Tag Archives: sociobiology

Evolution and Theodicy

“Why is there evil in the world?” This question has been asked by philosophers and theologians and ordinary men and women for millennia. Today scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary/neuropsychologists have joined the effort to explain evil: why do people indulge in violence, cheating, lies, harassment, and so on. There is no need here to itemize all the behaviors that can be labeled evil. What matters is the question of “why?”

The question of “why is there evil in the world?” assumes the premise that evil is abnormal while good however defined) is normal—the abnorm vs. the norm, if you will. Goodness is the natural state of man, the original condition, and evil is something imposed on or inserted into the world from some external, malevolent source. In Genesis, God created the world and pronounced it good; then Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptations of the Serpent and brought evil and therefore death into the world (thus, death is a manifestation of evil, immortality the natural state of good). Unfortunately, the Bible does not adequately account for the existence of the Serpent or Satan, so it was left to Milton to fill in the story. Gnostics, Manicheans, and others posited the existence of two deities, one good and the other evil, and constructed a vision of a cosmic struggle between light and darkness that would culminate in the triumph of good—a concept that filtered into Christian eschatology. The fact that Christian tradition sees the end times as a restoration to a state of Adamic or Edenic innocence underscores the notion that goodness is the natural, default state of man and the cosmos.

Contemporary secular culture has not escaped this notion of the primeval innocence of man. It has simply relocated Eden to the African savannah. When mankind was still at the hunter-gatherer stage, so the story goes, people lived in naked or near-naked innocence; they lived in egalitarian peace with their fellows and in harmony with nature. Alas, with the invention of agriculture and the consequent development of cities and civilizations, egalitarianism gave way to greed, social hierarchies, war, imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, all the factors that cause people to engage in violence, oppression, materialism, and so on; further, these faults of civilizations caused the oppressed to engage in violence, theft, slovenliness, and other sins. Laws and punishments and other means of control and suppression were instituted to keep the louts in their place. Many people believe that to restore the lost innocence of our hunter-gatherer origins, we must return to the land, re-engage with nature, adopt a paleo diet, restructure society according to matriarchal and/or socialist principles, and so on. Many people (some the same, some different from the back-to-nature theorists) envision a utopian future in which globalization, or digitization, or general good feeling will restore harmony and peace to the whole world.

Not too surprisingly, many scientists join in this vision of a secular peaceable kingdom. Not a few evolutionary biologists maintain that human beings are evolutionarily adapted to life on the savannah, not to life in massive cities, and that the decline in the health, intelligence, and height of our civilized ancestors can be blamed on the negative effects of a change in diet brought on by agriculture (too much grain, not enough wild meat and less variety of plants) and by the opportunities for diseases of various kinds to colonize human beings too closely crowded together in cities and too readily exposed to exotic pathogens spread along burgeoning trade routes. Crowding and competition lead to violent behaviors as well.

Thus, whether religious or secular, the explanations of evil generally boil down to this: that human beings are by nature good, and that evil is externally imposed on otherwise good people; and that if circumstances could be changed (through education, redistribution of wealth, exercise, diet, early childhood interventions, etc.), our natural goodness would reassert itself. Of course, there are some who believe that evil behavior has a genetic component, that certain mutations or genetic defects are to blame for psychopaths, rapists, and so on, but again these genetic defects are seen as abnormalities that could be managed by various eugenic interventions, from gene or hormone therapies to locking up excessively aggressive males to ensure they don’t breed and pass on their defects to future generations.

Thus it is that in general we are unable to shake off the belief that good is the norm and evil is the abnorm, whether we are religious or secular, scientists or philosophers, creationists or Darwinists. But if we take Darwinism seriously we have to admit that “evil” is the norm and that “good” is the abnorm—nature is red in tooth and claw, and all of the evil that men and women do is also found in other organisms; in fact, we can say that the “evil” done by other organisms long precedes the evil that men do, and we can also say, based on archaeological and anthropological evidence, that men have been doing evil since the very beginning of the human line. In other words, there never was an Eden, never a Noble Savage, never a long-ago Golden Age from which we have fallen or declined—and nor therefore is there any prospect of an imminent or future Utopia or Millennial Kingdom that will restore mankind to its true nature because there is nothing to restore.

