Friday, November 30, 2012

Nagel on Haidt 1: Group Selection

Thomas Nagel reviews Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (along with Dignity: Its History and Meaning by Michael Rosen) in The New York Review of Books.  Here is Nagel’s summary of Haidt’s theory:
Haidt’s empirical theory, which he calls “moral foundations theory,” is an example of evolutionary psychology. It is the hypothesis that a set of innate “modules” of moral response were fixed in humans by natural selection, and that these responses, further shaped by cultural evolution in various more specific forms and combinations, underlie the widely divergent moralities that we observe not only across the globe but within pluralistic cultures like that of the United States…
Haidt distinguishes six basic types of moral response, which he likens to distinct taste receptors, so that different moralities are like different cuisines in the use they make of these responses. Each type manifests itself through intuitive emotional reactions, positive and negative, to a specific value or its violation, so he gives them double-barreled names: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt believes that all these responses developed in their basic innate form because they suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperation possible among people who are not close relatives.
I am cutting and pasting here to isolate the following topic. 
Specifically, Haidt argues that group selection—selection for genetic traits whose presence benefited social groups of early humans in competition with other groups, rather than individual selection for traits that enhanced the reproductive success of individuals in competition with other individuals—is responsible for the main moral dispositions. The existence of group selection is a highly contentious issue in evolutionary biology. Haidt defends it in this case on the ground that moral norms can include cheap enforcement mechanisms, such as forms of group pressure, that cancel the genetic advantage for any individual of trying to benefit from the group’s success while not following the norms—free riding, in other words.
Individual natural selection can explain psychological traits that benefit the individual and his close kin; but group selection, he argues, is needed to explain those traits that benefit individuals only by sustaining norms that preserve the cohesion of the group.
As Nagel observes, group selection is a very controversial issue in Darwinian Theory.  As the argument is frequently put, any altruistic trait that benefitted the growth of a group as a whole without conferring a reproductive benefit on the individual altruist against other members of the group would quickly go out of business.  As the group grows relative to other groups, the portion of altruists would shrink and disappear.  Thus group selection cannot work. 
One way to make group selection work would be for groups to continually break up and reform.  If the group-benefit trait works to increase the size of the group faster than individual selection within the group works against the altruists and groups break up and reassemble faster than the latter can complete its work, altruists might be sustained in the general population. 
Another way to make group selection work would be for the altruists to have a way of purging non-altruists from the group.  Haidt argues that group selection is necessary to explain the evolution of moral instincts.  I would point out that the obverse is equally true.  Moral instincts are necessary to make group selection possible. 
Whether group selection is a common feature of creatures other than human beings is to be sure difficult to demonstrate.  That natural selection favors human beings who can cooperate with one another much more effectively than other social animals because the moral instincts allow such persons to trust one another seems very likely.  The moral instincts are clearly not limited either to direct self-interest or to a preference for genetic relatives.  Young children will readily cooperate with individuals who they have just met, coming to their aid or engaging them in games.  Once cooperation has begun, the child will expect the partner to keep playing the game. 
I think Haidt is right to believe that group selection is necessary for the moral instincts to evolve.  I think also that something like moral instincts are necessary for group selection to work among social animals.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Aristotle on Coming To Be and Deterioration

I've been working on my Greek lately.  Here is a very rough translation of the beginning of Aristotle's On Generation and Corruption.  

Aristotle: Concerning Coming to Be and Deterioration  A

[314a1]  Concerning coming to be and deterioration, it is first necessary to distinguish the causes and accounts of those things that come to be and deteriorate by nature as well as all similar things.  Further, it is necessary to study growth and alteration, what each of them is, and whether one must understand alteration and coming to be to be the same by nature or distinct, just as we distinguish them by name.  

[314a6].  Of the ancients, some asserted that so called coming to be in the unqualified sense was the same alteration; however, others said that alteration and coming to be were different. 

 [314a8]  For those who argue that the whole is some one thing (they generate everything from that one thing), of necessity say that generation is alteration and that whatever is generated in the authoritative sense is altered.  But those who reckon the matter of things to be more than one, such as Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Leucippus, hold that they differ.  

[314a13]  However, Anaxagoras does not understand his own saying.  At any rate, he says that generation and alteration are the same as being altered; however, along with others, he sets out the elements as many.  

[314a16]  For Empedocles, the corporeals are four and all of them including the kinetics are six in number.  For Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus, they are infinite (the one posits the elements to be homeomeries, such as bone, flesh, marrow, and everything else such that the part is synonymous with all of it.  Democritus and Leucippus say they are composed of indivisible bodies.  These are infinite both in number and form, the compounds differing from one another according to their position and arrangement.  

