Sunday, February 27, 2011

Conservatives and Social Evolution

So many conservative politicians are hypocrites to an extent that has become legendary and comic. (This is an evolutionary, not political, blog; I will tie this political commentary in to evolution.) It is easily visible on the national and local levels. Here are some new stories.

The new speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner of Ohio, presents himself as the exemplar of pure ethics: to eliminate wasteful spending and earmarks. Everyone thinks he has a real heart for the American people, perhaps because of his frequent crying. But are these tears of altruism, or of deception, or of delusion? They are certainly not tears of altruism. Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates (who was originally appointed by George W. Bush) claim that the F-35 fighter plane engine is unnecessary; it would cost $450 million right now and as much as $3 billion over the next few years. If the commander in chief and the defense secretary think it is a waste of money, who could possibly support it? John Boehner, of course, whose state would be one of the places where the engine would be built. Boehner wants to cut all sweet federal deals except those that come to his state. On February 16 the House voted against funding the engine.

But should we be surprised that Boehner showed such hypocrisy? No. In 1995, Boehner handed out tobacco lobbyist checks to his fellow representatives on the floor of the House before debate on a bill to end tobacco subsidies.

Meanwhile, in my own state of Oklahoma, the House Common Education committee debated a bill introduced by Republican representative Sally Kern that would protect the freedom of students to not be penalized for creationist beliefs. The bill was totally unnecessary—students, like everyone else, are already protected from being so penalized, and the bill was a waste of time and money. This argument, which I made to the committee by email several times, seems to have prevailed, since several Republicans voted against the bill, which failed on February 22. Now here is the interesting part. Rep. Kern called two witnesses to support the bill. One was a former geology professor at the University of Oklahoma, whose strong political views (including what have been described as misogynistic ones) got him removed from his department and placed under the direct control of the dean; the other was a teacher who had stood up during Richard Dawkins’s University of Oklahoma lecture and called him a liar, and who was escorted out by security guards. Couldn’t Kern find anybody other than people with anger management issues to support her views?

It appears that reasonable and non-hypocritical conservatives are rare. And this brings us to social evolution. The conservative political position is not a matter of reasoned political viewpoint, nor is it based on evidence. If it were, conservatives would be consistent rather than hypocritical, and would be able to present evidence rather than to call upon rants by people who have anger management issues. The conservatives are the modern day equivalent of the cave man who says that his big club wins the argument. Don’t forget that natural selection favors the cave man with the big club, because he is the one that gets to have the most offspring. As described in the previous entry, I think that natural selection may be favoring demes of impulsive and voluntarily ignorant conservatives within a diverse Oklahoma population. And they use religion as a weapon.

On February 23, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that there are 1,002 active hate groups in the United States. Most of these are conservative groups that hate the progressive viewpoint. Could it be otherwise?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Evolved Capacity for Evil, Part Four

In previous entries, I have explored the idea that good and evil are both part of the human brain; in particular, there is genetic variability for the impulses that underlie goodness (e.g., altruism) and evil (e.g., psychopathic violence) in human populations. Natural selection may favor altruism in some demes, and violence in other demes, of the same population at the same time.

I have one further speculation to make. Ever since scientists began to discover that the things that people think, feel, and do are determined in large measure by brain chemistry and structure, and the genes that underlie them, the idea of free will has come under attack. How can the people we call evil be held accountable for their actions, if their actions result inevitably from the interaction of their genes and their environments? This may not be an important question, since humans help to create their own environments, and since we have to control evil people even if they are not spiritually culpable. But modern brain science discoveries do raise an important question: what about free will?

Every human behavior is an interaction of genes and environment. It is always both. In some people, genetic abnormalities are so severe that their behavior is almost a stereotypical script; for them, genes are more important than environment. For most people, genes influence feelings and attitudes, while environment (including their current capacity to make decisions) is much more important. It is a sliding scale from the overwhelming importance of genes to the overwhelming importance of environment.

Perhaps the same thing is true of free will. It is perhaps nonsensical to ask whether humans have free will or not. All humans have free will, but some humans have very little of it, while most of us have a great deal of it. It, too, may be a sliding scale.

