Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright

Can you beat a book with two colons in its title? Or maybe that’s not the title, because on the first page it just says The Moral Animal, and on the second page it says The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life. Whatever the book is called, it’s both a real mindbender and probably the best book I’ve read on evolution. Wright gets my special praise primarily for the following passage:

Before we return to Darwin’s life, one caution is in order. So far we’ve been analyzing the human mind in the abstract; we’ve talked about “species-typical” adaptations designed to maximize fitness. When we shift our focus from the whole species to any one individual, we should not expect that person to chronically maximize fitness, to optimally convey his or her genes to future generations. And the reason goes beyond the one that has so far been stressed: that most human beings don’t live in an environment much like the one for which their minds were designed. Environments—even the environments for which organisms are designed—are unpredictable. That is why behavioral flexibility evolved in the first place. And unpredictability, by its nature, cannot be mastered. As John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have put it, “Natural selection cannot directly ‘see’ an individual organism in a specific situation and cause behavior to be adaptively tailored.”

Hallelujah. This is the first time I’ve seen it explicitly stated that people don’t necessarily consciously act in a way designed to move their genes into the next generation. In stating that humans live in an environment today that is radically different from the one in which we were shaped by evolution, Wright is making an essential point often overlooked or taken as given in other evolutionary texts. As he says:

Of course, the designs don’t always work. Individual organisms often fail, for various reasons, to transmit their genes. (Some are bound to fail. That is the reason evolution so assuredly happens.) In the case of human beings, moreover, the design work was done in a social environment quite different from the current environment. We live in cities and suburbs and watch TV and drink beer, all the while being pushed and pulled by feelings designed to propagate our genes in a small hunter-gatherer population. It’s no wonder that people often seem not to be pursuing any particular goal—happiness, inclusive fitness, whatever—very successfully.

But I still have a complaint. I wish the evolutionists would stop using verbs like “design” when talking about natural selection. There is no design in natural selection. There is no envisioned end product that natural selection is working to bring into existence, and too often the language that’s chosen to discuss the subject belies that reality. Wright is cognizant of this, and often uses quotation marks to indicate that he doesn’t mean what he’s saying literally, but feels compelled to use the convenient language.

Naturally, the level of the organism is of primary concern to human beings; human beings are organisms. But it’s of secondary importance to natural selection. If there is a sense in which natural selection “cares” about anything—and there is, metaphorically—that thing isn’t us; it’s the information in our sex cells, our eggs and our sperm. Of course, natural selection “wants” us to behave in certain ways. But, so long as we comply, it doesn’t care whether we are made happy or sad in the process, whether we get physically mangled, even whether we die. The only thing natural selection ultimately “wants” to keep in good shape is the information in our genes, and it will countenance any suffering on our part that serves this purpose.

I won’t beat Wright up too much over this. Although he flirts too frequently with the contradiction, he repeatedly tells us that he is flirting, and has helped me think about evolution in ways I haven’t before. I believe natural selection itself is a misnomer, as nothing is actually being “selected” by it. Natural selection is a result of what happens when certain genes that embody certain traits survive and proliferate over several generations and other genes that embody other traits don’t. Species adapt and change, but none of that is because they were selected to do so or designed for some specific end. As gravity is to mass, evolution is to reproduction—a quality inherently present in the medium.

But here’s the mindbending part:

It’s always hard to be sure that people really believe such excuses. But a famous series of experiments shows (in a quite different context) how oblivious the conscious mind can be to its real motivation, and how busily it sets about justifying the products of that motivation.

The experiments were conducted on “split-brain” patients—people who have had the link between left and right hemispheres cut to stop severe epileptic seizures. The surgery has surprisingly little effect on everyday behavior, but under contrived conditions, strange things can happen. If the word nut is flashed before the left eye (which leads to the right hemisphere), but not to the right eye (which leads to the left), the subject reports no conscious awareness of the signal; the information never enters the left hemisphere, which in most people controls language and seems to dominate consciousness. Meanwhile, though, the subject’s left hand—controlled by the right hemisphere—will, if allowed to rummage through a box of objects, seize on a nut. The subject reports no awareness of this fact unless allowed to see what his left hand is up to.

When it comes time for the subject to justify his behavior, the left brain passes from professed ignorance into unknowing dishonesty. One example: the command walk is sent to a man’s right brain, and he complies. When asked where he’s going, his left brain, not privy to the real reason, comes up with another one: he’s going to get a soda, he says, convinced. Another example: a nude image is flashed to the right brain of a woman, who then lets loose an embarrassed laugh. Asked what’s so funny, she give an answer that’s less racy than the truth.

Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted some of the split-brain experiments, has said that language is merely the “press agent” for other parts of the mind; it justifies whatever acts they induce, convincing the world that the actor is a reasonable, rational, upstanding person. It may be that the realm of consciousness itself is in large part such a press agent—the place where our unconsciously written press releases are infused with the conviction that gives them force. Consciousness cloaks the cold and self-serving logic of the genes in a variety of innocent guises. The Darwinian anthropologist Jerome Barkow has written, “It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker).”