The evolutionary function of “evil” is summarized in the term “natural selection”: the process by which death winnows out the less fit from the chance to reproduce (natural selection works on the average, meaning of course that some who are fit die before they can reproduce and some of the unfit survive long enough to produce some offspring, but on average fitness is favored). Death, usually by violence (eat, and then be eaten), is necessary to the workings of Darwinian evolution. An example: When a lion or pair of lions defeat an older pride lion and take over his pride, they kill the cubs of the defeated male, which has the effect of bringing the lionesses back into heat so that the new males can mate with them and produce their own offspring; their task is then to keep control of the pride long enough for their own cubs to reach reproductive maturity. Among lions, such infanticide raises no moral questions, whereas among humans it does.

There is no problem of evil but rather the problem of good: not why is there “evil” but rather why is there “good”? Why do human beings consider acts like infanticide to be morally evil while lions do not? Why do we have morality at all? I believe that morality is an invention, a creation of human thought, not an instinct. It is one of the most important creations of the human mind, at least as great as the usually cited examples of human creativity (art, literature, science, etc.), if not greater considering how much harder won it is than its nearer competitors, and how much harder it is to maintain. Because “good” is not natural, it is always vulnerable to being overwhelmed by “evil,” which is natural: Peace crumbles into war; restraint gives way to impulse, holism gives way to particularism, agape gives way to narcissism, love to lust, truth to lie, tolerance to hate. War, particularism, narcissism, etc., protect the self of the person and the tribe, one’s own gene pool so to speak, just as the lion kills his competitor’s cubs to ensure the survival of his own. We do not need to think very hard about doing evil; we do need to think hard about what is good and how to do it. It is something that every generation must relearn and rethink, especially in times of great stress.

It appears that we are in such a time today. Various stressors, the economy, the climate, overpopulation and mass migrations, religious conflict amid the dregs of moribund empires, are pushing the relationship of the tribes versus the whole out of balance, and the temptations are to put up walls, dig trenches, draw up battle lines, and find someone other than ourselves to blame for our dilemmas. A war of all against all is not totally out of the question, and it may be that such a war or wars will eventuate in a classic Darwinian victory for one group over another—but history (rather than evolution) tells us that such a victory is often less Darwinian than Pyrrhic.

Joy Williams’ Ill Nature: A Review

First published in 2001, and now reissued in paperback by Lyons Paperback, Williams’ “rants and reflections on humanity and other animals” (per the subtitle), is a collection of essays on humanity’s destruction of nature and war against animals written in a tone of angry cynicism: anger at what we have done and are doing, cynicism that we will ever really do anything about it. These are powerful and disturbing essays on such topics as the destruction of the Everglades, the sterility of master planned developments, the cruelties of agribusiness and scientific research, the pseudo-philosophical blather that pretends to justify hunting (not a spiritual pursuit but an atavistic delight in slaughter), and over population. There is little of what passes for “reasonable” or “rational” in these essays, precisely because the reasonable and rational approaches to environmental issues and animal rights, among other topics, are Williams’ ultimate targets.

No reader can escape unscathed from these essays. As “consumers,” we are actively (definitely not passively) complicit in these crimes. Do you eat any kind of meat? Then you are an active supporter of agribusiness, which treats farm animals as units of production and commodities, not as living beings with hearts and minds that suffer in overcrowding, forced feeding, and production-line slaughter. Do you contribute money to the flagship environmental and animal protection organizations? Then you participate in the compromises and rational cost/benefit analyses that undermine the stated missions of these institutions. Do you want babies? Then you are contributing to over population. Do you visit nature preserves and national parks? Then you are endorsing the idea that Nature is something other than us, is something meant for sentimental recreation and resource management, that is, ours.

Williams does not let wildlife biologists off the hook. Snarky asides let us know that she has no patience with collaring and monitoring wild animals for the purpose of adding to human knowledge. She cites one admittedly astonishing and shocking experiment by Canadian scientists, in which they leased a number of pristine lakes and deliberately subjected them to pollutants of various kinds and concentrations in order to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, all life in the lakes died; the lakes themselves died. It will take decades if not generations for the lakes to recover. Why did the scientists do this? Everyone who wanted to know already knew what would happen, after all. Pollution is not a new phenomenon. Those who didn’t want to know paid no attention to the scientists’ experiments. They were pointless.

This experiment reminds me of one conducted by E. O. Wilson and Daniel S. Simberloff in the 1960’s, in which they “removed” the original fauna (mostly insect species) from small mangrove islands in Florida Bay by tenting and fumigating them with methyl bromide (in other words, they exterminated all the brutes) and then watched and waited to see how quickly they were repopulated. This is what passes for science these days. Wilson has been beatified not only by the scientific community (especially those who are temperamentally attracted to his theory of sociobiology) but by the public at large; he’s virtually the Pope Francis of naturalists. It’s too bad Williams, herself once a long-time resident of Florida, didn’t turn her attention to this experiment in her own back yard. Maybe she didn’t know about it.

