, you don’t need culture. This is of course untrue; every time you see a homeless person reading a book disproves it. A better alternative to this mechanical view of a base and superstructure for human needs would be to appreciate how, while human universals like our need to eat are part of every culture, they are mediated through those cultures. In every culture, if we don’t get enough to eat we will be hungry, but our experience of hunger, how we conceptualise it and react to it, will be different in different societies. Basic human needs are socially experienced and expressed.[ii] In order to understand human nature, we have to think not hierarchically, but dialectically.

Genetic determinism

A dialectical understanding of the relation between human bodies and human culture shows the fallacy of the dualist position, but that is far from the only ideological misconception about human nature. Rejecting the dualist conception of a consciousness separate and theoretically divisible from the body raises the question of how far we are determined by our bodies. Perhaps our bodies are all we are? This is in essence the nature versus nurture question: is human nature innate or is it the product of socialisation? This is, of course, a simplification of a range of more nuanced positions; no one serious posits that human traits are either entirely or not at all influenced by culture. As left-wing biologist Stephen Jay Gould puts it, the question is really about ‘the degree, intensity, and nature of the constraint exerted by biology upon the possible forms of social organisation’.[iii]
The genetic-determinist view on this (also called sociobiological) is that genes determine our reality. While our socialisation can have some effect on our genetic predispositions, fundamentally, human traits from aggression to altruism arise from our genetic inheritance. We are the vehicles for our genes, through which they compete by natural selection to propagate themselves in forthcoming generations, and everything we are is shaped by that genetic imperative. The concomitant conclusions are first that differences between individuals and, as importantly, between groups must be genetic, if genes are the basis for our behaviour. The second conclusion is that innate traits could only be changed through natural selection: if your genes make you prone to aggression there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it except make it more difficult for your aggressive genes to pass themselves on. The political implications of this position should be clear, as described by Gould in a passage discussing arguments about differences between the sexes:
the socio-political line of the pop argument now leaps from the page: males are aggressive, assertive, promiscuous, overbearing; females are coy, discriminating, loyal, caring - and these differences are adaptive, Darwinian, genetic, proper, good, inevitable, unchangeable…[iv]
The sociobiological view of humans as essentially nothing but our genes has a pedigree all the way back to the German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who coined the phrase ‘you are what you eat.’ Feuerbach meant this literally, as an expression of his view that humans are nothing more than material inputs and outputs. For some modern sociobiologists like Daniel Dennett, in fact, consciousness itself is nothing but ‘a metaphysical delusion on which we should stop wasting time’.[v] Human activity may seem purposeful and directed, but we only think that we are making decisions and shaping our world ourselves. In reality, we are only vehicles for actions prompted by our genes. As Dennett recently argued about Alan Turing’s development of the computer, ‘his artefacts, concrete and abstract, are indirectly products of the blind Darwinian processes in the same way spider webs and beaver dams are.’[vi]
Marx, while also a materialist, pointed out in his Theses on Feuerbach that a problem with Feuerbach’s conception of human nature was that he saw it only in terms of static objects. For Marx, in contrast, of key importance were human social relations; rather than on the abstract, isolated human individual, the focus should be on human activity.[vii] Human nature cannot be understood in a non-moving, fixed form, as Feuerbach and other materialists tried to do. Activity does not simply arise from human nature; it is human nature. As Marxist pre-historian V Gordon Childe put it, ‘man makes himself.’ Human labour changes the world, but through changing the world, we also change ourselves.
Marx describes in Capital how humans are the only creatures to undertake planned, purposeful work on the world around us:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of the bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.[viii
The key to understanding human nature is thus understanding that, contrary to the sociobiological arguments, human constructions are not just like spiders’ webs or beavers’ dams. They are not the results of instinctual, genetically determined behaviour but are planned and conceptualised in a way that, over human history, has developed human social relations and human capacities.

