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 entrĂ©e… 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.