There is, of course, a problem: Williams is a contemporary American woman, an owner and seller of land, a writer and a professor of writing. She owns dogs. The dog is the species which has been subjected to the most manipulation and disfigurement to suit human purposes and whims of all domestic creatures. Some breeds are so distorted that they can hardly breathe and can no long give birth naturally but have their pups routinely delivered by Caesarian section. None could survive for long in the wild, despite the fact that they are, genetically, wolves. All of which is to say that Williams, along with all the rest of us, cannot escape from the unnatural world we human beings have created—and continue to create: which is enough to infuriate anyone who cares to the extent that Williams obviously does. Of which there are too few to make any real difference to the big picture, in the long run.

What is happening on the scale of the big picture and the long run is the likely fact that we have already passed the tipping point on global warming (“climate change” is far too innocuous a term, meant to deflect the criticisms of deniers), that we already have far too many people on this planet and will have many more—too many for resource management schemes or renewable energy infrastructure to satisfy—, that wild elephants will probably be extinct within a decade or two, and that water and food shortages, along with the frustrations of crowded, poorly educated, and jobless young men, will lead to more and more deadly wars than we already have. Meanwhile, bioengineers cook up schemes for subjecting the forces of nature to human control, with results that are admittedly unpredictable. This fantasy is based on the false notion that Nature is a system; systems can be controlled, tinkered with, reset, understood.

Many years ago I read an article in some national magazine in which the author argued that, with Nature already gone or domesticated, we had no choice but to treat the earth as a great manmade garden. He seemed to think that we could, by means of our intelligence and technology, recreate Eden. that is, we could systematize nature. Apparently he had not noticed (most people don’t, although the writers of The Simpsons did), that Eden was a small paradise circumscribed by the rest of the world, that beyond the gates were death, disease, and hardship. After all, where else could God have cast them out to? God made or manmade, Paradise is a dream, a fantasy, in which all the untidiness and unpredictability of reality have been eliminated. Paradise, Eden, Utopia. Systems all. Rational. Reasonable. Impossible.

Nicholas Wade’s Troublesome Inheritance: A Critical Review

In his latest book, Nicholas Wade, a well-known science journalist, argues three points: 1) That human races are real, 2) that differences in human behavior, and likely cognition, are genetically based, and 3) that there are likely subtle but nonetheless crucial behavioral differences among races which are also genetically based. Wade is well aware that these are extremely controversial ideas, that they overturn politically correct notions that human behavior and social structures are purely cultural, yet he is confident that developments in genetics support his view.

Click here to read the full article.

Ethics and Human Nature

It is an unhappy characteristic of our age that certain ignoramuses have been elevated to the ranks of “public intellectual,” a category which seems to consist of men and women who provide sweeping theories of everything, especially of everything they know nothing about. Into this category fall certain writers whose sweeping theory is that, prior to the Enlightenment, everyone lived in abject superstition and physical misery. With the Enlightenment, reason and science began the process of sweeping away misery and ignorance, clearing the field for the flowers of prosperity and knowledge. Such a sophomoric view of human history and thought has the virtue (in their minds only) of rendering it unnecessary for them to acquaint themselves with a deep and nuanced knowledge of the past, an error which permits them to attribute all that is good in human accomplishment to the age of science and all that is bad to a dark past best forgotten.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent fad for publishing books and articles claiming that science, particularly evolutionary science, provides the necessary and sufficient basis for ethics.

To read the article, click here.

The Mismeasure of All Things

Some 2500 years ago, Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. By this he meant something like, mankind can know only that which it is capable of knowing, which in effect is a recognition that the human mind does have its limits; but Protagoras’ statement has often been taken to mean that man is the standard by which all other things are to be measured, i.e., that mankind is the standard of comparison for judging the worth of everything else. This meaning may have been colored by the Christian concept of man as the object of divine history, of man as just a little lower than the angels. The Christian concept, in its turn, derives from a common interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, in which God gives man dominion over the rest of earthly creation.

