Saturday, January 17, 2015

January 2015 ASEBL issue

The latest ASEBL, January 2015, volume 11 number 1, is live at the St. Francis College website ( Academics--Publications--ASEBL – here 

A very good issue which features:

1. Ryan O. Begley, Kathryn Coe, and Craig T. Palmer, “From Blood Feuds to Civility: Romeo and Juliet and the Changing Evolutionary Role of Cultural Traditions.”

2. Edward Gibney, “Bridging the Is-Ought Divide: Life is. Life ought to act to remain so.”

3. R.C. De Prospo, ‘“lighting out for the Territory ahead of the rest’: The Future of/in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

4. Dustin Hellberg, “Rhythm, Evolution and Neuroscience in Lullabies and Poetry.”

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Morality and Selection - How?

Group, individual, or gene level selection: Which has the best explanatory power for our ‘moral’ emotions?

Mark Sloan 12-27-2014

Charles Darwin proposed group selection to explain how “altruistic” behaviors toward others and self-sacrifice for the group, which could easily be taken to be counterexamples to his theory of evolution, might instead be examples of its explanatory power. He observed that, all else being equal, groups that were more cooperative would out compete less cooperative groups. Selection for more cooperative groups selects for biology that better motivates cooperative behavior (Darwin, 1871) and, though Darwin did not mention it, cultural norms that do the same. Thus, we arrive at the simple and appealing notion that people’s experience of compassion and loyalty and cultural norms such as “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (or variations with the same function in increasing cooperation) are arguably near inevitable products of blind evolution of beings with sufficiently complex brains. And no supernatural deity is required to explain human, or any other species’, “goodness”.

Mark Borrello (2005) described group theory’s subsequent rise and then fall from respectability in the 1960’s (mainly due to a theoretical objection and some bad science from a chief advocate) and its rise again, starting in the 1980’s and now called multilevel selection, which is how I will refer to it here where appropriate.

Steven Pinker and twenty three other respected evolutionists provided an accessible snapshot (Pinker 2012) of the lively state of the unresolved debate on group selection’s proper role in evolutionary science. The diversity of pro and con opinions expressed makes it appear the debate about group selection is not close to over.

However, Pinker’s focus on “altruistic” and “self-sacrifice for the group” behaviors as “what must be explained” was a poor choice for resolving the relative explanatory power of group versus individual and gene level selection perspectives. First, as they are commonly understood, these behaviors can have many explanations which make them insensitive tests for differentiating between hypotheses. Also, these explanations included cultural norms and forces, which divert attention to a secondary issue, group selection’s role in cultural evolution. Finally, Pinker appeared to be taking “altruism” to mean something very close to “biological altruism” (behavior by an individual that increases the lifetime fitness of others while decreasing the lifetime fitness of the actor). If what-must-be-explained is biological altruism, his argument is almost won before he starts. Without the requirement to explain cooperation behavior, the most credible candidate is kin altruism, the obvious choice from the gene level selection perspective.

To avoid these and other problems, future group level selection discussions might be made more fruitful by choosing human cooperation as what-must-be-explained. Also, making certain stipulations will clarify the discussions and avoid other above described problems. I propose the following:

1) Multilevel selection’s explanatory power for biology will be evaluated separately from culture, requiring what-must-be-explained to be chosen to insure only biology is needed to explain it.

2) Multilevel, individual, and gene level selection are different perspectives on (or bookkeeping systems for) the same phenomena. In theory, they might all have the same explanatory power.

3) To be a useful part of an evolutionist’s toolkit, multilevel selection’s perspective must show better explanatory power in practice, meaning ability to more readily produce correct explanations of specific biology.

4) A hypothesis’ “in practice” explanatory power may be inferior to its “in theory” explanatory power.

5) Multilevel selection’s “in practice” explanatory power will ideally be evaluated for multiple phenomena, not just one. Requiring explanation of multiple phenomena increases discriminatory power between alternate hypotheses.

I expect these stipulations would be acceptable to many in the field. If they are not acceptable, perhaps discussions could clarify what will be stipulated and any dissenting opinions.

The biology underlying what makes human beings the amazingly cooperative social animals we are, and arguably the heart of what makes us ‘human’, provides two candidates for what-must-be-explained.

The first candidate is our moral emotions triggered by our moral sense that, in part, motivate unselfishness. For reasons described below, I will here take these to be compassion, loyalty, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’. (‘Elevation’ is an emotion encompassing feelings of satisfaction and pride.) Note that the existence of the emotions triggered by our moral sense is not culturally dependent. That is, the existence of these emotions does not vary from culture to culture. Only the circumstances when they are triggered and their intensity with which they are triggered are culturally and individually dependent.

The second “cooperation biology” candidate is the cross-cultural universal set (and therefore likely biological, but not certainly biological) of categories of circumstances which can trigger our moral sense to make one of its near instantaneous judgments (and in turn trigger our ‘moral’ emotions). The most commonly referred to version of Moral Foundations Theory identifies five cross-culturally universal categories: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation (Graham 2012).

Another candidate for what-must-be-explained is the evolution of cancers with their intrinsic complexities of simultaneous cooperation and competition at the cancer’s gene, cell, and cell strain levels in the hostile environment of the patient’s immune system. Due to the specialized knowledge required, such group selection debates would likely be most effective among experts.

However, it may be that such a debate is not needed. Researchers in the field use group selection perspectives as standard practice (Merlo, 2006). It seems unlikely that any debate among those experts would conclude using the group selection perspective is not useful in actual practice.

There are doubtless other candidate biological phenomena that could be useful choices for what-must-be-explained.

The following is an example of how the character of group selection discussions could change if what-must-be-explained was human cooperation and the above stipulations were accepted. In the interest of providing a brief example, I will only compare the “in practice” explanatory power of multilevel and gene selection perspectives for our ‘moral’ emotions, the emotions triggered by our moral sense.

Drawing on many sources, Johnathon Haidt argued moral emotions include compassion, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, embarrassment, guilt, and ‘elevation’ (Haidt 2003). I largely agree, but add ‘loyalty’, meaning the emotion that motivates “loyal” behavior, since unselfishness motivated by loyalty is a central part of morality. I prefer the word indignation to anger because “indignation” better captures an emotion that is intrinsically about right and wrong. Also, I would omit the emotion “embarrassment” since embarrassment can be about matters having nothing to do with right and wrong, and shame and guilt adequately convey this category of moral emotions. For these reasons, I will use explanatory power for compassion, loyalty, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’ as what-must-be-explained.

If our moral emotions are components of cooperation strategies, what necessary functions are they fulfilling?

Tit-for-tat2 is the simplest highly effective cooperation strategy known in game theory. It seems almost inevitable that, if evolution did encode cooperation strategies in our moral sense, something like tit-for-tat would be one of those strategies. Tit-for-tat has two necessary behavioral components: 1) cooperation by unselfishly risking exploitation in any first interaction and also if the other individual cooperated in the previous interaction and 2) retaliation if the other individual attempted to exploit unselfishness in the previous interaction.

However, this simple tit-for-tat strategy is not always the best, and what is better varies with circumstances. Perhaps sometimes there are ways to predict who is likely to be a good cooperator and who is likely to exploit you – for instance from gossip about other’s interactions with the individual. Perhaps ‘forgiveness’ of an instance of exploitation could avoid cooperation destroying endless cycles of retaliation.

How might evolution most efficiently encode motivation for people to develop more effective variations of tit-for-tat and even switch between them in the many different circumstances encountered over a lifetime, and sometimes even over the course of a single day – as we know people readily do? If a mutation produced a psychological reward for achieving cooperation, then that mutation could be selected for because it motivates the individual to find those strategies that are more effective variations of tit-for-tat and to switch between them according to circumstances.

So if evolution did encode cooperation strategies in our moral sense, the simplest implementation that would be effective in diverse circumstances would have three necessary components: 1) motivation for unselfish behaviors, such as helping actions, which can initiate cooperation but risk exploitation, 2) motivation for retaliation against exploiters, and 3) psychological rewards for achieving cooperation.

This is exactly what we find in our moral emotions. 1) Compassion, loyalty, and gratitude motivate unselfish behaviors that initiate or maintain cooperation. 2) Indignation, disgust, and contempt motivate behaviors that punish other’s exploitation of unselfishness; shame and guilt internally punish our own selfishness. 3) The emotional experience of ‘elevation’ rewards our own successes at cooperation, motivates imitating other’s successes, and encourages staying in cooperative groups and seeking to increase cooperation within those groups.

In contrast, consider the gene level selection perspective’s most common explanation of unselfish behavior toward non-kin (and moral behavior in general): that unselfishness toward non-kin is best explained as a product of kin altruism and cultural influences (Pinker 2012). How well does that explanation explain the existence of our moral emotions?

