Friday, August 11, 2017

Fire and Life

Recently a colleague in the history department at Northern stumped me.  I am ashamed to admit this, as his question went directly to the matters I have been thinking about for years.  The question was this: is fire alive
It is a very good and obvious question.  Fire must breathe.  It consumes fuel and turns it into energy, just as living organisms do.  It also produces waste.  Is there an essential difference between a campfire and a living organism? 
I didn’t think about this seriously until I was actually looking at a fire, after backpacking up into the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  By then, the answer had occurred to me.  I think that this is one of those questions that is a key to understanding.  So here is my reply.  Fire is almost the opposite of a living organism.
A fire begins, necessarily, with a situation of low entropy.  Consider a glass of water with an ice cube floating in it on the dining room table.  If I isolate the glass as a system in thought I note that the system is in a state of low entropy.  All the cold stuff is in the ice cube; all the lukewarm stuff is in the liquid surrounding it.  This is a highly ordered system. 
As the ice begins to melt, the system becomes gradually less and less ordered.  The water locked in ice warms up and releases its energy into the surrounding liquid.  Eventually, the system is at equilibrium.  All the water is at roughly the same temperature: a disordered state.  The system has gone from a state of low entropy to a state of high entropy. 
Fires follow a similar trajectory.  I pile a bunch of firewood in the pit and set it alight.  At that moment, the system is highly ordered.  All the energy is in the wood and much less in the pit and the surrounding air (good thing, that!).  As the wood burns it moves steadily toward a system of high entropy, which is why I have to keep adding more wood.  Fire moves always in that direction: from low to higher states of entropy. 
Entropic processes can be exploited to resist entropic processes.  If I have a pot of water at the same temperature as the surrounding air (high entropy) and I put it on the fire, it will heat up.  Now all the hot stuff is in the pot and the surrounding air is cooler (low entropy).  Boiling water exploits entropic processes to resist entropy. 
Living organisms do precisely that in order to continually recreate themselves.  The sun is constantly bleeding its stored energy into space.  The tree takes that energy and uses it to build its trunk and branches.  I use its bones to build my fire.  I pour the boiling water into a bag of freeze dried food, full of organically sequestered energy, and eat it.  Being a warm-blooded creature, this allows me to resist equilibrium with the steadily cooling air around me. 
Fire is a purely entropic process, as much as an ice cube melting in water.  Living organisms exploit such processes in order to resist such processes.  That is why I am alive and my campfire is not.  I would add one other thing.  Living organisms are always part of a lineage.  I have a mommy and a daddy.  A single celled organism has its predecessor.  My campfire had none of the above.  That seems to me to be more important that it looks. 
I finish with a final, rather depressing note.  My high school physics teacher said that the universe is dying a heat death.  He meant that the cosmos as a whole is basically a campfire.  We living organisms and all the bright lights in the sky will eventually burn out.  All the energy in creation will be evenly distributed and nothing more will ever be done. 

This is not something to be worried about.  The earth will be uninhabitable long before that happens.  It is a reminder to be astounded and grateful that such as ourselves should stand under this canopy of stars.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Logically Moral Animals

I was called on a point recently by a colleague.  He accused me of jumping between two irreconcilable positions.  One the one hand, I argued that human beings are distinct from other animals in kind and not merely in degree (i.e., just more intelligent).  On the other hand, I argued that traces of human intelligence and moral capacity are found in animals.  I replied that I’m a primate; jumping from one tree to another is what I do.  It got a laugh. 
I don’t think I was actually guilty of a contradiction.  Traces of language are indeed found in animals.  A certain call may indicate food or danger.  Yet, so far as we know, no other animal is capable of drawing and recognizing a simple symbol like a stick man.  Differences in kind do not require altogether novel capacities.  They require that something about the way a capacity is exercised be novel. 
Today I have been looking at two studies of logically moral behavior among non-human animals.  Vampire bats have long served as poster children for reciprocal altruism.  These winged mammals feed exclusively on blood.  They need to feed about once every three days.  This presents a challenge as their food sources have legs and can move in unpredictable ways. 
The vampires deal with this problem by blood sharing.  A bat who returns hungry can count on a share of a meal from a luckier roost mate.  This is an insurance policy; however, it invites cheating.  An unscrupulous bat might take from others and then refused to share.  If he gets away with that, his offspring will proliferate and the sharing system will collapse. 
That requires an enforcement mechanism.  Vampires remember.  If bat X refuses to share with me today, I will refuse to share with bat X tomorrow.  Cheaters can be systematically eliminated from the gene pool. 
I doubt that bats are consciously moral.  I am sure that this sharing system is logically moral.  Bat X either fulfills his obligations or does not.  If so, he benefits from the social contract.  If not, then he is excluded from the contract. 
I used this example in the paper I am writing for the APSA this year.  I wanted to be sure that recent scholarship backed up this account, and it does.  Gerald G. Carter and Gerald S. Wilkinson have a piece in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (2013).  They teased apart alternative explanations for the vampire’s behavior. 
Are the bats sharing only because they are related to one another?  If so, then kin selection and not reciprocal altruism would explain their behavior.  In the experiment, relatedness was the least reliable predictor of one bat’s willingness to share with another. 
Perhaps sharing was a response to allogrooming.  Bats share with cuddle buddies.  Perhaps it was influenced by mating agendas: if I share with her, she will mate with me.  Those were the third and second-best predictors of sharing behavior. 
The best predictor was simply that the other bat had shared in the past.  That looks like reciprocal altruism.  Sharing is rewarded with sharing.  Remembering who is a good partner amounts to the construction of a social network. 
The most interesting thing to come out of this study is this: sharing was often initiated not by the hungry bat but by the sated bat.  Why would this be so?  Sharing builds a network of obligations.  If I can get you to accept my donation, you are now obligated to me.  This system is, as the sociologists say, socially constructed.  It depends on reputation, what the other bats think about this one. 
Something of the same kind is going on in a study of cleaner fish.  These fish make their living eating parasites in the jaws, gills, etc., of larger predators.  As in the case of the vampire bats, this arrangement involves mutual obligations and the temptation to cheat.  Client predators can cheat by gobbling up the cleaner after the work is finished.  That is policed by a simple accounting.  A predator who behaves that way will discover that the cleaners no longer come out of their cleaner stations when he swims in for a touch up. 
Cleaner fish are also tempted to cheat.  The parasites they feed on are not quite as attractive as the mucus in the client’s jaws.  What encourages the cleaner to confine itself to the parasites?  Russel D. Fernald explains this in his note Animal Cooperation: Keeping a Clean(ing) Reputation [Current Biology Vol. 21 No 13]. 
It turns out that cleaner wrasses are more likely to keep honest (parasites only) when they are observed by a number of potential client fish.  They seem to value their reputation in the business.  It seems very unlikely that these fish, with their tiny brains, have any conscious awareness of the stakes.  It doesn’t matter.  Natural selection has made the logically moral choices for them. 
Again, the reciprocal arrangement is socially constructed.  The fish do not need to understand the system, but they do need to notice who is watching. 
The old dichotomy between nature and nurture, biological influence and social construction, is long out of date.  Temperature, saltiness, water and nutrients are factors that exert selection pressure on organisms.  Social arrangements and the likes and dislikes of individual interactors for one another also exert select pressure. 
Choice is a powerful influence on the evolution of pretty much everything.  Another powerful influence is moral logic.  Plato was right, at least about the world of living organisms.  The most important idea is the idea of the good. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reverse jump