However, while both Protagoras’ saying and the Genesis story carry the concept forward through history, neither explains how the idea actually originated. It may have been Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who first recognized that it is ignorance rather than knowledge that makes man the measure of all things: “When men are ignorant of natural causes producing things, and cannot even explain them by analogy with similar things, they attribute their own nature to them.” That is, when primitive men and women surveyed the world and sought explanations of phenomena, they had nothing to go by other than what they knew about themselves, so that, for example, a terrible destructive storm could be explained as the anger of the gods, since when human beings became angry they too engaged in destructive behavior; or when a gentle rain caused plants to grow, the gods were in a good mood, perhaps pleased by some human act of worship, because when humans were in a good mood, they engaged in benevolent acts. After all, the earliest humans could not have had any knowledge of the material causes of storms, droughts, etc., nor of course of animal behavior, which they attributed to motives much like their own. As Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield summarize Vico’s views, in primitive mythologies people “could measure the world of Nature only by that which they already knew—namely themselves” (The Discovery of Time).

Both Protagoras and Genesis simply give more sophisticated glosses on this primitive impulse. They reflect the increasing body and complexity of knowledge developed by ancient civilizations, particularly those that had developed writing systems, which in turn enabled them to impose order on what had been a plethora of local myths and their variants. Simply by creating relatively coherent pantheons containing gods with discreet attributes, roles, and positions in a divine hierarchy, ancient civilizations were able to organize their intellectual world and provide authoritative explanations. Monotheism carried this further, by providing an even more unified world view, but it also somewhat depersonalized the concept of God, making him more abstract and less personal (e.g., no images or idols, no household god or genie of the local spring, etc.). This was an important achievement in the ongoing development of knowledge, a necessary step in the process that led to the state of knowledge we enjoy today, in large part because it put more emphasis on cerebral, intellectual rather than personal and experiential modes of understanding—in a sense, creating theory to replace myth. Thus we see the Greek philosophers creating the first science and the Jews creating the first inklings of theology and, importantly, teleology (a sense of history with a goal towards which it was moving). Nevertheless, the Judeo-Christian god retained strong anthropomorphic features, especially in the popular imagination and in visual arts, in which, for example, God the Father was usually depicted as a white-haired old man. Perhaps as long as most people were illiterate and dependent on visual media for their abstract knowledge, anthropomorphism was to be expected.

The Western European, Christian intellectual (literate) tradition combined these two strands of ancient thought, the scientific/philosophical with the historic/teleological, setting the stage for a modern world view that sees the world as making coherent sense and as operating according to consistent, universal laws, which then can be exploited by human beings for their own betterment. As scientific knowledge expanded and material explanations could be provided for phenomena that once were viewed as signs of divine intervention, God receded to the back of men’s minds as less necessary to explain the world—at best, perhaps, He became little more than the Prime Mover, the one who got it all started or the one who established the universal laws which continue to operate without His immediate intervention. But if the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment put God into retirement, it did not give up the belief in coherent laws and the quest for universal theories, nor did it give up the teleological view of history.

It is important to note that the teleological view is always a human-centered view; history, whether of cosmos, nature, or society, was still about man; very few thinkers hazarded to speculate that man might be merely one among many creatures and phenomena rather than the point of the whole enterprise. In this sense, at least, the early modern era retained the primitive impulse to both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. The widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection did little, indeed perhaps nothing, to change that for most people. It was not difficult to switch from believing that God had created man for dominion over nature and as the center of the historical story of fall and redemption, to believing that evolution is teleological, both in the sense of inevitably leading to the emergence of homo sapiens as the crowning outcome of the evolutionary process and in the sense of evolution as a progressive process. And it was easy enough, in the context of nineteenth-century capitalism, to believe that modern industrial culture was the natural continuation of progressive evolution—indeed was its goal.

It took a generation or more for it to dawn on people that Darwinism, along with the geological discoveries regarding the great age of the earth and the astronomers’ and physicists’ discoveries of the even greater age of the universe, implied there is no god at all, not even the reticent god of the Deists. One would think that once this implication struck home, both the teleological and the anthropocentric views would fade away. But, perhaps due to human vanity, neither has done so.

In a supremely ironic twist, both teleology and anthropocentrism have been inverted. Whereas the theological age measured other creatures in human terms, the evolutionary age measures humans in animal terms. We are no longer a little lower than the angels but only a little bit higher than the other animals—or maybe not even that. We are naked apes, talking apes, singing apes. We are like social insects, we are vertebrates, we are aggressive because we are animals seeking to maximize our survival, we are merely transportation for the real biological players, selfish genes. We are not rational or conscious, we do not have free will, we operate by instinct, each of our seemingly advanced traits is hard-wired. Our morality is nothing more than an adaptation. We take a word like altruism, which originally meant a certain kind of human behavior, apply it to ants, where it becomes a description of instinctive eusocial behavior, and then re-apply that meaning back onto humans. Thus making us just like all the other animals. Therefore, we study them in order to understand ourselves. We focus on the similarities (often slim) and ignore the differences (often radical).

