The Biology of Moral Systems (I)

I have quoted from the book before, but I decided that this book deserves to be blogged in more detail. I’m close to finishing the book at this point (it’s definitely taken longer than it should have), and I’ll probably give it 5 stars on goodreads; I might also add it to my list of favourite books on the site. In this post I’ve added some quotes and ideas from the book, and a few comments. Before going any further I should note that it’s frankly impossible to cover anywhere near all the ideas covered in the book here on the blog, so if you’re even remotely interested in these kinds of things you really should pick up a copy of the book and read all of it.

“I believe that something crucial has been missing from all of the great debates of history, among philosophers, politicians, theologians, and thinkers from other and diverse backgrounds, on the issues of morality, ethics, justice, right and wrong. […] those who have tried to analyze morality have failed to treat the human traits that underlie moral behavior as outcomes of evolution […] for many conflicts of interest, compromises and enforceable contracts represent the only real solutions. Appeals to morality, I will argue, are simply the invoking of such compromises and contracts in particular ways. […] the process of natural selection that has given rise to all forms of life, including humans, operates such that success has always been relative. One consequence is that organisms resulting from the long-term cumulative effects of selection are expected to resist efforts to reveal their interests fully to others, and also efforts to place limits on their striving or to decide for them when their interests are being “fully” satisfied. These are all reasons why we should expect no “terminus” – ever – to debates on moral and ethical issues.” (these comments I also included in the quotes post to which I link at the beginning, but I thought it was worth including them in this post as well even so – US).

“I am convinced that biology can never offer […] easy or direct answers to the questions of what is right and wrong. I explicitly reject the attitude that whatever biology tells us is so is also what ought to be (David Hume’s so-called “naturalistic fallacy”) […] there are within biology no magic solutions to moral problems. […] Knowledge of the human background in organic evolution can [however] provide a deeper self-understanding by an increasing proportion of the world’s population; self-understanding that I believe can contribute to answering the serious questions of social living.”

“If there had been no recent discoveries in biology that provided new ways of looking at the concept of moral systems, then I would be optimistic indeed to believe that I could say much that is new. But there have been such discoveries. […] The central point in these writings [Hamilton, Williams, Trivers, Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Dawkins, Wilson, etc. – US] […] is that natural selection has apparently been maximizing the survival by reproduction of genes, as they have been defined by evolutionists, and that, with respect to the activities of individuals, this includes effects on copies of their genes, even copies located in other individuals. In other words, we are evidently evolved not only to aid the genetic materials in our own bodies, by creating and assisting descendants, but also to assist, by nepotism, copies of our genes that reside in collateral (nondescendant) relatives. […] ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interests […] In some respects these ideas run contrary to what people have believed and been taught about morality and human values: I suspect that nearly all humans believe it is a normal part of the functioning of every human individual now and then to assist someone else in the realization of that person’s own interests to the actual net expense of those of the altruist. What [the above-mentioned writings] tells us is that, despite our intuitions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view of beneficence, and a great deal of convincing theory suggests that any such view will eventually be judged false. This implies that we will have to start all over again to describe and understand ourselves, in terms alien to our intuitions […] It is […] a goal of this book to contribute to this redescription and new understanding, and especially to discuss why our intuitions should have misinformed us.”

“Social behavior evolves as a succession of ploys and counterploys, and for humans these ploys are used, not only among individuals within social groups, but between and among small and large groups of up to hundreds of millions of individuals. The value of an evolutionary approach to human sociality is thus not to determine the limits of our actions so that we can abide by them. Rather, it is to examine our life strategies so that we can change them when we wish, as a result of understanding them. […] my use of the word biology in no way implies that moral systems have some kind of explicit genetic background, are genetically determined, or cannot be altered by adjusting the social environment. […] I mean simply to suggest that if we wish to understand those aspects of our behavior commonly regarded as involving morality or ethics, it will help to reconsider our behavior as a product of evolution by natural selection. The principal reason for this suggestion is that natural selection operates according to general principles which make its effects highly predictive, even with respect to traits and circumstances that have not yet been analyzed […] I am interested […] not in determining what is moral and immoral, in the sense of what people ought to be doing, but in elucidating the natural history of ethics and morality – in discovering how and why humans initiated and developed the ideas we have about right and wrong.”

