Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Biology of Physical & Moral Disgust in Plato's Gorgias

In Plato’s Gorgias, which I am currently lecturing on, there is a theme that is astonishingly relevant to Biopolitical thought.  The dialogue presents a rumble between Socrates and his students and the orator Gorgias and his.  Naturally, Socrates does most of the talking.  The general thematic question is “What is rhetoric?”  This quickly transforms into the question of whether rhetoric is an art (something that can achieve some human good) or, as Socrates argues, a species of flattery that gratifies its practitioners and audience while doing them more harm than good. 
Socrates locks horns first with Gorgias himself, then with Gorgias’ student Polus, and finally with Gorgias’ patron in Athens, Calicles.  I focus here on the middle of the three encounters.  Polus thinks that rhetoric is something valuable because it allows one to kill with impunity.  If you can command juries and assemblies by the power of your speech, then everyone is at your mercy. 
Socrates argues that the power to kill without regard to justice, something that Polus admires in tyrants, is a curse rather than a blessing.  A practice such as rhetoric is a good thing only if it is instrumental to achieving some good purpose.  This it cannot do. 
To prove this, Socrates gets Polus to admit that the power to kill with impunity but without justice is shameful even if, as Polus insists, it is a very good thing to have.  The Greek word for shameful (aischros) originally meant simply ugly.  Socrates points out that something is ugly for one of two reasons: either it is unpleasant or it is harmful. 
This seems correct.  Some things are ugly because they are directly unpleasant, as in the example of spoiled meat.  Other things are ugly because they inspire some sense of harmful consequences, as in the example of spiders.  In both cases ugliness seems to be an instinctive warning of something harmful, though this dichotomy leaves open the possibility that something might be immediately ugly while in fact being good.  A noxious medical procedure might be a good example. 
Polus thinks that the power to kill someone you hate and/or someone who opposes you is clearly not unpleasant.  He relishes such a power, while admitting that it is shameful.  By simple logic, then, that power must be ultimately harmful to the one who exercises it.  This effectively shuts Polus down. 
I think that Socrates’ argument is backed up by recent neuroscience.  It turns out that the part of the brain that is activated by revulsion at the smell of rotten meat is the same part of the brain that is activated by revulsion at immoral behavior.  This suggests (powerfully I would add) that an aversion to morally disgusting behavior was selected for using the same mental schema as the aversion to what is physically disgusting. 
Socrates’ victory over Polus was not mere rhetorical flourish, let alone an intellectual con job.  It was based on a genuine insight into the human soul.  Human beings are indeed the moral animal as much as and in so far as we are the political animal. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Infantice vs. Sisterhood in Lions & Elephants

Here is a brilliant film clip presenting infanticide and female resistance to the same.

Infanticide among lions is a fine if grizzly example of a basic theme in evolutionary psychology.  It opens up the heart of sexual selection among a wide range of creatures including human beings.  I am lecturing about it this week in my Human Nature & Human Values course.

What I find most interesting about this clip is that it not only highlights the selection for infanticide by lion males, but shows that the outcome is not predetermined.  If I get the drift, whether the incoming male kills the cubs depends on how many females have cubs.  If enough of them do, they may band together to defend their offspring.  If enough are without cubs, their interests will coincide with the murderous instincts of the male.  Meanwhile, elephant females seem better able to defend their offspring.  This stuff is fascinating! 

Explaining Proximate Causation & Ultimate Causation

Some years ago I attended a NHS summer institute on biology and politics.  Larry Arnhart was a fellow at that event.  Roger Masters and Ron Perlman hosted the event.  At one point Roger said that he had given up trying to explain the distinction between proximate and ultimate causation to his undergraduate students.  They just didn’t get it. 
I have found a very simple way to explain the distinction, which I share now for the edification of my readers.  It goes like this:
My summer school class begins at 7:30 am, a very uncivilized moment in the day.  I ask my bleary eyed students why I got up at 6 am.  No mystery there.  The alarm clock went off.  That, I point out, is the proximate cause of my waking and reluctantly swinging my feet off the mattress. 
Okay.  So what is the ultimate cause?  After they blink their eyes for a few moments I exclaim “beer isn’t free!”  The light shines in. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Evolution of Consciousness