This continues the old habit of anthropomorphism in new guise and fails to recognize the independent existence of other creatures—their independent lines of evolution as well as their ontological separateness from us. We unthinkingly repeat that humans and chimps share 96 percent of their genes (or is it 98 percent?), as if that meant something—but then, it’s said we share 97 percent of our genes with rats. We neglect to mention that apes and humans diverged from each other some 7 to 8 million years ago and have followed independent lines of evolution ever since. We are not apes after all.

Consider the fruit fly, that ubiquitous laboratory subject which has yielded so much knowledge of how genes work. It is often cited as a model of human genetics and evolution. But consider what Michael Dickinson, a scientist (he calls himself a neuroethologist) at the University of Washington (Seattle), has to say about fruit flies: “I don’t think they’re a simple model of anything. If flies are a great model, they’re a great model for flies.” To me, this is a great insight, for it recognizes that fruit flies (and, frankly, insects in general) are so other than like us that to study them as if they were a model of anything other than themselves, as a model of us, is in a sense not to study them at all. It is rather to look into their compound eyes as if they were mirrors showing our own reflections. It is a form of narcissism, which perhaps contains our own demise.

Our demise because in continuing to look at nature as being about ourselves we continue the gross error of believing we can manipulate nature, other organisms, the entire world, to our own narrow purposes without consequences. It turns other organisms into harbingers of homo sapiens, narrows research to that which will “benefit” mankind, and misses the very strangeness of life in all its diversity and complexity. It continues the age-old world view of human dominion and fails to recognize that our “dominion” is neither a biological necessity nor a feature of the natural world. Dominion is a dangerous form of narcissism which a maturely scientific age should discard.

Empathy Imperiled: A Review

One can to some extent understand the current enthusiasm of conservatives for Darwinian deterministic explanations of human behavior, inasmuch as determinism is compatible with the views of human nature already held by conservatives. Even religious conservatives, those who go so far as to deny evolution per se, subscribe to a deterministic view. The Edenic fall, the apocalyptic view of history, etc., are elements in God’s overarching plan, and human free will is largely limited to submitting to God’s will or facing the dire consequences. Secular conservatives hold that Evolution is the grand plan (even though they usually deny teleology for appearances’ sake) and that we should submit to the inevitabilities of our genes and our Pleistocene natures. But it is puzzling that a considerable number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences submit to Darwinian explanations of art, literature, philosophy, etc.; perhaps they do so in a desperate attempt to retain “relevance” in an age when technology, science, and the MBA have the hegemonic edge.

It is especially surprising when a writer of definitely left-wing political beliefs attempts to recruit biological evolution to the socialist or communitarian cause. Such is the case, sadly, with Gary Olson’s book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (Springer, 2013). Olson is a professor of political science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and active in liberal causes. In this book, he explores a two-part thesis: the first is that mirror neurons in the brain hardwire us for empathy; the second is that the culture of capitalism thwarts this natural empathy in favor of selfishness.

Why is his first point important to his second point? According to Olson, that we (and at least some other animals) have mirror neurons has been proven by science, which in turn provides support for the idea that human beings are naturally (i.e., biologically) empathetic. It is not biology or our evolutionary history that makes us divisive and driven by selfishness and enmity but rather, culture, particularly capitalist culture, has thwarted this natural trait. However, while the existence of mirror neurons in macaques appears to be well established, their existence in human beings is not. It further is not at all certain that mirror neurons are the source of empathy. They seem instead to mirror others’ motor movements, such that when a macaque sees another macaque pick up a peanut and put it in its month, the first macaque can imitate that action, but it is a long way from motor imitation to empathy. But by means of a non sequitur, Olson evades the problem: “The monkey’s neurons were ‘mirroring’ the activity she was observing, suggesting she was responding to the experience of another, such as when we experience empathy for someone else’s circumstances” (p. 21). As in all non sequiturs, there is some verbal sleight of hand in this sentence: from mirroring an activity (outwardly visible) to mirroring an experience (inward and subjective), and then the leap from a monkey mirroring/responding to another monkey’s actions to a human being actually feeling with another human being (and what “circumstances” are implied here?). No explanation for this leap from an activity to a subjective state is provided.

It is worth pointing out here that complex animals like macaques, chimpanzees, or humans do not consist of one behavioral trait. Even if mirror neurons do exist in monkeys or humans, even if we are willing to make the leap of faith that mirror neurons hardwire us for empathy, empathy is not our only behavioral trait and can then, quite naturally rather than culturally, be over-ridden by other traits that might be more appropriate to a particular situation or circumstance. Thus a person might be empathetic one day and jealous the next, or understanding and helpful to one person and belligerent to another. None of us would hurt a fly—until the situation called for a fly swatter.