I propose this possibility for your consideration. Please comment on it if you like.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Evolved Capacity for Evil, Part Three

Copernicus was born this day in 1473. Cheers!

In the two previous entries, I have established that human behavior is physically determined, and that there is variation (that is, both good and evil, altruism and abuse) in populations. I choose to emphasize the good, but am continually aware of evil. Jesus said, be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

There are always evil people, some of whom are very successful. Sometimes they change the course of history. But are there relatively good vs. evil populations? That is, are there times when altruism is more vs. less common?

It is possible, though unproven, that there is an altruistic arch to human history. In tribal days, there was a lot of altruism. That was the only way a person could survive in a small tribe. There was war between tribes, but war was sporadic. Most of the natural selection was within tribes, where altruism provided a direct advantage. It is even possible, as Sewall Wright’s interdemic selection model might suggest, that the most altruistic groups prospered at the expense of the less altruistic groups (that is, for altruism to fellow group members). Then when civilization began, altruism didn’t matter as much. A king could enslave others, abuse them and exult in it, not needing anything from them, so long as he kept the army happy. This is basically the story of ancient human history. Then, more recently, as societies became more interdependent, altruism became important again. There were a few holdouts—the obviously insane Mao stayed in power because the army and party leaders saw him as their way to get power—but they were the exceptions. If this arch of history is correct—altruism, oppression, altruism—then we can imagine that the future is altruistic. We can imagine that democracy is spreading in Muslim countries right now. I hope so. This would mean that natural selection will continue to favor those people and cultures that are most altruistic.

But there can be local variation. While most populations become more altruistic, some can become less so. And, within an overall population, some demes can become more altruistic, some less. People spend most of their time, and choose their mating partners, within demes more often than from another deme. And this brings us back to the impaled coyotes about which I wrote four entries ago. Is it possible that, in the rural South, some demes are evolving toward evil?

It is possible. Here in the rural South, there are groups of people who appear to enjoy violence and value physical power. They even look different: the men are thick-necked and thick-everything-elsed. They place no value on intelligence. They have it, but it is down in the basement. They pile up weapons and impale coyotes. Individuals with evil genes may prevail in these demes, because not only natural but cultural selection favors them. They have a thin crust of friendliness, so long as you don’t ask them about the coyotes. They worship a God of war. They do not like to build things; they buy them, then wreck them. Let’s call them Destroyers.

This is clearly not true of all rural Okies (such as me). I have seen a lot of my fellow Okies who are just as uneducated as the ones described above but who are altruistic and friendly. They even look different than the others. They may have even fewer teeth than the evil ones, but they are not scary. They value intelligence: they love to tell you about their work, and they exult in the skills that they have. They love to build things. Let’s call them Builders.

The Destroyers and the Builders are two demes, side by side, within the same population. There is occasional interbreeding. But the rules of natural selection are different, at least in degree, in the two demes, favoring oppression in one and altruism in the other. Over time, natural selection has favored the altruism of the Builders in the modern human species, but if circumstances change, such as political or economic chaos, the Destroyers are ready to emerge from their rural hiding places.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Evolved Capacity for Evil, Part Two

Here are some more thoughts that came to me as a result of reading the book by Barbara Oakley Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. For part one, see the previous blog entry.

In the previous entry, I established that behavioral differences among individuals are due to genes, which influence brain chemicals and brain structures; to environment; and to habitual reinforcements. By describing the physical basis for behavioral differences, we in no way excuse them. Clinical psychopaths have to be stopped. And subclinical psychopaths, the kind that abuse others, often from positions of business or religious or governmental authority, need to be relocated into some position where their evil will harm as few people as possible. Oakley presents good evidence not just that many evil leaders, such as Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong, had brain problems but just what some of these problems might have been. Failure to stop them has resulted in the gruesome deaths of millions of people.

I mentioned that human populations have plenty of genetic variation for behavior that evolution has clearly produced it. I have written a lot (and I’m not done) about altruism—evolution has given humans an instinct to be good, however imperfectly. But how could evolution favor genetic variation that makes people bad, at the same time? Which is it?

Well, it is both. Most people, through time, have obtained direct personal benefits by cooperation and by even more intense forms of altruism. But some people have obtained direct personal benefits by being evil. In many cases, they pretend to be good, while being evil. A psychopath knows that people have emotions; they just don’t care. They know right from wrong, which is why they can pretend to be good.