[314a24]  For the followers of Anaxagoras appear to be saying the opposite of the followers of Empedocles.  He says that fire, water, air, and earth are the four elements and so are simple, rather than the flesh, bone, and the other homeomeries.  

[314a28]  The former call these the simple things and the elements; earth, fire, water, and air are compounded panspermia of the former.  

[314b1]  Those who furnish everything from out of one must say that generation and corruption are alteration, must always hold that the underlying thing is one and the same (change in this we call alteration).


The central problem of ancient philosophy was the problem of change and coming to be.  For something to change it must become what it is not, or else there is no change, and it must remain what it is, or else it has been destroyed and replaced by something else.  Yet becoming what it is not and remaining what it is seem to be logically exclusive.  Likewise, for something to come to be, it would appear that coming to be is something that happens to something; yet, what can happen to something that has not yet come to be? 

Aristotle begins (314a6) by distinguishing the monists from the materialists.  The monists solve the problem of coming to be by arguing that there is only one thing, the whole, and that thing is eternal.  If that is so, then there is no coming to be in the unqualified sense.  Nothing can come to be if there is only one thing.  In that case, all coming to be is merely alteration.  

Aristotle seems to believe that the reverse is true for the materialists who recognize a number of elements out of which all things emerge.  They must argue that coming to be and alteration are fundamentally different.  It is not yet apparent here why Aristotle believes this. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Aristotle & Abraham Lincoln

Here is another old post from my political blog.  It concerns an exchange with Larry Arnhart over Aristotle and Abraham Lincoln.  

Longtime readers of this blog (there are such people!) will know that I have an interest in Darwinian biology and its application to questions of political science and political theory. I recently published an article on Darwin and Lincoln: "Natural Right and The Origin of Species" in Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 39, January-March, 2010, pp. 12-19. 

My friend and occasional collaborator Larry Arnhart has responded to my article on his wonderful blog: Darwinian Conservatism. Here is the link to the specific post. Larry and I agree on a lot, so it is fun to find the occasional disagreement. 

If you are interested in this at all, go to the second link above and read Larry's comments. They were very thought-provoking, and I have written a reply. I am going to send it to him tomorrow, after I have had time to give it a second reading. Meanwhile, here it is, submitted, as Rod Serling liked to say on the Twilight Zone, for your approval. 

Aristotle and Abraham: a Reply to Larry Arnhart 

Lincoln stamp Larry Arnhart and I agree on so much, so often, that I am wary of apparent disagreements. They may or may not be genuine. In his very kind comments on my recent Lincoln/Darwin essay, he does take issue with me on a couple of points. In my account, Arnhart thinks, Lincoln and Aristotle come out too much alike. He thinks their natural right doctrines need to be clearly distinguished, and in connection with this he objects to something I said about libertarians. 

With regard to the subject I focused on, I do not believe there is any significant difference between Lincoln's natural right argument against slavery, and Aristotle's natural right argument about slavery. Consider this: 

The next day in Janesville, Wisconsin, Mr. Lincoln returned to the legacy of the Declaration of Independence in establishing the rights of blacks as well as white: "Mr. Lincoln said that he had failed to find a man who five years ago had expressed it his belief that the declaration of independence did not embrace the colored man. But the public mind had become debauched by the popular sovereignty dogma of Judge Douglas. The first step down the hill is the denial of the Negro's rights as a human being. The rest comes easy. Classing the colored race with brutes frees from all embarrassment the idea that slavery is right if it only has the endorsement the idea that slavery is right if it only has the endorsement of the popular will. Douglas has said that in a conflict between the white man and the Negro, he is for the white man, but in a conflict between the white and the Negro, he is for the white man; but in a conflict between the negro and the crocodile, he is for the negro. Or the matter might be put in this shape. As the white man is to the Negro, so is the Negro to the crocodile! (Applause and laughter). [Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 484-486 (Speech at Janesville, Wisconsin. October 1, 1859).] 

Compare that with Aristotle's Politics, Bk 1.5: 

We may firstly observe in living creatures both a despotical and a constitutional rule; for the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule. And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good of animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind. 
Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another's and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature. 