Perhaps “empathy” is a poor word, anyway. The observant macaque might use its ability to “mirror” another’s actions by stealing the peanuts; a human being who can “feel with” another person might use that to manipulate and outwit. Merely “mirroring” does not guarantee virtuous cooperation.

There are equally damaging inadequacies with Olson’s development of the second part of his thesis, that capitalism thwarts our natural empathy. He writes that “capitalism is by its very nature competitive and exploitive, not communal and empathetic except to the degree that empathy can enhance profitability” (p. 25). Well, true, at least to some extent. But is this true only of capitalism? As a leftist, Olson seems to think that it is. But Olson fails to show that capitalism is more destructive of empathy than other actual (rather than ideal) economic systems. To do so, some comparisons (other than to Cuba) would be necessary. For example, given the endemic slavery of the Roman Empire, which was not capitalist, surely we can say that Rome was destructive of empathy. Indeed, a major motive for official Roman antagonism to early Christianity was precisely its encouragement of empathy, particularly for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Ancient Greece, despite Athens’ reputation as the birthplace of democracy, also depended on slavery and denied citizen status to everyone except free-born, native-born males (i.e., not “foreigners,” women, slaves, etc.). It is the ancient Greeks who gave us the word barbarian, a pejorative for the “them” of the us vs. them dichotomy. In the Americas, aside from the Aztecs and Maya (human sacrifice, fierce warfare), there were the Iroquois, who made territorial war against their neighbors, and slavery was also practiced by numerous Indian tribes. While many sins have been committed under capitalism, so have they under all other actual economic systems.

On the other hand, some ancient sins withered away under capitalism. Chattel slavery was abolished after capitalism was established, the vote has been extended to all adults, men and women alike, of whatever class. The various products of industrial/scientific medicine have eliminated or vastly reduced the ravages of infectious diseases, to the point where infant and child mortality has gone from being a commonplace to an exception. The disease, smallpox, that many historians estimate killed as much as 90% of Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans has been eliminated. These examples are not meant to absolve capitalism of its sins, but to demonstrate that any political and economic systems, just like the human beings who create and sustain them, are complex mixtures and degrees of good, bad, and indifferent. Capitalism may have run its course and may, through the usual difficult process that attends major historical shifts, be replaced by something better suited to our new globalized, over-heated world, but I doubt that that new system will be as morally exemplary as many dream of.

In my opinion, mirror neurons, neuroscience, genetics, etc., add little of interest or usefulness to issues of morality. In Olson’s book, the best passages are not those which unsuccessfully attempt to recruit mirror neurons to moral purposes but those which explore the profound words of Jesus (e.g., the parable of the Good Samaritan) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (e.g., King’s interpretation and application of that parable). Such wisdom does not require a pseudoscientific gloss.

Boehm’s “Social Selection”

Christopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (Basic Books, 2012) is yet another sad example of the futility of the widespread hope that Neo-Darwinism, as over extended by evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, can ever be a theory of everything, particularly a theory that explains modern human behavior and values. It is not science. It is an ideology, or perhaps merely a hope, dressing up in a sloppy imitation of science.

Boehm’s thesis is that human moral values, the virtue, altruism, and shame of his subtitle, evolved through a process of what he calls “social selection,” which can be defined as the selecting out of socially uncooperative individuals (whom Boehm equates with psychopaths) and the selecting in of cooperative ones. Lengthy as the book is (at 362 pages of text), with its elaborate arguments and numerous examples, Boehm fails to support his thesis with anything more than supposition and false analogies.

First let’s consider what social selection would have to do in order to affect the evolution of human beings:

1) It would require a concerted effort species-wide over a great swath of time to define, identify, and eliminate socially uncooperative individuals (psychopaths and free riders).

2) In order to affect the gene pool, undesirable individuals would have to be identified very early in life, before they had the chance to reproduce. Killing the parent without killing the child does not eliminate the parent’s genes.

3) The criteria for determining whom to eliminate would not only have to be clear but consistent over many generations. Any change in the standards midstream would ruin the whole scheme. Yet any historian can tell you that standards have changed over time, sometimes quite sharply.

There is no evidence that any of this obtained at any time in human history or prehistory. There is also no evidence that if it did occur it would have had a significant impact on human evolution. Prior to modern medicine and germ theory, infant and child mortality, not to mention plagues and epidemics that affected adults as well, would have had an impact many times that of social selection, effectively diminishing its proportionally infinitesimal effects.

