Thursday, May 12, 2016

What is the human thing? 2

I have been reading Aristotle’s Categories tonight.  I first read it as an undergraduate philosophy major at the University of Arizona.  As always when I return to this master I am again astonished by the power and durability of his thought.  Twenty-three centuries after his death, he continues to illuminate and be illuminated by the efforts of those who try to become wise by asking one question after another. 
I confess that I did not know until tonight that his word for categories is the same word that is frequently used for an accusation.  To categorize someone, in common language Greek, was to accuse him of a crime.  So to identify Donald Trump as a man is to accuse him of something.  This is the sort of thing that Martin Heidegger would have written a whole, incomprehensible book about. 
The Categories begins with a basic fact about language.  We use some words as homonyms, which sound identical but mean entirely different things.  Think of baseball bat and vampire bat.  I got that example from a fellow grad student Kevin Long.  Sometimes we use words as synonyms, as when we speak of sexually reproducing organisms and asexually reproducing organisms.  Finally, we sometimes use words as paronyms, as when we say that someone who does politics is a politician.  That last term, unfortunately, never made its way into English. 
From that point of departure, Aristotle dives deep into metaphysics.  Consider this statement: “the leaf on the tree is green”.  Green is what we say about the leaf.  The leaf is what we say green about.  Aristotle uses that distinction as the basis of what is more or less real.  The things that are most real are the things that are never said about anything else.  We might say that a tree leafs out, but we never say that this here tree “that here leafs”.  The leaf is a real thing which can be green and fresh or brown and withered.  The latter terms are meaningful and true only if they describe something real. 
The term for real thing-ousia in the Greek-is usually translated as substance, and for a very good reason.  The same words in both languages indicate both a substratum that undergoes change (the iron that goes from black and cold to red and hot in the blacksmith’s forge) and the property of a “man of substance.”  See note on Heidegger above. 
For Aristotle, the only genuine, “primary” substances are individual things.  His examples are always organic: this here human being or this here horse.  His real things are the real things in the common sense meaning of the words, the things we can see and touch.  Aristotle is presumably arguing with his equally famous teacher, Plato, who taught that apparently more abstract things like beauty, truth, and goodness were the real things. 
Having made this point, Aristotle immediately qualifies it in Plato’s direction.  He does so by making a distinction between primary substance (this here horse) and secondary substances like horse and animal.  The latter are secondary (and hence not quite genuine) substances because they can be said about something else.  So one can say that Ken Blanchard is a human being and an animal but one never says that this is a Ken Blanchard or that this Ken Blanchards about anything but yours truly. 
We do, however, speak about species and genus (horse and animal in his examples) the same way that we speak about individual creatures, as when Aristotle says that the human being is the political animal.  In this case, the human being is what political animal is said about.  This gives Aristotle a way to stack the candidates for genuine substance in order of reality.  Species (horse) is more real than genus (animal) because the latter can be meaningfully predicated of the former (a horse is an animal), yet less real than Seabiscuit, which cannot be predicated of anything.  
The problems that Aristotle is addressing here continue to haunt biology to this day.  What is the biological substance?  David Hull and Michael Ghiselin have argued that a species is not a class but an individual.  I am the particular person I am not because I look like my father but because my mother and father begat me.  Dogs are dogs not because they have this or that definitive trait but because they were sired by other dogs. 
While I don’t necessarily buy into this, I think they are onto something.  Evolutionary biology fleshes out Aristotle’s thinking by extending it backward into organic time.  Organisms branched off into plants and animals.  Animals split into distinct species.  Yet all of this depends, at every actual moment, on actual organisms, then and there, surviving, being fruitful and multiplying.  Aristotle’s candidates for substance are ranked as they are in evolutionary history.  Pretty good for a guy who never looked into a microscope. 
I will close this post with a little quote from Aristotle (Categories sec. 5). 
It seems that no substance is more or less [what it is]… I mean that no substance can admit of degrees in itself.  For example, the same substance, a man, cannot be more or less a man as compared to another.  One man cannot be more a man than another, in the same way that one that one white thing can be whiter than another white thing or one beautiful thing more beautiful than others. 

Take that, my Southern ancestors!  Aristotle recognized, a good two thousand years before Jefferson, that all men are created equal.  Darwin may or may not have been motivated towards his work by an opposition to slavery, in fact confirmed Aristotle’s reasoning.  No human being is more human or whiter than another.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What is the human thing?

