Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The End of Altruism

The following essay is recycled from my website entry dated April 16, 2009.

Evolution is not “survival of the fittest.” Preachers like to portray evolution as bloody and merciless, favoring the powerful and violent animals over the weak and benign. But this picture is incorrect. Although evolution sometimes produces violence, it more often produces altruism in the world of animals. Altruism is when one animal is nice to another animal of the same species.

Evolution produces altruism in three ways. First, natural selection favors animals that help their close relatives to reproduce—for in this way, the animal can indirectly pass its genes into the next generation. The love of parents for children is biological, and is found in birds and mice as well as in humans. Second, natural selection favors direct reciprocity, in which an animal does something nice for another animal, in anticipation of getting the favor returned in the future. Third, natural selection favors indirect reciprocity, in which an animal (always a human animal, as far as we know) does something nice for another animal that cannot possibly ever return the favor—and thereby receives greater social status and esteem. We admire rich, generous donors. Animals—especially human animals—invest in “social capital”: having friends and admirers is usually better than having money in the bank.

Altruism was perhaps the most important process in human evolution. Our species existed as tribes. These tribes usually fought one another, but within each tribe there was a lot of altruism. The chief of the tribe enjoyed some benefits not available to other tribal members, but was not much richer than they, and did not enslave them or take all of their resources away from them. The primary reason they did not do this is because they would have to look their fellow tribesmen in the eye while doing it.

But with the beginning of civilization, altruism began to fall apart. Kings could enslave poor people or take all of their riches away from them. In a large city-state or empire, the king could hide in his throne-room and did not have to look his victims in the eye. Democracy began partly as a way of destroying the power of kings to do this. Today, very few kings remain and those few are primarily ornamental. Dictators may briefly get away with such behavior. But right here in the United States, rich people are able to oppress poor people in a way not very different from the way kings treated their slaves. Rich people today can take the life savings away from their victims while hiding in boardrooms and mansions, just as kings could hide in their palaces.

If only the rich people who caused the financial crisis in America, and which has spread around the world, could be made to look their victims in the eye! Maybe then they would be unable to walk off with millions of dollars of money from the federal government and from their investors, and altruism would return to our society.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Darwin, Science, and Bias

Scientists take great precautions against bias. Scientists, like all humans, have a tendency to see what they expect to see rather than what is really there. But scientists are very careful to design research and experiments in such a way as to exclude bias. For example, in testing drugs, the patients who receive the placebo (“sugarpill”), which does not contain the drug, are not told that the pill is a placebo, otherwise they would assume it will not work and they will report themselves as still being sick. But scientists go further and make sure the assistants who actually administer the placebo do not know that it is a placebo, lest the attitude of the assistant influence the patient’s attitude as well. The placebo usually has a bitter chemical in it, or even a mild sedative, so that the patient will believe that it is the real drug. A large amount of the design and expense of scientific research is to avoid bias.

Charles Darwin had to deal with bias also. His evolutionary theory gave nature, rather than God, the creative role. It is the ideal theory for someone who wants God out of the picture. Was Darwin such a person? Well, not at first; his wife Emma was a moderate creationist, and Charles was sensitive to her opinions, as you might guess. But after their daughter Annie died at a tragically young age, both Charles and Emma were devastated. This deepened Emma’s dependence upon Christianity but pushed Charles into agnosticism. This was years before Charles wrote the Origin of Species.

So Charles must have been biased against creationism and in favor of a theory that would make God irrelevant. But he worked very, very hard to make sure that his bias did not influence his scientific judgment. He spent years gathering information about the variability of traits in populations, and about natural selection, as well as about fossils, biogeography, and other evidences of evolution. The Origin of Species is full of numerous lines of reasoning, each with its own evidences, which lead to an undeniable conclusion. That is, he spent years amassing evidence that would prevent his bias from influencing his results. This is the mark of a true scientist.

Creationists are just the opposite. They hate evolution, and will grab at any shred of information that they can twist into evidence to support their view. They even bring together so-called evidences that contradict one another. For example, they present information that they claim proves the Flood of Noah, then they present information that they claim shows gaps in the fossil record. But if there was a flood, there could be no order in the fossil record in which gaps might appear!

Charles Darwin is an exemplar of the heroic scientist who disciplines him or herself to pursue the truth even when bias presses upon the scientist from his or her personal experience.

This essay will also appear in my website eventually.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Evolved Human Mind

In our species, intelligence is the most important adaptation. But our intelligence is not logical; it is an emotional intelligence, as any fan of Spock on Star Trek knows. Despite the amazing capacities of human minds, our evolutionary legacy has limited them in a way that may make us unable to respond adequately to our current crises such as climate and economic collapse. Here are some examples. You can probably think of a lot more.