I have been working on my paper for the upcoming APSA conference, and that has involved a lot of reading about primate social evolution.  As always, I am going back and forth between Aristotle and contemporary Darwinian theory. 
My topic is a chicken and egg question.  Which came first, the family or the political community?  My answer is: yes.  I am arguing that you can’t get the evolution of the family without the evolution of early hominid societies that protected individuals against bullies and so protected the individual male against a bully who wants to take away his mate.  At the same time, you can’t get the evolution of political societies in the full sense without families. 
Relevant to this is the question of how our primate ancestors went from solitary animals, like bears, to political animals, like Thomas Jefferson.  The common-sense argument goes like this: solitary animals cease to be solitary when the male sticks around to defend his mate and family.  Families then come together into clans, and clans into cities.  This is perfectly reasonable and probably quite wrong. 
Susanne Schultz, Christopher Opie, and Quentin D. Atkinson argued in a 2011 article in Nature that the better answer is the Reverse-Jump Model. Here is their chart, laying out the alternatives.

 Refrom solitary life to unstable group life coincides with the transition from nocturnal hunting to diurnal hunting.  This suggests that predation was the original motive for congregation. 
I am also persuaded by Michael Tomasello that the original form of cooperation among our very distant ancestors was based on mutualism.  A group of individuals cooperate in chasing down some prey only when there is enough for everyone to eat.  That kind of cooperation involves no sacrifice or discipline. 
Two more reasons occur to me.  Human males are larger and stronger than human females generally.  That suggests the kind of competition for mates that presents in many primate species and it is what you would expect when solitary animals first come together in groups.  Second, human females do not display conspicuous ovulation.  Males frequently kill unrelated offspring.  One way to prevent that is to make it impossible for them to tell which offspring are their own. 

All of these points support the view that our more or less human ancestors became social first and formed families and more stable societies later.  How the formation of genuine families occurred and how it was both a product and a cause of political evolution, is the topic of my paper.  

