Note: This was my entry for the 2023 Astral Codex Ten book review contest. It didn’t make it to the round of finalists, but hopefully De Novo subscribers will appreciate it more. I. The Categories In one of my all-time favorite Slate Star Codex posts, “
Scott Alexander could have done better with his Solomon example. Accepting the mnemohistory of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), Solomon would have easily understood that Whales are in a different category than fish because they do not meet the criteria of Leviticus 11:9-12 and Deuteronomy 14:9-10 because they do not have scales, which makes them unclean (not kosher). But, sharks which are fish to modern biologists are also unclean. The kosher/not kosher distinction does not conform to modern biology and probably proves the point.
BTW from the viewpoint of scientific history the biblical verses cited above were not redacted until several centuries after the time of Solomon. Archeologists also find plenty of non-kosher sea food in middens from central Israel.
It is true that categories are systems of human thought. It is also true that the world is complex, multi layered beyond our ability to sense or comprehend (in both senses) . An important epistemological truth that was proved by modern physical science is that before the 20th Century we had no idea, not the slightest clue, that the deepest layers of the microcosm are governed by rules some of which we can layout mathematically but not complete or begin to understand in human terms. And the cosmos itself is by some epistemic parity also governed by rules for which we know some of the mathematics but which transcend our abilities.
But, having said all of that we must focus on the use of categories as basic tools of our thought. Most importantly, categories are basic tools of ethics. But, the very existence of ethics is problematic as is illustrated in Genesis 3:4-5: "But the serpent said to the woman, 'You will not die for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'"
The ability to categorize social facts as good or evil makes us human. The beasts, even our closest cousins the Great Apes, cannot categorize and have no ethics. They are therefore in Gan Eden as we were before that fateful meal.
It does not follow that refusing to categorize will return us to the garden. It will just make us bestial and worthy of judgment as evil.
It is notable that one of the contemporary attacks on categorization comes from the transgender movement which insists that the categories of man and woman are so unstable and artificial that we should reject them in favor of a system of self declaration. (for the record I say this is Gnosticism and laughable in all dimensions) .
Of course many of the same people insist that racial categories are rigid and unchangeable. We now see numbers of people, mostly female academics, who had claimed to be native Americans, being outed, or even confessing to to being pretendians. https://www.mercurynews.com/2023/05/04/i-am-a-white-person-uc-berkeley-scholar-apologizes-for-wrongly-claiming-to-be-native-american-her-whole-life/ This has led churls to note the epistemic inconsistency, which earns them cancellation.
And so by commodious vicus of recirculation we are back to David Starr Jordan and eugenics.
All right thinking men today condemn eugenics as an abomination. But, I agree with our host that the vice is not inherent in the idea but in the methods used to implement it.
In contemporary society we see many right thinking people who become pregnant conducting genetic tests to look for gross Mendelian anomalies such at the C 21 trisomy that leads to Down's syndrome. If found they typically abort the pregnancy. Isn't that eugenics? Is it immoral. Anti-abortionists say that it is. But, another group of people say it is morally acceptable. What if it becomes possible amend the human genome at some very early stage of life like embryogenesis? Would the elimination of Mendelian anomalies at that stage be problematic? How about the merely cosmetic like skin color?
I would say that the ethical problem with with eugenics is that it gave a permission structure to people who wanted to do the wrong thing and to exercise their libido domanandi (desire to dominate).
A historical note. Eugenics was not a free floating anomally. It was integral part of the progressive program. Documented by Thomas C. Leonard in "Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era " https://www.amazon.com/Illiberal-Reformers-Eugenics-Economics-Progressive/dp/0691175861. That program was the fons et origo of modern progressivism that brings us the programs above noted.
Very interesting as a summary of the book. I'm sort of missing the review part though.
I enjoyed this essay, and the claim that milk production has more than quadrupled over the last century is shocking. But the hook you used early on was never justified:
> It’s a great example, so it’s such a shame that it’s wrong.
We can say that there are some categories which are very natural, such as integer, rational, and real numbers. Other categories are clearly practical or provisional, such as fish, or fruit. (Is the tomato a fruit?) Other times categorization seems to be merely muddled, as was the case with Pluto. But language itself is an exercise in categorization. "I'd like to buy some cheese" doesn't mean anything about you, about hang gliding, or about hedgehogs.
Granted, words are often vague (What is a "pile?") or have non-shared meaning (American vs British "biscuit") but the entire book we're discussing was written using a category of thing called words, and words are themselves a means of categorizing other things.