Lincoln's argument and Aristotle's are in perfect agreement regarding the standard of natural justice at issue here. If the Negro was to the White Man what the alligator is to the Negro, then perhaps Aristotle's standard of natural slavery would be met. He ain't.
I certainly agree with Larry that Lincoln's modern natural right argument,taken as a whole, is not identical to Aristotle's ancient view; however, I think that difference is frequently exaggerated. I acknowledged the difference between Aristotle's view that political powers ought to be distributed according to virtue, and Lincoln's modern view that they are to be distributed according to the consent of the governed. But surely, like Aristotle, we would want both our rulers and ourselves to be as virtuous as practically possible. 

One big difference between the classical view (Plato and Aristotle) and the modern view (Lincoln and Jefferson) is that the former took as their model of political virtue the heroic warrior while the latter took instead the heroic farmer. That is a difference in tastes, but it surely has a big impact on the respective political theories. 

The biggest difference, however, is that the moderns explicitly focused on and answered a question that the ancients were a lot quieter about. Plato's two longest works are about founding new cities, but in both cases a pre-existing political authority is supposed. Platonic republics, like Darwinian organism, seem always to be the offspring of their own kind. 

Where does political authority come from in the first place? Perhaps the ancients were bashful about this question because the answer was unpalatable and tended to undermine all political authority. That was certainly the conclusion reached by Machiavelli: all political authority originates in criminal violence. 

Lockean natural right, by contrast, begins with the obvious fact that all authority requires the willing support of some group of human beings strong enough to sustain it. Founding legitimate government on the consent of the governed begins by making that fact explicit, and by that means points the way to establishing political authority without the necessity of crime. Likewise, Lockean economic liberty removes the necessity for slavery, something that had morally compromised all ancient regimes just as it compromised the legitimacy of the early American republic. 

Aristotle produced an account of slavery that, when you think it through, condemns all slavery as it is actually practiced. But as he could see no possibility of civilized life without slavery, he chose not to explicitly state that conclusion. Lincoln, living in a modern regime, could afford to make it explicit. 

So, while I acknowledge that Lincoln's modern natural right and Aristotle's ancient natural right do differ in significant ways, I do not view this difference as an opposition. I think that the case is rather analogous to Aristotle's biology: he gets most of it right, astonishingly so, considering what he has to work with. We moderns have had the good fortune to solve a lot of political and scientific problems that Aristotle could not solve. 

Finally, Larry defends libertarianism against Aristotle in the following way. Aristotle thought that the regime was responsible for ensuring that people be as good as possible. The regime included the society as a whole, but a society as structured by the political authority. Libertarian natural right, as Larry sees it, distinguishes between the state and society, and thinks that social institutions alone ought to be responsible for making people better. The role of government should be confined to the ends listed by Adam Smith: 

military defense, security against force and fraud, enforcing contracts, and certain public works and institutions. 

Larry thinks that this libertarian view is Lincoln's view. I reply yes, and no. He brings into court the sophist Lycophron as a witness against me. 

Contrast this with what Aristotle says in the Politics (1280b1-12). He attributes to the sophist Lycophron the teaching that the purpose of law is to protect citizens against force and fraud and to secure commercial exchange, and thus law should be "a contract, a guarantor among one another of the just things, but not the sort of thing to make citizens good and just." Aristotle rejects this, because he believes a polis is not just for the sake of living but also for the sake of living well, and for living well, a polis must shape the moral and intellectual virtues that constitute the human good. 

Aristotle's point was that the political community is not just a business arrangement. It is a partnership in something more noble and lofty than that. In a business arrangement, the partners need not like each other or share any other interest other than the mutual benefit of the contract. In Lycophron's view, the citizens are like two states whose alliance reflects nothing more than mutual peril. 

I am sure that, for most purposes, Lincoln would largely agree with Adam Smith's list. So would I. But did Lincoln really send hundreds of thousands of men into battle for the sake of a mere business arrangement? He certainly didn't talk that way. Was Lincoln's life's work not as much concerned with preserving American virtues as with anything else? Let me return to the first quote. 

Mr. Lincoln said that he had failed to find a man who five years ago had expressed it his belief that the declaration of independence did not embrace the colored man. But the public mind had become debauched by the popular sovereignty dogma of Judge Douglas. The first step down the hill is the denial of the Negro's rights as a human being. 

Lincoln saved the union not once but twice. Before he saved it from secessionism, he saved it from the moral "debauchery" that Stephen Douglas was abetting. That was a profoundly political act, and it was an act by and for the regime, in an Aristotelian sense. 

Let me say that some of my best friends are libertarians. I am not sure that we wouldn't be a lot better off if our laws were a lot more libertarian in design. But if Lycophron is indeed a good spokesman for libertarianism, it is surely incomplete. Just as surely, it cannot explain Lincoln's great actions. 

