The Evolution Revolution Continues

For the past several years I’ve observed with keen interest the elusive passing of a paradigm. For all its significance, such a thing is easy to miss. For a paradigm passes at such a rate as to be near imperceptible to those within it. One year we’re all confident that X is simply self evident. Then the next year Y becomes so obvious it’s barely worth mentioning, while we look back on X with a chuckle and a smile, wondering how we could have got it so wrong.

And so it is with the passing of postmodernism, and the belief in the blank slate.

art-instinct1Just this morning I read a review of The Art Instinct, by antipodean philosopher, Denis Dutton. Dutton joins a growing list of individuals busting the blank slate myth, this time when it comes to our artistic propensities.

Oh, to even mention that art was anything but socially constructed when I was at university in the early 1990s was to be mercilessly ridiculed by perpetually-outraged Marxists. Yet, at the time, I thought that was normal. But it was only the norm. Such is the irony of a movement such as postmodernism that is supposed to encourage thinking outside the square only to smack you straight back in it.

My only concern is that we’ll go too far with the evolutionary explanations, and they’ll wear thin on an easily distracted public, only to be replaced by something less efficacious. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen – and work to make sure it doesn’t.

Pinker’s Personal Genomics

I wonder what gene is responsible for Steven Pinker’s unquestionable gift for written communication? While he doesn’t mention it specifically in his lengthy piece on personal genomics in the New York Times, he does an impressive job of deconstructing his genome as revealed to him by the likes of personal genomics companies, Counsyl and 23andme.

New York Times

Source: New York Times

Well worth a read. Although it does stretch to eight pages, so take some sandwiches and make a day of it. Or a lunchtime, at least.

One thing he mentions that I think deserves to be highlighted is the puzzle of genetic diversity: why aren’t humans all alike? Why hasn’t evolution stumbled upon the ‘ideal’ genome and spread that amongst all humans?

I think the answer to these questions could also reveal some deep insights into our startling moral diversity. Pinker touches on this notion:

The psychologists Lars Penke, Jaap Denissen and Geoffrey Miller argue that personality differences arise from this process of balancing selection. Selfish people prosper in a world of nice guys, until they become so common that they start to swindle one another, whereupon nice guys who cooperate get the upper hand, until there are enough of them for the swindlers to exploit, and so on. The same balancing act can favor rebels in a world of conformists and vice-versa, or doves in a world of hawks.

This is a nice synopsis for a theory I’m developing called Moral Diversity. It’s essentially the thesis that there is no one perfect moral system that will lend a strong enough selective advantage to out-compete other moral systems. As a result, we have evolved a diverse range of moral intuitions that yield an equally diverse range of moral responses, and together these enable us to respond to a wide range of environments.

However broad streams come to the surface: egalitarianism (i.e. liberals, communitarians, anti-authoritarians, counter-dominance etc) and authoritarianism (i.e. conservatives, loyal patriots, dominance etc). So it’s no accident we have liberals and conservatives in every (functioning) democracy around the world. And it’s also not surprising that both sides can’t even comprehend the other – it’s not only their interpretation of the facts over which they differ, but their very moral intuitions. And there very genes.

Grayling on Darwin and Ethics

“Can ethics be derived from evolution by natural selection?”

Thus spake Richard Wilkins (although I never knew he hailed from Watford) in the most recent question asked of British philosopher, A.C. Grayling in his regular Q&A in Prospect Magazine.

Grayling’s first answer is succinct and, I think, accurate:

Given that human beings have evolved by natural selection (with genetic drift and some other factors perhaps assisting), and are ethical creatures, it follows ab esse ad posse that ethics can be derived from evolution by natural selection.

But he concedes that this might not convince everybody. So he goes on to answer a broader question: “would natural selection be sufficient to produce creatures with a consciousness of ethical principles and a tendency to wish to observe them and see them observed?”

And this more convoluted (and unnecessary?) question is where he runs into some troubles – caused, I think, by the chronic confusion that abounds in ethics over what is, and what is not, ‘ethical’.

For example, Grayling states that “whereas other social animals have evolved behaviours that subserve the interests of their sociality… this does not amount to ethics.” Instead, ethics “premises an awareness of the demands and responsibilities ethics involves.” So to be ethical is to be a ethical reasoner.

This is a commonly held view, but one that I think is a fallacy, hopefully one that will erode as we gain a greater appreciation for moral psychology. Certainly there is something very interesting going on when homo sapiens reason about right and wrong, but that’s not all there is to ethics.

In fact, recent research by the likes of Jonathan Haidt show that moral sentiments – and even moral judgements – spring forth well before reason is engaged. So to deny all these rich and crucial sentiments their ethical gravity until reason has had time to toss them around is an unecessarily harsh simplification.

