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 weight 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.