Mailing list potential

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Aug 30 10:50:27 MDT 2000

(This article from today's is focused on a mailing list whose
subject matter has little to do with Marxism except in a negative sense.
However, by defining the potential of a new technology, it does strongly
suggest the goal that marxism at should set for itself.)

Flameproof racism On the Evolutionary Psychology mailing list, dangerous
ideas thrive -- without the usual online rancor and hatred. | Aug. 30, 2000
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Andrew Brown

Aug. 30, 2000 | Are blacks programmed by their genes to be promiscuous? Can
we read any morality off our genes at all? Is religion pernicious nonsense?
The field of evolutionary psychology attempts to illuminate such inquiries
into human nature with the insights of modern Darwinism. It raises
questions that have a prickly, intense and scary quality. To get inside
them is like putting on a hair shirt with explosives strapped to it. Even
in sober academic journals, the discussion can rapidly become a screaming
match. On the Internet, home of the flame, any attempt at a reasonable
discussion seems completely futile.

Even respectable academic online mailing lists often melt down into
reciprocal accusations of Nazism and censorship, as did the mailing list of
the Human Biology and Evolution Society, the trade body for evolutionary
psychologists, five years ago.

And if the Nazis don't get you, the nutters will. I once watched a list on
Darwinism disintegrate into a series of arguments about Karl Popper's
philosophy of science, a subject that can make otherwise civilized people
argue like fundamentalists who think they have identified the antichrist.

Given the volatility of online debate, the existence, then, of the
Evolutionary Psychology mailing list seems like a miracle. All these
unspeakable things and more are debated there, yet it is actually possible
to learn new things -- and the arguments, however ruthless, are always
polite. The list has nearly 2,000 subscribers, among them some of the most
distinguished names in the field. Richard Dawkins was on for a while; Dan
Dennett lurks there; and so does anthropologist Dan Sperber.

Active participants include Nick Humphrey, one of the originators of the
"Machiavellian" theory of human intelligence -- namely, that consciousness
is basically a trick to let us manipulate other conscious beings by
imagining how the world looks from their point of view -- and Paul Gross,
one of the authors of "Higher Superstition." But there are also well-known
racist scientists such as J. Philippe Rushton, of the University of Western
Ontario, and Glayde Whitney, who wrote a preface to one of David Duke's
books. And on the other wing there are old New Lefties like philosopher Val
Dusek, who witnessed firsthand the incident in which protesters poured
water on E.O. Wilson during a debate between Wilson and his fellow
evolutionary theoretician, Stephen Jay Gould.

Of course, actual dousing is quite out of date now. With modern technology
you can pour vitriol on people instead. The Internet is the natural home of
denunciations so furious that they could never be printed in magazines.
Yet, somehow, on the Evolutionary Psychology list everyone is civil and
everyone keeps reading -- a testament to the nimble moderation imposed by
one man, Ian Pitchford, founder and editor of the list. In the unlikeliest
of locations he has created one of the few places online that are truly
inimical to pompous blowhards.

Pitchford has achieved this by being much more than your ordinary
moderator. In effect, he has stopped simply being the maintainer of a
mailing list and has become the editor of a new kind of magazine. The
Evolutionary Psychology list combines the quick, cheap distribution of the
Internet with all the advantages that real magazines traditionally have
over mailing lists: a really diverse readership and an editor who sits
right next to a large wastepaper basket.


Louis Proyect

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