I think a better approach would be to take a more fine grained approach to the way we make moral judgements so we can acknowledge those features of animals and ourselves that promote pro-social behaviour as ethical, different in degree if not in kind.

For example, let’s call the original, unconsious moral sentiment that springs forth unbidden when confronted by a morally-charged scenario the initial moral judgement. It’s the raw intuition about permissibility/impermissibility, charged with emotion but untempered by reason or reflection. It’s the empathy or the outrage that inspire us to action.

Then once that initial moral judgement has been processed by reason – which can inhibit or redirect behavioural impulses, deliberate over conflicting sentiments and revise the initial moral judgement in terms of explicitly held moral beliefs – we arrive at the considered moral judgement.

They’re both moral judgements – they both serve pro-social ends – but they arise via very different cognitive mechanisms. And evidence suggests that while animals lack the capacity to form considered moral judgments, many may possess the faculties required to arrive at the initial moral judgement.

Thus, for Grayling, and many others, to only take considered moral judgements as the be-all and end-all of ethics is carelessly eliminating much of what’s interesting about moral thinking. It’s well and truly time for ethics to catch up with science, and unshackle itself from the Western preoccupation with conscious reasoning as the locus of morality, and start seeing the bigger picture.

Is Kant Compatible With Evolution?

I don’t reckon it is. Specifically, his moral theory and the infamous categorical imperative. Here’s why.

Any individual who strictly adheres to Kant’s moral theory would be at a selective disadvantage to one who didn’t. Or, if you’re fond of group selection (or multi-level selection, or whatever supra-individual selection), any group that strictly adheres to Kant’s moral theory would be at a selective disadvantage to a group that didn’t.

This means that over multiple generations, Kant’s moral theory – regardless of whether it’s inherited via genes or memes – would eventually give way to another moral system that lent a greater selective advantage.

Game theory can be used to demonstrate this point. The only way to apply the categorical imperative to a game like the prisoner’s dilemma is think of the imperative as a general strategy, such as:

Choose only a strategy which, if you could will it to be chosen by all the players, would yield a better outcome from your point of view than any other.

This would result in you always choosing to cooperate. And as we know from the many iterated prisoner’s dilemma experiments, a Nice strategy like this gets thoroughly trounced by Nasty, or even more balanced strategies like Tit for Tat. So, should the Prisoner’s Dilemma (or other games) reflect reality and your chances of survival, then choosing a Kantian morality puts you at a significant selective disadvantage.

This can also be called the Fallacy of Enlightenment – a fallacy that I reckon riddles much of moral philosophy from the last two and half thousand years. It goes a little something like this: ‘if everyone was just nice to each other, we wouldn’t need laws.’

While this statement is true, it’s a terrible basis for a moral system. For such a system would be vulnerable to those individuals who weren’t nice, who could exploit the nice ones for their own advantage. And the world is a Nasty place; give an inch, and natural selection will make it a mile. So, no moral system that can be paraphrased as the Fallacy of Enlightenment – such as Kant’s – is compatible with evolution.

So let’s stop talking about moral theories that would be eliminated by natural selection in a handful of generations as if they were fair game. From here on in, if a moral system lends a selective disadvantage, let’s treat it as a test tube case, not as a viable real world option.

Bad Philosophy Joke

Ever wonder why there aren’t any blogs advocating solipsism?

Who would they be trying to convince?

Boom tish.

Probably a Bad Idea


As you may have heard – or seen, if you’re a London local – atheists have started their mission to convert you via the medium of London’s ubiquitous red busses. The slogan goes:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

I love the campaign. Sure, it may not turn many towards Godless ways, but the very presence of an atheist campaign causes us to reflect on religion and religious advertising.

But… “probably”? That’s a mistake. Richard Dawkins thinks so too, according to the Times.

Dr Dawkins, speaking at the launch in Central London, said he would have rather not had the word “probably” in the advertisement. He said the existence of God was about as likely as that of the tooth fairy.

Organisers of the four-week campaign said they had included the word “probably” because they did not want to be dogmatic in the way that so many religious leaders are.

I can understand them not wanting to be dogmatic, but “probably” is just weak.”Probably” ain’t going to win over any agnostics. Let alone the faithful.

I see it as a symptom of a broader problem with atheism: it’s a negative thesis. Until such time as there’s a secular philosophy that provides existential comfort, moral guidance and community services without relying on the supernatural, atheism isn’t really going to have much constructive to say.

And when that day comes, I’ll damn well stick up the billboards myself.

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