Friday, June 23, 2017
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 16, 2017
Friday, June 9, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Friday, April 21, 2017
I just finished Robin Dunbar’s magnificent book Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior. Dunbar presents two central hypotheses (if I understand the argument). One is that there is a robust correlation between the brain size of primate species and the size of the groups that they live in and interact with.
The causation that is indicated by the correlation is it problematic for animals to live together. We annoy each other. Living in close proximity means that we can come into conflict over a wide range of things: food, mates, space, etc. This annoyance has to be managed.
One way to manage it is by grooming. When one baboon grooms another (coming through the fur, looking for juicy insects that carry pathogens, it results in the release of endorphins. Endorphins play a large part in the book. Nothing makes it easier to tolerate the presence of another furry conspecific than a warm fuzzy feeling that she produces while she fondles my back.
It is easier, of course, to tolerate others when the others are closely related. Kin selection is one of the foundational theories in sociobiology. If one of my inherited traits is to serve my offspring or my siblings, I am promoting the biological success of individuals who, mostly, inherit the same traits.
The problem with both solutions to the problem of group living is that they don’t allow for very large groups. Kin selection works according to Hamilton’s rule. If the cost of cooperating with someone else is less than my relatedness to the other times the benefit I bestow, then cooperation can be selected for. The formula can be stated simply: kin sacrifice is selected for whenever C < RB.
For example, I am foraging with my brother and I see a predator stalking us. Should I call out a warning? The answer is no. I am related to my brother by a factor of point five. We share fifty percent of the same genes. If my brother survives, that is a factor of one. If the tiger nails me because I called out a warning, that is a cost of one: zero chance of future offspring. 1>.5 x 1. Hamilton’s rule is not satisfied. Natural selection will not favor this behavior because the genes that code for it will diminish in any population.
What if I am foraging with seven brothers when I see the cat? Now the calculation reverses. My cost is still one if I die and the relatedness is still point five. But the benefit (saving seven brothers) is seven. 1 < .5 x 7. If my seven brothers survive and reproduce, I get more of my genes into the next generation than if I have my own offspring. My nieces and nephews will inherit my familial piety.
Kin selection is a robust foundation for cooperation and it explains how closely related individuals can work together. It is limited, however, in its range. While brothers are related by a factor of point five, cousins are related by a factor of point twelve and a half. A willingness to take risks on behalf of cousins will need a lot more cousins to make the calculation work. Kin selection cannot explain the emergence of communities much larger than the clan, let alone communities that include unrelated clans.
Grooming can explain how unrelated individuals learn to tolerate one another. It feels good to be groomed by another, regardless of our relationship. This works wonders for a lot of primate species. Here, Dunbar deploys a second device: a time-budget model. There are only so many hour in a day. Some of these must be devoted to sleeping and resting. More must be devoted to feeding and moving from one source of food to another. Some must be devoted to social bonding activities like grooming. Grooming involves two individuals and so only so much of it can occupy the social bonding segment of the time budget.
The genius of Human Evolution lies in the use of these two devices‑brain size vs. group size and the time-budget model to map out the emergence of human beings as a branch of the family tree. Our ancestors came together in groups and the groups came together in larger groups. This enlargement of the social contract was both a cause and a consequence of the enlargement of our mammalian brains. Laughter (we bond over jokes), language, alcohol, and religion were the devices by which we solved the problems stated above.
Why, for instance, did we survive where the Neanderthals did not? Perhaps because, by the time we encountered one another, we could muster much larger coalitions of cooperative groups than they could.
Friday, April 7, 2017
I was interviewed today by David Tucker, Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. The interview will be posted soon and I expect that it will be available to anyone (I didn’t exactly ask!). If so, I will post a link here.
Our topic was Darwin and the Declaration. While I was preparing for the interview, something occurred to me that might be worth further thought. I am thinking it through here for the first time.
One of the greatest innovations in Aristotle’s writing concerned a way of confronting apparent paradoxes. A paradox occurs when something appears to be two things at the same time and the two things are apparently contradictory.