Kin altruism readily explains the existence of compassion and loyalty toward close kin and the reward of ‘elevation’ for cooperation with close kin. While speculative, the argument that these emotions are triggered toward non-kin due to a kind of error in kin detection is possible.

But what about the other six: gratitude, Indignation, disgust, contempt, shame and guilt? How are these explained by kin altruism? They appear to have nothing to do with kin altruism. I expect clever people can find arguments that all these emotions can be explained by kin altruism. But inventive speculations about how they might be explained as products of kin altruism fall far short on the “best explanation scale” compared to multilevel level perspective’s robust explanation.

Based on relative explanatory power, we can conclude that the majority of our moral emotions are elements of reciprocity cooperation strategies, not kin altruism.

Does this failure to explain our moral emotions mean that gene level selection cannot, in theory, explain all gene determined biology? Again, no, it simply means that the gene level perspective can, in practice, incline investigators to produce false explanations of biological adaptations.

Multilevel selection robustly explains the set of emotions that are motivated by our moral sense. Gene level selection’s common claim about unselfishness (and moral behavior in general) toward non-kin being kin altruism misapplied cannot directly explain two thirds of the emotions motivated by our moral sense. Based on its poor explanatory power, this common claim, which flows naturally from the gene level selection perspective, appears false. Gene level selection’s perspective appears, in practice, to have led Pinker and other gene-level-only advocates astray.

In practice, it appears that the multilevel selection perspective produces correct explanations of our moral emotions more reliably than gene level selection. Therefore, the multilevel selection perspective deserves an important place in the evolutionist’s tool kit.

1. Unselfishness (including “altruism” and “self-sacrifice for the group”) is here defined as accepting a cost in order to intentionally benefit others without consideration of possible future benefits.
2. Tit-for-tat is a highly effective, but extremely simple, cooperation strategy in game theory (Axelrod, 1984). An agent using this strategy will first cooperate, then subsequently replicate an opponent's previous action. If the opponent previously was cooperative, the agent is cooperative. If the opponent previously tried to exploit the agent, the agent will retaliate by attempting to exploit the opponent.

Axelrod, David, (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation.
Borrello, Mark E., (2005). The rise, fall and resurrection of group selection.
Darwin, Charles, (1871). The Descent of Man.
Grahama, Jesse, Haidt, J., et al. (2012). Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism. Available at
Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (pp. 852-870).
Merlo, Lauren M.F., Pepper, John W., et al. (2006). Cancer as an evolutionary and ecological process.
Pinker, Steven, et al. (2012).The False Allure of Group Selection - An Edge Original Essay with Replies.

Mark Sloan’s personal interest is in showing how understanding morality as an evolutionary adaptation can be culturally useful. As associate editor of This View of Life, Morality section, his goal is to promote a cross-disciplinary view of the science of morality and how that science could be culturally useful. He has degrees in engineering and physics and has had a career in the aerospace industry.

Copyright©2014 by Mark Sloan – All Rights Reserved – No Reproduction or Publication for Commercial Use Without Express Written Permission

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Readers of ASEBL might be interested in the upcoming Sixth International Conference on Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts, to be held at St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., from 10-12 June 2015. Here's a link to the conference site with information about submitting an abstract. Click Here


Friday, June 27, 2014

Tomasello on the Natural History of Thinking - a review

Michael Tomasello. A Natural History of Human Thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014. Hardcover. 192 pages. $35.00. ISBN: 9780674724778.

Good things come in small packages, and so this is true of Michael Tomasello’s A History of Human Thinking. Of course readers need to understand that along with his very challenging and intriguing argument Tomasello (Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany) brings many years of expertise and research, so his elegant book simply makes it look easy. By his own admission, Tomasello calls Human Thinking a sequel to his 1999 book, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, though our emphasis will be on the later book which charts the evolution of primate cognition and human thinking in terms of cooperation. Tomasello’s cartography of primate cognition and human thinking is persuasive in spite of the limited fossil and artifactual evidence – a masterful reconstruction of how the human mind worked in prehistory from individual needs, to joint efforts, to the collective intentionality of modern human beings. Tomasello’s Natural History of Human Thinking is an important book not only for cognitive, developmental, or evolutionary psychologists but for scholars working in the humanities seeking a deeper understanding of what makes us human. Tomasello lucidly and competently addresses and answers the question of how human beings evolved ape-like mental abilities into highly sophisticated social thinking.

In Human Cognition Tomasello argued that the unique ability of human cognition arises by virtue of a person’s development within a rich and stimulating culture which then becomes internalized and works as an engine of the cognitive mechanisms. In Human Thinking Tomasello takes all of this a step further and argues that the human ability to cooperate, in ways far beyond any such behavior in great apes, is what fostered and currently undergirds our ability to think. In his comparative research between human beings and great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos), Tomasello concludes that a crucial difference lies in the human ability to share intentionality for a common goal, completed by elements that include advanced capacities for representation, inference, recursive reasoning, and self-appraisal. Culture, he argues, is not just a vehicle to transmit ideas and practices but is one of the main drivers of bridging different human minds together in cooperative activities, which has its roots in early people dividing labors in hunting and foraging missions. At the bottom line, what we call thinking is an ability for the individual working with other minds to invent cognitive opportunities, strategies, and answers to complex problems of environment and group living.

Preliminarily, Tomasello offers a background in which he discusses his ideas in the tapestry of other thinkers. Hegel (1807) and later Collingwood (1946) say culture is responsible for thinking; Pierce (1931-35) sees specific thinking grounded in “symbolic artifacts” (1); Vygotsky (1978) and Bakhtin see culturally symbolic artifacts as psychologically implanted from a young age and producing an “internal dialogue that is one prototype of human thinking” (1); Mead (1934) sees imaginative perspective taking as responsible for thinking; Piaget (1928) sees language and culture not just in perspective taking but in cooperative reasoning where one aligns oneself to a group; Wittgenstein (1955) finds culture and language in a “preexisting set of shared social practices and judgments” that govern (2). Tomasello sees all of these thinkers as “social infrastructure theorists” who envision language and culture as something that merely varnishes what it means to be human without questioning any comparative cognitive continuity with great apes.

Great apes are capable of understanding causality and intention on a limited, personal scale, and the human capacities for advanced culture are not without deep and distant connections to some of ape behavior. The differences between ape and human behavior are, of course, pronounced. Human infants are cognitively aware and functioning beings, in ways apes are not, before language and culture have set in, proving that there are innate mental modules (2). The major difference between apes and human beings is that we are able to coordinate and collaborate in a truly collective manner and, therefore, construct great physical objects and institutional enterprises, whereas apes tend to look out for themselves even if they are functioning in a group. Nonetheless, higher human cognition, such as recurrent thinking about what others are thinking and our tendency to communicate intentions for another person, are built on evolved intuitions (3).

Human beings, and not animals (though a nod here to Frans de Waal’s 1999 article “Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial”), can perform objective thinking with representations, argue a point with reasons, engage in social reflection, make inferences, and evaluate mental functions in terms of norms and self-appraisal (4). These capabilities, Tomasello says, are all meshed into “shared intentionality” to accomplish common, coordinated, collective achievements, which is far more advanced than primate joint intentionality geared to individual needs in a competitive but social environment (4-5). Such a major difference (with mutual prehistoric roots) between the great apes and human beings is not accidental, since some of our hominin ancestors (e.g., Neanderthals) also had capabilities like ours. What we now call culture flowered from a long evolutionary history, detailed in Tomasello’s book, spanning “collaborative activity,” to “cooperative communication,” and culminating in “collective intentionality” (5).

Simply because human infants are born with adaptations for cognitive behavior does not imply that collective intentions will occur. Rather, Tomasello asserts, there must be a supportive and nurturing cultural milieu for such “cooperative cognition” to develop (6). Natural selection is responsible for cognition, but cognition in itself is not the product of natural selection: the ultimate processes and outcomes of such cognition are what count in natural selection. But this does not mean, as Tomasello uses as an example, that for all of its advanced understanding of physical and spatial contexts a spider spinning its web acts cognitively. Instead, there must be very little sureness about one’s environment so that, over the course of time assuming the organism survives, natural selection will empower the individual with the ability to imagine what if. Because he has expertly studied apes with various teams of researchers over time, at this point (and hereafter in the book), Tomasello offers examples of chimpanzee behavior. Here, for instance, a chimpanzee sees a tree with ripe bananas, and so internal evaluations and decisions are made about the prospect of getting the food in spite of any real or potential dangers (11).