I should perhaps mention here that sort-of-kind-of related stuff is covered in Aureli et al. (see e.g. this link), and that some parts of that book will probably make you understand Alexander’s ideas a lot better even if perhaps he didn’t read those specific authors – mainly because it gets a lot easier to imagine the sort of mechanisms which might be at play here if you’ve read this sort of literature. Here’s one relevant quote from the coverage of that book, which also deals with the question Alexander discusses above, and in a lot more detail throughout his book, namely ‘where our morality comes from?’

“we make two fundamental assertions regarding the evolution of morality: (1) there are specific types of behavior demonstrated by both human and nonhuman primates that hint at a shared evolutionary background to morality; and (2) there are theoretical and actual connections between morality and conflict resolution in both nonhuman primates and human development. […] the transition from nonmoral or premoral to moral is more gradual than commonly assumed. No magic point appears in either evolutionary history or human development at which morality suddenly comes into existence. In both early childhood and in animals closely related to us, we can recognize behaviors (and, in the case of children, judgments) that are essential building blocks of the morality of the human adult. […] the decision making and emotions underlying moral judgments are generated within the individual rather than being simply imposed by society. They are a product of evolution, an integrated part of the human genetic makeup, that makes the child construct a moral perspective through interactions with other members of its species. […] Much research has shown that children acquire morality through a social-cognitive process; children make connections between acts and consequences. Through a gradual process, children develop concepts of justice, fairness, and equality, and they apply these concepts to concrete everyday situations […] we assert that emotions such as empathy and sympathy provide an experiential basis by which children construct moral judgments. Emotional reactions from others, such as distress or crying, provide experiential information that children use to judge whether an act is right or wrong […] when a child hits another child, a crying response provides emotional information about the nature of the act, and this information enables the child, in part, to determine whether and why the transgression is wrong. Therefore, recognizing signs of distress in another person may be a basic requirement of the moral judgment process. The fact that responses to distress in another have been documented both in infancy and in the nonhuman primate literature provides initial support for the idea that these types of moral-like experiences are common to children and nonhuman primates.”

Alexander’s coverage is quite different from that found in Aureli et al.,, but some of the contributors to the latter work deal with similar questions to the ones in which he’s interested, using approaches not employed in Alexander’s book – so this is another place to look if you’re interested in these topics. Margalit’s The Emergence of Norms is also worth mentioning. Part of the reason why I mention these books here is incidentally that they’re not talked about in Alexander’s coverage (for very natural reasons, I should add, in the case of the former book at least; Natural Conflict Resolution was published more than a decade after Alexander wrote his book…).

“In the hierarchy of explanatory principles governing the traits of living organisms, evolutionary reductionism – the development of principles from the evolutionary process – tends to subsume all other kinds. Proximate-cause reductionism (or reduction by dissection) sometimes advances our understanding of the whole phenomena. […] When evolutionary reduction becomes trivial in the study of life it is for a reason different from incompleteness; rather, it is because the breadth of the generalization distances it too significantly from the particular problem that may be at hand. […] the greatest weakness of reduction by generalization is not that it is likely to be trivial but that errors are probable through unjustified leaps from hypothesis to conclusion […] Critics such as Gould and Lewontin […] do not discuss the facts that (a) all students of human behavior (not just those who take evolution into account) run the risk of leaping unwarrantedly from hypothesis to conclusion and (b) just-so stories were no less prevalent and hypothesis-testing no more prevalent in studies of human behavior before evolutionary biologists began to participate. […] I believe that failure by biologists and others to distinguish proximate- or partial-cause and evolutionary- or ultimate-cause reductionism […] is in some part responsible for the current chasm between the social and the biological sciences and the resistance to so-called biological approaches to understanding humans. […] Both approaches are essential to progress in biology and the social sciences, and it would be helpful if their relationship, and that of their respective practitioners, were not seen as adversarial.”