To take a simple example, consider an oblong table not quite so wide than your hips and longer than the reach of both arms. Standing at one end, it appears narrower than you. Now walk around it and look at it from its middle. From this point of view, it is wider than you. That is the paradox: “narrower than you” and “wider than you” are contradictory propositions. It can’t be both at the same time; and so, the table is impossible. If this seems silly, more intelligent people than you or I have been driven to distraction by such things. The obvious solution (once it occurs to you) is that the table is at least a two-dimensional object. Its multi-dimensionality allows it to be both narrower and wider at the same time.
Using this kind of strategy, Aristotle solved a wide range of problems in philosophy. How is it possible that a baby can be both entirely material (the stuff of flesh) and also entirely formal (it’s a baby and not just a lump of stuff)? Because organisms (and indeed all lumps) have these two dimensions‑material and form. To complete the explanation, Aristotle added efficient cause (the baby is being pushed out of its initial state by its phusis, or nature) and it is growing toward maturity (the telos or end of its growth).
Now consider a mature animal, say a horse. How do we understand what this is? On the one hand, it is one thing: this here animal. “This here” is frequent Aristotelian terminology; it points you toward the thing to be examined. On the other hand, it is many things: a head and a haunch, an outside with hide and eyeballs and an inside with organs. We can keep searching down to cells, subcellular devices, complex and simple molecules, etc. It is one thing and many at the same time.
We can also go in the other direction. The horse is one horse but there are other horses. While it is one thing, standing alone in the pasture, it is part of one larger thing: the species Horse. And Horse is one distinct thing and yet a part of a larger thing: Mammal, etc., etc.
Here is what occurred to me today: horse and Horse are not quite the same thing. To speak of a horse is to say that this here animal is horsy. It has traits that we recognize and that allow us to place it in a larger category. To speak of Horse is to speak about something just as real but rather larger: the collection of all the existing horses.
Aristotle got hung up on this, and had a difficult time deciding whether horse or Horse was the real object of theoretical understanding. Much the same thing happened in the philosophy of biology. Some have thought that Horse is an individual, bounded in space and time and therefore just as much an individual as the horse I am riding on.
We have here a paradox. A species is something attributable to this here animal; yet, it is also a larger thing and, more interestingly, a thing that not only extends across space but also backwards in time. Biological classifications are categories, conceptual boxes into which we place specimens; yet Horse is also a real object that occupies both local and temporal space, back to the ancestor of all horses.
What is the real thing, the individual animal or the species extending backward and forward (hopefully) in time? The task of philosophy is to explain how the answer can be yes.
Saturday, March 25, 2017
What follows is the beginning of a paper I will present in Vancouver next month.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,
In the Politics [1252a ff.], Aristotle presents us with an almost evolutionary account of the origin of political communities. “If we look at the growth of things from their beginning,” he tells us, we will be in the best position to speculate about the nature of the political community. So, he begins with the most elementary human community: that of man and women and their offspring and “that which by nature can rule and that which by nature is to be ruled. The latter include beasts of burden, whether human (slaves) or other animals. That he includes the second association tells us that this is not an evolutionary account, a point to which we shall return.
If we ignore the second elementary community, we can easily make an evolutionary story out of Aristotle’s account. Families, which serve everyday needs come together into villages. The most natural version of the latter is the enlarged clan. This is why the “first cities” were ruled by kings and why human beings still imagine that the gods are so ruled, for the rule of the king is the natural extension of the rule of the father. A union of villages comes next, which must include a number of clans, and this larger group can achieve self-sufficiency. It is the polis, the political community, and while it comes to be for the sake of living (meeting our biological needs), it exists for the sake of the good life. That last comment is vitally important, for it distinguishes the driving force of evolution from the agenda that human beings can follow when their basic biological needs are met with plenty. Alone among living creatures, human beings get to decide what to do with our time.