The working title of my paper for this year’s IPSA meeting in Poland is “the Darwinian dynamic of Aristotelian Political Animals.”  A bit clunky, but I am sticking with it.  The argument between modern liberalism and socialism turns on the question whether the interests of human societies are subordinate to those of individual persons (liberalism) or vice versa (socialism).  This is the political application of a fundamental metaphysical question: is the human thing the individual or the polis?  I propose that Aristotle’s answer to this question is yes.  What emerges from Aristotle’s thinking (whether he intended this or not) is that the human thing is the dynamic relationship between the citizen and the city.  Here is the beginning of my treatment of this question. 
What is the human thing?
One way to approach this question is to consider the nature of parts and wholes.  The one is fundamentally subordinate to the other.  A doorknob is a part of and hence essentially subordinate to a door because the definition of the former necessarily includes the latter.  You can’t understand what a doorknob is unless you understand what a door is; however, you don’t have to understand the knob in order to understand the door.  The same is true of semicircles and circles. 
Applying this to biology, a hand or a kidney is part of a body and cannot exist or be what it is without being integrated into a body.  Logos must proceed from the whole to the parts in order to understand the phenomena.  Aristotle also argues that the body is essentially secondary and the soul primary, for a body without a soul (a corpse) isn’t really a body anymore.  It is just a lump of interestingly shaped material.  The soul, as he puts it in the De Anima, is the actuality of the body. 
So what about the relationship between the individual human being and the political community?  In the Politics, Aristotle famously states that an individual who is no part of such a community is like a severed hand.  Of course unlike a severed hand, an isolated individual can go on living; however, he cannot live a human life.  He is like a beast or a god, below or above the human thing.  That seems to answer the question decisively in favor of the polis as the human thing. 
In the Nicomachean Ethics, however, Aristotle takes the opposite approach.  He begins with the individual as the primary thing and family, friendship, and citizenship emerge from the individual’s pursuit of the good things for himself and for those he cares about.  So which is it? 
Aristotle grappled with a similar problem with various attempts to identify the fundamental unit of biology.  At first glance it seems obvious.  A horse is a horse, of course.  From that fundamental thing, present to observation, one can abstract in two directions.  One can go downward to the parts of the horse: legs and organs and organic matter.  One can go upward to the species to which the animal belongs and thence to genus, etc.  But these logical steps are necessarily abstractions.  A leg only makes sense as a leg if it is part of a whole animal.  The species, likewise is real only in the sense that it is something true about this here animal: that it belongs in this category. 
Yet Aristotle was also drawn in the other direction.  What is most knowable is that which is less subject to qualification.  To say that a horse has four legs may not be true of this particular horse since she might lose a leg and yet remain, for a little bit at least, a horse.  It is reliably true of the horse species, however, and so the species is more knowable.  If the knowable is the real, and this is a necessary assumption for all rational understanding of nature, then the species is more real than the individual. 
This conundrum should be understood in the context of Aristotle’s argument with Plato.  Plato’s Socrates can down decisively in favor of the species form.  He argued famously that the form is primary and exists independently of the individual.  When Aristotle makes the individual primary he is reducing the species form to a mere abstraction.  When he makes the species primary, he is nonetheless keeping his distance from Plato.  The horse species is nothing more nor less than all the horses present in every place and time. 
Aristotle’s equivocation on this topic has its analogy in the problem of the species in modern biology.  Is the species a set of characteristics by which we place an individual into a more or less artificial class?  If it looks like a duck and waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably… a duck.  Alternatively, a species can be understood as a large object scattered across time.  Chimpanzees are this branch of the ape clade and human beings are another.  A third alternative is Ernst Mayr’s definition of an interbreeding population of sexually reproducing creatures.  Each approach has its power.  None can settle the matter in its favor. 
To ask what is the human thing is to arrive at the same dilemma.  The most obvious answer is that it is the biological individual.  Social groups, including the primary social group which is the political community, are institutions.  Individuals do the instituting.  Yet Aristotle had a point in his Politics.  If a linguistic community is an institution then so is an individual linguistic animal, the latter cannot become what she is without the former.  Without a family or its functional equivalent a human person can neither survive to adulthood nor acquire that capacity for logos that is the definitive characteristic of human beings.  It is possible to go a step further and point out that all human communities are possible because of the history of the human species on earth.  Perhaps that is the human thing and particular societies stand towards it just as individuals stand towards groups. 

I will argue from Aristotelian principles that the human thing is neither the individual nor the polis but, instead, is the dynamic relationship between the two.  Individuals create societies and vice versa.  This is possible precisely because the individual and the group are each asserting themselves against the other.  This is not explicit in Aristotle’s writing; however, it is more or less intentionally what his thinking is pointing toward.  It makes sense of Aristotle and, I will argue, it makes sense of both the theoretical questions discussed above and of their explicitly political implications.  Applying Darwinian biology to Aristotle’s principles will allow us to understand both the human thing and, necessarily, the political thing.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Moral Instincts of Infants

The Washington Post has an excellent piece with a provocative title.  “The disturbing thing scientists learned when they bribed babies with graham crackers”, by Ana Swanson, does not quite deliver on its title.  If anything, I think, what the scientists learned is the opposite of disturbing.  It does, however, deliver a fine summary of a very interesting study.  Moreover, it is bristling with links to scholarship on the subject, including the study it focuses on. 
The study, “Costly rejection of wrongdoers by infants and children,” by Arber Tasimi and Karen Wynn (Cognition 151 (2016) 76–79), came out last month.  It begins by placing the study’s focus in context. 
From infancy to adulthood, humans exhibit an aversion to individuals who treat others poorly. Even in the first months of life, infants reject agents who behave badly (Hamlin & Wynn, 2011; Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007, 2010), and before their first birthday, not only avoid wrongdoers themselves, but expect others to do so as well (Kuhlmeier, Wynn, & Bloom, 2003)…
Here we ask about the strength of this aversion: Is it sufficiently powerful to lead people to resist one of the most alluring aspects of everyday life: profit?.
In a range of studies, children show a tendency to dislike persons who harm other persons.  This aversion emerges very early in life, even before the emergence of linguistic ability.  It is thus unlikely to be learned behavior and it is certainly not taught behavior.  Tasimi and Wynn conducted two experiments to measure whether infants and older children could be bribed to suppress this aversion to wrong doers. 
In the first experiment, one hundred and sixty children ages 5 to 8 were shown photographs of two fictitious benefactors Craig and Max.  Children randomly assigned to the baseline condition were told nothing else about the benefactors.  Then they were invited to accept a prize (stickers) from one of the two.  The offers were unequal.  Some of the children were offered one sticker from one benefactor and two from the other.  Some faced a one to four choice, others a one to eight choice, and others a one to sixteen choice.  The fictitious identities were randomly switched to control for name (or face?) preference. 