(Relatedly, love is motivationally prior to sugar. This one also seems relevant, though in a different way).

“Humans are not accustomed to dealing with their own strategies of life as if they had been tuned by natural selection. […] People are not generally aware of what their lifetimes have been evolved to accomplish, and, even if they are roughly aware of this, they do not easily accept that their everyday activities are in any sense means to that end. […] The theory of lifetimes most widely accepted among biologists is that individuals have evolved to maximize the likelihood of survival of not themselves, but their genes, and that they do this by reproducing and tending in various ways offspring and other carriers of their own genes […] In this theory, survival of the individual – and its growth, development, and learning – are proximate mechanisms of reproductive success, which is a proximate mechanism of genic survival. Only the genes have evolved to survive. […] To say that we are evolved to serve the interests of our genes in no way suggests that we are obliged to serve them. […] Evolution is surely most deterministic for those still unaware of it. If this argument is correct, it may be the first to carry us from is to ought, i.e., if we desire to be the conscious masters of our own fates, and if conscious effort in that direction is the most likely vehicle of survival and happiness, then we ought to study evolution.”

“People are sometimes comfortable with the notion that certain activities can be labeled as “purely cultural” because they also believe that there are behaviors that can be labeled “purely genetic.” Neither is true: the environment contributes to the expression of all behaviors, and culture is best described as part of the environment.”

“Happiness and its anticipation are […] proximate mechanisms that lead us to perform and repeat acts that in the environments of history, at least, would have led to greater reproductive success.”

“The remarkable difference between the patterns of senescence in semelparous (one-time breeding) and iteroparous (repeat-breeding) organisms is probably one of the best simple demonstrations of the central significance of reproduction in the individual’s lifetime. How, otherwise, could we explain the fact that those who reproduce but once, like salmon and soybeans, tend to die suddenly right afterward, while those like ourselves who have residual reproductive possibilities after the initial reproductive act decline or senesce gradually? […] once an organism has completed all possibilities of reproducing (through both offspring production and assistance, and helping other relatives), then selection can no longer affect its survival: any physiological or other breakdown that destroys it may persist and even spread if it is genetically linked to a trait that is expressed earlier and is reproductively beneficial. […] selection continually works against senescence, but is just never able to defeat it entirely. […] senescence leads to a generalized deterioration rather than one owing to a single effect or a few effects […] In the course of working against senescence, selection will tend to remove, one by one, the most frequent sources of mortality as a result of senescence. Whenever a single cause of mortality, such as a particular malfunction of any vital organ, becomes the predominant cause of mortality, then selection will more effectively reduce the significance of that particular defect (meaning those who lack it will outreproduce) until some other achieves greater relative significance. […] the result will be that all organs and systems will tend to deteriorate together. […] The point is that as we age, and as senescence proceeds, large numbers of potential sources of mortality tend to lurk ever more malevolently just “below the surface,” so that, unfortunately, the odds are very high against any dramatic lengthening of the maximum human lifetime through technology. […] natural selection maximizes the likelihood of genetic survival, which is incompatible with eliminating senescence. […] Senescence, and the finiteness of lifetimes, have evolved as incidental effects […] Organisms compete for genetic survival and the winners (in evolutionary terms) are those who sacrifice their phenotypes (selves) earlier when this results in greater reproduction.”

“altruism appears to diminish with decreasing degree of relatedness in sexual species whenever it is studied – in humans as well as nonhuman species”

October 5, 2016 - Posted by | anthropology, biology, books, genetics, philosophy

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