Until fairly recently, evolutionary social theory followed the same lines as Aristotle. It was assumed that our ancestors first lived together in small, extended families and that these come together in larger and larger groups. In fact, it was probably the other way around. When the Ur ancestors of all the hominims first came down out of the trees, we did so in groups of individuals who were not necessarily closely related. We came down in groups because group size was the only defense we had against the predators which hunted on the ground. It is unlikely that anything like a family existed yet, if we define family as both a mother and a father who together invest in the rearing of their offspring. This doesn’t mean that familial instincts were not a fundamental force in social evolution or that Aristotle is wrong about the family as a template for the emergence of political forms.
In this essay, I will argue that the human family is both a cause and effect of our social evolution. You cannot have a human family as we understand it without a larger community to support it, nor can you have the emergence of the larger human communities, leading up to the political community, without such families. As the pre-human species explored the various routes to cooperation that natural selection allowed, the potentially political larger community and the family co-evolved.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
In the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress appeals to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. Is a doctrine of natural law and natural rights compatible with a Darwinian account of the evolution of human beings?
The most common argument to the contrary can be found, eloquently and intelligently presented, in S. Adam Seagrave’s “Darwin and the Declaration” [Politics and the Life Sciences, Spring 2011].
The proposition ‘‘all human beings equally possess certain basic rights,’’ or the distilled Declaration, necessarily assumes two important points: 1) that there is a group of beings called ‘‘human’’ whose members are specifically different from other organic beings; and 2) that each individual within this specific group of beings equally possesses things we call ‘‘basic’’ or ‘‘human rights.’’
Taking Darwin’s arguments bearing on the specific differences defining human beings in the Descent and the Origin together, the steps of this argument may be represented as follows: 1) specific differences in general are vaguely and arbitrarily defined, since they actually differ only in amount or quantity from mere individual differences; 2) the entirety of organic nature presents an ‘‘insensible’’ or continuous series rather than a discrete one, since all differences between individual organic beings are in principle commensurable; and, 3) human beings are not exempt from this situation.
According to Seagrave, the doctrine in the Declaration requires an essentialist theory of species. Every species is defined by a specific set of traits such that every member of the species has that set of traits and every individual who has that set of traits is a member of that species. From the traits that define the human species, one can derive natural rights.
In Darwin’s view, the species are distinguished only in matters of degree (some are bigger, some more intelligent, etc.) So one species differs from another as the set of numbers from 13 to 50 differ from 45 to 76. The distinctions between species are largely arbitrary, so there can be no essential natural rights belonging to such a messy smear of organisms.
Darwin has been dead for 135 years, but let us assume that this is his view (I agree that it is) and that it represents the current state of Darwinian theory (it does not). Is it true that there can be no specifically human rights if human beings differ from other animals only in degree? No.
Consider two rights: the right to vote and the right to drive. Suppose that intelligence is a measurable factor and that we can place all mammalian brains on a scale from one to one hundred. Suppose, moreover, that we determine that the capacity to make a choice and vote accordingly requires an intelligence of 67 or above. Is it not obvious that all human beings would be above the line and all non-human organisms far below it? The mental capacity required to participate in the franchise is like one of those height lines at the entrance to a Disneyland ride: you either get to ride or you don’t. Taller people don’t get any advantage. Animals don’t get on. Likewise, being a stunt driver doesn’t get you more rights to drive than the average Joe. Differences in degree could be the basis for specifically human rights even if that is all we have.
The essentialist account of species has been rejected by modern biology because the latter wants a definition that covers all species great and small. The if traits Y then species A just doesn’t work in a lot of cases of mammals, let alone plants and bacteria. Wolves can mate with coyote; one species or two? Horses and Donkeys can have sons but not grandsons. Human beings qualify as species under all basic definitions: we breed only with each other and we represent the sole surviving branch on the hominin tree. No one doubts that this is a real distinction.