There is a theory of typing experiences, where an individual stores in memory a schematic action-response which can be called forth in a similar situation, a catalogue of one’s life history in feelings and especially images (12). Some of this schematization can be iconized in a species – the example of the chimpanzee and the bananas. With such schemas available, as if one is looking at a sketch of one’s past, inferential thinking about possible outcomes begins, and the individual (true in chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans) essentially diagram a scenario. Such thinking combines evaluating causes, weighing conditions, and predicting results, a cognitive process. Human beings and great apes have much in common, notes Tomasello, from morphology and basic brain construction to emotions, so there is clearly an evolutionary connection, and we can see in certain experiments that apes and human children behave similarly.

At this point, Tomasello takes a closer look at apes in the physical world. In terms of cognition, apes evolved in an environment where there was competitive foraging for food, and so some skills selected for include “spatial navigation,” “feature recognition,” and miscellaneous abilities associated with cause-and-effect and enumeration (15-16). All great apes, compared with other mammals, are skilled with simple tools and can even use one tool to get or make another (16). Chimps, in addition to grasping causality, can infer from effect to cause. For instance, experiments show that shaking food in one of two cups can make a chimpanzee realize that such noise could be something edible, since she was previously shown food beforehand. Likewise, the chimpanzee knew that no sound meant no food and further inferred that the food would be in the second cup (17-19). Since in such an experiment (other tests are outlined) great apes employ causal principles (such as if-then and if-then-not), make inferences, and cognitively assess themselves in the process, they are, Tomasello avers, thinking (20).

In the social world, Tomasello tells us, cognition in primates evolved in competition scenarios – not just for food and other assets but for sexual partners. More specifically, cognitive functions evolved within a defined group so that individuals and their respective relationships could be differentiated, hierarchies could be established, and coalitions could be formed. Here too, as in the physical world, the advantage selected for is calculating outcomes. Great apes know that others know; not only does an ape possess intentions but he knows that others have intentions as well (20). Tomasello says that experiments have demonstrated that apes, given the opportunity, will “manipulate” another’s state of mind (including human agents) in resource competition (21). Great apes have defined gestural communication, especially in terms of directing attention to influence another’s behavior, and although they do not naturally point, they can assume that behavior from human researchers. In other experiments apes copied human behavior when there was no constraint to do otherwise, prompting Tomasello (along with the other forms of social cognition outlined in this paragraph) to conclude that apes indeed think (24).

Tomasello rehearses all of this research to illustrate that apes are not acting mechanically but are making choices in how to act for the best outcome. Other studies (especially with chimpanzees) show that they: will postpone reward-taking under the assumption that waiting will yield a better result; will alter previously successful behavior in new circumstances; will swallow the bitter pill, so to say, if they know there is a reward forthcoming; and will persevere through difficult situations (24). These behavioral examples are equivalent to those found in a three year old human child. Furthermore, apes are aware of their limitations and will self-correct information gathering to achieve an especially prized goal (25).

Regarding human-like thinking, great apes are capable of a number of capacities. First, there is an aptitude to represent previous experience in images and schematics to determine situational pertinence. Second, there is a facility to infer from such representations, to make postulations about others. Third, there is the tendency to review one’s own behavior in a way that permits a recalibration of knowledge and effort, a cognitively supervisory function (30). Tomasello is convinced that our common ancestor with the chimpanzee, as well as our ancestry with australopithecus, was “individually intentional and instrumentally rational” before the advent of distinct human culture and so laid the groundwork for advanced thinking (30).

But the key difference here is that while apes tend to be self-interested with competitive tactics, human beings tend to be helping and caring with cooperative motives. In the hominin line, then, the pressure was for a collective sociality that led to sharing intentions for a common goal and thus the rise of thinking (31). Certainly this was a long evolutionary process, and while there are continuities with great apes (previously outlined), to arrive at the level of collaborative behavior found in human beings, Tomasello agrees that very early in our history, not shared with the great apes, there was a special type of collective behavior selected for.

And this is where we differ from apes and other animals. Tomasello points out that there are many species that will act cooperatively, such as the eusocial insects. But apparently from the ape proclivity for self-interested behavior, including all of its associated capacities mentioned previously, only human beings from our hominin ancestors evolved special capacities to identify and accomplish objectives with a single-minded thought and synchronization (33).

Experiments demonstrate that chimpanzees and even bonobos prefer to eat alone, and if there is a dispute about a piece of food, the dominant individual succeeds. Generally speaking, says Tomasello, food getting among the great apes is a frenzy of power struggles. Tomasello questions whether or not chimpanzee group hunting of monkeys is really a collaborative effort. Instead, he posits, each chimpanzee is most likely out for himself and considers himself, in advance, as the victor in the chase. On the other hand, there is true collaboration in modern human foragers with their child-care, information sharing, teaching, group decisions, and community organization (35-36).

Cooperative behavior probably had its beginnings circa 2mya when first homo species appear because of competition for food resources from an explosion of other hominids (36). Fast forward to the ancestor Tomasello spends most of his time considering, homo heidelbergensis, who appears around 400kya and is an ancestor related to Neanderthals and modern humans. As even Christopher Boehm would agree, heidelbergensis is the first species to engage in serious big game hunting, and this large group practice demands collective activity over individual needs. Foraging, too, becomes more than a mere group activity. Individuals are now linked because of common needs, and with such inter-related working relationships social pressures increase.

Who will be worth working with, and who not? Cheater and free-rider detection and suppression begins. The alpha male’s power diminishes, and so there is a concern for how one appears and hence recursive thinking about what others might be thinking (37-38). Here Tomasello can only provide hypothetical examples, but they are convincing enough. To mark this different behavior, Tomasello looks again to his strength in ape research. Whereas a three year old human child will share a joint goal with a collaborative effort and portion the reward, this is not necessarily so with chimpanzees. Moreover, this three year old (but not a younger child) appreciates division of labor and helping and seems to grasp the notion of obligation to such a degree that if she defaults in the mutual enterprise she will offer an “apology” (40). Chimpanzees, on the other hand, simply gravitate on their own to abundant food sources.

Joint effort implies joint attention, which also means that each actor is attentive to the other’s thinking, and both of these modes of attention probably developed together in human evolution to produce perspective taking (44). Nascent forms of perspective, Tomasello tells us, appears as early as one year in a human infant who can see someone else’s directed attention, but not until a child is four can she understand that there is a difference between her perspective and someone else’s (45). Tomasello’s research reveals that great apes know of another’s intentions but don’t engage in joint intention, that they are aware of and assist in goals but don’t collaborate on such, so that only human beings have the concept of do something together (47). Since the perspective taking ability manifests itself so early in human children (and which is far less pronounced in apes) we can assume that it is an evolved adaptation that helped early human people in collective activities. Accounting for different perspectives is also related to social pressures which gauge how cooperative one is, or not, and helps keep one’s own potential anti-social behavior in check through self-assessment.

What is being considered here, then, are social thinking skills with willful control over self-interest and the desire to manipulate others. Sociality on a collective plane requires advanced supportive communication skills, and we know, Tomasello informs us, that intentional communication is absent in apes, who are mostly limited to gestures of direction and appeal. In contrast, some experiments show that a human child no more than one year old can point to inform, with the key difference that apes are not able to grasp a relevance inference but the child can (51-52). Pointing gestures, however, can be complicated. Pointing to food after a long foraging mission does not equal pointing to food when escaping a predator, so some type of shared context also evolved.

Experiments indicate that in order for a one year old human child to comprehend a pointing behavior he needs, in addition to situation context, some type of history with whoever is pointing. For example, in a situation of toy clean-up with this one year old, if an adult who has been involved in this activity points to a toy, the child will put it away. If, however, another adult, who was neither involved in play or clean-up, enters the scene and points to a toy, the child retrieves the toy and hands it over to the adult (as if the latter were requesting it) (55-56). While apes monitor themselves cognitively, we tend to monitor ourselves socially. We estimate whether or not the person we are communicating with understands, which means that we actually simulate to ourselves how the person might respond (58-59). The implication is that this is an evolutionary advantage built on top of the earlier concern with social self-image. Even a one year old human infant is capable of guessing, and therefore thinking about, another’s point-of-view merely from eye movements (59). Apes are incapable of comprehending many gestures since they do not grasp intention outside of context, and this failing is related to their inability to engage in highly collective, cooperative activities.

Iconic gestures, Tomasello tells us, such as raising a hand as if to eat, more than pointing, require both doer and viewer to imagine something else somewhere else, and so this imaginative-pretense helped human cognition evolve (63). Nonetheless, iconic gesturing could be ambiguously interpreted, and so the combination of such gestures or a gesture linked to a vocalization evolved (66). Even human infants can use a pointing gesture while simultaneously vocalizing, the two clearly linked by the child for the benefit of the viewer. Here, Tomasello says that what arose in our evolutionary history was a common ground between gesturing/vocalization and the recipient, a precursor to language and necessitating some form of abstract thinking. Iconic gestures (head, hand, and body movements) are symbolic in that they are representations of something else or some other action, make propositions, and therefore engage both doer and recipient in shared, abstract thought (70-71). While great apes understand cause and effect, they do not comprehend what another is thinking and hence do not engage in the sophisticated collaboration evident only in human activity.

