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TAG | evolutionary psychology



Machine Trumps Ghost

It is—time flies—now thirty years since the appearance of The Closing of the American Mind, an anniversary noted by Alexander Riley in The American Conservative.

The whole thing is well worth reading, but this passage caught my attention:

Some elements of Allan Bloom’s analytical framework are frankly inadequate.  He is too perfunctory in dismissing the contribution made to knowledge about human nature by the sciences, and his Great Books/Thinkers list is missing a figure the right makes a grave mistake in ignoring:  Darwin.  Rigorous evolutionary thinking connected to empirical research into the foundations of human behavior and social order offers some of the sturdiest support for conservative politics, and the right would do well to embrace these findings.

The book’s second section (“Nihilism, American Style”) lays out the complex intellectual history undergirding Bloom’s description of the state of the university, and its obscurity for readers not already thoroughly grounded in the ideas it presents is only its most obvious weakness.  Too much is made to depend on the lasting importance of the insights of Locke and Rousseau on human nature, and too much in contemporary behavioral science shows that their systems will not bear that weight.  Locke thought human beings were essentially unmarked at birth by our animal nature, and Rousseau believed it was only social institutions that make us selfish and competitive.  The Darwinian evolutionary perspective tells us considerably more of lasting importance about what we are and what the social world likely can and cannot do to alter that.


Machine trumps ghost.


Over at Crunchy Con Rod Dreher points me to a new book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, which, in Dreher’s words “attempts to defend St. Paul against his modernist critics (e.g. those who consider him an impossible troglodyte for his views on women and homosexuals) by explaining the Greco-Roman social and cultural context in which he composed his letters.” If you open the Bible and read it front to back, there is much to defend, or as academics would say, “contextualize.”

As a young unbeliever with some fluency in the basic texts of the Christian religion I would occasionally point to the “politically incorrect” aspects of scripture, or commentaries by the Church Fathers, in arguments with my devout friends. The main issue which prompted me was the contention by my righteous interlocutors that their religious tradition espoused timeless values, that they had access to Truth untouched by historical contingencies. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Liberals are wont to point out the selective reading of scripture by cultural “conservatives.” The sections devoted to homosexuality have great relevance today, but those speaking to the sin of divorce are less emphasized in a society where many “Bible believing Christians” engage in serial monogamy.

Attempts by Christians to genuinely “roll back the clock” in a more credibly consistent manner have met with little success. Doug Wilson, a Reformed theologian and pastor prominent in right-wing Calvinist circles, attempted to defend the Biblical basis of slavery. Wilson’s argument is logically consistent. Christianity Today noted:


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A recent featured two philosophers, and was titled “Explaining and Appraising Moral Intuition”. A considerable proportion of the discussion involved the utility of cognitive and evolutionary psychology in probing the reflexive roots of our moral intuitions, and how that might modify our moral reasoning. One of the interlocutors, Joshua Greene, suggests that exposing the proximate cognitive processes and the ultimate evolutionary rationales which set the framework for our reflexive moral judgments may allow us to reconsider their validity. What should be the criteria which we use? Greene alludes to utilitarianism. But that begs the question: what is this utility you speak of Dr. Greene?

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Brooks bashes the “new atheists”

David Brooks argues that the view that moral decision-making results from an intuitive, pre-rational engagement with the world, rather than from logical deduction from a set of moral principles, is a  challenge to “the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.” 

With all respect to David Brooks, this claim, in an otherwise lucid column, strikes me as nonsensical.  The new atheists are arguing not against the view that morality is innate, but that it is the product of formal religious teaching.  It is the theistic and theocon worldview that is challenged by what Brooks calls the “evolutionary approach to morality,” not the skeptical one.  It is the theocons who assert that unless society and individuals are immersed in purported Holy Books, anarchy and depredation will rule the world. 