Marxist biologists and human development

This dialectical understanding of human nature and human development has been borne out since Marx’s day by subsequent generations of Marxist biologists and palaeontologists. As Engels explained, dialectics are not imposed on the natural world in Marx’s thought, but arise from it. ‘Nature is the test of dialectics, and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis Nature's process is dialectical and not metaphysical.’[ix] Viewing the nature/nurture question dialectically enables us to see that these are not opposites, but that genes and environment are always in an active relationship with each other.
In human development, for example, a genetic determinist model would have the template for the individual being set by their genetic make-up, with culture then allowed some secondary effects on top of this genetic base. A Marxist view does not simply invert this; Marx, contrary to some views,[x] did not believe that humans are born as tabula rasa for society to mould. Rather, a dialectical understanding of development sees a process between genes and environment (including not just the environment external to the body but the environment for each cell) which is both relational and contingent. One of the fallacies of genetic determinism is the idea that genes are analogous to a computer program. However many times you re-run the program, barring code corruption, you would expect to get the same result each time. In human development, even starting from the same genes and the same environment, each result would be different, precisely because it is a relational process and not a program. This is, incidentally, why cloning would never be able to produce the same person twice.
Viewing human development dialectically also places humans as active participants in rather than passive recipients of our own development. In the genetic determinist model, we – the finished human organisms – are simply the end result of the genetic program and the social decorative flourishes. In fact, new developments in epigenetics reveal that genes can be turned on and off by environmental factors.[xi] The genetic determinist model has been shown to be scientifically bankrupt. In contrast, a dialectical understanding shows not only that genes and environment are constantly developing in relation to each other, but that as we develop, we are actively involved in shaping this process. Thus, for example, babies’ brains develop not simply according to a genetic programme or environmental effects, but also according to how the brain is used. In other words, we shape the pathways of our brains by thinking.[xii]
Marx’s understanding of human development is also borne out in modern views of the evolution of our species, homo sapiens. It is generally agreed that the hominids were bipedal before they developed large brains.[xiii] Bipedalism then freed the hands for making and using tools; carrying out the purposeful labour which Marx identified as the key to human nature. This was the driver for the growth of the large hominid brains, which then drove more and complex tool use, and so on in a dialectical process. As Engels explained, ‘thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.’[xiv] This dialectical process shows how humans make themselves, not purely on a social level but through the interaction of genes and environment. The answer to the genetic determinists is not to deny the importance of our biology for the development of human society, but to understand ourselves as active participants in our own development on an individual and a societal level. As a modern summary of Marx’s position puts it,
‘By virtue of our large brains…humans have created societies, invented technologies and cultures, and in doing so have changed themselves, their states of consciousness and, in effect, their genes. We are the inheritors of not merely the genes, but also the cultures and technologies of our forebears.’[xv]