One could go further and suggest that the folk psychology itself is built into our genes. In other words, not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion (as is suggested by other neurological experiments as well); it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims. For centuries people have approached the philosophical debate over free will with the vague but powerful intuition that free will does exist; we (the conscious we) are in charge of our behavior. It is not beyond the pale to suggest that this nontrivial chunk of intellectual history can be ascribed fairly directly to natural selection—that one of the most hallowed of all philosophical positions is essentially an adaptation.

That’s right. We’re not really conscious beings, different from all the other animals on the planet that run purely on instinct. We have no free will. Our illusion of consciousness and free will is an evolutionary adaptation that has survived and flourished because it has better adapted us to our environment. Belief in our own consciousness and free will makes us more socially adaptable to our ever-changing environment by making us better able to convince others that our intentions our socially acceptable and not necessarily “driven” by our genes’ “desire” to survive into the next generation. I’ve heard theories of everything before, but this one really takes the cake. Want to get rid of God? Here you go. Evolution will not only destroy the biblical myth of creation, but will completely erase the concept of the soul. What is the soul of a man? Adaptable traits inherited by our procreating ancestors.

Even Wright seems blown away by this concept, that natural selection is responsible not just for our physical traits but our sense of superiority and the higher purpose in our lives:

One striking feature of the rewards and punishments dished out by the conscience is their lack of sensuality. The conscience doesn’t make us feel bad the way hunger feels bad, or good the way sex feels good. It makes us feel as if we have done something that’s wrong or something that’s right. Guilty or not guilty. It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we’re in touch with higher truths. Truly a shameless ploy.

God help me, I can hear Rick Warren squirming on his cross when I read this. Brother Robert! Your conscience is not a shameless ploy of natural selection. It is the voice of God desperately trying to reach you. But Wright’s mind is closed to that possibility—more closed I think than anyone else I have ever read. He doesn’t even consider the alternative. For him evolution has to explain it all, and this is the best way he can find to explain things like the conscience and consciousness through evolution. If there is a hell, Wright is going to one day find himself in the hottest lake of fire it has.

But wait. Here’s where it goes from mindbending to freaky:

There are various ways to answer this question. Today, among biologists, one common answer is that evolution has no discernible end. Spencer, at any rate, believed evolution had tended to move species toward longer and more comfortable lives and the more secure rearing of offspring. Our mission, then, was to nourish these values. And the way to do so was to cooperate with one another, to be nice—to live in “permanently peaceful societies.”

All of this now lies in the dustbin of intellectual history. In 1903, the philosopher G. E. Moore decisively assaulted the idea of drawing values from evolution or, for that matter, from any aspect of observed nature. He labeled this error the “naturalistic fallacy.” Ever since, philosophers have worked hard not to commit it.

Moore wasn’t the first to question the inference of “ought” from “is.” John Stuart Mill had done it a few decades earlier. Mill’s dismissal of the naturalistic fallacy, much less technical and academic than Moore’s, was more simply compelling. Its key was to articulate clearly the usually unspoken assumption that typically underlies attempts to use nature as a guide to right conduct: namely, that nature was created by God and thus must embody his values. And, Mill added, not just any God. If, for example, God is not benevolent, then why honor his values? And if he is benevolent, but isn’t omnipotent, why suppose that he has managed to precisely embed his values in nature? So the question of whether nature deserves slavish emulation boils down to the question of whether nature appears to be the handiwork of a benevolent and omnipotent God.

Mill’s answer was: Are you kidding? In an essay called “Nature,” he wrote that nature “impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve.” And she does all this “with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and noblest indifferently with the meanest and worst…” Mill observed, “If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals.” Anyone, “whatever kind of religious phrases he may use,” must concede “that if Nature and Man are both the works of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by Man.” Nor, believed Mill, should we look for guidance to our moral intuition, a device “for consecrating all deep-seated prejudices.”

In other words, our nature, be it bred into us by natural selection or breathed into us by God, is something that we are to overcome, to rise above.

Darwin doesn’t seem to have spent much time agonizing over this conflict between natural selection’s “morality” and his own. If a parasitic wasp or a cat playing with mice embodies nature’s values—well, so much the worse for nature’s values. It is remarkable that a creative process devoted to selfishness could produce organisms which, having finally discerned this creator, reflect on this central value and reject it. More remarkable still, this happened in record time; the very first organism ever to see its creator did precisely that. Darwin’s moral sentiments, designed ultimately to serve selfishness, renounced this criterion of design as soon as it became explicit.