Friday, July 7, 2017

In Defense of the West

If any apology is need, and it is, I am no admirer of Donald Trump.  He might not be the most flawed character ever to settle in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Clinton, the 42nd and only, comes to mind).  This President is certainly the man whose character flaws are most on daily display.  I haven’t voted for him yet, and I have a hard time imagining that I ever will.  Nor do I have any admiration for the Polish Government. 
I do have a deep affection for Poland, which I visited last summer.  Poznań is a beautiful city full of beautiful people.  It is in many ways a monument to the Polish capacity for resistance and regeneration.  The old town square looks, I have been told, much as it did before the Second World War; yet it was rebuilt from shambles.  In it can be found many monuments to the Poles’ resistance to tyranny, whether imported from the east or west. 
For that reason and others, I was moved by the President’s speech.  His praise of Poland for the things I just mentioned stands out, as does his testament to the value of Western Civilization. 
I was also moved, in a different direction, by Peter Beinart’s execrable commentary on that speech at The Atlantic.  Here is how Beinart starts out.
In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too.
This is the language of the contemporary Left.  Trump’s words are judged not by what they mean to a reasonable person but by what they mean to carefully chosen strawmen.  It gets better. 
The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.
The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.
The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim. 
There is so much stupidity in these words that one can hardly compass the whole of it.  I’ll give it a shot.  The West is precisely a geographic term.  Western Europe lay along a trade route that had two ends.  One was the eastern end, or the Orient.  The other was the Western End, or the Occident.  Geographic terms are frequently uneven.  It is telling that The West did not describe itself as The Center, as did the ancient Chinese Empire.  The West knew that, no matter where you go, there you are. 
The idea that Western Civilization is defined by religion has some truth to it.  Modern liberal democracy, meaning collective government and individual rights, first emerges in Western Europe.  It emerges out of a long history of interaction between Greek Philosophy, Roman law, and the Roman Church.  It fostered the development of deep traditions in art, music, and science.  While Western Civilization was dominated by religious authority for much of its history, that authority began to steadily weaken after Machiavelli wrote Il Principe.  Whereas the Church once laid down the law on Galileo, today the Supreme Court lays down the law on the Church.  The latter is as much Western as the former. 
The idea that it is also defined by race is utterly fictitious.  Who says that Latin America isn’t The West?  Only Beinart’s straw men.  When Martin Luther King Jr. stood up in Washington D.C. and drew upon the Declaration of Independence in one of the most fundamental of American speeches, what color was he?  It is true that India and Japan are not Western, but that is a matter of geographic and historical roots.  Their political systems and economic systems are not indigenous.  They are examples of their profound capacity to learn from The West just as The West has learned from them. 
Let’s take a look at the President’s actual words.  Consider this:
Despite every effort to transform you, oppress you or destroy you, you endured and overcame.  You are the proud nation of Copernicus -- think of that. Chopin, St. John Paul II. Poland is a land of great heroes.
Maybe someone who is “religiously paranoid” can praise Chopin and St. John Paul II.  But Copernicus?  He challenged the Church’s world view. 
Here are a few things that Trump thinks The West should be proud of: 
We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.
We reward brilliance, we strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.
We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success.
Symphonies, innovation, the rule of law, free speech and free expression; is it really racism and religious paranoia to praise these things?  Empowering women?  If this is what the alt.right really believes in, then it isn’t alt. and it is hardly right wing. 
How about this:
And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything, so that we can better know ourselves.
And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.
That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies and as a civilization.
President Trump is here attempting to rally the Western nations around these principles.  If you think there is something wrong with that, try thinking. 
Does this mean that Trump thinks the West is the enemy of the Rest?  Not exactly. 
During a historic gathering in Saudi Arabia, I called on the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations to join together to drive out this menace which threatens all of humanity. We must stand united against these shared enemies to strip them of their territory and their funding and their networks and any form of ideological support that they may have.
Contrary to Beinart’s insistence that Trump rejects universal values, here he talks precisely about universal values and a common cause between Western nations and Muslim nations. 
Beinart can’t help himself. 
The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech—perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime—was his claim that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” On its face, that’s absurd. Jihadist terrorists can kill people in the West, but unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, they cannot topple even the weakest European government. Jihadists control no great armies. Their ideologies have limited appeal even among the Muslims they target with their propaganda. ISIS has all but lost Mosul and could lose Raqqa later this year.
If there is an Academy Awards for stupid passages, this is a contender.  The Soviet Union didn’t die because it was overcome by military force.  It died because it lost its will to live.  If Western Civilization loses confidence in itself and the traditions and achievements that the President mentions, ISIS won’t have to bust through our defenses.  There will be nothing in their way. 
Civilizations do collapse.  Barbarism frequently follows.  Aristotle identified one of the characteristics of barbarism: they treat their women the same way they treat their animals and their slaves.  It does no good to believe that women should have equal rights with men if you have no heart to support the institutions that protect those rights.  That is something worth saying. 

Peter Beinart is an intelligent man.  His dreadfully stupid essay is proof that the President’s speech was necessary.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Pellet Smokers Updated

After many years of grilling and smoking meats on a Landmann sheet iron smoker, I have finally invested in a pellet stove.  My choice was a Green Mountain Daniel Boone. Here are some reflections.

The pellet smoker is a great example of American ingenuity.  Wood pellets as fuel was a solution to the problem of getting rid of sawdust and actually turning it into value.  That lead to pellet stoves for heating homes.  Then it occurred to someone that a pellet grill could keep the market for pellets from collapsing during the summer.  Hence the pellet grill.

The smoker looks a lot like my old smoker, but that is very deceiving.  What looks like an offset firebox is really a hopper for holding the wood pellets.  An augur feeds the pellets into a firebox (or burn pot) under the center of the main chamber.  An igniter extends into the firebox and produces the heat that ignites the pellets.  Under the firebox is a fan that blows air into the firebox.

In the face of the hopper is a computer that control the operation of the smoker.  It allows you to set the target temperature and to monitor both the temperature of the cooking chamber and the internal temperature of the meat by means of a wired probe.

The basic operation then seems quite simple.  Whenever the chamber temperature falls below what you have set, the augur goes into action delivering pellets to the firebox and the fan blows air to create a rush of heat.

Now for the pros and cons.

The single biggest advantage of the pellet smoker is that (so far) it seems to be able to hold a temperature very reliably for as long as you have pellets in the hopper.  That makes it much more precise and therefore more convenient than any charcoal grill or gas grill.  It is as good or better than a good kitchen stove.

It heats up quite fast, about as fast as you can count 150, 151...  The internal temperature of the beer can chicken I cooked last night rose rather faster than I counted on.  I barely had time to finish my martini.  Also, the internal probe seems to be quite accurate, measured against my Thermapen.  I could sit on my deck and watch the temp rise toward the 165+ that I was aiming for.  You can get a model that has wifi capability and monitor it from your phone.  I was too cheap to shell out the extra hundred and fifty.

That degree of temperature control is so valuable that I doubt I will ever go back to anything else except... note below.  Combined with the virtues of smoke and fire, it is a winning combination for the backyard chef.  I can easily imagine doing all of my baking out back, including bread and cakes.

In addition, the pellets burn much more completely than wood or charcoal.  My first two attempts (baby back ribs and veggie pizza) produced about a half a cup of ash in the firebox.  The rest of the unit is easy to disassemble and clean.