The problems of reification

The genetic determinist view of human nature sets out to be an answer to the idealism of the Cartesian dualist position, but ironically ends up relying on its own idealist conceptions to make its arguments. The view that what we are – our personalities, tendencies, intelligence etc – is genetically determined relies on there being genes, or combinations of genes, for these genetically determined traits. These traits, therefore, have to have some objective existence. If our genetic inheritance gives us a tendency towards a particular behaviour, then that behaviour must be naturally delimited in some way. If we can inherit, for example, aggression in the same way as we can inherit, say, Huntingdon’s disease,[xvi] then aggression must in some way be as definable a condition as Huntingdon’s. It must, in other words, be a thing. It is however a thing which is at the same time no more than an abstraction; an ideal which has no existence outside the world of ideas.
The difficulty for the genetic-determinist view is that reifying behavioural traits like aggression merely obfuscates the way in which these are socially determined. Aggression is not an objective trait, but a value judgment on a range of behaviours which, in other contexts or from other groups, would be deemed entirely appropriate. Women in the workplace, for example, will be condemned for being aggressive when men exhibiting exactly the same behaviour will have been showing drive and forthrightness.[xvii] Just as when black protestors are accused of aggression towards white police, or unarmed Gazan protestors towards armed Israeli soldiers, what is going on here is social condemnation of resistance to the powerful by the powerless. Despite racist arguments to the contrary, we are not dealing here with a greater genetic predisposition on the part of black people in the USA or Palestinians in Gaza to aggression. It would make as much sense, after all, to ask if there is a genetic predisposition on the part of white US cops or Israeli soldiers to keep on shooting unarmed people dead.
The difficulty of isolating an objective condition called aggression is true even in laboratory settings. There are a number of studies on aggression in rats and mice, but what these are really measuring is how long they take to attack another animal in the same cage (which could of course be due to many different factors aside from a tendency to prefer to fight) or a propensity to bite the lab assistant. Even in rodents, it seems, fighting back against your captors is liable to be labelled as pathological behaviour. This does not make reifying aggression legitimate.
Reification is also the basis of one of the most resilient of the racist applications of genetic determinism: the idea that intelligence differs by race. The argument that black people are innately less intelligent than people goes back to the nineteenth century, with scientists like Paul Broca diligently stuffing seeds into skulls to calculate brain volume to rank human races into ‘a linear scale of mental worth.’[xviii] At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, it shifted from craniometry to IQ, using IQ tests developed to identify French schoolchildren at need of extra help as a way of ranking whole populations. The validity of IQ for measuring individual and population-level intelligence found champions throughout the twentieth century, despite setbacks such as when one of its proponents, Sir Cyril Burt, was found to have falsified much of his key data. It came to prominence again in 1994 with the publication of The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which reasserted the old argument that black people had on average lower IQs than whites. In the twenty-first century it hit headlines recently with the argument that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQs, championed by academics like Richard Lynn, Nicholas Wade and Steven Pinker.[xix]
Critics of IQ testing have long pointed out the tendency of the tests to measure, specifically, proficiency in taking IQ tests, and more generally, education and familiarity with the sorts of questions the IQ tests include. It is obvious that famous early IQ tests, like those administered to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island or illiterate US army conscripts in the First World War, would have done little to measure any sort of intelligence. Full of questions requiring familiarity with US culture, administered in crowded conditions with lots of pointing and shouting, it’s not surprising that results were often poor. It’s more surprising that anyone scored anything at all.
Beyond this, it’s also important to recognise the extent to which any IQ test inevitably measures how used the test subjects are to abstract questions, which is itself a cultural measure rather than evidence of innate intelligence. As Russian neuro-psychologist Alexander Luria found in the 1970s when he interviewed peasants in remote regions of the USSR, abstract reasoning has a different value in different cultures. He also found, perhaps, that peasants may not take kindly to big-city scientists and their stupid questions. Trying to extract a simple example of deductive reasoning from one interviewee, Luria asked ‘All bears are white where there is always snow. In Novaya Zemlya there is always snow; what colour are the bears there?’ The interviewee was having none of it: ‘If a person has not been there, he cannot say anything on the basis of words. If a man is 60 or 80 and he had seen a white bear there and told me about it, he could be believed.’[xx]
It is obvious how these sorts of issues would lead to lower average scores for groups who disproportionately suffer from poor access to education and are less likely to have had extensive practice in IQ tests than middle and upper class white people. This is corroborated by the way in which IQ scores increased in general worldwide in parallel to more generally widespread schooling. Tests had repeatedly to be made more difficult throughout the twentieth century to keep the overall average mark at 100.
Enthusiasts for IQ testing could still try to argue that these are flaws in the tests, rather than in the concept. It could be that IQ is still innate and heritable, even if we have not found a good enough way to measure it separately from education and cultural familiarity. The difficulty for the hereditarian argument here though is in showing that IQ – a reification of intelligence – actually exists. As Gould explains in his classic The Mismeasure of Man, IQ is conceptualised as a measure of Spearman’s g, which is itself the product of a factor analysis between a tendency to do well in verbal reasoning tests and in mathematical tests. In essence, g is simply a mathematical expression of the assumption that if there is a correlation between achievement in different sorts of academic tests, that correlation must reveal a causal factor which must be innate intelligence. There is, of course, no must about it. Correlation does not equal causation (Gould points out that there is a perfect correlation between his age and the expansion of the universe, but there is unlikely to be a causal relationship between them), and the correlation further does not help us identify what any such causal factor might be. The maths does not require us to conclude that it must be an innate, reified intelligence as opposed, for example, to good, all-round schooling.
The continued appearance of genetic determinist ideas to make racist arguments about intelligence shows the political uses to which these can be put, and the importance of countering the view that we are nothing more than expressions of our genes. Genetic determinism may purport to provide an alternative to a dualist view of human nature but ultimately it is reliant on the same idealism. Richard Dawkins’ humans as ‘lumbering robots’[xxi] would be very familiar to Descartes; the only real difference is that Descartes required the soul floating around in there somewhere, whereas Dawkins the atheist can only see it as a delusion. Both the Cartesian dualist and the genetic-determinist views of human nature have us as the passive vehicles of some other force’s creation, whether that be a divine creator or our genes. Only the Marxist understanding of human nature has us as active participants, making ourselves through the interaction of our genes, our environment and our history.
Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach is one of his most quoted lines: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’[xxii] It is usually quoted outside the context of the rest of the Theses, but it is a necessary conclusion to the argument against Feuerbach’s form of materialism which they set out. Genetic determinism, like dualism, does not give us any hope of changing the world. Its central argument is that our natures are fixed by our genes, which are often suspiciously like capitalists in their selfish, winner-take-all behaviour. Any attempts to make society fairer, in this view, is fighting against our natures and may well be doomed to failure. Against this, a dialectical understanding of human nature shows that on the contrary, what we are is adaptable. We make ourselves and the world. It is this insight that tells us that, despite supposed common sense about human nature, we can change it.


