Archive of ‘genetics’ category

Politics as Biology: Explaining the Razor Edge of Partisan Politics

Following Obama’s re-election, M.S. at The Economist ponders the startlingly improbable situation in the United States where such a strongly partisan country can keep rolling out elections that are knife edge finishes:

This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What’s going on?

Good question. Here’s a speculative answer, using the tools of population biology as a lens to understand politics:

(more…)

Which Comes First: The Moral, Or The Ecology?

There are chicken and egg problems. And there are tail and dog problems. The thing is, I’m not sure which of these problems I’m facing at the moment in regards to defining moral ecology.

I recently had a very fruitful, if highly critical, experience at the Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach workshop. Amidst the splendour of the New South Wales south coast, and between midnight bonfires on the beach, I gave a paper on evolution and moral ecology.

The thesis was this:

The highly variegated hominin social environment of the last few million years shaped our psychology to produce a polymorphism of psychological traits that promote a range of behavioural strategies when it comes to social living.

For example, the inherent difficulties in identifying trustworthy partners for potentially risky cooperative ventures has made some people naturally more predisposed towards being trusting and others towards being suspicious.

Another example might be that some people are predisposed to be quick to anger, particularly in the face of perceived disloyalty or defection in cooperative ventures, and others are predisposed towards being more forgiving.

These predispositions promote behaviours that follow fairly predictable patterns – more trusting people engage in more cooperative ventures but expose themselves to greater risk of defection; more forgiving people maintain more social bonds by punishing less but make norm enforcement more difficult.

(more…)

Moral Ecology Defined (At Last)

I recently found myself confused about the meaning of the term ‘moral ecology.’ This proved to be an unsettling experience, namely because I’m the one who coined the term (with a little help from John S. Wilkins).

Given that moral ecology features centrally in my thesis, it’s probably important that I come to grips with what it means. And I think I have.

My confusion was over precisely what the term referred to. Was it describing the dynamics of the moral diversity we see in the world today? Was it explaining why the Left-Right political spectrum unfolds the way it does? Was it in reference to the diversity we see in moral sentiments? Or the diversity in psychological types?

I wanted the term to carry a heavy load and handle all these things. But it just couldn’t. So I’ve narrowed it down in an attempt to give it a more transparent and robust meaning, and linked it to these other phenomena without stuffing them all under the same term.

Here’s how it goes:

Moral ecology describes the phenomenon whereby it takes a pluralism of behavioural strategies to promote high levels of cooperation within groups, and the complex dynamics of the interactions between these strategies over time.

It refers to the fact that each behavioural strategy – which is often manifest in the form of a moral norm – enjoys differential levels of success in terms of promoting cooperation depending on the environment in which it exists, i.e. the other strategies in play around it.

That’s moral ecology. It’s an abstraction notion demonstrated using the tools of game theory.

Moral ecology then forms the backdrop for the evolutionary pressures that shaped human social and moral psychology, which can help explain the evolution of the highly polymorphic and plastic minds we have today.

Moral ecology also helps to explain the existence of psychological diversity, basically because it shows that there was no one psychological type that evolution could have gravitated towards that would prove successful in every social environment.

And, finally, moral ecology can help explain the existence of moral diversity in the world. Because there is this psychological diversity, we see a corresponding diversity of moral attitudes in the world, and this diversity exhibits the complex dynamics described by moral ecology.

So, in sum, moral ecology is the abstract notion that it takes many behavioural strategies to promote high stable levels of cooperation, which helps explain evolved psychological diversity, which helps explain moral diversity.

Unless there are any gaping holes in this definition, then that’s what I’m going to run with in my thesis, appropriately entitled Evolution and Moral Ecology.

Evolution and Moral Ecology Seminar at UNSW

Picture this: a philosopher giving a seminar on evolution and moral ecology to a bunch of evolutionary biologists and ecologists. It’s bonkers. But I’m going to give it a shot. I mean, what could go wrong?