Skeptics respond that moral behavior is instinctual, that parents build on a child’s initial impulses of empathy and fairness and reinforce those impulses with habit and authority.   Religious ethical codes are an epiphenomenon of our moral sense, not vice versa.  The religionists say that morality is handed down from a deity above; secularists think that it, and indeed the very attributes of that deity himself, bubble up from below.  Children raised without belief in divine revelation can be as faithful to a society’s values as those who think that the Ten Commandments (at least those not concerned with religious prostration) originated with God.

As for non-believers’ purported faith “in the purity of their own reasoning,” I have no idea what Brooks is talking about.  The new atheists are not on an intellectual purity crusade; they see the whole of human thought as evidence of the richness of the human mind.  They embrace the gorgeousness and grandeur of music, art, and literature as a source of meaning and wisdom.

Brooks appears to want to unite neuroscience and evolutionary psychology with staunch support of religion as a precondition to decent society.  I’m not sure that this balancing act will hold, but we’ll have to wait and see. 

The Templeton Foundation discussion that spurred Brooks’s column is here.  Readers can judge for themselves whether secularists should feel rebuked by its contents.




Evolution & morality

The American Scene points me to two Will Wilkinson posts where he attempts to move beyond vulgar evolutionary psychology in adducing proper morality. I learn toward the sentiment. The naturalistic fallacy is less fallacious when one conceptualizes human moral intuitions and reflections as a rubics cube with a finite number of elements. In other news, most Americans do not look to religion to guide their opinions about right & wrong.



The Origins of Morality?

While no-one who has read Demonic Males: Apes and The Origins of Human Violence can view chimpanzee society as a model of entirely good order, the research described by the Daily Telegraph below (which builds on earlier work showing pretty much the same thing) is food for thought:

“Although morality has always been viewed as a human trait that sets us apart from the animals, it now appears our closest ancestors share the same scruples. Scientists have that discovered monkeys and apes can make judgements about fairness, offer sympathy and help and remember obligations. Researchers say the findings may demonstrate morality developed through evolution, a view that is likely to antagonise the devoutly religious, who see it as God-given. Professor Frans de Waal, who led the study at Emory University in Georgia, US, said: “I am not arguing that non-human primates are moral beings but there is enough evidence for the following of social rules to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals.”

Read the whole thing.



The many faces of human nature

Ivan Kenneally and Larry Arnhart continue their dialogue over Darwinian Conservatism. Ivan says:

…In the spirit of a “comprehensive science” as described by Leo Strauss, Arnhart recommends a more monistic approach that captures not only our natural inclinations but those that seem to resist and defy nature. However, it’s not clear to me that Arnhart’s (or Darwin’s) “naturalistic” account doesn’t achieve this comprehensiveness by refusing to take seriously the many ways in which human beings war with nature technologically and otherwise–his attempt to replace a traditional dualism with a Darwinian monism seems to simply collapse our efforts to transcend nature into an “emergent” property of nature itself. The problem with any theoretical monism is that it seems to require some measure of reductionism to fit all kinds of heterogeneous phenomena under the umbrella of a singular explanatory principle. It might be better to look for a “comprehensive” account that includes the sometimes inconsistent inclinations that make us unique and that is genuinely scientific because it takes its bearings from the experience we have ourselves and others as whole human persons.

I’ve already expressed some suspicion of “ultimate theories” and “systems.” I would offer that my own view of the utility of the sciences of human nature is of a proximate sense. Its straightforward use is more in establishing reasonable parameters in construction of a bridge, not in entailing that the bridge be constructed at a particular location. But, I do think it is important to distinguish various facets of human nature, and how they might differ in their relevance to our flourishing.