[i] Steven Rose, Leon J Kamin, R C Lewontin, Not in our Genes. Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, (London 1984), p.13.
[ii] Sean Sayers, Marxism and Human Nature, (London 1998), p.153.
[iii] Stephen Jay Gould, An Urchin in the Storm. Essays about books and ideas, (London 1990), p.113.
[iv] Ibid., p.36.
[v] Daniel Dennett, quoted in Richard Lewontin, It Ain't Necessarily So. The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, (London 2001), p.105.
[vi] Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, quoted in Thomas Nagel, ‘Is Consciousness an Illusion?’, New York Review of Books, 9th March 2017, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/03/09/is-consciousness-an-illusion-dennett-evolution/
[vii] Karl Marx, 'Theses on Feuerbach', Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, (London 1981), pp.421-423.
[viii] Karl Marx, Capital. A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, vol.1, trans Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, (Moscow 1961), p.178.
[ix] Frederick Engels, Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science, (London 1934), p.29.
[x] Althusser’s, for example. Sayers, Marxism and Human Nature, p.150.
[xi] For an accessible account of these developments, see Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution. How modern biology is rewriting our understanding of genetics, disease and inheritance, (London 2012).
[xii] Steven Rose, The 21st Century Brain. Explaining, mending and manipulating the mind, (London 2006), pp.113-136.
[xiii] On the development of hominid intelligence, see the recent useful summary in Gavin Evans, Black Brain, White Brain, (London 2014), pp.25-39.
[xiv] Frederick Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, (London 2007), p.174.
[xv] Rose, 21st Century Brain, p.105.
[xvi] Huntingdon’s is a particularly clear example of genetic inheritance as it arises from a defect in a single gene. Ibid., p.83. Its inheritance or not is therefore determined by genetic rather than social or environmental factors, although even with such a predictable and deadly disease, the experience of Huntingdon’s will to a degree be socially determined.
[xvii] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender. The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, (London 2010), pp.82-3.
[xviii] Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd ed., (London 1996), p.118.
[xix] Evans, Black Brain, pp.423-477
[xx] A R Luria, Cognitive Development: its Cultural and Social Foundations, (Cambridge Mass. 1976), pp.108-9, quoted in Evans, Black Brain, p.390.
[xxi] See Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, (Oxford 1976).
[xxii] Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, p.423.