First, our minds have an almost unlimited capacity for self-deception. We see what we expect to see, and if reality and expectation do not mesh, we accept the resulting cognitive dissonance. Even when we can look ahead and see that our resources are running out, we can hardly bring ourselves to conserve those resources. We will become frugal only after disaster has struck. I thought of this as I drove past a tract of huge houses, built in Tulsa during the housing bubble. Block after block of them. This is what the buyers wanted, and they deceived themselves that the national, and their personal, economies could grow forever. Realtors would rather sell one big house than three small houses—less work for the same money. Nothing but a crash will get people to become frugal. The good news is that, once the crash has occurred, people are pretty good at frugality. We may not, however, have a long enough transition period to reorder our lives into a contented frugality.

Second, our minds continually readjust to current circumstances. This is the “shifting baselines” phenomenon. My generation is probably the last one to be richer than the preceding generation; people of my daughter’s generation cannot expect the kind of riches their families had while they were growing up, and cannot expect to find jobs even if they are qualified. The mindset has shifted to something more like survival, and we are all beginning to feel that this is normal. We have already almost forgotten about a world in which we could just go buy things on credit and count on personal finances to slowly pay off the debt.

Third, our minds are social; we will not act until society changes. Despite the clear evidence that humans are causing global warming, and despite the fact that most Americans (and even more citizens of other countries) know this to be true, societal inertia has prevented meaningful change. It will, as I said above, take a crash to get a society to live frugally. A frugal life (we have to start thinking of this as a good word) is the best, perhaps the only, way to reduce our carbon emissions and disruptive climate collapse.

These mental characteristics worked fine in the Stone Age; but we must transcend them today. Is this even possible?

This essay will also appear on my website.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Weedy Religions

The religions of fury and hatred are here to stay. They include the radical right wing of Christianity and of Islam. They are certainly the most sensationalistic and obvious ones. The stunt pulled by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn Korans on September 11, 2010, made the news much more than the interfaith outreach of peaceful Christian groups. Islamist terrorists always make more news than the peaceful Muslim Sufis, so much so that most people do not even realize that there is a philosophical meditative branch of the Muslim religion. (Incidentally, the group that plans to build a mosque in lower Manhattan consists of Sufis.)

At first this seems strange, because the peaceful, constructive branches of Christianity and Islam seem so much more beneficial and reasonable. Why do the religions that want to build a better world fail to predominate over those that wish to destroy as much of the world that they can?

Religions consist of sets of ideas that spread through a process similar to natural selection in nature. In this sense, religions evolve. The religions that get themselves propagated most successfully from one human mind to another are the ones that predominate. As with the evolution of plants and animals, success depends not on long term quality but on immediate success. Plants and animals will do whatever they can, destructive or constructive, that allows them to have as many surviving offspring as possible: they can harm their fellow creatures, or benefit them, depending on the circumstances.

It is unfortunate that the religions of hatred are thriving at the expense of the religions of peace. The reasons are obvious. All that a religion of hatred has to do is to press a single button in the human psyche, releasing primal fury, fury that is powerful enough that the spouter of hatred contradicts him or herself and does not even notice it. (Example: the same people may claim that Obama is godless, and also a Muslim. What, pray tell, is a godless Muslim? Of course, he is neither.) In contrast, the religions of peace require people to stop and think. While some people are thinking, the spouters of hatred have already contaminated a dozen other people. Fundamentalist religions are simplistic: just give money to the preacher, go to church, vote Republican, and hate gays. Peaceful religions, in contrast, require a more thoughtful attitude about literally everything in the world.

But the spread of the religions of hatred is not automatic. It occurs mostly in disrupted social and political circumstances. People are already thinking only brief thoughts in the short term, since the economy and world events are in such turmoil. How do you think ahead when everything may change in a few weeks or years?

I study plant ecology. I could not help but notice that the religions of hatred resemble weeds. Weeds are plants that grow rapidly, produce a lot of seeds, then die. Before you know it, you have thousands of weeds. The religions of peace are more like trees, which grow slowly for many years. Weeds grow best in an open space that has been recently disturbed, often by human activity such as bulldozing. Eventually the trees will take over, unless the disturbance continues. In places where disturbances occur frequently, weeds can spread but trees never get a chance to grow big enough to produce their seeds. Natural selection has favored weeds that produce a lot of seeds and then die, in disturbed environments, and trees that produce fewer seeds and live for a long time, in stable environments.