Natural selection favors successful reproduction. Good people are successful when their cooperation gains them status and resources and mates. Evil people can be just as successful. After all, according to some figures, about one out of every 200 men in the world have the Genghis Khan Y chromosome.

And there is more to it than this. Human behavior is a spectrum. We all know people who, if their genes were just a little bit more evil, or their amygdalae a little more defective, or under slightly different conditions, would be monsters, but they are able to function in society—we just know to not trust them. (A former colleague from a previous job described a mutual acquaintance who temporarily rose in the field of academic administration, in this way: “And then all the little horns started coming out of his head.” She was tipsy when she told me this but I believe she was correct.) And, in addition, each of us moves around on the good-evil continuum.

The conclusion from this blog entry is that human populations have heritability of behavioral characteristics, and evolution has worked upon human behavior. This is why we have always had and will always have good and bad individuals. Natural selection maintains genetic variability. But there is more. In the next essay I explore the question of whether natural selection can result in good vs. bad populations.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Evolved Capacity for Evil, Part One

My blog entries have been sporadic recently, because we have had recurring storms that have closed down educational institutions. (I do not have internet connections at my house.) I was expecting that I would get back to my series of essays based on my new book, Life of Earth. But during the most recent snow days, I happened to start reading a book by my fellow Prometheus Books author, Barbara Oakley. The book is Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. How could you not want to read a book with that title?

I found myself frequently lost in the mass of information, but that is, I think, the nature of the subject. Maybe nobody could make it fully comprehensible. And the author’s stories, of historical figures and personal experiences, drew me in anyway.

At first, one would think the book was intended as an argument against the Skinnerian blank-slate theory. (Last year I read Skinner’s Walden Two as one of my rare ventures into fantasy.) But very few people take that theory seriously anymore, and Oakley’s purpose is not to tell us that but to tell us how genes affect human behavior.

First, there are no genes for behavior patterns, but there are genes for inclinations such as impulsivity and anxiety. There are many examples interspersed through the book, but I will mention just one. Serotonin is a chemical that carries messages in the brain. After it has delivered its message, it has to be re-absorbed by the neuron that released it. This reuptake is the business of the SERT (serotonin transporter) protein. If serotonin lingers in the spaces between the brain cells, anxiety can result. A word about genes: they contain stretches of non-coding DNA, such as tandem repeats, which are not transcribed into the protein. Just junk, you say? Read on. The SERT gene has two forms (alleles), the short form (with 14 tandem repeats) and the long form (with 16 tandem repeats). Aside from these seemingly meaningless insertions, the alleles are identical. The short allele results in the production of less SERT, and therefore contributes to anxiety. I hope I got that right.

Second, differences in brain structures influence behavior patterns as well. Psychopaths, for example, often have a defective corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the left and right sides. They also have a smaller amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the middle of the brain. Perhaps these people need more excitement in order to feel normal, and have less fear, both of which contribute to a dampening of conscience. A dysfunction of the right orbital cortex (just behind the eye) also makes it difficult for a person to form a conscience. The brain structure differences between one person and another are influenced by which alleles the person inherits.

Third, brain chemicals and structures both influence brain circuitry. This circuitry is what determines behavior. One example is that the amygdala sends fear signals to dampen the cingulate cortex, but this communication is inhibited if the person has one or two copies of the short version of the SERT gene. Indeed, people with the short allele have smaller amygdalae and cingulate cortices. Again, I hope I got that right.

It gets even more complicated. The behavioral abnormalities recognized by psychologists often overlap: each disorder has some characteristics of the others. This may be because each behavior pattern is influenced by many parts of the brain and many brain chemicals. This is one reason why people who have the “same” disorder differ from one another so much. But, based on the three points above, it is clear that differences in genes result in differences in behavior, all other things being equal.

Of course, all other things are never equal. Environment is important too. Nearly every trait, and perhaps every behavioral trait, is both genetic and environmental, never one or the other. Part of this is the prenatal and childhood environment. Time and again, researchers have found that people with the same physical brain problem may develop more or less normally if they had good childhoods, but develop behavioral problems if they had abusive childhoods. I say more or less, because the normal people with brain problems still have to struggle a little—but they are generally successful. Environment is why some people with brain problems become clinically dysfunctional and some do not.