Not surprisingly, the children almost always chose the better offer.  Who wouldn’t?  That established a baseline measure: what the children would choose when they knew nothing about Craig and his buddy. 
Children randomly assigned to the character-information condition were presented with the same two fictitious persons but were also told that one of the two benefactors was mean.  He hit someone on the playground.  The other is always nice.  He hugged someone on the playground.  Then the children were divided into groups and faced the same assortment of offers: 1:2, 1:4, 1:8, and 1:16.  The contrast with the baseline condition was striking.  Fewer than 25% of the children accepted the offer of the mean benefactor when the offer was one to two.  Fewer than fifty percent accepted the offer from the mean person when the cost was one to four or one to eight.  Only in the case of a one to sixteen contrast did a majority of children make a deal with the devil.  The results were still slightly lower than the baseline results. 
The children were willing to pay a significant cost to deal with the do-gooder rather than the wrong-doer.  At the very least, this suggests that the children liked the one and disliked the other.  It may suggest that this is a case of altruistic punishment.  The subjects were willing to pay a personal cost to inflict a cost on a transgressor and to reward a helper.  Perhaps this is the same thing.
In the second experiment, the subjects were sixty-four 12 to 13 month old infants.  In this case the competing benefactors were rabbit puppets identified only by their orange or green shirts.  The prizes were graham crackers.  The same controls were instituted, with the rabbits switching shirts.  This time the distribution was either one to two or one to eight.  As in the first experiment, a baseline condition was tested and again the infants preferred more crackers to fewer. 

The children assigned to the character-information condition watched as one rabbit assisted a lamb puppet in opening a box to get at something the lamb wanted.  The other rabbit then slammed the box closed, frustrating the lamb.  The infants preferred the gift of one cracker from the good rabbit when the cost was one to two.  They held their nose and dealt with the bad rabbit when the bribe increased to eight over one. 
As I said earlier, I think that this is the very opposite of disturbing.  It suggests a robust moral instinct that emerges before the infants can talk or engage in “reputation management.”  The older children may have been worried about what the experimenter would think about their choices, but the infants were too young for that.  They just didn’t like what they were seeing when they saw the bad rabbit reveal herself.  To quote the authors:
The current findings show that a willingness to pay personal costs to avoid transactions with wrongdoers is an early-emerging and fundamental aspect of human nature. Our study contributes to a growing literature uncovering the origins and nature of social preferences, and extends this work by highlighting the psychological significance of social assessments to young humans.
This tells against the social science model according to which we are born amoral that morality is simply a social construct.  It appears that in fact we are by nature moral animals.  That is an important finding.  That children can be bribed is not.  They are not little angels any more than adults are. 
I think that there are profound consequences for ethics in this study.  Sacrificing self-interest for the sake of justice is both beautiful and good.  We may admire individuals who cannot be purchased at any price, and such persons frequently emerge as heroes in our literature.  The character of John Proctor in The Crucible comes to mind.  He ultimately sacrifices his life rather than confess to a lie.  That is beautiful.  And yet…
Do we really want our morality to be that inflexible?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Here I am instructed by that moral authority, my beagle.  Bella knows that when I walk to her bowl with a scrap of food, she has to sit before she gets it.  I suppose I could easily teach her to wait before I say ok to gobble it up.  It’s a good thing that dogs can internalize such rules.  It made the alliance between our canine and human ancestors possible and so richly rewarding for both.  Beagle socialization reveals the primitive form of evolved psychological mechanisms that underwrites human morality. 
It would not do, however, for the beagle to be too good.  I wouldn’t want her to starve to death with food in front of her just because I wasn’t around to bless her meal.  So her evolved social instincts compete with her evolved appetite.  When she gets hungry enough, she will throw caution to the wind. 
By way of analogy, suppose that one of my loved ones is kneeling in a line of hostages.  A gunman is going down the line asking each person “are you an American?”  He shoots anyone who says yes and leaves unharmed anyone who says no.  What would I want my loved one to do?  I say lie.  Despite what John of Patmos says about liars, and despite my view that lying is immoral, I would prefer that self-interest trump righteousness in this case. 
If self-interest seems unimportant to you, then consider this scenario.  An SS officer is at your door asking you if you have seen any Jews in the neighborhood.  The truth is that you have.  There are six of them hiding in your basement.  I would argue that telling a lie in this instance is not only morally permissible, it is morally obligatory. 

We might wish that human beings were incorruptible, but probably we should not.  That would make us like the ants, blindly following rules with the capacity to deliberate.  Our corruptible nature is one of the costs of being genuinely moral beings.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