The religions of hatred are weedy religions. They grow and spread rapidly. The tree-like religions of peace never get a chance to grow because disruptions and crises keep happening. This will only get worse in the “long emergency” of climate disruption, as described by David Orr (Down to the Wire) and Bill McKibben (Eaarth).

For a weed, there is no future. A weed is going to die soon anyway, and there is no point in preparing for the future. For a tree, the future is the environment in which it will spend centuries of its life. The parallel with religion is unmistakable. To a fundamentalist, there is no future; God is going to come right away and destroy everything. But to a peaceful religious person, the future is what is most important.

Unfortunately, it appears that the immediate future of the Earth is going to look like a continually ravaged and re-ravaged weed patch, both in terms of its physical appearance, the plants and animals and the places that people live, and in terms of its religious and social environment.

A version of this essay will also appear on my website.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Optimism and Hope

The major human evolutionary adaptation is culture. Without culture, which includes writing and altruism, the human species has no hope. Global warming is rapidly leading to climate collapse which may interrupt human cultural transmission.

I recently read David Orr’s book about climate collapse (a better description than global warming), Down to the Wire. He made a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is when you can realistically predict a good outcome, however uncertain. Hope is an attitude that keeps you working even when optimism is not a realistic possibility. He said that no rational person could give an optimistic assessment that the Earth is going to avoid climate collapse—that is, enough of a collapse to mess up human civilization. But we need to have hope, even if not optimism.

But as I read the book, it became clear that, if Orr is right, the only way we can avoid climate collapse is for everyone to do everything right, right now, even though we are doing almost nothing right, right now, in terms of reducing carbon emissions. No grounds for optimism here, and hope is a fantasy, even though it may be an essential one.

At the same time, I was reading Margaret Atwood’s novel of a dystopian future, Oryx and Crake. It was a future in which humans and most wild animals are nearly extinct, replaced by genetically engineered humanoids and animaloids, and a future with brutal global warming. (Atwood is the master of dystopias, of which The Handmaid’s Tale is the most famous.) She made the point that, in humans as in other intelligent animals, all it takes is for cultural transmission to be interrupted for a single generation, and the game is over forever—the most important aspects of human adaptation will be lost. Our bodies and our instincts, by themselves, will not get us very far. Climate collapse would not need to cause extinction; all it would have to do is to interrupt human culture for a generation.

Evolution will go on, the human species will persist in a physically recognizable form, but we now face the possibility of global cultural interruption.

A version of this essay will appear this fall on my website.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Nobody could ever accuse Tom Delay, former congressman from Texas, of humility. When he was House Majority Leader, he was called “The Hammer” because he used political pressure to get all Republicans to vote the same way. This made the Democrats in the House of Representatives pretty much irrelevant, even though they had a larger number of members than the Republican minority currently has. When he was asked to not smoke his cigar in a Washington, D.C. restaurant, because it was against federal law, he answered, “I am the federal government.” For a list of his other breathtakingly arrogant quotes, see his Wikipedia quote page. When Delay resigned over revelations of illegal campaign finance contributions, one would think that he would be a little contrite. But no. He decided that he was still such a celebrity that he could be the hero of Dancing with the Stars. Fractured feet prevented this arrogant dream from coming true.

Delay holds no esteem for anyone who disagrees with him. Despite his ethical lapses, he still holds himself up as a great beacon of morality. In this, he contrasts himself most sharply with those who accept an evolutionary explanation for the history of life on Earth. In 1999, he opined that one of the causes of school violence (such as the Columbine shootings) was that children are being taught in school that they “evolutionized” from slime. He made this statement with full confidence even though he knows practically nothing about evolutionary science or sociology. Truth, to Delay, is something to make up as you go along.

Delay considers that the human species is too noble to have evolved from slime. This is incorrect in two ways.

First, humans (especially those who act as Delay has) are not particularly noble.

Second, slime is not such a bad thing. Most slime consists of bacteria. There is an amazing diversity of bacteria all over the world and even deep into the Earth, and all of life is dependent upon what they do. Slime is one of the things that keep the Earth alive.
Not only that, but slime has something to teach us. A visible layer of slime (“biofilm” in science talk) is not just bacteria; it is bacteria that have produced a sticky material that holds them together. It is an example, in fact, of altruistic cooperation. Larger organisms that might eat individual bacteria cannot eat the ones that are protected inside of the slime. The bacteria produce, at considerable metabolic expense, a material that provides for their common defense. Even though bacteria are single, simple cells, they can form multi-cellular cooperative structures. Slime is, sometimes, more internally cooperative than groups of humans.
Slime, therefore, is a living critique of human arrogance.

A version of this essay appeared on my website on December 20, 2009.