I am not sure yet whether running this thing is cheaper than my old smoker.  The hickory logs  and charcoal for the latter were usually more expensive than the meat I was cooking.  The pellets are much cheaper, especially if you get a forty pound bag at WalMart.  On the other hand, the mechanics run on electricity.  I am guessing this will be cheaper, but that will require more data.

Now for the caveats...

You may notice that I have been calling the unit a pellet smoker and not a pellet grill.  That is because it isn't a grill, it's a smoker.  The Daniel Boone has two plates just under the grates with holes in them.  In theory (read: advertising) you can align the holes so that heat rises directly up from the burn pot to the meat.  Voila!  Grilling.  Okay, but the burn pot is only about the size of the cup on a golf green.  Don't count on grilling with this thing.

That, so far as I can tell, is the only serious drawback to a pellet grill.  On my old smoker, I could move the meat from the smoking chamber directly onto the firebox.  I m currently scheming to get a Lodge Iron grill for the occasional searing and bbq cooking.  An alternative would be to cook on the pellet stove and then sear on a hot skillet or grill in the kitchen.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the pellets produce a lot of smoke at low temperatures (150-250) but little or none at tempertures above 300.  This seems to require both a smoking phase and a cooking phase.  Last night I smoked the chicken at 190 for a hour and then set the temp for 350 for an hour and a half.  The result was a smoky bird that was perfectly cooked.

Bottom line: I am looking at the moon as I type these words.  I am really glad we put foot on her.  I am more impressed by well done brisket.  I am very optimistic that the pellet stove will turn out to be the turn of a great chapter in the history of man and fire.

Update: I have cooked a rack of ribs, a pork shoulder, beer can chicken, hamburgers, and tonight a spatchcock chicken.  The ribs were a failure, though I think that the ribs were at fault.  The hamburgers were so so.  Everything else was wonderful.  

Tonight I cooked the spatchcock chicken under an iron skillet.  I put two ears of corn on either side and just before the chicken was ready I put asparagus into the iron skillet over the chicken.  Everything turned out perfect all together.  Lots of smoky flavor.  Technology good.  Fire good.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Rational Content of Emotions

This morning I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts Invisibilia.  I was doing the dishes.  Put this one on.  It is brilliant.  The topic was emotions, one of two on that.  I haven’t listened to the second one yet. 
The podcast interviewed Lisa Feldman Barrett, a research psychologist who specializes in the study of emotions.  She has a book.  How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.  I walked up to the Northern library to check it out and… it is missing.  So I sought out several of her papers and read them this afternoon.  It was very interesting. 
I have long accepted a view that, according to Barrett, is misguided.  That view is what she calls the Natural Kinds View.  Human beings are born with a more or less fixed pallet of emotions (my term): anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness, etc.  When something happens‑I am offended, threatened, disappointed, etc.‑the emotion is triggered more or less automatically.  The emotions are hardwired into the brain and produce all of our emotional experience in the way that a set of colored pixels in the screen produce all the colors of a cooking show. 
Barret says that decades of psychological research have failed to establish or clinically define any of these well-known emotions.  You will have to read her book to see why.  She argues (if I understand the paper) that there are only two fixed biological foundations for emotions: valence (I like or I like not) and arousal (I act or I act not). 
What makes for all the emotions that we think we experience and have names for?  She argues that, in any emotionally relevant context, we interpret the visceral experience according to our concepts.  If I don’t like what is happening, my brain has to supply a context that will tell me what to do or not do about it.  If my brain interprets the displeasure I feel as an offense (he took my fish!) then I interpret it as anger and that is what I feel.  If I interpret my arousal as “I am out of here!” then I run.  The character of the various emotions is largely supplied by the contest and my concepts. 
An analogy occurs to me, and it is mine not hers’s.  Our tongues have only a small number of sensations: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and I forget the other one.  Yet we experience a wide range of tastes: wine, beer, cheese, pan sauce poured over lamb shank, beer…  Our sense of smell provides all the wide range.  Likewise, our biological pallet is just valence and arousal.  Categorization provides all the nuance. 

As a biopolitical scientist, I like the idea of biologically fixed emotions.  As a student of Aristotle and Plato, I like the idea of a rational component to the emotions.  I am pretty sure that when I am angry I am angry about something, and that implies categorization and concepts.  This is worth keeping an eye on.  