Just because the essentialist account of species doesn’t work with most species doesn’t mean that it never works. Let us define a species by the following traits: it is a mammal and it is capable of powered flight. That describes bats and only bats. Let us define a species this way: one member can draw a stick figure on a white board with five lines and a circle. A group of conspecifics can recognize that the figure indicates one of them. That describes human beings and only human beings. I suggest that what I just demonstrated is the power of logos. All undamaged sons and daughters of sons and daughters have it.
Let’s try another. One animal watches two others. One of the observed helps the other and the other refuses to return the favor. The observer is offended. I can’t be certain, but I expect that this is something all human beings and only human beings are capable of. We are capable of conscious, deliberate, moral responsibility. It is in that capacity that the rights mentioned in the Declaration are grounded.
Aristotle advised us that we can’t expect the same precision in moral reasoning that we can expect in mathematics. That doesn’t mean we can’t make rational moral judgments. Biology is messy, but not incoherent. Human beings are more than animals. We are, however, at least animals. There is the direction political theory most face.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
I am participating in a webinar next weekend on “Darwin & The Declaration.” I will also be delivering a paper on the same topic in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Or at least I will if the panel proposal has been accepted. I haven’t heard for sure yet. I am even contemplating a book on the same topic. Offered here are some preliminary thoughts.
The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of a republic, styled the United States of America. That document has the purpose of defending the separation of the colonies from the mother country; its importance lies, however, in the principles on which that defense rests. Here is the central passage.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Charles Darwin, who was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln and came into his own at the same time, is the author of The Origin of the Species. Darwin asked two fundamental questions: why do living organisms display such an astounding variety of forms and how is that these forms are so manifestly adapted to the tasks of surviving and reproducing in their environments?
He answered the first question with descent with modification. Just as a pair of breeding beagles produces a litter with diverse offspring, so an existing species can produce a litter of diverse subspecies. Some of these will become distinct species in their own right.
The answer to the second question, his fundamental breakthrough, is natural selection. Individuals and species that are well adapted to their respective environments continue to branch out on the tree of life. Those that are ill-adapted are culled from the tree by a failure to leave descendants. As the tree branches out into all the available ecological niches we get not only a bewildering collection of creatures but also a progressive assortment of levels of organization, from the simplest single celled creatures to centipedes and certified public accountants.
It is not immediately obvious how the document and the theory relate to one another. The one speaks of inalienable rights, governments, and consent. The other of biological descent and the struggle for survival and fecundity. There is a common assumption, however, that the two are mutually irreconcilable. The Declaration is a political document based on moral principles. Descent with modification and natural selection are, to be sure, amoral processes. If, as may be, homo sapiens inherited the earth by eradicating a considerable number of hominin species, there doesn’t seem to be anything moral about that.
To see what is at stake here, we need to return to the Declaration. This is what precedes the passage quoted above.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
That famous phrase, the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, is pregnant with meaning. “Nature’s God” indicates an appeal to divine authority, but only such as can be read from the Creator’s work. The “Laws of Nature” are a valid standard only if they are in fact laws of nature.
Confronted with Darwin’s interpretation of the laws of nature, a defender of the Declaration has three choices. First, she could reject evolutionary theory altogether. That would mean rejecting modern biology, as evolutionary theory is its central theory. It would probably mean rejecting geology as well (google “young earthers).
Second, she could argue that moral and political laws are entirely distinct from the laws of biology, much as sociologists distinguish between sex (biological concept) and gender (socially constructed). That would mean that there are two distinct laws of nature, one supported by science and the other…by what? Without a theological basis, the Declaration’s laws of nature become mere cultural artefacts, like a preference for pastel colors in architecture; with a theological basis, in what sense are they natural?
The only viable alternative is to show that the laws of nature as they are articulated by modern biology in fact support the principles articulated in the Declaration. This is what I propose to do. I will argue that the liberty spoken of the document is another iteration of the principle of autonomy, which is itself a fundamental principle of all life. I will argue moreover that the moral equality spoken of in the document is an emergent feature of human evolution. I hold that modern evolutionary theory powerful supports the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence. Stay tuned.