Of course, there is even more, something that is largely absent from Oakley’s book. We can influence our own habits of thought, to a certain degree. New brain cells develop in our brains, but too few to be of much use. However, the old cells keep destroying and rebuilding connections. Frequently-used connections, therefore frequently-used behavior patterns, are reinforced. This is not enough to wholly compensate for chemical or large-scale structural problems, but it helps.

Genes create our brains; environments create our brains; and we create our own brains.

Genes make us capable of evil behavior, but also good behavior. Sometimes pathologically good behavior. Everyone’s favorite mutants are the people with Williams syndrome, traced to defects on chromosome 7. These people are completely trusting of strangers; they are super-altruists. I’ve never knowingly met one, but my impression is that they are the sweetest people you could know, sort of like straight out of the pre-pome Garden of Eden. It turns out that they stress out about everything except strangers, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

The point for this evolution blog is that there is a lot here for evolution to work on, in both trusting and evil directions. Scientists would say there is a lot of heritability for good and evil behavior patterns. Evolution can, of course, work on the alleles, for which every human population has plenty of variation. Evolution can also work on the culture. The only thing it cannot work on is you as an individual. But you as an individual can work on evolution—that is, at least you can contribute to cultural evolution.

More on this next time. Meanwhile, I just note that differences in behavior patterns appear to be due to genes, brains, environment, and habits, not to spirits, human or Holy.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Capacity for Evil

I have frequently written about the importance of altruism in the evolution of the human species. We are the most altruistic species that has ever existed on Earth. We do not have kin selection as strong as that of bees, but we make up for it with indirect reciprocity, in which individuals gain social status by being conspicuously generous.

But we are constantly reminded of the dark side of human nature—how humans can exult in destruction and torture. Under certain circumstances, such as in Bosnia in the 1990s and Sudan in the 2000s, this capacity for evil can emerge in an insane fashion. But it is always there. What we must do is to starve it as much as possible, occupying our minds with good things.

In rural Oklahoma, where I live, some people are cultivating the enjoyment of evil. When I was driving along the highway, I saw a fence line on which half a dozen coyotes had been impaled. I stopped to take photos, two of which I share here with you.

I hope you find these photos as deeply disturbing as I do. Now, it may be necessary to cull a coyote population. But there is no need to put them gruesomely on display. Of course the coyotes were dead before they were impaled (I think). But there could be only one reason for doing this: the hunters relished the fantasy of torturing animals, and wanted to make a proclamation to anyone who was driving down the highway. And what is that proclamation? They want everyone to know how much they hate the natural world. Many of these rural people are creationists, but they apparently think that God made animals so that we could enjoy torturing them. Remember this is the state in which a law against cockfighting barely passed.

We would like to think that these people who fantasize about animal torture make an absolute distinction between animals and humans—which their creationist beliefs tell them to do. But I am not entirely confident of it. When they get really mad—and the conservative political movement encourages them to do so as frequently as possible—they might take thoughtless action and do something that they would not rationally choose to do. Might their rage spill over into cruelty against humans?

I hope that my fears are excessive (and I do not sit around thinking about them). But January 31 was the 135th anniversary of the law that forced all Native Americans onto reservations. It was not long ago when some of my Cherokee ancestors were considered to be not very different from coyotes. For black people, the memory is even more recent. In east Texas, in 1998, a black man was dragged to death behind a pickup truck.

These same people believe that Jesus will return and usher in a battle of Armageddon in which millions will be tortured and the earth will literally run red with blood; one radio evangelist said it would be literally as deep as the shoulders of horses. The Jesus whom these people worship is a demon who loves to exult in torture. Of course, this does not resemble the Jesus of any part of the Bible other than the book of Revelation, which should be torn out and thrown away. And of course the Armageddon blood will be human, not coyote, blood. Before you say it can’t happen here, think carefully. I hope that, in fact, it cannot.

Evolution has given us a spectrum of options, from altruism at one end to torture at the other. In my writings, I emphasize the former; but many creationists in rural Oklahoma seem to focus on the latter.