Friday, June 9, 2017

The High and the Low

I recently enjoyed a good conversation with a thoughtful friend: Thomas J. Kaiser, a Senior Tutor at Thomas Aquinas College.  The exchange was conducted by email and you can read it all at Starting Points Journal.  Tom expresses very well the reservations that many of my friends, trained in classical thought, have about Darwinian theory.  I argued that those reservations are unnecessary.  Read the two parts of the exchange, and be the judge. 
This post may be considered as an addendum to that conversation.  I take as my starting point this quote from Leo Strauss:
It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself as fully as what it is.
Like a lot of Strauss’s famous quotes, this one is pregnant with meaning; however, midwifing the birth can be challenging.  What comes to mind just now is the case of Oskar Schindler.  What is the low in this case?  He was a two-bit conman making a load of money off the Nazis.  What is the high?  He spent the last years of the war trying to save as many Jews as he could. 
Why was the latter “high”?  Because it was beautiful and good and, not the least, almost miraculous.  Why was the former “low”?  It was no more admirable or hard to explain than a dog chewing on a meaty bone.  Yet the former was as real as the latter and to try to explain his heroic action in terms of some venal drive would be to blind oneself to the reality of it.  On the other hand, recognizing Schindler’s heroism for what it was does nothing to blind us to the nature of his original business. 
I wish to apply Strauss’s principle to a simple case which I hope will help to explain my view of Darwinian explanations.  Some years ago, I had a meal at The Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.  When we sat down the waiters brought us white linen napkins.  One of the waiters noticed that my mother was wearing a black dress and brought her a black napkin to match.  That is what a great restaurant is like. 
The appetizer was a star of three split green pods with a shrimp nested into the three angles.  The center was a tangle of something red (red onion?).  All this rested on a bed of green sauce flecked with red bits.  See above.  I remember the turtle soup (unbelievable) and the entrée… something must be left to the imagination. 
What occurs to me now is that everything on the plates could be explained by a biologist.  Why do we like these colors, protein, fat, sugars, etc.?  The elements that lay like a painter’s palate in the Chef’s mind are all products of our evolution as mammals.  No biologist can explain why we went to the Commander’s Palace to get them.  We went there for something beautiful.  We human beings are capable of putting together the elements that satisfy our basic biological appetites in ways that do not serve evolutionary functions at all.  They do more than satisfy us; they make our lives beautiful and interesting. 
I suppose that all the things that we regard as high and noble‑heroic deeds and self-sacrifice, Ionic columns, Turner’s paintings, Shakespeare’s plays‑are like that meal.  This one animal can transform the elements of animal satisfaction into something that is beautiful beyond any merely animal urges.  
Evolution is a mechanical process.  It is not goal-directed.  In so far as it has any direction, it is only to push organic life into new ecological niches.  For that reason, evolution cannot confer value on anything.  Yet evolution produces sentient animals that, while necessarily meeting the demands of natural selection, also pursued their own agendas.  When one elk faces off against another, he is not trying to reproduce; he is only trying to dominate his rival.  That is a kind of freedom. 
This one animal expanded that freedom into a coherent world, with the possibility of beauty and nobility in it.  In order to understand the high, we must begin with the high.  What we want as human beings is to live lives that are interesting and admirable.  The low, our evolutionary heritage, is both illuminated and ennobled by this beginning. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Reciprocal Altruism as the Foundation of Group Selection

This is an elaboration of the second point I wish to make in my paper at the APSA this fall.  As I stated in my previous post, to make group selection work you need mechanisms that enable altruists to benefit each other and to avoid being exploited.  Otherwise, altruists who work to benefit the group at their own expense will promote the reproductive success of cheaters within the group.  Since the cheaters pay none of the costs of benefiting the group, they will proliferate at the expense of the altruists.  I argue here that another evolutionary vector for cooperative behavior can help to explain how this problem was solved. 
Reciprocal altruism is one of the basic explanations for cooperative behavior among organisms.  Altruism is here defined in terms of a sacrifice and a benefit, both measured in the coin of the probability of reproductive success.  When organism A delivers some benefit to some other organism B, at some cost to A, because it is likely that the favor will be returned, that is reciprocal altruism.  I use the term because to indicate the selection pressure that sustains the trait in both organisms. 
A paradigmatic example is blood sharing among vampire bats.  These nocturnal hunters must feed every three days to survive, leaving them at the mercy of chance as the herds of animals they prey on move around.  The bats manage the risk by a system of sharing.  If one comes back hungry, she will cozy up to another who obviously sports a full belly.  The latter will share some of her bounty because this makes it more likely that the beneficiary will share later.  There are many such examples in nature, but almost all of them involves exchanges between individuals. 
Christopher Boehm has argued in two magnificent books (Hierarchy in the Forest and Moral Origins) that human social evolution was driven by a specific problem.  Human beings have always been extraordinarily good at cooperating with their fellows.  This, more than anything, explains why we have inherited the earth.  Once we began to cooperate in hunting, gathering, etc., a problem presented.  Some members of each group (free riders) were tempted to let everyone else shoulder the burden (pay the cost in reproductive fitness) while taking their share of the bounty.  Another kind of problem is the individual who, due to physical and perhaps psychological advantage, was tempted to take more than his share of whatever was of value.  If these problems could not be solved, the evolutionary emergence of cooperation would have been precluded.  The free riders and bullies would have proliferated in the populations and the cooperators would have withered until the social unit dissolved. 
The way that this problem was managed was group enforcement.  Cheaters were sanctioned by their comrades.  Slackers could easily be marginalized.  Bullies required more strenuous interventions; however, even the biggest primate cannot stand up to the crowd and anyway, he is vulnerable while he is sleeping.  Boehm proposes that group enforcement eventually became psychologically internalized and that this is the evolutionary origin of the moral sense in human beings. 
It occurs to me that this account is a special case of reciprocal altruism.  What is special about it is that the parties are not two individuals, as in the paradigmatic cases, but the individual and the group.  The individual sacrifices the temptation to take more than his fair share.  If someone always has a bum leg when it is time for hunting or war he conserves his energy and avoids risks, the better to invest them in reproductive success.  If he tries to push his weight around, again, he is exploiting the group.  Every good citizen sacrifices such advantages to the political whole.  The group in turn has to pay the costs of enforcement, which may not be negligible if the bully is really big and the slackers are more than a few.  If the group is successful, it becomes a powerful cooperative unit. 
The social contract has long been regarded as an abstract and artificial invention of philosophers.  To the contrary, it seems to be an emergent product of human evolutionary history.  I think that there are only two possible ways to make group selection work.  One is if the groups frequently break up and reassemble.  Those groups with more cooperators than not out compete those that chance to be pregnant with cheaters.  I suspect that such a process, continually repeated, might result in the proliferation of altruists. 