David Barash has an interesting piece in Aeon on the evolution of human consciousness.  It is adapted from his book Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature.  I note that Barash is described as an “aspiring Buddhist”.  As I sit zazen myself, I have a connection to the author.  Just sayin’. 
Consciousness is the single most obvious existential fact.  As in Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum, I know that I think (which means that I am conscious of sensations, emotions, and concepts) better than I know anything else.  However, I also think that I am aware of a world around me.  The problem of consciousness (the big problem in philosophy of mind) is how to describe consciousness in a way that fits in with our knowledge of the external world. 
Barash takes the route followed by many in the field: consciousness means self-consciousness. 
I propose that consciousness can be defined as a particular state of awareness, characterised by a curious recursiveness in which individuals are not only aware, but aware that they are aware. By this conception, many animals are aware but not strictly conscious. My two German shepherd dogs, for example, are exquisitely aware of and responsive to just about everything around them — more so, in many cases, than me. I know, however, that I am conscious because I am aware of my own internal mental state, sometimes even paradoxically aware of that about which I am unaware.
I am unconvinced that self-consciousness is nearly as important as Barash thinks it is.  He distinguishes between awareness in the case of his dogs, who are aware of their surroundings, and consciousness which involves self-awareness.  However, this is a mere distinction between the objects of awareness.  If one mental concept “tree” is about something in front of me and another mental concept “me” is about myself, these are only two concepts.  My ability to distinguish myself and my experience from other things of which I am aware surely indicates a highly developed mind.  It does not, however, indicate that I am more conscious than my beagle.  She feels pain as I feel pain, or so it seems reasonable to assume.  That existential fact is the great mystery. 
Awareness can be modeled without any recourse to consciousness.  As a virus responds to the type of cell that it evolved to target, so an alligator responds to the wildebeest.  You could, conceivably, have creatures that respond in this way without any need for existential pain and pleasure.  Assuming that viruses never suffer disappointment or pain, why do wildebeests have to put up with it? 
Barash offers us the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes.  The former causes of consciousness are, no doubt, to be sought in the mechanics of the brain.  I am sure this is right, though I am less optimistic than Barash about the prospects of neuroscience here.  The ultimate cause must be evolution by natural selection. 
Even on a strictly biological basis, consciousness seems hard to justify, if only because it evidently requires a large number of neurons, the elaboration and maintenance of which is bound to be, in terms of energy, expensive. What is the compensating payoff?
Bear in mind that, for consciousness to have been selected for over evolutionary time, individuals (and their consciousness-promoting genes) would have to be more successful in propagating copies of those genes in the future than owners of alternative genes that generated less consciousness, or none at all. The bottom line is that consciousness should have paid its way.
Or maybe the big C is not selected for at all.  Barash offers the best explanation of the alternative-eliminative materialism-that I have yet seen. 
Maybe [consciousness] is just a nonadaptive by-product of having brains bigger than is strictly necessary for bossing our bodies around. A single molecule of water, for example, isn’t wet. Neither are two, or, presumably, a few thousand, or even a million. But with enough of them, we get wetness — not because wetness is adaptively favoured over, say, dryness by the evolutionary process, but simply as an unavoidable physical consequence of piling up enough H2O molecules. Could consciousness be like that? Accumulate enough neurons — perhaps because they permit its possessor to integrate numerous sensory inputs and generate complex, variable behaviour — wire them up and, hey presto, they’re conscious?
I note, though Barash does not, that this makes sense of eliminative materialism without saving it.  “Wetness” may be a mere product of a sufficient number of water molecules but it is not a mere by-product.  It has big consequences for the behavior of water at the human scale.  There is no reason to assume that consciousness does not have big consequences for the behavior of conscious organisms.  If it does not, we have something like Cartesian dualism with its weird attempts to resolve the problem of interaction.  What a strange world if human beings think they consciously influence their material bodies but in fact do not. 
Barash suggests that the adaptive function of consciousness may lie in two human capacities. One is the ability to distinguish between what looks good in the short run and what is better over the long run, thus allowing us to make better decisions (i.e., decisions that favor reproductive success).   That was one of the basic functions of logos, according to Aristotle.  Logos is the capacity that distinguishes human beings from other animals. 