The meaning of leadership

Some years ago, when I presented a paper at a meeting of the Association of Politics and Life Sciences in Lubbock, Texas, I submitted the following definition of leadership:
When one or more human beings take command of others, thus forming a human community capable of acting for the good of the whole, that is leadership. 
I like that definition because it ties together the various kinds of rule‑parent over child, captain over army, government over the governed, while incorporating Aristotle’s definition of good rule.  The father rules the family as the good king rules the city: for the common good. 
I would argue that “the common good” can be understood functionally in a way that is consistent with evolutionary theory but also extends beyond mere biological imperatives.  Aristotle states that the polis, or political community comes to be for the sake of mere life but exists for the sake of the good life.  “Mere life” means that the political community satisfied biological imperatives better than they could otherwise be satisfied.  “The good life” is an indirect rather than a direct product of evolutionary processes.  Human beings can be successful in a biological sense while being utterly miserable.  Very fortunately for us, our evolutionary history makes it possible for us to live satisfying lives, which is to say, that we can enjoy a life that is both beautiful and good. 
My definition was challenged on the grounds that a single definition of leadership is neither possible nor necessary.  Might we not mean a variety of things when we use the term “leadership”?  It is certain that we do give leadership awards to people merely because we admire them, without checking in with my definition. 
My instincts in these matters is platonic.  I like universal definitions.  I am, however, willing to allow an Aristotelian critique.  Aristotle pointed out that when we use the same word on more than one occasion, there are three possibilities.  One is that the word is a homonym.  We say “vampire bat” and “baseball bat”, the two uses of bat have only the letters and sounds in common. 
A second possibility is that we use the same word in different senses but that the different senses branch out from a single, complex phenomenon.  If I say that cardinals are red and that cardinals are birds and that there are cardinals, the “to be” verb means very different things.  The first states that cardinals present a certain visual aspect when I see them.  The second, that this observed creature falls into a species class.  The latter indicates that, unlike dragons, which may be said to have color and fall into a class of creatures, cardinals actually exist.  While these uses of the verb are distinct, they all represent distinct dimensions (or aspects if you prefer) of a single actual bird on my lawn. 
Finally, we may use a word to indicate something that is exactly the same thing even though it appears in a variety of contexts and colors.  When bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and finches adapt to changes in weather by a change in the structure of their beaks, this is natural selection.  The term means exactly the same thing in both cases, despite the enormous difference between the organisms to which it is applied.  I won’t claim here that this is an example of a Platonic form.  Not yet. 
I will say that a word is useful in the third sense when it expresses our recognition of a fundamental phenomenon.  The genuine meaning of “heat” is the energy in the vibrations of molecules in a substance.  All other uses of the word, as for example hot peppers or a lot of uniformed policemen, are metaphors that derive their literary force from the original.  The genuine meaning of natural selection is the deferential reproductive success of distinct forms in a given environment. 
I think that my definition of leadership identifies a fundamental phenomenon.  I was brought back to this topic by a recent piece on capuchin monkeys.  When these primates forage, how do they decide which way to go?  The answer is that individuals break off in different directions.  As the pathbreaker moves away from the group, she looks behind her to see who is following.  If no one follows, she will give up and rejoin the group.  If her entourage includes two or three, or four or more… .  The more of her troop that follow, the more likely she is to persist in her chosen direction.  Likewise, the more that follow, the more likely the rest of the troop will follow suit.  That is leadership in a basically democratic community.  Individuals compete for the position of archon, and so the group can act as a unit working for the advantage of all. 
Something the same can be seen in the waggle dance of honey bees, where returning hunters make their case for this or that patch of flowers.  It can be seen also in the function of an animal mind.  How does the rabbit in my back yard decide what to do when I step off my deck?  Different mental schema compete.  One says “freeze”.  Another says “run like hell”.  As long as I am moving at a tangent and my course is not too close, the animal is a statue.  I have seen a cat walk right by a frozen rabbit.  If I stop and move toward the rabbit, the “run” schema takes command.  This is leadership. 
I am pretty sure that this is how the human mind works as well.  My consciousness is, at best, a prime minister managing various constitutencies.  My desire to lose weight addresses the ministry while my appetite screams from the gallery about chocolate eclairs.  Meanwhile my fellow Republicans seem about to nominate a chocolate éclair to run for president.  This leads me to thinking about my paper for the IPSA in Poland.  I will be there when the Republican convention is happening.  I may come back. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lockean Monkeys

Locke was closer to the truth than Hobbes.  That is not a surprising sentiment coming from an American; even less so coming from an American patriot.  The United States is a Lockean regime.  It was founded on principles derived explicitly from Locke’s political thought and more or less explicitly on a rejection of Hobbes’ account of politics.  I would argue, however, that modern biopolitical research is backing up John more than Thomas. 
Both Hobbes and Locke began with the early modern assumption that human beings are by nature individual animals and that human society is largely an historical artifact.  All our instincts, in so far as we have any, are those of a creature as naturally asocial as a bear.  Human social life is as artificial as umbrella: it is something we cobbled together to meet our needs.  This is a mistake.  We were social long before we were genuinely human. 
Hobbes supposed that we were and remain perfectly amoral and selfish in our motivations.  What makes us dangerous to one another, when we come together in social groups, is precisely that selfishness combined with a distrust of one another.  Government is necessary to force us to suppress these selfish mutually hostile inclinations and cooperate with one another.
Locke recognized that we also possessed a sense of justice.  When someone transgresses on my rights I am offended.  I am offended even when I observe some transgressing against a third party in a case where my own interests are not involved.  It is this sense of righteous indignation that makes us most dangerous to one another.  We may pursue retribution beyond any selfish interest and, if the perceived offender believes he is the one who has been wronged, we become locked in a cycle of retribution.  That is what necessitates the formation of governments.  Only by turning over such disputes to an arbitrator can we resolve them without perpetual war. 
This question, whether pure selfishness is the motivation or whether there is a moral or proto-moral motivation has been playing out in primate studies.  I have been digesting a lot of research on capuchin monkeys.  Brown capuchins are “known to engage in rich cooperative behaviors… and more consistently exhibit other-regarding tendencies in donation tasks than chimpanzees.”  That is, in experiments where one individual must cooperate with another to reap a reward (food), capuchins seem more concerned with what the other partner is getting or not getting. 
In experiments modeled on the ultimate game, the capuchin subject must decide whether to pull a lever that will distribute food to herself and a conspecific partner.  When the distribution is unequal-the subject receives less food or a lower value food, the subject will often refuse the distribution.  At first glance, the subject appears to be acting out of sense of fairness.  If I can’t get what’s coming to me, then no one gets anything.  But is this right?
The subject may be motivated by inequity aversion, a distaste for unfair distributions.  Let us call that the Lockean motive.  However, a lot of research indicates that the real motive may be simple frustration.  The subject wants the greater share or the better reward and rejects the distribution because of a frustrated desire.  Let us call that the Hobbesian motive. 
Capuchin researchers have parted along the Lockean/Hobbesian divide.  Franz de Waal and his associates began the argument with a series of studies that pushed the Lockean interpretation.  In response, other researchers made the case for the Hobbesian-frustration interpretation.  I thought that the balance was tilting against the Lockean side until today. 
Kristin L. Leimgruber et. al., have a report in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior [37 (2016) 236-244] that tells for the Lockean view: “Capuchin monkeys punish those who have more.”  Here is the abstract:


Punishment of non-cooperators is important for the maintenance of large-scale cooperation in humans, but relatively little is known about the relationship between punishment and cooperation across phylogeny. The current study examined second-party punishment behavior in a nonhuman primate species known for its cooperative tendencies—the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella). We found that capuchins consistently punished a conspecific partner who gained possession of a food resource, regardless of whether the unequal distribution of this resource was intentional on the part of the partner. A non-social comparison confirmed that punishment behavior was not due to frustration, nor did punishment stem from increased emotional arousal. Instead, punishment behavior in capuchins appears to be decidedly social in nature, as monkeys only pursued punitive actions when such actions directly decreased the welfare of a recently endowed conspecific. This pattern of results is consistent with two features central to human cooperation: spite and inequity aversion, suggesting that the evolutionary origins of some human-like punitive tendencies may extend even deeper than previously thought.
These findings present a decidedly Lockean monkey.  It isn’t just that I, capuchin that I am, am not getting what I want.  It’s that the other hairy fellow is getting more, dammit.  
Capuchin monkeys are more distantly related to John Locke than chimpanzees.  Spite and inequity aversion are part of our emotional pallet that go beyond self-interest.  A purely selfish individual doesn’t care what others get; she only cares what she gets.  An animal who is genuinely offended when a distribution is unfair is a moral animal.
I think it is clear that human beings are Lockean animals.  If capuchin monkeys are as well, that suggests that morality is older than we are.  As the trajectory of evolution pushed into primate design space, it opened up the dimension of genuine moral consciousness. 


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Late Night Thoughts on Being

We live at a moment of embarrassing riches.  I won’t try to catalog our blessings, but I will point out one particular blessing.  Someone who wants to think and knows how can find a lot of new ways to think about interesting things, just a few key strokes away.  Three online journals deliver bite sized brilliance for free: Aeon, This View of Life, and Nautilus.  All three feature consistently provocative, thoughtful, well written, articles that are easily accessible to anyone well-informed enough to be interested. 
I have been feasting on the third tonight.  Chip Rowe lists the “Top 10 Design Flaws in the Human Body.”  These design flaws count, in my view, as some of the strongest pieces of evidence for human evolution.  Take number one, for example.  The human spine, with its double curve, puts a ridiculous amount of stress on the lower back.  My beagle’s spine, by contrast, seems perfectly engineered: a curve that distributes wait evenly between two sets of limbs.  Of course, that was the cost of freeing our forelimbs to do such tasks as checking our Facebook pages.  Rowe’s opening sentences express what is marvelous about these new journals.
The Greeks were obsessed with the mathematically perfect body. But unfortunately for anyone chasing that ideal, we were designed not by Pygmalion, the mythical sculptor who carved a flawless woman, but by MacGyver. 
Yes.  The sculptor begins with a hunk of material but designs from scratch.  MacGyver has to work with what he has and can exploit but is limited by the design already present in whatever he can pull out of the crashed plane.  Like MacGyver, natural selection must rig solutions to present problems.  If you wanted to design a bipedal spine from scratch, maybe you could get perfection.  If you have to start with a quadruped and raise it off the ground, then compromises are inevitable. 
On a level closer to the metaphysical marrow, Gregory Laughlin asks “Can a Living Creature Be as Big as a Galaxy?” 
William S. Burroughs, in his novel The Ticket That Exploded, imagined that beneath a planetary surface, lies “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.” 
As it happens, I have been reading William S. Burroughs lately‑his letters and his novels Naked Lunch (like Moby Dick, an almost impossible read) and Junky (so good you won’t need heroin).  Laughlin thinks Burroughs is onto something.  Consider the speed of thought. 
The speed of neural transmissions is about 300 kilometers per hour, implying that the signal crossing time in a human brain is about 1 millisecond. A human lifetime, then, comprises 2 trillion message-crossing times (and each crossing time is effectively amplified by rich, massively parallelized computational structuring). If both our brains and our neurons were 10 times bigger, and our lifespans and neural signaling speeds were unchanged, we’d have 10 times fewer thoughts during our lifetimes. 
This explains what happened to the Amazing Colossal Man. 
If our brains grew enormously to say, the size of our solar system, and featured speed-of-light signaling, the same number of message crossings would require more than the entire current age of the universe, leaving no time for evolution to work its course.
Maybe our brain size, like Baby Bear’s porridge, is just right: bigger than a chimp but small enough to efficiently cohere. 
It may be that human brains specifically and living organisms generally must occupy a particular niche in the scale of physics.  Allison Eck puts the general point in “How Do You Say “Life” in Physics?
The arrow of time points in the direction of disorder. The arrow of life, however, points the opposite way. From a simple, dull seed grows an intricately structured flower, and from the lifeless Earth, forests and jungles. How is it that the rules governing those atoms we call “life” could be so drastically different from those that govern the rest of the atoms in the universe?
In 1944, physicist Erwin Schrödinger tackled this question in a little book called What is Life?. He recognized that living organisms, unlike a gas in a box, are open systems. That is, they admit the transfer of energy between themselves and a larger environment. Even as life maintains its internal order, its loss of heat to the environment allows the universe to experience an overall increase in entropy (or disorder) in accordance with the second law.
I was insufficiently amazed by Erwin Schrödinger’s book when first I read it many years ago. 
Schrödinger pointed to a second mystery. The mechanism that gives rise to the arrow of time, he said, cannot be the same mechanism that gives rise to the arrow of life. Time’s arrow arises from the statistics of large numbers—when you have enough atoms milling about, there are simply so many more disordered configurations than ordered ones that the chance of their stumbling into a more ordered state is nil. But when it comes to life, order and irreversibility must reign even at the microscopic scale, with far fewer atoms in play. At this scale, atoms don’t come in large enough numbers for their statistics to yield regularities like the second law. A nucleotide—the building block of RNA and DNA, the basic components of life—is, for example, made of just 30 atoms. And yet, Schrödinger noted, genetic codes hold up impossibly well, sometimes over millions of generations, “with a durability or permanence that borders upon the miraculous.”
Living organisms are dependent upon physical processes that are small enough that they are not subject to the laws of averages.  This sequestering from larger physical processes is the first sequestering.  Before life could begin, there had to be a small space for it to begin.  Once it does begin, it sequesters itself in successively more effective ways.