I suspect, however, that every genuine case of group selection requires enforcement mechanisms.  Cheating must be suppressed if cooperation is to flourish.  This is true even if the cooperators are mostly related.  There are always black sheep in the family.  The evolution of politics is proof that the problem of group selection can be solved.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Kin Selection as Group Selection Updated

In the paper I presented in Vancouver, there were three new ideas.  They were new at least to me!  One is that kin selection is in fact group selection: the target of selection in cases of inclusive fitness (I risk my life to save three brothers) is clearly not me.  It is instead the genetic inheritance of my family. 
The second is that in primate groups and especially in our hunter-gather ancestral groups a very sophisticated form of reciprocal altruism is presenting itself.  When the group policies the behavior of the individual members, a social contract is in force.  The parties in this case are not two individuals, as in one animal doing a favor for another when it is likely that the other will return the favor.  A group that protects its members by sanctioning bullies and free riders is enforcing a social contract between the individual and the group itself
The third idea is that the once the group protects each individual within it, one of the things that can be protected is the access of each individual male to his mate.  This is, effectively, the social construction of marriage.  It seems likely that the nuclear family as we understand it is a product of the emergent social contract.  This is vital because, once it happens, the group can recognize not only the bonds between couples within the group, but bonds that extend beyond the group to the wife’s family. 
Here I discuss the first idea.  Early in Human Evolutionary Psychology (Louise Barrett, Robin Dunbar, & John Lycett) group selection is briefly considered and summarily rejected.  It is only the fitness of individuals that counts in natural selection.  Almost immediately the text complicates the matter by considering the selfish gene argument.  I will argue that it is complicated in the other direction as well. 
These are the basic models for the evolution of cooperation.  Kin selection (or inclusive fitness) indicates cooperative behavior that is selected for because it benefits closely related individuals.  In the paradigmatic example, if I call out because I see a tiger and so save the lives of five brothers, I may get more of the genes that code for my familial sacrifice into the next generation than if I survive and sire children of my own. 
Reciprocal altruism indicates a tradeoff: one individual pays a cost in order to benefit another because it is likely that the cost will be returned.  When one vampire bat shares blood with another because the other be expected to reciprocate later, that benefits both parties. 
Group selection indicates cooperation on the part of a member of the group that benefits the group but not necessarily the altruist.  Consider a group of organisms bound together and living in a pond.  When they run out of oxygen, the group must rise to the surface.  Producing the substance that allows them to rise requires energy and thus involves a sacrifice.  The sacrifice only pays off if enough individuals make the sacrifice to get the group where it needs to go. 
What occurred to me as I was writing this paper is that in all these cases, the target of selection was more than one individual.  The term “target of selection” indicates the actor whose behavior or trait was selected for.  If a well-camouflaged insect avoids predators and so successfully mates and reproduces, we can say that individual was the target of selection. 
In cases of group selection, the group is by definition the target of selection.  It is the fitness of the group that is favored by natural selection; individual members benefit only in so far as they are along for the ride. 
The same is true, however, for reciprocal altruism.  Consider the case of cleaner fish and their predatory clients.  The former consumes parasites off the skin and jaws of the latter.  Each must give up something: the cleaners eat only the parasites and not the healthy tissue; the predators refrain from eating the cleaners.  What is the target of selection in this case? I submit that it is the alliance.  Together they are selected for; divided they are selected against. 
In the case of kin selection, the target is not the individual who calls out the warning, for she is more likely than the others to attract the predator’s gaze.  Nor is the target of selection any individual sibling or cousin.  According to Hamilton’s rule, cooperation among kin can be selected for when c < rb.  Here c is the cost of the cooperative act, measured in the probability of successful reproduction on the part of the cooperator.  If a certain action is likely to result in reproductive failure one out of four times you do it, then c = .25.  If reproductive failure is almost certain (I charge the lion to save my brothers and sisters) c = close to one.  How closely I am related to the individuals I am taking a risk for is r.  Siblings are .5.  How many siblings I am saving is the benefit, or b. 
This explains the paradigmatic example deployed above.  If I sacrifice my life to save three brothers, then 1 < .5 x 3.  What is key here is that the target of selection, the T whose reproductive success is being selected for, is not any individual.  The target of selection is the family. 
Two things stand out for me.  One is that kin selection seems to provide a very limited selection pressure in organisms like ourselves (as opposed to social wasps, bees, and ants).  For siblings, r = .5; but for cousins it is only 12.5.  Only if the clan were a very strong institution, so that such a sacrificial act could reliably benefit a large number of relatives, would it be able to work. 
The other is that it runs into some of the same problems that group selection models face.  In the latter, the altruists in the group enable the group to grow larger due to their sacrifices; however, non-altruists in the group benefit more since they are making no sacrifices.  Eventually, the cheaters will outnumber the altruists and the system will collapse.  This is why many theorists suppose that group selection cannot work.  To make it work, you need mechanisms that enable altruists to find each other and to exclude cheaters. 
Kin selection is supposed to be more reliable because I can be more certain who my real siblings are and so my sacrifice will promote the genes that code for my behavior.  How reliable is this?  Only once the family is institutionalized can I have a good idea who my brothers and sisters are.  If the nuclear family emerged first in the course of human social evolution, and human beings were more rather than less monogamous before they joined together in larger units, then kin selection might have been the original driving force in that social evolution. 
If, however, the family is the product rather than the cause of our evolutionary trajectory towards political animals, then kin selection is a much less significant (which is to say, not insignificant) factor in that trajectory.  Aristotle was surely correct to say that human beings are more a coupling than a political animal, since that is true of all sexually reproducing vertebrates.  Coupling, however, does not mean “familial”.  Kin selection presupposes and therefore cannot explain the emergence of a coherent family unit.  