The other is the ability to form a “theory of mind.”  As I am aware of myself and my thoughts, so I can model the thoughts of other people.  This promotes social cooperation which can pay big Darwinian benefits. 
I have no quarrel with any of that.  I would suggest, however, a simpler account of the adaptive function of consciousness which focuses on pleasure and pain, happiness and disappointment.  Animals capable of creative and unpredictable responses to their environments had a distinct advantage over those who were less flexible.  That creativity had, however, to be directed toward reproductive success if it were to remain in business.  Once you have existentially free animals, if you want them to behave in a way that is reproductively fit, you have to present them with bribes (pleasure) and threats (pain). 
I think that the fact of pain and pleasure indicate a dimension of freedom that was opened up by the first emergence of animal consciousness.  Only if consciousness is a cause of animal behavior as much as wetness is a cause of rivers can one make sense of pain and pleasure.  If it hurts to do something that is contraindicated from a Darwinian point of view, that can only be because the consciousness of pain makes that thing less likely. 
I am dubious about the distinction between animal awareness and human consciousness.  If the former is more sophisticated than the latter, it is nonetheless just a more sophisticated version of consciousness.  Consciousness is always an indicator of some measure of existential freedom. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Culture is More Conservative Than Genes

One of the tacit assumptions behind the academic resistance to evolutionary explanations of human behavior is that culture is easier to change than genes.  According to this assumption, if behavior X is largely or wholly determined by culture then we can change it merely by reeducating people and by modifying institutions.  These are presumed to be relatively easy.  By contrast, to the degree that behavior X is influence by genetic heritage, it will be intractable. 
I have long suspected that the opposite might be the case.  Genetic influences are often highly responsive to environmental information.  Figuring out how and why men are genetically more disposed toward physical aggression might give us some valuable clues as to how to deal with male aggression.  On the other hand, culture can be fiercely resistant to change.  Cultural patterns, or memes, may offer fewer levers for reform to pull and culture may develop precisely to resist both natural and artificial challenges. 
Some evidence that I am right comes from a recent article in Nature. 
If folk tales simply spread by diffusion, like ink blots in paper, one would expect to see smooth gradients in these variations as a function of distance. Instead, researchers found that language differences between cultures create significant barriers to that diffusion.
These barriers are stronger than those for the exchange of genes — a message that might be crudely expressed as: “I’ll sleep with you, but I prefer my stories to yours.”
This suggests that culture is precisely resistant to the kind of diffusion that levels the genetic playing field across human populations. 
In the study, a team of researchers in Australia and New Zealand used the statistical tools of population genetics to investigate variations in ‘The kind and the unkind girls’ across 31 European populations, such as Armenian, Scottish, Basque and Icelandic groups.
“The geographic gradients we found are similar in scale to what we see in genetics, suggesting that there may be parallel processes responsible for mixing genetic and cultural information,” says lead author Quentin Atkinson, who studies human evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
“But the mechanisms aren’t identical,” Atkinson adds. “The effect of ethnolinguistic boundaries is much stronger for the folk tales than for genes.” This fits with recent studies looking at other aspects of culture, such as song2. “Our findings support predictions that cultural variation should be more pronounced between groups than genetic variation,” says Atkinson.
“This supports the view that our cultures act almost like distinct biological species,” says Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, UK, who specializes in cultural transmission. “Our cultural groups draw pretty tight boundaries around themselves and can absorb genetic immigrants without absorbing their cultures.”
The implications of this may be the reverse of the common assumptions.  Genetic diffusion is, let us say, promiscuous.  It is the basis of a general equality in innate human capacities.  Culture, by contrast, creates some of the enormous differences that we observe between different populations and nations. 
It may be the case that any hope for human progress depends largely on the degree to which human behavior is influenced by biology rather than by culture.  This is the opposite of what nearly everyone seems to believe.