But can we do this? If consciousness itself is merely an adaptation of natural selection, a ploy to keep us from realizing we are acting on pure instinct so we can reason our way through changes in our environment, if free will is only a part of this parlor trick our own minds have been constructed to play on us, how can we possibly step outside of that paradigm and reject it? If natural selection explains it all, even consciousness and the illusion of free will, is it possible for us to have this kind of independent thought? Or isn’t it more likely that any act we think we might take to reject the logic and values of natural selection is one taken by our evolutionary doppelganger instead, and therefore part of the larger force we think we have rejected? Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

There’s a few other random bits that seemed worth quoting:

One factor is the vulnerability of offspring. Following the generic male sexual strategy—roaming around, seducing and abandoning everything in sight—won’t do a male’s genes much good if the resulting offspring get eaten. That seems to be one reason so many bird species are monogamous, or at least relatively monogamous. Eggs left alone while the mother went out and hunted worms wouldn’t last long. When our ancestors moved from the forests out onto the savanna, they had to cope with fleet predators. And this was hardly the only new danger to the young. As the species got smarter and its posture more upright, female anatomy faced a paradox: walking upright implied a narrow pelvis, and thus a narrow birth canal, but the heads of babies were larger than ever. This is presumably why human infants are born prematurely in comparison to other primates. From early on, baby chimps can cling to their mother while she walks around, her hands unencumbered. Human babies, though, seriously compromise a mother’s food gathering. For many months, they’re mounds of helpless flesh: tiger bait.

The whole first part of this book is about men and women, about why they do the things they do in reproducing and how evolution and natural selection created it all. And it’s also where Wright rams home one of the central points of his book—that we are a species that live in an environment very different from the one we were adapted to by natural selection. I noted the above paragraph because it helps illustrate this. Why are human babies so helpless when they are born? Why are their heads so big and malleable? If you believe in God the answer is simple—because that’s the way God made it. If you believe in evolution—the answer is infinitely more complex. Nothing evolves simply or in a direct fashion. Everything is the result of an untold number of variables at play with one another. Our intelligence, walking upright, the pain of childbirth, the vulnerability of our young, our need to care for them. They’re all inter-related in ways we’ll probably never understand.

It is ironic that hints of mortality can draw a man into marriage, for often it is these same hints, much later, that drive him out, to seek fresh proof of his virility. But the irony dissolves when reduced to ultimate cause: both the impulses to profess lifelong love to a woman and to wander lie within a man by virtue of how often, in his ancestors, they led to progeny. In that sense, both are an apt antidote to mortality, thought in the end futile (except from the genes’ point of view), and, in the latter case—wandering—often destructive as well.

I’m not sure I’ve even touched on this one yet, that emotions themselves are a product of natural selection, meaning we only feel the things that have been useful in propagating our species. The love I feel for my wife, according to this perspective, is only there because millions in the past who didn’t express such feelings did not reproduce and millions more who did express them did.

Morality is the device of an animal of exceptional cognitive complexity, pursuing its interests in an exceptionally complex social universe.

Somewhere along the way in the book Wright refers to the stages of moral development as expressed by Lawrence Kohlberg in 1971. The seemed interesting to me so I went out to the Internet and found them:

Stages of Moral Development
by Lawrence Kohlberg (1971)

I. Preconventional Level

At this level, the child is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right or wrong, but he interprets the labels in terms of either the physical or hedonistic consequences of action (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels. The level is divided into the following three stages:

Stage 0: Egocentric judgement. The child makes judgements of good on the basis of what he likes and wants or what helps him, and bad on the basis of what he does not like or what hurts him. He has no concept of rules or of obligations to obey or conform to independent of his wish.

Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation. The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are values in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority (the latter is stage 4).

Stage 2: The instrumental relativist orientation. Right action consists of what instrumentally satisfies one's own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms such as those of the market place. Elements of fairness, reciprocity, and equal sharing are present, but they are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours", not loyalty, gratitude, or justice.

II. Conventional Level

At this level, the individual perceives the maintenance of the expectations of his family, group, or nation as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying the order and identifying with the persons or group involved in it. The level consists of the following two stages:

Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or "good boy-nice girl" orientation. Good behavior is what pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or "natural" behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention -- "he means well" becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being "nice".

Stage 4: The "law and order" orientation. The individual is oriented toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists in doing one's duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.

III. Post-Conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level

The individual makes a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual's own identification with the group. The level has the two following stages:

Stage 5: The social-contract legalistic orientation (generally with utilitarian overtones). Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis upon procedural rules for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, right action is a matter of personal values and opinions. The result is an emphasis upon the "legal point of view", but with an additional emphasis upon the possibility of changing the law in terms of rational considerations of social utility (rather than freezing it in terms of stage 4 "law and order"). Outside the legal realm, free agreement, and contract, is the binding element of obligation. The "official" morality of the American government and Constitution is at this stage.

Stage 6: The universal ethical-principle orientation. Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles that appeal to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of the human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.

After reading them, I’m not sure they were all that interesting after all.

One more thing about The Moral Animal. It was confusing as hell. Interesting and thought-provoking, but confusing as hell. It was clear that Wright was trying to argue a consistent point of view throughout, but his subject matter is so opaque, he could have said the direct opposite thing on page 400 that he said on page 4 and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

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