Friday, May 23, 2014

The Descent of Man and self-sacrifice

The argument Wade presented in the previous note was from Darwin’s Descent of Man and not from his Origin of Species.

As to the argument that “we need to reject the idea that behaviour that removes an organism from the gene-pool will be 'selected for' because it benefits the remaining group - this simply does not work as a theory, because nothing can be 'selected for' via its removal from the gene-pool.” That can’t be true. I’ve read several authors refer to organisms doing that very thing. One early author, can’t recall his name, referred to a pair of adult baboon males guarding their tribes passage up through a narrow passage where they would be safe for the night. The leopard came and they set upon it with precession. The leopard killed both of them, but before he did, one of them bit into the leopard’s jugular.

I have read a number of similar accounts. The theory advanced to account for this well-documented sort of thing is that while these baboons, for example (and who knows, maybe their genes were passed into the tribes gene pool before this event) were killed. The tribe, including the near relatives of these baboons, lived on. They didn’t protect their own genes, but they their genes, less any individual mutations would have lived on in the tribe.

Wade goes on to write that Darwin’s ideas were “developed by Edward O. Wilson in his landmark 1975 book Sociobiology and extended from animals to people. ‘The requirement for an evolutionary approach to ethics is self-evident,’ he wrote. Sociobiology, though intended by its author as merely a synthesis of new biological ideas, posed a political challenge to Marxists and much of the academic left. It showed how the human mind was not a blank slate, on which governments could write whatever ideological prescriptions they wished in order to shape Socialist Man, but was already shaped or predisposed by evolution to behave in certain ways. Wilson’s book was assailed by Marxist colleagues at Harvard, such as the geneticist Richard Lewontin. Students disrupted Wilson’s lectures and harassed even Hamilton and Trivers. Researchers dared not use the word sociobiology, even if they agreed with its ideas, lest they be caught up in the furor. Sociobiology, as applied to people, is now pursued mostly under the name of evolutionary psychology. Richard Alexander, after the storm over Sociobiology had settled, was one of the first biologists to resume the study of morality. Human ancestors lived in groups, he argued in a book published in 1987, as a defense against other human groups, and warfare had been a major influence in human evolution. Usually predators find it most efficient to live in small groups (wolves, lions, killer whales) while it is prey animals that congregate in large herds for defense. But humans departed from this rule, probably because their most feared enemies were other human groups. Incessant warfare led to selection for greater social complexity and intelligence, and the larger societies required ever greater self-constraint to avoid infringing on other individuals’ interests, Alexander argued. “The function or raison d’ être of moral systems is evidently to provide the unity required to enable the group to compete successfully with other human groups. Only in humans is the major hostile force of life composed of other groups in the same species,” he wrote.

“The surprising idea that people might be inherently moral was difficult for biologists and others to accept because it conflicted with the usual assumption that human nature is selfish. Even harder to swallow, for those not steeped in the concepts of evolutionary biology, was the assertion that something as precious as morality could have blossomed from the murky soil of strife and warfare.” [Wade, Nicholas (2009-10-27). The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 558-577). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.]

Wade’s purpose isn’t primarily to show that an individual’s moral instinct is sufficient to put the good of the pack above his own. Too many examples of this exist for this to be questioned (at least by too many). It is to demonstrate that we (and not just we but primates as well) inherited a moral instinct. “In distress, they elicit sympathy with a range of very human expressions. “When upset, chimpanzees pout, whimper, yell, beg with outstretched hand, or impatiently shake both hands so that the other will hurry and provide the calming contact so urgently needed,” de Waal wrote. Chimps have been known to try to save others from drowning in the moats that sometimes surround zoo colonies. This is a huge risk for them because they cannot swim.” [Wade, Kindle Locations 593-597]

“So what then is morality? De Waal’s definition, from his perspective as a primatologist, is very different from that of rationalist philosophers. “We understand morality as a sense of right and wrong that is born out of group-wide systems of conflict management based on shared values,” he writes. “Moral systems thus provide a set of rules and incentives to resolve competition and conflicts within the group in the service of the ‘greater good,’ that is, benefits (to individuals) derived from resource distribution and collective action. Morality, by this definition, is closely related to social behavior.” By breaking out of the specialist frameworks in which philosophers and psychologists had long imprisoned the study of morality, De Waal established that morality is a biological behavior and that evolution is the only framework in which the origins of morality can be addressed. [Wade, Kindle Locations 607-614]

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