Such thinking about another’s thinking leads to one intending that another know something (73). Great apes can only think in terms of themselves, the past is in terms of what is wanted or needed now. Early humans, in having the ability to combine iconic gestures and vocalizations to establish shared communication, were trying through perspective taking and other means to imagine what another might be thinking, and the combination of all these aspects of cognition lead to reflective thinking (73-74). There was in early human cognition a concern for another to understand what one was attempting to communicate, which gives evolutionary rise to rationality (76). Such concerns about what others might be thinking lead, Tomasello notes, to normative behavior. Tomasello is not so convinced that any type of so-called Machiavellian behavior prevailed among the homo lineage. Alternatively he posits the multi-faceted cooperative, collective attitude, so prevalent in human history, and evident from studies that distinguish great ape self-interest from human beings helping tendencies (77).

Moving past heidelbergensis and the arbitrary 400kya marker, Tomasello discusses collective intentionality and how early modern human beings, through the creation of distinct groups, generated shared cultural practices and standards, and, importantly, the collective maintenance and transmission of such culture over time (80). While one can argue that chimpanzees and orangutans have culture (e.g., tool use), Tomasello says that these behaviors are not taught cooperatively as in human culture but appear “exploitive” (82) in that there is haphazard and inadvertent copying. The bottom line is that apes are social but human beings are cooperative and, therefore, there is full-fledged human culture. Here Tomasello discusses his notion of the ratchet effect (first published in 1993), which states that while there is fidelity in cultural transmission, any individual might devise an improvement on a practice, which in turn, over time, can itself be improved, and so forth for many generations. At the same time, such fine-tuning of ideas, values, beliefs, and practices leads to more closely-knit groups and the splintering of groups, evident even to this day across nations.

Nevertheless, the movement and shift is from what Tomasello earlier identified in human pre-history, 400kya, as the simple identification of the second person (me-you) to now, at 200kya with anatomically modern homo sapiens, a group identity. Common ground is shared among various individuals to the extent that one can be marginalized if not cooperative. Tomasello suggests that group formation and cultural adhesion will play an important role, eventually, in directing the successors to early modern human beings toward an objective point-of-view, a move from the one-to-one mode of early people to the normative group thinking that fosters emotions such as guilt and shame (87-89).

Some cultural practices, therefore, can turn into institutions, with a sub-group being formed to make certain decisions about food sources or defense (90). There is not much further to go, then, to a band within a group that might have been entrusted to implement more powerful tasks, such as making judgments about behaviors or resolving disputes, with, eventually, the literal and figurative status symbol of such leaders (91). Through these emerging groups linguistic communication began to become dependent on cultural commonality, and, in fact, there is an understanding that in such communication one would employ the common verbal cues of the group to make meaning unequivocal (95). Over time, any such communication gestures, in whatever form, would become reduced and synthesized, Tomasello suggests, so that an outsider would not understand and an insider would have to conform. Inference becomes less dependent on spontaneous action and is now collective and can be passed and modified across generations. The linguistics part of chapter 4 is difficult, but Tomasello seems to say that early modern people had discursive styles of communication that eventually became collaborative, syntactical structures (100).

Complex, symbolic communication gave rise to reasoning abilities and the capacity for one to convince another of her position on an issue or decision. Key here is that such reasoning is collaborative back-and-forth communication. One who argues a point will anticipate the opposition and so have an internal conversation about positions and objections (112). Behind this behavior is the idea that we moved from, in early human beings, unknown factors and people that had to be reasoned out in accord with social standards, to shared norms and linguistic styles which enable one imaginatively to propose a workable theorem about another’s point of view. Thus flowers the feeling of individuality in how a single thinker can step aside from a thought to evaluate it through reason in relation to group culture and subsequently further recalibrate her reasoning in light of any new ideas (114-115). The important evolutionary cognitive and linguistic development of objectivity commits one to reach back over her thoughts in collaborative communication.

In the final chapter (not counting the conclusion) Tomasello arrives at his basic thesis: that because of environmental pressures (competition from other groups, climate variation, and changing supplies of food resources), early human people increased group size and began a movement to more collaboration so that human thinking is cooperation. Here Tomasello deftly surveys a number of other theories (not necessary to reiterate here) that touch on his own, from cultural theorists (Geertz) to evolutionary psychologists (Cosmides and Tooby), with his emphasis on the evolution of culture via cooperation, such as early forms of sociality, division of labor, child care, pair bonding, and group foraging, all of which by 50kya evolved into highly complex joint operations.

The final chapter offers a concise overview, summarized here. In-group competition is not baneful but engenders social behavior such as the perspective taking of another’s viewpoint, though with great apes any such collaboration or communication is essentially for self-survival among aggressive competitors. Through a common goal came shared attention while maintaining one’s own point-of-view and so rose a shared communication style with gestures and pointing which forced inference to bloom on a shared intention (far beyond any such capacity in apes). This type of recursive thinking fostered one to be able to become aware of himself and what he was representing to others. There evolved a set of norms and practices so that different (unknown) members of the same group could work together while distinguishing themselves from members of other groups, hence the rise of group personality. Early forms of shared intentions existed in Africa prior to the Neanderthal break off. Later, intentions laid the ground work for cultural differences with the spread of groups out of Africa. Even sapiens cognition could vary depending on local needs and practices, but all such distinct groups evolved culture in a cumulative manner that was also tied to cognitive development.

Tomasello makes a final point about the role of ontogeny. While the evolved ontogeny of cognitive adaptations is evident (from behaviors of human infants he discussed earlier), it is not enough, for a human child needs the in-place cultural context to develop fully any set of shared intentionality and collective, collaborative group thinking. In conclusion, human social thinking is like that evolved in no other species and is essentially cooperative, recursive, and objective in nature.

- Gregory F. Tague

Copyright©Gregory F. Tague, All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 13, 2014

Understanding Moral Sentiments - Review

Hilary Putnam, Susan Neiman, Jeffrey P. Schloss, editors. Understanding Moral Sentiments: Darwinian Perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. 2014. 273 pgs. ISBN: 978-1412853965. Hardcover. $54.95.

Understanding Moral Sentiments tackles perhaps the most important issue of being human: how and why are we moral creatures. The book is engaging but frustrating at times, only because the viewpoints expressed will no doubt rile the emotions of many readers, no matter from which discipline they hail. The subtitle of the volume is not completely fulfilled, and therefore leaves for an uneven collection. While the scientists of the volume, for the most part, offer Darwinian perspectives, the philosophers do not (and in fact revel in their skepticism of any Darwinian explanation of moral behavior). Indeed, some of the scientists in the volume are more than cautious about findings in their own field concerning ape/human continuities or what constitutes the genesis of morality. The essays are divided, as in the book itself, with science first followed by philosophy, and one is not sure what to make of this arrangement – philosophy has the last word? A much better book on this subject is the compilation led by Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers. In one of the more creative and effective essays, David Lahti has the last word and speaks to and for both sides. All in all, Putnam’s book is a timely and valuable contribution to the continuing discussion of moral origins, but mostly eleven miscellaneous essays rather than a coherent whole and falls short of the promise of fully Darwinian perspectives.

After a tepid Introduction, Joan Silk (human evolution, Arizona SU) examines the roots of pro-social preferences, going back to the oldest hominin, Ardipithecus ramidus, one of the last common ancestors shared by apes and human beings. Silk reminds us that in the hominin line brain development over the millennia has been more significant and dramatic than morphological changes, and through a process of neural accumulation we have, no doubt, the sudden cultural explosion in the last few hundred thousand years (9). Silk notes that comparative studies between apes and human beings are important to help us determine evolutionary changes only in the human line after it split from gorillas (as long ago as 9my) and chimpanzees (as long ago as 7my). Following Hamilton’s rule (kin selection), altruism, for example, commonly appears in non-human primates, mostly in the form of grooming, but other types of altruism include but are not limited to warning calls, coalition creation, alloparenting, and sharing of food (11).

However, Hamilton, Axelrod, and Trivers (key biological theorists of the twentieth century on unselfish behaviors) at various times have also discussed reciprocal altruism (or contingent reciprocity) where an individual can act cooperatively towards an unrelated individual if there had been help received in the past (and even if such help could have been inadvertent). To engage in contingent reciprocity, individuals need to be able to understand individual differences and the past so as to behave accordingly (11). As with human beings there are limits to contingent reciprocity, such as one’s inability to comprehend an altruistic interaction, prejudice, forgetfulness, or impatience.