But what can account for the “arrow of life”, that is, the direction of organic processes towards greater order (less entropy)?  Well, I guess I’ll blog on that tomorrow.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Progress & Evolution

The International Political Science Association has picked Poznań, Poland as the site for this year’s conference, after pulling out from Istanbul.  While I dearly wished to visit Turkey, I think this will be a wonderful place to visit.  It is close, by rail, to Berlin. 
Meanwhile, I have been reading a very interesting book.  On the Origins of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution documents the thinking of Bernd Rosslenbroich, whose essays I relied heavily on when I presented a paper on autonomy at the IPSA two years ago. 
Rosslenbroich addresses a problem at the center of my attention as a modern representative of Plato: understanding the forms of organisms.  Here is his point of departure.  Modern evolutionary biology models the history of life on earth as a steadily branching tree.  At the root of the tree are the simplest, UR organisms: the first living things successfully replicating their forms by communicating information to successive generations and adapting successfully to their environments.  To present the model as a two dimensional image, the vertical dimension represents time and the horizontal dimension represents diversity.  Thus the tree branches out as more and more diverse organic forms emerge in evolutionary history. 
The tree metaphor is misleading in one fundamental respect.  The growth of a real tree is teleological in the sense that the mature oak is already contained in the acorn and its growth is constantly corrected according to that organic program.  The sapling progresses toward the oak.  Evolution is rather a mechanical process.  As the lineage of life extends through time, it pushes into new environmental niches and thus produces increasingly diverse forms. 
Rosslenbroich’s central idea is that evolutionary history cannot be understood without the idea of progress.  Just because the forces of selection and adaptation are mechanical and hence not goal directed doesn’t mean that there is no progression from lower to higher forms.  He argues that evolutionary history cannot be understood without some notion of progress and that all attempts to purge such notions from the language of biology inevitably fail. 
Consider that the tree of life might, conceivably have produced an increasing diversity of prokaryotic cells, differing only in the traits by which they adapt to diverse environments.  Obviously that is not what happened.  Eukaryotic cells, with a defined nucleus emerge and then later multicellular creatures.  Eventually the plants, reptiles, and mammals appear.  To articulate the difference between the fanciful and the actual scenarios, we need some coherent account of progress from lower to higher forms. 
As usual, Aristotle was way ahead of us.  His account of organic progress was based on the idea of the incorporation of simpler forms of organic processes within more complex forms.  Plants have only nutritive soul.  They feed and produce waste; grow, flourish, and then wither and die.  Animals have these same capacities, but also the powers to perceive at a distance and move about.  Human beings enjoy all the organic powers of plants and animals, but add the power of logos.  We are aware of the difference between perception and reality, what looks good and what is good. 
Rosslenbroich looks to ground the idea of evolutionary progress in increasing autonomy.  The essence of the organic lies in the resistance to the external environment.  All organisms are organized so as to maintain their internal states in shifting environmental conditions by finding sources of materials and energy and, always, by building walls against the environment within which these processes can work.  Over time, progressively more effective means of resisting the environment emerge.  Eukaryotic cells sequester their DNA within a more protected nucleus.  Warm blooded mammals can maintain their body heat and so forage at night. 
I think that this is dead spot on.  When I first read the work of the great philosopher Hans Jonas, I have thought that increasing dimensions of freedom was the key to understanding evolution.  I am gratified to find this same language in Rosslenbroich.  As Aristotle argued, human beings are more than just animals but we are at least animals.  Even if a group of chimpanzees could produce a copy of Richard the Third by random typing, and they can, given impossibly vast resources and time, they still couldn’t appreciate the play. 
Those who are afraid of evolutionary explanations of the human origins fear that such explanations reduce us to mere animals or worse to mere matter in motion.  Rosslenbroich shows us that such reduction is unwarranted and in fact impossible.  I am going well beyond his purpose here, but I submit that the freedom of the human soul, on which all the beautiful and noble things depend, is supported rather than undermined by an evolutionary account of the human being. 
ps.  I would point out that I wrote this post sitting on my deck in my tent.  It was a bit too chilly to sit out uncovered and I wanted to smoke a cigar while I wrote.  I can't do so inside because I am married.  That is how organisms seek autonomy.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Evolution of Fairness

