Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Is Sin Selfish? Is Cooperation Moral? And what about Evolution?

E.O. Wilson complains that humanity is a "dysfunctional species," then elaborates like this:
Some of the dysfunction of course comes from the youthful state of global civilization, which is still a work in progress. But the greater part is due simply to the fact that our brains are poorly wired. Hereditary human nature is the genetic legacy of our prehuman and Paleolithic past -- the “indelible stamp of our lowly origin” as identified by Charles Darwin, first in anatomy ("The Descent of Man," 1871) and then in the facial signals of emotion ("The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," 1872). Evolutionary psychologists have pressed on to explain the role of biological evolution in gender differences, child mental development, status ranking, tribal aggression and even dietary choice.

As I’ve suggested in previous writing, the chain of causation runs yet deeper, extending all the way to the level of the biological organization on which natural selection works. Selfish activity within the group provides competitive advantage but is commonly destructive to the group as a whole. Working in the opposite direction from individual-level selection is group selection -- group versus group. When an individual is cooperative and altruistic, this reduces his advantage in competition with other members but increases the survival and reproduction rate of the group as a whole. In a nutshell, individual selection favors what we call sin and group selection favors virtue. The result is the internal conflict of conscience that afflicts all but psychopaths, estimated fortunately to make up only 1 to 4 percent of the population.
That sin is selfish, and morality cooperative, is an oft-repeated generalization that I think is completely wrong.

On a petty, everyday level, much of the evil we encounter is simple selfishness -- no need to look any deeper into why that bastard cut you off in traffic, or why somebody stole your iPhone. But I think the really big evils are not especially selfish, except indirectly; I would say on the contrary that the big evils afflicting humanity are distortions of the cooperative impulse. The root of totalitarianism is not selfishness; it is wanting everyone to act as the group dictates. The inquisitors were not after personal gain; they were sacrificing their own time and energy pursuing a world in which everybody believes the same things. The secret policeman says, "Why aren't you cooperating?" To me the image of evil is not the serial killer, but a brigade of marching Nazis.

In American politics we have all sorts of fights that boil down to this. Ask small-town southern conservatives what they really want, and the answer is likely to be "a community where everybody gets along and follows the same rules and honors the same truths." Why do you insist on a right to be different? Why can't you just do what has always been done, what your neighbors do? On the opposite side we have liberals who claim to be tolerant but won't tolerate conservatives, in fact won't even try to understand what it is that upsets conservatives about the contemporary world. The problem with our politics is not individualism, it is twisted groupthink.

In practice the limit to gross immorality is not set by altruism, but by laziness and other forms of selfishness. The reason societies aren't more totalitarian is that people are too selfish to make the necessary sacrifices and do the necessary work. This strikes me as the lesson of the fall of the Soviet Union, along with the unraveling of Calvinist Geneva and many other such experiments. They were defeated, and their people set free, less by brave rebels than by human inertia.

To me the ultimate root of most evil is not selfish, but tribal; to me the most basic sin is dividing the world into us and them and insisting that our way is better. We may commit murder for selfish reasons, but war and genocide are cooperative crimes.

To get back to E.O. Wilson, I think his equation of individual selection with sin, and group selection with cooperative virtue, is utter nonsense. If we measure fitness by the number of offspring, then having friends matters a lot more than accumulating resources -- in many cases social behavior is selfish, going it alone ultimately self-destructive. Just figuring out what selfishness and altruism mean in the complex social world is often all but impossible. Did you really do that for someone else, or because you selfishly want to feel like an altruistic person? Wilson's simple model does great violence to both evolutionary biology and human history, and in psychological terms it is balderdash.

But then any Buddhist could have told him so: morality is found neither in extreme selfishness nor extreme altruism, but on the Middle Way.


G. Verloren said...

I find myself disagreeing with your assessments on the level of what you call "Big Evils", in that I see the coersion of others into conforming to your preferred behaviors or values to be inherently selfish.

Selfishness doesn't only apply on the level of individuals. A group can be "selfish", in that they view their group as above others, or more correct than others, or somehow better than others.

You claim "the root of Totalitarianism is not selfishness" , but I don't see how it could be anything but. When one person forcibly exerts their will on others, that is selfish. When one single group forcibly exerts their will on others, that is selfish.

Selfishness is, at its heart, about the conflict of competing interests. A selfish act is one that satisfies the interests of only one party, at the expense of the interests of others, against the will and desires of the party being made to suffer.

Thus, with your own examples of "Big Evils", we can readily see the group-based selfishness of the acts. The Spanish Inquisition was selfish - it placed Spanish interests above the interests of the Moors. You are correct that the Inquisitors were not after "personal gain" - at least not directly. But they most certainly were after ,Spanish, gain, at the direct expense of those who differed or dissented. And I would argue that for the Spanish, this was an ,indirect, form of "personal gain" - the Inquisitors were serving their own interests and achieving their own goals at the expense of others, even if those goals were on a group scale, rather than an individual one.

You talk of tribalism, and I agree that it is more of a problem than individual selfishness. But in my eyes, tribalism is group selfishness. After all, it is perfectly possible for groups to be altruistic - to respect the values of others; to live and let live in peace; to allow others to be different, even when those differences fly in the face of one's own core values. It is when a single group refuses to tolerate differences in others (or even differences in minoirities and sub-groups within the main community itself) - when a group selfishly denies others the ability to dissent or differ - that most of our societal problems come about.

This is part of why I am personally staunchly anti-Nationalism, anti-Imperialism, and certainly anti-Totalitarianism. These philosophies are not concerned with group-level altruism, but with group-level selfishness. They exist purely to advance the interests of a single group at the direct expense of others.

John said...

Wilson's model does not allow group feeling as "selfish;" he rigidly distinguishes between individual selection that applies only to the individual and his or her descendants, and group selection that applies to groups. It seems obvious to me, as to G., that this distinction has no validity, but that is the one Wilson makes.

I agree that people identify themselves with their tribes and that tribes then act toward other tribes in ways we describe with the same language as for individual morality. That's part of what is wrong with Wilson's model. But I disagree that this is the same thing as individual selfishness. Remember that Wilson's model is evolutionary, that is, nothing is allowed that does not influence the number of descendants. Enforcing ideological conformity does nothing to enhance evolutionary fitness. Nor does it, in any simple sense, increase individual well-being. Ideologues are always struggling against more practical people who don't see the point of persecuting economically productive deviants; to take just one example, Venice refused to allow the inquisition free reign in their territories because it cost too much. I do not at all see how the "Spanish" benefited from forcibly converting Jews; the impulse toward community purity, it seems to me, is only distantly related to anyone's particular advantage or disadvantage.