An organism will always seek to maximize its own fitness advantage, and if there is a needed benefit in high demand, competition ensues, which can result in a behavioral change, which, in itself if beneficial, will produce an advantage that is inherited and so becomes biological. In such a competitive environment free riders are easily detected and often punished, and studies reveal that “primates . . . balance exchanges over extended periods . . .” (12), i.e., contingent reciprocity.

Certainly, for human beings to engage in social interaction requires mental abilities such as understanding another’s intentions and feelings. Studies show that apes and monkeys, similarly, are able to recognize others (as well as kin) and have a sense of personal history, thus knowing who cooperates and who cheats (12). Moreover, Silk says that chimpanzees utilize “visual gestures” and especially rely on “orientation of the face . . .”; there is also evidence that chimpanzees understand intentions since they strategize competitively (13). Nevertheless, these ape skills translate to the capacities in a human infant little more than two years old. And in spite of much evidence from Frans de Waal about chimpanzee and bonobo empathy, Silk maintains that these results are from the “observation of rare events . . .” and often subjectively interpreted (13). For instance, in one of the most celebrated instances, the gorilla Binti Jua rescued a child who had fallen into her area. But Silk notes that this ape had been reared by hundreds of human helpers; moreover, the ape had “operant training” in mothering, which included fetching a rag doll and returning it to her enclosure for human helpers (14), the very action she imitated in rescuing the child.

In further challenging de Waal who assigns empathy to apes and sees continuities between them and human beings, Silk says that chimpanzee food sharing (mothers to young or males to others) is not so straight forward as it seems (i.e., not necessarily instances of altruism). For example, Silk mentions the so-called “tolerated theft” theory (relinquishing extra spoils of meat). Silk says that food sharing, in spite of pressure from conspecifics, among chimpanzees is less frequent if there is any type of physical implement that could mitigate such giving (15). Research by Silk (at two different sites) on chimpanzees who knew each other shows that in most cases in spite of any barrier chimpanzees worked so that they would reward themselves as well as others with food. Silk says that such pro-social behavior comes at little cost, and virtually no distribution preference, indicating that “other-regarding sentiments did not conflict with selfish motives . . .” (16).

Citing studies by Warneken and Tomasello, Silk says that while chimpanzees might be pro-socially disposed, food can alter this equation, since food is not always readily available though sharing seems a norm (18). In terms of the last common human-chimpanzee ancestor, Silk assumes that for competition among resources those people understood the relationships between individuals especially in terms of “intentions” and “desires,” but such pro-social skills and any sharing tendencies do not necessarily imply empathy (22). Relatedly, Silk raises the issue of altruistic punishment, where at a cost to himself one will punish another for the benefit of the group, but this trait is not often seen in non-human primates (20). While Silk acknowledges pro-social behavior in hominids related to human beings, she seems to fall short of endorsing (and is mildly critical of) the continuities presented by primatologists like Frans de Waal.

Christopher Boehm (anthropology and biological sciences, U So Cal) says that conscience is where moral behavior begins, citing Darwin (The Descent of Man) who parallels moral sense and conscience (27). While the writing of this paper precedes publication of Boehm’s Moral Origins, it clearly advances ideas more fully developed in that book. Boehm tends to group selection, as his argument would do so logically, and looking back characterizes our last ancestor shared with the chimpanzee as a hierarchical person who understood rules, dominance, and submission, therefore capable of forming coalitions. In making “subordinate coalitions” these people would attempt to minimize but not eliminate the powerful alpha male, and such behavior becomes for Boehm “a critical preadaptation for moral origins” (28).

These prehistoric hunter-foragers would have shared meat, but such divisions would have been made by a dominant male to close allies only. Since chimpanzees and bonobos are capable of self-recognition, they could take perspective of others’ attitudes, an integral ingredient to cooperation and deception. But Boehm is quick to note that these early beings probably felt fear, not shame (28), the latter a key component to his theory. Nevertheless, public punishment in or by a group no doubt had real genetic effects, since today we see that both chimpanzees and bonobos can and will at times form a coalition against a high-status member of the group who is overly aggressive.

Boehm is convinced that such social control of an overly dominant individual sets the stage for conscience (29). Boehm lays great weight on large game-hunting, which at 250kya (sapiens) was not as crude or haphazard as it had been previously. Human behavioral ecology (how human beings optimized the ecology) dictates that the reliance on large game evinces social organization and communal meat distribution to satisfy increased carnivory. A key caveat here is that in spite of any egalitarian food distribution, once the meat was in the possession of any family it was considered “private property” (30).

Boehm is aware of critics who say there is no real parallel between prehistoric hunter-gatherers and those of today since the latter are few and far between (and might even have been contaminated by modernisms). Boehm’s response is that Pleistocene foragers were already marginalized by severe climate changes which caused “serious subsistence stress” and probably enhanced “cultural flexibility” (32). Indeed, current hunter-gatherer-foragers are mobile and egalitarian, as prehistoric people would have been (citing Klein and McBrearty/Brooks). At a site in Israel circa 400kya there are carcass bones with “many individual cutting styles and many angles of approach . . .” indicating fierce competition for food, whereas by the Middle Paleolithic period there is, typically, evidence of butchering by a single hand (33).

In early forms of hunting there was no social shame, but over time as the “more incorrigible alpha types” (33) suffered criminalization there was a clear fitness gain for those who controlled their aggressive urges, which would have resulted in the inheritance of gene frequency changes toward cooperation. In this way, public punishment of one or a few by the group or by a coalition of groups would have set in motion what we now call conscience (33). For Boehm, conscience is both pro-social (self-control) and fitness enhancing (reputation), not the “social calculator” of Richard Alexander (The Biology of Moral Systems) (35), though one wonders if Boehm is not being overly optimistic.

Because he relies on advanced group hunting which he sees as a later development, Boehm dates “social selection” at only 250kya, followed by group norms and behaviors, and finally to individual fitness enhanced by social rewards (36). In this chronology, he talks of empathy (the word used by most social scientists and primatologists), whereas the active form, sympathy, might be preferred. At any rate, consistent altruism rewards and free rider suppression on the individual and group levels begin to fix and spread such genes in the pool of hominins (37).

C. Daniel Batson (psychology, U Kansas) asks what motivates extraordinary care and concern expressed not only for family and friends but for others and even animals (never seen) (43). Do we care for others only out of self-interest? While Batson leans to social constructivism he says any social learning does not answer the question of altruism. Acting instrumentally for others we nevertheless ultimately consider our own welfare, but he admits that his view, contrary to current evolutionary thinking, lays emphasis on social learning and not any inherent mental faculties or modules (44).

Batson sees principles that make us interested in the well-being of others, but these principles are not necessarily moral, so that altruism is a motivation and not a helping behavior (44). Along with Sober and Wilson (1998), Batson maintains that there is evolutionary altruism (increases another’s fitness) and then there is psychological altruism (ultimately increases another’s welfare), and there is no need for evolutionary altruism to have psychological altruism (45). His point is that while one might be altruistically motivated, the end result is egoistic. Batson, on the one hand, offers the skeptical viewpoint of moral behavior that runs like an undercurrent in the volume, and, on the other hand, offers self-interested biological egoism which will become the anxiety, later in the volume, of some of the philosophers.

Empathy, or the challenge of reading into another person’s mental state and feelings, is not from inclusive fitness, nor reciprocal altruism, nor sociality, nor group selection but as per Darwin (Descent of Man) an evolutionary evolved parental instinct of “higher mammals” for gene survival which in human beings is “less automatic and now flexible” (47-48). Because empathy is a feeling into, and although it was originally guesswork concerning the needs of offspring, by extension such theory of mind, deliberately or accidentally at first, was applied to others. This means, at least early in evolutionary terms, there was no moral motive in altruism, but eventually, especially when expressed outwardly to non-kin, the result could “be judged moral” (49).

Batson continually questions any type of moral motive, i.e. moral action from reason, emotion, or intuition (as suggested by Damasio, Haidt, and Hauser, for example). So-called moral people can act immorally, as demonstrated by the authority experiments of Milgram and the situation experiment of Zimbardo. As well, there is “moral exclusion” (selectivity), “moral oversight” (self-serving), “moral rationalization” (saying one does a good deed but the same act by another is deemed as bad), “moral disengagement” (a sort-of turning off), “moral hypocrisy” (appearance over action) (51-52).
But this analysis, by Batson’s own conclusion, restricts moral behavior to what is learned only and not to any genetic basis whatsoever, the latter of which he labels as speculation.