I have been very interested of late in the logic of justice.  Plato’s Socrates assumed that justice was an idea, which is to say a logically coherent form.  Just as you know that a triangle has three angles and that the angles add up to 180 degrees, regardless of the dimensions of the plane figure,  if you understand what a triangle is, so you will know what the right thing to do in any context if you understand the logically idea of justice. 
My field of research involves the historical dimension of this idea.  How is that the dimension of justice emerged in the evolution of the human soul?  That it did emerge is not in doubt.  Even if you think that claims of justice are always or almost always confidence games, you might want to know why they work.  What are human beings charmed by the idea of justice?  To put that question in a more useful form: how did human beings become the kind of creatures that could be so charmed? 
Game theory, paired with evolutionary psychology, has come a long way toward answering that question.  The ultimatum game presents justice in a simple, logical dilemma.  In this game, two individuals (the Proposer and the Responder) must come to an agreement over the division of a benefit.  The one proposes a distribution: 90% me, 10% you, 50/50, etc.  The other must accept the distribution, or neither of them gets anything. 
Simple economic theory predicts that the responder will accept any distribution above 100/0, for something is better than nothing.  However, when the game is played with real persons, the proposer usually offers considerably more than the minimum and the responder usually rejects any offer that is not close to parity.  This is evidence that the human mind is robustly aware of the logic of fairness. 
So why does the partner at an advantage offer more than the minimum and why does the partner at a disadvantage refuse to accept an unfair distribution at the price of nothing?  It might make perfect sense to do so if the tables might be turned next time.  If I am generous to the responder now, he may be generous to me when he gets to be the proposer.  If he screws me now, just wait until next year.  I’ll get that bastard. 
That makes sense if proposers and responders are randomly assigned their roles with each turn.  Stéphane Debove, Nicholas Baumard, and Jean-Baptiste André move this logic one essential step forward in their essay “Evolution of equal division among unequal partners.”  Find it in Evolution 69-2: 561-569. 
Debove et. al. point out that a random assignment of roles in natural encounters is not plausible.  In nature, stronger individuals will find themselves in the role of proposer again and again, and vice versa.  If the stronger individual doesn’t have to fear that he will end up in the responder role, what incentive does he have to be generous? 
The answer is that the stronger individual is not competing only with the weaker ones for prizes; he is competing also with stronger individuals for partners.  If weaker partners are readily available, the cost of choosing any one partner is low.  It is in the advantage of the stronger individual to make as many partnerships as fast and as often as possible.  The easiest way to close those deals is to be generous. 
Our authors calculate that the generosity of the stronger proposers will decline as the supply of weaker responders goes down.  When fewer deals are possible, it pays to be choosy.  But even when weaker responders are few, and the cost of choosing is greatest, generosity will increase over time. 

This piece of research is not based on empirical evidence.  It is based on simple logic.  It makes the case that nice guys finish first, eventually, regardless of the particular situations.  Plato was right.  I note that the authors opened with a mention of Plato and Rousseau. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

In the Beginning was the Word

My apology for the long hiatus.  I like to blog on my deck with a small glass of scotch and a cigar.  Two of those three items are for all practical purposes unavailable from September until... today.  

I am teaching "Human Nature and Human Values" again and that always means consuming a lot of recent research.  One study I just digested into PowerPoint slides concerned the development of language by infants.  Back when I was (briefly) a psychology major (late 1970's), I was taught that language is acquired by mere power of association.  When an infant is exposed to one auditory stimulus (a word) in frequent conjunction with another (an object), then the infant learns that word for that object.  That is the Standard Social Science Model.  All social behavior is explained by reference to other social behavior.  

For that model to be confirmed, it should be the case that any sufficiently recognizable auditory stimulus would do.  For example, a buzz or buzz and click should be learned as a word for nose, if that is what the infant is taught.  

A recent study indicates that only certain kinds of auditory stimuli trigger the learning of words and that these stimuli in conjunction with visual examples triggers categorization in infants as young as three months old.  I find that very exciting.  

The study is "Nonhuman primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants" by Alissa L. Ferry, Susan J. Hespos, and Sandra R. Waxman (PNAS | September 17, 2013 | vol. 110 | no. 38 | 15231–15235).  Ferry et. al. exposed infants to images of dinosaurs in conjunction with a range of auditory signals, including tones and backward human speech.  Then they showed the subject two images, one of which was a new dinosaur and the other a fish.  They measured learning by whether the infant gazed at the dinosaur rather than the extra-categorical image.  




It turns out that tones and backward speech had no effect.  The infants did not associate these auditory stimuli with categories of objects.  Nor did they respond to the visual stimuli alone, in the absence of any auditory stimulus.  However, when the infants were exposed to coherent human speech or nonhuman primate vocalizations along with the images in the first stage of the test, then they recognized the novel dinosaur in the second stage of the test.  

That the infants responded to human vocalization in the first stage but not to tones or backward speech suggests that they are primed to tune in to certain stimuli but not others.  This indicates an evolved psychological mechanism for learning language.  That they recognized a new member of a previously presented category after only a very brief exposure indicates that this mechanism, far from being a mere power of association,  includes a power of forming mental categories.  At three months of age.  That their power of categorization was triggered both by human speech and nonhuman vocalization indicates that this mechanism has deep evolutionary roots, going back well before the emergence of human beings on this planet.  

The Socratic philosophers were onto this more than two thousand years ago.  Plato knew that human beings could form altogether artificial categories, such as "all numbers except 17".  That capacity exists, however, because it reflects and exemplifies something essential about the world we live in.  The world sorts itself into categories: rocks and living creatures, plants and animals, dinosaurs and mammals, horses and cows.  

Evolutionary theory wonderfully enriches the Socratic idea.  The ability to recognize categories of things is not only a consequence of evolution is part of the dynamic of evolution.  One theory of what a biological species is turns precisely on species recognition.  Horses are horses and not cows because they recognize horses as potential mates.  That horses can breed with donkeys indicates that the two species have split but remain just close enough to produce mules.  