Some evolutionarily informed cognitive psychologists and anthropologists argue that our intuitions exhibit domain specificity. That is, humans are endowed with folk physics, folk biology, folk psychology, and so forth. Modern civilization is in direct contradiction to many of the intuitions of folk physics; and yet we humans seem to be able to carry on with the contradictions with our intuition without much suffering. Evolutionary biology contradicts folk biology, and genetic engineering will likely confound the biological boundaries between human and non-human more & more over the coming years. This seems to cause more distress, and some Creationists make an instrumental argument for why evolutionary biology is pernicious: if you teach children that they are animals, they will behave as such. I am generally skeptical of such contentions, though it is an empirical matter. It is when we come into the domain of folk psychology, and human relations, where our intuitions and human flourishing are most closely integrated. While humans seem to be able to utilize technologies which might contradict our intuitions upon closer inspection, the distress is minimal or superficial. But when it comes to working against our psychological biases the potential for robust distress is I believe greater; e.g., utopian experiments with free love and communal families tend to be ephemeral.

It may be trivially obvious that biology is ultimately reducible to chemistry which is reducible to physics. But the distinction between these disciplines remains because operationally the heuristics and abstractions which are useful in physics may not be useful in biology. Similarly, human nature may be one, but I think it serves us well to take into account various domains and elements distinctively. Though a taboo upon consumption of human flesh may simply be a relict of various ancient adaptations, I am generally skeptical of the utility in contemporary circumstances of a campaign to overcome the revulsion so as to make use of protein resources which are going to waste when old individuals die.*  The gadgets which our lives are girded by extend & enrich our native social and psychological well being; norms do not emerge from folk physics, they do emerge from folk psychology.

* I am well aware of cannibalism in various societies. I believe there are three main causes for this behavior. First, circumstances of very low protein availability, as in agricultural societies in Mesoamerica. Second, the individuals consumed were outsiders. Not part of the ingroup, and so somehow not totally human. Thirdly, ritual consumption of members of the ingroup. The last, from what I know, usually occurs when societies have a particular conception of ensoulment and the afterlife which makes this behavior rational.  In Mesoamerica these three aspects combined, as “Flower Wars” broke out against enemy nations to obtain captives for ritual sacrifice who were also subsequently consumed.

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Your genes on cuisine

A year ago there was a paper on the effect of diet on enzyme production, Diet and the evolution of human amylase gene copy number variation. That human evolution skeptic, P. Z. Myers, has just noticed the paper, and says:

This work by Perry and others went on to look for patterns in different human populations with different dietary historys, and discovered that there is a correlation: cultures with diets heavy in starch, agricultural populations such as Americans, Europeans, and Japanese, or hunter-gathers who live on many roots and tubers, have a higher average copy number than cultures that depend more on hunting and fishing.

Look at the distributions! Populations with little starch in their diets also have a relatively low copy number of 5.44 amylase genes per individual; we french fry eaters have a higher number of 6.72 amylase genes per individual. The difference is small, and the distributions also overlap significantly (note that some with high starch diets only have 2 copies, and some living on low starch diets have 13 copies), but the difference is measurable and significant. It implies that there may have been some selection for greater copy numbers in cultures with diets high in starchy plants.

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The tasty drug

Sugar Can Be Addictive: Animal Studies Show Sugar Dependence:

A Princeton University scientist will present new evidence today demonstrating that sugar can be an addictive substance, wielding its power over the brains of lab animals in a manner similar to many drugs of abuse

Some of you might be wondering, “they had to do a study on that?” Just another reminder that something “cultural” such as cuisine is strongly constrained & shaped by biological parameters.  Not only that, but the consequences of said addiction differ due to human genetic variation.



Sexuality and human nature

A friend emailed me in response to my post below:

Interesting example with homosexuality, both because the choice of sexual behavior, pretty much the sort of thing that one would expect the strongest biological constraints on, was apparently needed to make the point about limited flexibility AND because we know historically that homosexual behavior HAS been normalized in many world cultures. The combination of these two points seems to argue strongly for human nature being flexible indeed.

I would say that the problem is precisely what you have diagnosed. We do little social engineering and much shamanism. Shamanism doesn’t work. From that you can’t conclude that engineering doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, when people try to create large social changes or flying machines through force of will they fail. Doesn’t mean they would fail if they actually figured out how to do it.

That said, we largely don’t know how to do it, at least with respect to building utopias. Building dystopias seems to be much easier and I would say that we do know how to build fairly respectable dystopias.


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