Steven Pinker (cognitive psychology, Harvard), contrary to Batson (and to be jabbed at repeatedly by Neiman, later), writes on what he rightly calls the moral instinct. Pinker opens with a question as to who is more moral: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates, or Norman Borlaug. Most people say Mother Teresa, though Borlaug saved at least one billion lives through agricultural advancements to reduce hunger, and Gates donates millions of dollars to fight widespread diseases (such as, but not limited to, malaria) in developing countries. On the other hand, Mother Teresa ran well-funded clinics but preached asceticism and practiced tough love more than supplying tangible help (59). Mother Teresa not only received wide publicity but has a saintly appearance, meantime Gates appears nerdy and no one knew of or had seen Borlaug since he worked in a laboratory (59).

Pinker says this scenario is a clear example of how we can be duped by, perhaps even deceive others with, “moral illusions” (60). But any notion of moral illusion is not wholly negative and not cynical since it points to how we prize what is good and what is right, especially in others. In this way, Pinker sees morality as part of universal human psychology. We know, for instance, that murder is wrong and we know it is wrong not to punish such serious moral infractions. Nevertheless, there are shadows to such punitive moral thinking and, as Batson noted, it can be turned on/off.

For example, consider the subtle but important distinction (following an illustration from Pinker) between a health and a moral vegetarian who ascribe to different moral rules to achieve the same outcome. Culturally, over time, moral attitudes can change, and Pinker notes those dealing with smoking (now moralized) and divorce and homosexuality (now amoralized). Following Haidt, Pinker defines morality along emotional lines (not rational) – we react to a situation or action, and then we rationalize our response (63).

Pinker then offers a good summary of work done by Joshua Greene, a philosopher and neuroscientist, on the famous trolley car problem (and variations thereof). The question is whether to sacrifice one railway worker, or not, to save five. (Rather than present Pinker’s summary here, the reader is referred to chapter nine of Greene’s Moral Tribes.) In a nutshell, though, Greene concludes that whereas most people are willing to throw a switch and sacrifice one worker to save five, most people, on the other hand, would not physically push one worker onto the tracks to stop the train and so save five. Greene says that we are emotionally evolved to resist physically harming another person who does not stand to hurt us, even if from a calculated utilitarian perspective where many could be saved with the death of only one.

Apparently, more parts of the brain are in play (almost in conflict) in trying to resolve a dilemma that involves hands-on behavior than in simply calculating cost/benefit (65). Pinker, too, seems to endorse Marc Hauser’s notion of the moral sense, an inborn moral mechanism that is akin to the inherent human capacity for grammar. However, Pinker notes that in spite of Hauser’s assertion of universality, the moral sense, just as with language, can vary widely from one culture to another, showing, for example, different attitudes toward violence (rape and murder) and how to remedy such wrongs (65-66). Nonetheless, Pinker cites Haidt’s cross-cultural work that demonstrates five evolutionary moral senses: harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity (67), though also subject to variation.

Unlike Batson, Pinker thinks there is some evidence for the existence of moral genes. For instance, conscientiousness and agreeableness (two of five commonly known character traits) are related in identical twins when separated at birth, and psychopaths possess a type of moral blindness from childhood (66). The genesis of some of this evolutionary tilt toward morality probably had its roots, according to Robert Trivers (1971) in  tit-for-tat favor trading without being cheated; but not being cheated also meant gaining the larger advantage, which in turn led to competition for the partner willing to sacrifice the most; which lead to offering the appearance of being the most generous and the fitness value of having a generous reputation, which ultimately leads to some becoming “generous and fair” (72).

Such changes across a very long hominin history could have occurred only through gene variation and inheritance. Over the long haul, most organisms have learned that it is more advantageous to act non-selfishly, but self-interest can never be ruled out of the mix.

Jeffrey P. Schloss (biology, Westmont College) sees an evolutionary basis for various aspects of morality, such as “affective dispositions” or “cognitive capacities,” but contrary to thinkers such as E.O. Wilson and Frans de Waal does not see morality as a genetic enhancing mechanism but as a byproduct of gene/culture co-evolution (83). While Schloss deserves some credit for hard-pressing evolutionary explanations of morality, here begins the slide to scientific skepticism (halted briefly by Martha Nussbaum), which goes full force until stopped by Lahti.

There are “philosophical issues” that science is incompetent to mount, says Schloss, taking particular aim at de Waal (as others in the volume) (83). Schloss says any presumed evolutionary explanations of morality are by nature insufficient when they try to pinpoint a unity, for in reality what we call morality is really an ambiguous range of sentiments and intuitions acting in concert (84). Schloss says that while evolutionists observe (or discuss) empirical behaviors, they interpret those behaviors incorrectly. Homing in on de Waal, chimpanzees and bonobos are not the only species who exhibit care for kin, and Schloss insists such a fact blurs what has been called proto-morality (86). Darwin himself suggests as much in his famous tangled-bank paragraph in On the Origin of Species. With all of Schloss’ nay-saying, how is one to proceed?

Schloss further says that even granting primates empathy does not make them moral, since empathy is strictly speaking a “morally neutral capacity” (86) since one can feel into another’s emotions solely for personal gain. A caring or helping stance might even be the unintended result of some other goal, such as coalition forming (86). Besides, Schloss says, if we follow de Waal’s thinking logically, many biological processes could be proto-moral, such as minute brain chemicals interacting, so there is much ambiguity as to where to begin. If atoms and cells did not cooperate, then of course there would be no matter. And as we all know, no matter, no mind.

In tit-for-tat models, Schloss wants to know why it is morally adaptive to permit repeat performances with an actor who might have erred unwillingly rather than defect, what Martin Nowak has called a forgiving tendency, since we see such behavior everywhere in nature, from “reef frogs to foraging bees” (88). Rather than the word moral, an anthropomorphic term commonly misapplied, Schloss sees such behavior as “prudential or instrumental” (89). He insists that any movement to defining the origins of morality is vague, since we can see cooperation even on the cellular level. He cautions that we only interpret as moral what game theory shows as stable cooperation and punishment of defectors (90). Unfortunately for the reader, none of this helps one understand moral sentiments from a Darwinian perspective.

Schloss goes on to show how even the term altruism is riddled with ambiguity depending on which discipline uses it and how: psychology and philosophy speak of altruism as a motivation (benefit) while some evolutionists speak of it in terms of a consequence (cost). That is, says Schloss, any explanation of fitness enhancement does not necessarily explain fitness-subversion, so that while biological altruism might have selective force, it does not completely explain what we see as human morality (91).

Furthermore, Schloss sees culture as completely Lamarckian and not Darwinian so that cultural change is not via natural selection of small and inherited variations that enhance fitness in reproduction and survival (92). While at this point many aspects of what we call culture are probably Lamarckian, the basic parts of culture – artistic representation, music, narrative – are not, since they would have been eliminated as useless via natural selection. Schloss says that many explanations of cultural transmission are after the fact and like Batson leans more to “socially mediated norms . . .” (93). But is there not some evolutionary basis for such transmission? While one might not care for a particular television drama, one like many others does care to witness actors perform imaginary lives, and it makes less sense to dismiss this fundamental human desire as an epiphenomenon.

The five moral sentiments of Haidt so carefully and clearly outlined by Pinker are deemed unclear (94), and as for Boehm’s notion of moral aggression and conscience, Schloss says any such apparently cooperative social-building sentiments could easily have been underwritten by the urge, in fact, for dominance (95). Schloss thinks any moral issue on the table for discussion requires philosophy “to assess moral sentiments” and the intuitions they attend and biology to explain how such sentiments form and become transferred in a culturally flexible manner (97).

As a biologist, why does not Schloss attempt any such helpful explanations (as opposed to so much negativity)? This chapter unravels with a critique of Richard Alexander and mini-sections laced with religious references, which leaves the reader with little constructive science.

Martha Nussbaum (philosophy, law, and ethics, U Chicago) offers one of the more intelligent and timely chapters on human and animal compassion (though also light on any true Darwinian perspective). Yet reading a philosopher who is not afraid of embracing science is a refreshing change. More precisely, drawing from Frans de Waal, Nussbaum says that human beings very often fail at moral compassion because of “anthropodenial” – the human tendency to deny its own animal nature.

While de Waal writes about human-animal continuities, Nussbaum says that other frequently place emphasis on “good discontinuities” – how we are morally superior to animals and thus cling to the old notion of the Great Chain of Being placing human beings near the top (125). Nussbaum’s essay has Feminist overtones, and to prove her thesis of anthropodenial she calls on two literary examples and also the rape and murder of Muslim women in Gujarat, India. (Other non-scientists will also call forth literary examples, to a much more feeble effect.)