Actually, I’m hoping the audience will teach me a thing or two. I’m going to use the opportunity to hurl at them the most ribald version of my moral ecology thesis and see if the analogy sticks.

And I’m going to flop out the full length of my evolutionary story for how our highly polymorphic psychology came to be as it is and see if anyone chops it off.

I’m not sure on the attendance rules, but it’s at the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales at 3pm in the Biomed C theatre on Friday 27th April. Do come!

Here’s the abstract:

In this talk I introduce the notion of ‘moral ecology.’ This is the thesis that there is no one way to promote optimal levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in a population. Instead, certain behavioural strategies will be more or less successful depending on the environment in which they’re situated. The environment includes both the physical environment, such as resources and climate, and the social environment, which includes the behavioural strategies employed by other members of the group. What emerges is a pluralism of strategies that are able to sustain high levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in their particular environment, forming a meta-stable equilibrium. I suggest that human social and moral psychology evolved in light of this phenomenon and, as such, we evolved a polymorphism of psychological types that promote a pluralism of behavioural strategies while retaining sufficient plasticity to adapt to changing environments. This polymorphism is maintained primarily through negative frequency-dependent selection. I argue that moral ecology can help explain the existence of human psychological diversity, and the existence of moral diversity in the world.

 

Evolution and Moral Ecology Abstract

There’s a conference coming up later this year in Sicily on the evolution of morality, appropriately called: The Evolution of Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience. Looks like a cracker. Speakers include Frans de Waal, Phillip Kitcher, Patricia Churchland, Richard Joyce, Owen Flanagan and Simon Blackburn, among others.

I plan to go. And I plan to give a paper – although they’re only guaranteeing spots for posters, which is odd. There are some short 15 min(!) talks on offer, so I’ll also try to score one of them, if I can, and cut loose with my riff on evolution and moral ecology.

Before I submit the abstract, I thought I’d post it here for comments and criticism. I’ve never done a poster before (not including my year 4 project on scorpions, which was pretty cool, come to think of it). So not sure how much can be crammed in. Also I don’t think I can order a coffee, let alone talk about evolution and morality, in less than 15 mins, so a talk might be tricky. On the other hand, I can talk fast if need be.

Happy to hear feedback on the abstract, on things like whether the first paragraph lending context is necessary, or the last paragraph offering implications, or whether it generally makes sense etc:

Many philosophers have regarded moral diversity – and its concomitant moral disagreement – as an anomaly to be explained away en route to detailing a single correct system of moral norms. In this paper I take an alternate view, looking at moral diversity as a phenomenon worthy of a more detailed explanation, and central to understanding the nature of our evolved moral psychology.

I argue that moral diversity and moral disagreement are, at least in part, a product of evolved psychological variation. I suggest this is because the adaptive social environment faced by our distant ancestors was highly heterogeneous, both in terms of physical environment, such as local resource availability, and social environment, including the behavioural strategies employed by others within the group.

As a result, there was no one psychological type that reliably produced adaptive strategies in these complex and heterogeneous environments, a phenomenon that can be modelled using game theory. Thus humans evolved a stable polymorphism of psychological types, with some proving more adaptive in certain environments and less adaptive in others, but no one type reaching fixation in any population. This is a phenomenon I call ‘moral ecology.’

The upshot of this notion is that moral diversity may not always have been such a bad thing. It suggests that instead of moral diversity being indicative of some error in thinking on behalf of moral agents, in fact the diversity of approaches to social living enabled our ancestors to adapt to a wide variety of environments, both physical and social. It also suggests that philosophers might place greater emphasis on the diverse dynamics of social living and whether it’s even possible to have one system of norms that promotes behaviour that is beneficial to its adherents in every social environment.

Criticise away!

The Ethical Project: Evolving Moral Minds

In my last post I offered my initial review of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project, which is a bold attempt to offer a thoroughly naturalistic rendering of ethics, devoid of any divinity or dubious metaphysics. And overall, I’m very pleased with the account – not least because it is largely in sync with my own.