In order to compensate for the serious lack of evidence, Boehm resorts to highly suppositional phrasing and subjunctive grammar. The following examples from pages 80 and 81 are illustrative of far too much of the book:

“prehistoric forager lifestyles could have generated distinctive types of social selection” (Perhaps they could have, but science wants to know if they actually did.)

These types of social selection “could have supported generosity outside the family at the level of genes.” (Again, did they actually do so?)

“were likely to have”
“could have become”
“It’s even possible . . . if”
“may have begun to differ”
“it’s likely that”
“would have been”
“would not have negated”
“they would have”
“were likely to have been”
“what could have happened”
“very likely”

And all these from just two pages! The careless or naïve reader might not notice this suppositional language and therefore mistakenly believe that Boehm is solidly establishing his argument; but the careful reader will find these to be crippling stumbling blocks.

There are also problems of self-contradiction. For example, Boehm seems to be saying that social selection eliminates psychopaths, but then states that psychopaths constitute a significant percentage of modern day populations. He claims that “People very significantly [psychopathic] probably number as high as one or more [vague: how many more?] out of several hundred in our total population,” which may not seem all that many, but perhaps too many if humans began socially selecting these people out thousands of years ago. Other sources put the percentage as low as 2% and as high as 4%, but no doubt problems of definition affect the numbers. Whatever the true number may be, I think Boehm does need at the very least to clarify just how effective social selection really is.

The examples he pulls from contemporary forager societies are also contradictory of his thesis. He cites the example of Cephu, a Mbuti Pygmy who, as recounted by Colin Turnbull, let his greed overcome his responsibility to the rest of his group. His colleagues caught him in the act of helping himself to more game than he was entitled to and subjected him to an intense course of humiliation—but they did not kill him or his progeny, and after he had adequately apologized and humbled himself, he was readmitted to the group. The story of Cephu, meant to illustrate the book’s thesis, actually proves its opposite. Cephu’s behavior was corrected not genetically, but culturally.

Perhaps a comparison would clarify the problems with Boehm’s thesis. There is another form of behavior that one might think would have been socially eliminated fairly early in human evolution, male homosexuality. It is not, after all, conducive to reproductive survival, and has often been punished, quite horribly in many instances, not only with shunning and shaming techniques but with imprisonment, torture, and execution; yet it has persisted through thousands of years, in part because homosexuals can camouflage themselves but also because efforts of social selection to eliminate the behavior have proven to be ineffectual—just as has been, I would argue, social selection to eliminate socially uncooperative individuals. This analogy suggests that social selection is a very weak hook on which to hang the hope that biology and genetics can account for all human behavior in terms of “fitness.”

Finally, we should note that throughout history there have been people we would today label as psychopaths who have been quite successful leaders, often revered not only in their own times but long after their deaths. One thinks of Napoleon Bonaparte, killer of millions yet romanticized and admired by other millions, credited with the Napoleonic Code and sympathized with in his exile. One also thinks of Genghis Khan, the great butcher who, far from being selected out of the gene pool, is now thought to be the ancestor of as many as 16 million people living today. Of course, being a psychopathic great leader is no guarantee of reproductive success; Hitler, fortunately, had no children, and though he did have nieces and nephews, none of them has followed his example. While Boehm believes that psychopaths and free riders were (at least to some extent) weeded out of the gene pool through social selection, it may be that such individuals were selected for because in some ways that we 21st century Americans may not comprehend, they were in fact socially useful. Perhaps they made good warriors, or maybe they built the great empires that encouraged the arts and sciences, or maybe they made their liege lords great fortunes (perhaps Cortez and Pizarro were useful psychopaths, enriching the Spanish treasury while taking all the risks). What we can say is that they have been, and are, legion.

Genetics, Ethics, and the New Social Darwinism

There’s been a lot of buzz among the pundits lately about “cooperation,” particularly about purported scientific findings that cooperation, collaboration, altruism, and other kinds of social virtues are genetic and that “cooperation is as central to evolution as mutation and selection” (Brooks, 5 May 2011).  The pundits are responding to a minor publishing fad for books on these subjects, for example Super Cooperator  by Nowak and Highfield and Braintrust by Patrica Churchland (reviewed by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal on 14 May 2011).

The underlying thesis is that because cooperation improves the survival of individuals and their relatives, our “moral rules of thumb” have, as Ridley puts it, “been chosen by evolution to achieve certain social goals.”  I do hope that Ridley is being deliberately poetic here, for otherwise he is promulgating a teleological version of evolution, one in which evolution chooses and has intentional goals and one that verges on intelligent design.