The Greek word logos was pregnant with meaning.  It meant first the human power of speech.  It was extended to include human reason and the truths that reason could reveal.  Later, it came to mean the coherence of the intelligible kosmos.  Philology recapitulates metaphysics, in Greek philosophy and evolutionary psychology.  In the beginning was the word.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Facts and Values

I was educated in a hotbed of Western Straussians led by the hero of that school, Harry Jaffa.  No idea so roused our temper as the infamous “fact-value dichotomy.”  This is the idea that statements of fact (e.g., electricity can kill people) are fundamentally different from statements of value (e.g., it was wrong to electrocute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).  The former are either true or false and one can attempt to tell which is which by means of argument and evidence.  The latter can be judged as true or false only in so far as they are logically consistent with other value judgments (e.g., it is wrong to kill as a punishment for a crime).  All such logical analysis, however, can only link one value judgment to another and must ultimately come to rest in some basic value (human life is sacred, etc.).  Such basic values can be held but they cannot be argued for nor is there any evidence that would tell for or against them.  The fact-value dichotomy seems to reduce moral judgements to irrational beliefs.  To believe in genuine justice is like believing in fairies. 
For Strauss, and especially for the Western Straussians, this amounted to offense against all moral and political philosophy.  Why think carefully about what justice is or what a just political order would be, as Plato and Aristotle did, if justice is just some idea that can never amount to anything more than an idea one is fond of without reason?  On the contrary, we argued, Socrates in Plato’s Republic and Gorgias offers profound arguments in favor of a coherent account of justice and his account is solidly based in evidence and logic.  Moreover, Socrates derives his logical proofs precisely from the testimony of those who argue against the existence or at least the worth of justice. 
The fact-value dichotomy is usually traced back to David Hume’s discussion of the naturalistic fallacy.  One cannot derive an ought-statement, which describes what one should or should not do, from an is-statement, which describes some set of facts.  For example, one cannot derive the claim “Athens shouldn’t have made Socrates drink hemlock” from the claim that “hemlock is poisonous.”  One can only derive the former from some other ought-statement such as: “you shouldn’t execute good men who will later be both famous and popular”. 
For a long time I thought that Hume’s distinction was silly.  I thought one could easily derive the claim that “one ought not to stick one’s tongue in a light socket” from the claim that “the socket is turned on”.  I now regard that thought as naïve and apologize to Mr. Hume. 
This occurred to me as I have been teaching logic and yesterday began a section on moral logic.  I have also been (belatedly) revising my chapter for The Handbook of Biology and Politics.  Both of these activities directed my attention to this question.  Modern logic generally accepts the naturalistic fallacy as a fallacy and hence presents coherent moral arguments as resting on two sorts of claim.  At least one premise of the argument must state some set of facts and another premise must state some value judgement.  For example:
  1. Current carbon emissions are causing global warming and global warming will have dangerous consequences for human beings and other creatures. 
  2. One ought not to do things that are dangerous to human beings and other creatures. 
  3. Therefore: we ought to reduce our carbon emissions. 

I think that the distinction between these two types of statements is logically correct, but I would point out two things that are frequently overlooked in discussion of facts and values.  
The first is that the category of values includes not only moral judgments but all judgments involving such concepts as right and wrong, better or worse, etc.  Thus “I shouldn’t eat what is unhealthy” is as much a value judgment as “I shouldn’t steal candy from a baby.”  What I and my Straussian friends and teachers objected to was the claim that moral judgments were in effect irrational.  Including value judgments about self-interest tells against that claim.  There is nothing irrational about ought-statements when they apply to matters of health.  For the same reason, there is nothing necessarily irrational about such statements when they apply to matters of right and wrong. 
My second point is more important.  The real distinction here is not between facts and values but facts about the living and the dead.  Recently I watched a NOVA feature on North America.  In the second segment we were presented with a line drawn along a hill side in the North Dakota Badlands, which I know well.  The line represented evidence of an asteroid strike.  Below the line (earlier in time) one finds dinosaur bones.  Above the line one finds fossils, but no dinosaurs.  Conclusion: the asteroid strike killed off the dinosaurs.  This kind of analysis is all facts and no values.  The reason for that is that, whatever killed the off, the dinosaurs are just plain dead.  Fossils are not more involved in values that volcanic rock. 
By contrast, living animals, including human beings, always have something at stake.  They are subject to flourishing and withering, surviving and perishing.  That includes all of them, from the giant popular tree I walked around in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, down to the littlest bacterium.  Some organisms are also subject to pain and pleasure.  That includes all (or perhaps almost all) of the animals.  One species is capable of happiness, defined as a self-conscious appreciation of a satisfying life.  Value judgments, far from being products of human culture, or “social construction”, or irrational emotive artifacts, are simple features of organic life.  Every time a slime mold amoeba decides to congregate with its fellows or a snow leopard turns down a trail to follow a scent, a value judgment is made.  Since such efforts can succeed for fail, value judgments can be objectively true or false. 
Aristotle that to understand simple things one must recognize a number of irreducible dimensions.  To understand how a table can be both wide and narrow, taller than a chair but shorter than the kitchen wall, one must recognize that width cannot be reduced to length nor to height.  The world exists in a three dimensional space.  To understand organic life, one must recognize the dimension of value.  Unlike rocks, house plants, horses, and human beings can succeed or fail.  The latter two have good days and bad. 
Moral arguments require value judgments as premises for the same reason that arguments about individual and collective interests do.  If you can’t reduce an is to an ought, that is because human beings are not rocks.  It is nonetheless true that slavery requires telling lies about the slaves and the masters and that tyranny is bad for human beings in general.  Moral and political philosophy is viable because it recognizes facts about human nature.