Friday, May 19, 2017

Aristophanes on the Family

Here’s a chicken and egg problem: what comes first, the family or the political community? This is one of the questions I have been working on.  I presented a paper on the subject in Vancouver and I will present a more elaborate version of the same this fall in San Francisco. 
Aristotle supposed that the family is more natural than the polis, for human beings are more a coupling animal than a political animal.  An alternative view is presented by Socrates’ greatest critic, Aristophanes.  In his best play (by my judgment and his) the Clouds, Strepsiades has gone into debt because of his son’s love of horse racing.  The father comes up with a desperate solution: send his son, Pheidippides, to study with Socrates.  The philosophers, he hears, can win any argument and someone with that power can defend him in court against his creditors.
He wants his son to go learn this art but Pheidippides refuses.  Strepsiades goes himself.  Socrates’ curriculum consists of two parts.  One is the rejection of the traditional Athenian gods.  The second is a rigorously scientific account of language and nature.  Strepsiades flunks out because he cannot grasp the second part but he leaves having learned well the first part.  More desperate than ever, he forces his son to enter Socrates’ school.  Pheidippides is the better learner. 
After his son graduates, Strepsiades thinks he has a get out of jail free card.  When his creditors show up for their money, he abuses them and sends them packing.  The moment of triumph is short lived.  When father and son quarrel over an obscene bit of poetry (involving incest between a brother and sister) Pheidippides physically assaults his father.  Strepsiades runs out of the house screaming for his kinsmen and neighbors to defend him, but no one comes.  His contempt of the gods and of the laws has effectively broken the social contract. 
Pheidippides offers to demonstrate to his father than his actions are just.  If a father can spank his son it is because the father is wiser, right?  So, if the son becomes wiser can he not return the favor?  Strepsiades is stopped short by this.  As distressing as his situation is, he can see the reason in his son’s words.  Then Pheidippides goes too far.  He says he can beat his mother too. 
At that point, Strepsiades explodes.  For the first time, he gets to the point before anyone else.  If a son can take liberties with his father because wisdom is the only basis of authority, that is one thing.  If he can take liberties with his mother…  the horror, the horror.  Strepsiades calls the gods to his side and goes to burn down Socrates’ house. 
I submit that the Clouds is a profound reflection on both philosophy and the family.  Human communities, both the familial and the larger political one, are grounded in cherished opinions about the gods and morality.  Philosophy is the attempt to replace opinions about the most important things with knowledge.  There is no guarantee that the knowledge that the philosopher seeks will support, rather than undermine, the familial and political bonds.  Thus, philosophy is potentially subversive of everything the father and citizen holds dear. 
Aristophanes’ genius here was to recognize that the family depended on the polis.  The authority of the parent may make sense on the grounds that adults know better than children what is good for the latter; however, the authority of the parent relies heavily on the fact that the parent is larger and stronger than the child.  As the son grows bigger and stronger, the father will have to rely on the community to preserve his authority should the son challenge it. 
In Aristophanes’ account, the political community is more fundamental than the family.  The latter can exist only so long as the community supports and enforces its taboos.  I think that this is correct.  Human beings are, as Aristotle said, coupling creatures.  The natural instinct of the male is to come together with the female.  It is not that, however, that makes a family.  For the familial community to be sound, the father must have some reason to believe that these children are his children.  For that, he must have some exclusive claim on his mate.  To understand the family, one must understand the political community that enforces these claims. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Causation, Consciousness, & Free Will

One of my earliest memories is standing next to my childhood home, in a gap between shrubs where a garden hose was connected to the faucet.  I was staring at the reddish brick that covered three corners of our house and I seemed to go into a trance.  All I remember is that the experience was very pleasant and I wanted it to go on.  It didn’t.  My father came up behind me and barked out some order.  I was ripped out of the state and I turned and stuck out my tongue at him.  Those were the days when such a gesture stirred the familial gods into action. 
Dad grabbed me by the collar and swatted me two good times on the butt.  I remember thinking that I could not explain to him what had happened.  I also remember him saying “next time you better stop and think!” 
There is a lot to chew on in that memory.  Here, I will only focus on my father’s understanding of responsibility.  It lies in the ability to disengaged from the chain of causation.  One state of mind leads naturally to an action.  I am enraged, so I swing the club.  I am responsible for the action because I am capable of stopping and thinking.  I can step back from the momentum that includes all the psychological forces and the context that is funneling them toward the action and decide to act or not. 
I have for a long time believed that free will is rooted precisely in that ability and that consciousness is precisely the power that allows us to exercise it.  All the automatic processes that make up our biological activity‑e.g., intracellular mechanics and the response of heart rate to physical activity‑are flexible only within built-in parameters.  Consciousness is something different.  It can respond in creative ways to both familiar and novel situations. 
I am tempted to do something (eat this, cuddle with her, etc.).  How is it that I decide not to do it?  One explanation is that contrary inclinations arise from my social conditioning, which works on my evolved inclinations.  Just as a stool supports my butt because its four legs push towards its center, so I keep to my diet and avoid adultery because the balance of forces pushes in that direction.  It is easy enough to model consciousness as only a sophisticated system of monitoring.  My becoming aware of food is analogous to my thermostat responding to a change in the room’s temperature. 
The problem with that explanation is that, if it were true, there would be no need for appetites and emotions.  An autonomous biological machine could balance inputs to produce outputs (actions) without any need for pain and pleasure, fear and love.  Such a machine would, however, be much less flexible than one that was genuinely free.  An organism that is free is unpredictable and not limited to previous responses and strategies.  It can do whatever the Hell it pleases. 
A conscious animal might do anything within the limits physical capabilities, including range of motion and spectrum of perception.  That freedom, however, needs to be harnessed by the forces of natural selection.  The animal exists because its ancestors existed.  It can do anything it wants but it has to want to do what will promote the successful reproduction of its kind if its kind is to be communicated across time.  Since it is conscious and therefore free to do or not do, it had to be bribed with appetites and passions to do what promoted its successful reproduction. 
This is, in my view, the only plausible explanation for genuine consciousness.  All organisms, conscious or not, are constantly trying to do something.  The vine climbing the wall is trying to reach the sunlit stones.  The spider crawling across the table is up to something.  We cannot understand organic activities without a dimension of value.  The plant will flourish and flower or wither.  The spider will feed and mate, or not.  Only conscious animals will have good and bad days, satisfying or wretched lives. 
The only alternative to this explanation is epiphenomenalism.  According to this view, consciousness is only an accidental product of neurological processes.  All the effective causation is going on below the level of consciousness.  We become aware of our decisions only after they have been made by our subconscious brains.  There are two reasons why I find this very implausible.  One is that involves an effect with not consequences.  It would be very odd that this amazing phenomenon, consciousness, is a result of causation but produces not consequences of its own. 
The bigger problem is that it seems to recapitulate Cartesian dualism.  On the one side, you have all the effective mechanisms that operate in the physical brain.  On the other, the mind that is fooled into thinking that it plays a causal role.  Causation flows only one way, so there is no interaction problem and I am not sure that this is logically incoherent.  Still, it is very weird.  It would be analogous to trying to explain the movie industry while resolutely insisting that what shows up on the screen has no part in the explanation. 
We can be reasonably certain, I submit, that the elements of our consciousness‑sensation, emotion, and deliberation‑have a causal role in our behavior.  Free will and moral responsibility are emergent products of our mammalian evolutionary inheritance.  I don’t think that this necessarily requires a metaphysically robust doctrine of free will.  One might well wind all of this back into a deterministic physics.  But then I regard deterministic physics as conceit of the early moderns. 