Nussbaum notes there are three parts or judgments of compassion: recognizing the seriousness of the situation; ascribing no-fault to the creature for whom one feels such compassion; imagining an identification for oneself of similar possibilities (128-129). All of these judgments are not standard operating procedure for a human being, who typically spends his or her day goal-directed from only a personal point-of-view. Nussbaum says that since we have so invested our psyches in certain areas of work and concern, those are the ones that will rouse the strongest emotional response (130). But empathy is not enough for compassion, since one can enter into another’s feelings to identify a weakness and do harm (or, simply consider how a dramatic actor can manipulate his or her feelings or appearance of such).

Comprehending suffering is not sufficient, since animals and children are so capable. One must be able to ascribe fault, or not, and so understand the seriousness of the suffering and situation (132). Nussbaum cites three examples: (1) mice in pain were perceived in distress by those who knew them, perhaps emotional contagion but no empathy or seriousness; (2) an elephant shot for dead by poachers is consoled by other elephants, perception of seriousness of the suffering animal; (3) a human man cries when he learns on television of a foreign boy’s birth defect and eventual death; his dogs console him, but if he were crying over a gambling loss the dogs would still console him, so the man understands the concept of no-fault but the dogs do not (133-134).

Turns out this man is George Pitcher (an Anglican priest and journalist), who was raised a Christian Scientist and was taught that children are to blame for their sickness, so he’s reacting to his own history as well. Pitcher concluded that dogs and their unconditional love are better off without the “defect” of ascribing fault. But Nussbaum is not so sure, seeing how one could fall into blind devotion without the fault judgment, and she offers as an example how abused women are at times blind to the faults of their abusers (134). People can also erroneously assign fault based on social pressures. Human beings have a great sense of their own frailty and mortality, and so it seems some animals with a sense of self (e.g., elephants). Compassion for animals is more limited to instinct and confined by a narrow window of time and geography, whereas compassion with human beings “is profoundly uneven and unreliable . . .” (136).

Nussbaum comes back to her thesis and asserts that the unreliability of human compassion stems from the human tendency to deny its animalism, misapplying fault, and so ascribing animalism instead (seen in bad attitudes such as sexism and racism) (137). One does not want to be, much less be perceived as, helpless, and why in most societies there can be dominance hierarchies, in turn fueled by a sense of disgust, which Nussbaum says emanates from the reluctance to admit our own animalism and bodily functions. The (il)logical thinking here is that if we can minimize others to a state of brutishness, then they don’t deserve our compassion, and in many cultures this malevolent attitude often springs from a male perspective (141). A human male will kill a woman “for self-insulation” from his own animalism (142), and so Nussbaum returns to the literary and Gujarati examples, though offers a political/Freudian and not a Darwinian analysis. The sad and intriguing bottom line is that in denying our animal prehistory and connections we ultimately withhold compassion (146).

Readers take another turn in the chapter by Stephen Pope (theology, Boston College) on the unlikely pairing of Darwin and Aquinas. While Pope acknowledges that moral traits are evolved from “social instincts,” he places too much faith in any natural aspect of any moral sense in leaning to Adam Smith over David Hume (151). Approval/disapproval need not be rational but only a physical sensation, and it was the Earl of Shaftesbury (in discussing art and aesthetics) who first forged the notion of the moral sense in British philosophy. Pope does, however, acknowledge that Darwin recognized our more emotional based system of feeling over rationality.

As others in the volume, Pope refers to Haidt’s locating morality in emotions and not in cognition, how we tend to react emotionally and later apply moral reasoning (152). After these evolutionary quick reactions we later consider the implications of events and deeds and engage in a social discourse creating a “feedback loop” (152). As often noted by neuroscientists (though some of the contributors of this volume need to heed) the rational part of the human brain is literally and figurative built on top of a mammalian brain.

After his discussion of Haidt (see Pinker), Pope talks about Hauser (also see Pinker’s chapter), critical of Hauser’s supposed presentation of religion merely as a collection of laws. Still on Hauser, Pope turns to John Rawls (discussed by Hauser in Moral Minds) and his deontological/normative perspective that puts reason before emotions, which in turn leads again to Haidt and “post-facto moral reasoning,” and then to Hume’s moral sensations (156). Pope’s point seems to be that Hauser (and his moral grammar) is more to Rawls whereas Haidt is more to Hume. In this way, Pope sees Hauser’s morality as moral judgments and not in virtues (157), hinting at Greek thought and hence Aquinas.

While there is, over Haidt, a cognitive flavor to Hauser, it is perhaps overstated, and once the word virtue appears in a Darwinian study we enter the realm of non-empirical essences. Pope moves squarely to Aquinas, who based morality in the love of God as well as in others, and so love becomes a rule (not an emotion) “to will and act for the good of every person and for the larger community” (158). God is not present in Darwin’s world picture, which is not, considering his Victorian frame of mind and devout wife, to say God is non-existent at all.

So it is difficult to read about, as the title/subtitle of this book says, moral sentiments from a Darwinian perspective with abstractions such as virtue, love, and God. Granted Aquinas was steeped in Aristotle (but so is Martha Nussbaum), and while, especially for this reviewer, Aquinas’ emphasis, like Aristotle’s, on character is compelling, any such discussion without developmental psychology, genetics, or evolutionary chronology (i.e., the hominid/hominin lines) and artifactual references (as provided by Silk and Boehm) is a serious lacking.

Contrary to Haidt, so often cited in this volume, Aquinas does not deny body or emotions but sees emotions as disrupting decision making (159-160). Ultimately, Pope is critical of both Hauser and Haidt, saying that their emphasis on emotions blinds them to “the proper place of rational deliberation in the good life” (162). Here is a tacit denial that our reasoning capability itself is an evolved function which lies close to and in fact is embedded in our emotional life. Pope’s point about ethical teaching and the ought is well taken, though for a collection such as this he’d have been better to call on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, then, no? While his essay is certainly worth reading, though filled with abstractions, he ends on a note that dismisses evolutionists as reductive and so starts the downward spiral in the next three chapters.

Although the title of the chapter by Timothy Jackson (ethics, Emory U) contains the words genes, anthropology, and biology, his view (not Darwinian, with instead Twain as a critical lens) is that any evolutionary account of morality is reductive. Curiously, Pope, Jackson, Putnam, and Neiman, all of whom in some way say that any biological explanation of morality is reductive, do not offer a solid alternative. Part of this dilemma, to be outlined by Lahti, is not only in the silos of disciplines but in the choice and definition of key terminology. The reader sees these disciplines talking, but one is not sure if they are all listening to or even reading each other.

The thrust of this chapter is to bash Richard Dawkins, first The Selfish Gene and later The Blind Watchmaker. Jackson says that Dawkins is unscientific and prefers, instead, the ethics of Mark Twain. Specifically, Jackson says that he wants to reconcile “Christian charity and biological evolution” (170) but spends his entire essay in an attack mode. And by the way, are only Christians charitable (neither one of those words used by biologists)? Jackson says evolutionary psychology is reductive and needs to be “revealed and rebutted” (170).

Jackson mistakenly, in his misreading of Selfish Gene, says science absolves a person from personal responsibility (recall, however, George Pitcher’s comment about the Christian Scientists), revealing his ignorance or neglect of, to name only one, Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain. If, as it seems apparent, Jackson wants to argue for Twain’s literature as ethical (as Nussbaum has elsewhere more thoroughly and persuasively done with Henry James), why is his writing in this volume? The essential conundrum for Jackson is in his inability to separate DNA and moral behavior, the latter of which he insists on calling ethics, a philosophical or theological and not a biological term. That is, while he claims that biology represented by Dawkins has reduced personhood to an epiphenomenon, nothing could be entirely otherwise.

You, reader, are only your genes and no one else’s, and that is your distinct personhood, and the burden of your responsibility is how your person will act. The challenge is to use one’s multi-lobed brain and one’s environment, education, and circumstances in the most responsible way. Genes respond to environment, but at the same time one can, based on genetic disposition, gravitate toward a certain environment. What made Christopher Boehm an evolutionary anthropologist and Timothy Jackson a theologian? Genes only? Circumstances only? Clearly it was a matter of both working in complex ways, and to dismiss or minimize one’s genes in any discussion of personality is just misguided. Jackson, and the others of his camp in the volume, seems to believe that one’s biology eliminates personhood rather than marveling at how nature, to spare and to propagate our species, has in fact guaranteed that we are biologically varied.

Yet Jackson insists that Dawkins (he alone?) “effectively denies personality to human beings . . .” (172) as if we are all cloned automatons. He says that Dawkins’ assertion that the basic unit of selection is the gene is reductionist (173) and that “the person is reduced to the gene” (176). Jackson fails to note that no one gene is responsible for any single behavior and that genes act in many complex ways, especially with the many genes (and many neural connections) in the brain. Rather, Jackson’s language is reductionist. Each human being has approximately 24,000 genes, so how is that reductive? He seems, e.g., overly concerned about randomness as if there were no variation, competition, and inheritance in natural selection. Granted there is no design feature in natural selection, and it tends to cobble one advantage onto another, but that is not random either. Speaking of the multitude of genes, one ought to mention so-called junk DNA, not yet coded but surely responsible for contributing to some of our traits that distinguish us from chimpanzees, with whom we are about 99% genetically similar (and why a scientist such as Frans de Waal, derogated so often and so wrongly in this volume, studies apes and human continuities).  How is that plethora of junk DNA irrelevant?