I didn't know until Larry's thoughtful comments provoked me to think about it, whether I believed that Lincolnian natural right and Aristotelian natural right were the same. I think I am now prepared to say that they are the same on the most important questions.

Hitler & Darwin

Below is an old post from my political blog, South Dakota Politics.  It will offer some flavor of what is to come on this blog.

File this one under strange bedfellows. The Left Wing Huffington Post has a piece by David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute. The D.I. is an organization dedicated to saving the world from Charles Darwin. Klinghoffer gives us the standard moral/political argument against Darwinism. Nazism and Eugenics are the malignant but altogether legitimate offspring of Darwin's theory. 

Hitler's ideas, [David Berlinski, another Discovery fellow] carefully notes, "came from many different sources but no honest account will omit Darwin." A reading of Mein Kampf makes that clear. Certainly, Berlinski says, the men who formulated Nazi ideology "weren't reading the Gospels." 

Well, if no honest account of Hitler's ideas would omit Darwin, one wonders why Hitler omitted Darwin. If the Fuhrer ever mentioned Chuck in his speeches or writings or his dreadful book, I have not seen the quote. Hitler certainly did have a concept of evolution and of genetics, but his grasp of the science was about as close to real science as astrology is to astronomy. He was a largely ignorant man. 

There are two problems with Klinghoffer's screed. One is that misunderstandings of genetics were as much responsible for the atrocity of forced sterilization in the U.S. and elsewhere as Darwinian evolution. If the latter is discredited by the atrocities, should we abandon genetics? 

Worse is the fact that Nazi racist mythology is wildly inconsistent with Darwinian biology. Let me count the ways. 

First, Nazi racial mythology is progressive in structure. Human beings are superior to vermin, just as the higher races of man are superior to the lower races, let alone the vermin race. By contrast, Darwinian biology supports no theory of progress. In terms of reproductive fitness, bacteria are superior to cockroaches, and cockroaches to Catholics. But that is true only on the most speculative of grounds, as in "which species would survive an asteroid strike?" For purposes of real science, each species is surviving comfortably in its own ecological niche, and that is a kind of equality. 

Second, Nazi mythology takes race seriously. Darwinian biology does not. There is as much or more genetic diversity among Black Africans as there is between Zulus and Norwegians. Race is not a scientific concept and it is no part of modern Darwinian Theory. 

Third, Nazi mythology treasures racial purity. If both mom and dad had blond hair and blue eyes, you will be stronger for it; and a large population of pure Aryans is stronger than one that is tainted with the blood of the lesser kinds. By contrast, Darwinian biology points toward genetic diversity as an utterly essential factor. A population that is genetically uniform is prey to any pathogen or environmental change (climate change, or a change in the food supply) that may come along. What allows populations to roll with environmental punches is genetic diversity. That's why sexual reproduction is a good thing (it keeps changing the genetic code), and why inbreeding is a distinctly bad thing. 

Fourth, Nazi mythology ranks races according to their nobility. Aryans are bolder, more musical and more brilliant, more warlike, etc. Darwinian biology has nothing to do with ranking races, in which it does not believe, or populations, or individuals. But if you tried to get a ranking out of it, the only thing it would tell you is that any group of animals or human beings is more likely to stick around longer if it has more babies. I am guessing that that standard wouldn't have favored early twentieth century Germans over their Chinese counterparts. 

Darwinism is not a theory of human history. It is not a theory of human progress, or human virtue, or human ethics. It is a biological theory that tries to understand how the various forms of organisms emerged and by what forces those forms are sustained. It gives no support, none at all, to racist mythologies. Those who say that it does either do not understand the biology, or are not honest in their interpretation.

Welcome to Natural Right and Biology.

This blog will cover a wide range of themes involving the intersection of science (and especially the life sciences) and political thought.  Most of the posts will fall under such headings as biopolitics, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the philosophy of biology generally.  

As the masthead states, I believe that the writings of Plato and Aristotle are compatible with modern Darwinian biology.  I would go further to say that they are increasing converging. This is a fine example of what E. O. Wilson called consilience.  I think that the Socratic philosophers were right about a lot of very important things.  I think that modern biology is much less reductionist than is generally assumed.  I am sure that looking at each from the point of view of the other will deepen and enrich our understanding of both.  I also think that this approach sheds a lot of light on many modern problems.  

I invite any and all comments that are relevant to the themes discussed here.