It is naïve to assert that evolution makes choices or has goals—evolution is not an entity.  The word “evolution” denotes a process of nondirected change over eons. Tthat change has eventuated in complexity of form and behavior is a consequence of time, not purpose.

The New Social Darwinists’ notion that evolution favors cooperation also does not stand up to the facts.  If cooperation (and all its variants) were “favored” by evolution, in the same way that, say, development of bigger brains is, one would expect to see a diminution of its opposite, selfishness.  But no such diminution can be observed.

This raises the more interesting and nonbiological question of why there has recently been this upsurge in books and articles on the biological basis of cooperation.  It seems to me that it is a reaction to the manifest lack of cooperative and altruistic behavior in American society today.  The current recession was triggered by a tsunami of selfish, devil take the hindmost behavior; and the current political climate, particularly on the right (which no longer deserves to be called “conservative”), as well as the pervasive “look-at-me-first” attitudes expressed by popular culture, all point to a collapse of social cohesion and sense of responsibility to others.

In other words, the current interest in cooperation is symptomatic of its manifest lack in American society, economics, and politics.  Those alarmed by this decline are attempting to use “science” as an antidote, as a means of encouraging greater cooperation in a poisonous political and economic climate of selfishness and disregard for those who lack power and money.  But we don’t need pseudoscience and appeals to myths of the primeval savannah to dissect the causes of the current discouraging state of America nor to argue for greater cooperation and consideration for others.  Sociology and history, moral philosophy and ethics, and yes even religion, rather than sociobiology and evolutionary just-so stories, are more than adequate to the task.

Is the Brain Hard Wired for Optimism?

Another new book in the worn-out sociobiological genre is on its way:  Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain is due for release on June 14.  We can get a foretaste of her thesis in an op-ed article Sharot published on May 15 in the New York Times, titled “Major Delusions,” in which she takes the opportunity provided by the college graduation season to make a point not exactly relevant to completing college, an opportunity annually exploited by pundits, run of the mill as well as elite.  Sharot’s point is that “it is not commencement speeches or self-help books that make us hopeful.  Recently, with the development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques, we have gathered evidence that suggests our brains are hard-wired to be unrealistically optimistic.”

This is a statement that begs to be unpacked. There is first the subtle use of the word “suggests,” which is open to interpretation by the reader:  What does it mean when someone says that evidence “suggests” a stated conclusion?    Particularly, how strong is the assertion which follows “suggests”?  And what does she mean by “unrealistically”?   That is a value-laden word, not an objective or strictly scientific one, and clearly not quantifiable.

More serious, however, is the notion that, because a certain area of the brain shows activity when the person is thinking about a certain kind of topic, it therefore follows that “hard-wiring” is indicated, that the trait being studied, in this case optimism (in other cases, you name it), is genetic and the result of biological evolution.  As the Scientific American book club website puts it, Sharot “concludes by speculating that optimism was selected during evolution because positive expectations enhance the probability of survival.”  Speculating indeed!

At this point, prior to the publication of her book, one cannot know Sharot’s methodology or who her and her colleagues’ human subjects were; the NYT column reads as if her conclusions apply universally to all human beings.  The possibility of a cultural bias, however, is hinted at in an article published in New Scientist in October 2007, which states that at that time, at New York University, 15 volunteers were asked a series of questions and then asked to think about various scenarios, positive or negative, while lying in a brain scanner. The article did not state who these volunteers were, but since the experiments were conducted at an American university, one suspects that they were college students and likely Americans (rather than, say, foreign exchange students).  If this proves to be the case (and I do hope the book details how the experiments were conducted and gives adequate information on who the subjects were), the sample is too biased and probably too small to justify the very large conclusion that optimism was selected during evolution for any reason.  For one thing, American culture valorizes optimism under all circumstances, and American students would have imbibed the cultural value since birth.  Identical studies done on subjects located in other countries and speaking other languages, for example, seem called for.

For another thing, since everything human beings do and think is done and thought in the brain, that certain regions of the brain show activity when a subject is engaged in an activity or merely thinking about something does not lead to the conclusion that that particular activity or that particular way of thinking is hard wired.  Nor especially does it mean that that particular activity or way of thinking evolved in order to enhance survival or fitness.  All it means is that, yes, indeedy, the brain does it.  Brain scans can only show us where activity occurs—they cannot tell us if such activity is genetic rather than cultural nor can they parse the relative differences between or contributions of the two.