For too long has ethics been dominated by discussions of moral semantics, of naturalistic fallacies, of rational agents and an expectation that once we discover moral truths, people will kick themselves for not having happily obeyed them in the past.

But this is not the only way to talk about morality. Instead of seeing morality as a truth-seeking endeavour, or springing from the will of some deity, we can alternatively look at morality from what Owen Flanagan, Hagop Sarkissian and David Wong (2008) call “human ecology”.

Better than defining morality by what it is – i.e. about truth, about happiness, about god’s will etc – we can define morality by what it does. This, at its heart, is the moral functionalist perspective. It’s central to Kitcher’s account (as it is to mine), and I believe it’s key to understanding morality as a natural phenomenon – i.e. a practice enacted by human beings throughout history through to this day.

And once we understand better what morality does, we might gain some insights into what it is, and even how we ought to behave. Thus, shockingly, this descriptive programme might have normative implications.

In this post I explore some of the themes raised in The Ethical Project and add some elements of my own research to fill in some gaps left by Kitcher. I have more to say than will fit in one post, so I’ll add more after this one.

(more…)

Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Empathy

The evolution of empathy, and the altruism and cooperation it encourages, is a bit of a curly problem. It’s well known that groups that employ a particular minimal threshold level of altruism can potentially outcompete groups that are less cooperative. The problem is, beneath this threshold level, it’s difficult to see how empathy and altruism can gain a foothold without being drowned out by self-interest.

This is a problem that even Darwin acknowledged, and there have since been proposed a number of possible solutions, including kin selection and reciprocity. Here’s one of my own – although it’s more than likely it’s been proposed before, but I haven’t stumbled across any explicit references to it to date:

Mirror neurons and social learning.

(more…)

Morality Without God

It keeps being said that without God, there can be no morality. It keeps being said that if we’re evolved from selfish genes, there can be no altruism. It keeps being said that a universe without a divine creator is a universe without meaning.

It keeps being said.

And it’s flat out wrong.

I’m sympathetic to religious sentiments, even if I think the accompanying metaphysical interpretation of those sympathies is in error. But I’m entirely unsympathetic to those of a religious persuasion spreading untruths and fallacious arguments about secular morality.

It’d be like me saying that there is a God, and He is malevolent.

Disagreement over the existence of God is one thing, but to misrepresent the religious view is not acceptable. Not for anyone. Likewise, misrepresentation of the secular view by the religious is ignorant at best, malicious (and immoral) at worst.

So, in the interests of providing a clear and unambiguous exposition of the secular moral position, I’ve compiled a list of false claims made by some in the religious community and the reasons why they’re in error.

(more…)

What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?

One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?

Ouch.

But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?

And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?

So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?

My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.

The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?

Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.

A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.

Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.

Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.

As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.

After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).

I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…

From Genes to Politics: How Biology Influcences the Way You Vote

It might seem a leap too far, but bear with me, because I’m going to attempt to show that genes influence the way you vote. Let’s start at the end and work our way towards the beginning.

Your adopted political ideology strongly influences the way you vote. Certainly, there might be circumstances in which a liberal might vote for a conservative candidate, such as if the liberal candidate was an obvious dud (or the conservative candidate was a shining star), or if the conservative candidate happened to offer a better policies for the present environment (say, being a hawk in a time of war). But, all things being equal, self-identifying liberals vote for liberal candidates and parties.

However, your political ideology isn’t something you come to adopt from out of the blue. We’re not political blank slates. One of the greatest influences on what ideology you adopt is your worldview, which I loosely define as the implicit framework you use to make sense of the world around you.

Your worldview is both descriptive and prescriptive – it helps understand the way the world is, and it’s value-laden, so it helps you understand good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Many empirical and theoretical studies have shown that underneath our political attitudes lie (often unconscious) beliefs about the way the world is.

(more…)

1 2