This is not a helpful chapter in terms of any Darwinian perspective on moral sentiments, and then it gets no better (until Lahti). Jackson’s finale is probably what he really wanted to spend all of his time on – a full attack on Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker. Granted, atheists attacking theists is not a helpful exercise, and even Frans de Waal says so quite eloquently in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist. But would a theist attacking an atheist be any more helpful? Is either one of those a true scientific action, or just playground bullying? Let’s suffice it to say that Jackson is pre-Darwinian, employing teleology that looks for design in nature out of fear of what might lie in the truth of human nature.

Regrettably, the chapter by lead editor Hilary Putnam (philosophy, emeritus, Harvard) is not much more helpful, clearly an unrevised conference paper with references to the conference and conferees not represented in this volume. Like Jackson (and Neiman to follow), Putman presents a skeptical view of evolutionary explanations of moral behavior, so another non-Darwinian perspective. Interestingly, one of the greatest skeptics in moral philosophy is David Hume (admired greatly by Schopenhauer) and often cited by many evolutionary thinkers (such as the neuro-philosopher Patricia Churchland).

Like Jackson, Putnam fails to see morality as a behavior and sticks instead to philosophical terms and abstractions such as ethics (a far more complex idea than what Shaftesbury had in mind when talking about a moral sense). To his credit, and clearly this is so as the lead editor of the volume, Putnam admits that evolutionary theory could have something to say regarding “spontaneous sympathy” and “altruistic behaviors” (203). The problem for the philosophers in this volume (including biologist Schloss but excluding philosopher Nussbaum) seems to be that they make some mistaken equation between what we call full-fledged morality (or on a higher plane ethics) and evolutionary processes. Or they insist that there is no physical process in moral behavior.

The philosophers seem to look back for explanations, but they look to Aquinas and the Greeks (and stay there) rather than looking at human prehistory. As Darwin himself would insist, like the gradual sedimentation of layers in the earth, no evolutionary account points to full-fledged morality but only to the many contributions, behaviorally and genetically, to what for human beings is what we now call moral behavior. The only illustration that appears in On the Origin of Species is a branching diagram, in the chapter on natural selection, which highlights the fitful starts and sideway dead-ends of such a long, natural process.

So Putnam says that biological explanations of ethics (his word, whereas Jackson says agape), especially with reference to groups or apes, are inadequate (203). So evolutionary theory is in the picture but reduced to a corner of the boxing ring. Who then, are the main fighters? We are not really told. In another turn, Putman then says sympathy and altruism are “among the preconditions” for ethics (203). Agreed, though ethics might not be the best choice of words. Putnam sees ethics as cultural. Granted, but that’s not the focus of the book, and none of the biologists speaks of ethics. Like Jackson, Putnam discusses virtue and ethics and Greek thought while getting quick jabs in at Hauser. Coming back to ethics as a cultural product, he admits the process is Lamarckian and not Darwinian.

Culture, a loaded word that includes many variations of beliefs, values, and practices, is in part a biological phenomenon since gene frequency can and has changed based on an organism’s ability to successfully reproduce and survive. Whereas Darwin speaks of sexual selection we might speak of (and indeed some do) culture. Human needs and desires have, over a very long course of time, constructed culture, from simple stone tools, jewelry, carvings, and paintings to the more sophisticated forms of today. The human need for culture is to say nothing of neural-genetic plasticity which works on an individual level so that any early formation of a cultural artifact can later become improved.

Putnam seems more to political philosophy, in the end, where we have another flurry of punches directed at Hauser and his allegedly reductive moral grammar, as if, by analogy, human grammar/language is reductive. But Hauser has never said his moral grammar, an innate moral sense, is prescriptive, only descriptive.

Next we have Susan Neiman (philosophy, Einstein Forum Potsdam) who begins, as the other philosophers, with a literary example from Rousseau and never waivers far from that. Like Putnam, Neiman is clearly a Darwinian skeptic. She claims that evolutionary psychologists do not, for example, focus “on the human shape of erotic desire” (213). Granted, evolutionary psychologists look at a landscape that often excludes the individual, but some have devoted quite a bit of research effort, in the field and theoretically, to Darwin’s notion of sexual selection, such as David Buss and Geoffrey Miller.

Like Jackson, Neiman does not put forth any Darwinian perspective and uses a literary figure (and Hobbes) to attack as reductive anything evolutionary. She denies that any Darwinian account can explain the origin of moral behavior, in spite of Boehm, this volume, and others (Denis Krebs is but one) who have written convincingly on the subject, especially Richard Alexander (who is also debunked in this volume). Neiman, Jackson, and Putnam discount origins, offer no alternative, and merely attack such evolutionary reconstructions as “subjunctive” (216). Unless it is just this reviewer, astounding it seems that a philosopher (no doubt never using the subjunctive tense) could level such a linguist charge at all of the paleontologists, anthropologists, and other scientists who over the past one hundred and fifty years since Darwin have assembled a huge mountain and vast array of fossil and artifactual data (which is in a very active tense).

Where Hauser seems the punching bag of Jackson and Putnam, Pinker (this volume) is the target of Neiman who rails at any suggestion that human beings are self-interested. True, total selfishness would present a deleterious and corrupting limited world view leading only to destruction. We would have killed each other off. Neiman insists that one is morally trained and that there is no biology in morality (222). No developmental psychologist or neuroscientist would discount the important influences of parents, peers, environment, circumstance, and education on the moral education of children. But language such as Neiman’s only hefts an iron wedge between philosophy and science.

David Lahti (biology, Queens College, CUNY) is perfectly placed in this argument (if so it is) since he holds advanced degrees in science and philosophy. Lahti attempts a rapprochement between these now two very distinct disciplines. Lahti’s essay is lively, original, not defensive, not aggressive, and thankfully constructive. He echoes a point once made by Jerome Kagan (alluded to by others in the volume): if asked to define what is moral, a scientist, social scientist, and humanist (especially a philosopher) will each provide a different answer. But Lahti does not end there.

Lahti sees a “fault line” in academia in this regard (229), and surely we have seen that some of the philosophers in the collection seem to take pleasure in jabbing at scientists more than how Socrates acted as the gadfly. Lahti’s goal is for simultaneous endorsement of the biological and philosophical points-of-view. Philosophers agonize over “genetic determinism” and biologists assume the ability to move moral philosophy into the area of “applied science” (230). Lahti says that in spite of its thousands of years of history, philosophy needs to make advances, as has science in the understanding of our place in a natural world, how there are temporal processes at work which philosophy fails to consider (231).

Here’s a good quote from Lahti’s essay: “Because of the paucity of our scientific understanding of ourselves until recently, philosophy has been granted nearly free rein over human nature” (231). Even that statement requires elaboration, since from a Darwinian perspective the modern synthesis of natural selection and genetics did not begin to flower until the 1920s and 1930s, whereas moral philosophy, with reference to David Cooper’s anthology Ethics: The Classic Readings, goes back (in writing, anyway) to about 500 B.C.

From a biological perspective, a scientist asks why heretofore explanations of human life ignored or outright excluded most of the natural world and especially why such explanations seem as self-entitled abstract units holding their own with no empirical grounding or test (233). On the other hand, a moral philosopher would counter by saying that ultimate questions are at stake, and if what we call morality is not thoroughly examined from a long philosophical tradition then there is only a biased opinion. The multiple viewpoints on moral issues that science and social science offer are exactly what irritate the philosopher (241). That is, as per G.E. Moore and H. Putnam, moral goodness cannot be identified as empirical or physical; science ignores distinctions and assumes there is moral weight in a sentiment when there might be none (238).

After presenting the strophe and antistrophe of science and philosophy, Lahti offers a synthesis asking for an interdisciplinary partnership. Represented here verbatim in an encapsulated form are his sub-headings for such a new code of academic behavior: For biology, render your ideas precisely (246); for philosophy, get with the empirical program (247); to biology, respect and utilize the history of philosophy (248); to philosophy, take function seriously (249); for biology, accept that you are doing philosophy, and do it well (250); for philosophy, take human evolutionary history seriously (251).

Finally, Lahti proposes an Evolutionary Philosophy that would merge evolutionary science and philosophical concerns for human well-being (253). Such is already underway – viz The Evolution Institute of David Sloan Wilson et al.

- Gregory F. Tague

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