Mary Kenny and Herbert Gintis

I just had a letter from Mary Kenny which seems to illustrate perfectly the gap between evolutionary and cultural explanations of human benevolence. She’s an old friend, and a thoroughly decent person, so I like arguing with her because I know her heart is as pure as her reasoning is sometimes tangled. Anyway, she read my Gintis piece in Saturday’s Guardian and wrote back as follows:

Andrew dear since you took me to task about faith and evolution, let me respond to you about Norway: there is a hateful side to this Scandinavian ³openness²: enforced levelling which comes under the pharisaical heading of ³equality² (you are not even allowed to have a personal tombstone in a graveyard it has to be chosen by the local authority, who oversees that they are all the exact same height), and what amounts to state control of private life (the Government knows exactly how much you drink). It is all bound up with their particular type of Calvinism. Not that there isn¹t a genial side to the Norwegians I know there is (and they seem to take great pride in telling you that they are, fundamentally, much nicer than those stuck-up Swedes): but give me a bit of privacy, and personal quirkiness in my private life, please. I¹d much rather see people fight to minimise their taxes, in an (evolutionary?) tussle with the State – and retain their individuality.

If my ancestors were kind and charitable (and many of them were), it was because they believed their reward would be in heaven. And I notice among the yobs of East Kent, and there are many, those who have no such belief are very noticeably unkind and uncharitable, as described in the latest Lynne Truss oeuvre…Love, Mary

So I wrote back. I want to write more and more thoughtfully about this, but my first reactions are below the fold, as a place-holder …

The two immediate points I’d make are (1) that you’ve got the timescale wrong for this sort of argument. Believing in Heaven is a cultural thing, and few of your ancestors can have done it for more than 1000 years. There aren’t genes for theological belief. I don’t mean to dispute that your ancestors were kind and charitable, nor that they believed their reward would be in heaven and that they they’d have connected the two. What’s interesting is how you get to the sort of animal to whom that is a plausible, even a possible, reason for behaving, and that’s what Gintis is trying to explain. which is why he wanted a timescale of roughly 90,000 years.

(2) I’m enough Swedish to know that Calvinism can be horrible (and, of course, that the Norwegians are Much Worse than the Swedes). But I think it does exaggerate, almost as science fiction might, some of the tendencies that make it possible for us to live in co-operative groups. Among these are adherence to community standards, The yobs of East Kent will be very conventional in their yobbery. The members of each pack will stick to the rules. It’s just that their standards are depraved.

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8 Responses to Mary Kenny and Herbert Gintis

  1. Mrs Tilton says:

    Swedish and/or Norwegian Calvinists? They’re in the tradition of the fat German monk, surely, not the skinny French lawyer?

  2. Fat norwegian calvinists? I don’t think so.

  3. acb says:

    Mary, however, is in the tradition of the man in the red socks, so she doesn’t distinguish too much between heretics. The state churches are Lutheran, but there is a lot of popular religion which could reasonably be described as Calvinist.

    In any case, there is a very interesting discussion of Calvin’s Geneva in David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral which examines its constitution as an adaptation to group living. In that light, I think of all religions as approximating to Calvinism.

  4. David Weman says:

    “there is a lot of popular religion which could reasonably be described as Calvinist.”

    We had this discussion before, I think when I first discovered your blog?

    Which of these can be reasonably described as calvinist?

    We have laestadian lutherans, pentecoastals (Pingströrelsen) and baptists (Evangeliska Frikyrkan, Svenska Baptistsamfundet) and vaguely ecumenical protestants (Svenska Missionskyrkan), plus various smaller but not calvinist churches.

    You presumably know a lot more about churches and christianity than me, but I suspect you’re off base here.

  5. Flitcraft says:

    I heard two Norwegian scholars give a paper on the subject once. It was a long time ago and I may not recall it properly, but I believe the evangelical revivals in Norway and Sweden were pietist-influenced Lutheran revivals. It sounds reasonable that people might have moved into other evangelical denominations since, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much Calvinism.

    By the way what sticks in my mind from that seminar was an account of how in one place things got rather extreme: squads of young men, high on piety, would go door to door and check whether you had any books. If you had anything other than Luther or the Bible it got confiscated and trashed. Probably on the old principle that if it’s not in Luther or the Bible, it’s sinful and if it is indeed contained therein, what do you need with an extra book?

  6. Mrs Tilton says:


    we shouldn’t let my wisearsed comment to Andrew’s post obscure the fact that not he but Mary Kenny spoke of Scandinavian Calvinists. Ms Kenny is a Roman Catholic Irishwoman; and Irish people of the RC tradition are sometimes prone to view all their compatriots altri pedis, to say nothing of foreign heretics, as a theologically indistinguishable lump. It is not Andrew but Ms Kenny that is off base here, though to be fair there is (as Andrew has noted) from an RC perspective a certain logic to her view. (From another perspective, I hasten to add, it is comically wrong to confuse Calvinists and Lutherans; nearly as comical and nearly as wrong as it is to equate a Shankill Road Free Presbyterian with Graham Norton, but then the comic wrongness of the latter case is necessarily more local.)

  7. acb says:

    David is right. Mary is wrong. I am sloppy. (a nice conjugation, don’t you think). Scandinavians are Lutherans, not Calvinists. It is, however, the case that “Calvinist” is used to refer to all forms of evangelical rigour in Britain, whereas “Lutheran” is a term suggesting pious drips. I don’t know why.

  8. David Weman says:

    “David is right.”

    Well, I’ll be darned!

    Mrs T, (It feels weird not to address you by your given name.) Andrew knows a lot about christianity and Sweden, so I wasn’t actually sure he wasn’t referring to a calvinist undercurrent in other denominations that I wasn’t aware of.

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