Free will is analogous to the clutch on a standard transmission.  It allows us to disengaged and make a decision.  We can stop and think before we plow ahead.  

Friday, April 28, 2017

Family & Polis 2

What follows is the central argument I made in the paper I recently presented in Vancouver.  I will present a larger version at the APSA convention this fall in San Francisco. 
My topic is the relationship between the emergence of the nuclear family and the emergence of political nature in the course of human evolution.  My question, as I described it in an earlier post is a chicken and egg question: which came first, the family or politics?  My answer is yes. 
When our ancestors left the trees, or more likely, when the trees retreated behind them due to climate change, we did so in small bands of mostly related males accompanied by their mates and offspring.  Our reason for moving in groups was simple: it was the only defense against predators when we could no longer escape upward. 
We were, at that point, a promiscuous species.  Males mated with as many females as possible and come into conflict frequently over access.  This we may infer from the degree of sexual dimorphism.  In a harem species, like gorillas or elk, males are much larger than females.  Among elephant seals (an extreme case) males are about four times as heavy as females.  This is because a bull has exclusive access to a large number of females, which he guards with his prowess and so gives birth to beefy sons.  Chimpanzee males are about twice as large as their mates.  P. troglodyte mates promiscuously but in the context of a strong hierarchy where the alpha male gets first dibs on a female in estrous. 
Human males are about 1.15 larger than females, which suggests less selection pressure for males in competing with other males for access to mates.  This suggests that something tempered the competition but did not entirely eliminate it.  What tempered it?
In both of the Pan species and in Homo sapiens, there is a tendency of strong males to dominate other males.  In bonobos (Pan paniscus) this tendency has been largely muted by female coalitions based on homosexual partnerships.  These coalitions protect the sons of coalition members from aggression by other males, which all but reduced violence and political conflict.  That it is still there is evidenced by the fact that a bonobo male whose mother dies is subject to aggression.  Among chimpanzees, dominate males are very powerful; still, the alpha male has to tread carefully.  Coalitions may arise against him and, if he pushes his weight around too much, the whole group may attack and kill him. 
That same tendency of strong individuals to dominate the rest of the group is all to obviously part of human social behaviors.  We managed to temper it much as the chimpanzees do, but with much greater success.  Existing forager groups are remarkably egalitarian.  Food is shared and dominant individuals have to tread very lightly.  Anyone in the group who is perceived by the others as being too big for his loin cloth risks ridicule, ostracism, expulsion, or death.  Human groups in the context in which our species came into its present form maintained an egalitarian ethos.  Anyone who didn’t carry his weight (the free rider who is always slow to join the hunt and fast to join the feast) or who pushes his weight around (the would-be alpha male) is put in his place. 
The group ethos suppresses any bully who tries to push around any member of the group in order to protect the autonomy of all the members.  What does the bully want?  There are only three things that he can hope to gain: the satisfaction of domination, which is very satisfying, more food, and access to females.  The first is greatly reduced but not eliminated.  Collective decision making may be the rule; however, the group will need to depend on the most competent leader on occasion.  The leader will gain some benefit from his position if and only if he is very careful to appear generous and respectful of his fellows. 
What the members of our UR human societies would have been most sensitive about is access to mates.  The group ethos that reigned in the leader protect the access of males to at least one female.  This, I submit, is the origin of the family.  Once the group exerts its power against the dominant individual it opens up a space for the other males to claim exclusive access to their mates.  Now the male can be reasonably certain that his offspring are his offspring.  This encourages him to invest in them. 
When the group as a whole polices its members and especially its leaders, it becomes a much more effective unit.  Everyone can put his weight into hunting, building, and war, because no one in the group can push his weight around.  Each member of good standing is protected, along with his wife and kids.  The family is the result of political organization because it was one of its main objects. 

As Aristotle first recognized, the political community is the comprehensive community.  It includes the families, clans, and villages that are its elements.  Without the elementary communities, the polis could not exist.  Without the polis, neither could the family.